The Good Old Days


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The Good Old Days the construction and communication of life stories by the very old
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viii, 133 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Wallace, J. Brandon, 1963-
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Subjects / Keywords:
Older people -- Psychology   ( lcsh )
Memory in old age   ( lcsh )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1990.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 127-132).
Statement of Responsibility:
by J. Brandon Wallace.
General Note:
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University of Florida
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aleph - 001692900
notis - AJA4974
oclc - 25215749
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Full Text







Copyright 1990


Jerius Brandon Wallace

To Lisa:

for knowing when to be patient and when not to be,

and Colby:

my joy and inspiration.


Thanks are owed to many people and organizations.

First, let me thank the 30 respondents whose participation

made the study possible. I would also like to express my

appreciation to the Alachua County Older American's Council,

Foster Grandparents, the Gainesville Senior Recreation

Center, and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program for their

assistance in locating several of the participants. Of

course, I would like to thank my committee for their

interest and enthusiasm, especially Jay Gubrium, my chair,

for his insight and encouragement throughout the project.

Most of all I want to thank Lisa, my wife, for her patience

and understanding, and my son, Colby, for his inspiration.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS....................................... iv

ABSTRACT.............................. ................... vii


1 INTRODUCTION...................................... 1

Theme of the Study................................. 1
Outline of the Study............................... 2


Professional Views of Reminiscence................ 7
Butler's Interpretation of Reminiscence........... 10
The Impact of Butler's Work....................... 13


Empirical Critiques............................... 18
The Critique of Developmentalism.................. 25


Interpretive and Phenomenological Approaches
to Aging........................................ 30
Interpretive and Phenomenological Approaches
to Life Stories......... ......................... 34
Documenting the Process of Life Narrative
Construction ........................... ... ...... 43

5 METHOD OF PROCEDURE............................... 49

The Grounded Theory Approach...................... 49
Autobiographical and Life Narrative Methods........ 53
The Study......................................... 56

6 CONSTRUCTING LIFE NARRATIVES...................... 68

Interactional Contingencies and the Telling of
Life Stories ......... ......................... 68
Cultural Requirements, Institutional Spheres,
and Storytelling............................... 89


The Extended Life Narrative...................... 96
The Anecdote..................................... 101
The Synopsis.................................... 103
The Short Answer................................. 105
Mixing Types of Narrative Communication.......... 106
The Types of Narrative Communication in Brief.... 109
On the Social Organization of Narrative
Communication................................. 111

8 CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS..................... 114

A Theoretical Vocabulary for Analyzing
Life Stories.................................. 114
Implications ..................................... 118
Suggestions for Further Research................. 124

REFERENCES........................................... 127

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH................................ 133

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



J. Brandon Wallace

December, 1990

Chairman: Jaber F. Gubrium, Ph.D.
Major Department: Sociology

Based on life narrative data collected from near-

centenarians, this study challenges the cultural belief that

older persons are natural storytellers. Its focus is on the

cultural assumption that old people frequently talk about

the past. Specifically, it presents a challenge to Robert

Butler's widely accepted developmental explanation of

reminiscence in the elderly. Butler argues that talk about

the past is endemic to old age, occurring as the result of a

natural and universal developmental process.

The findings of this study challenge Butler's position

by demonstrating the social nature of the elderly's talk

about the past. Data are presented which suggest that as

the aged encounter others in everyday life, they are

frequently challenged to tell stories about the past. They

may be asked to do so directly, or situations may make the


telling of such stories necessary. Stories about the past

are shown to be a form of situated social discourse, growing

out of, and shaped by, the descriptive expectations of

narrative challenges posed during the course of social

interaction. It is argued that if the aged talk about the

past more than others, it is because they are expected and

challenged to do so.

The position adopted in this study also suggests that

the cultural myth of the older person as storyteller may

itself be a factor in the narrative activity of the aged.

By shaping people's expectations of the elderly, the myth

not only increases the likelihood that older persons will be

challenged to tell stories about the past, but also the

likelihood that their discourse will be construed as past-




Theme of the Study

This study addresses the common belief that older

persons are natural storytellers who frequently tell stories

about the past. Specifically, it challenges Robert Butler's

(1963, 1974; Lewis and Butler, 1974) widely accepted

explanation of the natural tendency of the elderly to talk

about the past. Butler argues that talk about the past is

not only endemic to old age, but occurs as the result of a

natural and universal developmental process in which older

persons review their past life as a means of preparing for

their imminent death. For Butler, talking about the past

is a normal and natural part of old age.

Butler's position is challenged by arguing that as the

aged encounter others in everyday life they are frequently

given the opportunity to recount their life story, being

challenged to do so directly by others or indirectly by the

social situations in which they are located. From this

point of view, stories about the past are a form of socially

situated narrative discourse, growing out of, and shaped by,

the descriptive expectations of narrative challenges posed

during the course of social interaction. Hence, if the

elderly talk about the past frequently, it is because they

are expected and challenged to do so in their daily

encounters, not because of psycho-developmental processes.

This suggests that the cultural myth that older persons

are natural and prolific storytellers, which Butler accepted

and sought to explain, may itself be a factor in the

narrative activity of the aged. By shaping people's

expectations of the elderly and making storytelling an

appropriate behavior in old age, the myth not only increases

the likelihood that older persons will be challenged to tell

stories about the past, but also the likelihood that such

stories, when told, will be noted as examples of typical

behavior in old age. The cultural myth of the older person

as a natural storyteller is self-perpetuating.

Outline of the Study

As background, Chapter 2 discusses the popular image of

the older person as a natural and prolific storyteller,

highlighting the common assumption that the aged are

continually thinking and talking about the past. This is

followed by a discussion of how reminiscence and talk about

the past have been viewed by scholars in aging with a

particular focus on Robert Butler's (1963, 1974; Lewis and

Butler, 1974) work. Butler's psycho-developmental

explanation for reminiscence holds that talking about the

past is a natural outcome of a universal process of life

review. His position is a reaction to the belief that

reminiscence is a form of escapism or a sign of mental

deterioration, a common view before Butler's work appeared.

This reinterpretation of reminiscence had a dramatic effect

on gerontology and geriatric practice, particularly in

geriatric psychotherapy where life review therapy and life

cycle group therapy have become widely accepted therapeutic

techniques with the elderly.

Chapter 3 addresses current critiques of Butler's life

review concept and the developmental thought on which it is

based. The chapter begins by discussing empirical

critiques, drawing on the findings of several studies which

followed Butler's original essay on reminiscence and the

life review. These studies questioned aspects of Butler's

thought such as the relationship of chronological age to the

onset of the life review, the link between the life review

and reminiscence, and the benefits of reminiscence and life

review for the elderly. Most important for the present

project is the discussion of the interpretive critique of

developmentalism and its implication for Butler's psycho-

developmental thought. This critique challenges the

theoretical assumptions on which Butler's concept is based

and helps to explain some of the inconsistencies in

empirical research.

The fourth chapter presents the study's theoretical

framework. The chapter builds on interpretive and

phenomenological approaches to aging and life change and

draws insight from scholars who have used life narrative

techniques in their own work. It concludes by outlining the

theoretical principles that guide the study and by

discussing the application of these principles to the

construction and communication of narrative accounts of the


Chapter 5 outlines the method of procedure. First, a

general discussion of qualitative and ethnographic

approaches to social scientific research is presented

stressing the inductive, theory-building character of such

techniques (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Next,

autobiographical, life history, and life narrative research

methods are briefly described with emphasis placed on the

use of the life story as a research tool. Finally, specific

details of the data-gathering and data analysis procedures

used in the present study are discussed.

The presentation of the substantive findings begins in

Chapter 6. It is shown how various interactional

contingencies and structural factors affect the construction

and communication of life narratives. The interactional

contingencies discussed include the narrative challenge and

the narrator/audience exchange. The structural factors

addressed include the effect of participation in various

institutional spheres and the cultural requirements of


In Chapter 7 a conceptual scheme for analyzing

different ways of communicating narrative information is

developed. Based on patterns of narrative presentation

observed in the data, four specific types of narrative

communication are identified and described. These include

the extended life narrative, the anecdote, the synopsis, and

the short answer. These types are distinguished from each

other based on the amount of detail they include and the

span of time they cover. The scheme presented provides an

analytical tool for classifying and ordering life narrative


The final chapter summarizes and reflects on the

significance of the study's findings. A theoretical

vocabulary for analyzing life narrative construction is

presented and the implications of the findings of the study

are discussed. Particularly, the implication for geriatric

psychotherapy of viewing the elderly's talk about the past

as a social activity, rather than as an expression of normal

psychological development, is considered. The broader

implications of the study for sociological theory and

research are also discussed. The chapter concludes by

discussing some of the limitations of the present study and

offering suggestions for additional research and future

theoretical development.


Among the many beliefs about old age common to American

culture is that reminiscing and talking about the past come

naturally to the older person. The propensity of the

elderly for telling stories about what life was like "in the

good old days" is seen as an integral part of growing and

being old (Kaminsky, 1984). Images of grandfathers telling

their grandchildren about walking several miles to school,

family matriarchs relating stories to granddaughters and

great-granddaughters about cooking in pot-bellied stoves,

and old war buddies sitting around and swapping stories

about "the big one," are common perceptions of old age and

the elderly in American culture.

Such perceptions are reflected in the public media

where the elderly are often portrayed as prolific, though

not always masterful, storytellers. Sophia, the aged mother

on the popular television situation comedy, "The Golden

Girls," is constantly telling stories of her younger days in

Sicily, while Rose, another character on the show,

frequently bores her roommates with accounts of what life

was like in her childhood home of St. Olaf. A recent

episode of "The Cosby Show" elicits laughter by portraying

Dr. Huckstable as able to recite, word for word, stories

told by his father. Popular music also testifies to the

belief as a recent country western song which has

grandchildren singing "Grandpa Tell Us About the Good Old

Days" demonstrates. Even children's stories portray the

elderly as habitually thinking and talking about the past

(Werner, 1988). These portrayals reflect the perception of

older people as ready and willing to draw on their wealth of

experiences to produce a barrage of stories with which they

bombard those around them, even when their audience has

heard the stories a hundred times over.

Professional Views of Reminiscence

Gerontology and geriatric practice reflects this common

perception. Most gerontologists take it for granted that

reminiscence is a common activity among the aged. Rather

than investigating the relative frequency of the behavior,

they focus their efforts on explaining why people turn to

reminiscence in old age, or on evaluating the emotional and

psychological impact of reminiscence. For example,

Havighurst argued in the late 1950s that the elderly

frequently resort to reminiscing as a defense against, what

he calls, the "insults" of aging.

Since the present is uncomfortable and the future does
not seem to promise much, it is natural for the self to
turn to the past and dwell on the pleasures and
triumphs of bygone days. Why think about today's
fading beauty when one can live over in retrospect the
parties and dances when one was the most beautiful, the
most charming of persons? Why worry about the

complaints that are being made about one's work today
when one can remember the days when one was the most
productive and successful of workers? And if the
reality of yesterday was not rosy enough, one can add
color in one's fantasies. One can imagine that one had
a dozen beaux and all handsome and dashing, instead of
the one or two plain and conservative boys that came
around for Saturday night dates. One can imagine that
one had a fine, profitable business and many civic
responsibilities, instead of the struggling little shop
that was always on the edge of bankruptcy (Havighurst,
1959, p. 445).

As Havighurst saw it, reminiscence is a "natural"

response to the many losses and declines accompanying the

last stage of life. He argues that it is understandable

that the elderly find the present less appealing than the

past, and might prefer to think and talk about the days of

their youth rather than facing the realities of old age.

Yet, while Havighurst is sympathetic to the plight of

the aged, he sees reminiscence as an "irrational defense"

(Havighurst, 1959, p. 445) against the numerous threats

posed by growing old. He argues that, rather than escaping

to the past, more productive means of coping with the

realities of late life should be adopted such as accepting

and dealing with physical limitations or finding new friends

to replace old ones that have been lost.

However, Havighurst was not alone in viewing

reminiscence negatively. Coleman points out that many

textbooks on aging suggest that reminiscence in the elderly

is not only escapist, but is often the result of mental

deterioration. He offers the following excerpt from Lidz as

an illustration.

Elderly people, as is well known, spend an increasing
amount of time talking and thinking about the past. It
seems natural that as they feel out of the run with
things, they should turn back to the days when life was
more rewarding and enjoyable, and when events had a
deeper impact on them. When the future holds little,
and thinking about it arouses thoughts of death,
interest will turn regressively to earlier years.
Still, in most persons who become very old, the defect
is more profound. The person becomes unable to recall
recent events and lives more and more in the remote
past, as if a shade were being pulled down over recent
happenings, until nothing remains except memories of
childhood. This type of memory failure depends on
senile changes in the brain and is perhaps the most
characteristic feature of senility. We do not properly
understand why earlier memories are retained while more
recent happenings are lost (Lidz, 1968; as cited in
Coleman, 1986, pp. 9-10).

