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Reflections on The Narrative Study of Lives

Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich

The Fielding Institute, Santa Barbara / Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Narrative Study of Lives (TNSL) was a series of eleven edited volumes which appeared (more or less annually) for the first time in 1993 and the last time in 2007. We co-edited all these volumes, the last five in conjunction with Dan McAd- ams as a third co-editor. The mission of the volumes was to provide a prominent space for the publication of narrative scholarship and research pertaining to the study of lives. In the months since we decided to terminate the publication of TNSL, we felt a growing need to reflect on this long-range project and to attempt to formulate some of our academic and personal conclusions about the meaning and impact of this venture. What have we achieved or failed to achieve in this Series? Why did we decide to terminate its publication? These questions were formed not only in our own minds, but also directed at us by colleagues, readers, and authors of the Series. Our quest to answer these questions, or reflect upon them, relate to the place of nar- rative psychology in the general field of psychology, and/or in the academic world, and to some broader aspects of the academic culture in general. As Journal or Series editors, scholars like us get acquainted with the academic culture from unique his- torical and sociological perspectives, which we would like to share in this essay.

A history of the series

Before we met, both of us had gradually moved from more traditional research in developmental or personality psychology, into what became eventually known as qualitative inquiry. In the late eighties, the psychological literature about this field was relatively scarce and very new (see, e.g., Bruner, 1986, 1990, 1991, Polking- horne, 1988, Sarbin, 1986), and academic institutions had just started to face the meaning and impact of “the narrative turn” on the academic culture. Psychology

Requests for further information should be directed to Ruthellen Josselson,4210 Tuscany Ct. Baltimore, MD 21210 USA. E-mail:

Narrative Inquiry 19:1 (2009), 183–198. doi 10.1075/ni.19.1.10jos issn 1387–6740 / e-issn 1569–9935 © John Benjamins Publishing Company


Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich

remained — and still remains — least hospitable to the narrative turn, holding fast to its roots in scientistic positivism. Teaching of qualitative research methods in psychology departments was almost nonexistent and we each taught ourselves to do qualitative work on our own by adapting the clinical training we had had to interviewing and analysis of personal data. The approach to the study of lives in progress, we each independently reasoned, should be similar to the study of the lives of patients we might evaluate clinically. When we met, our encounter re- sembled the chance meeting of two erring, lonely souls in the desert. We found to our amazement and joy that we shared many critiques, concerns and preferences, and grappled with similar hardships. Among them, at that time, both of us felt that publication of qualitative or narrative research in the existing venues was difficult, if not completely impossible. Both of us were interested in feminism and holocaust studies, two research fields that necessitated narrative inquiry to give voice to the issues they wanted to investigate. Moreover, we both felt that the work we did in our narrative inquiry as psychologists, was similar in its approach and method to work done by some an- thropologists, sociologists, or scholars whose domain was education, social work, nursing, criminology and other “human sciences”. These scholars were develop- ing methods suitable to their purposes, and these represented arguments and ap- proaches that privileged experience. In 1990, we met with Jerome Bruner during his lecture series in Jerusalem and he encouraged us in our fledgling ideas about making a space for narrative research, particularly within psychology, but in con- junction with other disciplines. We set out, therefore, to create an interdisciplinary and international publication, to build a warm home for narrative scholars of all fields. Sage publications accepted our proposal for an annual “journal series” to be titled The Narrative Study of Lives in 1991, and the first volume appeared in 1993 (Josselson & Lieblich, 1993). The mission for the Series was formulated on the cover of the first volume as follows: “The purpose of the Annual is to publish studies of actual lives in progress, studies which use qualitative methods of investigation within a theoretical context drawn from psychology or other disciplines. The aim is to promote the study of lives and life history as a means of examining, illuminating and spurring theoreti- cal understanding. The Narrative Study of Lives will encourage longitudinal and retrospective in-depth studies of individual life narratives as well as theoretical consideration of innovative methodological approaches to this work”. In the “Guidelines for Authors” we further elaborated: “[…] As a publication of an interdisciplinary nature, we welcome authors from all disciplines concerned with narratives, psychobiography and life-history”. Regarding the form of papers, we advocated a more personal, flexible and creative writing style than was cus- tomary in journals. We challenged authors to leave behind the neutral stance of

