Mark R. Gover

Michigan State University


identity, self, narrative, sociocultural, semiotics


According to common psychological wisdom, identity refers to a characteristic of the individual. We "possess," "acquire," and "have a sense of" identity, for example. Similarly, the narrative processes that are often claimed to underlie identity construction are also typically viewed as attached to the individual, the product of a type of in-the-head thinking or mental structure. This chapter argues that an individualist approach to the understanding of narrative and identity obscures the co-constructed, contextually embedded nature of these constructs. A sociocultural alternative is offered, arguing that as a narrative, personal identity can emerge only as one moves actively between private and public, personal and cultural, past and present.


Educators, therapists, social scientists, literary theorists, and others broadly interested in the human condition are in general agreement that "there may be a special affinity between narrative and self such that narrative can be said to play a privileged role in the process of self-construction" (Miller, Potts, Fung, Hoogstra, & Mintz, 1990, p. 292). In spite of this consensus, however, the term narrative is also found in ways that increasingly force one into a choice between two competing frameworks regarding the origins of narrative phenomena.

The first of these frameworks regards narrative as a specific mode of thinking, a cognitive scheme. For instance, it has been suggested that a basic narrative form, realized within folktales, provides evidence for the "universal structuring of human memory" (Mander, Scribner, Cole, DeForest, 1980, p. 21) according to narrative-like schemes or mental operations. Indeed, some writers conclude that the mind itself is "a narrative concern" (Sutton-Smith, 1988, p. 12).

The second framework for the term "narrative" tends to locate its origins not in an innate characteristic of mind, but in the wider culture of which such minds are a part. Here, narrative is defined largely as a stylized, culturally acquired textual form. In the former framework, narrative points toward an innate characteristic of mind while, in the latter, it denotes a cultural form external to the individual.

This apparent contest over the true origins of narrative has provided the fuel for Donald Polkinghorne's volume, Narrative knowing and the human sciences (see also Polkinghorne, 1991). In this book, Polkinghorne writes that "the question of whether the narrative scheme is an innate structure of consciousness, like the grammatical structure suggested by Chomsky, or a learned linguistic form, a cultural product like haiku poetry" (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 23).

I would like to suggest that such questions risk leading us into an intellectual cul-de-sac. Seduced ultimately by the sirens of the perennial nature-nurture debate, the quest for final origins inevitably diverts into us a game of philosophical ping-pong. On the one hand, as we contemplate the structure of individual cognition, we incline toward a Chomskian-like position where knowledge (innate narrative structures, for example) is viewed as essentially preformed within us. In this climate, suitable questions present themselves as "What are the models by which we can understand the individual knower?" "How does the individual mind work?" Eventually, we face the fact that in seeking answers to such questions we have begun to regard the mind as a more or less decontextualized, cranium-bound, mechanism. In this frame, although culture may be seen as influencing the mind, mind and culture otherwise retain their fundamental separateness.

Dissatisfied, we therefore entertain notions of culture-in-mind, of human society as no longer a mere influence on mind but, instead, as one of its actual constituents. Although knowledge in this alternative view is again preformed, it is seen to reside externally in, for example, the cultural genres which individual minds appropriate. Unfortunately, by following this path, we eventually confront the antithetical risk to that just discussed: as boundaries of mind protrude beyond the individual to include its social and historical constituents, we run the risk of sliding into a type of social determinism in which endogenous or biological factors threaten to play no role at all.

In their book, The embodied mind, Varela, Thompson, and Rosch consider such dilemmas (Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). They attribute the very real anxiety that can result to humans' continuing search for an "absolute ground" of knowledge. They write

the tendency is to search either for an outer ground in the world or an inner ground in the mind. By treating mind and world as opposed subjective and objective poles, the Cartesian anxiety oscillates endlessly between the two in search of a ground (p. 141).

Similarly, the quest for an absolute ground of narrative, either as a structure embedded in the mind or as a stylized cultural tradition, is ultimately a crazy-making pursuit. It is based upon this unresolvable polarity of inner versus outer, endogenous mind versus external culture. However, once we move past the reductionism inevitable in assigning primary origins of narrative to either pole (i.e., nature or culture), we are free to move on, to explore other ontologies within which we might begin to conceptualize an alternative view.

