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INTRODUCTION: Narrative Gerontology.

The term "narrative gerontology" (Kenyon, Ruth, and Mader 1999; Ruth and Kenyon 1996) is intended as a heuristic for the study of aging. Its purpose, as we see it, is to emphasize and coordinate a particular set of insights about both the aging process itself and how we investigate it. As the word "narrative" implies, its main agenda for gerontological theory, research, and practice is to explore the entailments of the metaphor of "life as story". Rather than a specific theory or method, then, narrative gerontology is best understood as a lens through which to view the aging process, a unique way of seeing what aging involves. At the same time, it is grounded in a set of assumptions that reflect ontological, epistemological, and methodological levels of discourse.

From an ontological perspective, human beings are to be understood as fundamentally storytellers and storylisteners. This means that we think, perceive, feel, and act on the basis of stories. If you will, we not only have stories, but are stories (Birren, Kenyon, Ruth, Schroots, and Svensson 1996; Kenyon and Randall 1997; Randall 1995). We are biographical beings as much as we are biological ones. In terms of our subjective experience of human development, there is nothing below the narrative structure. A basic claim of narrative gerontology, therefore, is that a focus on stories gives us valuable insight into the "inside" of aging.

From an epistemological perspective, we can identify at least four dimensions--or aspects--of lifestories: the personal, interpersonal, sociocultural, and structural. Because these aspects are intricately interrelated, they promise to create challenges well into the future for those gerontologists who wish to explore them. However, identifying them at the outset can help to provide a map of the territory ahead. Intriguingly, the same sorts of aspects have been recently brought out in two important articles that appear outside the literature of gerontology per se. Both articles struggle with the basic questions of the central elements of a lifestory, or life as a story, and of who is doing what to whom, narratively speaking, at a given point in time. In the first, Gubrium and Holstein (1998) use a sociological-theoretical story to articulate insights into the nature of "narrative practice" in everyday life, while in the second, Bluck and Levine (1998) adopt a psychological-theoretical narrative to look at the storytelling that occurs in reminiscence.

These articles are instructive for two reasons. First, they provide examples of research being done into the specific ways that stories work in our lives. Second, they indicate that from the perspective of narrative gerontology, theories themselves are stories. That is, it is impossible to break out of the hermeneutic circle to capture the reality, or "the true story", of aging. This situation gives rise to the debate between social constructionism and existentialism, a debate that wrestles with the degree to which the stories we become are determined from without or composed from within. Whether we be theorists, researchers, practitioners, or everyday folk, therefore, it appears that stories are the bottom line (Kenyon, Ruth, and Mader 1999).

A further epistemological assumption of narrative gerontology, one with far-reaching implications for research and practice alike, is that lifestories are made up of both facticity and possibility. Facticity refers to the story we are at any one point in time. This includes the four dimensions of lifestories we have just mentioned, which constitute, as it were, the larger stories we live within. Specifically, it includes such factors as our gender, our work situation, our ethnicity and community, and, of course, the personal story that we "live" but cannot yet see as a story. Possibility, on the other hand, refers to those elements of a lifestory that are subject to change, or to restorying (Kenyon and Randall 1997). The crucial point arising from this distinction is that we can never know in advance what belongs to a person's facticity, and is therefore locked in, and what is capable of being restoried through their sense of possibility. In this respect, narrative gerontology enables us to explore the complex dynamic between our inner personal meaning and the constraints that are imposed on us from outside.

From a methodological perspective, narrative gerontology assumes that the problem we are studying should guide our choice of method, not the other way around. This is rather different from the assumption that seems more frequently at work, where the method employed tends to ascend to the status of an ontological claim about how we are to understand a given phenomenon and can legitimately study it (see, for example, Haldemann 1993). What is special about this issue, then, is that while it is devoted to the narrative root metaphor, it also contains accounts of research in which biographical approaches are freely combined with experimental ones in order to best speak to the data at hand. Such accounts indicate that narrative studies are evolving, that they are moving toward their own vantage points on the study of aging and away from the defensiveness that often characterizes the early stages of any new intellectual trend. In other words, narrative thinkers are just getting on with their work. Still more indicative of the evolution of narrative gerontology are the contributions found in this issue by four doctoral candidates, from Canada, Sweden, and Great Britain respectively, all of whose supervisors are senior researchers with serious interest and experience in employing the metaphor of story.

