Can narrative practices contribute to ‘social movement’? An invitation to join a project from David Denborough

G’day and welcome to this Friday afternoon video presentation from Dulwich Centre in which we invite you to join a project considering the challenges and possibilities in relation to narrative practices contributing to ‘social movement’. I’ve also included various links to texts and videos below. We hope to hear from you to continue the conversation!

References and further information:

I will include here the references to various texts and videos that I mention in the presentation.


  • Can we contribute to ‘social movement?’ by David Denborough. Chapter 6 from the book Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma This includes the ‘checklist’ I refer to.
  • Kitzinger, C. & Perkins, R. (1993). Changing our minds: Lesbian feminism and psychology. New York: NYU Press.
  • The story of Richard, his mother and the box of fears appears in White, M. (2006). Narrative Practice with families and children: Externalising conversations revisited’ In White, M. & Morgan, A.: Narrative Therapy with Children and their Families. (chapter 1) pp. 1-56. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications
  • The concepts of people representing social issues as well as themselves; enabling contribution; and people speaking through us not just to us; are all explored in Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma
  • When I refer to my family/my ancestors contributing to great harm, I am referring to histories of colonisation and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here in Australia – harms which continue in the present. I also have great respect for and gratitude to my ancestry. I hope my small efforts to join with others to redress past harms in no way dishonour my ancestry or my loving family. I also hope, collectively, that our descendants will try to redress harms which we as a nation are enacting now. How to both honour our ancestory and also come to terms with harms done is a profound question. I will attach here a letter I wrote to one of my ancestors about this.

Sustaining activists

  • The workshop with Burmese women rights workers/activists is documented here: Narrative responses to human rights abuses. This was a project of the International Women’s Development Agency and Dulwich Centre Foundation International with representatives from Shan Women’s Action Network, Women’s League of Burma, Palaung Women’s Organisation,Karen Women’s Organisation, Kachin Women’s Association – Thailand, Burmese Women’s Union, Lahu Women’s Organisation, Tavoyan Women’s Union.
  • Poh Lin Lee is a narrative therapist and member of Dulwich Centre faculty who has worked in Australia and overseas in the area of family violence, state violence, displacement and seeking asylum for individuals, families and children. She is currently based in Paris. We are collaborating on developing ways to sustain human rights workers and activists.
  • The work of Vikki Reynolds is also very relevant here.


Community Organizing

  • For those wanting to know more about the realm of community organizing in the Alinksy tradition, I’d recommend this recent book by David Walls: Community Organizing
  • To learn more about the work of Marshall Ganz click here
  • An overview of the work of Caleb Wahkungu and the Mt Elgon self-help community project which uses narrative practices to spark and sustain economic projects can be found here

Narrative methodologies being used within movements

  • To learn more about the work of PAH in Spain see their Facebook page In the near future we hope to publish some of the Team of Life work of Mònica Florensa and Jordi Freixas.
  • The collective narrative testimony in relation to the experience of West Papuan survivors of the Biak Massacre can be found here.

A clarification

I want to also clarify that in no way would I suggest that the field of narrative practice is a social movement. I think Michael White clarifies this, in no uncertain terms, in the interview Direction and discovery: A conversation about power and politics in narrative therapy:

Michael Hoyt: I want to ask another basic question, if I could. I hear these days some people referring to narrative therapy as a kind of social movement, or a kind of liberation philosophy. It is being identified in some circles as politically ‘left-wing’. Have you heard these sorts of things? Is it your intention for narrative therapy to be perceived in these ways?

Michael White: I have heard people reflect on narrative therapy in these ways and have some concern that such descriptions could be trivialising and diminishing of the courage expressed in, and of the very significant contributions and achievements of, various social movements. I do not know of any therapists who have risked their lives and the safety of their families, who have totally compromised their security, or who have been exiled due to their involvement in narrative therapy. And yet these experiences are often had by people who participate in social movements, and in initiatives that are informed by liberation philosophy.

