New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development has just published a special edition honoring Bert Cohler, edited by Brian Schiff, and entitled “Rereading Personal Narrative and Life Course.” This special edition consists of an introduction by Schiff and six articles, the abstracts of which are below, along with a link to the article.
In this introductory chapter, I place Bertram J. Cohler's (1982) seminal essay Personal Narrative and Life Course in the context of the history of narrative psychology and developmental theory. I describe four theses from Personal Narrative and Life Course, which impacted developmental theory and research: (a) the self is a narrative project, (b) developmental periods have a distinct narrative character, (c) narratives are always told in (personal and historical) time, and (d) persons strive for coherence. I briefly describe the chapters to follow. However, my main goal is to argue for the implications of narrative for developmental science. Following Cohler, I argue that narrative has a central role to play in understanding human lives and can provide substantial benefit to developmental theory and research. A narrative perspective allows for a complex and nuanced description of developmental phenomena that accounts for the subjective and unpredictable nature of human lives. The narrative interpretation of experience is a primary human activity that alters the meaning of experience and potentially sets development on a new course, rendering the prediction of developmental outcomes a difficult venture. The narrative perspective provides detailed insights into how development unfolds, how persons actually interpret and reinterpret life in time and place, and can help psychologists to engage fundamental questions about the meaning of experience.
Peggy J. Miller, Eva Chian-Hui Chen, and Megan Olivarez
Although very young children are unable to formulate a personal narrative of the life course, their everyday lives are steeped in narratives. Drawing on ethnographic studies in diverse sociocultural worlds, we argue that the early years of life form a vital preamble to the personal narrative. In this phase of life, the universal predisposition to narrative takes root and burgeons as young children step into whichever narrative practices are at hand, practices that are culturally differentiated from the beginning. As children narrate their experiences, they orient themselves in time and establish the interpretive grounds for intelligibility. This process is highly dynamic. Stories recur, stories are repeated, stories are revamped, and stories disappear. These dynamics constitute, for many children, an intense narrative initiation that defines early childhood as a developmental context. By the end of early childhood, they are well versed in making and remaking narratives and show an incipient ability to open a wider temporal window on their own experience.
Tilmann Habermas and Neşe Hatiboğlu
In adolescence, remembering the personal past and understanding what kind of person one is intertwine to form a story of one's life as the most extant, informative, and flexible form of self-representation. In adolescence, the striving for self-coherence translates into a quest for global coherence of the life story. We suggest that contextualizing is a fifth means for creating global coherence in life narratives besides the cultural concept of biography, temporal, causal-motivational, and thematic coherence. We present three kinds of contextualizing in life narratives, the temporal macrostructure, sociohistorical contextualizing of one's life, and hierarchical and linear segmenting of the text and life. These three forms of contextualizing in life narratives by their authors are complemented by three forms of contextual influences on life narratives analyzed by researchers, namely the historical, personal, and communicative situation in which they are recounted. Contextualizing is exemplified by the life narrative of a young migrant.
Phillip L. Hammack and Erin Toolis
This chapter develops three points of elaboration and theoretical expansion upon Cohler's (1982) treatise on personal narrative and life course. First, we highlight Cohler's emphasis on an interpretive, idiographic approach to the study of lives and reveal the radicalism of this approach, particularly in its ability to interrogate the lived experience of social categorization. Second, we link Cohler's position directly to cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and consider the link between inner and social speech through the idea of narrative engagement. Finally, following Cohler's life course perspective on human development, we suggest that adulthood is best conceived as a cultural discourse to which individuals orient their personal narratives through a dynamic process of narrative engagement rather than a clearly demarcated life stage. Emerging adulthood is linked to cultural and economic processes of globalization in the 21st century and challenges static notions of social roles traditionally associated with compulsory heterosexuality (e.g., marriage and parenthood). Narrative processes in emerging adulthood occur through both situated storytelling and the formation of a life story that provides coherence and social meaning, both of which have key implications for social stasis and change.
Dan P. McAdams
In a remarkably prescient chapter, Bertram Cohler (1982) reimagined the problems and the potentialities of psychological development across the life course as a distinctively human challenge in life narration. This chapter situates Cohler's original vision within the intellectual and scientific matrix of the late 1970s, wherein psychologists expressed grave doubts about the extent to which human lives may demonstrate consistency and coherence. By focusing attention on human beings as autobiographical authors rather than as mere social actors or motivated agents, Cohler moved the conversation away from dispositional personality traits and developmental stages and toward the emerging concept of narrative identity. Over the past 30 years, research on narrative identity has shown how people use stories to integrate the reconstructed past and imagined future, providing their lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and meaning. At midlife, many adults struggle to solve the problem of generativity, aiming to leave a positive legacy for the next generation. Inspired by Cohler's original chapter, contemporary research reveals that the most generative adults in American society tend to construe their lives as narratives of personal redemption. As such, life stories may serve as valuable psychological resources for midlife adults, even as they reflect and refract prevailing cultural themes.
This chapter examines differential circumstances whereby aging individuals construct their selves as a narrative or, alternatively, seem to prefer other routes to manifest their identity. The preliminary exploration of questions about the characteristics of those aged who prefer to tell and those who do not, as well as the salutary role of telling, is based on two studies of 65–80-year-old well-functioning Israeli-Jewish seniors. While approximately half of them were willing to conduct a life review, the other half constructed their robust identity through activities and a here-and-now focus. Historical circumstances that involve seeing one's life story as heroic or having an important historical message, as opposed to a series of haphazard events, are considered a major factor in the preference to tell or not to tell. The chapter concludes that there are different strategies for identity management, with an emphasis on either past events or present activities. Neither of these preferences can simply indicate success or failure in aging well.
The primary aims of this concluding chapter are to identify common themes across the preceding chapters, to provide an integrative synthesis of these themes, and to draw out the implications of Bertram Cohler's work for narrative psychology and for the field of developmental psychology more generally. As with the previous chapters, the central ideas explored in Personal Narrative and Life Course remain focal to the discussion. So too is the concept of development, in childhood, adolescence, and beyond. By drawing together the retrospective dimension frequently associated with the idea of narrative with the prospective dimension frequently associated with the idea of development, this chapter also seeks to underscore Cohler's seminal contribution to our understanding of the dynamic movement of human lives in and through time.