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Anthropology and Individual Lives: The Story of the Life History and the History of the Life

Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence by Charlotte Linde; Storied Lives: The Cultural
Politics of Self-Understanding by George C. Rosenwald; Richard L. Ochberg
Review by: Gelya Frank
American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 97, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), pp. 145-148
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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Lives:TheStoryof the LifeHistoryand

the Historyof the LifeStory

University of Southern California

Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. Charlotte Linde.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. xiv + 242 pp.
Storied Lives: The Cultural Politics of Self-Understanding. George C. Rosenwald and Richard L. Ochberg,
eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. ix + 304 pp.
Once upon a time, the life history method was an
all-purpose tool in the anthropologist's kit, useful in proportion to its lack of specialization but not much good for
disciplinary leverage. Through the 1980s and 1990s, many
factors converged to push the lived experience of individuals into the academic spotlight. This repositioning of
the individual in anthropological studies, along with a new
interest in life stories, corresponds to the rapid transformations of the poststructuralist world order. A healthy
distrust has emerged of representing peoples, institutions,
communities, and classes as coherent entities. Ethnographies written from feminist standpoints and other critical
positions now commonly argue that essentialized representations obscure members' diverse experiences, contested desires, and unequal resources. Thus a turn to the
person-the only subject able to speak for itself-makes
sense not only methodologically but perhaps for the first
time ontologically and therefore theoretically.
At the same time, however, the critique that takes the
coherence of groups to be a narrative construction is
being extended to the coherence of individual identity.
Life histories focused mostly on diachronic change within
anthropology's traditional paradigm of naturalism or realism; research on life stories, on the other hand, focuses on
the cultural scripts and narrative devices individuals use
to make sense of experience. Life story research emphasizes the truth of the telling versus telling the truth; it
focuses on the strategies speakers use to fashion coherence from the disparate and potentially contradictory
experiences of their lives. Such research tends to be even
more phenomenological in method than life histories,
presenting discrete speech acts situated in context as
against narratives edited to resemble written autobiographies.
Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence, by Charlotte
Linde, is a paradigm-setting book, much like the works of
sociologist Erving Goffman. Like Goffman, Linde presents
not so much a grand theory of society as a penetrating and
generative insight into a core constituent of social life: "In
order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense
of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an

individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story" (p. 3).
Linde's contribution is founded on the work by her
teacher, sociolinguist William Labov, concerning the
structure of stories told about personal experience in
conversations. His approach helped liberate narrative
analysis from single-speaker, text-based models. Organizing the apparently idiographic narratives of ordinary conversation, Labov found shared cognitive structures, conventions, or rules-that is, plentiful evidence of culture
and tradition. For example, a story as a discourse unit
must include an evaluation of the sequence of events
recounted or a "point"to the story.
In a brilliant move, Linde radically extends Labov's
definition of story to the life story, which she defines as a
special kind of discourse unit that is temporally discontinuous and that includes all the stories told by a speaker
in which the point is about the speaker's self:
A life story consists of all the stories and associated discourse
units, such as explanations and chronicles, and the connections between them, told by an individual during the course
of his/her lifetime that satisfy the following two criteria:
1. The stories and associated discourse units contained in the
life stoiy have as their primary evaluation a point about the
speaker, not a general point about the way the world is.
2. The stories and associated discourse units have extended
reportability; that is, they are tellable and are told and retold

over the course of a long period of time. [p. 21]

Linde's bold conceptualization of the life story sets
up the formal problem of how a speaker creates narrative
coherence between discrepant versions of his or her life
story. In Linde's empirical data (narratives about occupational choice elicited from 13 American white middleclass professionals), the speakers strive to create coherence not only in relation to previous stories about
themselves but to cultural assumptions about nature and
the social order, especially concepts of "the self" and
moral action. Since evaluation-or making a point-is a
formal property of narratives, life stories necessarily allow the speaker to reflect upon whether his or her self is
(or was) good and proper. And because of narrative's
inherent property of reflexivity and distancing, Linde observes, "Confession may be good for the soul, but it is also
excellent for the self-image" (p. 124).
Managing causality, Linde argues, is the major task in
creating a coherent life story. In part the problem of
causality is formal, due to the linear temporal structure
inherent in Western narrative structure ("I dropped the
iron and burnt myself" means something different from "I
burnt myself and dropped the iron"). Linde finds that

