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Narrative Space: Structuralist/Non-Structuralist Table

The distinction between structuralist and non-structuralist thought is enormously important in understanding narrative work. I have found, however, that it is quite difficult to fully comprehend this difference, since structuralist thinking is such an integral part of our culture and language. In other words, we have constructed many ways of looking at the world and ourselves, and we have become so used to such understandings that we have forgotten that they are constructions. In narrative work, it is very common to deconstruct these understandings. Through such deconstructions, the doorways to new understandings and new options are revealed. The following table illustrates some of the differences between the way a structuralist and a non-structuralist therapist might look at someone.



Identity Categories:

Identity Categories:







    Assets, strengths








Structuralist (cont.)

Non-Structuralist (cont.)









Be true to my desires

Pursuing pleasure

Discover what is true.

Question established truths.

Motives shape lives.

Accounts of motives shape lives.

Looking to discover the deeper meaning.

Looking for the invisible presence.




Limits (of time, ethical limits, etc.)

Structuralist (cont.)

Non-Structuralist (cont.)

Constructions of self are claimed as the truth. Examples include 1) unconscious self or core self --note onion metaphor (Freud/Jung), 2) precious fragile self (80's), and 3) empty self (90's).

Identity is formed and re-formed through interpretation of experience (often strongly influenced by experiences of authentication in relationship with others.) This is an active process, and does not occur inside our heads.

Structuralist (cont.)

Non-Structuralist (cont.)

There is a surface/depth distinction. What occurs on the surface is not the truth; the truth is inside, at the core of the personality or of the self. Thus, it becomes necessary for therapists to become involved in interpretations. The expert knowledges of therapists are privileged and take center stage. Evaluations and assessments become very important, leading to interventions and treatment. As a direct result of these processes, the knowledges of the clients or patients are marginalized. This does not require ill will on the part of the therapist. Similarly, good will or good intentions on the part of the therapist does little to prevent this from happening.

There is a thin/thick or thin/rich description distinction. The therapist asks questions, which facilitate a richer, thicker description of preferred accounts of people's lives. Although remaining highly influential, the therapist is no longer the expert, and is consequently de-centered. (Note that if there is a dominant problem-saturated story, it is already being authenticated over and over through the person's lived experience, and usually also through the dominant discourses of the culture. The therapist has a special ethical responsibility to reduce the likelihood of reproducing these processes in the consulting room, or when doing so to make these processes more transparent.)



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The creating of narrative space, narrative therapy, and narrative work in general is based on post-structuralist or non-structuralist thought. My understandings of this is informed by the work and writings of Michael White of the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, Australia. His contribution to my understandings is considerable, but my explanations are my own and I take full responsibility for the content.--[Greg Nooney]
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