Anthropology, archives, co-research and narrative therapy | an interview with David Epston

David Epston is one of the co-founders of narrative therapy and is widely respected for his innovative and creative work. He has introduced to the field of family therapy a range of alternative approaches including the use of leagues, archives and co-research. David lives in Auckland, New Zealand, where this conversation took place. Here we learn about the term co-research, coined by David Epston in the late 1970’s.

Anthropology, archives, co-research and narrative therapy an interview with David Epston


I’ve always thought of myself as doing research, but on problems and the relationships that people have with those problems, rather than on the people themselves. The structuring of narrative questions and interviews allow me and others to co-research problems and the alternative knowledges that are developed to address them.

The concept of co-researching is of absolute significance to me in this work as it structures another way of knowing and being together. It enables a relationship that brings together each person’s purpose. The purpose of the person who comes to consult with me is generally to co-research ways in which to change their relationship with the particular problem in their lives. My purpose in the work, as well as to be a co-researcher in this process, is to try to add to the archive of knowledge around this particular problem as this is something that I will take forward through my work with others. Many people who have shared these co-researching relationships have moved on once the concerns we were researching are no longer a burning matter for them, and this is fine. But as a co-researcher, as an archivist, you have the moral responsibility of holding onto these alternative knowledges and making them available to others in ways in which your contributors confirm.

There are other ways in which engaging in co-research shapes a particular ethic of this work which I believe are significant. For example, co-research is informed by a particular type of inquiry. It is shaped by an ethnographic imagination, which again is a term from anthropology. In my teaching, I find this ethnographic imagination to be one of the hardest things to impart and I really don’t know why this is.

Can you say a bit about what you think distinguishes ethnographic imagination from other forms of enquiry?

I think what distinguishes ethnographic imagination is its morphology, the shape that it takes. I think it requires a considerable discipline and a considerable humility. When an anthropologist visits the traditional peoples of the Tiwi Islands, northwest of Darwin, if they wish to engage with the meanings and understandings of the Tiwi they will be required to question all their own assumptions of life. The Tiwi people’s ways of thinking and understanding life are based on completely different assumptions to those of us from western cultures. In order to engage with the meanings and understandings of the Tiwi an anthropologist would be obliged to have what Joan Laird calls an ‘informed not knowing’. I think this is relevant to therapists working with those who consult us. Within the field of therapy, for many years there was an implicit assumption that in order to help someone you must know a great deal about them. What’s more, if you found yourself in a situation where you didn’t know enough about a particular person then there was a further assumption that you ought not show this lack of knowledge. Approaching therapy with an ethnographic imagination is a different proposition. However, ‘informed not knowing’ is still knowing a lot. To be able to assist people to know their own knowledge is a considerable form of expertise. It requires a different sort of inquiry, one that involves setting to one side one’s own assumptions, making no pretences that you can know another’s experience and ‘walk in their shoes’, but rather entering into an inquiry based on ethnographic imagination, whereby you seek their versions of how they go about the living of their lives.

The other relevant consideration is that in the professions we have been trained to think in comprehensive ways, in grand ways. I admit that this can be an attractive form of figuring things out. But I like the particular, the precise, the minute. I believe that therapy involves an ethnography of the particular, and the only way you can engage in such an ethnography is by asking specific questions. A lot of people have been schooled out of these sorts of questions. Sometimes people see the use of specific questions as directive, or leading. But I have no problem with asking questions that guide people to discover the grounds of their knowing. I have no problem with questions that lead people where to look, and that bring whatever is out there into their field of vision. I never know what’s going to be found, but I believe I have a responsibility as a co-researcher to utilise a rigorous ethnographic practice.

Respectful curiosity is one thing, and a good thing, but I like to see it used with a considerable expertise. I believe what makes this expertise possible is an ethnographic imagination and an ethnography of the particular.