In fact, during the 1950s and much of the 1960s, most

professionals and practitioners in the field of aging felt

that reminiscence, while understandable, was either an

undesirable and unhealthy escape to the happier days of

youth, or was a sign of some underlying psychological

disorder brought on by advancing age. In either case, as

the following testimonial indicates, those concerned with

the welfare of the elderly sought to discourage them from

talking about the past and tried to focus their attention on

the pressing realities of the here-and-now.

I remember well being taught by our consulting
psychiatrists and the senior social work staff about
the tendency of our residents to talk about childhood
in the shtetls of East Europe or arrival at Ellis
Island or early years on the Lower East Side of New
York. At best this tendency was seen as an
understandable, although not entirely healthy,
preoccupation with happier times, understandable
because these old and infirm people walked daily in the
shadow of death. At worst, "living in the past" was
viewed as pathology--regression to the dependency of
the child, denial of the passage of time and the
reality of the present, or evidence of organic

impairment of the intellect. It was even said that
"remembrance of things past" could cause or deepen
depression among our residents, and we were to
divert the old from their reminiscing through
activities like bingo and arts and crafts (Dobrof,
1984, pp. xvii-xviii).

Butler's Interpretation of Reminiscence

In 1963, Robert Butler published his seminal essay "The

Life Review: An Interpretation of Reminiscence in the

Elderly" which radically changed the way reminiscence was

viewed by professionals in aging. Arguing against the

negative view of reminiscence prevalent at the time, Butler

states that

Reminiscence is seen by some investigators as occurring
beyond the older person's control: It happens to him;
it is spontaneous, nonpurposive, unselective, and
unbidden. Others view reminiscence as volitional and
pleasurable, but hint that it provides escapism. Thus
purposive reminiscence is interpreted only as helping
the person to fill the void of later life.
Reminiscence is also considered to obscure the older
person's awareness of the realities of the present. It
is considered of dubious reliability, although
curiously, "remote memory" is held to be "preserved"
longer than "recent memory." In consequence,
reminiscence becomes a pejorative, suggesting
preoccupation, musing, aimless wandering of the mind
(Butler, 1963, p. 66).

Butler attributes this tendency to view reminiscence as

a pathology to its association with institutionalized


The prevailing tendency is to identify reminiscence in
the aged with psychological dysfunction and thus regard
it essentially as a symptom. One source of this
distorted view is the emphasis in available literature
on the occurrence of reminiscence in the mentally
disordered and institutionalized aged. Of course, many
of the prevailing ideas and "findings" concerning the
aged and aging primarily stem from the study of such
samples of elderly people (Butler, 1963, p. 65).

Instead of seeing reminiscence as escapist, or as a

sign of mental and emotional decay, Butler presents the

concept of the life review and offers an alternative

explanation for reminiscence in which thinking and talking

about the past are seen as outward manifestations of an

"inner experience or mental process of reviewing one's life"

(Butler, 1963, p. 65). Butler describes the life review as

a naturally occurring, universal mental process
characterized by the progressive return to
consciousness of past experiences, and, particularly,
the resurgence of unresolved conflicts; simultaneously,
and normally, these revived experiences and conflicts
can be surveyed and reintegrated. Presumably this
process is prompted by the realization of approaching
dissolution and death, and the inability to maintain
one's sense of personal invulnerability. It is further
shaped by contemporaneous experiences and its nature
and outcome are affected by the life-long unfolding of
character (Butler, 1963, p. 66).

For Butler, the life review is a natural and universal

process prompted by the realization of the nearness of

death. While he does not state so explicitly in his

original formulation, he sees the life review as an

essential developmental task to be completed as a part of

normal aging (Lewis and Butler, 1974). Its purpose is to

provide a means of finding new and significant meaning for

life in the face of impending death. As Butler writes,

As the past marches in review, it is surveyed,
observed, and reflected upon by the ego.
Reconsideration of previous experiences and their
meanings occurs, often with comcomitant revised or
expanded understanding. Such reorganization of past
experience may provide a more valid picture, giving new
and significant meaning to one's life; it may also
prepare one for death, mitigating one's fears (Butler,
1963, p. 68).

The end result of the life review is a reorganization of the

older person's personality.

[I]t seems likely that in a majority of the elderly a
substantial reorganization of the personality does
occur. This may help to account for the evolution of
such qualities as wisdom and serenity, long noted in
some of the aged (Butler, 1963, p. 68).

In this connection, Butler's thought is similar to that

of other developmental theorists (Neugarten, 1964; Levinson

et al., 1978), particularly that of Erik Erikson (1963).

For Erikson late life development is characterized by an

eighth, and final, identity crisis precipitated by an

awareness of the nearness of death and the finitude of life.

Realizing the end of life to be near, older people begin to

look back at and evaluate their life as a whole resulting in

a struggle between ego-integrity ("the acceptance of one's

one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that

by necessity permitted no substitutions") and despair ("the

feeling that time is now short, too short for the attempt to

start another life and to try out alternate roads to

integrity") (Erikson, 1963, pp. 268-269). If ego-integrity

is achieved, the older person develops a sense of "wisdom"

and death is accepted as the inevitable outcome of a full

life. If not, and despair results, anxiety, depression, and

fear will fill the older person's remaining days. Hence,

for Erikson and Butler, the final developmental task

involves a looking back to, and taking stock of, the past in

order to better understand the present and to accept an

inevitable future.

Clearly, Butler's argument grows out of a developmental

orientation. He proposes that as people age and death

becomes a part of the not-too-distant future, they take

stock of their life by reviewing its events, resolving past

conflicts, and reintegrating its diversity into a coherent,

consistent, and meaningful whole. Butler argues it is

reasonable to assume that during the process of review, the

aging individual is likely to think and talk about the past

more frequently than before. There is nothing pathological

or abnormal about an older person's reminiscing; on the

contrary, it is a sign of health, an indication that the

life review is occurring and that the older adult's

psychological development is proceeding normally. Thus,

reminiscence becomes a positive part of normal development

rather than an indication of decline and deterioration.

The Impact of Butler's Work

Butler's reinterpretation of reminiscence had a

significant impact on the field of aging. Following the

publication of his essay, reminiscence began to be viewed as

a normal and natural part of old age. No longer was it

necessary for those concerned with the elderly to dissuade

them from thinking and talking about the past; instead, the

elderly could freely and openly share their reminiscences,

and could even be encouraged to do so. As Dobrof explains,

In a profound sense, Butler's writings liberated both
the old and the nurses, doctors, and social workers;
the old were free to remember, to regret, to look
reflectively at the past and to try to understand it.
And we were free to listen, and to treat rememberers
and remembrances with the respect they deserved,
instead of trivializing them by diversion to a bingo
game (Dobrof, 1984, p. xviii).

Not only did his reinterpretation of reminiscence make

thinking and talking about the past clinically permissible,

the reconceptualization suggested that such activity could

have significant positive effects for the elderly by

facilitating psychological development in the later years.

If, as Butler argued, the life review leads to a

reintegration and reorganization of personality producing a

sense of serenity and wisdom in old age and the peaceful

acceptance of death, clearly it makes sense to encourage

this process whenever possible, especially among those

suffering from depression or other forms of psychological

disorder. Accordingly, Butler pursues the therapeutic

implications of the life review and eventually develops two

widely accepted techniques for utilizing the life review in

psychotherapy with the elderly--life review therapy and life

cycle group therapy (Butler, 1974; Lewis and Butler, 1974).

Life review therapy involves the use of a variety of

methods designed to encourage an aging individual to look

back at, and thoughtfully review, his or her life. Some of

the methods Butler suggests include written or taped

autobiographies; pilgrimages and trips to places of

significance; reunions of various types; tracing

geneologies; reviewing scrapbooks, photo albums, and other

memorabilia; summation of a life's work or major

accomplishments; and projects designed to preserve ethnic or

historical identity (Lewis and Butler, 1974).

Butler stressed that the role of the life review

therapist is not to initiate the life review. On the

contrary, it is a natural developmental process that begins

of its own accord as aging individuals become aware of the

nearness of death. Instead, the life review therapist "taps

into an already ongoing self analysis" (Lewis and Butler,

1974, p. 166) and tries to assist the aging individual in

successfully working through the life review process. By

carefully guiding and structuring the life review, the

therapist can help to resolve past conflicts and deal with

whatever troubling past occurrences preoccupy the

individual. Once these problems have been addressed, the

individual, again with the aid of the therapist, can

reinterpret, reorganize, and reintegrate life into a

coherent and meaningful whole. This "reorganization"

produces the sense of wisdom and serenity in old age that

Butler sees as the ultimate goal of the life review (Butler,

1963, 1974; Lewis and Butler, 1974).

In life cycle group therapy, groups rather than

individuals become the focus of therapeutic efforts. As

originally conceived (Butler, 1974; Lewis and Butler, 1974),

therapy groups involve individuals of various ages who are

experiencing some form of psychological crisis such as

depression, anxiety, alcoholism, or drug abuse. The purpose

of the therapy is to provide a means for working through or

adjusting to the various crises being experienced by group

members, and the ultimate goal "is the amelioration of

suffering, the overcoming of disability, and the opportunity

for new experiences of intimacy and self-fulfillment"

(Butler, 1974, p. 535).

For the elderly, life cycle group therapy offers an

opportunity to share life experiences among themselves and

with younger group members. Further, the groups encourage

the "creative use of reminiscence" and thus facilitate the

life review, allowing the aged to develop and share with

others a "sense of the entire life cycle" (Butler, 1974, p.

535). Butler argues that the age integration of these

groups can serve to "recapitulate the family, something

woefully missing for many older people" (Butler, 1974, p.


Understandably, the two therapeutic techniques had

great appeal for those concerned with the mental and

emotional well-being of the elderly. For the first time,

practitioners had positive therapeutic resources

specifically designed for use with the elderly. Moreover,

the techniques required only limited resources and little


additional training or expertise on the part of the

therapist. Rather than abandoning the aged and treating all

forms of mental disorder in old age as manifestations of

senility, steps could be taken to actually improve their

mental health. As a result, Butler's ideas and the

therapeutic techniques he developed were widely adopted by

geriatric psychotherapists, social workers, and other

practitioners, eventually becoming an accepted and expected

part of the care and treatment of the aged.


Although Butler's ideas are widely accepted and

incorporated into geriatric practice, he was not without his

critics. Several critiques have emerged over the past two

and a half decades that have raised important questions

regarding the concept of the life review and Butler's

interpretation of reminiscence.

Empirical Critiques

Following Butler's original essay, a number of scholars

conducted research that tested Butler's major premises.

Primarily, the research focused on (1) the relationship of

chronological age to reminiscence and to the life review;

(2) the link between the life review and reminiscence; and

(3) the benefits of reminiscence and the life review for the


Chronological Age, Reminiscence, and the Life Review

One of the central premises of Butler's thought is that

reminiscence increases in late life as a manifestation of

the life review, which he conceives of as a natural and

universal developmental task associated with old age and

precipitated by an awareness of the nearness of death.

While he admits that the life review might occur at younger

ages for those who anticipate death, such as the fatally ill

or those condemned to death, he nonetheless argues that it

is most common to old age.

The life review is more commonly observed in the aged
because of the actual nearness of life's termination--
and perhaps also because during retirement not only is
time available for self-reflection, but also the
customary defensive operation provided by work has been
removed (Butler, 1963, p. 67).

While the nearness of death is the main precipitating factor

of the life review, time for reflecting upon and evaluating

the past also is essential. In old age, the two factors

converge to make the life review a likely occurrence.

Research focusing on the relationship between age and

thinking and talking about the past has produced mixed

results. While Havighurst and Glaser (1972) state that

reminiscence begins as early as 10 years of age, they, along

with others (McMahon and Rhudick, 1964; Boylin et al.,

1976), emphasize the extent to which reminiscence occurs

among the elderly without providing direct comparisons to

other age groups. However, while two studies that did

provide such comparisons (Lieberman and Falk, 1971; Revere

and Tobin, 1980) show that the older persons tend to

reminisce more frequently than did middle-aged persons,

research by other scholars (Coleman, 1974) points to no

systematic age differences in the onset of reminiscence or

life review processes. Using methodological approaches that

focus on thoughts about the past rather than verbal

communication, Cameron (1972) and Giambria (1977), find

little or no age differences in reminiscence among their

respondents. Other scholars (Lieberman and Falk, 1971;

Noyes and Kletti, 1977; Marshall, 1980, 1986) provide data

that suggest that critical life reviews occur at every age

in response to diverse life crises, such as major life

transitions, the death of friends or relatives, or close

encounters with death. As Molinari and Reichlin (1985)

state after an extensive review of literature, it appears

that no definitive conclusion can be drawn about the

relationship of reminiscence or the life review to

chronological age.

The Link Between the Life Review and Reminiscence

Butler's work suggests that reminiscence is the outward

manifestation of the life review. However, other scholars

often distinguish between reminiscence that appears to be

related to the life review and other forms of thought and

talk about the past.

