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Narrative Identities: Psychologists Engaged in Self-Construction

Yancy, George & Susan Hadley (2005). Narrative Identities: Psychologists Engaged in Self-Construction. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

In this anthology of autobiographies, thirteen psychologists create narratives exploring the dialectical relationship between their identities and their biographical contexts. Editors Yancy and Hadley posed a long list of questions to guide this exploration. The intent of the editors was to fully engage authors in the contemporary practice of positionality and standpoint theory so prominent in philosophy and the social sciences. The result is a rich collection of stories that help us to understand many of the developmental details and perspectives of a few prominent psychologists. They examine the influences that shaped their identities and how they came to understand these influences in their own deliberate constructions of self.

An important aspect of the text is the variety of theoretical orientations represented by the authors, including narrative, social constructionist, feminist, postmodernist, poststructuralist, hermeneutic, existential phenomenological, humanistic, critical, psychoanalytic, performative, and social therapeutic approaches. Authors describe how they came to embrace a theoretical perspective through experiences in their families of origin, distinctive cultures, education, intellectual preferences, experiences with patients and clients, as well as personal relationships and general life experiences. The text presents a variety of lifeworlds each dedicated to psychology and the practice of psychotherapy.

Of the thirteen contributors, most are men with only three chapters offered by women, which begs the question of criteria for selection of the authors. None the less, most narratives are fully engaging and occasionally provocative with titles like “the poetics of my identities,” “performing a life”, “life as a symphony, and”, “life reflections of a nomadic subject.”

The editors do not attempt to analyze similarities and/or differences between the narratives, preferring to let each autobiographical account speak for itself. The result is a truly humanistic and reflective collection of accounts, not only of the lives of prominent psychologists, but also of the history of ideas in modern and postmodern psychology. A criticism may be that some of the narratives seem over-wrought with self-absorption. On the other hand, this is the world of psychology – the issues of construction of the self. Some of the chapters reflect more vitality than others. And each chapter varies, in terms of its success in presenting an engaging narrative style. The tone of the text is one of intellectual pursuit. Some of the literary devices often applied to “good” stories are absent – emotional texture, the building up of a “plot” through suspense, rich sensory descriptions.

Music therapists may wonder about the relevance of these narratives to their own lives. Music Therapy is only mentioned in a fleeting fashion in the book, even though one of the editors, Sue Hadley, is a music therapist. But the shifting and shaping of psychotherapists through different life experiences and different theoretical orientations runs a parallel course to the lives of many music therapists. And the historical context of these lives positions us in the same period in the history of ideas. So, there is much to be inspired by, to reflect upon, to learn from, and to understand from a thorough reading of this book.

There are many exciting developments in the land of Narrative Inquiry (Kenny, 2005). And some of the new research approaches could expand on the styles and approaches offered in Narrative Identities. Some may be particularly suited to Music Therapy. One of the most powerful narrative styles expressing identities is found in the works of feminist anthropologist Ruth Behar. Her text The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks your Heart (1996) provides us with richly textured landscapes that include the relationships between her participants and researchers themselves emphasizing the feminist position of self-in-relation. This subjective stance may be relevant for music therapy practitioner/researchers who share emotional expressions in the practice of Music Therapy.

Another stunning example of narrative approaches is represented in the work of African-American Harvard University professor in Sociology and Education, Sarah-Lawrence Lightfoot. Her book titled simply Respect, provides examples of her research method. This type of narrative inquiry emphasizes value for aesthetic elements of “portraits”, a type of phenomenological case study. There is an entire chapter dedicated to portraits about healing, which might appeal to music therapists. These portraits have titles like acts of care, advocacy, healing service, and respect in practice. In her book on methodology, titled The Art and Science of Portraiture, (1997), Lawrence-Lightfoot and her colleague, Jessica Hoffman Davis characterize the researcher as a portraitist, who paints a picture of the person (or setting).

In many indigenous languages, the word for story is the same as the word for song. The literary aspect of many of the narratives has an aesthetic quality, a quality and value that we, as music therapists, share with the contributors to this new book. But then again, one might paraphrase Hindemith’s assertion that music begins where words leave off.


Behar, R. (1996). The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kenny, C.(2005). Narrative Inquiry. In B.Wheeler, Music Therapy Research, (2nd ed.) Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Press. 416-428.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2000). Respect. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Book.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The Art and Science of Portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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