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Ethos

Reading Minds and Telling Tales in a Cultural Borderland

Authors

  • Cheryl Mattingly

    1. Department of Anthropology and the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California
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Abstract

Abstract In this article I consider “narrative mind reading,” the practical capability of inferring the motives that precipitate and underlie the actions of others. Following Jerome Bruner, I argue that this everyday capacity depends on our ability to place action within unfolding narrative contexts. While Bruner has focused on narrative mind reading as a within-culture affair, I look to border situations that cross race and class lines where there is a strong presumption among participants that they do not, in fact, share a cultural framework. Instead, interactions often reinforce actors' perceptions of mutual misunderstanding and cultural difference. Drawing on a longitudinal study of African American families who have children with severe illnesses, I examine narrative mind reading and misreading in one mother's interactions with the clinicians who treat her child. I further explore how narrative misreadings are supported through chart notes and “familiar stranger” stories. The focus on miscommunication grounds a theory of the reproduction of cultural difference in interactive dynamics and brings Bruner's emphasis on narrative into dialogue with contemporary anthropology of cultural borderlands. [narrative, culture, African Americans, health disparities, border zones]

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