How does Jerome Bruner define narrative?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jerome (Jerry) Bruner is a well-recognized psychologist, psychiatrist, and scholar who published a very important book titled Making Stories: Law, Literature, Lifeamong many other articles and essays on the topic of narrative. 

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, under Bruner's perspective, the term "narrative" refers to the way humans perceive and interpret "the story of their lives."

In his books, Bruner always proposes that what we know as the "self" [is a] perpetually rewritten story."

Bruner echoes Sartre, who also philosophized that life was a collection of stories that intertwine with one another, from person to person, physically, socially, emotionally, and psychologically. Eventually, we perceive ourselves according to how we compare and contrast our own life story to the lives of others. We are as much a product of our environment as we are products of our own making.

It is safe to argue that, to Bruner, the narrative of what we perceive to be our lives is based on the sum of all the events that occur throughout it, plus our views on the events in the lives of others.

Ten Sides to Narrative

Let us go back to 1991 and the publication of Bruner's essay, "The Narrative Construction of Reality," published in Critical Inquiry. It is here where we find the most expansive definition of "narrative" based on Bruner's cultural psychology frameworks. 

Bruner argued that there are ten sides to narrative. In other words, we learn about ourselves through these ten different ways of presenting our life stories to others, and also to ourselves.

Narrative diachronicity and particularity

When we look back in our lives, we typically focus on specific time periods to create our narrative. Surely, we cannot remember it all. Now think, for example, of going back in time and remembering a time period when things were "better than ever" or "worse than ever." They probably were neither better, nor worse. We just visualize them that way as we compare the past to the present, focusing on singular events. This is called narrative diachronicity. 

This also leaves room for particularity, which entails that we decide the time periods when things were "better than usual" or "worse than usual." This is because we remember specific things, and not the sum of every single, vague, boring event that takes place in between.

Let us suppose that you became healed from an illness in an awesome way. Maybe what is seen as being "miraculously healed" makes us forget the little, subtle, mundane, boring events that also took place at the time and may have helped us to achieve that goal, as well. The other narrative, the one about the miracle cure, is more fun to build. 

Intentional State Entailment

Then, there is the way that we define ourselves and others as the main characters of our narratives. Is it not always funny how, when we tell a story about someone, we make sure to describe that person as if he or she were the epitome of something? For example, if we are sad about someone getting a divorce, at some point we may add. . . . "She is such a great woman," or “He was such a good husband!”  We may unconsciously give people attributes to make them more of a character, rather than a typical passerby. This is an example of an intentional state entailment.

Hermeneutic composability

Those "selected scenes" that we love to accentuate during narratives and put together into our daily discourse stories, constitute the theory of hermeneutic composability, or the overall method of interpreting events and deciding whether they are important enough to fit our narratives. 

Other tendencies in narrative include:

  • Normativeness: The assumption that the narrative you tell others sort of tells people how things should be. For example, when you tell the story about the time someone nearly crashes your car, you are likely going to say something in the narrative about how people should drive properly. 
  • Canonicity and breach: This is the assumption that the story you are telling or the one you are hearing from someone else, will have a quality of shock because it will likely be about something or someone not following "norms." Think of some juicy gossip about someone: nobody likes to talk about prudish, obedient people, do they?
  • Referentiality: The assumption that the story or narrative you are spreading is true; at the very least, most of it is true.
  • Genericness: Narratives have their own genres. Some are comedic, and some are tragic. Some inspire people, and some teach a lesson. All narratives have a purpose. 
  • Narrative accrual: Your story will likely come from or be inspired by another story. For instance, that story about your ancestors being from Country X may inspire a future narrative about how your family eats, acts, and looks like they are from Country X in modern times. 
  • Context, sensitivity, negotiability: The quality of narrative related to how people choose what they include in a narrative for purposes of establishing a connection with the listener/reader.

A super simple example of this is talking about your experiences in childbirth to a soon-to-be mom. The context is obvious: women giving birth. The sensitivity is clear: the listener may be interested in knowing about how it happened to someone else. The negotiability is also clear: One is the expert and the other one is the novice or apprentice.

Bruner’s writings on narrative are quite intriguing and super interesting to read. Check out the great resources we got here on Enotes to become more familiarized with this great scholar.  

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