Herman, David.
Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence.
Style 30, 1 (Spring 1996): 175-79.

A review of Charlotte Linde, Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

This book takes a broadly sociolinguistic approach to the life story, which the author characterizes as a discourse unit crucial for the presentation of self in everyday life. Life Stories is a richly innovative study, packed with insights into the way we use stories to create and maintain an identity over time. Like other groundbreaking works, the book outlines problems that warrant further investigation, sometimes raising as many questions as it resolves.

Describing the life story as a social unit exchanged between people, an oral unit that can be contrasted with written autobiographies, and a discontinuous unit shaped through a series of tellings over an extended duration (4), Charlotte Linde goes on to offer a more precise definition of life stories:

A life story consists of all the stories and associated discourse units, such as explanations and chronicles, and the connections between them, told by an individual during the course of his/her lifetime that satisfy the following two criteria:

1. The stories and associated discourse units contained in the life story have as their primary evaluation a point about the speaker, not a general point about the way the world is.

2. The stories and associated discourse units have extended reportability; that is, they are tellable and are told and retold over the course of a long period of time. (21)

Linde's study focuses on life stories in which issues of profession play a preeminent role (53-57), but her more particular concern is the creation of coherence by tellers as well as listeners of such stories. For Linde, coherence is not only a property of texts, deriving from the way the parts of the text relate to the whole and from the way the text relates to other texts of its type, but also a "cooperative achievement" of the speaker and the addressee (12). In her account of how we build up coherent discourse units in telling the story of our lives, the author draws on a number of subfields within (socio)linguistics, including discourse analysis, the lexico-grammatical study of discourse cohesion initiated by M. A. K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan, and the ethnomethodological school of conversation analysis. As Life Stories proceeds, the book displays a special indebtedness to the method of narrative analysis developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by William Labov and Joshua Waletzky.

Following an overview of the problems connected with the life story in chapter 1, chapter 2 ("What is a Life Story") spells out the technical definition of life stories quoted above and contrasts this discourse unit with other modes of self-presentation in other research contexts, including autobiography and biography, journals and diaries, and the life history in psychology and anthropology (37-50). In discussing extended reportability as a criterion for the life story, Linde makes the point that

Such considerations prompt Linde to pose a question that may already have occurred to the reader at this stage of the analysis: namely, "whether it is meaningful to treat as a unit an entity that is so fluid, and so subject to constant reinterpretation and revision, that it can never be completed" (35-36). Unfortunately, Linde fails to address this problem adequately here, using only the analogy of a cloud of butterflies to suggest that the life story, too, is a sort of composite entity (36). Later Linde does go on to characterize narratives, chronicles, and explanations as elementary discourse units that speakers use in the construction of life stories (62-97); but discourse analysts in particular might want to see more sustained argumentation for the methodological and conceptual advantages of treating life stories themselves as (higher- order) units of discourse.

In chapter 3, "Methods and Data for Studying the Life Story," the author acknowledges some of the limitations of her approach. There she notes that in different societies and among different classes of our own society, choice of profession will figure more or less centrally in a person's presentation of self. She also remarks that hers is a statistically unbalanced sample, insofar as there are too few interviewees who were, moreover, nonrandomly chosen, on the basis of their (characteristically middle-class) interest in their own professions. Yet, Linde argues, "[s]ince this type of research is still in its initial stage, it is not possible to formulate and provide statistical proofs of hypotheses about life stories. Rather, this work attempts to shape a paradigm for studying this previously undescribed phenomenon" (52).

In chapter 4, "Narrative and the Iconicity of the Self," Linde focuses on how narrative provides a resource both for creating a sense of self and for maintaining and negotiating that self vis-a-vis one's interlocutors. Building on the Labovian view that "the skeleton of any narrative is the sequence of past-tense main clauses, whose order is taken to match the order of events as they are presumed to have happened" (106-07), Linde suggests how this "narrative presupposition" allows storytellers to construct a temporally continuous (and thus coherent) self whose past is inferred to be causally related to its present. The process of narration also necessarily involves us in a self/other dialectic, whereby we simultaneously distinguish the self from others as an integral whole and stress the self's membership in a group, whose solidarity in turn derives from shared evaluations of situations and events (111-20). Another property typically ascribed to selves is reflexivity, or "the ability to relate to oneself externally, as an object or as an other" (120). Linde argues that life stories facilitate such reflexivity by separating the narrator from the protagonist of his or her narrative (122ff.).