In one of the earliest empirical studies of

reminiscence in the elderly, McMahon and Rhudick (1964)

divide respondents in their sample into three different

types of reminiscers: those who tell stories of the past to

entertain and inform; those who glorify the past and

depreciate the present in order to make previous

accomplishments more salient to their present self-image;

and those who dwelt on past failures, conflicts, and guilt.

Only in the latter group does reminiscence seem related to

Butler's conception of the life review. Similarly, Coleman

(1974) categorizes reminiscence as either simple

reminiscence, informative reminiscence, or the life review.

According to Coleman, simple reminiscence is most common and

involves a casual recalling of the past with little purpose

or motivation. Informative reminiscence is drawing on the

past in order to teach or inform others and is similar to

McMahon and Rhudick's storytelling. The life review

involves a deliberate and purposive reevaluation of the past

as envisioned by Butler. LoGerfo (1980) distinguishes

between informative reminiscing which, again, is similar to

McMahon and Rhudick's storytelling; evaluative reminiscing

which most closely resembles Butler's conception of the life

review; and obsessive reminiscing which results when the

reminiscer is overwhelmed by past guilt or uses reminiscence

as a defense against an ungratifying present.

For all these scholars, life review reminiscence, where

the past is intentionally reviewed and evaluated, is only

one of several distinct forms of reminiscence, and

interestingly, it is among the least common. Hence, all

argue that it is difficult to see reminiscence as indicative

of a universal developmental process as Butler suggests

(McMahon and Rhudick, 1964; Coleman, 1974).

The Benefits of Reminiscence and the Life Review

Butler (1963) argues that the life review has positive

consequences for the elderly, enabling the resolution of

past conflicts and the reintegration of the individual's

past life into a coherent, consistent, and meaningful whole.

A substantial body of research focuses on these proposed

benefits. Several studies find a positive relationship

between reminiscing and various measures of psychological

adjustment, well-being, or ego-integrity (Atkins, 1980;

Lewis, 1971; McMahon and Rhudick, 1964; Romaniuk, 1981;

Fallot, 1980; Havighurst and Glaser, 1972; Boylin et al.,

1976). For example, Havighurst and Glaser (1972) indicate

that frequent reminiscence, positive affect toward

reminiscing, and personal and social adjustment are

positively correlated. Atkins (1980) shows that widows who

reminisce are less likely to be depressed than those who do

not. Lewis (1971) notes that reminiscence appears to help

maintain a consistent self-image in the face of stress.

McMahon and Rhudick (1964), Revere and Tobin (1980), and

Romaniuk (1981) find that reminiscence seems to bolster

self-esteem in the aged while Boylin et al. (1976) report a

positive relationship between the amount of reminiscence and

ego-integrity. The latter study also suggests that

remembering painful or negative past life events is

associated with greater ego-integrity, leading the authors

to hold that life review reminiscence, where negative

aspects of the past are actively retrieved and reviewed,

does increase ego-integrity as Erikson (1963) and Butler

(1963) suggest.

Other studies, however, find little or no evidence of

the positive effects. Coleman (1974, 1986), for example,

points out that while those who are dissatisfied with their

past tend to reminisce more frequently than those who are

satisfied, there is little relationship between life review

activity and present adjustment. Similarly, Lieberman and

Falk (1971) see reminiscence activity as greatest among

persons in precarious or stressful situations, but they

detect no overall positive effects of looking back at the

past. Finally, McCarthy's (1977) findings provide no

indication that reminiscence serves to validate or sustain

the reminiscer's self-image as several researchers suggest

(McMahon and Rhudick, 1964; Lewis, 1971).

Scholars who find reminiscence to have positive

consequences for the aged, often attribute the benefits to

factors other than the resolution of conflict and

reintegration of the past. For example, McMahon and Rhudick

(1964) point out that, of three types of reminiscers in

their study, the few who tend to dwell on past conflicts and

guilt are among the least well adjusted. While most

respondents reminisce extensively and appear to be well

adjusted, they suggest that the life review, as Butler

conceives it, does not account for much reminiscence and

appears to have little relation to successful adjustment in

old age. Rather, reminiscence seems to provide a means of

increasing sociability and functions as a tool for

entertaining and informing others about the past. Its

contribution to psychological health lies, not in its role

as a part of some developmental task, but in providing

reminiscers with the opportunity to enhance their self-

esteem by making a meaningful contribution to present social

situations. They also suggest that, in some cases,

reminiscence may serve an additional ego-building function

in late life by allowing reminiscers to compensate for the

ego-threatening present through a glorification of the past

and its accomplishments.

Lewis (1971) asks older respondents to describe

themselves as they used to be and as they are now. When

descriptions are challenged by the researchers, respondents

classified as reminiscers are more likely to bring their

present descriptions in line with their past descriptions

than those who are classified as non-reminiscers. Lewis

suggests that identification with the past serves as a

strategy to deal with current threats to elderly self-image.

Lieberman and Tobin (1983) argue that reminiscence is used

to create a personal myth or story that makes the aged

individual appear unique, if not heroic, and allows them to

see their life as worthwhile.

Like the life review, it involves considerable effort
and reorganization, but rather than reconciliation with
one's personal past, such reorganization is the

creation of an image. It serves, we believe, to
resolve a critical dilemma posed by the issues of old
age and leads not to serenity but rather to stability
(Lieberman and Tobin, 1983, p. 309).

All told, the value of reminiscence to the aged,

according to these scholars, lies not in its ability to

facilitate psychological development in late life. Rather,

reminiscence allows the aging person a means of creating and

sustaining a coherent and consistent self-image in the face

of loss and decline.

The Critique of Developmentalism

A number of scholars from both psychology and sociology

have recently criticized traditional views of aging and the

life course as portraying human life as too predictable and

failing to allow for diversity in human experience. This is

particularly true of developmental models like that which

Butler (1963, 1974; Lewis and Butler, 1974) espouses in

which behavioral change is viewed as the result of a

progression through natural, universal, and well-defined

developmental stages. Thus, indirectly, the critique of

developmentalism is also a critique of Butler's conception

of the life review.

Gergen's (1980) is perhaps the most cogent critique.

He points out that two general theoretical orientations have

dominated psychology's approach to aging and the life

course. One, which he terms the "stability account,"

assumes a degree of behavioral constancy throughout the life

course based on patterns of behavior developed during early

childhood. Founded on psychoanalytic and neoanalytic

theory, proponents of this approach argue that human

personality is relatively fixed and stable during adulthood

and that behavior and adjustment patterns in adults are

determined by consistent and enduring personality traits.

The second approach, which Gergen calls the "ordered change

account," includes traditional developmental theories of

aging, and holds that human behavior is far from stable and

consistent, but rather that it changes over time in

systematic and reliable ways. The theories of such scholars

as Piaget, Buhler, Werner, Erikson, and Kohlberg form the

foundation of the "ordered change" approach which presents

aging as a progression through well ordered and well-defined

developmental stages.

Gergen insists that there is an increasing recognition

that such views of aging are inadequate for addressing age

as experienced by ordinary people. He discusses a third

approach that appears to be emerging within psychology,

which he calls the "aleatoric account." The approach

rejects both the stability and ordered change accounts and

views human development and the life course as flexible and

diverse. Based on an awareness that patterns of human aging

vary dramatically across history, culture, cohorts, and even

within cohorts, Gergen suggests that the traditional views

of aging and human development are biased in arguing that

aging and development are the same for all people, at all

times, and in all cultures.

Gergen goes on to argue that the historical, cultural,

and ideological shortsightedness of traditional approaches

are the result of the underlying assumptions of a

positivistic science that requires human aging be viewed as

deterministic, shaped by internal mental conditioning or

external environmental constraints. Gergen and others

(Ryff, 1986; Cohler, 1982) reject this view in favor of one

that sees humans as active creators and manipulators of the

environment, who respond to their various historical,

cultural, and situational circumstances according to

constructed interpretations and understandings, in ways not

necessarily predetermined. The view requires a completely

new understanding of life change, one which replaces the

passive developing agent specified by the ordered change and

stability accounts with an active agent who both enters

into, and meaningfully constructs, the course of his or her

life (Ryff, 1986).

Lest it appear that psychologists stand alone in this

position, it should be pointed out that several social

scientists have raised similar criticisms (Bertaux, 1981a,

1981b; Ferrarotti, 1981; Gagnon, 1981; Kohli, 1981, 1986;

Gubrium and Buckholdt, 1977; Starr, 1983). For example,

Bertaux (1981b) argues that traditional approaches to the

sociology of the life course deny the diversity of human

experience and seek to explain away differences by forcing

the diverse experiences of individuals into previously

constructed models of the life course based on the premise

that age-related change is socially determined and

predictable. Like Gergen, Bertaux stresses that this is

based on the positivistic assumptions underlying traditional

social science, which require humans to be seen as passive

reactors to their social environment rather than as active

creators or shapers of that environment. Bertaux insists

that a new theoretical and methodological approach to the

study of the life course is needed, one that concentrates on

peoples' subjective experiences of aging and on how such

experiences are actively organized and given meaning in day-

to-day life.

Within both psychology and sociology there is a

recognition that developmental approaches to aging and the

life course are lacking because of their insistence on

portraying human life as stable, ordered, and predetermined.

Such a position is a direct challenge to Butler's argument

that the life review is a natural and universal

developmental task necessitated by the approach of death and

to his assertion that thought and talk about the past are a

normal and expected part of old age. If the position

advocated by these scholars is adopted, new understandings

and explanations of the elderly's talk about the past must

be sought that allow for human diversity and portray the


aged as actively involved in constructing and reconstructing

the meaning of growing old.


Interpretive and Phenomenological Approaches to Aging

Over the past decade and a half, a number of scholars

have suggested new theoretical approaches to replace

traditional theories of aging and life change. The

approaches emphasize the diversity and undetermined nature

of human life and focus on subjective experiences and

understandings of being and growing old in specific

historical and social circumstances. These scholars have

drawn their central premises from interpretive and

phenomenological theories which reject the positivistic

orientation of conventional social and behavioral science in

favor of a more subjective and humanistic approach. Drawing

on the philosophical and theoretical works of Husserl

(1931), Weber (1968, 1946), Mead (1934), and Schutz (1970),

and recent extensions of their work in Berger and Luckman

(1967), Blumer (1969), Goffman (1959, 1974), and Garfinkel

(1967), the approaches focus on the way age-related

phenomena are experienced and made meaningful using the

ordinary discourse of everyday life.

While a number of approaches have been developed, each

with their own emphases and concerns, there is substantial

common ground among them (Marshall, 1986; Ryff, 1986). In

her discussion of the interpretive and phenomenological

themes common to the approaches, Ryff holds that there are

five major premises on which they are based. With some

elaboration, these are as follows:

1. People are seen as active and intentional,
motivated by their own goals and purposes and, to
some degree, controlling their own destiny.

2. The world is made meaningful by everyday efforts
to ascribe and attach meaning to experiences,
including one's own and others' behaviors. People
respond to the world based on the meanings they
have given to it, and are continually constructing,
reconstructing, interpreting and reinterpreting,
these meanings as situations and contexts change.

3. Human conduct can only be understood from the point
of view of the person. To study reality as it is
experienced by people in everyday life requires a
focus on their subjective perception of the world.

4. The object of scholarly study should be the
Lebenswelt, (Husserl, 1931) or life world--the
concrete reality of a person's lived experience--
not scientific interpretations of that reality.
The emphasis is on how the world is experienced and
made meaningful by ordinary individuals as they go
about the course of daily life.

5. Knowledge, meaning, and social reality itself,
are relative, contingent on the specific social
situations in which life is produced or addressed.
Scientists cannot make sweeping generalities about
human experience, but must content themselves "with
the unending task of monitoring changing human
experiences in changing social worlds" (Ryff, 1986,
p. 47).

Although the precise ways in which these premises are

incorporated into the various approaches may differ, as may

the emphasis they receive, they nonetheless provide a

general idea of the major theoretical framework on which

interpretive and phenomenological approaches to aging are


To convey a better understanding of the implications of

interpretive and phenomenological principles for the study

of aging and life change, a detailed discussion of a

specific example is useful. In one of the earliest

formulations of this type of approach, Gubrium and Buckholdt

(1977) outline what they call the "social phenomenological"

approach to aging. They contrast their approach with more

conventional ones:

Although these [conventional] approaches have certain
important differences, they are similar in one critical
respect: In one sense or another, their views of life
change are based on conventional (popular) beliefs
about the positive reality of life change--life change,
its sources, and its consequences are believed to be
things separate from the subjects who experience them.
The ways in which the several approaches develop this
belief are what distinguish them, but the fact that
they all accept it distinguishes them from social
phenomenology (Gubrium and Buckholdt, 1977, pp. 4-5).

