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Narrative and the Elephant Problem
Connect Conference, entitled Learning to Listen, Helping to tell
January 30, 2002, London, UK
Judy Duchan

Based on the title of this conference (Learning to listen, helping to tell), we should offer you ways of listening to people's stories and of supporting people in the telling of stories. This task presumes that we all agree on what we mean by stories. But stories are like the elephant that was approached by the 6 blind men, they are huge entities that require rich multiple interpretations in order to be fully understood and appreciated.

What is the nature of an elephant?


Once there were six blind men who visited the palace of the Rajah and encountered an elephant for the first time. The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the elephant. "How smooth! An elephant is like a wall." The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. "How round! An elephant is like a snake." The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. "How sharp! An elephant is like a spear." The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant. "How tall! An elephant is like a tree." The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. "How wide! An elephant is like a fan." The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. "How thin! An elephant is like a rope."

An argument ensued, each blind man thinking his own perception of the elephant was correct. The Rajah, awakened by the commotion, called out from the balcony. "The elephant is big," he said. "Each man touched only one part. You must put all parts together to find out what an elephant is like." (from The Plain Truth (1998)).

Now, how can you or I be assured that you listened well to my story? Some would suggest that I have you retell it to see if you remember all the parts. I would argue that you must do much more than be able to retell the story, in order to glean my full import (or that of the authors of yore, who created the story). My reason for choosing the story was not only because I wanted to entertain you, but I wanted to use the story as a sort of metaphor for other ideas that are inferable from it. One idea, for example, is that separate partial versions of something, like the versions of the elephant conveyed by each of the blind men, are not sufficient for understanding the nature of the whole thing.

By the way, the men didn't have to have a visual disability to come up with different takes on an elephant. Nor did they need to be getting their information from observing different parts of the elephant. Even if they had normal vision and were able to see the whole elephant, they might still have given very different versions of the elephant. One person might talk about the elephant's functional skills such as his ability to use his trunk to put peanuts in his mouth, and another might talk about his memory abilities.

Anyway, since the elephant question is meant to be apocryphal and stand in for other questions about the nature of things, I might test your understanding by finding out whether you are able to answer an inference question building upon the story? For example, I might ask you to consider how narratives are like the elephant. What would the story have to say if we substituted academics and researchers, or clinicians like yourselves, for the men in the elephant story turned the elephant into a narrative? How, then are narratives (the elephant) depicted by academics, researchers, and clinicians (the blind men)?

In trying to answer that question myself, I came to realize that there are many more than six views of narratives.

The scholars (the small men)
and the narrative (the elephant)


Take the simplest of narratives that one can imagine, a single word story. Even this narrative can be highly complicated, thereby requiring ultimate respect and deep appreciation from those who listen to it when they go about ascertaining its nature. Here's how author and teacher Vivian Paley and the children she observed interpreted the storied single word "Mama," spoken by a two-year-old (Paley, 2001).

Alex, the preschooler in question, has been asked by his teacher to tell her a story that later will be acted out by his classmates. He says "mama." The teacher, Mrs. Tully, writes the story down. Later, during story enactment time, she reads the story, very slowly, as if she and the children have begun a waltz. And then she reads it again. Vivian Paley, observing from the sidelines, describes what followed in this way:

"The teacher narrates the one-word epic a third time, then a fourth and a fifth, until all eight children have come forward. Each acts the role according to some inner logic: This one walks on his toes, another bends to touch the rug, someone else closes her eyes and sways. With every new interpretation the suspense builds. Someone, the last, says "Look at me, Alex. I'm Mama" (Paley, 2001, p. 4).

The children in Mrs. Tully's classroom are experiencing the story, or, in their words, "doing the story." The experiential view is but one of a number of ways that stories have been rendered in the literatures in the social sciences, literary criticism, and writings about disabilities I think it might help, then, to examine those literatures and figure out some of the existing views of narratives. We might then be in a better position for figuring out how we can best listen to them, and support our clients in the telling of them.