And there are other reasons why the description of narrative therapy as a social movement does not fit for me. I don’t know how it is that narrative therapy could be constructed as a social movement, or as a kind of liberation philosophy. Social movements, in my understanding, are broad-based and issue focussed, very often addressing wider social justice issues from a variety of political platforms. In this sense, I don’t believe that there is anything about what I understand to be narrative therapy that would allow it to make any claim to be a social movement or a liberation philosophy.

As well, the liberation philosophies principally focus on the forces of oppression and repression. And, as an outcome of their association with liberal humanism, these movements usually incorporate a strong vision or narrative about how things could otherwise be in the world. Contrast this with the agenda that is explicit in narrative therapy. This is to engage in some local inquiry into what is happening, into how things are becoming other than what they were, or into the potential for things to become other than what they are. It is to engage in the rich description of the knowledges and skills of living expressed in this, and in an exploration of the possibilities, limitations and possible dangers associated with how things are and with how they are becoming other than what they were. Although I believe that this emphasis provides for a socially and politically sensitive practice, I want to reiterate that I don’t believe that there is anything about these practices that could constitute narrative therapy as a social movement. (White, 2000, pp. 112-113).

White, M. (2000). Direction and discovery: A conversation about power and politics in narrative therapy (Hoyt, M.F. & Zimmerman, J. interviewers). In White, M.: Reflections on Narrative Practice: Essays & interviews (chapter 6), pp.97-116. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Published March 2, 2015

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Judit Hajdu

    Dear David and Kassandra,

    thanks for your inspiring thoughts. They really got me going.

    I was on my exercise bike while listening to your video, David, which might have resulted in that I immediately decided upon a series of actions rather than thinking theoretically. Firstly I’m going to give a presentation entitled something like Therapist and/or Activist based on your talk – if you permit – at a family therapy conference dealing with the role of the therapist.

    I am especially interested in these matters as I am now doing therapy only part time while as an organizer of prison radio I have become very involved in social issues. As we set up our civil group in order to establish the radio and started looking for supporters we met a great number of activists, a lot of like-minded people working on a very broad spectrum, from dealing with very specific issues of say people living with handicaps to others taking to the stages of demonstrations, giving fiery speeches. I’ve found that narrative ways of thinking made it especially easy to connect with them. So my second piece of action is going to be offering a Tree of Civil Life session to members of other groups and find ways of publicizing our struggles and achievements as listening to them gave the impression of a lack of opportunities to make their stories heard. (After all the name of our association is Out Loud not without reason). I find this all the more timely as social movements and civil society is being curbed in Hungary at the moment and in the time of dwindling financial resources social groups had better stick together rather than fight against each other for the scraps. So this is something that might be in line with your 1st point of consideration and I would be happy to keep you and others informed about it if interested.

    Doing the radio, however, poses a different kind of problem. Sort of in a reverse fashion. I work with the prisoners not as a psychologist, they did not come to see me with problems they face, they volunteered because they want to try out themselves as radio reporters, technicians etc. and they want to spend at least a little bit of their time in there with meaningful activity. However my intention with the radio was to give meaning to time not only for the 10 or so people doing the radio, but the other 850 incarcerated in that penitentiary. But we also want this radio as much as possible to be and to be felt their own. And so interfere with the content as little as possible. So I feel that the activist in me – reach and influence as many people as I can – is in conflict with the therapist – provide only space for those I’m in contact with, hear their stories and encourage alternative stories, strengthening their agenda. All in the very constricting limits of time, because programs have to be ready for broadcasting by the deadline. Writing down all this have already clarified the problem – so thanks again – and reassured me that transparency is one of the keys. Still this is a bit hazy in my head but feel that this could be another point to consider or maybe it can be grouped to your 2nd point – spark and sustain local actions and comm. organizations with the help of NP – just to keep things structured.

