What Does Narrative Identity Do?

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Note: This post is an excerpt of “Narrative Identity: What Is It? What Does It Do? How Do You Measure It?” published March 1, 2018 in Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. Read the full article here.

 

Psychology’s turn toward narrative in the 1980s was a logical extension of its gradual emancipation from the behaviorist grip. It may have been inevitable that once empirical psychologists defied the strictures of behaviorism to peer inside the black box of the human mind, as they began to do in the late 1950s and 1960s, they would eventually happen upon the idea of story. After all, human beings the world over love to tell and hear stories, as Bruner (1986) and Sarbin (1986) both observed. Human beings routinely adopt a narrative mode of thought and expression, Bruner wrote, when it comes to explaining why people do what they do. He distinguished the narrative mode from the paradigmatic mode of thought, which employs logic, evidence, and argument to explain instead how the (physicochemical) world works. Sarbin went so far as to anoint narrative as the new root metaphor for psychological science. Human beings are storytellers by nature, Sarbin argued. Human conduct seems to obey narrative rules. People think about their own lives, and the lives of others, in narrative terms, as stories unfolding over time (Polkinghorne, 1988).

 

Outside of psychology proper, social scientists and humanists of many different persuasions became enamored with narrative in the 1980s and 1990s. A central question running across many disciplines during this time concerned the function of narrative: What do stories do? First and foremost, they entertain us, some scholars argued (Brewer & Lichtenstein, 1982). Stories engage human emotions, and when they do not, they fail. What is the worst thing you can say about a story? That it is boring. From the parables of Jesus to Dickens, stories also provide instruction on virtue and morality, on how to live a good life (Coles, 1989). Throughout human evolution, even before language when people enacted narrative in gesture and dance, stories have functioned to simulate social experience (Mar & Oatley, 2008). When we read a good story or watch a good movie today, we observe social interactions up close. We witness the clash of human intentions and the timeless social conflicts and motivational dilemmas that characterize so well what human life has always been about. It is probably no exaggeration, then, to claim that stories teach us how to be human (McAdams, 2015).

 

Narrative identity is a special kind of story—a story about how I came to be the person I am becoming. With this special status comes the special function, a function that Erikson (1963)assigned to identity itself. It is the function of integration. Narrative identity brings things together, integrating elements of the self in both a synchronic and a diachronic sense (McAdams, 1985). Synchronically, narrative identity integrates different social roles (Dunlop, this volume), values (Pasupathi et al., this volumeWang, Song, & Koh, this volume), attitudes, and performance demands in the variegated here-and-now of life. A person’s story, thus, explains how he or she continues to affirm a sense of “inner sameness and continuity” (Erikson, 1963, p. 251) across different situational and role contexts. The life story also integrates life in a diachronic sense, that is, over time, ideally showing how the self of yesterday has become the self of today, the very same self that hopes or expects to become a certain kind of (different but still similar) self in the future. Concerns about both synchronic and diachronic integration—self-unity in space and time—are salient in Holm and Thomsen’s (this volume) study of self-event connections, self-concept clarity, and dissociation.

 

Since the 1980s, psychologists have identified a number of other potential functions of narrative identity. As the most notable example, Bluck and Alea (2011) have enumerated (and developed a measure to assess) three primary functions of autobiographical memory in everyday life. People may call upon stories about their personal past to serve social, directive, or self functions. Telling autobiographical memories may promote social relationships; people enjoy sharing stories about their lives with each other. Autobiographical memories may also provide guidance (directives) for life. When confronting a difficult decision, for example, a person may call up memories of similar events in his or her life, consulting them for advice, mining them for insights that may prove helpful in the current situation. What Bluck and Alea put into the domain of functions serving the self includes promoting self-continuity (diachronic integration) for sure, but it also includes the ways in which memories may be called upon to boost morale or sustain positive self-regard. In this light, Liao et al. (this volume) found that positive meaning making in self-defining memories predicted enhanced self-esteem one year later.

 

In adopting a developmental framework for understanding narrative identity, Fivush, Booker, and Graci (this volume) bring together issues regarding both function and form. They point out that life story construction is constrained by the exigencies of the developmental period during which a narrator aims to make sense of the past. The same event, then, can mean very different things for the same person at two different points in time (Josselson, 2009). At an early age, for example, the narrator may lack certain skills in autobiographical reasoning that would otherwise enable him or her to discern a significant theme or insight from the event, or connect the event to similar others (Habermas & Bluck, 2000). When those skills come online later in development, the person may now understand that same event in very different terms. In this regard, McLean, Breen, and Fournier (2010) have shown that unlike older individuals and unlike females, early-adolescent boys who narrate negative experiences in highly elaborative ways do not enjoy higher levels of psychological well-being. Young adolescent boys may lack the autobiographical skills to process aversive life events in a psychologically productive manner.

