In stories, personal experience connects with ideas in the broader culture about how the world works and what kinds of people act in it. For example, an individual blog post about an event with one’s family is connected to broader cultural ideas about the rewards of hard work, the ways people meet and fall in love, the joys and challenges of family life, and so on. Gray (2001) explored how stories by parents of autistic children not only made sense of individual experience but also aligned them with broader cultural narratives (science, faith, or politics) and with specific communities with shared modes of sense-making (treatment centers, churches, or advocacy groups). The form a story takes also draws from familiar types: the underdog fighting against the odds, the noble narrator who challenges a corrupt system, the funny story of everyday foibles, the tragic tale of unfair loss. Birmingham (2010) examined stories by two mothers of autistic children who felt their experiences departed from the expected biography of motherhood but nonetheless utilized recognizable cultural forms to tell their stories. The storylines gave mothers a sense of “meaning, order, and direction in a life lived outside the cultural narrative” (p. 230).
Dominant cultural narratives provide “frameworks for living that are presented and reinforced through multiple sources,” playing out in artifacts, symbols, texts, systems, and institutions (Foss, Domenico, & Foss, 2013, p. 54). These narratives reflect and construct relationships between social actors that are seldom, if ever, neutral with respect to power differences. Some kinds of individuals are portrayed more positively than others and some kinds of individuals may be entirely absent. If we take contingency (this happened in consequence of that) as the defining feature of narrative, then it is a powerful vehicle for justifying the way things are and attributing responsibility, credit, and blame. In these ways, stories are not only cultural, they are also political. They naturalize and normalize some ways of being in the world, whilst other ways of being are marked as abnormal, unnatural, or invisible.
“Counter-stories” provide alternatives and can do the activist work of unveiling and challenging our assumptions about power dynamics and offering a different way of seeing actors and events. What counts as a counter-story and how they are related to dominant narratives are sources of scholarly conversation. Several studies of counter-narratives related to motherhood or to intellectual disability and mental illness demonstrate the usefulness of the concept as well as the complexities in asserting that counter-stories are a form of resistance to dominant narratives.
Some counter-stories work within dominant narratives to expand what is normative to include an individual who might otherwise fall outside. Throsby (2004) studied mothers who had undergone unsuccessful invitro fertilization and found a kind of “gentle” counter-story in which mothers strategically altered conventional narratives to include their own experiences (e.g., expanding the definition of conceiving “naturally” to include IVF or addressing judgments that they were “selfish” for discontinuing treatment and remaining childless or “desperate” for pursuing treatment at all costs).
Counter-stories may also complicate dominant narratives by revealing and explaining contradiction. Clapton (2003) found stories by parents of intellectually disabled children included themes of pain and chaos as well as flourishing and happiness. She claimed that the stories countered dominant narratives that represent intellectual disabilities as personal tragedies or public catastrophes. Instead parents narrated “life-enriching experiences and accepting relationships” (p. 545) and showed that the “burdens” families are supposed to experience came more from stigma and lack of accommodation than from disability.
Contextualizing and complicating the dominant narrative can be subtly subversive and the very act of telling one’s own story asserts the authority to define experience. Andrews (2004) examined stories adult children told of growing up with tyrannical mothers, absent mothers, abusive mothers, mothers who went through severe depression or struggled with poverty. Their stories were consistent with a dominant narrative that holds mothers responsible for shaping who their children become. Yet on closer examination, Andrews concluded that the central point of the stories—and the “cornerstone” of the tellers’ identities—was not to blame their mothers for faulty care but to understand their mothers’ situations and to claim the right to “author their own lives” (p. 25).
Counter-stories may work by embodying messiness and resisting simplification, sensationalization, and caricature. Gosselin (2011) noted how dominant narratives of mental health and addiction present subjects as autonomous individuals, either agents or victims, whose problems have an identifiable cause and solution and whose plots resemble a quest, with clear beginnings, dramatic middles, and tidy resolutions. In contrast, Gosselin analyzed memoirs whose content and form presented disordered time, indeterminacy about whether someone has a condition or not, uncertainty about causation and agency, inconclusive endings, and ambivalent dispositions. These counterstories may not replace the dominant paradigm, but they “enrich the cultural dialogue about such experiences,” and they have the power to “transform personal and political perceptions and understandings of their subject matter” (p. 144).
Some scholars have differentiated between counter-stories that are defined in opposition to a dominant narrative versus those that shift attention to alternative ways of narrating experience. For example, Talbot and colleagues (2004) showed how two womens’ stories of high risk pregnancy countered the notion that mothers can control giving birth to a healthy baby. One mother’s story challenged the applicability of medical expertise about what usually happens in pregnancy, aligning instead with a different cultural narrative of individual choice and self-reliance, of knowing what is right for her own body, baby, and situation. In contrast, the other case study questioned whether anyone can control of outcomes in pregnancy and the individualistic assumptions that are made in stories of women making healthful “choices” to ensure a good pregnancy outcome. Likewise, in stories by individuals who were involved in the psychiatric survivor movement, Adame and Knudson (2007) found counter-stories that refuted the dominant medical narrative of recovery, but they also found alternative stories that shifted attention from a focus on individual recovery to a focus on living a good life, including an emphasis on meaningful relationships, a sense of purpose, and an understanding of one’s situation as shared and political. The alternative stories were not about individual quests to achieve normal functioning but, instead, focused on consciousness raising and participation in collective action and advocacy.
