Searching for the Narrative Thread

How do researchers and others identify the narrative themes in a life history? A 1998 article by the Marilyns Nouri and Helterline has me interested in the concept of Narrative Accrual. Jerome Bruner may have coined the term in his 1991 article, “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Bruner argued that out of life’s chaos the mind constructs reality using (learned) cultural devices, one of which is narrative. He describes narrative as having ten characteristics, among them “accrual,” the idea that a narrative is cumulative – that new stories build on older ones. This strikes me as a particularly rational, linear understanding of reality, akin to popular theories of human development. The story advances. The human develops. Society improves. Not consistent with the complex, twisting world I live in. Not consistent, either, with the beloved fantastical writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende, among others.

Nouri and Helterline were seeking to understand how elders “construct meaning about the life course.” So they conducted life history interviews (sometimes in several sittings) with 30 people in New York who had been born before 1920. The authors identified a central narrative theme “the will and the cosmos,” around which five life stories revolved. These were: the “American dream,” “life is struggle,” “life is simple,” “God determines,” and “life is shared.” Some fairly predictable gender differences emerged, as when only women told their stories as “life is shared.” As the authors explained, “Men construct male identities as individual heroes or as individuals in struggle against the cosmos. Women construct narratives in which they exist in relation to God or to others.” (p. 53). I wonder whether they noticed that while men were constructing identities women were constructing narratives. Narrative accrual describes the process people use to make sense of the changes and continuities of their lives. Agency and self-efficacy were important themes, reflecting cultural demands as much as personal imperatives.

These authors constructed a framework from the 30 life histories they collected. Yet they told us nothing about the very instruments they used to make sense of the interviews: themselves. They were also sparing in describing the method used. How, I wonder, did they come up with the central narrative theme of individual will vs the cosmos? Their interpretations make sense, I’m skeptical. Looking at five life stories I see bits of myself throughout. How did they so tidily assign each person to one and only one category? I’d love to talk to them, but google produced no contact information that worked.

Perhaps the construction of a life narrative is more an exercise in “creative non-fiction,” than in truth. Perhaps, as Bruner suggests, the narrative method is more about verisimilitude than verifiability.


Bruner, J.S. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry. 18: 1-12.

Nouri, M. & Helterline, M. (1998). Narrative accrual and the life course. Research on Aging, 20(1), 36-64.

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