Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


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Ratkes, 3/2005

Narrative vignettes
Part 3: Post-structuralism and psychotherapy

Tapio Malinen

The desire to ”understand” and ”change” are as symptomatic as they are revolutionary. (Spivak)

In the beginning of the 18th century, anyone who considered himself at all civilized thought that – according to the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm – the universe is a complex mechanical system, where matter moves in an infinite space according to certain basic principles. Unchanging structures were thought to cover everything from the cosmos to the behaviour of the tiniest small particles. People also thought that the basic structures of the universe could be studied objectively and that one day the human being, as the crown of all creation, would use the power and control related to this information for his own benefit.

Structuralist thinking spread fast into social sciences. Anthropologists, linguists, sociologists and psychologists started to search for the “inner structures” of people, families, societies, and cultures, to explain action and behaviour. In psychology and therapy, structuralism lead to an approach that assumes that there is a deep structure formed by “self” within each person and that behaviour is the manifestation expression of this deep structure. When a person behaves in a positive way, it is because of a good function in “inner self”. Negative behaviour, on the other hand, is a sign of a disturbance in the core of the inner structure.

One day, family therapist Harlene Anderson would write, ”According to the modern point of view, psychotherapy is a technology. The human being is a machine and the therapist a technician, who works with broken machinery. He is the expert of human nature and behaviour; a hero who liberates.” (Anderson, 1997) Lynn Hoffman, another family therapist, would write, “Diagnostisizing and medicalizing the problems in people’s lives might one day turn out to be our biggest mistake.” (Hoffman, 2002) There are many stories about how this still dominating discourse has affected people’s lives.

Questioning the taken-for-granted

The post-structuralist perspective offers, instead of one concise truth, creative practices that open up new perspectives and look for lost meanings. Narrative therapy, which is inspired by post-structuralism, does not intend to reveal “the truth” or to reflect “the world” like a mirror, but rather to create a language and interaction, where people can join each other so that the good and the real become described in a rich way. When people are discussing what the most valuable things in their lives are and what they have succeeded well in, new alternatives and possibilities for action are born. These conversations are not had to change anything; one is only opening up what has been hidden behind the dominant problem story so far – and making it richer.
Post-structuralism, which has influenced narrative therapy, is derived from French critical philosophy. It challenges in many ways the modernism-related structuralism of western science. Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are particularly central thinkers in this respect. The following table demonstrates some differences between structuralist and post-structuralist perspectives regarding therapy. The table was created by Leonie Thomas, a Vietnamese family therapist working at Dulwich Center.


According to structuralism…
According to post-structuralism…
A post-structuralist therapist…
The goal is to search for “deep structures” or “essential truths” concerning people. t is important to draw attention to the effects this search for ”deep structures” or ”truths” has on people. For instance, how professionals develop norms for a good life. Supports people, so that they would not evaluate their lives only by social norms.
The study of ”deep structures” and ”essential truths” is an objective activity. What we are looking for, what we believe in, and where we come from all affect how we perceive things and what we find. Questions ”objectivity”, ”expertise” and “practices of interpretation”.
A ”deep structure” (for example “self”) defines a person’s life. Language and the way in which we use it are key elements in how we define our lives. Questions the taken- for- granted ideas that are sustained by our speech patterns.
Our thoughts, problems, and qualities are linked to some internal self. Our thoughts, problems, and qualities are products of culture and history. They are born within certain contexts throughout our lives. Externalizes thoughts, problems and qualities in therapeutic conversations.
Our identity is found in our inner self. Our identity is constantly being formed in our relationships with people, institutes and wider power relations.

Assumes that every therapeutic conversation (to some extent) shapes the identity of both the therapist and those who consult with us.

Makes alternative stories richer with different reflective practices.

Developes his work ethic by checking how therapeutic conversations affect the people who participate in them.

Our identities are always consistent. Our identity is constantly being made up in many (sometimes conflicting) stories. Assumes that our stories constitute our lives, and acts in a way that allows for alternative identity stories to be told in a rich way.
(Thomas, 2002)    

The road is made of the steps we take

What does a good theory consist of? It usually tells something about reality, knowledge, language, and human beings by creating practices, which we can use to change things either internally or externally. A good theory refers to meanings, which make it possible to join the world in a new way. In this sense, theories are rather ways of using language than final explanations of the nature of the truth.

