Global!Journal!for!Community!Psychology!Practice,!http://www.gjcpp.org/!! Page!1!! !
The Community Narration (CN) Approach: Understanding a Group’s Identity and
Cognitive Constructs through Personal and Community Narratives
Bradley D. Olson, PhD
Community Psychology, National-Louis University, Chicago, IL, USA
Leonard A. Jason, PhD
Director for the Center for Community Research, DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA
Key words: Narrative, Participatory, Substance Abuse, Recovery Homes, Oxford House
Brad Olson is Assistant Professor of Psychology at National-Louis University in Chicago and
Co-Director of the Community Psychology Doctoral Program. He is a community and social
psychologist, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leonard Jason, Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for Community Research at DePaul
We appreciate the support of Paul Molloy and Leon Venable and the many Oxford House members who
have collaborated with our team. The authors are grateful for financial support provided by the National
Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA grant numbers AA12218 and AA16973), the National
Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA grant numbers DA13231 and DA19935) and the National Center on
Minority Health and Health Disparities (grant MD002748).
Olson, B.D., & Jason, L.A. (2011). The community narration (CN) approach: Understanding a
group’s identity and cognitive constructs through personal and community narratives. Global
Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 2(1), 1-7. Retrieved <date>, from
The Community Narration (CN) Approach: Understanding a Group’s Identity and Cognitive
Constructs through Personal and Community Narratives
Bradley D. Olson1, Leonard A. Jason2
1 National-Louis University, 2Center for Community Research, DePaul University
Community program evaluations, visioning and assessments must always endeavor to attain useful
information in the most sensitive way. Most community-based organizations form, grow and continue on
their own without the help of outside experts. Participatory approaches should respect the historical
evolution of these groups and understand the positive factors that underlie their organizational beliefs. A
group’s mission, values and identity should inform any community program evaluation, consulting
project, and the design of any research study. Narrative methods have been used with mutual-help groups
and many other organizations to good effect (Harré, Bullen, & Olson, 2006; Rappaport, 2000). Such
methods have great potential to avoid hierarchical and unidirectional forms of evaluation, encouraging the
group’s collective psychology and identity-based constructs to emerge. We developed a participatory,
narrative technique called Community Narration (CN), which is described here. The technique utilizes
personal stories and community narratives as an entry into the evaluation process or other work involved
in understanding an organization. The community’s participants were able to use the technique
successfully, found it enriching, and the constructs obtained have led to many discussions and member-
guided research related to the organization.
Community-based techniques such as empowerment
evaluation, attempt to reduce hierarchies between the
“consultant” and the organization (Fetterman,
Kaftarian, & Wandersman, 1996; Fetterman &
Wandersman, 2005). Whether the goal involves
visioning with another organization, creating a needs
assessment, or evaluation, there is a need to move
toward less rigid methods in order to discover an
organization or community’s identity, its collective
goals, and implicit aspects of its mission. The
organizational identity is often built on a collection of
personal beliefs and experiences shared by those who
make up the community. Personal identities are
structured around stories (McAdams, 2009;
McAdams & Olson, 2010). Community narratives,
made up of personally stories, are equally the
foundation of a group’s or community’s identity
(Harré, Bullen, & Olson, 2006; Rappaport, 2000).
Rappaport (2000) distinguishes between personal
stories and community narratives, associating the
story to the individual and the narrative to the
community, noting that stories and narratives are
intimately tied with one another. Each community
has a unique set of narratives that are a source of
growth, and a way for a community to creatively find
its alternative narratives, which are contrasted with
other dominant narratives in society. The contexts
and cognitive constructs associated with such
alternative and dominant narratives are critical to
understanding the relationship or fit between an
individual and the larger organization or community
(Rappaport, 2000). These understandings can also be
instrumental in the recovery path for a group and its
members. The formation of these stories, the
community narratives, and the constructs that
describe them, are most often implicit and remain
unidentified. Community psychology can contribute
to helping these collective beliefs emerge or become
more explicit, a state which may offer great value
toward understanding a community and helping that
community better understand itself.
From a social as well as a methodological
perspective, qualitative approaches have participatory
and strengths-based advantages. Telling stories is an
enjoyable and enriching experience and community
members often report that it feels like a more
authentic way of becoming understood from the
outside (Harré et al., 2006). Qualitative information
also produces rich data that can be looked at as a
whole, or coded, and/or combined with quantitative
data. Working with groups in a concerted fashion to
understand personal and community narratives in
concrete terms can help all stakeholders better
understand the organization’s community and
individual narratives. It is often a good starting point
to working with an organization. Unfortunately,
qualitative methods in research enterprises can be
time and labor intensive (Patton, 2000).