Further, social phenomenology "differs radically from the

conventional approach" in that

It makes no propositions about the possible effects of
such entities as maturity, jobs, prestige,
institutions, and class on people, for it sets aside
belief in them (brackets them) as things separate from
what people sense and say. It does not prejudge the
reality of their existence in the world of everyday
life. Rather the important question is how do members
of the world of everyday life collectively negotiate,
come to accept, and settle on such "entities" as real,
independent of themselves, and somehow subject to their
fate? To negotiate is to tacitly and collectively
entertain, interpret, and evaluate any number of
practical "theories" of entities in order to deal with
them as things (Gubrium and Buckholdt, 1977, p. 7).

In addressing aging, the social phenomenological

approach suspends belief in the conventional notion of a

relatively inflexible and inevitable stage-like

developmental process so that the truths about life change

become what people believe and say about it. Beliefs and

talk serve to accomplish human development. By documenting

the situated emergence of talk about age related phenomena,

the social phenomenologist "makes visible the process by

which all of these allegedly extrasubjective conventions are

collectively realized by people as 'things'" (Gubrium and

Buckholdt, 1977, p. 8). As Gubrium and Buckholdt explain,

Change, stages, and development have no existence save
what people make of them in talk and deed. The
important questions are not how people respond to life
change or proceed through stages, but how they
negotiate and generate the reality and meaning of
change, stages, and development; how they come to sense
them as things separate from themselves...and how they
subsequently respond to them as real things (Gubrium
and Buckholdt, 1977, pp. 8-9).

The focus is on how people use concepts like stages,

life change, and development to order and make sense of

their own and others' lives as they interact with one

another over time. Rather than taking stages and

development for granted, the social phenomenological

approach treats them as practical accomplishments, made

possible through interaction and social discourse.

Interpretive and Phenomenological Approaches to Life Stories

The approach to aging advocated by interpretive and

phenomenological scholars requires the development and use

of new and innovative research methodologies. Since the

surveys and experiments used by conventional social and

behavioral science rely on predetermined and pre-coded

experiential categories, they are inadequate for addressing

the process and interpretive contingencies of subjective

construction. Many of these scholars rely on more "open"

research methodologies, such as ethnographic field research

or the collection and analysis of first-hand personal

accounts of life experiences. These approaches allow

subjects to speak on their own behalf about the meaning,

organization, and structure of human life, which, in turn,

permits researchers to study people's efforts to "make

sense" of, and communicate diverse and unconnected life

experiences in the context of daily living (Cohler, 1982;

Kohli, 1981, 1986).

Life narrative research has become increasingly popular

in recent years (Bertaux, 1981a, 1981c; Bertaux and Kohli,

1984). In efforts to justify and clarify the use of

narrative techniques, several scholars have produced

important theoretical discussions of narrativity and its

relationship to aging and life change. Drawing on

phenomenology, interpretive sociology, and even literary

criticism, the work provides a foundation on which an

interpretive theory of life narratives can be built.

Life Stories as Social Constructions

A major point of phenomenological and interpretive

approaches to life narrative is that stories about the past

should not be treated as objective accounts of previous

experience, but rather, as current social constructions (or

reconstructions) of the past based on the practical needs

and concerns of the present (Cohler, 1982; Kohli, 1981,

1986; Kaufman, 1986). When producing life narratives,

people select from among their diverse life experiences the

things, people, and events most relevant and meaningful to

their current social circumstances and attempt to organize

these into a coherent, situationally appropriate narrative

(Cohler, 1982; Kohli, 1981, 1986). Life stories are not

simple recitations of past events retrieved from memory, but

are social products emerging out of, and shaped by, the

context in which they are produced (Matthews, 1979; Gubrium

and Buckholdt, 1977; Cohler, 1982, 1988; Kohli, 1981, 1986;

Bruner, 1987; Bertaux, 1981a, 1981b; Kaufman, 1986; Starr,

1983; Marshall, 1980, 1986).

This view of life stories parallels Collingwood's

(1959) "constructivist" approach to history. According to

Collingwood, most historians have relied on the

"commonsense" approach to history in that they assume that

the meaning of history can be found in the flow of

historical events themselves. Commonsense historians seek

to record and describe as precisely as possible objective

historical "facts" as reported by various "authorities" who,

in one way or another, have witnessed the events they

describe. Historiographical involvement is kept to a

minimum. While witnesses may offer an interpretation of the

events being reported, or perhaps some explanation as to how

the flow of events led to the current state of affairs, such

interpretations and explanations are seen as secondary to

the objective, unchanging reality of history which can only

be "discovered" if the right authorities are located and

their testimony faithfully recorded. The ultimate goal of

the commonsense historian is to arrive at the truth of


The constructivist historian, on the other hand, holds

that the past is created (and recreated) in the present as

the historian uses historical "facts" to make sense of both

the past and the present. Historical events are filtered

through the social, political, and cultural circumstances of

the present with the meaning of events shaped by the

historians current conception of them. Of course, this

means that as the present changes with social, cultural, and

political shifts, the past also changes. As Collingwood

puts it:

Because of these changes which never cease, however
slow they may appear to observers who take a short
view, every new generation must rewrite history in its

own way; every new historian, not content with giving
new answers to old questions, must revise the questions
themselves; and--since historical time is a river into
which none can step twice--even a single historian,
working at a single subject for a certain length of
time, finds when he tries to reopen an old question
that the question has changed (Collingwood, 1959, p.

From a constructivist point of view, historical events

have no meaning in themselves, but are given meaning based

on their relevance to the time, place, and concerns

presently being addressed. In this way, historians, like

life narrators, create and recreate the past as they reflect

upon diverse events, and select and assemble them in a way

that makes them meaningful to themselves and to those

reading or hearing their account.

Constraints on the Construction of Life Stories

Interpretive theorists also have stressed that life

stories are not assembled haphazardly. Stories are shaped

by a number of cultural and social factors that affect both

the form and content of the story being told. The factors

noted tend to be one of three types: the cultural

requirements of storytelling, the interactional

contingencies of the social situation in which the story is

told, and the organizational and institutional contexts in

which the narration takes place.

The cultural requirements of storytelling

Life stories, like other narrative presentations, are

constrained by cultural expectations about what is and is

not a "good" story. Two of the most important of these

cultural expectations are that life stories must be

consistent and connected, and that they must be worth


Consistency and connectedness. Cohler (1982) argues

that there are commonly shared cultural beliefs that life

narratives must make sense both to the narrator and to the

audience for which the narration is intended. Stories must

be "followable," that is, they must have a logic to them so

that the beginning, middle, and end appear connected and

sensible. If they fail to achieve connectedness, their

status as legitimate stories is put into question. While the

exact criteria of what constitutes a meaningful narrative

varies from one social setting to another and between

audiences, life narrators are, nonetheless, constrained to

develop consistent and understandable accounts (Gubrium and

Buckholdt, 1977; Cohler, 1982).

The consistency and connectedness criteria of the story

form is reinforced by the belief that human lives must in

some way be connected over time (Goffman, 1963; Gubrium and

Buckholdt, 1977; Cohler, 1982). A disconnected life

threatens individual identity and challenges cultural

assumptions about the unity of human personality. As

Goffman states,

Anything and everything an individual has done and can
actually do is understood to be containable within his
biography. No matter how big a scoundrel a man is,
no matter how false, secretive, or disjointed his
existence, or how governed by fits, starts, and

reversals, the true facts of his activity cannot be
contradictory or unconnected with each other (Goffman,
1963, pp. 62-63).

Persons called upon to produce a narrative account of

their lives are required to find some way of ordering and

making sense of diverse and unconnected life experiences

that will enable them to communicate these experiences to

others in a consistent and meaningful manner. This allows

life to appear connected and sensible to all concerned

(Gubrium and Buckholdt, 1977; Cohler, 1982). It involves a

reconstruction and reinterpretation of past and present

experiences so that, no matter how unconnected or

inconsistent, they may be fit into an integrated narrative

framework that allows narrators to interpret and "make

sense" of their lives. The meanings given to life events,

and to a life as a whole, then, are to a large extent

created by the telling of the story itself, with the

interpretive framework provided by the story shaping the

past as much the past shapes the telling of the story.

Tellability. According to Bauman (1986), another

cultural requirement of stories in general is that they must

be "tellable" (Bauman, 1986). Stories must be deemed worthy

of being told by both the narrator and the audience to which

the narration is addressed. In this sense, stories,

especially oral narratives, can be seen as performances

subject to evaluation based on common ideas about what makes

a good story. While conceptions of what makes a good story

will differ from setting to setting and from culture to

culture, it is generally assumed that both narrator and

audience share common expectations about what makes a story

good. Generally speaking, in American culture, good stories

should be interesting, entertaining, informative, or

instructive (Bauman, 1986). Narratives that do not qualify

as good stories should not be told.

It is safe to assume that the "tellability" requirement

holds for life stories as well, even though this has not

been explicitly addressed in the literature. If a narrator

perceives that the telling of a life story will enlighten,

inform, or entertain its proposed audience, the story is

likely to be told. If the narrator's perception is correct,

both the narrator and the audience are likely to benefit

from the exchange. If, on the other hand, a life story is

perceived as being boring, repetitious, or essentially

useless to the present situation, it most likely will not be

told. If it were to be told, it is likely not to be well

received. In this regard, telling are constrained by the

perceived worth of the story.

Interactional contingencies of the social situation

Phenomenological and interpretive scholars also have

emphasized that life narratives are created in ongoing

social interaction, arguing that the shape and form of a

narrative is, in part, determined by the contingencies of

the situation in which the story is told (Kohli, 1981, 1986;

Matthews, 1986; Gubrium and Buckholdt, 1977). People seldom

produce spontaneous narrative accounts, but tell stories

when circumstances allow for, request, or otherwise demand,

that such accounts be conveyed. Thus, the form and content

of life narratives is highly dependent upon the specific

circumstances that lead to its production.

Some of the specific circumstances discussed by these

scholars include the nature of the narrative task at hand

and the purpose for which the narrative is constructed

(Kohli, 1981; Matthews, 1986; Gubrium and Buckholdt, 1977,

1982), the roles, identities, and statuses of narrators and

their audiences (Kohli, 1981, 1986; Bauman, 1986; Cohler,

1982; Gubrium and Buckholdt, 1977, 1982), the means of

narrative communication employed (Bauman, 1986; Kohli,

1981), the specific interactional rules of the situation

(Bauman, 1986, Kohli, 1981), and the sequence of actions

leading up to the narrative event (Bauman, 1986).

Interactional and situational contingencies provide

structured guidelines for appropriate narrative

communication by informing the narrator of the kind of story

required and what past events are relevant and meaningful to

the present situation (Kohli, 1981).

Organizational and institutional embeddedness

Related research by interpretive scholars also suggests

that the construction of life narratives is shaped by the

organizational and institutional context in which the

narrative activity is located. Gubrium and his associates

(Gubrium, 1988, 1987; Gubrium and Holstein, 1990; Gubrium

and Buckholdt, 1977, 1982; Gubrium and Lynott, 1985), have

shown how treatment programs, accounting and reporting

procedures, and other organizational practices significantly

affect the way individual lives, families, and covert

behaviors, among other personal characteristics, come to be

viewed within a variety of health care settings. Perhaps

most important to the present discussion, they have shown how

the goals, structures, and needs of organizations, both

formal and informal, not only necessitate "biographical

work," (i.e., the development of organizationally-adequate

accounts of people's lives) but determine the form and

content of life narratives (Gubrium and Buckholdt, 1977).

While their discussion's focus is primarily on how people

within an organization are constrained to produce biographies

in organizationally-appropriate ways, their work suggests

that the production of first-hand life narrative accounts

also is shaped by the organizational contexts within which

the narrator and narrative activity are located.

In a similar argument, Kohli (1981, 1986), drawing

heavily on Schutz (1970), suggests that an individual's life

world--social reality as experienced and constructed by the

individual--is shaped by macrosocial conditions. These

macrosocial conditions provide various "structures of

meaning" or "domains of experience" which individuals use to

interpret and make sense of everyday life (See, Gerth and

Mills, 1953). These domains of experience allow the

individual to structure and organize past life events in an

intelligible and meaningful way based on the structuring

resources provided by particular organizations or

institutions. However, since any given individual may be

involved in numerous macrosocial organizations and

institutions, providing them with multiple domains of

experience, there also may be many different life narratives

for each person. The individual narrative account produced

on any given occasion depends on which particular domain of

experience (e.g., work, family, peer groups, or religion) is

relevant at the time of the telling.

Documenting the Process of Life Narrative Construction

Adopting the view of life narratives offered by

interpretive theorists, it cannot be assumed, as is often

the case, that the production of life narratives is

automatic. Rather, the task must be seen as a complex

project made necessary by the challenges of immediate social

situations and shaped by a variety of cultural and

organizational conditions. It is imperative that the actual

process of constructing and communicating the life story be

studied in detail. Ethnomethodology offers a theoretical

approach sensitive to the social construction process,

shifting the analytic emphasis away from the substance of

life narratives to the ordinary methods and techniques

people use to create situationally-appropriate life stories.

This provides an important theoretical foundation for

studying how life stories are constructed within specific

social situations.