Reflections on The Narrative Study of Lives


traditional academic writing for the sake of more reflexive exposure. We allowed for a longer format (for an academic paper) since we recognized that narrative data cannot be summarized in graphs or tables and needed more space for its pre- sentation, and we did not demand compliance to any traditional rules of writing in academia. On the contrary, we said that “we encourage any creative format that best presents the work. Long quotations in the protagonists’ voice are desirable as well as discussion of the author’s place in the study”. Our aim was to invite people to tell the real stories of their work, to consider their own role as co-participants in designing the questions, choosing participants, shaping the context and struc- turing the results, choosing the language that seemed to them suitable for sharing what they learned and, in general, reflecting on the complexities of the process of knowing (see Josselson & Lieblich, 1996). The stellar group of women and men whom we invited to join our “Editorial Board” represented the international scholarship and authority of what we referred to as “the narrative turn”, and included psychologists, psychoanalysts, anthropolo- gists, as well as members of the faculties of sociology, literature and philosophy. Six volumes appeared at about a year interval in the same format, edited by Josselson and Lieblich (except one which was edited by Josselson alone), published by Sage publications, USA. While we hoped to publish them all as consecutive numbered volumes of The Narrative Study of Lives, Sage requested, after the first volume, apparently for sales promotion, that we supply a title for each volume, representing its focus. (Therefore, for volume 2, 3, and 6, after we chose the papers, we then created all-inclusive names that would represent the papers and also sat- isfy our publisher.) The six Sage volumes are:

  • 1. Josselson R. and Lieblich A. (Eds.). (1993). The narrative study of lives.

  • 2. Lieblich A. and Josselson R. (Eds.). (1994). Exploring identity and gender.

  • 3. Josselson, R. and Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (1995). Interpreting experience.

  • 4. Josselson, R. (Ed.). (1996). Ethics and process in the narrative study of lives.

  • 5. Lieblich, A. and Josselson, R. (Eds.). (1997). The narrative study of lives.

  • 6. Josselson R. and Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (1999). Making meaning of narratives.

This request to “name” each volume made us aware that we were operating within two contextual systems: the academic, in which we were trying to hold a space for innovative work outside the mainstream and the system of publishing/marketing that was concerned about who would buy these volumes. The two are, of course, related since that which is academically privileged also sells books to academics. We always conceived of our project as a journal to come out annually. We wanted to publish only the most excellent work and didn’t think we’d have enough material for more than a single volume per year. Once again, we didn’t fit into existing structures since our publisher defined a “journal” as a work that appears


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more than once a year. If we published just annually, we were a “book” rather than a journal and this invoked for them other considerations. We tried to settle for being a “book series,” still peer reviewed and operating like a journal within their framework. These rather technical details of publishing, though, reveal hidden messages underneath. For example, although all these volumes shared format and logo, the title of the series (The Narrative Study of Lives) was somewhat concealed due to marketing considerations, and except for Volumes 1 and 5, it appeared ei- ther as a subtitle or not at all. Libraries and private readers could naturally buy single volumes, and did not have to subscribe to the entire series. Whether to treat each volume as a separate single edited book, or to see the series as an ongoing academic venue for narrative scholars, as we conceived it from the onset, was a continuous conflict between us and the publishers. In addition, there were perplexing issues of indexing and abstracts. We couldn’t see how to meaningfully “index” narrative research where the primary findings represent complex ideas of interpretation rather than “topics.” Still, we allowed professional indexers to have a go at the volumes and the result was primarily lists of names of people referenced with a few general or highly specific categories. Similarly, we found it hard to ask our authors to write abstracts of these mul- tilayered presentations, so we published without abstracts. These decisions were probably not good ones because it placed the articles outside the usual framework of keywords that would make the work searchable. And by being something in between a journal and a book, we placed the series in an uncertain position when it came time for our authors to respond to questions about the “journal’s” rank for purposes of peer review and tenure. Our idealism, then, in many ways, led us outside all of the usual definitions of scholarly research. In addition, this existence in the netherworld between being a journal and a book led to the series not being indexed in such places as the Social Science Citation Index and meant less acces- sibility to online searches and fewer citations. Still, the series was well-received and the earliest volume sold extremely well. It sold particularly well in Europe, especially Scandinavia and Britain, as well as in fields of education and nursing. Except within a small, interested community, it seemed that our series had little impact in psychology although both our editorial board and our contributors included many psychologists. The year of 1999 was an important transition for the series. We terminated our contract with Sage, partly because we continued to resist doing volumes with particular names and partly because sales had fallen off. In talking to other pub- lishers, we were persuaded that there was no alternative to doing “themed” vol- umes if we wanted to publish annually. Meanwhile, the journals Narrative Inquiry and Qualitative Inquiry had both developed and were providing journal outlets for narrative scholars. We didn’t see an argument for creating another journal that