As this brief review makes clear, what counts as a “counter story” is varied and is typically defined by an interpreter (researcher) detecting reaction to a dominant narrative that threatens to exclude an individual’s story. Nelson (2001) provides one framework for defining counter-stories and for thinking about how they can produce personal and political empowerment: through reframing identity.
Nelson (2001) defines a counterstory as “a story that resists an oppressive identity and attempts to replace it with one that commands respect” (p. 6). Identities are constructed in stories told to us and about us, including both personal stories about particular individuals but also larger cultural narratives that capture shared social understanding about types of characters and plots. Nelson makes the case, for example, that a narrative in the US context in which she writes assigns mothers the primary responsibility for raising children, stipulates a demanding set of expectations about how to do so, and yet devalues the work of caregiving. She calls for different stories “that don’t insist that all and only women must mother” and a wider variety of stories about how to mother that recognize “the enormous diversity of mothers’ circumstances, abilities, and resources” (p. 146).
For Nelson, counterstories resist oppressive identities by changing how members of an oppressed group are viewed, as well as how members of the group view themselves. A counterstory is not simply different from the narrative it challenges; it seeks to change it. Nelson recognizes a continuum of resistance. To refuse a narrative is to deny that it applies to oneself and to tend one’s own counterstory, perhaps without serious effort or any hope that others will take it up. To repudiate a narrative is to use the self-understanding arising from a counterstory to oppose others’ applying the narrative to oneself, but the opposition is piecemeal. To contest a narrative is to oppose it with a counterstory both publicly and systematically (p. 169). Resistance is not always successful, however, and Nelson describes attributes that strengthen a counterstory (for example, a story’s explanatory force, its connection to past and future action, and its “heft” or connection to that which we value most). She describes various ways counterstories can “go bad” (e.g., by leaving intact an oppressive narrative while declaring one’s own story the exception, by reinforcing other oppressive narratives, by overgeneralizing , by dislodging other fundamental or valuable understandings).
In his review of Nelson’s book, Radley (2002) raises several limitations. First, he points out that multi-authorship (e.g., one person telling another’s story as an example) is a common feature of stories that Nelson does not address. Second, Radley laments that Nelson presumes a knowing actor who creates the story with the intention to resist and yet Nelson’s framework says little about the conditions under which stories are told or the position of the tellers, focusing instead on form, origin, context, and outcome of the story. Finally, he concludes that the book fails to recognize that counterstories may be taken differently within a community (e.g., as aligning or dissenting), and that stories have the potential to be both oppressive and resistant. Likewise, in the introduction to an edited volume on counternarratives, Bamberg and Andrews (2004) that counter-narrative is a “positional category” because it is defined in relation to some narrative and this relationship between what is dominant and what is resistant is fluid. They emphasize attending to how a storyteller positions herself and also to the significance of an anticipated audience in shaping this positioning.
As it happens, Bakhtin’s dialogism addresses these very issues, offering conceptual tools for putting narratives and counternarratives in conversation, for recognizing multiple voices in a story, and for thinking about how stories respond to and anticipate other stories and audiences. That will be the next post…
Adame, A. L., & Knudson, R. M. (2007). Beyond the counter-narrative: Exploring alternative narratives of recovery from the psychiatric survivor movement. Narrative Inquiry, 17(2), 157–178.
Andrews, M. (2004). Memories of mother: Counter-narratives of early maternal influence. In M. G. W. Bamberg & M. Andrews (Eds.), Considering counter-narratives: Narrating, resisting, making sense (pp. 7–26). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Bamberg, M. G. W., & Andrews, M. (Eds.). (2004). Considering counter narratives: narrating, resisting, making sense. Amsterdam ; Philadelphia: J. Benjamins.
Birmingham, C. (2010). Romance and irony, personal and academic: How mothers of children with autism defend goodness and express hope. Narrative Inquiry, 20(2), 225–245. https://doi.org/10.1075/ni.20.2.01bir
Clapton, J. (2003). Tragedy and catastrophe: Contentious discourses of ethics and disability. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 47(7), 540–547.
Foss, S. K., Domenico, M. E., & Foss, K. A. (2013). Gender stories: Negotiating identity in a binary world. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
Gosselin, A. (2011). Memoirs as mirrors: Counterstories in contemporary memoir. Narrative, 19(1), 133–148.
Gray, D. E. (2001). Accommodation, resistance and transcendence: Three narratives of autism, 53, 1247–1257. http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v31i3.1675
Nelson, H. L. (2001). Damaged identities: Narrative Repair. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Radley, A. (2002). Review of Damaged Identities: Narrative Repair. Biography, 25(2), 372–374.
Talbot, J., Bibace, R., Bokhour, B., & Bamberg, M. (1996). Afirmation and resistance of dominant discourses: The rhetorical construction of pregnancy. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 6, 225–251.
Throsby, K. (2004). Negotiating “normality” when IVF fails. In M. G. W. Bamberg & M. Andrews (Eds.), Considering counter-narratives: Narrating, resisting, making sense (pp. 61–82). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.