    I find your idea of exploring influences of social movements through music absolutely fascinating. I know how my Mom for instance identifies with songs of the early communist movements as well as with catholic hymns or how the Russian songs I had to learn at school means something completely different to me to what was intended at the time. What a well of meaning (if you can say this) to explore! Also as unfortunately I know very little about music I wonder, maybe this exploring of influences could be helped along by films as well …

    Will have to do a lot more thinking about all these! Looking forward to your replies and the others’ comments.

  2. Kassandra Pedersen

    Regarding the issues mentioned by David, I find them all very interesting. What caught my attention maybe a little more, is the last one about the impact of social movements in the understanding of our identity. I was thinking that if you look historically, the social identity of people has been reflected in the evolution of the history of music. In fact my graduation project in the Greek university was exactly upon this matter. My assignment investigate the birth and development of various kinds of black music such as blues, the swing, jazz and blues in rhythm, as a result of the social relationships, in a world that imposed discrimination against blacks and to the benefit of white people. It’s important that what the black music expresses is the community of blacks, as a cultural group or movement (in a later period), in a moment that it does not hold a permanent and stable position in the production and society, but nevertheless it communicate the need to recognize its existence. This seems to me as a claim of Identity.

    So what I think is that it can be difficult initially for people who come to us, to directly investigate how the various social movements influenced their sense of identity,and some people may not even have knowledge of these social movements, but this does not mean that they are not influenced by their ideology or philosophy somehow. Maybe we could explore through the music they listen, love, understand, the imprint of social movements in their identities and lives.

    Moreover music isn’t only an expressor of people’s identity. My sense is that is that it can be a mean to change the given order. In Greece, in the period of Junta music has lead in mobilizing people to fight and protest. People have imprisoned, exiled and tortured because they heard specific kind of music. More over people form Arabic countries used the same Greek music some years later to mobilize their protests against their dictators.

    In one month I am going to start working with a group of people at the base of the project “orchestra of life”, a project inspired from Adriana Muller.I have tried this in the past and it has been a wonderful experience both for me and for the participants. Now I am thinking about an expansion of this project, where the music will allow people to come in contact with the social history of the songs that touches them and give them the chance to communicate as representatives of these stories. And I’m also having in mind if and in which way this group could be involved, if they wish of course, in some kind of social action. What kind of invitation could music make for a local social action?

    I know it sounds too vague! And that’s exactly how it is in my head right now,a bit undefined. However new ideas has started to emerge and I hope will come back with something more specific. If anyone has interest to discuss more on this, I would be very happy to do it!

  3. Troy Holland

    Thank you David D, Loretta and the authors, activists and especially those who have suffered that have inspired this conversation.

    Just a quick comment from me. I particularly found the words in the clarification meaningful. At times in my psychologist roles I feel as though I am deviating from the norms and expected practices and I have understood this as being a great ‘risk’ and requiring ‘courage’. Michael White’s words put that in perspective for me in that I am not, as far as I am aware, risking my life or my freedom in these deviations. It will help sustain my efforts to continue on the path of practising according to relational ethics and accountability rather than according to what is enshrined as ‘best practice’ or a ‘code’ or ‘evidence-based’ to remember that rather than requiring ‘courage’, I simply need to act and practise with ‘integrity’.

    I look forward to following the conversation and action further and participating and contributing as I can.

    With much warmth and respect

  4. Elizabeth Quek

    Thanks David for the video, and helping make the link from narrative work, our local action and larger social movements. I would like to share my little story of how social movements affects the people i work with and the work we do.

    In my university, social work was intentionally depoliticized. Although we studied about policies and alluded to the fact that things on the macro level affected families. There were never any concrete examples of how our housing policies contributed to homelessness, or how our financial assistance policies contributed to systemic shame and helplessness and sustained poverty. One thing that i realised only 5 years of working as a social worker was that none of my lecturers ever brought up human rights in their syllabus. Intervention that was taught to us also omitted social action or community participation models instead focusing on deficit and pathological theories. Individual deficits tear and wear people down. The shame and internalized discrimination divides the community and isolates people. Much of my time was spent ensuring that people have their basic needs.