Reflections on The Narrative Study of Lives


would duplicate their efforts. In hopes of having more presence within psychol- ogy, we signed a new contract with APA Books who agreed to publish a book series with the title The Narrative Study of Lives, with each volume oriented to a pre-arranged theme. We thought we could choose titles that reflected the kinds of issues that narrative researchers tend to study (identity, transition, relationships) and then group work into these rubrics. At this stage we added a third editor, Dan McAdams, both to reduce our editorial workload and to add a different per- spective to the series. Following the high prestige and visibility of APA Books on the one hand, and McAdams’ productivity and well known position in academic psychology, on the other hand, we were hoping that the new arrangement would guarantee the continuation of the series in its new home. Because other disciplines (sociology, anthropology, education, nursing) had more outlets, we gave up some of the interdisciplinary approach, and tried to move the volume more deliberately into psychology. This was probably a mistake as we were trying now to root our- selves in the least hospitable disciplinary soil. Five volumes appeared from APA books; thus the total Narrative Study of Lives series comprises 11 volumes. While the format was essentially the same, the new publishers negated even more the idea or external appearance of a continuous series, and regarded each of the volumes as a new book to be marketed separately. Thus, the idea of a series, and, with it, the idea of a field in psychology with some status and permanence, became marginalized. Some of the APA titles still kept the words “Narrative Study of Lives” — but the majority did not. The APA volumes were:

  • 7. McAdams, D. Josselson, R. and Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (2001). Turns in the road: The narrative study of lives in transition.

  • 8. Josselson, R., Lieblich, A. and McAdams, D. (Eds.). (2002). Up close and per- sonal: Teaching and learning of narrative research.

  • 9. Lieblich, A., McAdams, D. and Josselson, R. (Eds.). (2004). Healing plots: The Narrative basis of psychotherapy.

    • 10. McAdams, D., Josselson, R. and Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (2006). Identity and story: Creating self in narrative.

    • 11. Josselson, R., Lieblich, A. and McAdams, D. (Eds.). (2007). The meaning of others: Narrative studies of relationships.

Following the publication of the 11th volume, the three editors decided not to extend our contract with APA and to terminate the publication of the series. Amia put her continuing efforts to promote narrative research into founding a Society for Narrative Research in Israel; Ruthellen (with Ken Gergen) tried to create a new APA Division for Qualitative Inquiry and Dan wanted to pursue ways of integrat- ing narrative and mainstream approaches.


Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich

Over the course of these 11 volumes, we have published about 120 papers, and received for submission roughly twice that number. Writers came from the US, Israel, Germany, Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom, Holland, Australia, Ja- pan, Taiwan and Swaziland. They represented academic degrees in anthropology, psychology, education, nursing, sociology and social work. An examination of the contents of the entire series indicated a wide variety of subjects, which could be sorted into four groups:

Empirical papers (the majority) reported either single case or multi-case studies. Most used interviews, but some worked with published biographies or diaries. Many of these papers concerned issues of racial, national, political, occupa- tional, sexual and other aspects of identity, examined in depth. Others looked at aspects of relationships, including care-giving and bereavement. Philosophical papers were more theoretical and discussed various issues having to do with the nature of narratives and their meanings for scholarship. Methodological articles focused on the method of research, and demonstrated spe- cial interview or analysis methods, as well as specific ethical issues involved in narrative inquiry. Pedagogical papers dealt with teaching the stance and practice of performing nar- rative research — and these were primarily located in a special volume of the APA series devoted to these matters.

