23 November 2010

Structure of autobiographical narratives

Considering that the autobiographical narratives, which form part of a life story organized according to cultural life scripts, are linguistic resources, it is important to know how they are internally structured. In Labov’s theory of narrative structure (Labov & Waletzky, 1967, Labov, 1997, 2006), a narrative is a specific and particular way of story-telling, in which the order of a sequence of independent clauses is interpreted as the order of the events referred to (Labov 2006: 37). Moreover, the extraordinary events that give shape to narratives must be causally linked to each other.
According to Labov (2006), the mere existence of a temporal juncture between two independent clauses is the basic condition that every narrative must fulfill. A temporal juncture can be defined as a relation of before-and-after that holds between two independent clauses and matches the order of the events in time (Labov 2006: 37). In addition, narratives are generally composed of the following elements: i) an abstract that functions by inserting the narrative; ii) an orientation that provides categories such as setting, participants and actions within the story-world; iii) a complicating action that justifies the relevance and appropriateness of the narrative as self-experience which goes against routine social episodes; iv) a resolution that basically indicates the point when the narrator has come to the close of the sequence of actions; v) an evaluation of actions that can be proposed by the juxtaposition of real and potential events and refers to the reason for telling such a narrative within a specific interaction; and finally vi) a coda which returns to point in time in which the self-experience is being narrated and points out the relevance of the story by connecting it with everyday life or other events that fall outside the story frame.

Labov, W. (1973). Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: UPenn Press.

Willam Labov’s homepage: http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~wlabov/
We must bear in mind that the order of the events that Labov refers to does not necessarily match with the order of events in autobiographical memory (e.g. flashbacks). And it is important to make clear that the order of the above described narrative sections may vary significantly in oral narratives. This occurs because there is not a direct correlation between the representation of events in multimodal situation models (van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983, Zwaan & Madden, 2004) in episodic memory and how language users reconstruct and communicate them in actual narratives.
Labov’s theory is a conceptual tool to structure and analyze actual narratives, considered as linguistic realizations. His proposal on processes on narrative pre-construction is appropriate to particularly explain the relationship between silences and topic change in oral narratives. Yet, it does not account for the key role that memory, socially shared knowledge or multimodal interaction plays in the shaping of narratives. All in all, I believe that Labov’s approach may be useful to complement socio-cultural approaches to autobiographical memory and narrative which lack a linguistic theory.
Labov, W. (1997). Some further steps in narrative analysis. Journal of Narrative and Life History 7.1-4, 395-415.
Labov, W. (2006). Narrative pre-construction. Narrative Inquiry 16 (1), 37-45.
Labov, W. & Waletzky, J. (1967). Narrative analysis. In J. Helm (Ed.), Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts (pp.12-44). Seattle: University of Washington Press.
van Dijk, T.A. & Kintsch, W. (1983). Strategies of Discourse Comprehension. New York: Academic Press.
Zwaan, R. A. & Madden, C.J. (2004). Updating situation models. Journal of Experimental Psychology : Learning, Memory and Cognition, 30, 283-288.

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