For these reasons, we developed the current
Community Narration (CN) approach. The method
uses, in part, George Kelly’s (1955) cognitive-based
clinical-personality model. The goal of Kelly’s
personal constructs theory is to reduce the personal
and community narratives down to shorter and more
discussable constructs. The personal construct, the
basic unit in George Kelly’s (1955) personal
construct theory, is represented by dichotomous
indicators, most often about other people: "good vs.
bad", for example, or "liberal vs. conservative." The
contrasts of the bipolar construct add more
information than a single term alone. For instance,
when discussing food, the bipolar constructs of "hot-
mild" and "hot-medium" connote a spicy or peppery
hot. But "hot-warm" and "hot-cold" connote
temperature differences (Maher, 1969). According to
Kelly’s theory, personal bipolar constructs are the
means by which people construe events in the world.
In this use, personal construct theory also helps, in
the form of manageable dichotomies, bring out the
alternative vs. dominant community narratives as
described by Rappaport (2000).
A key component of Kelly's (1955) personal
construct theory is the “commonality corollary.” The
corollary suggests that when two or more people
employ similar constructions of their experiences, the
psychological processes involved are also similar.
Commonalities are fundamental to Community
Narration and in its goal to derive a group’s
dichotomous constructs. These bipolar constructs
have been used in other, different and more
individualistic personality and social role methods of
assessment. The procedure of the current Community
Narration is described in the Methods section, but,
briefly, dichotomies are obtained from group
members initially through personal stories, and taken
further to uncover central, common community
Community Narration is useful in helping an
organization/community and other stakeholders think
about and analyze more implicit aspects of its
mission, identity, or what some might call the
“culture” of a community or setting (Maton, 2000;
Sarason, 1971). Such a method could benefit the
group’s functioning, its sense of community.
Individual members of that setting could better
understand their place within that culture, issues of
agreement, and the diversity of values of the
community. The method is also, therefore, of interest
to researchers, evaluators, consultants and other
In the current community the method was on, we
hypothesized that constructs would emerge regarding
substance use vs. non-use, since this was a group
currently in recovery. And “freedom vs.
institutionalization”, since the model allowed
participants to make their own democratic decisions
in the mutual-help tradition (alternative or recovery
narratives), contrasted to “treatment” options (i.e.,
more dominant, treatment, or institutional narratives).
Participants, Organization, and Setting
While the method works for any organization or
community, the group of present interest is based on
12-step principles. There is a long tradition in the
community narrative field to examine mutual-help,
and particularly 12-step groups (Humphreys, 2000).
Oxford House, a member-run mutual help, residential
setting, focuses on recovery from alcohol and drug
problems. Neither professionals nor mental health
practitioners are directly involved in the operations of
the program. It involves communal living. There are
over a 1,400 Oxford Houses in the U.S., Canada and
Australia. Each house is independent. Yet through a
chapter system, houses are connected to the primary
organization in the D.C. area. The authors of this
paper are part of a university-based research entity.
We are organizationally independent of Oxford
House, although our relationship with the group, its
houses, and individual members organization can
often be considered involved and intense (Jason,
Davis, Ferrari, & Bishop, 2001; Olson, Jason, Ferrari,
& Hutcheson, 2005). We do not consider ourselves
“consultants” for the organization.
The method was first used and tested with a group of
approximately 100 Oxford House residents at the
Oxford House World Convention in Washington
D.C., a conference where hundreds of Oxford House
participants from the U.S., Canada and other nations
meet. These conventions include a mix of older and
The Community Narrative (CN) program began with
members of the research team. We introduced the
session as a town-hall style approach to
understanding themes of Oxford House community
narratives. The following seven phases describe the
Phase 1-Introduction. The session started with
describing the program as a town hall-style meeting,
and emphasizing the importance of stories in
discovering aspects of individuals and communities.
The goal of the session was stated to “…determine
common community constructs and to learn, through
discussion and storytelling.” The goal, in this case of
Oxford House residents, was to discover how they
construe or perceive their past experiences of having
lived in an Oxford House.
Phase 2-Gathering in Subgroups. Attendees sat in
chairs in a ballroom style convention hall. We asked
the attendees to randomly join groups of 4-6 people,
and for those small groups to form circles with their
chairs. Subgroup members were asked to introduce
Phase 3-Sharing Stories. The groups were asked to
take roughly five to seven minutes each to share a
key personal story that reflected the “high point”
(McAdams, 2009), or their most significant
experience, in Oxford House. This was to be the
single episode that that best defined for them “life in
Oxford House”. Participants were asked to describe
in the story any other characters who had been part of
the experience, the participant’s own feelings during
the event, and why the event was personally
important. Sufficient time was given in case some
members took longer than seven minutes. The
presenters walked around, listening to the
discussions, and answering questions if any arose.
Eventually group discussions were encouraged to
wind down and finish.
