Teaching & Learning Guide for: Narrative and Discursive Approaches to the Analysis of Subjectivity in Psychotherapy



This guide accompanies the following article: Evrinomy Avdi and Eugenie Georgaca, ‘Narrative and Discursive Approaches to the Analysis of Subjectivity in Psychotherapy’. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3/5 (2009): pp. 654–670, doi: 10.1111/j.1751–9004.2009.001965.x

Author’s Introduction

Social constructionism and the ‘turn to language’ have influenced both the theory of psychotherapy and the research of therapy process; there now exists a considerable body of literature that applies a social constructionist and a deconstructionist perspective to psychotherapy theory and research. One of the issues discussed in this body of work relates to subjectivity, which constitutes a central aspect of therapeutic work as well as being at the centre of contemporary debates around selfhood. Subjective experience and one’s sense of self have been studied by different disciplines using a variety of perspectives. In broad terms, mainstream psychological approaches refer to the ‘person’ or the ‘self’, which is understood in terms of ‘personality’, that is to say, it is assumed that a person is an individual, unified, stable and self-contained entity. The terms ‘self’ and ‘person’ are also linked to humanistic approaches that emphasise the wholeness, integrity and originality of the self as well as to phenomenological approaches that are concerned with the quality of one’s experience of oneself. The term ‘subjectivity’ has been historically linked to post-structuralism and psychoanalysis and has gained increased currency as these approaches increasingly inform current social constructionist, deconstructive and discursive approaches. What all of these approaches share is an understanding of identity and experience as constructed through social processes, which involve power and systems of meanings, and as lived through by individual subjects. Subjectivity is seen as complex, distributed and fragmented, permeated by social and discursive processes, yet intimately personal, as the subject invests these processes with desire and turns them to the very stuff of his or her being.

In this module, which we consider best aimed at postgraduate level, we start from the premise that psychotherapy constitutes a culturally significant institutional practice that both reflects dominant cultural views regarding ‘selfhood’ and also provides theories that further define these views and practices that implement them. We aim to introduce students to constructionist perspectives regarding psychotherapy and selfhood and also to help students begin to examine the tensions between social constructionist approaches to understand human distress and the practice of psychotherapy.

Authors Recommend

Angus, L. E. and J. McLeod, eds. The Handbook of Narrative and Psychotherapy: Practice, Theory and Research. London: Sage, 2004.

This edited book provides an excellent introduction to various strands in contemporary psychotherapy that focus on the notion of narrative and its role in the process of psychotherapy. It contains many contributions from important authors in the field of narrative psychology and narrative therapy as well as less well known but innovative workers in this developing field. Particularly useful to the student of narrative in therapy is the concluding chapter by the editors that provides a useful scheme for organising this divergent literature and suggests points of future research and development.

Avdi, E. and E. Georgaca. ‘Discourse Analysis and Psychotherapy: A Critical Review.’European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling 9 (2007a): 157–176.

This paper reviews the research literature on discourse analysis of psychotherapy, and more specifically studies which employ discourse analysis to analyse therapy session transcripts. It provides a concise presentation and evaluation of both the usefulness and the implications of this body of research for our understanding of therapy process. It is a specialised, dense and difficult paper, which gives a good overview of the field.

Avdi, E. and E. Georgaca. ‘Narrative Research in Psychotherapy: A Critical Review.’Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 80 (2007b): 407–419.

This paper is a review of studies which utilise the notion of narrative to analyse psychotherapy. It systematically presents this diverse field of research, highlights common themes and divergences between different strands and discusses the implications of it for psychotherapy research, theory and practice. Again, this is a rather difficult and specialised reading, with a very specific focus, which provides a good overview of the specific research field.

Cushman, P. ‘Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology.’American Psychologist 45 (1990): 599–611.

