American Journal of Cultural Sociology

, Volume 5, Issue 1–2, pp 261–304 | Cite as

Narrative change, narrative stability, and structural constraint: The case of prisoner reentry narratives

  • David J. Harding
  • Cheyney C. Dobson
  • Jessica J. B. Wyse
  • Jeffrey D. Morenoff
Original Article


Cultural sociologists and other social scientists have increasingly used the concept of narrative as a theoretical tool to understand how individuals make sense of the links between their past, present, and future; how individuals construct social identities from cultural building blocks; and how culture shapes social action and individual behavior. Despite its richness, we contend that the narratives literature has yet to grapple with narrative change and stability when structural constraints or barriers challenge personal narratives and narrative identities. Particularly for marginalized groups, the potential incompatibility of personal narratives with daily experiences raises questions about the capacity of narratives to influence behavior and decision-making. In this study, we draw on prospective longitudinal data on the reentry narratives and narrative identities of former prisoners to understand how narratives do and do not change when confronted with contradictory experiences and structural constraints. We identify and describe the processes generating narrative change and stability among our subjects. These findings inform a framework for studying narrative change and stability based on four factors: the content of the narrative itself, the structural circumstances experienced by the individual, the institutional contexts in which the individual is embedded, and the social networks in which the individual is embedded.


narrative identity social structure incarceration prisoner reentry 



This research was supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research, Rackham Graduate School, the Department of Sociology; the Joint PhD Program in Sociology and Public Policy, National Poverty Center; and the Population Studies Center of the University of Michigan, which is supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development under grant R24 HD041028 and by the National Institute on Aging under grant T32 AG000221. The authors thank Elizabeth Johnston, Andrea Garber, Elena Kaltsas, Madie Lupei, Carmen Gutierrez, Adam Laretz, and Emma Tolman for their excellent research assistance. The authors also thank Sandra Smith, Michele Lamont, and Black Hawk Hancock for their helpful comments on a previous version of this manuscript.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • David J. Harding
    • 1
  • Cheyney C. Dobson
    • 2
  • Jessica J. B. Wyse
    • 3
  • Jeffrey D. Morenoff
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of California at BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  3. 3.Health Services Research and DevelopmentDepartment of Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care SystemPortlandUSA

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