Matti Hyvärinen, Professor
Professor of Sociology
University of Tampere
Tel. +03 3551 6564, +358 40 822 4045
School of Social Sciences and Humanities
FI-33014 University of Tampere
The Conceptual History of the Narrative
One of the most dramatic changes in social and human sciences over the last four decades has been the growing popularity of the narrative. Stories about the ‘narrative turn’ in the social sciences often exclude the history of literary narratology since its classical, structuralist era; and histories of narratological theory, likewise, typically exclude the key themes of the narrative turn. At least two or three relatively separate theoretical traditions (literary, socio-linguistic, ‘narrative turn’) exist within the sphere of the concept of the narrative turn. The study aims at studying these separate stories and their relationships to one another, as well as searching for possibilities for greater interdisciplinary exchange.
Hyvärinen’s approach is based on conceptual history, on examining the differences, parallels and contingencies between different narratives, and resisting the temptation to make simple causal connections between them. The basic idea of conceptual history is that all cultural and political concepts are inherently historical and contestable. The narrative turn has definitely established ‘narrative’ as just such a contested concept. With its origins in the debates within the fields of philosophy, historiography and literature, the term narrative travelled successively through psychology, education, the social sciences, law, theology, political thought and policy analysis, cognitive science and health research. After practically sweeping the field, however, this popularity has now awakened critical voices against both narrativity (Strawson 2004) and “narrative imperialism” (Phelan 2005).
In order to gain better insight into the range of aspects included in this conceptual variety, Hyvärinen applies Quentin Skinner’s (1988) distinction between the three essential levels of conceptual change:
1) Changing criteria of the concept. In classical narratology, the concept was often defined as a representation of events or a series of events, but the criteria of the concept have been hotly debated throughout the history of the literary theory of narrative. Until recently, social scientists have shown relatively little interest in the concept as such. Surprisingly often, the concept was accepted as a term of ordinary language, maintaining that “we all know what story means”.
2) Changing range of reference. At first, narrative simply referred either to literary narrative in any form, or to an oral story. Hayden White and F.R. Ankersmit then introduced the concept of narrative to the study of historiography. But according to MacIntyre (1981), people also live out narratives. It was then that MacIntyre suggested the powerful concept of narrative identity. By way of such transpositions, the concept moved from social epistemology to ontology, and shortly thereafter became an element of social action. From Barbara Hardy (1968) and Jerome Bruner (1986) onwards, narrative has also been understood as a form of cognition. Moreover, narrative may be understood as a form of communication (Brockmeier 2004). These changes within the range of reference have mostly occurred on the narrative-turn side of the literature, whereas literary scholars have often been concerned with the difference between the “narrow” and “broad” (or metaphorical) meanings of narrative (Rimmon-Kenan 2006).
3) Changing appraisal of the concept. An important aspect of the use of a concept is the range of appropriate attitudes towards it. The neutral or sceptical attitude towards narrative was gradually replaced by a positive appraisal within the narrative-turn literature. Narrative was often attached to personal integrity, healing, self-realisation and the possibility to act. For the critics of narrative, on the contrary, the concept became a synonym of imposed order and ideology. A neutral attitude towards the narrative turn became increasingly rare within the field of the social sciences. The most obvious outcome of the turn has been the increasing amount of empirical narrative inquiry. Its popularity is based on the conviction that personal stories are significant in terms of (1) identities, (2) constructions of the social world, and (3) as visions for framing future action.
However, this attraction to personal stories and the obligation to ponder one’s own story is not exclusively a research-related trend. Story-telling and the new narrative fields (e.g. law, education, health and psychology) typically challenge strong professions and their conventional domains of knowledge. Law and medicine are intriguing fields for a specific reason: the theme of “narrative and the professional field” has been studied by scholars within the field of literature and the narrative-turn traditions of narrative theory. Indeed, the question might be asked: Do these new fields of ‘narrative and law’ and ‘narrative and medicine’ look different if approached either from the direction of literary narratology or from the narrative-turn perspective?
Paul Auster and Narrative Theory
Hyvärinen has a number of personal reasons for being taken with Paul Auster’s work. But there is also one distinctive theoretical reason for this addiction: story-telling and the relevance of stories in one’s life is an enduring theme throughout Auster’s work. Auster presents rich accounts of how people try to rid themselves of their old stories, or have to change their scripts entirely. Many of the themes and problems in narrative theory appear more complex – and not at all as theoretically clear – after being discussed in the context of Auster’s novels. Hyvärinen lists his favourite works as: In the Country of Last Things (1987), The New York Trilogy (1985), The Invention of Solitude (1982), and Moon Palace (1989).
Hyvärinen began his research during his studies at the Helsinki Collegium of Advanced Studies (2003-2005), and continues it now as an Academy research fellow of the Academy of Finland.