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Michel White – Maps of Narrative Practice

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Maps of Narrative Practice by Michael White

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton (May 14, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0393705161
ISBN-13: 978-0393705164

The latest on narrative therapy, from one of the founders of the field.

Narrative therapy is one of the most commonly practiced modes of therapy. In the first major book from this leader in the field, each chapter provides an overview of a main area of narrative therapy by explaining how it works and detailing the psychotherapeutic implications of these conversations.

About the Author
Michael White is an originator of Narrative Therapy, and is Co-Director of Dulwich Center, an institute for narrative practice and community work in Adelaide, Australia. He is an internationally recognized teacher, has authored numerous articles and books, and is co-author of Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.


18 years after the first publication about narrative therapy (White & Epston 1989), this is another essential reading for about its core concepts. The idea of maps is rooted in the author’s fascination with them dating back into his own childhood. Maps are such a medium of mental travel, topografically measuring a terrain, enticing to new discoveries, and a tool to prepare real travels.
6 chapters are dedicated to 6 different approaches to therapeutical conversation, each of them coming along with broad session transscripts to demonstrate the procedure.

* „Externalizing Conversations“
* „Re-Authoring Conversations“
* „Re-Membering Conversations“
* „Definitional Ceremonies“
* „Conversations That Highlight Unique Outcomes“
* „Scaffolding Conversations”

Following those transscripts theoretical premises, specific details and further ideas are illustrated. Finally a map is presented as essence to it all. The are sure no recipe, and I personally, missing any emotionyl tie with cartography, find them rather inconsequential most of the time. Particularly, as the different approaches are never meant to be applied separately at all.

1. Externalizing Conversations

* The problem is the problem, not the client: intentional understanding as in opposition to internal understandings (reference to Foucault’s concepts about “dividing practices” ascribing a “spoiled identity” to homeless, poor, mad or infirm and opposing them to the general population, and objectivication/normalizing judgements as theoretical backgrounds to internal understandings, as well as mecanisms of social control)
* central idea: determine what certain events might say about what is important to clients as a way toward constructing people as autnonmous units of thought and action

There are four categories of questions increasing in complexity:

* Negotiating an experience-near and particular definition of the problem
* Mapping the effects of the problem’s activities
* Evaluating the effects of the problem’s activities
* Justifying the evaluation

2. Re-Authoring Conversations

during consultation people tell stories about the history of their predicaments along lines unfolding in time according to a theme or plot (loss, failure, incompetence, hopelessness, futility etc.)

protagonists of those stories are described referring to their identity, motives, intentions and characteristics

experiences „out of phase“ with dominant storylines are starting point for re-authoring conversations

these conversations shape subordinate storylines providing a foundation to „address their predicaments and problems in ways that are in harmony with the precious themes of their lives“

background: Jerome Bruner’s theory about narrative metaphor: „great story telling … is about compelling plights that… must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination“

cf. Bruner stories contain two landscapes: the „landscape of action“ and a landscape of consciousness“

landscape of action = material of the story, the sequence of events within the plot (sjuzet) and the underlying theme (fabula)

landscape of consciousness = consciousness of the protagonists and their reflections on the events within the landscape of action -> “what those involved in the action know, think, or feel, or do not know, think, or feel”

the parallel between literary theory and therapy relies on the fact that “people give meaning to their experiences of the events of life by taking them into frames of intelligibility and on the conclusion that it is the structure of narrative that provides the principle frame of intelligibility for acts of meaning making in everyday life”

central point of these conversations are hence

the landscape of action: asking about events, circumstances, sequences, time and plot


the landscape of identity (substituting “consciousness” to avoid confusion around this term), the latter emphasizing also the fact that any “renegotiation of the stories of people’s lives is also a renegotiation of identity”: asking about

realizations, learnings, knowledges

internal understandings

understanding about what is accorded value

intentional understandings

zigzag-ing between those landscapes is re-rooting storylines and privileges “voices of the people consulting them in the attribution of meaning to selected events of their lives, in the interpretation of the links between these events and the valued themes of their lives, in their deduction about what this reflects in terms of what is important to them, and in their conclusions about what this suggests about their own and each other’s identities.”

central to the authoring process is the client – the therapist is privileged, but displaced from the center

overlooked but significant events of life are drawn together into a new story and conferred meaning they previously lacked

(the map for this chapter I personally found highly confuse and rather dispensable)

3. Re-Membering Conversations

identies are founded upon an “association of life” with a membership composed of the “significant figures and identities of a person’s past, present and projected future”, rather on a core self

re-membering provides opportunity to revise memberships, up- or downgrading them, or even revoke them

purposive reengagements with the history of one’s relationships with significant figures and with the identities of one’s present life and future

four consecutive levels of inquiry:

figure’s contribution to the person’s life

person’s identity though the eyes of this figure

person’s contribution to figure’s life

implications of this contribution for figure’s identity

4. Definitional Ceremonies

„…are rituals that acknowledge and “regrade” people’s lives, in contrast to many rituals of contemporary culture that judge an degrade people’s lives. In many of these degrading rituals, people’s lives are measured against socially constructed norms, and they are judged to be inadequate, oncompentent, disordered, and often a failure in terms of their identities. Definitional ceremonies provide people with the option of telling or performing the stories of their lives before an audience of carefully chosen outsider witnesses. These outsider witnesses respond to these stories with retellings that are shaped by a specific tradition of acknowledgement.”