In narrative therapy, there is no one specific theory about human behaviour, personality, normative individual development, or the causes of problems. If it has a theory at all, it is more a philosophical theory about he nature of knowledge, the social constructing of reality, and the creative potential of language. This view gives us clues of how therapeutic conversation works as instruments of change by organizing the brain and productive activity.

According to this view, 1) knowledge is always born in relationships. We live in a world of meanings, which is constructed with the help of language in a specific historical and social context. 2) Meanings form stories that give significance to our lives and experiences. 3) Life is multi-storied. The people who come to therapy live a life dominated by a so-called problem saturated story, which often hides several other alternative meanings and stories. 4) Narrative work does not attempt at solving anything, but rather working together to construct alternative meanings and experiences previously hidden by the problems. Described in a rich way, these meanings and experiences can create a positive space for new possibilities and actions.

Michael White, the most central creator of narrative therapy, says, “There’s no theory, just talking about ideas!” (White, 2003) He does not see the narrative method as a solid therapy approach, but rather as an open process of development that keeps changing. We create therapeutic approaches to strive for certainty. Professionally, that means comfort and a privileged position among people who think in the same way. Approaches create orthodoxy through power practices that make differences into polar opposites. Orthodoxy is born when belonging to something requires similarity. (Bird, 2004) Instead of constructing solid therapeutic models, we could also develop practices that emphasize constant movement and finding something new.

A Letter

Dear Tytti,

I’m writing you this letter, because I promised to, and because our meeting last Friday made an impression on me in many ways.

I rarely meet people of your age with such an open and functional relationship with their mothers as you seem to have. What do you think, how hopeful is your mother right now that you will find your way out of all the problems you’re experiencing? How about your father?

After you left, I was left thinking about how miserable the effects of Anxiety in your life must feel and how much power it has taken from you so far.

It was also great to hear about the three most important things in your life: health, your desire to find a career where people respect you as a person, and your decision to travel to Australia and do something different and independent. What ways of living do these wishes, values and dreams express? You said that Anxiety is the opposite of all these things and that despite everything, you have been eating because of the future and the people you love. What do you think this says about You as a person and the things that you, despite your problems, consider important and are willing to defend? I wonder if you remember what your life was like before the anxiety. What aspects of that life has Anxiety managed to belittle the most? Are there sides of you that you used to enjoy but that lately have been overlooked? What are they like?

You told me that the picture or story that our society presents of a ”normative” female body irritates you, because you would like to achieve it to feel accepted and control your body independently. On the other hand, you also feel how difficult that would be in your situation, because you would also like to eat because of the things that matter to you. You are truly in the middle of a great internal conflict and it is possible that this is exactly what your Anxiety feeds on.

Or what do you think?

I was also left wondering why problems with eating are more common among women than men in our society. Who is the authority that defines what a female body must be like? How does this defining happen? What is the most effective way in which Eating Problems often manipulate the most talented women of their generation? I was also wondering if you ever live outside of your conflict these days. What is your life like then? What is the colour of your freedom?

You may answer these questions or leave them unanswered. I believe that you know inside how you want to deal with this. You may also choose to show this letter to your mother, or not show it to her.

I’m looking forward to our next meeting.

Kind regards,
Tapio Malinen

I wrote the above letter to a 15-year-old girl, who consulted me together with her mother. Tytti was concerned about her anxiety, which was in connection with eating. She wanted to eat, so that she would not cause concern in her family members, so that she could be healthy and travel to Australia to work there one day. At the same time she did not want to eat, so that she could look like the women in the beauty ads and feel like her friends accept her. She felt she was in a complete dead end in this situation.

Our meeting reminded me strongly of what Foucault calls ”the micro-fascism of everyday life”. It also made me start to ask: how am I using the power and authority included in my new poststructuralist language? How could I deconstruct my current desire to create poststructuralist discussions? Why am I using my privileged position as a therapist to give voice to what Foucault calls “subjugated knowledge”?

For some reason, I believe that Tytti also possesses the answers to these questions.



Anderson, H. 1997: Conversation, Language and Possibilities. Basic Books.

Bird, J. 2004: Talk that Sings. Therapy in new linguistic key. Edge Press.

Hoffman, L. 2002: Family Therapy. An Intimate History. Norton.

Thomas, L. 2002: Poststructuralism and therapy – what´s it all about? The International Journal of
Narrative Therapy and Community Work. No. 2.

White, M. 2003: International Narrative Training Program 2002-2003. Dulwich Centre,
Adelaide, 4.12.


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