It is impossible to summarize this work, not only because of its scope, but because by its very nature narrative work does not easily lends itself to summaries. More- over, we have found out that it is very difficult to form a “data base” of narrative scholarship and “sum up” and “accumulate” its “results” (see Josselson, 2006). Per- haps all these terms, which stem from the positivistic research paradigm, make a Procrustean bed for qualitative research. The papers that have been most widely cited are those that pertain to meth- odology or the philosophical bases of narrative research. Those that received the most citations are papers by Gabriel Rosenthal (Volume 1) on “Principles of se- lection in generating stories for narrative biographical interviews,” Susan Chase’s paper (Volume 3) on “Taking narrative seriously: Consequences for method and theory in interview studies,” and Guy Widdeshoven’s lead paper in Volume 1 on “Hermeneutic perspectives on the relationship between narrative and life history.” All have been cited over 100 times. The other papers dealing with process of nar- rative research have also been cited more than the content papers. We suspect that other scholars have been referencing these papers to justify their own modes of inquiry. Some of the articles that we thought were among the very best, most interesting work are rarely cited. We, of course, don’t know if they have been read or whether

Reflections on The Narrative Study of Lives


they had influence, but they seem to have “disappeared” from the literature. Few of the ideas in the empirical papers have made their way into the broader literature, despite the insightful, intensive work on such topics as women’s experience, child- hood abuse and adolescence. We suspect that scholarly engagement with these papers would require extensive consideration of the work. Most of the papers we published don’t fit well into simple referencing, just as they are not easily indexed or abstracted. Reading narrative research involves immersion in the approach and analytic stance of the researcher. At the same time, we realize that citation rates are not the only measure of influence. It was also noteworthy that there were continual disagreements among us edi- tors about what was to be valued in the papers that were submitted. Criteria of quality in narrative research, despite the good lists and articles available on the sub- ject, are not easily applied. Whereas reviews of quantitative research tend to focus on the methodology — whether the correct statistical analysis was performed and performed appropriately — reviews of qualitative research are heavily influenced by such subjective criteria as: Is the work interesting? Does it teach us something about human experience? Does it offer insight into the human condition? Does it adequately reflect cultural context? There were submissions that methodologi- cally investigated a phenomenon but produced trivialities: e.g. if one interviews bereaved spouses, one discovers that they are sad; people in minorities feel op- pressed. But what seemed commonplace to one of us may have seemed insightful to another — hence, the disagreements. We were in agreement that authors had to make some conceptual contribution, not just offer description, however cleverly coded, of their participants’ experience.

What have we achieved?

Different versions — success and disappointment

In our (Josselson and Lieblich) conversations and reflections about the termina- tion of the Series, we found that we created multiple narratives, many layers and facets about our experience with the Narrative Study of Lives series. We noticed ourselves moving and shifting between a positive and a negative narrative about the history of the project. Perhaps a dialogue between these two narratives would be most suitable to account for this history, the complex experience and the mul- tifaceted reality of this academic endeavor. Following are two versions of these possible narratives, each with their own truth.


Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich

The success narrative

According to the “success” narrative, the joint project started as a publication channel for a new, growing and developing paradigm, sought by older and young- er scholars in different fields. At this time, we had the impression that qualitative research, with narrative inquiry as one of its major forms, would soon find its place among the vast array of stances and approaches utilized in the social sci- ences. Our editorial work has indeed justified these expectations, as we published good and interesting articles by researchers in many countries and a variety of academic disciplines. Our impression is that the teaching of qualitative research methods in psychology departments grew somewhat in prevalence, at least in cer- tain departments and that some professors were assigning some articles that we had published. As a result of our visibility as editors, we were asked to do workshops in a va- riety of places and we felt that students were highly responsive to our instruction and did extremely good work. Most of them went into psychology hoping to study people’s experience and were chagrined when they were discouraged from doing qualitative, interview-based research by their graduate program professors. Thus, we were providing alternative models more in line with what many students had hoped to be doing. When meeting scholars in a variety of settings, we felt that our work was well-received and appreciated, even admired. The existence of the series served as an outlet for new energy in narrative work in psychology. We, perhaps vainly, hoped that the ending of the series marked the acceptance of narrative or qualitative work into the mainstream of social sciences, thus making redundant a separate publication dedicated essentially to this mode of inquiry or to its philo- sophical underpinnings. In other words, if people could publish their qualitative work on human development, social behavior or gender issues, for example, in journals focusing on these content areas, notwithstanding their research methods — we have achieved our aim and can quit the separate publication of narrative work. Ultimately, we would hope for narrative work not to be “ghetto-ized” but to be published in tandem with other forms of investigation of particular topics. Another positive consequence of the Narrative Study of Lives series was that we were able to create and participate in a 6-month Advanced Study Institute on narrative research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2001 and a follow-up three-day meeting four years later. This created intense collaboration between us and scholars from other countries and other disciplines. We saw these not just as opportunities to further our thinking and study about this work but to make the work more visible in the scholarly community. The existence of The Narrative Study of Lives also led to an exciting panel at the American Psychological Association meeting in 2000 called “The teaching