Ethnomethodological Foundations

Ethnomethodologists argue that social reality (the

social world as experienced by social actors) is not

objective and external to social actors, but constituted

(constructed, ordered, and made meaningful) by interacting

individuals as they attempt to create and sustain a sense of

social order (Heritage, 1984). To the ethnomethodologist,

expressions, objects, actions, events, even rules and norms,

are essentially meaningless unless and until understandings

of the reality of matters at hand are made available to, and

by, those concerned. Within the context of such socially

constructed understandings, actors encounter, and assign

meaning to, such personal and social forms as lives, stages,

selves, communities, and institutions.

The established realities of situations are tentative,

crystallized in the course of social interaction. People

constantly reflect upon the realities of situations and

continually work--through talk and conversation--to construct

and maintain a common and meaningful sense of who they are

and what is going on in the here-and-now (Garfinkel, 1967;

Cicourel 1974; Mehan and Wood, 1975; Morris, 1977; Heritage,


Some ethnomethodologists have focused on how various

rules and interpretive procedures are used by people in

their attempts to structure and organize social reality

(Garfinkel, 1967; Cicourel, 1964, 1968, 1974; Mehan and

Wood, 1975; Bittner, 1967). Some rules and procedures are

understood to be invariant, being applicable at all times

and in all places, and serve as the fundamental background

expectancies of all social interaction. One such procedure

is the search for the normal form. Each new object, action,

or person encountered is typified and categorized with

others perceived as being similar to make the new object of

experience more meaningful and understandable. A second is

doing reciprocity of perspectives. Each social actor

assumes that, were they to change places with another, they

would experience the present situation in a similar way. A

third is the use of the "et cetera" principle. In social

discourse, unclear and ambiguous information is allowed to

pass, glossed over until subsequent clarifying information

is available (Cicourel, 1964, Mehan and Wood, 1975).

Other rules are less general, being limited in

application to particular settings or situations. For

example, Wieder (1973) discusses how the "convict code"

serves to shape and define the social world of ex-convicts

in a halfway house and subsequently provides a guide for

appropriate behavior. Ethnomethodologists tend to stress

that no formal rules or procedures are cast in stone, but

are always open to interpretation. Even legal codes are

diversely interpreted and selectively applied depending upon

circumstances (Cicourel, 1968; Bittner, 1967). The point is

that rules, procedures, and structures are tools social

actors use to structure and organize social reality, not

templates for conduct.

Some ethnomethodologists have focused on the substantive

continuity of actors' social world by focusing on the

process by which the form and content of the social world

are designated and assigned through social discourse. In

actor's attempts to make the world meaningful, they make

claims about the social world and discoursively reference a

particular type of social reality. By studying related

discourse--claims and counter claims, accounts and

justifications, typifications and categorizations--

ethnomethodologists make visible the process by which social

worlds are ongoingly perceived and experienced by social

actors (Garfinkel, 1967; Buckholdt and Gubrium, 1979;

Gubrium, 1988).

For ethnomethodologists, social discourse is the primary

source of data. Since it is impossible to objectively study

intrasubjective experiences, ethnomethodologists focus on

intersubjective experience as produced and revealed through

everyday communication. Whether by means of written or

verbal communication, the ethnomethodologist hopes to gain

some knowledge of the social reality experienced by the

actor and to develop an understanding of the way by which

this social reality is produced and maintained.

An Ethnomethodological Approach to Life Narratives

Adopting an ethnomethodological approach, life

narratives can be studied as a form of verbal discourse in

which the narrator actively constructs and reconstructs the

past based on cues derived from the present. Carefully

observing the telling of life stories reveals the methods

and procedures used to construct meaningful and

situationally-appropriate narrative accounts. By noting the

questions the narrators pose to their audience; documenting

how they begin and end the story; analyzing what is included

and what is conspicuously missing from the account; and

listening carefully for asides, comments, corrections, or

re-tellings; the processes involved in constructing and

telling life stories can be carefully studied. Further, by

paying attention to the way narrators take account of

cultural expectancies, situational contingencies, and

organizational structures in their efforts to determine the

appropriate form and content of the story, the impact of

such factors on narrative construction can be documented.

In short, ethnomethodology offers a theoretical

approach to life narrative accounts that takes the process


of constructing and communicating life narratives as its

central focus. It provides a detailed picture of how life

stories are put together and how they are affected by

cultural, situational, and organizational structures. An

ethnomethodological analysis of life stories not only

provides insight into the storytelling process, but promises

to provide a clearer understanding of how everyday folk

"make sense" of growing old.


In the present study, the theoretical concerns outlined

in the preceding chapter shape the method of procedure by

suggesting that the best way to study how life stories are

told by the aged is to document telling as they occur.

Thus, the method of the study is the collection and analysis

of first-hand narrative accounts of the past.

The Grounded Theory Approach

The analysis is informed by Glaser and Strauss' (1967),

formulation of the "grounded theory" approach. The approach

stresses the benefits of using experiential data as the

basis for the generation of new and innovative sociological

theory. The authors begin by pointing out that most

sociological research since the late 1930's emphasizes

hypothesis testing and theory verification to the detriment

of theory development. This was due, in part, to the

increased availability of quantitative techniques that

facilitated hypothesis testing. There also was the

conviction that the "great men" of sociology (Marx, Weber,

Durkheim, Simmel, and others) had produced sufficient

theoretical insight to keep sociologists busy for some time

with the testing and verification of their ideas. Also

influential was the general desire on the part of sociology

as a discipline to appear more precise, logical, and

scientific. As a result, sociologists adopted the

scientific procedure of the natural sciences. Beginning

with theory derived through logical deduction from a set of

a priori assumptions, hypotheses are developed and

operationalized, then tested through research. The ultimate

goal is to accept or reject the hypotheses, thus verifying

or rejecting the theory.

Glaser and Strauss argue that such an approach hinders

the development of sociological theory sensitive to real-

life conditions and tends to produce theoretical models with

limited utility in the real world. They argue that

sociologists should use systematically collected empirical

data to generate new and innovative theoretical ideas rather

than simply using data to test pre-existing theory.

According to Glaser and Strauss, such an inductive approach

not only produces theory that "fits" the reality of the

social world, but offers a better understanding and

explanation of the social phenomena being studied.

Rather than treating theory and method as distinct

parts of the scientific endeavor, with theory used to

produce hypotheses that are later tested through the

collection and analysis of data, Glaser and Strauss stress

the simultaneity of empirical research and theory

development. As the authors state, "Generating a theory

from data means that most hypotheses and concepts not only

come from the data, but are systematically worked out in

relation to the data during the course of the research"

(Glaser and Strauss, 1967, p. 6). In the process,

theoretical concepts, their characteristics and properties,

and their relationships to each other, begin to emerge as

data are collected and analyzed. Emerging theoretical ideas

serve as tentative working hypotheses, which are "tested"

through the collection and analysis of additional data. As

hypotheses are revised and verified by the data, "their

accumulating interrelations form an integrated central

theoretical framework--the core of the emerging theory"

(Glaser and Strauss, 1967, p. 40).

This does not mean that the sociologist must approach

research data without theoretical notions. On the contrary,

the authors state that "our position... does not at all

imply that the generation of new theory should proceed in

isolation from existing grounded theory." Instead, they

simply insist that researchers keep an open mind, allowing

the data to "speak for themselves" rather than forcing them

into a set of preconceived theoretical categories.

In the present study, the primary goal is the

development of a theoretical understanding of the past-

oriented, narrative activity of the elderly. However,

interest in how the elderly tell stories about the past

actually emerged after initial exposure to the life

narrative data used in the project. While, from the

beginning, a general interpretive framework shaped the way

data were collected and analyzed, most of the background

theoretical material presented in the previous chapter did

not become significant to the study until after the project

was well underway. For example, it was not until it was

noted that respondents frequently asked for clarifying

information before beginning their life story that the

question of what techniques people use to construct

meaningful accounts of their past lives emerged as an

important issue.

As Glaser and Strauss (1967) point out, it is

difficult, if not impossible, to separate theory and method

in a study of this nature (See also, Gubrium and Folstein,

1990). However, for the sake of convention, the standard

presentation, with theory and method presented in distinct

chapters, has been followed. Yet it is important to

remember that general approach of the project is an

inductive one, with theory and method developing

simultaneously. While no specific hypotheses were developed

before the project began, tentative hypotheses about the

form, content, and meaning of life narratives emerged and

were "tested" throughout the project, the ultimate goal

being the production of an empirically based and empirically

tested theory of life narrative construction.

Autobiographical and Life Narrative Methods

Despite of the general agreement as to the usefulness

of narrative techniques, there remain important theoretical

and methodological differences among life narrative

researchers. For example, while Bertaux (1981c) admits that

terms such as life stories, life histories, case studies,

personal documents, life records, biographies, and

autobiographies are often used interchangedly, he writes

that there are important differences in these approaches

that must be recognized.

One important difference discussed by Bertaux is the

methodological and theoretical distinction between life

stories and life histories. According to Bertaux, life

stories are "accounts of a person's life as delivered orally

by the person himself" (Bertaux, 1981c, pp. 7-8) while life

histories involve the collection of as much biographical

information as is possible from diverse sources, including

life stories, personal documents (letters, diaries,

photographs), official records (medical records, police

records, social services records), and conversations with

the friends and relatives.

The distinction goes far beyond a simple difference in

the amount and type of data collected. There also are

significant differences in the methodological goals and

theoretical orientation of each approach. In life

histories, the emphasis is on collecting as much factual

data about a person's life as possible so that the validity

and truthfulness of each piece of data can be checked and

verified by data within and between sources. The assumption

is that the objective truth of an individual's life

experiences can be discovered if enough information about

that life is obtained (Denzin, 1970).

Life stories, in contrast, are seen as subjective

reconstructions of the "presently understood past,

experienced present, and anticipated future" (Cohler, 1982,

p. 207), which are shaped by the historical and social

context in which they occur (Bertaux, 1981a; Kohli, 1981,

1986). They represent the narrator's subjective

interpretations of past experiences within the framework of

the here-and-now. There is little or no concern with

verifying the accuracy of an individual's story and no

objective account of the past is sought. Rather, the

individual's own perceptions and understandings of the past

within the context of the present become the major focus of

study. Hence, while the life history approach seeks an

objective analysis of human lives and human experience, the

life story approach focuses on the subjective experience of

life itself.

Yet even among those scholars who use life stories (as

opposed to life histories) there are important differences.

While many researchers favor life stories because they

address the subjective perceptions of narrators, others

stress that life stories can also be used to study objective

social relationships (Bertaux, 1981a, 1981b; Bertaux and

Bertaux-Wiame, 1981). Some scholars use life stories

because they wish to focus on "perceptions, values,

definitions of situations, personal goals, and the like;"

others see the stories as valuable tools for addressing

"patterns of historically given sociostructural relations"

(Bertaux and Kohli, 1984, pp. 219). By collecting life

stories from several individuals which address, in one form

or another, the same set of social relationships, these

latter scholars hope to obtain some knowledge of the

objective reality of the relationships being addressed.

Bertaux and Kohli (1984) point out that a major strength of

the life story approach is that it allows researchers to

study both subjective perceptions and, to some degree,

objective reality.

These scholars differ still from another group of life

narrative researchers who are less concerned with the

substance of life stories than with the form and structure

of life stories themselves. For example, while Bertaux and

Bertaux-Wiame (1981) discuss how the substance of the life

stories of French bakers reveals how the structure of the

baking industry shapes perceptions of important life

transitions, Bruner (1987) discusses how the form of the

life story, as told by members of the same family, reveals

certain common organizing themes and principles that are

indicative of their shared cultural milieu and the "meshing"

of their respective life stories (Also see Stone, 1988).

Although the two foci are not necessarily exclusive,

different substantive concerns and theoretical orientations

lead scholars to emphasize one over the other.

This creates two distinct uses for life stories--one in

which life stories are used to collect information from

subjects about their perceptions of particular substantive

issues, and one in which life stories, and the various rules

and procedures which guide their production, are themselves

the central concern. This study clearly falls in the latter

category. Its primary concern is with the form and

structure of oral narrative accounts of the past as conveyed

by the aged. There is little interest in the substance of

the story, but rather a focus on the ordinary work of

storytelling. This does not mean, however, that the

substance of the story is of no value or that it cannot be

adequately analyzed.

The Study

Focal in the study are life stories told by a small

sample of elderly individuals collected over a three month

period. During the summer of 1988, life narrative

interviews were conducted with 30 near centenarians as a

part of a larger research project aiming to explicate the

narrative structure of longevity. The larger project sought

to use life narrative interviews to determine how

respondents addressed and accounted for their long lives in

the course of telling their life stories. The approach was

to ask respondents to tell their story in their own words,

deliberately phrasing the question to provide as little

structure as possible, allowing respondents the freedom to

organize and construct their story in the way they deemed

appropriate. It was expected that both the form and the

content of the stories would provide useful information

about how respondents experienced, and accounted for,


Obtaining Respondents

The original project required a group of respondents

over 90 years old who were physically and mentally capable

of communicating a life story. Nursing home residents were

excluded due to their higher levels of functional

disability, and to control for the impact that

institutionalization might have on the construction of the

life story. Due to the constraints of time and limited

funds for travel, it was decided that only respondents in

North Central Florida would be interviewed. Thus, the

population from which the sample was drawn was limited to

functionally-able, community-based elderly who were near 100

years old.

