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Memory, Identity, Community: The Idea of Narrative in the Human Sciences (review)

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 33, Number 2, 2000
pp. 187-191 | 10.1353/par.2000.0011

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Philosophy and Rhetoric 33.2 (2000) 187-191

Book Review

Memory, Identity, Community: The Idea of Narrative in the Human Sciences

Memory, Identity, Community: The Idea of Narrative in the Human Sciences. Ed. Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra K. Hinchman. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997. Pp. 393. $59.50, cloth; $19.95, paperback.

According to its editors, the point of this anthology of previously published essays is to "illustrate the ways in which 'narrative' has been used as an organizing concept in the human sciences over the last few decades" (ix). They argue that a "paradigm shift" is occurring in the human sciences, "one that leads away from nomological models and toward a more humanistic language and approach, in which narratives are central." Accordingly, the collection features essays about narrative written by authors who represent fields as disparate as philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, religion, law, gender studies, political science, speech communication, and environmental studies. The collection reprints a few essays that are well known within the humanities. For example, the Hinchmans include an excerpt from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981), as well as Gertrude Himmelfarb's often-reprinted attack on social history, entitled "History With the Politics Left Out."

As their title indicates, the editors divide their collection into three sections entitled "Memory," "Identity," and "Community." Their rationale for this division is that memory serves humans as a narrative stream that makes sense of the otherwise inchoate data given by experience. The narrative structured by memory produces what the Hinchmans call identity. Identity in its turn is influenced by narratives that circulate in the communities in which an individual exists. This collection aims to demonstrate that narrative plays a fundamental role within all three of these conceptual categories. The Hinchmans put it this way:

As historians, social scientists, or (for that matter) prophets and bards weave narratives of the second order -- stories that connect the individual mind to the social world -- they create artifacts that soon take on a life of their own. These stories, told and retold, furnish the stock from which individual life narratives can be constructed. In other words, the story of an individual life usually plays off of one or more historically and socially transmitted narratives, which serve as prototypes of the elaboration of personal identity. Narrative theory is thus always implicitly a theory of how communities are formed and maintained, and how individuals are drafted into available social roles. (xxii-xxiii)

Each of the three major sections contains one or two theoretical essays, as well as two or three more that consider ways in which the concepts of memory, identity, and community play out in specific disciplinary contexts. For example, the section on community is introduced with MacIntyre's meditation on the relation of narrated selves to communities. It contains a theoretical essay by Edward M. Bruner on the malleability of community narratives, entitled "Ethnography as Narrative," and Walter Fisher's "Narration, Reason, and Community." Philip Abbott examines the use of narrative in political theory in an essay entitled "Storytelling and Political Theory," while Jim Cheney demonstrates the fruitfulness of communal narrative to environmental rhetoric in "Postmodern Environmental Ethics: Ethics as Bioregional Narrative." (Cheney's is the most intriguing piece in the collection).

The editors introduce each section of the collection with brief essays that raise interesting questions. For example, introducing the section called "Memory," they ask: "Is the past something that can be reconstructed, on the basis of memories, or can it only be constructed?" and "Is there such a thing as prereflective, prenarrative, unemplotted experience, or does all experience possess at least an implicit narrative structure?" (1-2). Two of the essays collected under this head, David Carr's "Narrative and Real World: An Argument for Continuity" and Stephen Crites's "The Narrative Quality of Experience," are theoretical attempts to answer these questions. Other essays in this section investigate the role played by memory and narrative in the construction of specific discourses. W. Lance Bennett examines the role played by storytelling in criminal trials, and Misia Landau reviews scientists' reliance on narrative in accounts of human evolution.

The Hinchmans also ask, "How, if at all, can we determine whether one plot, one...



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