I will name eight of these views, briefly describe their characteristics and show the implications of the view for your learning to listen to others' stories and helping them with their story telling. (See Table 1 for a summary of the views).

Researchers, literary critics, and speech-language pathologists adopting the structural view, look for a story's constituents. Just as grammarians have analyzed sentences in to subjects and predicates, story grammarians have analyzed stories into settings, episodes, and endings. They thereby identify a story as a segment of discourse that has a beginning middle and end. Some story grammars are more detailed, such as the popular one by Stein and Glenn with its initiating episodes, internal responses, and resolutions (Stein and Glenn, 1979). Some structuralists have focused on how the parts of stories get connected (Halliday & Hasan, 1975).

Listening to a story within this structural view would involve identifying whether it has all of its parts or whether the cohesion devices that connect the parts work well. Helping someone tell a good story would involve provision of models or scaffolds with all their parts, coaching or prompting a person to include parts that they have left out, or to do a better job in using language structures to signal their connections.

The functional view of stories is based in a utilitarian model that treats stories as tools, looking for what they accomplish. Some have emphasized their entertainment value (Brewer & Lichtenstein, 1982). Stories are seen as exciting because they put you in suspense or they make you laugh. Those in the field of emergent literacy see oral stories and picture book exchanges as a stepping stone to reading and writing (Snow & Ninio, 1986). Still others see stories as a way to convey and develop ideas of selfhood and a way to work through life worries and difficulties (Axline, 1964; Becker, 1997; Frank, 1995; Paley, 1990). Another use for stories is a social one. Children with language-learning difficulties may want to tell stories so they can participate in social activities that require them (e.g., story enactments during play, sharing time, teacher's story telling, talking about the weekend with friends). Adults with aphasia may want to tell stories so they can make connections with family and friends.

Clinicians who take this functional view will listen to their clients' stories for what they are designed to accomplish and develop ways to help their clients achieve their functional goals. Or clinicians focusing on function may take a criterion referenced approach and find out where and when clients need stories and help them participate in those situations.

Some authors and clinicians regard stories as a means for living life experiences, just as one would experience other life events. In this experiential view, the experiencer (a listener or reader of a story) steps into a story world, identifies with a character or two, and emotionally and physically and experiences what that character experiences in the course of the story. This ability to live through the story is what makes stories so powerful and empowering. The two-year old children in Mrs. Tully's class did this through bodily action as they played out the story of "mama." Labov and Wiletsky talk about this life world as an emotional one involving suspense and emotional peaks (high points) (Labov & Wiletsky, 1967). Jerome Bruner talks about stories being experienced in a landscape of consciousness (Bruner, 1986). What he means is the subjective consciousness of the story characters.

Clinicians who listen to client's stories in this experiential way examine the stories in terms of what they are saying about the person's emotional life-their worries, their fears, their hopes, their achievements. Lorraine Engel describes a story told by a five year old to his mother as one in which the child is presenting himself as "a hero, brave and capable, an honored member of the group" (Engel, 1995, p. 2). Hawk Eye is not only an imaginary character in the boy's story, he is a fictional version of the type of person the child would like to be:

You are Running River, and I am Hawk Eye. Let's say you were sitting in the longhouse, and I heard a bear coming up. So I jumped out from behind a tree, and I speared that bear with my tomahawk. And then you cooked the meat over the fire. Then Chief Sitting Bull played on the drum and we had a ceremony. And I was the hero because I killed the bear. And I got an extra feather for my headdress (Engel, 1995, p. 1).

Clinicians who take the experiential view aim to help their clients tell the own heartfelt stories. They might do this by providing models of stories with characters that clients can identify with, or by revealing their own experiences in story form, so that the atmosphere of story telling is to be together in a life experience. Or they might work like teachers like Mrs. Tully and Vivian Paley to create storied classrooms where children experience their own and others' stories through story tellings and enactments.