At a recent workshop conducted in England by one of us, two intriguing examples arose concerning the intersection of biographical and experimental methods. The first involved a researcher interested in stories of cancer patients who were five years in remission, one of whom insisted on telling the story only of his diagnosis. Even with gentle coaxing, he would not disclose the story of his remission. Though the researcher worried that this constituted "noise" in her study, from a narrative perspective it represents a significant finding about how people story their experiences and the meaning they ascribe to them. In a second example, which concerned the archiving of lifestories, a participant decided that her most recent submission was her true story and that the other versions must therefore be returned to her. Even though the researcher explained the purpose of archives, the participant insisted on having her earlier versions stricken from the record. Such examples illustrate the "data versus stories" tension that narrative researchers often struggle with in the effort not to lose the voice of their participants. The potential for this loss highlights the significance of ethical issues in both research and practice (Kenyon and Randall 1997). It also underscores how much narrative gerontology can benefit, both conceptually and methodologically, from insights that are drawn from the humanities as much as from the sciences, in particular from history, philosophy, and literature. However, "interfacing" the vocabularies and frameworks of such disparate disciplines in the service of a more holistic appreciation of the aging process is by no means easy, and so brings into sharp focus the peculiarly postmodern challenge which gerontology increasingly faces, as a field with multi-disciplinary roots.

The articles included in this issue fall into into two broad, rather flexible categories, namely theory and research. The first three come under the former category. The remaining five are research-based, though all of them have important applications for intervention as well.

Under theory, the first contribution is by Jerome Bruner, a pioneer in the study of lives whose thinking has played a pivotal role in many of the central movements in psychology over the past half century. In recent years, however, he has turned to a consideration of certain complexities and subtleties of human development that are of, so to speak, an aesthetic nature and have therefore been largely overlooked by mainstream social science. His distinction between paradigmatic thought and narrative thought (1986), for example, has become a reference point--and starting point--for similar considerations by scholars and practitioners in a wide range of fields. In both content and form, his richly written musings here are an invitation to move the discussion of lives--and thus of aging--increasingly into the context of the humanities and thus to see "a life" as essentially a work of art, even of literature. Indeed, without a story, his message runs, a life can scarcely exist.

The article by Randall also looks to the humanities--especially literary theory--for insights with which to understand lives. Calling us to make explicit use of the story metaphor to get at the inside dimensions of human development, Randall makes the central claim that human life is impossible without a measure of "narrative intelligence". By means of this capacity across the lifespan, he says, we each compose for ourselves in memory and imagination a vast, more or less coherent narrative tableau. As a corollary to this claim, he thus challenges us to bring to our analyses of biographical aging an appreciation for the "novelty" of lives.

In its turn, the article by Webster makes a clear contribution to the theoretical foundations of narrative gerontology through its carefully argued analysis of various "meta-models" that have implicitly informed research into the phenomenon of reminiscence. Of special value is his critique of the influence on our understanding of the origin and function of this phenomenon that has come from the work of Robert Butler and Erik Erikson.

With respect to research, the article by Gearing makes an important contribution to narrative gerontology in its use of insights developed by lifespan psychologist, Dan McAdams, to explore the experiences of football (soccer) players who, relative to the mainstream population, retire early. While North American readers may not fully appreciate the role of soccer, and thus the status of soccer players, within British and European cultural life, Gearing's analysis has significant implications for our understanding of the inside of the retirement process in general, especially of the "restorying" of our sense of personal identity that it can prompt or require.

The thrust of the article by van den Hoonaard underscores an insight that is assumed by all of the contributors to this issue, which is that ultimately the inside of aging cannot be captured by statistics, only by stories. Outlining the results of her qualitative research doing extended lifestory interviews with widowed women, van den Hoonaard enriches our understanding of the phenomemon of widowhood by identifying three stages in moving from wife to widow, a process in which storytelling acts as a vital experiential bridge. An especially interesting finding of her research, which naturally has implications for the gendered dimensions of counselling and intervention, is the importance her participants place on telling the "death stories" of their husbands.