 

Whereas developmental level may constrain meaning making in narrative identity, meaning making efforts may also catalyze development. Fivush et al. (this volume) describe the process of making narrative sense out of life as a mechanism for self-development. The performance of narrative identity may function, therefore, to refine meanings and thereby help the narrator attain a better understanding of self and reach a higher developmental plateau. Elaborating upon the distinction between narrative as window and narrative as process, introduced by Grysman and Mansfield (this volume)Fivush et al. (this volume) contend that narrating life experiences is indeed a window into the current developmental dynamics and parameters that prevail in a given life, but also a process that may promote development itself.

 


Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and former chair of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. He is the author most recently of THE REDEMPTIVE SELF:  STORIES AMERICANS LIVE BY (Oxford University Press, 2013) and THE ART AND SCIENCE OF PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENT (Guilford Press, 2015), and President of the Association for Research in Personality. McAdams is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Happiness – reflection on the 2017 summer seminar

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“Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”2017 Summer Seminar Participants (from left) Elise Murray, Molly Ogunyemi, Timothy Reilly, at the University of Chicago’s Neaubauer Collegium.

When I sent in my application to be a part of the Virtue, Happiness, & the Self-Transcendence seminar, I was certain that I would benefit from participating but I was not quite sure how much. Now, after the experience, I am really glad that I was part of it. I found it intellectually stimulating and very helpful. I learnt a lot from everyone. The keynote speakers and other participants were ready to discuss my research topics and the discussions that I had with them gave insights for developing my work both as a lecturer and as an early career researcher. For example, Professor Candace Vogler gave me wonderful suggestions for improving my teaching, and I have been able to apply some of them in my classes in Lagos.  In addition, the discussions in the sessions helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the topics of virtue and happiness. I learnt a lot from the interactions between the scholars. Those discussions I had with everyone made me want to study more and understand these topics better.

 

After the seminar, I came up with questions I emailed to the scholars I met in the seminar. I have been pondering over the themes of the discussions since the summer ended, and some more questions come up in my mind when I reflect on my experience from the seminar. The seminar reinforced my interest in interdisciplinary research work and the discussions and the subsequent emails from the participants, (e.g. Dan P McAdams, Timothy Reilly) gave me ideas for future directions in my research.

 

One of such questions was about the evolution and development of the self and how to interpret and integrate information, research results and ideas from psychology and the humanities while trying to understand human life. The discussion that I had with Tim and Maureen during the seminar and the emails afterwards, were really helpful. They suggested looking at the topic from the perspective of developmental psychology, while seeking themes that may be congruent with philosophical frameworks of the good life. I would like to explore these topics in future research.

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Philosopher Stephen Brock chats with Molly Ogunyemi at the 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”.

What was the best part of the experience?

I think that the best part of the experience for me was being able to reflect about a topic that the participants and keynote speakers had explored from different perspectives. The scholars from the different fields gave a deeper understanding of the same topics in different lights, and I found it very interesting to see some of the different perspectives and views across fields and to see their commonalities identifiable from the discussions. Oftentimes, scholars from different fields use the same words to describe concepts that are similar and one can think that different fields are referring to the same concepts and content. However, the use of the same terminology may carry different connotations or meanings. Even while studying a concept within the same field, the depth of the meaning attributed to a specific concept may differ significantly. For example, I discovered that narrative psychologist’s concept of virtue is understood quite differently from what I thought I understood from my personal study of psychology. I discovered that the relationship between virtue and the ultimate good for human beings which is clear within classical Aristotelian philosophy ought not to be imposed on psychology’s notion of virtues. Even though both fields use the same words for similar concepts of habits which foster human flourishing and wellbeing, the Aristotelian concept of virtue is tightly linked to the ultimate good of the person found with the best use of his highest faculties, while this link is not so clear with psychology. Therefore one would need to be more attentive to such details when comparing results of studies from these two fields. Being able to speak and exchange ideas with scholars whose works that I had studied helped me to clarify my doubts about what I had understood from personal study.

 

What did you learn that you didn’t know before?

One of the many things I gained is a deeper understanding of Immanuel Kant’s anthropology and a moral philosophy. The concept of the highest good in Kant’s moral philosophy is a topic which was relatively new to me and I gained a lot from discussions on that topic. The discussions on Aristotelian concept of philia, identification and identity also gave me deeper understanding of friendship.

 

Additionally, I spoke with Dan P Mc Adams, whose work I had studied for my PhD thesis and to understand his thought better. After the seminar, he sent me an email explaining some points in the evolution of his thought to me which I had not known before. For example, he noted that the original idea in his early work on narrative psychology presents the role of narratives in the heroic quest to make grand meaning. Now, one discovers that narratives are one among many other tools for that quest.

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Psychologist Dan P McAdams leading a session during the 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”.

How did the interdisciplinary nature of the seminar open new possibilities for your research?

