Narrative Therapy's Historical Development

Excerpt from: Ramey, H.L., Young, K. & Tarulli, D. (2010) Scaffolding and Concept Formation in Narrative Therapy: A Qualitative Research Report. Journal of Systemic Therapies, Volume 29, No. 4, p. 74-91. Development of Narrative Therapy

White and Epston’s narrative therapy began evolving in the 1980s with their foundational Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, published in 1990. They drew on the theories of several philosophers and critical thinkers and applied these to their practice, creating a new model of family therapy built around the metaphor of stories. From that time, White continued to explore this story metaphor, over the years expanding his thinking and narrative practice through exploring the work of many additional theorists.

White and Epston (1990) began exploring their story metaphor in therapy using ideas from Bruner (1986) and Geertz (1986). These initial explorations led to the formulation of cornerstone concepts in narrative therapy: externalizing and unique outcomes. Externalizing in narrative therapy involves naming, objectifying, and even personifying the problem to separate people from dominant, problem-saturated stories. These dominant stories often do not reflect people’s preferred ways of being and may obscure alternative interpretations. Alternative interpretations, also known as “unique outcomes” or “initiatives” (White, 2006b), are any stories, ideas or events that would not have been predicted by the dominant problem story. Intertwining with and elaborating on these notions are Bateson’s (1979) ideas of explanation and change, Derrida’s (Derrida & Caputo, 1997) deconstruction, Geertz (1973) and Myerhoff’s (1982, 1986) anthropological contributions, Foucault’s (1980) deliberation of power (see also Danaher, Schirato & Webb, 2000) and, finally, White’s (2007) vision of scaffolding in Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development.

Michel Foucault’s work appears to have had the most significant influence on White (Duvall & Young, 2009; White, 1989), with White and Epston’s (1990) narrative therapy approach clearly incorporating Foucault’s ideas on modern power/knowledge, the socio-political context it creates, and its constitutive effects (Besley, 2002; White, 2002). Foucauldian notions of power (Danaher et al., 2000; Foucault, 1980) lead to the practice of deconstruction in narrative therapy, which manifests itself in a questioning of the taken-for-granted (White, 2002, 2007). More specifically, deconstruction is accomplished by questioning the meaning and history of problems and other significant constructs that arise in therapy, and by examining unique outcomes that fall outside the dominant story. Deconstruction also takes place through the unpacking of practices of power and disciplinary technologies of the self, and by questioning therapeutic discourses themselves. 

Instead of classifying and objectifying individuals, the narrative therapy practice of externalization re-situates the problem outside of people, challenging cultural discourses that pre-suppose that individuals can be categorized and their potentials fully contained by those categorizations. Together with deconstruction, externalizing the problem questions this social control and these normalizing truths, unsettling the effects of modern power (White, 1989). The use of externalizing and deconstruction in therapy is intended to liberate people from labels, allow new ideas to influence the effects of the problem, present opportunities for multiple interpretations, discourage blame, and encourage agency instead of feelings of failure and oppression (White, 1989).  
White (2007) later developed maps, such as the statement of position maps, to guide narrative conversations. These maps suggest particular lines of questioning for therapists to follow, assisting in the development of understandings of where people stand in relation to problems and unique outcomes. The narrative therapist does not attempt to lead clients to any specific understandings or ideas, but rather creates opportunities for people to make discoveries. Although these maps for therapy continue to be offered as a useful tool, they usually have been accompanied by the caution that “a map is not the territory” (Korzybski, 1933, p. 58); that is, the steps on the map are only that, and cannot reflect or capture the emergent, temporally open nature of what happens in the course of therapy.

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