To obtain respondents, purposive and snowball sampling

techniques were used. This type of "theoretical sampling"

(Glaser and Strauss, 1967) was appropriate since the study

was designed to use qualitative data to develop a general

theoretical understanding of the narrative structure of

longevity rather than to produce statistical

generalizations. All individuals who met the age and

functionality requirements of the project were legitimate

candidates for the study.

The first step was to contact local organizations that

provided various services and programs for the elderly,

These organizations were asked to provide the names and

telephone numbers of individuals within the specified age

range whom they felt would be willing and able to

participate in the study. The Older Americans Council,

Retired Senior Volunteer Program, Foster Grandparents,

Senior Recreation Center, and similar organizations were

contacted for their assistance in locating respondents.

Several retirement communities and adult congregate living

facilities also were contacted and asked to provide names

and telephone numbers.

In many cases, names and phone numbers of possible

respondents were provided directly by administrators and

directors of the various organizations. At other times,

meetings of the organizations were attended and, after a

brief description of the project, volunteers were solicited.

Participants in these meetings, who were themselves

ineligible to participate, often provided the names and

telephone numbers of friends or relatives they felt would be

eager to take part in the study. Overall, the names of 37

persons were obtained as possible respondents. Each was

then contacted by telephone. Those who had not already

expressed interest in the project were asked about their

willingness to participate. Three decided not to

participate, and one was not permitted to participate by

children. This left a total of 33 respondents with whom

interviews were scheduled. However, three of these were

deemed incompetent and their interview terminated, leaving

at total of 30 completed interviews.

Characteristics of Respondents

Twenty-two of the respondents were 90 years old or older

at the time of the interview. All but one of the remaining

respondents was either 88 or 89 years old. The overall

range of the respondent's ages was 86 to 96 and the average

age was just over 91. While deliberate efforts were made to

obtain as much background variety among respondents as

possible, the limited number of respondents available in the

specified age range made this difficult. Of the thirty

respondents who completed the interview, sixteen were white

females, nine were white males, and five were black females.

No black males were interviewed. Although white females

dominate the sample, it reflects the sex and race ratios of

the general population for this age group.

By and large, the respondents were in good physical and

mental health for their age. In part, this reflects the

screening process, since those in poor health were

deliberately excluded. However, a few respondents did have

slight difficulty remembering details such as names and

dates, but it did not appear to interfere with their ability

to convey the general form and content of a life story. One

respondent was receiving oxygen therapy at the time of the

interview, but again, it did not seem to affect her ability

to communicate naturally.

Respondents had a variety of living arrangements.

Fourteen lived in housing that was essentially age

segregated: three lived in federally subsidized housing for

the elderly, three lived in large retirement apartment

complexes, and eight lived in adult congregate living

facilities. The remainder lived in single-unit houses. Of

these, ten lived in their own home alone or with a spouse,

four in their own home with a child or other relative, and

two in the home of a child.

The Interview

While the procedure of the interview and the interview

guide were flexible and open, the interview process was

relatively consistent.

Procedure. Once at the interview site, the interviewer

introduced himself as the person from the University who had

called about an interview. The respondent was engaged in a

few minutes of casual conversation while a suitable place

for the tape recorder to be set up was located. Next, the

nature of the project was explained, including issues of

confidentiality and anonymity, together with a brief

discussion of how the tape recordings and transcriptions of

the interview would be used and disposed of. If respondents

appeared to understand the project and indicated a continued

interest in participating, they were asked to sign an

informed consent document and the interview begun.

Settings. All but two interviews were conducted in

respondents' residences. The actual physical settings

included the dark and cluttered screened in porch of an old

railroad shack, the well-furnished living room of a posh

retirement apartment, a dining room in an adult congregate

living facility, and a living room filled with antiques in a

well preserved late 19th century home. The interviews not

conducted in homes took place in a volunteers' lounge at a

Veterans Administration Hospital and at an adult recreation


In seventeen cases, the respondent was alone during all

or most of the interview and had no input from anyone other

than the interviewer. In seven cases, others were present

in the room but acted disinterested and were otherwise

uninvolved in the interview. However, six respondents told

their stories in the presence of family members or other

interested parties who sometimes offered assistance or

suggestions regarding the construction of the story. This

included filling in details such as names or dates, or

providing cues to spark the respondent's memory. In a few

cases it involved lengthier participation, such as the

telling of an entire sequence of events in the respondent's

life. Sometimes the assistance was provided at the request

of the respondent; at other times it was offered


The interview format. Like other studies that rely on

narrative accounts by the elderly for data, an underlying

assumption guiding the original project was that most

respondents would have little difficulty in recounting their

life story. This assumption was based on a three-pronged

conviction. First, the elderly, more than any one else,

have privileged access to their own experiences. Second,

they have numerous experiences to recount, most likely have

thought and talked about these experiences before, and

should be willing to do so again. And third, they would be

able to use culturally accepted ideas about stories and the

story form to communicate their experiences. In addition,

Butler's (1963) argument that reminiscence and talk about

the past occur naturally as a normal part of late life

development, suggests that the very old, particularly those

nearing 100, would have had substantial time to think about

and review their life. It was expected that respondents

would able to narrate their life's events with minimal

assistance. Since they had agreed to participate in the

study ahead of time, it also was expected that they would be

willing to do so.

This being the case, it was felt that a generally

unstructured and unrestricted request to tell the life story

would be optimal in eliciting the type of narrative desired.

Although sometimes phrased slightly differently, the general

questions was the following:

What I would like for you to do is tell me your
life story. You can begin anywhere you want to begin
and include or leave out anything you would like. I'm
just interested in hearing about you and your life

While the goal was to let the respondent order and

structure the story in his or her own way, certain

provisions were made for interviewer involvement that went

beyond a simple nod of comprehension or general expressions

of interest. For example, notes were taken while

respondents told their life story, and then using these

notes, the interviewer probed for detail or asked for

clarification if some aspect of the story seemed unclear or

incomplete. In some instances, if certain aspects were

emphasized over others, or if some part seemed to be missing

or glossed over, respondents were asked to explain why this

was done. However, such probing was reserved until the end

of the interview, when respondents appeared to have finished

their story. That way, the probing was done without

radically altering the respondents' own telling of the


Occasionally, it was necessary for the interviewer to

use some type of prod to continue the narrative. If the

story seemed to be ordered chronologically, a question like

"Okay, what happened after that?" was asked. If the story

seemed structured around geographical location, the

respondent was asked, "Tell me more about when you lived

there?" While such prompts were sometimes necessary, they

were kept to a minimum, and were phrased as openly as

possible, allowing respondents to continue to structure the

story as they saw fit.

Of course, respondents often asked questions or sought

guidance directly from the interviewer. In such cases, the

general procedure was to rephrase questions or requests and

address them once again to the respondents, thus encouraging

them to deal with their own inquiries. Nevertheless, some

respondents virtually refused to continue unless some

guidance was provided. In these cases, the interviewer had

no choice but to answer the respondents' questions and

provide them with the guidance they requested.

After respondents had finished their story and all the

probes and questions of clarification had been asked, the

interview concluded with a series of general questions

focused on the life story as a whole. These questions

included (1) a request to address the relative importance of

family, work, religion, geographic location, and time, in

their story; (2) a request to give a title to their story,

divide it into chapters, discuss what they considered to be

its main themess, and who they thought were the main

characters; (3) a discussion of what one thing about their

story they would change if it were possible; and (4) a

question about how often they talked about their life story

to others and whether or not there were any particular

stories about their life they often told. Finally, each

respondent was asked to address the central focus of the

original project and indicate to what they attributed their

long life.


The recorded tapes of each interview were transcribed.

After each transcription was completed, the interviewer

listened to the recorded interview again and made any

necessary corrections or additions. As a final check for

accuracy, the thirty transcriptions were read for clarity

and consistency and any problems were addressed by

consulting the original recordings.

Certain conventions were used in transcribing the

interviews. Every effort was made to cite word for word

what was actually said by the respondents including,

stutters, stammers, and significant pauses. This was done,

not only to remain faithful to respondents' account, but

also to maintain the "feel" of their story. However, in

some cases such faltering was so frequent that it made the

transcript difficult to read. In these instances, the

falters were omitted and a note indicating such was placed

at the beginning of the transcript.

Those familiar with conversation analysis will note

that the excerpts presented in latter chapters do not

contain line numbers as is the convention in conversation

analysis (See Sudnow, 1972). The need to reference specific

lines within larger texts is important in conversation

analysis because of its focus on the minute and subtle

details of conversational exchange and the rules and

procedures which govern such exchanges. In this study, the

emphasis is on the overall flow of the respondents'

narratives. There was no need to reference individual lines

of text. The conventions followed were more like those in

ethnographic studies or discourse analysis where the focus

is on what people are doing with words rather than the words

themselves (See Gubrium, 1988).

Data Analysis

The data analysis procedures used in this study are

similar to those discussed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) in

their outline of the "constant comparative method" (p. 101).

Essentially, these scholars view data analysis as a

comparative process which involves coding data in great

detail by considering every piece of information that might

be relevant to the study and coding it into as many

categories as is feasible. These categories are derived

from common themes, characteristics, and patterns suggested

by the data and from the researchers developing theoretical

understanding of the phenomenon under study. As analysis

proceeds, the relevant coding categories become more precise

and differentiated as their characteristics, properties, and

dimensions are defined and specified. In the process, new

data are constantly compared to data already coded in a

category. This allows the researcher to continually

evaluate both the data and the emerging coding categories.

Eventually, relationships among the various coding

categories become more evident providing the researcher with

tentative hypotheses that can be evaluated and tested with

additional data. Tentative hypotheses are eventually

integrated into the developing theory which, with still more

data, can be tested and modified until it adequately fits

the empirical world it seeks to describe.


This study challenges Butler's developmental

explanation of the elderly's talk about the past by

developing and examining an alternative explanation which

sees life narrative as a social activity growing out of, and

shaped by, situated social interaction. The data presented

in this chapter offer tentative support for this alternative

explanation by illustrating the social processes involved in

the construction and communication of life narrative


Interactional Contingencies and the Telling
of Life Stories

The Narrative Challenge

The position taken in this study is that the elderly's

talk about the past emerges in response to narrative

challenges. Narrative challenges occur whenever life

narrative accounts are requested or expected during social

encounters. They may be direct requests such as when an

older person is asked by grandchildren to tell what life was

like "in the old days." They also may be less direct such

as when two old friends meet at a class reunion and talk

about school days.

Narrative challenges arise throughout life, occurring

in such diverse contexts as the first meeting of a class or

group, a job interview, or a therapy session. In old age,

the cultural belief about the propensity of the elderly for

telling stories about the past increases the likelihood that

they will be challenged to tell their life story. This

cultural myth, whether accurate or not, perpetuates itself

by leading people to expect stories about the past from the


No where is this more apparent than in gerontology and

geriatric practice. Gerontological researchers, assuming

that the aged will talk about the past freely when given the

chance, have come to rely heavily on life narrative data.

Geriatric therapists and clinicians, using therapeutic

techniques based on Butler's conception of the life review,

repeatedly ask the elderly to review and discuss their past.

By doing so, these professionals inadvertently produce the

very phenomena Butler seeks to explain. If the elderly do

talk about the past more than younger persons, it is due

largely to cultural expectations, and to their articulation

in the work of scholars like Butler.

In the present study, the narrative challenge comes to

respondents in the form of a simple request for a life

story. Little other guidance or direction is given unless

absolutely necessary. Although the request is thought to be

straightforward, many respondents have problems addressing

it. Several express uncertainty as to what they are being

asked to do with comments like "I've never done anything

like this before," "I don't know what to say," or "I don't

know what were doing." Others express reservations with

excuses such as "I'm not much good at storytelling," "I

don't know if there's no story to tell," or "I don't talk

about myself much." Still others indicate that they seldom

think about their past stating, "I don't live in the past,"

or "I haven't thought about all that in ages." For whatever

reason, many respondents find the open request for their

life story difficult to fulfill.

This is far from what might be expected given Butler's

argument. Thinking and talking about the past does not seem

to be a natural part of old age for these respondents. On

the contrary, producing a narrative account of their life

appears quite difficult. If Butler is correct, individuals

as old as those in this study have had ample time to review

their lives, perhaps even having formulated a consistent and

personally meaningful account of their past which could be

drawn upon in relating their story. Clearly, this is not

the case for these respondents. Since there is no reason to

think that they do not want to tell their story, each having

been informed of the nature of the project ahead of time and

given the option not to participate, there is little

recourse but to question Butler's argument.

