Narrative systemic therapy: Storying legitimation and performance

Bakhtins Rabelais-bok
Bakhtins Rabelais-bok (Photo credit: Camilla Hoel)


‘The second-order cybernetic view argues, in a manner similar to that of the feminist critics, that it is the observer (or therapist) who draws distinctions that ‘create the reality’ … By including the observer as part of the system observed, second order cybernetics acknowledges that the system considered relevant is a construction of the observer drawing the distinctions … Drawing distinctions is thus, not only an epistemological act, it is a political act.’   McKinnon & Miller (1987: 148) in Dallos & Draper (2000: 93)


This short essay ostensibly aims to describe, historicise and critique various aspects of narrativist approaches to systemic family therapy through recourse to primary source material, contextualising postmodern thought, disguised case examples, and offering a second-order perspective (see also social GRACES, Burnham, 1993) as affective in shaping my perspective as a male, white [British/Polish], middle-aged, heterosexual, parent and care-giver, son to a single parent family, humanist, postgraduate, psychological therapist / counsellor / lecturer / clinical service manager and person living with chronic early-onset systemic osteoporosis. My aim is to construe top-down constructions in the service of a much hoped for anti-hegemonic competence, a position of curiosity and ‘informed not-knowing’ (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992; Cecchin, 1987; Shapiro, 1995); whilst, construing bottom-up constructions in the performative service of an increase in perspicacity, rigour in self-reflexivity, and a position of ‘safe uncertainty’ (Bauman, 1986; Dallos, 1991; Laird, 1998; Mason, 1993; see also Hedges, 2010; Krause, 2012; Rober, 1999). Let us begin by briefly describing some of the literary, political, philosophical and ethical considerations which underpin this way of conceiving power differentials and constructing storied realities. Literary and socio-political constructionists (i.e. advocates of constructive alternativism; see Kelly, 1955) have robustly held to a continual dialogue in the spatiotemporal extension between narrative and identity (e.g. Bakhtin, 1986; Barthes, 1972; Bauman, 1986; de Man, 1986; Derrida, 1978; Eco, 1990; Felperin, 1985; Gergen, 1973, 1994; Jameson, 1981; Joyce, 1993; Kelly, 1955; Lévi-Strauss, 1963; Lyotard, 1984; Ricoeur, 1984, 1985, 1988; Snow, 1980). The consequences for concretised personality theories by social constructionism regarding fluid narratives for ‘identity’ or ‘self’ or ‘culture’ are indeed radical (Kelly, 1955). Contemporary narrativist systemic psychotherapists share this radical understanding constructed on fluidity (e.g. Dallos, 1991; Eron & Lund, 1993; Freedman & Combs, 1996; O’Hanlon, 1994; Papadopoulos & Byng-Hall, 1997; Tomm, 1998; Weingarten, 1998; White, 1989, 1995, 1997; White & Epson, 1990; Zimmerman & Dickerson, 1994). Let us turn to a context for the postmodern narrative. Here I have chosen an initial historiographical point of departure in Lyotard’s (1984) Postmodern Condition. Lyotard’s (1984) evaluation centres on historical and modernist debates between positivists and phenomenologists in relation to the nature of language, language-games, knowledge, the power inhering in knowledge and the possibility of the acquisition of knowledge (see also Wittgenstein, 1921, 1953; Snow, 1959).

He stood in the rain outside my door. His face marked by experience. ‘Are you X?’ ‘Yes, please come inside, Mike.’ I smiled warmly and held the door wide for him to enter. ‘Not yet, first I’ll have another cigarette out here [in the rain] if I may. I’m a bit anxious about coming to see someone like you. I’m such an awful cliché these days.’ He seemed amused by his observation. ‘Cigarette … If I may … Such a cliché … What an interesting use of words, I thought, whilst handing over the hallway umbrella. ‘When you feel ready, please, do come in.’