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. VOL.97, NO. 1 . MARCH

character traits serve as the most adequate reason for her

speakers' career decisions: "Iwas good at it, I like that sort
of thing"requires no further explanation. However, "Iwas
in love with a girl who was enrolled in pre-med, so I
decided to become a doctor" would constitute an inadequate reason for the choice of a career. Richness of
account also provides strong coherence-that is, the use
of multiple but noncontradictory reasons that give temporal depth to a career choice.
Linde'streatment of speakers' problems in managing
inadequate causality is the culmination of her analysis of
coherence within the discourse unit. She discusses two
types of incoherence: accident and discontinuity, both of
which seem to impute a deficiency in intention or agency
to the speaker. Linde finds that speakers manage accidents by such strategies as showing that the accident was
only apparent, not real (that the career choice was otherwise proper or well motivated), or by distancing themselves from their earlier selves. Discontinuity between
professions, another serious threat to coherence, is managed by similar strategies: the discontinuity is only apparent, only temporary, part of a larger chain of causal events,
or (as in the following account by a professor of sociology) the result of choices made by a younger and different
UmI thought,as one, as adolescentswithouttalentareprone
to do, of the performingarts in various ways. Uh I was in
theaterfor a while in high school and college and I was an
actressthroughcollege andhad fantasiesaboutmakingthat
a life whichwere of course unrealistic.[p. 157]
It is when Linde gets into the area of common-sense
beliefs concerning the self as agent that her work is most
fascinating, but it also calls for systematic research and
analysis far beyond that allowed by her own data. Linde
argues, for example, that narratives of occupational
choice have less reference to the moral self for the working class than for professionals (professionals are supposed to have a calling, while people in the working class
are expected to work at the job that offers the best pay).
She also cites Labov, who found that for working-class
speakers luck or destiny seems to serve more commonly
as an explanation for events than it does for middle-class
speakers. As Linde herself points out: "Thisarea merits a
great deal of further research: whether indeed there are
such class differences, how these differences relate to
particular class positions and class histories, how narratives in cross-class interactions are formulated, and so on"
(p. 129).
The two concluding chapters of Linde's book deal
even more directly with belief systems or culture in the
traditional anthropological sense. In chapter 6, Linde introduces a new concept, "coherence system," as a level of
analysis above the discourse unit in the construction of
causality. She defines the coherence system as "a system

of beliefs and relations between beliefs" that "provides the

environment in which one statement may or may not be
taken as a cause of another statement" p. 163. As semiexpert systems of beliefs more coherent than common
sense, they are able to provide people with a vocabulary
for creating a self. The following account, for example, is
coherent only in the context of beliefs that the self is split
into conflicting component parts, that real causes are
found in childhood experiences, and that there are levels
of personality, some of which are deeper than others.
Popular Freudian psychology here provides a coherence
system that corrects for the otherwise unacceptable
moral evaluation of the account (that the speaker was not
in control of her actions and had made a bad decision):
So I didn'treallymakemuch of a decision there.I thinkthat's
oneway of lookingat it I madea decision.Itwas the decision
thatI didn'tlike at the time,so that'swhy I have thesense that
I was forced into it, but there are all kinds of psychological
thingsthat make you do things at variousmoments in your
life. [p.167]
In chapter 7, Linde attempts to link her data on
narratives of occupational choice to the history of American beliefs about positive thinking, individual will, and
prosperity as the just reward for hard work. Here she
deals with the often-noted phenomenon of "ontological
individualism" (p. 200) in American culture, the unreflected-upon attitude that the individual is the only or
main form of reality. In the final chapter, Linde makes
clear that her analysis means to deal only with discourse
as a linguistic object, exclusive of events and practices.
She admits that linguistic analyses, when they deal with
power relations, do not link local speech acts to largerscale power relations. Indeed, Linde found that the middle-class white narrators in her study did not commonly
refer to social and political causes in their personal accounts of career choice. Finally, Linde calls for linguists
to historicize the investigation of discourses, as against
the exclusively synchronic approach of discourse analysis
to date.
Linde uses liberal doses of deductive reasoning and
a somewhat idiosyncratic mix of relevant literatures to
ground aspects of her argument that go beyond her limited set of data. Many anthropologists will feel that Linde's
cultural analyses lack enough empirical data and context
to support her claims. (Cognitive anthropologists and
linguists may be more sympathetic.) Much research will
be needed to evaluate and elaborate upon the applicability
of Linde's theories and findings to the life stories of diverse ethnic groups and subcultures within American
society, members of societies outside the Anglo-American
linguistic sphere, and especially, particular individuals
over time. The effort will be worth it: Linde's clear reasoning, provocative arguments, and brilliant insights make
her book a major contribution.