Another view, the personal identity view, like the experiential one, portrays stories as heartfelt and deeply experienced. In this case those experiencing stories are exploring an aspect of their personal identity in the course of the story. Hawk Eye, the hero in the story told by the five-year-old child, offers the child a way to express his machismo side.

Arthur Frank (1995) sees personal stories told by adults who are ill or disabled as a means for them to create new identities or return to their old selves. The new identities would involve stories describing about who they are now in relation to who they were before. They would involve an elaboration on the following sensibility expressed by an adult with aphasia: "I always compare myself…when I'm in front of the mirror. I see myself as Kiran Mark One. But I'm Kiran Mark Two" (Parr, Byng, Gilpin, 1997). One type of life narrative described by Frank (1995, chapter 4) is the restitution narrative. In this type of personal story, clients portray their lives as a journey toward full recovery-back to the way things were before the injury, the sickness, the stroke (Frank 1995, chap 4).

Clinical practice grounded in life narratives would involve clinicians listening carefully to clients as they talk about their lives and their disabilities and about how they see themselves in the future. These depictions have been used to establish client goals, and to measure and evaluate their progress (Pound, Parr, & Duchan, 2001). Helping clients to formulate and express personal stories could involve activities, such as the development of personal portfolios, in which they explore new personal identities or design paths for returning to their past identities (Pound, Parr, Lindsay & Woolf, 2000). The aim of therapies would be to support clients in creating positive identities, ones in which they are play self-confident heroes in their personal stories.

Yet another rich view of narratives is a socio-cultural one. In this perspective, stories are seen as being grounded in the life world of the culture. Stories are told in certain ways and at certain times and are expressions cultural values. They serve as a way for individuals to become members and play a role in cultural practices. Shirley Brice Heath tells of two cultures in rural America. One uses stories to explore a moral way of life (Brice-Heath, 1983). Tales are told by adults that have biblical morals, and a true-to-life depiction of storied events is strictly adhered to. In a second culture, stories become a means for expressing bravado, like that displayed by Hawk Eye. In this American culture, the truth is played with, exaggerated, distorted. It is a culture where fiction is part of the telling everyday reality.

And we all know the cultural stories and renderings of people with disabilities. We are bombarded with negatively portrayals of disability by the media. They are everyday stories with the protagonists being disabled individuals to be pitied, avoided, laughed at and helped, rather than as companions, colleagues, and viable members of an inclusive society (e.g., Shapiro, 1994).

Clinicians who see stories as part of cultural engagement and cultural socialization need to know how members of their client's culture engage one another via stories. They then can listen to their clients' stories as would a member of that culture. A clinician can better understand the character Hawk Eye in the story told by an American child if one knows the role that Native Americans play in the history and psyche of members of many Americans. Clinicians who are aware of cultural embedding of their client's stories are better able to understand and support their clients story telling and to counter the negative stories on disability portrayed in the media and in the talk and actions of others as they enact the prejudices of their culture.

Narratives can also be examined for the metaphors they contain. This metaphoric view, is one that has been most elaborated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Johnson, 1987). These authors have found that characters in stories are often portrayed metaphorically as heroes and villains, and that the stories themselves are portrayed metaphorically as journeys.

Clinicians would listen for the metaphors underpinning the stories of their clients, in a way that clinicians and clients at Connect listen to the poetry in the language of people with aphasia. In helping their clients tell stories metaphorically they would not be exacting in their requirements that people be accurate in their use of language. Rather they would allow for what might seem to be tangential meanings and then check to make sure that they have understood what was intended.