Lyotard (1984) recommends an equivocal explication mobilised through a critique of existing forms of grand narrative legitimation (see also Habermas, 1971) and envisages forms of narrative performativity as acts of legitimation in their own right (see also Bauman, 1986). Lyotard’s (1984) main achievement may be said to lie in his privileging of the ‘little narrative’ (Fr. petit récit) – the speaking subjects’ biography – as a form inherently capable of dispelling the problematic question of legitimation by legitimating itself by deemphasising truth-value altogether, a position Sim (2000) terms a move situating the little narrative ‘beyond the criterion of truth’ (p.19). Lyotard (1984) scrutinises the paralogy of positivistic grand narratives and their claims to legitimation: first, ‘the narrative of emancipation, a story of “freeing the people” for which science is believed to be the necessary means’ (p. 13 orig. syntax) and, second, ‘the narrative of the triumph of science as speculation or pure and authentic knowledge’ (p. 28). For Lyotard (1984) an examination of the legitimation of knowledge, and the power obtaining from knowledge, culminate in a conclusion that such claims are founded upon socially constructed misnomers, revealing these claims in actuality to be invariably specious, unnecessary exercises in power enacted through language-games (‘We no longer have recourse to the grand narratives’ p. 60). Lyotard’s (1984) work thus assimilates works by notable post-structuralists preceding his own contribution (e.g. Barthes, 1972; Derrida, 1978; Foucault, 1972; Lacan, 1977; Levi-Strauss, 1963). This singular work can be said to be a clear attempt at situating postmodernism as a paradigm capable of sustaining many perspectives: a more durable theoretical social formation derivable from the fluidity and play of language, the performativity of narrative language, and the possibilities available for multiple social constructions for both narrative culture and narrative identity alike – whilst, acknowledging the significant debt owed to Nietzschean-inspired calls for the broader questioning of the will-to-power and the revaluation of values (Lyotard, 1984: p. 39, 77, 81; see also Nietzsche, 1996, 1998).

‘So, what brings you here?’ I asked. Mike fixed me with his large, almost unblinking eyes. ‘As I briefly explained on the telephone, I’ve been in hospital here in Chelmsford for a year. My partner had me sectioned because I smoke too much’. I nodded and waited for him to say more. ‘I don’t know what happened to me, I used to live in Brighton, but I’m told my family has sold my house there and my house in Gascony’. ‘You said your partner had you sectioned because you smoke too much?’ I asked, seeking another telling of his story of experiencing a MHA section. ‘I had a home in Gascony. It’s where my cats are buried’. Mike’s eyes filled with tears at the mention of his cats, and, alas, there was no re-authoring of his story on this occasion.

Lyotard’s (1984) critical questioning of grand narratives suggests that such dominant narratives are apt to shape subjective conceptions of past, present and future. Narrativist theorists and practitioners influenced by postmodernism have also sought to question the extent to which certain narratives may inhabit a dominant position within the symbolic space of language (e.g. Anderson, 1997; Bannister & Fransella, 1971; Bauman, 1986; Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Freedman & Combs, 1996; Foucault, 1967, 1972; Gergen, 1994; White, 1989; White & Epston, 1990). White (1989) and White & Epston (1990) consider these dominant narratives to provide a compelling frame within which our stories and identities may become subjugated and organised into formations not always of our own invention (pp. 27-8): ‘There exist a stock of culturally available discourses that are considered appropriate and relevant to the expression or representation of particular aspects of our experience … persons experience problems which they frequently present for therapy when the narratives in which they are storying their experience, and/or in which they are having their experience storied by others, do not significantly represent their lived experience, and that in these circumstances, there will be significant aspects of the lived experience that contradicts this dominant narrative.’ We may come to feel that, for instance, certain dominant narratives concerning status, prestige, wealth or happiness become a source of tension if we do not measure up to the ideal (see also de Botton, 2004; Lasch, 1979). Reflexively, I certainly find within myself a good deal of resonance with such insights as these. For instance, my earliest experiences had me partake in a mistaken narrative identity regarding the overriding importance attached to class, ability and academic achievement which, sadly, still catches me out in aspects of my professional life as a supervisor of clinical professionals and sometimes spills over into my personal life in the form of ‘ambitions’ for the young people in my life – though, I am well aware of its origin as my ‘own.’