In this paper, Cushman cogently argues for the need to approach psychology’s theories about the self and its associated practices, and particularly psychotherapy, in a historical, cultural, political and economic context. He draws from hermeneutics and post-structuralism to examine the evolution of different notions about the self (i.e. the shared understandings in every culture about what it means to be human) in the West and develops a description of the current self as ‘empty’, that is a self in need of being ‘filled up’. He further argues that psychotherapy, together with advertising, is one of the main practices that contemporary western culture has that help ‘fill up’ and soothe the empty self, a process that itself creates and maintains this version of the self. In this way, he highlights the ways in which psychology itself constructs the empty self and reproduces the current hierarchy of social and power relations. This is a dense paper that may at times be difficult to follow; however, it clearly articulates the argument that the ‘self’, that we take for granted, is the product of social processes and the economies and politics of our era and that psychotherapy is a practice which is deeply embedded in these processes that it often reproduces.

Gergen, K. J. The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

This now classic text is essential reading for the student of postmodern psychology. It provides a readable and convincing description of how dominant constructions of the self have evolved from romanticism, through modernism to postmodernism, to contemporary constructions centring on the metaphor of the ‘saturated’ self. This book will introduce students to the basic tenets of postmodernist psychology and equip them with the theoretical tools required in order for them to deepen their understanding of contemporary debates surrounding the implementation of postmodernist challenges to the practice of psychotherapy.

Hermans, H. J. M. and G. Dimaggio, eds. The Dialogical Self in Psychotherapy. London: Brunner-Routledge, 2004.

This edited book provides an overview of the various developments in psychotherapy theory, practice and research that utilise the notion of the ‘dialogical self ’ i.e. the assumption that there is no centralised self but that the self is made of different voices that engage in dialogue. Contributors adhere to different theoretical orientations in psychotherapy and explore the notion of the dialogical self from their own theoretical and clinical perspective. This diversity makes this an interesting read but may prove at times difficult to integrate.

McLeod, J. Qualitative Research in Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage, 2001.

This book provides an excellent introduction to the various approaches to qualitative research that have been used to study the process and outcome of psychotherapy. It provides a very readable yet not overly simplified exposition of different qualitative approaches to psychotherapy research, ranging from phenomenology and hermeneutics to social constructionism, and critically discusses the particular strengths of each approach.

McNamee, S. and K. J. Gergen, eds. Therapy as Social Construction. London: Sage, 1992.

This edited book is by now a classic introduction to concepts and practices of social constructionist forms of psychotherapy. Drawing mainly from systemic and narrative approaches to psychotherapy, the chapters, written by some of the biggest names in the field, elaborate both the theoretical premises of social constructionist forms of therapy and provide examples of actual clinical practice.

Parker, I., Ed. Deconstructing Psychotherapy. London: Sage, 1999.

This edited book is also an invaluable collection of papers on the various uses of deconstruction in psychotherapy. It addresses the use of deconstruction in psychotherapy, as a way of reformulating the problems that bring people to therapy and of changing the client-therapist relation, as well as the use of deconstruction to reflect upon psychotherapy as a contemporary institution for the reproduction of specific forms of subjectivity. Very much on the critical edge and characterised by a variety of perspectives, the chapters make a challenging and very interesting reading.

Sample syllabus

The material comprising the course syllabus is fairly complex, advanced theoretically and requires some understanding of both psychotherapy and social constructionism; it is, therefore, best suited as part of a postgraduate course. We would suggest it forming part of a course on ‘Constructionist approaches to psychotherapy’ or possibly on ‘Qualitative research of psychotherapy’, spanning 7 weeks, with a special focus on the construction of subjectivity in therapy.

Weeks 1 & 2: The Notion of the Self-as-Constructed. Constructions of the Self in Modernist and Postmodernist Psychotherapies


Cushman, P. ‘Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology.’American Psychologist 45 (1990): 599–611.

Polkinghorne, D. E. ‘Narrative Therapy and Postmodernism.’The Handbook of Narrative and Psychotherapy: Practice, Theory and Research. Eds. L. E. Angus and J. McLeod. London: Sage, 2004. 53–68.

White, M. ‘Folk Psychology and Narrative Practices.’The handbook of narrative and psychotherapy: Practice, theory and research. Eds. L. E. Angus and J. McLeod. London: Sage, 2004. 15–52.

Weeks 3 & 4: Narrative Approaches to Psychotherapy: The Notions of ‘Voices’ of the Self and ‘Self Dialogues’


Bruner, J. ‘The Narrative Creation of Self.’The Handbook of Narrative and Psychotherapy: Practice, Theory and Research. Eds. L. E. Angus and J. McLeod. London: Sage, 2004. 3–14.

