Narrative: Convergent Perspectives from the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Other Fields

Paper I: "Basic Elements of Narrative: Foundations for Interdisciplinary Research on Stories"
David Herman, Ohio State University

Paper II: "Small Stories: From Narratives-in-Interaction toward a Sense of Self and Identity"
Michael Bamberg, Clark University

Paper III: “I could not understand a word they were saying!”:  Narrative as Evidence and Object in Variationist Sociolinguistics
Barbara Johnstone, Carnegie Mellon University

Rita Charon, Columbia University

The past several decades have seen an explosion of interest in narrative, with this multifaceted object of inquiry becoming a central concern in a wide range of disciplinary fields and research contexts. The “narrative turn” gained impetus from the development of structuralist theories of narrative in France in the 1960s. Noting that narratives can be presented in many media and genres, structuralists such as Barthes argued explicitly for a cross-disciplinary approach to the analysis of stories.

Only after the heyday of structuralism, however, did Barthes’s call for an interdisciplinary approach to narrative begin to be answered. Stories became at once a metaphor more or less loosely applied to disparate content areas, a focus of inquiry in multiple fields of study, and an explanatory framework for making sense of events defined by their position in an unfolding time-course. The proposed session will build on this prior work in interdisciplinary narrative theory, exploring the extent to which ideas in several of the many fields concerned with stories afford convergent perspectives on narrative. The session seeks to demonstrate that inquiry into narrative in all of its guises--from literary narrative to everyday storytelling--presents a unique opportunity for dialogue among scholars and practitioners working in a range of disciplines, from the arts and humanities, to the social sciences, to clinical medicine.

Synthesizing ideas from recent work in narrative theory, Herman’s paper aims to provide context for the session by outlining core features that distinguish stories from recipes, arguments, descriptions, explanations, and other phenomena. The paper starts from the premise that narrative is both a way of making sense of the world and a class of artifacts (e.g., literary texts) in which the relevant sense-making procedures are (more or less) evident. It then focuses on five features that all stories have in common—even though any given narrative may manifest those features in varying ways and to varying degrees:
Using several texts to suggest the broad, interdisciplinary relevance of this framework for research on stories, the paper argues for a “more or less” rather than “either or” approach to narrative. In other words, the claim is not that a story must fully embody all of these five features to qualify as a narrative. Rather, the more fully a text or other artifact exemplifies the features, the easier it will be to interpret that text as a narrative, and the more narrative impact it will have.

Next, anchored in the field of social psychology, and based on video-recorded interactions among male adolescents, Bamberg’s paper will outline how the study of self and identity has been transformed by narrative approaches, particularly by approaches that are associated with “the biographic method” or “life-story” research. Bamberg critically reflects on how some of these approaches entail "interiorizing" (and potentially essentializing) the notions of “story” and “identity”; they pay insufficient attention to the local situatedness and interactive occasioning of stories about self and others. Proposing a complementary approach based on the idea of “small stories,” Bamberg’s paper enriches this earlier research by working with narratives as discursive, interactive activities. He argues that such an approach can yield a more genuinely developmental approach to identity and self formation as “microgenetic accomplishments.” As Bamberg shows, a unified sense of self may be an ideal of development, but it is also an abstraction rather than an essential presupposition for thematizing and narrating the self.

Johnstone’s paper shifts disciplinary contexts, moving from social psychology to sociolinguistics, but maintains a focus on the interconnections between narrative and identity. Johnstone notes that in William Labov and Joshua Waletzky’s foundational work on narrative, stories were not only subjected to structural analysis but also viewed as a kind of elicitation technique: getting people to talk about emotion-laden moments in their lives was thought to elicit their most natural, vernacular speech. Some of the assumptions underpinning this technique have since been challenged, but narrative continues to be an important source of evidence in variationist sociolinguists’ work. In most of this work, however, narrative is not the object of study, as it was for Labov and Waletzky and as it is for narratologists in other disciplines. Variationists ask about the structure and function of sounds, words, and phrases they hear in narratives, but they have not typically asked how understanding the structure and function of narrative itself might help them answer their questions about linguistic variation and change. Johnstone employs a Proppian analysis of the plot of an often-told story about outsiders’ first encounter with working-class Pittsburghers to illustrate how narrative analysis can shed light on vernacular norm-formation, a topic of central interest to variationists. She argues that circulating narrative plots such as this help create shared orientations to particular sets of nonstandard linguistic features and link them ideologically with region.

Finally, serving as respondent for the session, Rita Charon will draw on her experience as director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University to identify convergent concepts and methods in the three papers, and also to outline directions for future work in interdisciplinary narrative theory.