‘My partner says that it was inevitable, he knew all along I would become ill – eventually’. Mike paused. ‘I wonder what your partner might say now about your becoming ill, Mike?’ No answer came. ‘So what is your opinion on your becoming ill, Mike?’ This time an answer came in a disturbing form. ‘I have no regrets, I’m ready to die’. After a long pause, I persisted. ‘So then, Mike, what brings you here to see me if, as you say, you are ready to die?’ His face was without emotion at this challenge. ‘Tell me, X, do you know the painting of the man in the bowler hat by Magritte?’ I felt wrong footed by this question without any clear connection. ‘Is it a painting of a man obscured by a large green apple, ‘The Son of Man’, I think?’ Mike beamed. ‘That’s my portrait! At last, someone who can speak my language. Please will you help me find out what has happened to me?’ Tears rolled down Mike’s cheeks, though it was hard to say with any surety what kind of tears they might be.

Vetere & Dallos (2003: 129) provide a synopsis of what they believe may be some principle features of White & Epston’s (1990) therapeutic practices in narrativist work, these are: (§1) exploration of the relevant aspects of lived experience and developing varying perspectives on this; (§2) exploring the connectedness of events and relationships over time; (§3) exploring implicit meanings with exploratory conversation; (§4) identifying those influences which affect the “ownership/authorship” of stories and emphasising the person as a participant in the story with some power re-author that story; (§5) identifying dominant and subjugated discourses in a person’s accounts and the prevailing arrangements of privilege and power; (§6) using different “languages” to describe experience and construct new stories; (§7) mapping the influence of the problem on a person’s life and relationships; (§8) establishing conditions in which the subject of the story becomes the privileged author; (§9) externalising the problem; (§10) recognising unique outcomes. Let us now turn to reportage and critique. First – a general observation – that there appears to be an implicit humanist belief in a continual and universal process of self-actualisation (see also Maslow (1970); Rogers’ (1961: 351f) term ‘actualising tendency’) (see above §1-10). Second, criticism is made against narrativists underestimation of the power of physical groups to create or enforce construing processes, especially in attempts at addressing differences between explicit and implicit storied meanings reliant on internalised others (see below Minuchin, 1998; see above §1-3). Even so, strategic and structural clinical research support a view of people presenting with problems as better understood as largely cases of ‘faulty’ social realities – thus problems of persons’ construing those realities (Haley, 1971; Minuchin, 1974; cited in Dallos, 1991: 58). Third, narrativists support the central importance assigned by other systemic family approaches to dialectic, dialogue, ‘thicker’ storying, linear and circular questions (see also Brown, 1991; Cecchin, 1987; O’Hanlon, 1994; Tomm, 1985, 1988, 1998; Watzlawick, 1978; Watzlawick et al., 2011) (see above §1-8). Four – a general observation – that description is employed at all times in favour of therapeutic prescription or interpretation (see above §1-10). Five, externalising might be understood as serving to distinguish problems or ‘problem saturated’ (White, 1989) stories and/or narratives with ‘the problem’ defining and preoccupying the client in their exploration and mapping and characterisation of self, life experience and relationships. Surfacing and subjugated narratives have also been termed preferred and non-preferred narratives, respectively (Eron & Lund, 1993). Instances where problems may not be in evidence can be extremely useful in this regard and have been termed unique outcomes (Hoffman, 1998; White, 1989) (see above §10). It is noteworthy that the skill of externalising – i.e. linguistic separation of the problem from the self-identity concept – contains within it an assumption of competence, that is, a certain level of cognitive ability with regard to recall, lexicalisation and articulation, which might serve to actually exclude certain cultural groupings because of their individual differences (e.g. persons with learning difficulties, persons with cognitive impairment, persons with speech disabilities, or persons not using their first language) (see above §5-9). The much-admired pioneer of structural family therapy, Sal Minuchin, goes much further in his critique of narrativists. Minuchin (1998) states his disquiet at the prospect of the disappearance of the family from family therapy (p. 397), and the movement of narrativists away from systemic principles (p. 403) in the form of two main questions: ‘Can social constructionism as a meta-theory help family therapists to better understand how families function?’ and ‘Does this theoretical shift imply a new direction for family therapy?’ In his first question Minuchin’s twofold thrust appears to imply that social constructionism is itself a grand narrative by his use of the term ‘meta-theory.’ Moreover, social constructionist practices appear, for Minuchin’s thought, to have located ideology at the expense of dislocating the family in family therapy by ‘tending to privilege the discourse of the individual’ (p. 399). As if in answer to his own second question – i.e. on the prospect of a new direction for family therapy – Minuchin selects the development of multiple descriptions and alternate meanings, concerns with power relations, the linguistic focus, and ‘the use of techniques to enrich the clients’ narrow descriptions of their experience’ for his examination (p. 400). Minuchin (1998) soberly proclaims that ‘in and of themselves’ these are ‘interesting developments’ (p. 403). Even so, Minuchin castigates the narrativists for returning to a traditional individual-based psychological modality for therapy (p. 403). Moreover, the accusation is levelled at narrativists that they are in fact working against the parts of postmodern theory that ‘emphasise social relatedness‘(p. 403). Tomm’s (1998) reply thus agrees with Minuchin’s (1998) analysis where less focus can be placed upon the physical family although, only when viewed from a first-order perspective. Tomm (1998) argues not to have misplaced the family at the expense of ideology; rather he locates the change in perspective as adding significantly to the understanding and work with families in systemic family therapy (pp. 409-10). Tomm (1998) continues by explaining the power differential between both perspectives with precision: ‘A first-order perspective orients us as therapists to intervene directly in family interaction to enable therapeutic change. Therefore it is important for multiple family members to be present. The second-order perspective orients us to intervene in the ways we as therapists see things and into the ways in which family members see themselves, each other and their relationships. Changes in patterns of interaction occur secondarily to changes in patterns of seeing and giving meanings. Consequently, the physical presence of multiple family members is less essential’ (p. 410). What Tomm (1998) encapsulates in these few lines is perhaps the profound power differential between an observed family system (i.e. a modernist perspective of a family system viewed from a place of certainty) and an observing family system, within which a therapist perceives themselves as component of that system (i.e. a postmodernist perspective of a family system viewed and experienced reflexively from a position of safe uncertainty) (Mason, 1993). It is therefore a decisive point to conclude upon, that experiencing the observing system from an internal reflexive position is not of inconsiderable importance – therapeutically and ethically and politically – to the narrativist systemic perspective, and a finding not lost on this therapist, or his client, Mike.

My sense so far was that Mike’s story would be marked by profound loss, and here he was requesting my help in what seemed to me to be a ‘rescue’ of his very sense of self. ‘Yes, I will help you to remove the problematic obstacle from your picture of yourself. I promise. And, in kind, Mike, will you also promise not to harm yourself for the duration of our work together?’ Mike seized the agreement I had hoped for. ‘Yes, I promise not to harm myself.’ We sat and smiled together. ‘Must I bring my partner too?’ Mike’s somewhat expressionless look returned. ‘Of course you may ask him.’ I replied, adding quickly ‘But whether he comes or not, your partners’ physical presence may turn out not to be as necessary as you might have imagined.’ ‘That’s good.’ He said calmly.



Anderson, H. & Goolishian, H. (1992) ‘The client is the expert: A not-knowing approach to therapy’, In S. McNamee & K. Gergen (Eds.), Therapy as social construction (pp25-39), Sage Publications, Newbury Park.