In this chapter, I attempt to define a sociocultural theory of narrative in which narrative's natural connections to personal identity are made apparent. Sociocultural theory is a view in which mental phenomena, among other things, are understood as constituted by (that is, not merely influenced by) their cultural, historical, and social contexts, contexts which themselves are deeply and fundamentally human. This view offers a means of analyzing the basic dimensionality of narrative, that is, the personal aspects equated with narrative as well as the social and historical embeddedness that is narrative's very hallmark. It also foregrounds the ways in which narrative language practices, in particular the pragmatic functions of story telling, constitute the ongoing construction of personal identities in their social, cultural, and historical contexts. For purposes of this discussion, the terms "narrative" and "story" will denote an account of personal experience.


An individualist approach to narrative, what I will call narrative individualism, underlies the intellectual cul-de-sac mentioned earlier. Like all theory, narrative individualism is based on certain fundamental assumptions regarding the nature of self, language, and meaning. First, it presupposes a basic dualism of self and world. According to this view, within our "deep interior" there resides a bounded, world-independent Self (Gergen, 1991), an entity for which narrative serves as but one medium of expression. To author a personal narrative is, in this frame, to employ narrative as a vehicle for the transport of personal thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. This myth manifests itself linguistically through the deceptively simple article "the" by which we convert self from a fluid experience into a fixed, bounded entity (when for example, we refer to the self). Such usage feeds a narrative individualism in which, as mentioned, narrative's primary function is that of expressive vehicle for a bounded, endogenous self.

Second, narrative individualism presumes a correspondence view of language. That is, narrative individualism presumes a one-to-one standing, an identity, between the words I use and that which my words are presumed to represent, whether such signification be of internal ideas or external objects. From this perspective, again, language is a transparent medium, a container for the safe transport of ideas.

Third, in accordance with the previous two assumptions, meaning from the view of narrative individualism is believed to ultimately reside in the mind of the individual author. It is an essentially private phenomenon, communicated to others through narrative forms which themselves remain external to and separate from the author's meanings and intentions. Narratives "tell" what we mean while they do not affect or constitute those meanings in any fundamental way.

As all theory must, narrative individualism thus privileges a certain view regarding the nature of "the real" from which certain assumptions flow. The fundamental given of this ontology is that there exists a knowable world of things and events, representable through the medium of language, from which we, as selves, remain fundamentally separate. The nature of self varies, of course, depending on whether one takes an empiricist or rationalist view. The implications are the same, however: the phenomena of primary importance are attached primarily to the individual. In other words, the individual remains the valued site for the ultimate realization of personal narrative as well as for our understanding of how narrative relates to issues of identity.


A sociocultural view offers a very different conception from the individualism just discussed. The organizing principle of a sociocultural conception is, as I see it, the assumption that the causes of human phenomena cannot be reduced to fixed cognitive or cultural factors. Accordingly, I will suggest that both narrative and identity emerge from the confluence of five integrated dimensions: (a) time, (b) artifacts (language/signs/symbols), (c) affect, (d) activity, and (e) self-reflexiveness. I will review each of these in turn. I will also discuss how, through these dimensions, narrative and identity are not separable entities but, instead, serve to mutually constitute one another. This rejects the possibility of a "pure" narrative form, a structure that somehow stands apart from the identities which populate it. Conversely, it also rejects the notion of an identity existing in isolation from the narratives by which it is rendered intelligible.

By way of general disclaimer, although I believe it is safe to assume that homosapiens share these five dimensions I am about to elaborate, there is no predicting how they will be realized at any one time and place. There is an infinite complexity to the world that makes such prediction impossible. Although vitally important, a thorough study of the qualifying effects of culture and history on these dimensions are beyond the scope of this chapter. I now discuss the first dimension of a sociocultural construction, the dimension of time.

TIME - The telling of personal stories always occurs in the present (although their content may, of course, refer to either past, present, or future). Telling is vastly more than a simple reporting of events, however. Since the full implication of events is never completely manifest at their occurrence, their personal meaning is perpetually subject to change as the identity and situations of those who experience them change and develop.

The central implication of the time dimension for narrative is that the events in one's life can be made meaningful only in relation to other events. The sewing together of events (past, present, and future) for purposes of meaning-making and identity construction is ultimately a narrative pursuit. Thus, there is no human requirement for congruence between physical time (i.e., time as it truly is) and time as we experience it. For us, the phenomenological passing of time requires only those events by which time is personally marked, by which the important episodes in one's life are demarcated. These boundaries are never fixed. Instead, the defining of relevant events, roles, and relationships is always accomplished only in accord with current constructions of identity. And these are always changing.