    In 2013 I went to a world social work conference where an Aboriginal Australian pleaded to the social workers (referring to those coming from overseas) not to go there to help change the people. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. If your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (a quote by Lilla Watson). Other speeches also woke me up to links of colonization to many problems. At that time I also accepted many invitations to many homes and I had the privilege to be invited to their inner thoughts about the real concerns they faced and prevented them from improving their situations. I witnessed stories of endurance and hospitality.

    At the same time, I was intrigued by a movement in one our neighborhoods. They were started by a group of Malays who cares deeply for their neighbourhood. They called themselves Pekik (loud voice in malay language). With courage, they said things that created discomfort to others. Their initiatives and skills are documented at: Because of Pekik, many organisations have come in to see how they can support the neighbourhood. We also had a local poverty reduction movement called “OneSingapore.”

    These movements (Aboriginal Australian Movement, Anti-colonization movement and local movements) and what I saw from my experiences really started me to be curious about the historical factors that led to the marginalization of the malay community. I read more about the about the politics of race. I read much about financial inequity.

    That is how I resonated much with with the 2 quotes or ideas that The Just Therapy team and Kitzinger & Perkins that David shared. The critique of our work is making people adapt and cope to poor conditions and the limitations of traditional psychotherapy is inward focused and does not acknowledge broader contexts. This is something that I’ve tried to change my ways of working with the families in poverty with multiple concerns of homelessness, poor access to nutrition and food, and environmental stressors and a lack of resources.

    It’s so difficult to wear these flippers to resist going with the flow of social power (Mary Heath) and I find these reminders helpful when I work.
    How do we notice that people are representing social issues:
    -always situating their stories in socio-political contexts.
    -I ask myself, how does poverty, discrimination contribute to what they are struggling with now?
    -if they have the same privileges as me, would they still have this struggle or it would be more tolerable?
    -how does their lack of privileges limit their options?
    -are you imposing a social norm of the dominant culture? Is this a colonizing idea?
    -are your ways of working making people feel guilt or shame or depleting their hope.
    -are you appreciating the resistance that they do towards their problems or the oppression? Are you documenting it?
    -are you replicating oppressive ways of working?
    -are you honoring of people’s histories and cultures?
    -are you doing your best for their voices to be heard in various settings?
    -are you creating space for people to be linked to each other in solidarity?
    -are you responding collaboratively to these broader concerns?

    I’m grateful to all these social movements that have contributed to my increased awareness and insight in order to work towards the hopes me and my community has. We are co-creating various practices so that our work holds close ethics of collaboration and social justice. To end, I would like to point one of the great things that happened recently at my workplace that created more voice and opportunities for the people I work with! After this article, many singaporeans have a better understanding of the largely invisible or misunderstood people we work with, and Jodie and our agency received much responses (to the dismay of some, excitement for us). Subsequently, Jodie linked his situation to many of what many families in our neighbourhood experienced, and suggested that there was many in need of such support.

    Thanks again David for facilitating these links that are significant for the people that we work with.

    1. Loretta Pederson

      Hi David D and new recruits to this project!

      Thanks so much for bringing these issues into focus with your video. I feel strongly that these are important areas for our field to explore. I certainly don’t have answers, but I am willing to contribute to discussion, so thanks for your invitation.

      That phrase ‘receivers of stories of social suffering’ from the Just Therapy team really grabs me, and the idea that this is a ‘profoundly honourable responsibility’ keeps me going in the work, but also provides challenges… It will be interesting to hear others’ ideas around whether there are ways we as a field are getting in the way of social movements. I will need to give this more consideration with my team, about my own work.

      The areas that you spoke about, that we have already been engaging in, have been practices which have sustained me in my work with women who have experienced violence. There is a significant social issue here, with the dominant ideas which lead to violence, and then which also contribute to the second injustice of the way people who have experienced violence (especially sexual violence) are treated by the community and the ‘justice’ system. I think the women I meet with also represent another social issue in Australia, which is a lack of adequate housing. Some of the women are staying in physically and verbally abusive contexts, due to a lack of options, and the NSW government have cut funding to many refuges, long-term accommodation providers, and welfare services. Much public housing has been sold off. Some people are protesting about this…

      I see engaging in narrative practices to be sustained in the work as political, because if I get worn out from hearing about gendered violence and injustice and leave this work, isn’t that a further win for patriarchy?

