Re-authoring the stories

Abstract This paper evaluates the work of the narrative school of family therapy, as developed by Michael White. This is examined in relation to the field of ideas in family therapy out of which it emerged, highlighting some of the similarities and differences, The lack of acknowledgement by narrative school of many of the commonalties that is shared with others is then considered. A second order perspective is taken situating the therapist’s theory in the presence of the family of therapists to examine the development of the narrative approach to theory and practice. Constructionist contributions are considered in relation to the development of an eclectic approach where the therapist adopts a multiverse of theories to draw upon in practice. Development of theory becomes then a dialogue between different lenses rather than the development of any truth.


In every region there was a corpus of …. stories, all interconnected and interdependent. Each one existed with in a context of stories and a context of discussions and comments and activities that “fed back ” into them as a subtle blend of fantasy and “fact”. (R.M. Berndt and C.H. Berndt The Speaking Land: Myth and Story in Aboriginal Australia 1988, p.424)

Approaches to therapy, such as that of the narrative therapists, as exemplified by Michael White, do not emerge out of a vacuum. They exist in a context of ideas, history and a social/political milieu that gives shape to their ideas and privilege to their position in being recognised as valid knowledge (Lowe, 1991). Over the last ten years narrative therapy, and in particular the work of White, has become increasingly influential in the family therapy field, giving White position and recognition leading to the American Association for Marital and Family Therapy endorsing him a “master therapist”. His approach could be considered an alternative story to the dominant and well established theories that family therapy has entertained in the past. White’s syntheses of ideas and the performance of his practice is creative and imaginative which has inspired others not just to imitate but also to originate new forms of therapy.

This paper charts the development of the narrative approach, as expressed in the work of White and his publications, in relation to field of ideas in the family therapy arena, particularly post-modern and social constructionist contributions. It will aim to create a “news of a difference” on the narrative approach, considering it in relation to other developments in theory and practice. Using a dialogic (rather than an argumentative) approach will attempt to avoid the negative effects of the either/or, right/wrong approaches to critiques of theory and practice. (Sydner, 1993)

This critique will then build on aspects of the narrative approach to deconstruct the use of our theories in the development and practice of our therapy This creates a framework for considering the essential need for dialogue between different approaches. It is being suggested that all theories, including the narrative approach, are lenses. Using multiple lenses for family therapy practice will help to avoid the problems that arise from adherence to unitary approaches. The overlap between the narrative approach and other therapists will be highlighted. The problems that arise from the lack of acknowledgement of this will be considered for development of practice in general.

A First Order Perspective on The Development of Whites Ideas: Are They “Unique Outcomes”?

White’s approach has been applied to a wide range of problems and situations, such as child behavioural problems and fears (White, 1986a; Epston, 1986; Wood, 1988; Seymor et al, 1989), greif (White, 1988b) separation anxiety (Durrant, 1987), encopresis (White, 1984b), anorexia nervosa (White, 1986b), intellectual disability (Birch, 1986) schizophrenia (Mackenzie et al, 1985; Hafner et al, 1990; White 1987), children in residential care (Menses et al, 1986), sexual abuse (Durrant et al, 1990) and men who are violent (Jenkins, 1990).

Munro (1987) in her review of the early developments of White’s thought viewed his approach as a “unique outcome” and she views it as a model in its own right. She thinks that his thinking falls in between the traditionally identified schools, though it could be more closely aligned with strategic approaches. It reflected a Batesonian information based tradition in contrast to his later work which uses a language based mode (Chang and Phillips, 1993). His more recent work (White, 1988c 1988/9, 1989, 1989/90, 1990, 1991) has incorporated new ideas from other disciplines such as “second order” cybernetics, interpretative anthropology and post modernism. He has introduced to the field a focus on issues of power and the relationship of socio/political contexts to the work of therapy with individual and families.

Table 1. Michael White – Narrative of a Therapist: From Externalising to Re-Authoring

PhaseYearCareer of White’s IdeasField of Ideas“Sparkling” Publications (1)
Iup to 1984/ 1986Negative Explanation
Double Description
Externalisation of the Problem
Rites of Passage
Social and Interactional Context
Deviant Amplifying Feedback
1st order” cybernetics
Bateson, strategic family therapy,
anthropology, ritual process
Bateson, Wender
Haley, van Gennep
Turner, V. (Ritual Process)
(1984), “Pseudo-encopresis: From avalanche to victory, from vicious to virtuous cycles.”
(1986b), “Anorexia Nervosa: A Cybernetic Perspective.”
(1986e) “Negative Explanation, Restraint and Double Description: A template for family therapy.”
(1986a), “The Ritual of inclusion: An Approach to Extreme uncontrolled Behaviour in Children and Young Adolescents.”
II (a)1987Re-authoring of lives
Text Analogy
Dominant Narrative
Alternative stories
Power/Social Justice
Cultural Available Discourses
Externalising conversations
“2nd order” cybernetics
Post structuralism
Social Constructionism
Interpretive Anthropology
Anderson and Goolishan Myerhoff, B. Bruner, J,
Geertz, Gergen, Bruner, E,
Turner, V (narrative)
Goffman E., Foucault
(1987), “Family Therapy and Schizophrenia: Addressing the ‘in-the-corner’ lifestyle.”
(1988a), ” The Process of Questioning: A therapy of literary merit?
(1988/9), “The Externalising of the Problem and The Re-authoring of Lives and Relationships.”
(1989) “Introduction” in M. White and D. Epston, Literate Means To Therapeutic Ends, (Text Analogy, Dominant Narrative and Alternative Stories)
II (b)1990Narratives and Deconstruction
Determinacy and Indeterminacy
Derrida, Ricoeur
(1991), “Deconstruction and Therapy.”
(1) White (1989) encourages therapists to consider the “sparkling” events in their practice and I have extended this to his looking at the “sparkling” publications in White’s career.