AFFECT - A sociocultural approach views emotion as irreducible to its physiological and/or psychological components, contrary to what essentialist views might suggest (e.g., Ekman, 1982; Izard, 1977; Tomkins, 1982). Although some presocial, physiological component is obviously present in the experience, emotions become interesting from a sociocultural standpoint for how they acquire meaning and force as "pragmatic acts and communicative performances" within particular discursive contexts (Abu-Lughod & Lutz, 1990, p. 11). Since it can be shown that there are culturally and historically diverse emotions as well as different interpretations across cultures of what we might consider the same emotion (Armon-Jones, 1985; D'Andrade & Strauss, 1992; Harre, 1986; Lutz & White, 1986; Lutz & Abu-Lughod, 1990), the spectrum of human emotion is considered an open rather than closed question.

The incorporation of affect into questions of identity acknowledges that we assume a feeing-attitude toward our existence. But such attitudes are hardly automatic. Through affective discourse, we are continually instructed in our emotions, guided by an other (a parent, peer, or teacher, for example) through whom we are taught what one "ought" to feel in certain situations. The implication is that we continually learn how to feel, how to form, sustain, and break off relationships. The crucial aspects of this learning are that it is social (ocurring in interaction with others according to cultural norms), constructive, and mediated by those tools (i.e., sign, symbols, words, gestures, etc.) available within a particular time and place.

ARTIFACTS (LANGUAGE/SIGNS/SYMBOLS) - For the socioculturalist, language is not a passive channel for the communication of self-contained, personal meanings, a medium autonomous from the purposes to which it is put (Vygotsky, 1962). Instead, words are regarded as a class of psychological tools that "are a part of and mediate human action" (Wertsch, 1991, p. 29). Cultural artifacts, material or immaterial, do not simply express underlying cultural truths. Instead, they feed back into the culture in ways that fundamentally change it.

In constituting an identity, individuals take up aspects of their world (artifacts such as language but also including behavior, dress, gesture, cultural roles, and other conventions) which, importantly, preexist them but which also provide the material for the ongoing construction of personal identity (see Shaw, 1994). The most vital aspect of this process is that it always occurs in relation to others (Gergen, 1994; Harré & Gillett, 1994).

Are personal narratives cultural artifacts? I think so. But I would add that they represent artifacts of a higher order. The uniqueness of narrative as an artifact stems from its tendency to organize lower order artifacts (e.g., single events, objects, or productions) into some kind of meaningful framework.

SELF-REFLEXIVENESS - Luria (1981) writes that "animals have only one world, the world of objects and situations. Humans have a double world" (p. 35). This second world is the world of culture. Through culture, homosapiens are able to deal not only with those things which lie beyond our immediate perception, we can also imagine and communicate with others about times other than the present. Through language and various other items in the "cultural tool kit" (Wells, 1996), we are able to tell personal stories that speak from the position of an 'I' in the here-and-now about an 'I' that is not identical but, in fact, occupies another time and place. This idea is central to dialogic views of self where self is no longer considered a monolithic construct but ultimately a "dynamic multiplicity of relatively autonomous I positions" (Hermans, Kempen, & van Loon, 1992, p. 28).

I use the term "self" to refer to the core of this personal self-reflexive capacity, this self-conscious center. This is the dimension through which we experience ourselves as moving phenomenologically through time. At the same time, I use the term "identity" to index the higher order, culturally constituted person - a person which exists for both self and other. The fact that self is a fundamental component of identity, and not something separable which has or acquires an identity, is implicit in the fact that a sustained social identity is impossible without an equally sustained private sense of personal continuity (Gover & Gavelek, 1996, p. 2).

ACTIVITY - A sociocultural perspective seeks to contextualize narrative by arguing for the inseparability of narratives from the system of social practices which constitute them. Such practices might include interpersonal relationships, cultural rules and traditions, economic practices, and so on.