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In Storied Lives: The Cultural Politics of Self-Understanding, a collection of superb essays by psychologists,
anthropologists, and sociologists, George C. Rosenwald
and Richard L. Ochberg attempt to push the research
agenda for life stories beyond the formal coherence of
narratives in order to relate narrative coherence to social
practice. They offer a critique of life stories that attempts
to overcome the kind of"ontological individualism" noted
by Linde in her analysis of the life stories of middle-class
white American professionals. In their introduction,
Rosenwald and Ochberg use critical theory to advance an
intriguing argument (1) that narratives are not representational but formative of identity; (2) that the self-formative power of personal narrative may be constrained or
stunted, so that life stories may be improved; and (3) that
it is possible to enlarge the range of personal narrative to
make individuals and communities aware of the politicalcultural conditions "that have led to the circumscription
of discourse" (p. 2).
The first item is not unique to Rosenwald and Ochberg, but the rest of their agenda is fresh and provocative.
If the idea that lives are shaped by sociocultural opportunities and constraints is not new, the idea that life stories
are shaped by them is. For Rosenwald and Ochberg, this
view allows the evaluation not only of social conditions,
but of life stories as "good" or "bad" (or "better" or
"worse"). Though the life story may "work"for the individual, discourse "mediates between the fate of the individual and the larger order of things" (p. 2). Rosenwald
and Ochberg assert that it is possible and necessary to
listen critically to life stories for "the reasons and costs of
stories' disfigurement" (p. 6, emphasis added).
Specifically, Rosenwald and Ochberg reject the view
that all life stories stand equally as instantiations of the
specific culture in which they were shaped. They propose
hearing life stories as conflicted outcomes of the struggle
between consciousness and repression, between individual desire and social adaptation. Judging what makes for
"better" stories (and, by extension, "better" discourses
and "better" social practices) is thus a central problematic:
The silences, truncations,and confusionsin stories as well as
the occasional outbreaksof action contradictingan individual's"official"narrative,point out to us-and to the narrator,
if only his or her recognitioncan be enlisted-what else might
be said and sought [p. 7]
Most of Rosenwald and Ochberg's contributors (including anthropologists Ruth Behar, Susan Harding, and
Judith Modell) write without reference, however, to the
editors' critical theory agenda. In "Work, Identity, and
Narrative:An Artist-Craftsman'sStory,"Elliot G. Mishler's
innovative method for analyzing decision nodes in the
formation of an occupational identity is a sophisticated
cognitive model (and one that begs to be read carefully in