      Your last question about how our identities have been shaped by social movements is where I would like to give more of my attention during this project. When we did the exercise during the Masters, it was a profound experience for me. I really value honouring and acknowledging people who have contributed to my life, so broadening this out to social movements really was significant.I know that the feminist movement has contributed significantly to my identity – particularly in relation to my identity as someone of worth. Without going into too much detail, gendered social expectations have caused quite some trouble in my life at times, and seeing myself joined to other women who have gone before me, and being connected to women currently has sustained me during times of hardship and struggle. Considering the next generation, and what I would like them to know, assists me to act in accordance with my values, rather than society’s expectations. It is very hard because expectations are all around us every day. There is also a second social movement which has shaped my identity also. Then when I got back from Adelaide after the Masters, that exercise seemed to perhaps have ongoing effects… My identity seemed up for further review! It seems that perhaps in considering other ways of thinking and being, we can become other than what we were. It led to further considerations of identity, which led to more shaping, which led to recognition of a third social movement of importance. So now there are many, many people who have contributed to my identity and my life, whom I’ve not even met!

      Anyway, I could keep going, but I’ll leave space for others to contribute… So, looking forward to hearing from you (collective ‘you’!)

  5. Trish Nowland

    Hi all,

    Really treasuring the contributions on this thread, thank you everyone for bringing forth these possibilities and potentials and questions for social movements.

    What has been circling in my mind are two connected concerns.

    One is experience in queer community, that re-visits with particular strength this time of year in the Mardi Gras afterglow. There is a sporadic and revisiting kind of melancholia that emerges in collective conversations about the loss of ‘fight for our rights’ as growth of societal-level acceptance increases over the years, of LGBTI ways of being. What is interesting to me is that this keen sense of loss isn’t particular to any age group, ethnic background or (alternative) sexual preference. I expect it perhaps for older folks, what surprises me is when younger peoples express the concern. The worry is genuine and deep for what this means for us as community. It is a worry, about what this loss of fiery activism signals, my sense is, partly this is about a felt-shift in sensed solidarity, also there is a mourning for the degree to which, in terms of acceptance, broadly speaking, there is still so far to travel, the work is not done yet.

    What happens each year, in consort with the worry, is a sort of intergenerational storytelling about fighting or not-fighting – younger community members witness the harsh realities of coming out in less accepting times, older community members get insights into what it is like to have grown up in families where freedom of choice and sexual orientation were never at odds, where unconditional love as foundation actually had lived-out-truth. The other aspect of not fighting for our rights that I can think of is a more subtle acknowledgement of our (now) individual presences in mainstream community and work – where we are not so bound by solidarity and those requirements that we stay close in together for protection, but still understand ourselves as connected, in less obvious ways, backed up in an acknowledgement of a kind of shared lifestory worked through, even though our actual lives and backgrounds are enormously different, perhaps even, at odds with each other. So narrative plays roles here in two different ways – without any intentional therapeutic intervention.

    Thinking through intergenerational sharing brings me to other intergenerational implications of social being. I work in the community not for profit sector, in working-class greater western Sydney, where I grew up. Much of the shape of intergenerational social concerns that were present when I was growing up remain there today, despite the (sometimes quite astounding) economic development seen in the rest of the Sydney region. We’ve recently started looking to skills in parental reflective functioning for support groups (RF: Slade, 2005), particularly where there are complex needs present for families (mental health concerns, CALD new community members, D&A presence, gambling and welfare needs, separation & breakdown, etc). I appreciate RF as it seems to work that same connection as narrative therapy – it is defined as the capacity to understand own and others behaviour in terms of thoughts and feelings and values. My sense is, this particular relational focus has a kind of potential in it, where folks may orient to their own kinds of social movement in whatever seems right for them, as much as it seems to allow for a kind of re-calibration of direct relationships between parents and children.