The Becker article examines the stories recounted by people suffering from chronic pain. It calls attention to, among other things, the issue of narrative conventions - that is, of what constitutes a "good story". Both ethical and epistemological issues are associated with the problem of a story's coherence--specifically, coherence for whom, or whose story is it that is being heard in the biographical encounter. Next, the article by Hoist, Edberg, and Hallberg, explores the complexity of the storytelling-storylistening process between patients with severe dementia and the nurses entrusted with giving them care. Like the Becker article, it brings out the crucial importance for anyone in a caregiving role, professional or not, to be sensitive to another person's "inside story" in order to broaden what we count as meaningful human behavior.

The final contribution, by Shaw-Brown, Westwood, and de Vries, presents an innovative application of guided autobiography. It demonstrates how this primarily educational form of intervention can be extended to therapeutic uses through psychodrama. The integration of both of these approaches is explicated within the context of transformative learning. A laudatory aspect of this article is its attention to ethical constraints on the use of these powerful narrative approaches.

Beyond the questions raised by the contributions in this issue are of course many other fascinating questions for narrative gerontologists to investigate. Among these is the question of how people of different ages, cohorts, genders, and cultures "story", and therefore live, time ... and of how they story death as well. Another phenomemon that lends itself to inquiry within a narrative context is that of wisdom (Randall and Kenyon forthcoming). So, too, is the vast area of postmodern aging. For example, which of the grand narratives of work, family, religion, and the self do, or do not, have meaning, and for whom--and how? Another question pertains to the autobiographies of gerontologists themselves and the implications of their own lifestories for a postmodern understanding of aging (see, for example, Achenbaum 1993). Finally, there is the question of how to correlate insights from an intriguing approach called "narrative therapy" (see White and Epston 1990) with the various counselling strategies that are used to intervene in seniors' lives. All such questions can benefit, we believe, from an analysis of the inside dimensions of the aging process and from an appreciation of the stories we are.

To conclude, we wish to dedicate this special issue to the memory of Jan-Erik Ruth. A psychogerontologist at the University of Helsinki whose wide-ranging publications include work on such topics as creativity, emotionality, and personality in later life, Jan-Erik has been credited with coining the phrase "narrative gerontology". During his tenure as Visiting Chair in Gerontology at our home institution of St. Thomas University in the winter of 1997, he envisioned a publication that would bring together examples of research from around the world into the storied dimensions of development and aging. We trust he would have been happy to see this issue in print. The variety and value of the articles it includes testify to the stimulating friendship that many of us enjoyed with him and to our deep sense of loss in the wake of his tragic and untimely death. We are grateful to Jay Gubrium for the opportunity to present this issue in his honor.


Achenbaum, A. 1993. "One Way to Bridge the Two Cultures." Canadian Journal on Aging 12:143-156.

Birren, J., G. Kenyon, J.-E. Ruth, J. Schroots, and T. Svensson, (eds.). 1996. Aging and Biography: Explorations in Adult Development. New York: Springer.

Bluck, S., and L. Levine. 1998. "Reminiscence as Autobiographical Memory: A Catalyst for Reminiscence Theory Development." Ageing and Society 18:185-208.

Bruner, J. 1986. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gubrium, J.F., and J.A. Holstein. 1998. "Narrative Practice and the Coherence of Personal Stories." The Sociological Quarterly 39:163-187.

Haldemann, V. 1993. "Qualitative Methods: Why?" Canadian Journal on Aging 12:129-138.

Kenyon, G.M. and W.L. Randall. 1997. Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth Through Autobiographical Reflection. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Kenyon, G.M., J.-E. Ruth and W. Mader. 1999. "Elements of a Narrative Gerontology." In Hand-book of Theories of Aging, edited by V. Bengston and W. Schaie. New York: Springer.

Randall, W.L. 1995. The Stories We Are: An Essay on Self-Creation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Randall, W.L. and G.M. Kenyon. forthcoming. Ordinary Wisdom: Biographical Aging and the Journey of Life. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Ruth, J.-E. and G.M. Kenyon. 1996. "Introduction: Special issue on Ageing, Biography, and Practice." Ageing and Society 16:653-657.

White, M., and D. Epston. 1990. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: W. W. Norton.

GARY M. KENYON, Direct all correspondence to: Gary M. Kenyon, Programme in Gerontology, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada E3B 5G3.
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Publication:Journal of Aging Studies
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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