My PhD thesis had an interdisciplinary approach and meeting people who work with an approach similar to mine helped to discover points of dialogue.

 

I am currently thinking of a research project on virtues and values in education in Nigeria and I hope to engage some of the scholars whom I met at the seminar. I am still in the idea stage. Additionally, I think that some of the projects which the participants were working on can be replicated in my country. I expect that applications of the discoveries from such projects will foster human flourishing, virtue and happiness in my context. It is true that the methods, the specifics of such investigations and the findings in my country may differ from those in other contexts. However, I think there will be significant proportions of commonalities in the general framework for such investigations and findings and it would be interesting to discover points of confluence that cut across cultures. For example, even though the specific manifestations and applied nomenclature of some of the cardinal virtues may be different in different cultures, one may be able to find that there is some essential concept which stems from each virtue that is common to all.

 

On the whole, I am quite happy that I participated in the seminar as I am sure it has contributed to my development. I believe that it is the beginning of intellectual dialogue and mutually enriching interactions.

 

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Omowumi Ogunyemi obtained her first degree in medicine and surgery. She has worked as a medical practitioner in various hospitals in Nigeria including The Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Lagos, where she co-managed patients with substance-induced disorders. She holds a licentiate degree and a doctorate in philosophy (Anthropology and Ethics) from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. Currently, she lectures in the Institute of Humanities of the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, Nigeria. “Molly” Ogunyemi was a participant with the 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence

Group Photo and Last Day of the Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence”

“I feel very fortunate to have listened to and engaged with such gifted people from so many places…”

“I’m having a great fascinating time and I’ve heard attendees from all perspectives/traditions express how appreciative they are of getting this opportunity to have a respectful interdisciplinary discussion on these topics.”

We feel the same, and grateful for the comments already coming our way from our fabulous participants.

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From left: Madison Gilbertson, Carissa Phillips-Garrett, Sarah Ann Bixler, Cabrini Pak, Dan McAdams, Andrea Yetzer, Candace Vogler, Jennifer Rothschild, Ellen Dulaney, Anselm Mueller, Samantha Mendez, David McPherson, Joseph Stenberg, Fr. Steve Brock, Andrew Flynn, Jennifer A. Frey, James Dominic Rooney, Jane Klinger, Molly Ogunyemi, Tim Reilly, Craig Iffland, Marta Faria, Elise Murray, Andrew Christy, Alberto Arruda, Sanaz Talaifar, Theresa Smart, Maureen Bielinski, Samuel Baker, Jaime Hovey, Tal Brewer, Anne Jeffrey.

Today’s sessions are Jennifer Frey on Happiness and Candace Vogler on Happiness and Social Life; follow along with our live-tweeting from @UChiVirtue.

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Below is a sampling from yesterday’s sessions with Fr Stephen Brock on Aquinas and the Law and Dan McAdams on Generativity.

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Meet our Faculty for our 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-transcendence”

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Our second summer seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-transcendence” is June 18  – 23, 2017 at the University of Chicago and features renown teachers in philosophy, psychology, and religious studies.

Our Seminar is intended for outstanding middle- and advanced-level graduate students and early career researchers in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies. Our aim is to involve participants in our innovative and collaborative research framework within these three fields, and to provide an engaged environment to deepen and enliven their own research.

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Fr. Stephen Brock will lead the sessions, “Friendship” and “Law.” Read more here.
Fr. Stephen L. Brock is Professor of Medieval Philosophy, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Brock writes widely on Thomas Aquinas and action theory, ethics, and metaphysics. He is the author of The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A Sketch (Wipf & Stock, 2015) and Action & Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action (T&T Clark, 1998).

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Jennifer A. Frey will lead the sessions: “Self-Love and Self-Transcendence” and “Happiness and Human Action.” Read more here.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.  Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at UofSC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

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Dan McAdams will lead the sessions “Psychological perspectives on virtue and morality” and “A virtue aimed at transcending and expanding the self:  Generativity.” Read more here.
Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University.  A personality and life-span developmental psychologist, Professor McAdams has explored the role of life narrative in human development, and how themes of agency, redemption, and generativity shape American biography, politics, society, and culture.  He is the author most recently of The Art and Science of Personality Development (Guilford Press, 2015) and The Redemptive Self:  Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006/2013).

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Candace Vogler will lead sessions on “Virtue, Happiness, and Common Good.” Read more here.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

For more information on the seminar, the sessions, and to apply, click here.

Holiday Greetings from our Scholars

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December 2016 Working Group Meeting with (most of) the scholars of VHML: (from left) Josef Stern, Heather Lench, Kristján Kristjánsson, Jennifer Frey, Fr Thomas Joseph White, Dan McAdams, Candace Vogler, Marc Berman, Darcia Narvaez, Owen Flanagan, Angela Knobel, Reinhard Huetter, Michael Gorman, Paul Wong, Talbot Brewer, David Shatz.
Photo by Valerie Wallace.