    I would love to see a complete re-working of western psychology in this way – to re-situate psychology at precisely the meeting point of individuals and others and the dynamics of these interactions, rather than the location of problems within people. Such a re-situation I would imagine places the individual with a rich enough sense of their connection (or disconnection if they should prefer, and it most benefits wellbeing) that ‘social movement’ is a natural onflow, where the situation demands it.

    I’d say we’re well equipped to resource folks, from a narrative perspective, in that way.

    With warm regards, and thanks if you managed to read this far!

  6. Poh Lin Lee

    Thank you to everyone who have written responses, ponderings and asked more questions, I draw inspiration and energy from reading!

    If I could share some seedlings of thoughts…

    I noticed how therapeutic practices aimed at ‘symptom reduction’ in asylum seeker detention settings appear to be designed to assist the individual to ‘cope’ with the situation inviting among other things a helpless passivity. An approach or model that does not include a rigorous inclusion of the ‘situation of detention’ very much implicates therapy in the discourse of social control and actively disengages people from social movement.

    I would be very interested to continue considering the implications of therapy discourses that may hinder or facilitate social movement.

    Looking to the idea of how narrative ideas might be drawn upon in supporting/sustaining human rights and social activism participation and work…

    Receivers of social suffering – being named as a receiver invites me to consider my responsibility, my potential for action and also the implications in my life and lives of others of being an active participant.

    We can also consider this further for those who are working and living in the particular context, whether they are from the same cultural/linguistic group, the types of privilege they experience in relation to those they consult with. How do we stand with and apart? What does that look like and what are the implications for life and identity?

    As David referred to, words like social movement and protest can conjure up images and ideas at a grand scale! I’m curious why this is and how it has developed a broad sweeping neglect of the local initiative, actions and intentions of people, families and communities. Stories that shape me and stay with me and can be called upon in difficult times are the ones with detailed account, profound in their intricacies, subtle in their ‘size’.

    I’m interested to slow down protest and social movement and explore the complex shades with colleagues, the possibility to understanding the relationship between identity and social movement and the ways in which they mutually contribute and shape one another.

    I’m curious to explore how we, as a field, spend time preparing to meet with people, families and communities but I wonder to what extent do we ‘prepare’ ourselves to meet with the discourses that burst into the therapeutic space with momentum and skill? Would time spent exploring the relationship we as therapists have with the discourses that are imposing on people’s lives influence the way we both approach therapy but also consider sustaining and caring for ourselves and each other?

    With warmth

  7. Eleni Pouliezou Faria

    Hi, I am presently studying a masters of social work at the university of S.A. and live in Adelaide. I am about to embark on an essay for Contemporary Social Work Practice Theories in which I aim to discuss Narrative Theory/Practice and was very impressed to read some of the letters / responses from indigenous people in Arnhem and Pt Augusta. I was extremely touched and cried reading the letters – extraordinary hope, resilience and superhuman strength in the face of such dark adversity, prolonged since 1788. In my essay I will be broaching the question of critical anti-oppressive practice and how this relates/or does not relate to narrative practice. How we need narrative practice in an effort to externalise problems and renew hope, strength and thematic resonance across whole communities globally in their suffering, but that we also need a cohesive thematics of oppression to enable disparate groups to cohere under a trans-cultural human rights practice. After listening to David’s video, I was encouraged by the potential this practice may realise in social activist movement. I feel it has the potential to be utilised by many oppressed communities around the world and hopefully inspire activities around activism. Watching David has certainly put a new slant on my essay somewhat irritatingly….but thank you. I would like to participate in the project but after I have finished all my essays. I think I have some contribution to make, particularly around the issue of how social movements define one’s identify, but not in a way David might expect.

    Thank you again for your inspiring work and references. I shall be in touch.
    Kind regards

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