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Narrative assessment
Narrative psychologists believe that the structures and elements of which stories are composed act to direct our thought processes. Instead of viewing logic as the guiding force behind information processing, they view people as organizing life events into unique plot structures and creating themes that give them significance. This quest for meaning is especially evident in peoples’ attempts to develop self-narratives that give them a sense of identity and coherence, and that allow them to share their experiences with others (Neimeyer & Levitt, 2001). This "storying" of complex life experiences draws on the distinctive language, scripts, and symbols derived from different cultures and traditions, as well as the unique life histories of their individual authors. The rapid development of this narrative perspective over the last 20 years owes partly to its broad relevance across cognitive, developmental and clinical areas of research.  

The Narrative Process Coding System illustrates the use of constructivist methods to assess the topical and thematic shifts that characterize client accounts of their experience (Angus, Levitt & Hardke, 1999).
  • First, an investigator using the system segments the dialogue of a transcribed therapy session into topic units that are identified through shifts in protagonists and themes. For instance, a client may begin a session by discussing a recent trip to Florida and then shift to an examination of disappointing family vacations in childhood. The identification of such topic segments can allow researchers to consider how themes are maintained or changed through discussion and how the interpersonal psychotherapeutic process can act to facilitate narrative development.
  • Second, the researcher codes these topic segments into one of three narrative processes. External narrative sequences are dominated by event description. An account of a vacation itinerary would be an example of this narrative type. Internal narrative sequences focus upon emotional and experiential states. A description of the storyteller’s awe or uneasiness at first glimpsing the ocean would exemplify this narrative process. Finally, reflexive narrative sequences entail analysis and interpretation of events and internal reactions in order to understand their significance. An exploration of the meaning of relaxation in one's life would be classified as reflexive. 
Through the assessment of narrative processes, researchers can study how changes in the client’s storytelling about life events are evidenced in therapy. For example, investigators have found that experiential therapists tend to shift discourse from external event descriptions toward internal and reflexive processes to promote self-exploration and meaning-making, while clients tend to shift into a more external process, to integrate their therapeutic insights into their daily life experiences. Likewise, narrative process assessment of various types of treatment could suggest what forms of client processing are associated with more favorable outcomes in different forms of therapy. For example, prompting clients toward a external storytelling, communicating childhood events and experiences, seems to facilitate progress in psychodynamic therapy, whereas encouraging a more reflexive, interpretive style appears to promote more rapid gains in a cognitive treatment (Angus et al., 1999). 

Other constructivist methods for assessing different dimensions of clients’ self-narratives include various content scales for coding the extent to which people feel like "origins" of life choices or "pawns" of fate, as well as their level of "cognitive anxiety" associated with the diagnosis of serious illness (Gottschalk, Lolas & Viney, 1986). Another method, the Narrative Assessment Interview, involves asking open-ended questions inviting the client’s self-description from internal and external perspectives at the outset and termination of therapy. Systematic coding of the responses can yield a clear depiction of client change over treatment, while permitting clients to convey this change in their own words, rather than having to “translate” their meanings into the sometimes alien language of the assessor.

  • Angus, L., Levitt, H., & Hardtke, K.  (1999).  Narrative processes and psychotherapeutic change: An integrative approach to psychotherapy research and practice.  Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55, 1255-1270.
  • Gottschalk, L. A., Lolas, F. & Viney, L. L. (1986). Content analysis of verbal behavior in clinical medicine.  Heidelberg, Germany: Springer Verlag.
  • Neimeyer, R. A. & Levitt, H. (2001).  Coping and coherence:  A narrative perspective on resilience.  In R. Snyder (Ed.), Coping with stress (pp. 47-67).  New York: Oxford.

Robert A. Neimeyer & Heidi Levitt

Estab.l 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004