What follows from this is that the meanings of human experience are never fixed. Instead, meaning is discursive, inhering in narrative practices themselves. In narrative as an embodied, pragmatic act, we find that our personal stories emerge from the fluid relationship between self and world and, thus, can actually mean different things at different times. Casey (1986, p. 219), in fact, notes that problems can arise when one's stories becomes overly rigid. In the case of such fixity, one risks conspiring in a certain "stuckness," an inflexible view of the world that resists adaptation and change. For the socioculturalist, such rigidity is not merely a characteristic of the individual but would entail some or all aspects of the larger story-telling context.

In sum, viewing personal narrative as part of a larger system of activities highlights the simple fact that, in order for identities to be viable, we must tell stories which "fit" the larger system of which we are a part. Further, the power and authority governing one's likelihood of authoring a certain type of story is not confined to the site of the teller but is variously dispersed.


As inadequate and oversimplified as schematics can be, I would like to offer a diagram that attempts to visually integrate the various dimensions I have discussed (see figure #1).

First, we recognize a context or environment. This context is comprised of physical, social, and cultural components in all their layered complexity. The significant point here is that environments are not merely a static accompaniment to one's life. Instead, environments themselves are always changing (although the timeframe for contextual development is typically quite different than for that of the individual, who is both preceded and outlived by physical and cultural environment). Cole writes that "human beings live in an environment transformed by the artifacts of prior generations, extending back to the beginning of the species" (Cole, 1989, p. 7). A basic principle of sociocultural theory is therefore that we construct our identities by both borrowing from and transforming a world inherited from previous generations.

Moving to the center of the diagram, characteristic of each individual person is the dimension of self-reflexiveness, a self-conscious awareness of being an origin of one's thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. As mentioned, it is here that we phenomenologically experience a sense of self-sameness, an awareness of ourselves as moving through time. Further, through semiotically mediated self-reflexive thought, homosapiens are predisposed to turning back upon ourselves. We have the capacity to consciously reflect on ourselves in an attempt to understand, evaluate, or change who and what we perceive ourselves to be at a given point in time.

Next, in a sociocultural view, the border between individual and context is not physical (as marked by the skin, for instance). Instead, a semiotic boundary, or interface, constituted by the enactment of gestures, symbols, signs, etc. comprises the bridge between personal identity and one's social and cultural context. Both differences and similarities are established at this limen between the individual and the social.

For example, as part of an unrelated research project, I recently asked 6-year-olds to share a story with me about themselves. The only stipulation was that these stories be personal and of a certain type, based on a particular mood or affect which I was to specify ("sad," "happy," "scary," for example). For instance, "Tammy" was asked to share an "exciting" story about herself. She responded by sharing a breathless account of being the flower-girl at her aunt's wedding.

What is pertinent here is that because of the culturally and historically constituted nature of semiotic boundaries, when I asked Tammy for an "exciting story", she had no difficulty in producing a narrative replete with all the traditional elements of what we might consider an adventure. Similarly, when I asked "Rose," another student, for a "scary story" about herself, I received a story structured very much like the genre of dramatic thriller.

By virtue of the semiotic boundary between us, a boundary that connects as well as differentiates, no explicit confusion arose between myself and these kids regarding the meaning of affective terms such as "exciting," "sad," or "scary." For the same reason, the presumption of shared understanding was automatic regarding what I intended by the phrase "a story about yourself," not to mention what I meant by a "sad" or "scary" story. Finally, at an even broader level, Tammy's story was made intelligible by the fact that both Tammy and I automatically take for granted that the other understands what it means to be a flower-girl in a Western-style wedding ceremony.

At no point are two persons' understandings identical, of course. I could just as easily talk about the differences between me and these kids in how culture, age, and personal trajactory lead us to diverse knowledge. Nonetheless, words and gestures seem to create a sense that at least some degree of overlap or "shared variance" exists. It is here, at the level of words and gestures, that communication is made meaningful.

Returning to the diagram, thought, affect, and perception are positioned within the semiotic boundary in order to signify their personal nature. But "personal" or "private" does not mean innate or endogenous. The socially constructed aspects of thought, emotion, and even perception are widely acknowledged (Armon-Jones, 1985; Averill, 1985; Bateson, 1979; Edwards, 1991; Gergen, 1994; Harre, 1986; Harre & Gillett, 1994; Lutz & White, 1986; Searle, 1995; Shotter, 1995).

