How do we make sense of those narratives that cannot be spoken or articulated? From Jo Finch

An interesting and thought provoking seminar on narrative research took place recently, in the busy first week of teaching at UEL.  Members of staff from the fields of psychology, psycho-social studies, social work, cultural studies, education and refugee studies, presented to a diverse audience, an eclectic range of empirical research findings and pedagogical applications of narrative approaches.  All the presentations provoked lively intellectual debate and raised fundamental philosophical questions at the very heart of narrative research.   One “narrative” that ran through these discussions concerned the question of emotion and affect, of how the narrative researchers make sense of emotion, often when these narratives of affect are often “unspoken” and in the case of Giorgio Donna’s research in Rwanda “unspeakable”.   How do we make sense of those narratives that cannot be spoken or articulated?  How do we make sense of the contradictions, the good and bad narratives?    What narratives do we chose to privilege over others and how do narrative researchers enable the voices of the participants to be heard?


Published by corinnesquire

Corinne Squire is Professor of Social Sciences and Co-Director, Centre for Narrative Research, at University of East London

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  1. It reminds me of trauma, trauma therapy, art therapy, and all that cannot be expressed with words. It opens the door for that which is unexpressed or inexpressible with words, the rich pond of things that are too profound and can only be welcomed in silence.

  2. So how can narrative researchers “capture” the silence or those emotions or feelings that cannot be expressed in words? How can we represent that which cannot be represented? As a former play therapist, working with abused children, there were ways of helping children express emotion, affect and pain in “safe” unspoken ways but as a researcher, I feel restrained by the need for text.

  3. I am fascinated by what happens when the words contradict the actions. My research was on self-harm, and people often contradicted their expressed spoken narratives with the narratives on the body/of the body, and understanding the unspoken expression was complex but probably equally if not more important. Do people know if there’s research out there on embodied narrative? How we interpret narrative (in the sense of something which is being expressed/serving a purpose for the individual such as the construction of self and working through of meaning) when it’s embodied but not spoken?

    1. There is some really excellent work in this area by Lars-Christer Hyden and his cowriters. I also very much like Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s work on the embodiment of forgiveness narrratives in South Africa although I think this is as yet not all published; however some of it is referred to in her book co-written with Chris van der Merwe, ‘Narrating our healing.’

      1. There is much to follow up here. I wonder whether something is unspeakable because it is inherently unrepresentable – because experience / emotion etc is somehow off the scale – or whether (also) we need it to be so as part of our apparatus of valuing – whether Rwanda or the Jewish tetragrammaton – YHWH?

        I am still struggling with Craib’s notion of bad faith in narratives. Words and actions (allowing for the distinction) should be ‘faithful’, that is congruent, but Craib seems to argue that typically they aren’t and that this is the norm rather than the exception. Our narratives too often deny our own agency and suppress our feelings (I know mine do). I suppose body language that suggests the opposite of what a person says might indicate bad faith – perhaps self-harm of some sort follows naturally. Not sure what accepting agency in the context of say Rwanda would imply.

  4. I wondered if Craib was primarily making a methodological point; ie that narratives are “bad faith” when they present things as neat and congruent, but this isn’t to say that narratives are not useful – rather it’s a warning to researchers and interested parties to challenge these neat narratives, to see them as a product of a human tendency to deny agency, seek external cause and explain away emotional responses as labelled feelings. So he shifts the focus away from the idea of narratives as a mode of expression/explanation, to narratives as an action used to tie up loose ends, give us a story we can live with. He wants to complicate things by bringing our attention to all the things narratives obscure, the rich complex world of feelings – although I don’t see Craib (unlike Frosh) suggesting a way to grapple with these instead.

    Stories are always incomplete – even (I would argue) the story told on the flesh, or by action rather than words, which may feel more authentic to us. I think maybe there’s something in trying to maintain the tensions between the contradictory aspects of stories (however they are told) and actions, feelings, reactions, like Frosh and Craib bring up. But I am also struggling with the unsayable, the inexpressible. I dislike the psychoanalytical approaches because I feel that they do attempt to bind things up in neat packages – because they are heavily theory-laden, yet often present themselves as tackling the underneath of consciousness.

  5. I think this is very nicely put. I am still unsure whether I fully understand the implications of what he is saying – it doesn’t help that the Google Books excerpt ran out of pages before I could finish the chapter, but the notion of problematising narrative’s as “stories we can live with” seems right. The bad faith in this sense is the self-serving function, I suppose, at least insofar as this may represent a denial of something important that narratives as told may ‘obscure’. Where I am still unclear is how this – I think rather wise insight – relates to our implications for agency, particularly in the therapeutic context. In terms of narrative approaches to therapy , the Craib approach seems to be both a nod (insofar as it suggests the possibility of agency / responsibility) and a warning in that when one tries to glibly re-script in a direction away from an unhelpful dominant narrative (as in Frosh’s narrative therapy example)one may perhaps introduce an element of bad faith insofar as the new previously sub-ordinate narrative has yet to take hold or in any way measure up to the ‘external reality’ he refers to. I recently heard of something called the Paradoxical Theory of change which is premised on I think (self-)acceptance as a pre-condition to change and the notion that “change occurs when one becomes what one is, not when one tries to become what one is not”. Perhaps the notion of the forgiveness narrative ( mentioned above in relation to Rwanda I think) is equally important insofar as for reality to be external it must presumably be negotiated amongst people. Perhaps it helps to see people as in ‘process’, in which case a neatly packaged narrative can only be a prison.

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