Anderson, H. (1997) Conversation, language, and possibilities: A postmodern approach to therapy, Basic Books, New York.

Bakhtin, M. (Trans. McGee, V. W. 1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, University of Texas Press, Austin.

Bannister, D. & Fransella, F. (1971) Inquiring Man: The Theory of Personal Constructs, London, Penguin Books.

Barthes, R. (Trans. Lavers, A. 1972) Mythologies, Vintage, London.

Bauman, R. (1986) Story, performance, and event: Contextual studies of oral narrative, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1967) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Burnham, J. (1993) ‘Systemic supervision: the evolution of reflexivity in the context of the supervisory relationship’, Human Systems, 4, 349-381.

Cecchin, G. (1987) ‘Hypothesizing, Circularity, and Neutrality Revisited: An Invitation to Curiosity’, Family Process, 4, 405-413.

Dallos, R & Draper, R. (2000) An Introduction to Family Therapy, Open University Press, Buckingham.

Dallos, R. (1991) Family Belief Systems, Therapy and Change: A Constructional Approach, Open University Press, Milton Keynes.

de Botton, A. (2004) Status Anxiety, Penguin Books, London.

de Man, P. (1986) Resistance to Theory, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Derrida, J. (Trans. Bass, A. 1978) Writing and Difference, Routledge, London & New York.

Eco, E. (1990) The Limits of Interpretation, Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis.

Epston, D. & White, M. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, Norton, New York.

Eron, J. B. & Lund, T. W. (1993) How problems evolve and dissolve, Integrating narrative and strategic concepts, Family Process, 32: 291-309.

Felperin, H. (1985) Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory, Oxford University Press, Clarendon.

Foucault, M. (Trans Hurley, R. 1986) The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality, vol. 3, Penguin Books, London.

Foucault, M. (Trans. Howard, R. 1967) Madness & Civilisation: A History of Madness in the Age of Reason, Routledge, London & New York.

Foucault, M. (Trans. Hurley, R. 1978) The Will to Knowledge: History of Sexuality, vol. 1, Penguin Books, London.   Foucault, M. (Trans. Hurley, R. 1985) The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, vol. 2, Penguin Books, London.

Foucault, M. (Trans. Sheridan-Smith, A. M. 1972 [1969]) Archaeology of Knowledge, Routledge, London & New York.

Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (1996) Narrative therapy: The social construction of preferred realities, Norton, New York.

Gergen, K. J. (1973) Social Psychology as History, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 309-320.

Gergen, K. J. (1994) Realities and relationships: Soundings in social construction, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Goldner, V. (1985) ‘Feminist and family therapy’, Family Process, 24, 31-47.

Guggenbuhl-Craig, A. (1971) Power in the Helping Professions, Spring Publications, Dallas TX.

Habermas, J. (Trans. Shapiro, J. 1971 [1968]) Knowledge and Human Interests, Beacon Books, Boston.

Hare-Mustin, R. T. (1978) ‘A feminist approach to family therapy’, Family Process, 17, 181-194.

Hedges, F. (2010) How our stories influence therapeutic conversations, Reflexivity in Therapeutic Practice, Palgrave Macmillan.

Hoffman, L. (1998) ‘A constructivist position for family therapy’, The Irish Journal of Psychology, 9: 110-129

Jameson, F. (1981) The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Joyce, J. (Ed. Johnson, J. 1993) Ulysses: The 1922 Text, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Kelly, G. A. (1955) The Psychology of Personal Constructs, vols. 1 & 2, Norton, New York.

Krause, I-B. (Ed. 2012) Culture and Reflexivity in Systemic Psychotherapy: Mutual Perspectives, Karnac, London.

Lacan, J. (Trans. Sheridan, A. 1977 [1966]) Écrits: A selection, Routledge, London & New York.

Laird, J. (1998) ‘Theorizing Culture: Narrative ideas and practice principles’, In M. McGoldrick (Ed.) Re-visioning Family Therapy, Guilford Press, New York. pp. 20-36.