McAdams, D. P. and L. Janis. ‘Narrative Identity and Narrative Therapy.’The Handbook of Narrative and Psychotherapy: Practice, Theory and Research. Eds. L. E. Angus and J. McLeod. London: Sage, 2004. 159–176.

Lysaker, P. H. and J. T. Lysaker. Schizophrenia and the Fate of the Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. [The Self in and as Dialogue (Chapter 3, pp. 43–68)].

Hermans, H. M. J. ‘The Dialogical Self: Towards a Theory of Personal and Cultural Positioning.’Culture and Psychology 7.3 (2001): 243–281.

Weeks 5 & 6: Social Constructionist Approaches to Psychotherapy: The Notion of Subject Positioning


Guilfoyle, M. ‘Rhetorical Processes in Therapy: The Bias of Self-Containment.’Journal of Family Therapy 24 (2002): 298–316.

Madill, A. and K. Doherty. ‘‘So You did What You Wanted Then’: Discourse Analysis, Personal Agency and Psychotherapy.’Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 4 (1994): 261–273.

McLeod, J. Social Construction, Nrrative and Psychotherapy.’The Handbook of Narrative and Psychotherapy: Practice, Theory and Research. Eds. L. E. Angus and J. McLeod. London: Sage, 2004. 351–366.

Roy-Chowdhury, S. ‘Knowing the Unknowable: What Constitutes Evidence in Family Therapy?’Journal of Family Therapy 25 (2003): 64–85.

Week 7: Discussion: Points of Convergence and Divergence Between Different Approaches to the Self and Implications for Psychotherapy Research and Practice


Gergen, J. K. and J. Kaye. ‘Beyond Narrative in the Negotiation of Therapeutic Meaning.’Therapy as Social Construction. Eds. S. McNamee and K. J. Gergen. London: Sage, 1992. 166–185.

Focus Questions

  • 1 Present and discuss the argument that psychotherapy is the field par excellence for the study of subjectivity.
  • 2 Discuss the assumptions regarding subjectivity of narrative approaches to psychotherapy research.
  • 3 Discuss the assumptions regarding subjectivity of discursive approaches to psychotherapy research.
  • 4 What are the implications of the differing views regarding subjectivity of narrative and discursive approaches for the practice of psychotherapy?
  • 5 What are the implications of the differing views regarding subjectivity of narrative and discursive approaches for researching psychotherapy and subjectivity?
  • 6 Discuss the relation between constructionist approaches to psychotherapy and narrative and discursive approaches to researching psychotherapy.

Seminar/Project Idea

Class workshop

The workshop takes place after the students have been taught the different approaches to psychotherapy research outlined in the syllabus above and have read some of the key texts suggested, and again is preferably addressed to students at postgraduate level. The aims of the workshop are the following:

  • • To help students begin to examine in practice how therapy functions as a site for producing subjectivity.
  • • To help students examine the effects that differing constructions of the self have for the client’s subjectivity, the client-therapist relationship, and the theory, aims and course of the therapy.
  • • To familiarise students with narrative and discursive research approaches and to examine how these different approaches highlight different aspects of construction in therapy.

The lecturer presents to the student group in class a transcript of a psychotherapy session or selected extracts from a psychotherapy session. The students discuss in small groups how the specific session can be analysed using narrative and discursive approaches respectively, the assumptions about the client’s self made in the session, the versions of subjectivity constructed by both client and therapist and possible shifts in subjectivity evidenced throughout the session. The discussions on each topic in turn take place first in small groups and then in plenary sessions. Finally, the students discuss (i) the implications of these constructions of subjectivity for the course and aim of the specific psychotherapy, and (ii) the implications of each of the research approaches for understanding the client’s subjectivity.

Alternatively, and if more time is available to the course, the workshop could be expanded to analyse, in turn, extracts from two therapies of different epistemological orientations (modernist and postmodernist). This would allow for further discussion on the role of therapy in promoting certain versions of ideal selfhood, as well as on the contribution of different research approaches in examining this process, leading to a deepening of the students’ understanding of these complex yet important issues.