If Butler's position is rejected, the next step is to

ask why respondents have such difficulty with the narrative

task they are given. Perhaps the reason for their trouble

is in the global nature of the narrative challenge. While

many respondents have problems with the request for a

general account of their life, most produce adequate

narrative accounts when asked about specific aspects of

their experience. For example, one 94-year-old woman, who

has trouble in the beginning, explains her difficulty as


I don't talk very much about myself. [laughter] No, I
really don't, unless somebody asks me a question about
something that might have happened or I might have been
concerned with. But uh, other than that, I don't.

When asked specific questions about her life (i.e., when

given specific narrative challenges) the respondent is able

to talk about herself at length, as evidenced by the account

she gives when asked about her first job.

Well, this uh, dear old aunt of mine, my father's aunt,
was a secretary, and she worked for the Consolidated
Gas Company. And uh, she wasn't very well. She was
the only stenographer in uh, the department. And uh,
she was getting towards middle age, I guess. And uh,
looking back I can realize she was getting kind of worn
out and tired out, and so uh, she wanted to uh, have
somebody relieve her. So she was talking to my father
and she said well, if I could get, learn stenography, I
could come in there and take over.

And uh, and I'll never forget, after she left, the
boss, the head of the department, uh, the agent, uh,
rang a bell and I went in and I was, took notes, you
know and, cause I learned to trans, transcribe the
notes and I couldn't make out what on earth I had

written. I couldn't remember what that meant or what
the word was, and I had to go back and ask him what,
what he had said, and I was so embarrassed, but there
was no way I could avoid it.

So, he was very kind, a very nice gentleman. He wasn't
an old man, by any means, but I'm sure it must have
tickled him afterwards to think about it. But um, I, I
think the word was [pause] "authority" or something
like that, and I just could not make it out. But I, I
lived through a lot. [laughter]

Like others, her problem, is not an inability to talk

about the past, nor is it a lack of an inclination to do so.

Rather, it appears to be due to the lack of specificity in

the narrative challenge she receives.

The difficulty, too, might be accounted for by a lack

of experience with this kind of general narrative request.

In everyday life, people seldom face the need, nor are they

given the opportunity, to produce full-length life

narratives. They are much more likely to be requested to

tell stories about specific events, or give narrative

summaries about limited aspects of their experience. As

such, it would make sense that the respondents in the study

find it easier to talk about specific parts of their past,

rather than life in its entirety.

Support for this explanation is found in comments like

that of the above respondent, and in those instances,

reported later in this chapter, when other persons present

during the interview (i.e., family members or friends)

suggest to respondents that they relate stories about

specific times or events.

Perhaps the most interesting evidence is provided by

those respondents who have few problems telling their life

story. Curiously, almost every respondent who readily

produces an extended life narrative previously had been

asked to tell their story. One respondent is able to talk

with ease about his education and career as an electrical

engineer because he recently had been asked to discuss these

aspects of his life at a "craft talk" for his professional

organization. Another respondent is able to present a

lengthy account of his life and business career in his

present home town because he previously had participated in

an oral history project in which he was asked to talk about

what life was like in the town during its early years.

Three other respondents have few problems telling an

extended life story because they had been asked to produce

their memoirs by family members. The narrative rehearsal

offered by a prior request for an extended life story seems

to provide a resource on which respondents draw as they tell

their story to the interviewer. Respondents without this

resource have trouble producing an extended narrative.

The impact of narrative rehearsals on the telling of a

life story can be seen when an excerpt from an interview

with a 91-year-old male is compared to a similar excerpt

from memoirs which he previously had recorded for his

children. The similarity in the sequencing of events is

striking, as are the details included, and even the wording

and phraseology.

From the Interview

I can remember wagon
loads of watermellons and
my dad going from wagon
to wagon buying those
watermelons and they
were loaded into a boxcar
right there on the track.
Where they went to from
there I don't know. But
this little hotel my dad
and mother ran had four
of five rooms upstairs,
just a small country
place, and that was
before convenience. They
didn't have any running
water or anything like
that. They had backyard
toilets, and I can recall
that they had what they
called slop...slop jars
and they'd have to be
emptied every morning and
put back in for the

From the Memoirs

I can remember hundreds
of wagon loads of
watermellons lined up and
my dad going from wagon
to wagon. After the
watermellons were
purchased, they were
loaded into a boxcar
sitting there on the
tracks. Where they went
from there I don't know.
Back in those days, of
course, there were no
inside facilities, and
this little hotel my
folks ran was an old
wooden building with
perhaps four or five
rooms upstairs they
rented out. And, of
course, with no inside
plumbing, they had to use
slop jars. I can
remember those slop jars
had to be taken out
every morning and cleaned
and replaced so they
would be ready for the
next customer who come

Since rehearsals make the communication of life stories

easier, the best narrators will be those who have had many

opportunities to tell their story. The aged as a group may

appear more adept at storytelling simply because they have

had many years to perfect their skill. Older people who are

frequently asked to talk about themselves, such as those

with numerous encounters with social service and health care

providers, those relocating to new congregate living

environments, or those with curious grandchildren and great-

grandchildren, may become quite adept at storytelling.

Those who are more isolated, seldom being challenged to talk

about the themselves, may find it difficult to produce a

narrative account of their life. Old men in the current

cohort of the elderly may be better narrators than their

female counterparts (as the data from this study seem to

suggest) because of their greater involvement outside the

home which increases the likelihood of situations arising

which require the production of life narratives.

The most important implication of the narrative

rehearsal is for Butler's argument that the life review

eventually leads the older person to resolve past conflicts

and to see life as an integrated whole, resulting in a

reorganization of personality and sense of well-being in old

age. Butler argued that by facilitating this process, life

review and reminiscence group therapy could help the elderly

achieve a sense of contentment and serenity in late life.

However, the concept of narrative rehearsal suggests

that life review therapy and reminiscence groups may simply

facilitate the production of a "good" story (Marshall,

1980). By allowing aged individuals to rehearse their story

over and over again, these therapeutic techniques help

produce a life account that is better organized, more

consistent, and more meaningful than might have otherwise

been the case. While this may have a positive effect on

narrators perceptions of life, it has little to do with

psychological development.

The Audience and Collective Narration

Whenever a life story is told there is an audience who

listens to the narrative. However, audiences do much more

than listen. They actively enter into the narrative

process, dramatically shaping the form and content of the

story being told.

The interviewer as co-narrator. Despite the initial

difficulty responding to the request for a life story, few

participants abandon the effort to construct and communicate

a meaningful narrative account. Many ask the interviewer to

restate or redefine the narrative challenge in ways that

allow them to determine more precisely what is being

requested. This often means trying to get the interviewer

to be more specific, either by asking him questions about

particulars or encouraging him to ask questions that are

more explicit and to the point. Such respondents want the

interviewer to provide them with an overall framework for

their story, which they fill in with details.

Take the following exchange between the interviewer (I)

and a 92-year-old male respondent (R). Notice the

difficulty he has with the original request and how he

demands that more specific questions be asked.

I: Okay, tell me something about your life. Just
start with what you think is important and tell me
a little about your life story. [long silence]

Well, where do you think is the best place to begin
your story?

R: I don't know.

I: You don't know?

R: Naw.

I: Well, some people like to begin with when they were
born and talk about where they were born. Some
people like to begin with work, or marriage. Some
people begin at the end of their life and tell
about things kind of backwards, discussing how
different things happened to them. So you can
begin wherever you feel most comfortable beginning
and tell me a little bit about. .

R: [Interrupting] You ask the questions and I'll
answer them. That's all I know.

Shifting the responsibility for structuring the life

narrative to the interviewer is further illustrated by a 90-

year-old woman who wants to use a question-and-answer format

to order her account. Clearly, she feels more comfortable

with this type of exchange. The third person entering the

exchange is a housekeeper (H).

R: Well, uh..., to be sure that I know what you wanna
know, would it be better for you to ask questions
or something like that?

I: Well, no. I would just like for you to tell what
you want to tell me. You can begin anywhere you
would like to begin and tell me anything about your
life story that you would like to tell me. Okay?

R: Well, I really don't know. I've never uh, done
anything like, exactly like this before. The ones
that I had interviewed with would ask me questions
and ah. .

H: Millie, what he's trying to tell you is just begin
anywhere. When you was a little girl. Just tell
him how you grew up and when you got grown what
happened and different things. That's what he
wanna know. What church you goes to and membership
or something like that.

I: Just tell me anything about yourself that you like,
beginning wherever you want.

R: I thought maybe you'd uh, like to know about the
older part of my life since that's what you're
uh. .. [pause]

I: Okay, that'll be fine. [pause] Let me help you
and just give you a beginning point. Why don't you
start by telling me when and where you were born
and tell me a little bit about your early

R: Okay. Well I guess that would help some to start
me off.

Another respondent comes to the point a bit more

quickly as she attempts to get the interviewer to ask her

specific questions. She begins her account in this way:

I was born in Cameron, South Carolina in 19, 1898.
[pause] July the 30th. My birthday was just the other
Saturday. And I moved to Florida in 1905. [pause]
What else would you like to know?

Some respondents knew what was being asked of them, but

were unsure about the extent of the story being requested.

They ask the interviewer either to provide or confirm the

beginning point of their story. This serves to inform them

as to the extent of the story they are being asked to tell.

It also helps them to determine, at least in part, what to

include. For example, one 91-year-old man becomes concerned

about the quality of his narrative when neither of the two

possible beginning points he suggests are confirmed by the

interviewer. Without the interviewer providing him with an

adequate point of departure, the respondent does not know

where to begin or what to include, making him unsure as to

his ability to construct the kind of narrative account


R: Well, I could start from the time I came into this
country from Italy. [pause]

I: Came to this country from Italy? Okay, so you
think that would be a good place to begin?

R: Or either I could begin when I came to Gainesville
in 1921 and started here in business.

I: So there are really two beginnings then. There's
when you came to this country to begin with
and. .

R: I don't know if this story is going to be any good
to you or not.

Another respondent, who has similar difficulties

deciding on how to start, begins by offering a typification

of his life as he struggles to find an appropriate place.

In the following excerpt, he is unable to get his story

going until the interviewer provides him with a clear point

of departure.

I: As I said, I'm interested in having you tell me a
little bit about your life and your experiences.
You can begin anywhere you would like to begin and
talk about anything you'd be interested in talking
about. It's up to you. It's your story. You can
tell it however you'd like.

R: Well, [pause] I don't know where to start.

I: Well, a lot of people just begin by talking about
where they were born or maybe where they grew up,
things of that nature.

R: Well, my life's been so full with going and one
thing or another that I don't know where to start.

I: Okay.

R: I've had a great life. And I, I'd like to say
that my life, my older life, I mean my number of

years in this life, it all comes from the fact that
I was born in a Christian home. I lived a
Christian life all my life. Joined the church,
give my heart to the Lord when I was eleven years
of age, and my life has been, [cough] has been
around serving the Lord all these years, see. It's
been a great life because I lived a Christian life,
and my parents were Christians, you know, before
me, and life has just been so full of joy
and. [pause] Oh, I don't know how to .

I: That's fine. That's fine. Let me ask you a few
questions and we can go from there. Where were you

R: I was born in Tolbert County, Georgia. Well you
might say Tolbert County. It was right across the
line from Taylor County and my parents moved to
Taylor County when I was a young fellow and. .

As audience and co-narrator, the interviewer is an

important resource. Respondents look to the interviewer to

provide specifics, which help structure the telling of the

story. Some require a great deal of assistance, wanting the

interviewer to ask direct questions about specific aspects

of life, which they then address and assemble into a life

story. Others simply want an appropriate place to start.

Regardless of the degree of involvement, the interviewer

plays a crucial role in the production of the life stories

of these respondents.

Other co-narrators. Not only does the interviewer play

an important role in shaping respondents' life stories, but

others present at the telling also have a significant

impact. Several respondents happen to tell their story in

the presence of family members or friends. These

individuals not only reshape the audience, but often take

active roles in the telling of the story, prompting and

guiding the respondents, filling in details, even telling

parts of respondents' stories for them. Sometimes,

assistance is given at the request of the respondent. At

others times, it is offered voluntarily. Regardless, the

involvement of co-narrators in collective efforts with

respondents dramatically alters the telling of the story.

An example of this kind of collaboration occurs in an

interview with a 95-year-old female, whose only daughter was

present during the interviews entirety. From the beginning,

the daughter (D) assists her mother, providing cues and

prompts, to help fill in the details of the narrative.

I: Well, I guess the first thing I would like to ask
you to do is to tell me a little bit about your
life story?

R: I don't know where to start, to tell you the truth.

D: [To the interviewer] You may have to. Maybe
you can help her.

I: People start at different places. Some people like
to begin when they were born and tell a little
about where they grew up and. .

R: I grew up right at Reddick out on the line, and I
was born August the 10th, 1992. So I just. .
I just can't remember all that.

