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Personal Narratives, Social Justice, and the Law

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

                                 —Joan Didion.

Abstract

North American writer Joan Didion’s eloquent testimonial speaks to the significance of storytelling in our lives. Personal storiesmake our lives meaningful. Part of this is because our stories, wittingly or not, become the means through which we fashion our identities for listeners. Or, as scholars from many disciplines have argued, identity and selfhoodare narrative accomplishments. In this formulation, an individual constructs a sense of self by telling stories or “personal narratives,” which describe “the evolution of an individual life over time and in social context” (Maynes et al. in Telling stories: the use of personal narratives in the social sciences and in history. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2008, 2). While personal narratives contain unique autobiographical elements, the logics of storytelling and the values and beliefs of a particular time and place also influence the kinds of stories people tell. As feminist historian Mary Jo Maynes and her coauthors argue: “The stories that people tell about their lives are never simply individual, but are told in historically specific times and settings and draw on the rules and models in circulation that govern how story elements link together in narrative logics” (2008, 2). Put another way, even the most idiosyncratic story is always in some way social: what narrators decide to tell is often guided by the expectations of audiences (real or imagined); the conventions of various genres (such as life history or autobiography); as well as the broader cultural narratives located in particular historical times and places. In this light, personal narratives at once provide evidence of a storyteller’s viewpoint and experiences as well as the social and cultural milieu in which they live.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The extant literature in the humanities and social sciences on narrative and self-making is vast. For some key examples, see Berger and Quinney (2005), Bruner (1987), Eakins (1999), Ewick and Silbey (2003), Frank (2010), Holstein and Gubrium (2000), Irvine (1999), Luttrell (1997), Maynes et al. (2008), McAdams (1993), Polkinghorne (1991), Rosenwald and Ochberg (1992), Somers and Gibson (1994).

  2. 2.

    Personal narratives are one type of narrativity. Narratives can also be public, institutional, metahistorical (cf., Somers and Gibson 1994). All forms of narratives share three key elements: a temporal logic, a point of view, and a plot. Put another way, stories are told chronologically from a particular viewpoint with a plot that gives the events recounted meaning (White 1980).

  3. 3.

    The concept of agency is often understood in relation to concepts of the individual, the person and the self; discussion of these questions falls outside the scope of this paper. For recent, important discussions of “agency in context,” see Chapter 1, Agency, Subjectivity, and Narratives of the Self in Maynes et al. (2008) and Mahmood (2006).

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Correspondence to Samia Bano.

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Bano, S., Pierce, J.L. Personal Narratives, Social Justice, and the Law. Fem Leg Stud 21, 225–239 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10691-013-9251-z

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Keywords

  • Personal narratives
  • Social justice
  • Voice
  • Law