Chapter 5, "Coherence Principles: Causality and Continuity," is one of the most interesting chapters of the book. It begins with a discussion of narrative strategies for achieving what Linde calls "adequate causality," which is marked by "a chain of causality that is acceptable by addressees as a good reason for some particular event or sequence of events" (127). To be adequate, the causal chain can be neither too thick nor too thin; tellers of life stories must avoid the Scylla of a predetermined existence and the Charybdis of a merely random life. Linde connects this "philosophic wobble" to the self-perceptions of her middle- class subjects, for whom professional advancement is possible, but only possible, on the strength of personal achievement (128). Furthermore, just as events or sequences of events that appear "accidental" have to be narratively managed in order for speakers to maintain adequate causality, so too discontinuity in a life story has to be managed by way of some explicit evaluation or explanation of the event or events in question. Linde details a number of relevant strategies in this connection, including the strategy of the apparent break, the strategy of temporary discontinuity, and the strategy of discontinuity as meta-continuity (152- 62).

Chapters 6 and 7, "Coherence Systems" and "Common Sense and Its History," move from the ways in which adequate causality can be maintained at the local level of narrative discourse, to the ways in which "coherence systems" afford "a more global cultural device for structuring experience into socially sharable narrative" (163). For Linde, "A coherence system is a system of beliefs derived from some expert system, but used by someone with no corresponding expertise and credentials" (163); by contrast, what we call "common sense" is "the system of beliefs that serves to structure explanations when no special coherence system is used" (192). Both sorts of system, specialized and nonspecialized, provide storytellers with vocabularies for creating a self. In the data Linde has collected, relevant coherence systems include popularized versions of Freudian and behaviorist psychology, astrology, and Catholic confessional practice. Although Linde claims that the effects of coherence systems can be found not only at the level of a narrative taken as a whole, but also in "the details of construction of sentence level," her analyses in this section of the book are not very finely grained, linguistically speaking (172). What is more, here and in the final chapter on common sense, Linde would have done well to incorporate the work of Norman Fairclough and other linguists pursuing what has variously been termed Critical Language Study and Critical Discourse Analysis. Like Linde, researchers in this field use linguistic arguments to show how common sense consists of "beliefs that are, within a given culture, so obviously true that it is difficult to see them as beliefs at all" (192). But note again that, whereas the final chapter aims to demonstrate how "the higher level of beliefs and practices affects the detailed structure of narratives" (218), there is a curious lack of linguistic detail in Linde's discussion of how so-called common sense undergirds self-help narratives (198-218).

At least in some respects, then, Linde's study may fall short of its stated goal of using life stories to provide "a model for a unified linguistic analysis - one that moves from the level of the individual construction of sentences, through the form of narratives and the social negotiation of narratives, up to the social level of belief systems and their history, and finally to their effect on the construction of narratives" (3). Nonetheless, the book contains much that will interest a wide variety of readers, from linguists, narratologists, and literary theorists, to students of autobiography and folklore. An imaginative, stylishly written and boldly interdisciplinary study, Life Stories focuses our attention on a hitherto unexplored mode of narrative discourse, throwing new light on the interconnections between self and story.

David Herman, the author of Universal Grammar and Narrative Form (Duke University Press, 1995), teaches at North Carolina State University. He is currently at work on another book-length study entitled "Narratology after Structuralism."

COPYRIGHT 1996 Style


Fairclough, Norman. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. New York: Longman, 1995.

Herman, David. Universal Grammar and Narrative Form.  Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 1995.

Linde, Charlotte. Life stories: The Creation of Coherence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.


Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles