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Contextual Formation of Identity:
Narratives from Us

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: July 21, 1999
E-Mail Faculty on the Site.

Contextual Formation of Identity - Earlier Pieces of Series
Criminal Profiles as Ignorant Bad Faith
in prep on July 1, 1999.

Trying on Narratives for Size and Fit: Shaping Them to Us

Review by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata

"Narrative, Moral Identity and Historical Consciousness: a Social Constructionist Account"
Draft by Kenneth Gergen. External Site

Theory Construction and the Narrative of Learning

Gergen's account focuses on self-consciousness and mind as developed by the social constructionists. He describes narrative as discourse, and finds the individual mind as unsuitable "as the locus of origin, comprehension, or storage of narrative." Already, at this point, I become wary, for precisely what we have sought in narrative is a key to the superimposition of normative patterns on individual patterns of thought and concept formation, including moral consciousness, that obscure other variant patterns that might serve as alternatives were those normative myths not privileged.

This is certainly not intended as a direct critique of Gergen's conclusions. Instead, this is a pointed wandering through his explanation, responding, in a grounded theory kind of approach to the phraseology, from the outset, that causes associative anxiety in one who has suffered from the privileging of normative subjectivity. We have used Gergen's writing as a stimulus, and so do not impute to him any of the meanings we ascribe to the privileged narrative, the privileged normative subjectivity. Precisely because this privileging and the distortion it produces in identity as formulated within the necessarily social context, is of more interest to us than the more generalized contemplation of "mind."

Gergen speaks of "narrative accounting." Again, we are wary. In statistics we must constantly remind students that quantitative data require careful qualitative interpretation. The aberrant case is lost in the accounting of the group. And the selection of that data which shall be highlighted and become part of the narrative accounting is strongly affected by the aptitude and perspective of the story-teller who gathers and prepares the material. This has always been so.

Foucault describes the same wariness with "truth" as the West has seemed to define it, truth which closed off many of our experiences and thoughts with a proper "Victorian" public polish and hypocrisy. (Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Vintage Books Edition, 1993, p.3) Barney Glaser (Doing Grounded Theory: Issues and Discussions, Sociology Press, 1998, at p.19) expresses a similar view: "A conjectured theory tends to preempt the data by one saying the theory is correct and we should ignore the 'bad' data which does not support it. Many grand theorists are given to this 'poor data' pattern. New data never provides a disproof, just an analytic challenge." Barney Glaser speaks diffidently of the academy's willingness to listen to theoretical challenges, such as he and Anselm Strauss proffered in grounded theory. He speaks of the sovereignty of quantitative approaches, in a story recounted by one of his classmates: "First you run everything against everything. Then find out what the relationships are to the .05 level. Then you write an hypothesis or a relationship and say you tested it. And that's how Lazarsfeld said to do it." A story. Apocryphal, perhaps. But indicative of a feeling that privileging the quantitative intellectual theory which precedes data collection is a normative trend not easily derailed.

Julie Cart's L.A. Times article on "A Theory of Anasazi Savagery," June 11, 1999, recounts the perception of refusal in the academy to listen to Anthropologist Christy Turner's explanation that the Anasazi may have experienced cannibalism. Turner's experience provides another example of what we have described as the ignorant good faith of those academics who have privileged some theories and refuse to hear alternative theories as counter to the accepted normative belief. Ignorant Good Faith in the Academy

Foucault disdains our search for "truth." He sees it as correlated with power and dominance. (Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, N.Y., The New Press, 1997 ed., at p. xix.)"The challenge is not to replace one certitude (evidence) with another but to cultivate an attention to the conditions under which things become 'evident,' ceasing to be objects of our attention and therefore seemingly fixed, necessary, and unchangeable." How like our wicked little unstated assumptions. (Minow's Unstated Assumptions.)


Where does this lead us in our perception of narrative as a part Dear Habermas as a virtual learning and teaching community?


"Narrative, Moral Identity and Historical Consciousness: a Social Constructionist Account"
Draft by Kenneth Gergen. External Site

Legitimacy of Grades

Theory Construction and the Narrative of Learning

Draft Notes by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: June 1999

First, we duly recognize that discursive theory, dominant in sociology, does not admit of formal theory construction on the grounds that this is deductive reasoning that relies upon wicked little unstated assumptions that have failed in the past to take multiple perspectives into account and failed to examine reflexively its own premises. All the theory we have written has fallen into the discursive model. Giddens is our model. He abhors formal theory, believes it a waste of time. So, why are we reading books on formal theory construction? Because formal theory construction represents a validity claim for the discipline that deserves a hearing in good faith, as those of us denied such hearings have also demanded, sometimes of the formal theorists themselves.

Gibbs, p. 97 of Jerald Hage's Formal Theory in Sociology, SUNY, 1994, offers: "Positivism is defined here as nothing more or less than the insistence that scientific theories should be assessed solely in terms of predictive power. . . anitpositivists . . .suggest. . .positivism is the belief that science is, can, or should be value-free."

These are the crazy discipline-based arguments that have led philosophers to "do academic philosophy" instead of to live it. Nothing is value-free. But that does not clear those who privileged their own subjectivity in the past of the accusation that their premises were built on unstated and unacknowledged assumptions that privileged them. Want to bring in Coavaleski on this, the stultifying effect of disciplinary power.

But I also want to dig out formal theory construction and use what we can of it to clarify the narrative of learning identity. I believe that we can construct some formal theory, just as Glaser suggests, from the grounded approach we continue to use. Recognition of solidly developed tools for thinking our way through complex issues is a far different activity from denying the need to listen in good faith to freely associated narrative that may need all our skill to see the larger patterns it is straining to make fit and the claims that need to be voiced and heard.