Reflections on The Narrative Study of Lives


and learning of narrative research” (which, in turn, became the subject of one of the volumes). What was most telling about this symposium was the energy of the standing-room-only crowd and the enthusiasm of the attendees about this form of inquiry. The meeting ended with discussion among the panel (Amia, Ruthellen, Mary Gergen, Dan McAdams, Annie Rogers, and George Rosenwald) and with the audience about the difficulties of finding a place for narrative research in the current academic climate of psychology and began to have the tone of complaint whereupon Bert Cohler, who was in the audience, said loudly and rousingly, “Just do it” — and with that rallying cry, we ended. Indeed, with The Narrative Study of Lives, we were doing it. Another APA panel, at the annual meeting in 2005, called “Narrative — the State of the Art” chaired by Ken Gergen, included Ted Sarbin’s last public appear- ance just weeks before he died. The attendance was over 300 people. Ruthellen and Dan were on this panel and we again felt that we had made a mark in the larger field of psychology, carrying Sarbin’s groundbreaking work forward. Overall, then, our narrative of success is that we supported the existence of something called “narrative research,” created a venue for the publication of such work and increased the respectability and visibility of this approach to the study of lives in psychology and related fields.

The disappointment narrative

On the other side, the narrative could be formulated as a different story, a story of disappointment of our hopes. We started the series because our work, as well as our students’ and colleagues’ work, had been rejected by traditional venues. In the fol- lowing years, as papers were submitted to the series, we discovered that academic narrative work was not always of the best quality. Indeed, many submissions were ones that, in our view, shouldn’t be published anywhere. This was perhaps not a surprise because narrative methods were so little being taught in universities, but we were still taken aback. We had submissions that were journalistic in their scope — simple summaries of what participants had to say about particular experiences, interesting stories, perhaps, but unanalyzed in any meaningful way. Many papers lacked the pithy kind of analysis that leads readers to come away feeling that they now understand something better. Often it was unclear why a narrative was be- ing examined so closely other than the authors’ enchantment with the story being told. We were reminded again and again of how difficult it is to do good narrative research that is scholarly. We wrestled with the boundaries between narrative re- search in the social sciences and journalism and literature. Only some of the time did we find studies that were contextualized well in the larger social science schol- arship, and these most often came from mature, senior scholars.


Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich

Contrary to our initial expectations, we found out that manuscripts were not flowing spontaneously in our direction and what was being submitted was often of low quality. As a result, we had to put constant effort into recruiting from our network good work to publish in the series. This forced us to face the larger system issues in academia, particularly psychology, as it affected availability of material. Now that we had a home for narrative research: why wasn’t it coming in? With the growing enchantment of the social sciences with the brain and with complex statistical modeling (especially psychology), the inhospitality toward narrative in- quiry in psychology departments did not abate, and narrative work was more and more marginalized in the discipline. Furthermore, narrative research is time and labor intensive and relatively inexpensive to conduct while the current climate privileges people who procure large research grants and have long lists of pub- lications. Thus, the academic incentives are to do large sample or experimental (expensive) programmatic studies that result in multiple publications. We were indeed swimming against the tide. We had many submissions from graduate students, but what we saw is that the unfocused teaching of qualitative research in psychology departments led to sub- missions that were mediocre or poor. These papers tended to present just thematic analyses, sometimes reading like outputs of qualitative software programs — lists of themes, decontextualized, reflexivity absent. Because some of the best work we received was from very senior scholars, we wondered if perhaps experience does predispose to the kind of breadth and depth that narrative research requires. (Of course, we also published some superb work from graduate students and young scholars.) If this were true, we were indeed working outside the usual academic “game” and its system of rewards. In other words, we were largely publishing work from people who didn’t “have” to publish, but instead chose to write about ideas and phenomena that were of intrinsic interest to them. We also reflected on the impact the series and our approach was having as a result of meeting our scholar-colleagues in a variety of settings. We often had the sense that our work was admired, maybe even very much admired, but not fol- lowed. This is to say that people found that the work we published was interesting, sometimes even cutting edge, but they had no resources to do this kind of work themselves. There was no one to teach them to do it (and we were limited as to how many SOS calls from graduate students around the world we could respond to) and no one to form collaboration groups with. And to do something so new that they were uncertain about was too exposing for more senior scholars. We were — and remain — mindful of the fact that the most paradigm-chang- ing and inspiring ideas in psychology have come from narratives. Beginning with Freud, continuing through Erikson, Gilligan and Bruner, the truly revolutionary ideas have come from the careful and insightful study of lives and narratives. In

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what Bruner defines as the narrative form of knowing, ideas may not be concretiz- able, but only expressed conceptually. Indeed, efforts to pin down and “operation- alize” such concepts as “different voice” or “identity” in quantifiable terms have failed to illuminate these concepts. It was our hope to enlarge this tradition, to make it possible for new ideas (rather than the testing of hypotheses) to evolve from narrative investigation. We believe that our volumes contain many such in- sights, but we are not sanguine that these have had much impact. Measures of success, of course, differ, depending on whose aims are being re- alized. Our publishers would narrate our venture as failures if sales figures are the measure. But APA, unlike Sage, chose to produce only hardback versions of our series and price them out of reach of many of those (graduate students) who would have been interested in reading the volumes. (Most of these volumes are now available as e-books to those services that subscribe to APA online publica- tions. This we regard as good news.) From the point of view of academic scholars, a major criterion of success is reflected in the citation index of the publication — and, as we said before, this has, for various reasons, not been high. For many students and young scholars who published in the series, however, it was an im- portant source for learning about the field, and a home where they could feel they belonged. These are the people who most intensely expressed their chagrin at our decision to terminate The Narrative Study of Lives series. For us, as editors of the series, we were impacted by all these viewpoints and positions simultaneously. Whatever the angle chosen for our narrator’s position, as usual, one simple narra- tive cannot represent the complexity of reality or experience.

A more general view

Being the editors of the series privileged us with a position from which we gained a wider perspective from which to view and evaluate the present situation of narra- tive scholarship. Thus, we end with brief reflections on the current state of the nar- rative research field. Besides our own venture, we are aware of the enormous suc- cess of Denzin and Lincoln’s three editions of The handbook of qualitative research, other journals that focus on qualitative research, and the many conferences taking place (including Narrative Matters and the annual Qualitative Research meeting). There seems to be a growing interest in alternatives to the positivistic, objective stance in research about human beings as individuals or groups. Qualitative re- search provides such an alternative. This great interest is more apparent outside of the academic departments of psychology. Narrative research is popular in depart- ments of communication and cultural studies, schools of education, nursing or social work — fields which, in comparison to psychology, have always maintained


Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich

stronger links with the humanities and with the holistic point of view, and have not been as burdened with the obligation to be “scientific”. Within psychology, qualitative or narrative work remains marginalized. Experiments remain privi- leged over case studies and generalization more prized than depth understanding. Departments of psychology around the world have become more and more frag- mented into “psychologies”, with less and less common language to enable mean- ingful communication among the factions. Cognitive research using the computer as its model and the brain as its focus of interest, has gradually dominated the field, while work in personality, social psychology and clinical psychology has lost much of its former power or position within the discipline. In clinical psychology, short- term and symptom-focused therapies are taking the place of the more humanistic and dynamic traditions. These trends are likely cyclical and we remain hopeful that the pendulum will again swing towards the depth understanding of human experience that is accessible only through narrative modes of inquiry. As we have said before, the lack of good teaching about qualitative research leads to poor research which leads others to dismiss such methods as meaningful forms of inquiry. The lack of training in psychology now extends to basic modes of relating to human experience. Where we could both rely on our own intensive clinical training to have a solid basis in interviewing skills, today’s clinical psychol- ogy training, rooted in cognitive behaviorism, is focused on symptoms rather than such things as life history, the investigation of significant memories or relational patterns. There remain few outposts in psychology where a student may become familiar with subjectivity or comfortable with its multiple modes of expression. The domination of funding as the motor for academic research has also made narrative research less attractive. Since narrative research is normally based on a relatively small number of interviews (or available textual material), which are frequently transcribed and analyzed by the “chief investigator” herself or himself, such projects cannot ask granting agencies for large sums of money in their re- search proposals. As a result, very few qualitative scholars can win the huge grants that, in their overhead formulae, provide the academic institutions with their high- ly needed funds for the general budget, for maintenance of the campuses etc. The positive side of this is that narrative research is an avenue open to those at small colleges, in independent clinical or consulting practices or others who would not, in any case, have access to such grants. As educators of the next generations of psychologists, our major worries con- cern the opportunities of younger scholars that we and other narrative psycholo- gists train. We often ask ourselves whether training our graduate students to do high quality narrative research might be helpful for them, or instead lower their chances in their search for jobs in the future. Aware of the political realities, we advise students who are hoping for academic careers to secure a solid background

Reflections on The Narrative Study of Lives


in quantitative research as well, or turn to a “mixed methods” design in their dissertations in order to better balance their resumes. Scholars using qualitative research in various fields (e.g. education) report difficulties to obtain funds and research grants, mostly since they cannot meet the normative demand for “evi- dence based outcomes” in their work. The subjective, emotional, evocative report, however well-conceptualized, is not widely accepted by administrators who allo- cate resources within academia. We have also heard reports by others that Institu- tional Review Boards or other ethics committees demand measures that are either antithetical to or simply don’t apply to qualitative research projects, thus further frustrating researchers. In the course of editing this series and occupying ourselves with the issues of narrative research over the past 18 years, we have become less naïve. It is not the truth value of knowledge but its political situatedness that determines how it is regarded in an academic field. We have come to see the necessity of some more integration with the “traditional” forms of research in psychology in order for nar- rative research to be taken more seriously. At the same time, we are aware that the search for alternative forms of expression is igniting a lot of creativity across the social sciences. Many qualitative researchers have moved to postmodern, artistic or individualistic forms of performance and report. Evoking emotion and identi- fication with participants become goals to be sought as aspects of communicating understandings from the research. This trend makes it more difficult to apply tra- ditional criteria of quality evaluation to the products of qualitative research. When we started the series, we hoped to dissolve the division between disci- plines and create an interdisciplinary field of broad interest in human experience in context, studied through the texts they produce. It became clear to us, however, that although the intellectual leaders of this movement were mainly psychologists (e.g. Sarbin, Bruner, Polkinghorne, Freeman or Gergen — to name just a few), psychologists were a minority among the researchers who defined themselves as qualitative inquirers. Furthermore, many psychologists who continued to do this kind of research eventually found themselves in other (interdisciplinary) aca- demic departments within the university, such as Gender Studies, Family Studies, Culture Studies or Human Development. Yet, for various historical reasons, psy- chology continues to have high prestige among social scientists and psychologists who do narrative research are frequently sought to keynote or present at confer- ences that are primarily attended by scholars in other disciplines. It seems that, at least in the minds of others, psychology still holds the keys to the kingdom of the human psyche.


Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich

Future visions

In spite of the fact that we have trained many students who continue to do narra- tive research in academic as well as applied environments, in our various academic encounters within the field we have often felt as if we are leaders without followers, isolated (sometimes even venerated) models with no community behind us. We have felt our work appreciated by quantitative scholars who tell us that we give voice to what they try to show numerically (but they rarely cite our work). While we have hoped to serve as models for others, we have found that scholars who did not have a direct link or contact with a more mature scholar who did narra- tive research out of preference and conviction, found it extremely difficult to start this kind of academic work or to maintain it after beginning. Narrative research is difficult to do alone or in isolation and requires a community that supports the intensity of the endeavor even in such practical ways as participation in collabora- tive reading groups. The message we seemed to get from people who were not our supervisees or students was — you are doing good psychological work, but I would not know how to do something similar, or I wouldn’t dare to, in the present academic cli- mate. The essence of this message for us is twofold: 1. that in order to sustain the stance of narrative research, this mode of inquiry should be seriously taught and exercised in more academic institutions, and 2. that a community of narrative in- quirers should become more visible. For both of these aims, the termination of our series at this time appears to be quite unfortunate. At the same time, we also think that the time has come to mainstream nar- rative research into the content areas where it can make its greatest contribution. Perhaps we are ready to move beyond ghettoization and have narrative research enter fully in the conversation about the questions of concern to scholarship more generally. We need to do more to educate editors of mainstream journals about narrative research and protest reviewers who simply do not have the skills to eval- uate narrative studies. We believe that we have provided a hospitable environment to encourage nascent efforts to do narrative research, and we have made available exemplary articles that represent the best of this mode of inquiry. We have suc- ceeded in making narrative research more visible and demonstrating its value. We are encouraged by signs that mainstream journals in psychology are becoming more open to publish narrative scholarship (see Marchel & Owens, 2007). Perhaps we have to work even harder to demonstrate how this form of inquiry can add to the work of people working within quantitative paradigms. Our work can am- plify understandings of such issues as identity, aging, immigration, relationships, memory, social change, and many others and we need to find ways to join these ongoing scholarly conversations.

Reflections on The Narrative Study of Lives


All in all, we realized that doing good narrative research is not easy, both in- ternally — because it requires much training, talent and maturity on the side of the researchers, and externally — since the cultural-political climate for it in academia is far from ideal. In our encounters with younger scholars, we often feel that our primary role is to teach psychologists to listen to the other, doing it patiently and respectfully, without judgment or immediate diagnosis. Taking into consideration the complex picture outlined above, when thinking about the future as narrative inquirers, we see ourselves as continuing to be a minority within psychology de- partments. However, we are confident that we have an important voice to add to the chorus, and our duty is to keep doing our kind of work, “humanizing” the field of academic psychology.


Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Bruner, J. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18, 1–21. Denzin, N.K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (1994). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications. Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of qualitative research, 2nd edition. Thou- sand Oaks CA: Sage Publications. Denzin, N.K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds). (2005). Handbook of qualitative research, 3rd edition. Thou- sand Oaks CA: Sage Publications. Josselson, R. (2006) Narrative research and the challenge of accumulating knowledge. Narrative Inquiry, 16, 1, 3–10. Josselson R., & Lieblich, A. 1996 Fettering the mind in the name of science. American Psycholo- gist, 51, 651–2. Marchel C., & Owens S. (2007) Qualitative research in psychology: Could William James get a job? History of Psychology, 10, 301–324 Polkinghorne, D. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. New York: State University of New York Press. Sarbin, T. R. (Ed.).(1986). Narrative psychology: The storied nature of human conduct. New York:


The Narrative Study of Lives series listed chronologically:

Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (1993). The Narrative Study of Lives, Thousand Oaks CA:

Sage Publications. Lieblich, A., & Josselson, R. (Eds.). (1994). Exploring Identity and Gender: The Narrative Study of Lives, Volume 2. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications. Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (1995). Interpreting experience: The Narrative Study of Lives, Volume 3. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications. Josselson, R. (Ed.). (1996). Ethics and process in the narrative study of lives: The Narrative Study of Lives, Volume 4. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.


Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich

Lieblich A., & Josselson, R. (Eds.). (1997). The narrative study of lives, Volume 5.Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications. Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (1999). Making meaning of narratives: The narrative study of lives, Volume 6. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications. McAdams, D. P., Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (2001). Turns in the Road. Washington, DC:

American Psychological Association. Josselson, R., Lieblich, A., & McAdams, D.P. (Eds.). (2003). Up close and personal: Teaching and learning of narrative research. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Lieblich, A. McAdams, D.P., & Josselson, R. (Eds.). (2004). Healing plots: The narrative basis of psychotherapy. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. McAdams, D.P., Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (2006). Identity and story: Creating self in narrative. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. Josselson, R., Lieblich, A., & McAdams, D.P. (Eds.). (2007). The meaning of others: Narrative study of relationships. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.