Lasch, C. (1979) Culture of Narcissism, W. W. Norton & Co., New York & London.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (Trans. Jacobson, C. & Schoepf, B. G. 1963 [1958]) Structural Anthropology, Basic Books, New York.

Lyotard, J-F. (Trans. Bennington, G. & Massumi, B. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Maslow, A. (1970) Toward a Psychology of Being, 3rd Edn., Van Nostrand, New York.

Mason, (1993) ‘Towards positions of safe uncertainty’, Human Systems, 4, 189-200.

McGoldrick, M. (Ed. 1998) Re-visioning Family Therapy, Guilford Press, New York.

Nietzsche, F. (Trans. Clark, M. & Swensen, A. J. 1998 [1887]) On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis & Cambridge.

Nietzsche, F. (Trans. Smith, D. 1996 [1887]) On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

O’Hanlon, B. (1994) ‘The Third Wave’, Family Therapy Newsletter, 18, 18-29

Papadopoulos, R. & Byng-Hall, J. (Eds. 1997) Multiple Voices: Narrative in Systemic Family Psychotherapy, Gerald Duckworth & Co., London

Ricoeur, P. (Trans. McLaughlin, K. and Pellauer, D. 1984/1985/1988) Time and Narrative, 3 Vols, University of Chicago, Chicago.

Rober, P. (1999) ‘The Therapist’s Inner Conversation in Family Therapy Practice: Some Ideas about the Self of the Therapist, Therapeutic Impasse, and the Process of Reflection’, Family Process, 38, 2.

Rogers, C. (1961) On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, Constable, London.

Shapiro, V. (1995) Subjugated knowledge and the working alliance: The narratives of Russian Jewish immigrants, In Session: Psychotherapy in Practice, 1(4), 9-22.

Sim, S. (2001) The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Routledge, London & New York.

Snow, C. P. (1980) The Realist: Eight Portraits, McMillan, London

Snow, C. P. (2001 [1959]) The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press, London.

Tomm, K. (1985) ‘Circular Interviewing: A Multifaceted Clinical Tool’, In (Campbell & Draper Eds.) Applications of Systemic Family Therapy, Grune & Stratton, New York.

Tomm, K. (1988) ‘Interventive interviewing: Intending to ask lineal, circular, strategic and reflexive questions,’ Family Process, 27, 1, 1-15

Tomm, K. (1998) ‘A Question of Perspective’, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 24, 4, 409-413.

Vetere, A. & Dallos, R. (2003) Working Systemically with Families: Formulation, Intervention and Evaluation, Karnac, London & New York.

Watzlawick, P. (1978) The Language of Change: Elements of Therapeutic Communication, W. W. Norton & Co., New York & London.

Watzlawick, P., Beavin Bavelas, J. & Jackson, D. D. (2011) Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathoilgies, and Paradoxes, W. W. Norton & Co., New York & London.

Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. H., & Fisch, R. (2011) Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution, W. W. Norton & Co., New York & London.

White, M. & Epston, D. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, Norton, London.

White, M. (1989) ‘The externalizing of the problem and the re-authoring of lives and relationships’, In M. White (Ed.) Selected Papers, Dulwich Centre Publications, Adelaide.

White, M. (1995) Re-authoring Lives, Interviews and Essays, Dulwich Centre Publications, Adelaide

White, M. (1997) Narratives of Therapists’ Lives, Dulwich Centre Publications, Adelaide.

Wittgenstein, L. (Trans. Anscombe, G. 2001 [1953]) Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

Wittgenstein, L. (Trans. Pears, D. & McGuinness, B. 1974 [1921]) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge, London & New York.

Zimmerman, J. L. & Dickerson, V. C. (1994) ‘Using a narrative metaphor: Implications for theory and clinical practice’, Family Process, 33, 233-245.


One thought on “Narrative systemic therapy: Storying legitimation and performance

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s