D: Oh Mama, you can.

R: I can't.

D: Yeah, you can. Well, you walked to school didn't

R: We'd walk to school and my father had horses and
whenever we, he didn't have use for all the horses,
we had a buggy and we drove to school. And his
mother had a place right there where we'd put the
horses after we got out of school and went home.

Of course we had to work when we got home. All of
us had a job set to do and we had things to do at
the house all the time. We didn't have to, we
didn't run around and not do anything.

D: like they do today.

R: No, we had to work.

I: What kind of work did you do? What kind of things
did you have to do?

R: Well, just things you had to do around the house,
you see, around the place.

D: Well, like what? What did you have to do? Help

R: Yeah, help Grandma in the cooking and. .

Throughout her mother's account, the daughter remained

involved in the narrative. As the interview continues,

notice how she tries to clarify and explain her mother's

statements as she tells about working in a grocery store.

I: How did you feel about working in the grocery

R: I liked it. We had a store over in Orange Lake,
this last husband and I. I loved it. I used to
take care of a grocery store and a roomin' house
and uh, they served for months at a time when
they'd go off on vacation, and I was. .

D: It was almost like a hotel there in Reddick.

R: Yeah, it was a hotel and a grocery store. And they
was putting' [highway] 441 through there and when I
stayed there, I made quite a bit of money for 'em.

D: But they had everything. The rest of the school
teachers did the cooking and cleaning and. .

R: Oh yeah, I didn't have nothing to do with the
kitchen or nothing, only take the money. That was
all. They had a woman that did all the planning
and everything about the house. I didn't help
people. Did nothing' but counted the money. .

D: and managed the grocery store. It was
groceries, dry goods, and everything.

R: and ran the grocery store, dry goods and all

Often, those present recall a specific story that they

have heard the respondent tell, or they think of a

particular event or happening that they feel needs to be

included in the respondent's account, so they remind the

respondent to relate it for the interviewer.

Such is the case for the daughter of a 90-year-old

female. After the mother tells how she and her husband

ended up in the small town in which she now lives, the

daughter asks her mother to tell about the house in which

she currently resides. Notice, how the daughter begins to

tell the story herself, but then remembers that her mother

is supposed to be doing the telling.

R: then we came to Hawthorne in '29 and here we
are. He [husband] died just a few years ago.

D: This house that they live in. Tell him about
what Daddy paid for it.

R: This house? This was a church. It was a
presbyterian church and it was condemned because
the sides had sort of started spreading. So he
bought it for $150.

D: And we owned this lot! Can you imagine?

R: The lot and all for $150! So he goes in and has it
done with rafters that would go from one side to
another. And they'd go clear across to draw it
back. I guess we [laughter] was supposed to put
the walls all in here. We got one or two walls
when we moved in. So it was finished after we got
here and fixed it up. And here we are in the
presbyterian church.

Later, when the interviewer asks the respondent if she

remembers anything else about her early life on the farm,

the daughter recalls another story she had heard her mother

tell and suggests she tell it to the interviewer as well.

I: Well, we were talking about growing up on the farm
and you told about when you hurt your foot. Is
there anything else about the farm that .

R: It seems like there was a lot more, but I can't
think what it was. It might come to me.

D: Tell him about the time Grandpa told the black he
didn't have any money and you thought he was
telling a story. [laughter]

R: Now you know my Daddy didn't tell stories.
[laughter] Back then, when he first started
working in this country, I guess he didn't have
enough money to work on. So there was on old
couple, they was sort of related to us in a way,
just him and her, and he always had money. And the
farmers would go and borrow money from Uncle John
Morgan, and when they sold cotton they'd go and pay
him. So this time I was with my daddy when he
decided to go pay Uncle John. I knew he had $300
in his pocket. So on the way over there this black
man stopped him. "You got change for five
dollars?" Papa says, "No, I don't have any money."
I thought, "My papa's telling a story. I know he's
got some money." [laughter] So I say, "Papa, you
told him a story." He said, "You know, I didn't
want him to know, he might have knocked me in the
head and taken all I got!" [laughter] It's funny
you remember those old things like that.

Occasionally, those present do more than offer

assistance; they actually tell a portion of the story. The

wife (W) of a 91-year-old respondent who has been actively

involved throughout the telling of her husband's life story,

takes it upon herself to answer when her husband is asked

about how they met.

I: You didn't tell me how you met her [motioning
toward the wife].

R: Well, I just thought you were interested in what I
was doing.

I: Well, she's a part of your life, isn't she?

R: Oh yeah, that's right. She and I together have a
great time now. She and I sang for 21 years in
that singing convention. We sing every fourth
Sunday and uh. .

W: Tell him how you met me. See, he was singing on
that radio program and I had heard him a long time
before. He'd open up that radio station every
morning, every Sunday morning. And uh, then he
would sing with that quartet and he sang with a
friend of mine that worked next door to where I did
at Purex is what we called it. And then he sang
solos. Not all on the same program every time.
But any way, the lady I lived with, I was working
and the lady I lived with had known him a long time
and that's how we met.

Like the interviewer, those present at the time of the

telling play an important role in the formation of the life

story. Whether actively involved in the telling or not,

they alter the social situation in which the telling occurs,

thereby affecting the form and content of story. Producing

a life story is not a solitary task, but one that takes

place in the context of a constant exchange between the life

narrator and their audience as they work together to produce

a story that suits the needs and demands of the situation.

The implications of narrative involvement. The concept

of narrative involvement--the participation of the audience

in the telling of a life story--raises several important

questions about the "naturalness" of storytelling and about

Butler's concept of the life review. Accounts of the past

do not come naturally to the elderly, as Butler's position

suggests, but require a great deal of work as memories are

recalled and narratively organized in the context of social

exchange. Butler's vision of the life review process as an

internal, psychological process that manifests itself

externally in the form of increased talk of the past,

presents the elderly as struggling within themselves to

integrate diverse experiences from the past into a

consistent and meaningful whole. Although he argues that

life review therapists can assist the life review by

encouraging the elderly to think and talk about the past, in

the end, it is up to the aged individual him- or herself to

achieve their own meaningful and integrated view of life.

Narrative involvement, however, suggests that the

products of life review therapy, or any narrative activity

for that matter, are collaborative works, with narrators

(life reviewers) and audiences (therapists) equally involved

their production. While the accounts produced in life

review therapy may be about the lives of the individuals

undergoing therapy, they are, nonetheless, joint products of

reviewers and therapists.

Narrative involvement forces a distinction between the

narrative subject--who or what the story is about--and

narrative authorship--who produces the account. While its

possible that the subject a life story may be its author, in

most cases, the subject is one of two or more authors who

share in the production of the story. In fact, the subject

need not be involved in the telling of the story at all such

as when psychologists and social workers present case

reports (i.e., tell stories about individuals) in which the

subject has no part in the telling. Thus, it is essential

that life review therapists realize that while they are

talking about the life of a particular individual, both they

and the individual are actively involved in producing the

account. Any conclusions drawn about the individual based

on this account must take into consideration the role played

by the therapist in the telling of the story.

Closely related to the distinction between the

narrative subject and narrative authorship is the concept of

narrative ownership. Stories may "belong" to people as

phrases like "my story" or "the respondent's story"

indicate. Yet the language of narrative ownership is

ambiguous, failing to distinguish between ownership based on

the individual's being the subject of the story and

ownership based on the individual's being the author. As a

result, the phrase "my story" may mean "the story about me,"

or it may mean "the story I told." This ambiguity suggests

that narrative ownership may be open to debate with both

subject and author (or authors) claiming a story as their


Two other related concepts are narrative privilege and

narrative authority. Narrative privilege may be defined as

the right to take part in the telling of a story. As

previous examples have shown, it is not unusual for people

who have access to the details of another individual's life

to feel they have the right, or perhaps even the

responsibility, to take an active role in the telling of the

story about that person. They feel they can contribute

something to the story being told and either directly or

indirectly claim the status of co-author.

Their assumption of narrative privilege is founded on

the conviction that they have a certain narrative authority

by virtue of their being acquainted with the important

details of the subject's life. Narrative authority is

simply the basis on which claims to narrative privilege are

based. Narrative authority may be derived from such diverse

sources as being the subject of the story, being its primary

author, being more objective than other narrators, or

possessing certain knowledge and expertise that make one

better qualified to interpret and understand life events.

Regardless of its source, narrative authority gives people

the right to take part in the telling of the story.

When disputes over narrative privilege arise, those who

can successfully claim narrative authority determine who may

and may not take part in the telling. For example, a male

respondent appeals to narrative ownership as he attempts to

establish his authority over the telling of the life story.

After tiring of his wife continually correcting him, he

turns to her and abruptly asks, "who's story is this,

anyway? Mine or yours?" By appealing to narrative

ownership, whether based on his being the subject of the

story or his being its primary author, the respondent seeks

to claim narrative authority and to deny his wife's right to

participate in the narration.

The interactional contingencies of the situations in

which life narratives are embedded have a great impact on

the construction and communication of life stories. The

narrative challenge, the audience, and others who take part

in the telling of a story, all play an important role in the

life narrative process. Any understanding of life narrative

activity which fails to take into account these

interactional contingencies is, at best, partial. Any

theoretical approach that seeks to explain the elderly's

talk about the past without addressing the social processes

which lead to, and shape, such talk, should be rejected in

favor of approaches that grasp more fully the social nature

of life stories.

Cultural Requirements, Institutional Spheres.
and Storytelling

Not only do interactional contingencies affect

storytelling, institutional and structural factors also have

a significant impact on the construction of life stories.

Particularly, the cultural requirements of storytelling and

the institutional spheres in which life is lived shape the

production of life narrative accounts.

The Cultural Requirements of Storytelling

Earlier in this study, it was noted that scholars have

argued that the production of life narratives is constrained

by certain cultural requirements regarding what makes a good

story. The data of this study provide some support for the

view. For example, it is obvious that some respondents

struggle with the expectation that their story be connected

and coherent over time. There is nothing inherent in the

request for a life story to prevent respondents from

rambling from one experience to another and then back again

as they discuss the events of their life. However, none

choose to do so. The requirement of narrative coherence

forces them to try to organize their story meaningfully.

In fact, some become quite concerned when they feel

their story is not "making sense." Comments such as "this

probably isn't making any sense" or "I'm not sure where this

is going" are common, revealing respondents' full awareness

of the cultural requirement and their concern about meeting

it. One respondent is so unsure about the connectedness and

coherence of her story that after talking for over an hour

and providing a wealth of information about her life, she

apologizes for not being more helpful, stating, "I hope you

can make some sense of all that, because I sure didn't."

Others seem to have problems with the requirement that

stories be tellable, that is, that they be worth telling and

worth hearing. The narrative worth of a story appears

paramount in determining whether or not a story gets told.

If a prospective narrator does not feel the story he or she

has to tell will be of interest or value to the audience, it

is highly likely that they will not tell their story.

Several respondents in this study can be seen

struggling with this requirement. Take, for example, the

following respondent, who begins her story this way:

I have a question. Mine is a bit dull because I didn't
get out much. I was married real young and I had ten
children. We lost one at the age of four, about four,
when this uh. They called it infantile paralysis
at the time. It's the same as what they have now by
another name. But the rest of them are all alive and
married and have families. So I have, uh, about
twenty-two grandchildren and forty-seven great-
grandchildren and fifteen great-great-grandchildren.
[laughter] That part probably isn't interesting but I
have to tell you 'cause that's most of the things. I
don't know. I just, of course, was always kept busy
with them so I didn't do much. I never even learned to
drive a car. I say I didn't learn, I did. I drove a
little bit before you even had to have a driver's
license 'cause I would never have gotten a license.
I'd forget to look behind me. [pause] If you ask
questions it would be easier for me to help us. Is
there anything I would know of interest that you would
like to know?

Another respondent has similar concerns. After

repeating several times that she does not talk much about

herself, she is asked if she ever thinks about her life

story. Her response suggests that she feels her life is

uninteresting and, therefore, not worth talking about.

I: Do you ever think about you life story?

R: Yes, I sure do.

I: You think about it?

R: Yes, uh-hum, I sure do. But um. .. [pause]
But I don't know who, who's interested in me

In Butler's scheme, there is no accounting for the

impact that the cultural requirements of storytelling might

have on an aged persons talk about the past. A person who

refuses to talk about the past saying "there's not much to

talk about" might be thought to be avoiding a troubled past

rather than simply afraid she will be boring. One who says

"this isn't making much sense, is it?" might be read as

having a disorganized personality when she is simply

expressing her awareness that good stories should be

consistent and well organized. Failure to recognize the

impact of culture on story production could have serious


The Effect of Institutional Structures

Earlier it was argued that the institutional structures

in which individuals are involved can affect the production

of life stories. An illustration of how these separate

institutional domains can structure a life story is provided

by a 91-year-old male respondent who explains to the

interviewer his difficulty in deciding how to deal with both

his family and his career as he considered writing his

memoirs at his family's request. As the following excerpt