The normative view, examines the normal use of narratives and sets that as a standard from which to depict narrative understanding and telling by our clients. This view requires not only that we listen to others narratives but that we evaluate their quality in terms of a standard or norm. Narrative norms for children are often expressed in structural terms. By age 4 normal children should be able to tell stories with settings, initiating events, and endings. By age 7 they should be using evaluative devices to express internal responses (Eaton, Collis & Lewis, 1999). The normative view often portrays the acquisition of narratives in stages, such as their progressing from stories with additive, then temporal and finally causal structure (Lahey, 1988), or from unrelated units (heaps) through ones related to a core idea such as a of topic or central character (sequences) to a full fledged, hierarchically organized story (narrative) (Applebee, 1978). Narrative norms for adults with disabilities portray their stories in evaluative terms-as "not as good as they were before the stroke" or not like a normal person's story.

The clinical approach based on the normative view involves determining the level or stage of the stories and providing support to achieve the next story stage. Or, for adults, the focus may be less developmental and more criterion referenced. In this case stories are assessed for what's wrong them and remediation takes place to improve upon them. Listening to stories from a normative view is to listen to what they lack. Helping to tell stories would be to work on the deficits so as to improve on accuracy or level of complexity.

Now after having touched on seven views of narratives, I come to the eighth and last view, the postmodernist one. This view I have saved for last, because it makes an effort to ask what one does when confronted with multiple perspectives on something whether it be an elephant or a narrative. Postmodernists say that all things, including elephants and narratives, are inevitably constructed from within different viewpoints and that each of the different views is legitimate. This might lead you to assume that the best rendering of the elephant is one that takes into consideration all of the different views provided by the blind men or by those studying narratives, adding them together. But there are problems with this eclectic, additive solution to the elephant problem.

The conglomerate elephant


The descriptions by the blind men of the trunk of the elephant as a snake and the ears as a fan offer little insight about how the trunk and ears function for an elephant. The descriptions are all based in the blind men's own sensory experience of the physical shape and texture of the various parts of the animal. But an elephant is much more than that. Their portrayals say nothing about the personality and abilities of the elephant, about its ways of life.

So, the clinical lesson of the postmodern approach would be to see the worthiness of listening to narratives from different perspectives and to support their telling in different ways. A second lesson it raises is for us to stand back, once we have selected an approach to narrative, and to examine whether it is relevant to the life of the narrator. Listening to Alex's "mama" story in the normative frame of a one-word utterance that needs expanding, misses the importance it has to Alex and to the lives of the children who enact it.

I suggest that we try to avoid this relevance mistake. We should continually ask what relevance the narratives have had for the lives of the narrators and the lives of those who listen or read the narratives. In so doing we will be better able to see the life significance of narratives for our clients and ourselves.

I have reached the tail/tale end of my talk, without having solved the postmodern problem about how to decide among these different views of narratives or how best to combine them. But that is for the next chapter of the elephant story. In it we need to compare the approaches for which ones best achieve the goals set by this conference title: learning to listen helping to tell.

Connect talk: Narratives and the elephant question
Judy Duchan
January 30, 2002

Axline, V. (1964). Dibs in search of self. New York: Ballantine Books.

Becker, G. (1997). Disrupted lives: How people create meaning in a chaotic world. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Brewer, W., & Lichtenstein, E. (1982). Stories are to entertain: A structural-affect theory of stories. Journal of Pragmatics, 6, 473-486.

Brice Heath, S. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds: Possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Engel, S. (1995). The stories children tell: Making sense of the narratives of childhood. New York: W. H. Freeman and Co.

Frank, A. (1995). The wounded storyteller: Body illness and ethics. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

Grove, N., & Tucker, S. (in preparation). Narratives in manual sign by children with intellectual impairments. In S. Tetzchner & N. Grove (Eds.), Developmental perspectives on augmentative and alternative communication.: Whurr.

Halliday, M. A. K., & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman Group Limited.

Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind: The bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Koukl, G. (1998). The trouble with the elephant (September-October, 1998). The Plain Truth Online. Available: http://www.ptm.org/98PT/SepOct/Elephant.htm.