Finally, identity appears as an oblong (solid line) spanning both personal and contextual dimensions. From a time perspective, identity extends into the past through the stories by which we make sense of our experience, both personally and as a culture. It also extends into the future in much the same way, guided by personal and cultural expectations (the vertical axis in figure #1 has not been assigned a particular meaning).

The shape and location of identity is very much a function of the degree to which one has been able to appropriate the cultural tools available for identity construction. A discursively impoverished context, for example, may preclude the develoment of identities that draw upon wider cultural artifacts, artifacts through which one's identity becomes more varied and complex. An excellent example of this is provided by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule's book, Women's ways of knowing (1986). These writers interviewed a small group of women whom they describe as exhibiting "an extreme denial of self" (p. 24). Common among the women is a background of social, economic, and educational deprivation. These are individuals "silenced" by an environment that did not value their words. As a result, neither did the women come to place any value in the power of their own words and thoughts.

With little encouragement or opportunity to participate in the language practices by which we symbolically mediate our participation in the world, by which we reflect, abstract, and make ourselves into an object of thought, these women seemed to live and react almost totally in a self-absorbed present (see figure #2 where the identity oblong encompasses primarily personal feelings, thoughts, and perceptions in the present). Their imagination largely uncultivated, they were unprepared to generate prospective images of themselves. One women says simply, "I haven't thought about the future" (p. 32).


In conclusion, my theme is one widely shared by teachers, therapists, and others whose work makes them active participants in the crafting of personal stories: narrative language practices are a constituent of identity development. As we share our personal stories with others, fantasize future scenarios, and identify with or partake in the stories of others, we constitute and reconstitute our identities within their physical, cultural, and historical contexts. The roots of narrative and identity thus merge, inextricably embedded and nurtured in the soil of human action.

Furthermore, the narratives by which we understand and make sense of our lives are not in-the-head but of-the-world. Like identity, instead of being reducible to an essence, narratives emerge only as one actively moves between private and public, personal and cultural, past and present. Identities are not portable but become intelligible only within those contexts which provide the resources for their construction.

What a sociocultural view of narrative and identity thus buys us from a theoretical standpoint is permission to give up the "chicken or egg" question. It allows us to realize that we tell stories which are always and forever a part of, and themselves contain, other stories. Thus, their origins are not assignable to a single time or place.

For instance, an account of how I come to write this chapter acquires meaning only within the greater story of my life as lived up to this point. In turn, my life-story has meaning only within the greater narrative of how American culture has, in part, come to value and support the type of academic pursuits I find rewarding. Finally, this cultural narrative is ultimately embedded in the grand evolutionary tale of humankind and their capacity for language and society. Like Russian dolls, there is always a story within a story (see Cole and Engestrom, 1993, pp. 18-22).

To be sure, this has tremendous ramifications for how we conduct research on narrative and identity. What is vital from a sociocultural frame is that such research continue moving outward from an individual person-based understanding toward a broader sociocultural frame in which dimensions such as history, language, and culture have equal explanatory power. Penuel and Wertsch (1985) write that the point of interest in identity research thus becomes "how individuals select, choose, and commit to different people and idea systems in the course of their activities" (1995, p. 91).

Since the socioculturalist is attempting to solve different kinds of problems than those set forth by an empiricist program, it is important to remember that one assimilates sociocultural research only under a fundamentally different set of assumptions regarding what is real and how we come to know. For example, issues of issues of interpretation, power, and context are often valued over, or at least given equal billing with, issues of validity and reliability. Further, analysis is focused on the genesis of integrated units rather than the formal analysis of elements (Vygotsky, 1986).

Finally, in writing this chapter, I have the feeling that more questions may have been generated than resolved. Still, at least one thing does seem more clear: the phrase "personal narrative" may ultimately present an oxymoron. The value of a sociocultural view for teaching, helping, and learning stems from the fact that our personal stories are not simply heard, they are used by others in ways which make them forever a two-way street. That is, in spite of narrative's ability to express an actor's unique world view, one person's story remains another person's metaphor. Through stories, we have the predilection for vicariously inserting ourselves into the position of others in ways that make their stories simultaneously both public and private. This is a human propensity that cannot be stopped, and one that has the potential to both enrich and constrict our personal identities.


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Mark Gover is a doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology. He also has degrees is music and social work. Interests revolve around the intersection of identity and language practices in eductional contexts. He is a member of Michigan State Universityís Sociocultural Research Group (

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