relation to Linde's work on narratives of occupational

choice). In "InThe Name of the Father," Stanley D. Rosenberg, Harriet J. Rosenberg, and Michael P. Farrell take a
Lacanian point of view to explore domination by the
father and by the paternal principle in the narratives and
life histories of a conventional, middle-class American
family. The essay is equally compelling in demonstrating
how coherence work is done by members of a family as
an organized social unit.
In "Life Stories: Pieces of a Dream," Mary Gergen
goes beyond her previous important work on the narrative
substructures of life stories as tragedy, romance, or comedy to offer a gender analysis of popular American autobiographies (such as those of Lee Iacocca and Beverly
Sills), suggesting that men portray themselves in terms of
heroic action and women in terms of relationships. Gergen writes in a Bernaminesque style, interposing quotes
with text, but missing is a critical discussion of the problem of characterizing the language used by men and
women apart from specific contexts of power. In "The
Afterlife of Stories: Genesis of a Man of God," Harding
presents an exegesis of Christian narrative conventions
used by a fundamentalist minister who sought to convert
the researcher through his shocking personal confession.
It would be hard to suggest how Reverend Cantrell, whom
Harding calls a master storyteller, could tell his story
better; Harding does not try.
In the essay where an author most explicitly evaluates his narrators' life stories, the result is uncomfortable.
In "African-Americansand the Pursuit of Wider Identities:
Self-Other Understandings in Black Female Narratives,"
Aaron David Gresson presents accounts by two black
women, both of whom had had children with white men
but were disappointed and hurt by their racism. Gresson
makes negative examples of the women themselves for
what he characterizes as a betrayal of the race:
Marciaand Janice ... want to go beyond the constraintsof
unityby becomingintimatewith
white men, but they continueto ask for the supportof traditional African-Americanunity. When their rationales for
breakingwith the traditionalexpectationsare compromised
by their need to remain attached to the race, they come
face-to-facewith theirparadoxicalpredicament.I begin with
a briefintroductionof the women and follow with an expositakes
tion of the formthe contradictionandthe rationalization
in each case. [p. 167]
Rosenwald and Ochberg could use critical theory to
question Gresson's essentialization and valorization of
"tradition,"anotion he appears to deploy to keep black
women in line. What is "traditional African-American
unity"?Who defines it? The women's narratives give evidence that their biracial children were rejected in the
African-American community only by certain black men
who were potential mates. By repeatedly pointing out the
failure of Marcia and Janice to "understand" their situ-

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* VOL.97, NO. 1 . MARCH


ation, Gresson sets up the myth that there is one holy,

orthodox,heterosexist strategyfor black women to deal
with the painful realities of racism in America.In doing
so, he obliteratesthe truthof these women's experiences
of identity formation and their contributions to social
As a white and female reviewer, I must note my
discomfortin singlingout a black male'scontributionfor
such negativecomment.Butmy feelingsignals a problem
with Rosenwaldand Ochberg'sotherwiseimpressivecollection, because they wish to link critical theory with
narrativeand praxis. Gresson'sessay was the only one in
this volume with an identifiablynonwhite authoror narrator.HadRosenwaldandOchbergincludedtwo or three
more essays by or about African-Americanmen and
women, they would have madethe struggleeasier for me
and for Gresson.
In "Karen:The TransformingStory,"on the other
hand, Jacquelyn Wiersma evaluates the life story of a
womanwho, in a series of interviews,clarifiesher choice
to pursue a doctoral degree rather than motherhood.
Usinga model of interactionthatis basicallypsychotherapeutic,Wiersmais carefulto keepheranalysison the level
of the story, not the person. ("Cana bad story become
good?"does not slip into "Cana bad girlbecome good?")
Also, Wiersmadoes consider the usefulness of Karen's
story to her as a matter of primaryimportanceand uses
Karen'sown terms as a guideto how well the storyworks

for her. The essay suggests that evaluatinglife stories

works best when liberation is defmed in terms of the
narrator'sown process of wresting power away from
social authority.Ochberg'sown essay, "SocialInsightand
PsychologicalLiberation,"makes this point beautifully.I
doubtwhetherlife stories can be evaluatedproperly(be
relatedto praxis) if they are overly textualized-that is,
takenfromthe context of ongoinglived experienceor the
ongoingdialoguewith the interpreter,in which the narrator retainsthe power to refmeor respondto ideas of what
wouldmakea "better"story.Afterall, false consciousness
is so mucheasier to spot in someone else.
The quest for better life stories, which Rosenwald
and Ochbergpropose, is the attemptto use life stories to
thinkcriticallyabout the selves and society they help us
to construct.This researchagendaoffers us a path away
from an empty formalismthat might reduce individual
lives to mere data for the sake of the social science
industry.However,such an agendarequires greaterpowers of collaborationthan are typicallyat handif we are to
avoid creatingnew hierarchiesof judgmentalism.It will
take some time to integrate and exhaust the study of
coherencein life storiesthatis foundationalto the project.
And it will take effortto integratethe possibly fragmenting tendencies of discourse about individuallives into
social theoryandmore workablepracticesof social existence. m

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