Labov, W., & Waletsky, J. (1967). Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. In J. Helm (Ed.), Essays on the verbal and visual arts (pp. 12-44). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire and dangerous things. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

McCabe, A., & Peterson, C. (1991). Developing narrative structure. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Paley, V. (1990). The boy who would be a helicopter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Paley, V. (2001). In Mrs. Tully's room: A childcare portrait. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Parr, S., Byng, S., & Gilpin, S. (1997). Talking about aphasia: Living with loss of language after stroke, . Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Pound, C., Parr, S., & Duchan, J. (2001). Using partners' autobiographical reports to to develop, deliver, and evaluate services in aphasia. Aphasiology, 15, 477-493.

Pound, C., Parr, S., Lindsay, J., & Woolf, C. (2000). Beyond aphasia : Therapies for living with communication disabilities. Oxon, UK: Winslow Press LTD.

Propp, V. (1958). Morphology of the folktale. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folktale, and Linguistics.

Roemer, M. (1995). Telling stories: Postmodernism and the invalidation of traditional narrative. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Rumelhart, D. (1975). Notes on a schema for stories. In D. Bobrow & A. Collins (Eds.), Representation and understanding: Studies in cognitive psychology (pp. 211-236). NY: Academic Press.

Shapiro, J. (1994).  No pity : People with disabilities forging a new civil rights movement. NY: Times Books.

Snow, C., & Ninio, A. (1986). The contracts of literacy: What children learn from learning to read books. In W. Teale & E. Sulzby (Eds.), Emergent literacy: Writing and reading (pp. 116-138). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Co.

Stein, N., & Glenn, C. R. (1979). An analysis of story comprehension in elementary school children. In R. Freedle (Ed.), New directions in discourse processing (Vol. 2, pp. 53-120). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Westby, C. (1988). Development of narrative language abilities. In G. Wallach & K. Butler (Eds.), Language learning disabilities in school-age children (pp. 103-127). San Diego, CA:: College Hill Press.


Table 1. Views of narratives from the social and literary sciences
(Duchan, 2002, Connect conference on Learning to Listen, Helping to Tell)

The view
Its focus
Its originators and proponents
Structural view The structural view focuses on the discourse and linguistic elements of narratives (e.g., story grammar, cohesion devices) Propp on structure of Russian folktales (1958) Stein & Glenn on story grammar (1979);Rumelhart on story structure (1975)Halliday & Hasan on language devices that create story cohesion (1976)
Functional view The focus is on its the use made to entertain, to provide the fundamentals for acquisition of literacy or social understandings, to communicate ones worries Brewer and Lichtenstein on the entertaining function (1982)Snow & Ninio on emergent literacy (1986)Brice-Heath on social function (1983)Engel on expressing and resolving worries (1995)
Experiential view Stories engage children to emotionally, physically, and intellectually. They experience events in an imaginary or recalled world. Paley on physical enactment (2001)Bruner on landscape of consciousness (1986)Labov & Wiletsky on emotional high points of stories (1967)
Personal identity view Stories are expressions of one's self, of one's identity. They also allow one to explore and discover new identities. Frank on types of life stories (1995) Becker on creating new identities (1997)Pound et al, on clinical approaches to foster identity (2000)
Socio-cultural view Narratives are cultural entities, and a means for enacting cultural ways and values. They are often co-constructed with the audience Brice-Heath on cultural embeddedness (1983)Grove & Tucker on co-construction of stories (in preparation)
Metaphoric view Narratives are built upon metaphors. Typical narrative metaphors are heroes, villains, with life adventures being depicted metaphorically as a journey as a pathway or landscape. Lakoff & Johnson on metaphors in everyday language (1980)Bruner on the narrative landscape (1986)
Normative view Those with language disabilities cannot tell well-formed or intelligible stories, and need support to do so. Lahey on development of connectivity of narratives (1988)Peterson & McCabe (1991)Westby (1984)
Postmodern view There are many views of narratives. One must select the one or ones that best fit the task at hand. Roemer, (1995)

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