These witnesses’ retellings offer powerfully resonant and highly acknowledging re-representations of what people give value to in their acts of living, yielding at the same time an experience of their lives as joined around shared and precious themes that thicken counterplots of their existence.

Stages of Defintional Ceremonies:

1. The telling of he significant life story by the person for whom the ceremony is for.
2. The retelling of the story by the outsider witness.

There are four categories of inquiry to this step:

1. Particularities of expression

    – what did catch attention and capture imagination?
    – specific words, prhases or particular moods and sentiments

2. Image & speculations about what it reflects regarding intentional understandings & what is accorde value

    – images that come to mind while listening to the telling
    – certain metaphors about the persons’s life, mental pictures of person’s identity or relationships, a form of “sense” derived from the person’s life
    – what do these mental pictures reflect about the person’s purposes, values, beliefs, hopes, aspirations, dreams, and commitments – about what the person intends for his/her life and accores value to?
    – what do these images say about the person’s life and identity?

3. Resonance

    – witness’s interest will be established in terms of “embodied interest”, as in opposition to disembodied interest
    – what experiences in the witness’s own history became lit up on account of the told experiences

4. Transport

    – ways in which the sitness ahs been moved
    – what are the places that the telling has the witness driven to, that otherwise would have been arrived at?

3. The retelling of the outsider wintesses’ retelling by the person for whom the ceremony is for.

narrative perspective and theme are shaping structure of the ceremony: three stages corresponding with distinct perspective, categories of inquiry corresponding with distinct themes

the consequences of an audience’s participation in the therapeutical process are clearly in the therapist’s responsability

the person’s narration has to remain in the focus of the ceremony

(I cannot help it, this for me the foggiest chapter in the book. Perhaps these ceremonies are pertinent to smth in the cultural background of Australia? I cannot fancy any of my clients participating in such a ceremony and would love to assist to one, to find out about it.)

5. Conversations That Highlight Unique Outcomes

aspects of lived experience are rendered meaningful by inclusion into familiar storylines

this selection rules out a myriad of experiences of daily life, that are out of phse with the plots, themes and dominant story lines => point of entry to alternative storylines of people’s lives

There are again four categories of questions increasing in complexity:

* Negotiating an experience-near and particular definition of the Unique Outcome
* Mapping the effects of the Unique Outcome
* Evaluating the Unique Outcome and its effects
* Justifying the evaluation

as Unique Outcomes are usually suppressed from active memories, the decentered position of the therapist becomes of paramount importance in order to explore those events successfully – compare “re-authoring”

6. Scaffolding Conversations

theoretically based on Vygotsky’s concept of “zone of proximal development” = “… the distance between the actual developmental level as determied by independent problem-solving and athe level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

social interaction rather as a pool of potential options than a form of control

scaffolding as a means to bridge a client’s zone of proximal development

There are five categories of inquiry:
– „low-level distancing task“:
encourage the attribution of meaning to the events of one’sworld that are either unfamiliar or have gone unnamed
– „medium-level distancing task“:
encourage to bring into relationship specific events of their world in the development of chains of association that establish bonds and relationships between these events
– „medium-high-level distancing task“:
encourage to reflect on, evaluate, and draw realizations and learnings from these chains of association
– „high-level distancing task“:
encourage to formulate concepts about life and identity by abstracting these realizations and learnings from their concrete and specific circumstances
– „very-high-level distancing task“:
encourage the development of proposals fro proceeding in life in was that are in harmony with the newly developped concepts about life and identity, the formulation of predictions about the outcome of these proposed actions, and the planning for and intitiation of such actions

While I personally do not see much use in the presented “maps”, and will hence follow White’s invitation to ignore them, I was deeply impressed by the author’s readiness to encounter existential predicaments of all kinds without any prejudice and bias, accepting them as starting points for changing and changeable narration about life. What I find in this book, beyond theoretical and practical professionality – or as a prerequisite to it – are extraordinary attention, respect and patience.

concepts that i liked most in the book:

– decentered, but privileged position of therapist

– meaning & identity making through traficking stories

– intentional understanding – folk psychology

Main sources of White’s concepts are Foucault, Derrida, Goffman and Jerome Bruner. Deconstruction of given limitations and structures is the main theme. There is no place for an incapsulated self in this approach. Identity is rather conceived of as a social process, a permanent creation of new moments of experienced reality. Pertinence, reference and intentional understanding are hence aspects of identity.

Importance is hence less derrived from superiority but rather from an experience of pertinence and value in other’s lives.

Despite an intellectual distance towards other therapeutic approaches, there is no arrogance contained in White’s procedure, nor any lack of stringency detectable in his dismissal of the concept of “diagnosis”.

Liking the narrative approach or not, I personally recommend this book to everybody involved in psychotherapy.

see also: Workshop Notes by Michael White 

Written by huehueteotl

October 28, 2007 at 6:45 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I would like to know the premises for Narrative Therapy

    patti forman

    April 16, 2009 at 3:29 am

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