Phase 4-Finding Commonalities. The next stage
involved finding “commonalities” across the stories
within each groups. Group members were asked to
collectively identify in the stories a commonality, and
to describe that commonality in a single word or two.
Reducing the group stories to constructs in this way
was somewhat like coding in qualitative analyses, as
it involved turning a great deal of verbal text, across
participants, into a more manageable whole. Again,
the idea behind getting at commonalities, consistent
with Kelly’s theory, was to obtain fundamental
community constructs from the personal constructs.
Participants had little trouble identifying these
commonalities. When all groups had identified the
one or two word terms, they wre asked to announce
them out loud to the whole room, and the presenters
wrote each term down on the left side of a board,
leaving room on the opposite side (on the right side)
for where the opposite pole on the bipolar construct
would be written. When constructs from different
groups appeared were too similar to one another, the
constructs were clustered. For instance, one group’s
commonality term “close friends” and another
group’s “social connections” were clustered under
"support". Other minor clustering occurred. Through
this process, the groups generated eighteen primary
Phase 5-Choosing Constructs. At this point,
presenters directed all attendees to add, collectively
across all groups, the contrast terms of the bipolar
construct that were, in their minds, the opposite of
each of the commonalities the subgroups had
developed. These contrasts were written on the right
side of the board, forming the second side of the
bipolar construct. A “vs.” was placed in between the
two sets of bipolar terms. As a larger group, the
participants had little trouble naming contrast items.
There was much certainty, enthusiasm and signs of
agreement from multiple participants, seeming to
suggest the opposite terms for each main construct
were good ones. Eventually, all bipolar constructs
were on the sheets standing before the participants.
Phase 6-Voting. All participants were asked to vote
as individuals on the constructs they believed best
reflected the most significant psychological meaning
behind their Oxford House experience. Participants
were given time to look over all the constructs, and
then told they could vote. It also works to allow
participants to vote on their top two constructs, rather
than on just one. Each bipolar construct was named
by the presenter, and hands were counted. The votes
were all collected, and then tallied. Based on the
votes received, the bipolar constructs were given a
rank from the top to the bottom. This was largely a
time-saving measure for the subsequent group
discussion phase, where the top constructs would be
Phase 7-Group Discussion. Open group discussion
was then encouraged around the meaning and
relevance of each of the bipolar constructs, starting
with the one that received the most votes. The open
discussion was important for the whole group to
reflect on the rank-ordering, the dichotomies
themselves, and their meanings. Discussions around
the constructs and their relation to the Oxford House
philosophy emerged. Much conversation tended to be
around house interactions from first entering the
house to personally becoming more stabilized within
it. The stories that originally brought about the
constructs were re-narrated and new examples were
Ultimately, the top ranked constructs were little more
than a focal-point for deeper conversations around
the Oxford House experience. Since time permitted,
even those bipolar constructs with the lowest votes
ended up getting some discussion, and led to equally
interesting ideas, often in how they were similar or
different from the top-rated constructs.
For the purpose of space, the Results will focus on
the top four constructs and the interpretations
provided by the participants, expanded upon through
our own experiences of the group. As seen in Table
1, the most voted for construct was growth vs.
stagnation (or regression), which received 21% of
According to the participants, growth vs. stagnation
(or regression) referred specifically to an increased
feeling of social connectedness, a greater personal
sense of community, and a new tolerance for others
different from oneself. This discussion in fact helped
us become interested in how Oxford House may
reduce various prejudices in residents, leading to
study on the topic (see Olson, Jason, Davidson, &
Ferrari, 2009). One of our hypothesized constructs
“sobriety vs. using” came in only eighth place.
Therefore we were somewhat surprised for this
primary outcome-related topic like abstinence or the
ability to stop using drugs to stand so far behind this
personal and interpersonal form of “growth” that
emerged as the most central Oxford House process.
The second top bipolar construct is accountability vs.
irresponsibility, which received 19% of the vote.
Despite the communal, liberating, non-institutional
nature of Oxford House, no house is a loosely run,
laissez-faire setting. It is a place of accountability.
Through the rules and structure of the house, there is
an internal, organizational structure is about mutual
accountability for non-drug use or behavior that can
put it at risk. Irresponsibility in this case is not about
treatment settings, but life while using drugs and
alcohol. The lower voted bipolar construct of
structure vs. chaos provides a similar message.
The next two bipolar constructs, numbers 3 and 4, are
interesting in the paradox they reveal. Surrender vs.
self-will (#3) received 16% of the vote, and
empowerment vs. powerlessness (#4) 12%. If we look
at the foreground of the two sets of bipolar narratives,
“surrender” seems almost the opposite of
“empowerment” as does the contrast of “self-will”
(mastery or power over one’s actions) seem opposite
of “powerlessness.” Do the community constructs
contradict one another? No, given the 12-step
background of the community, surrendering to a high
power and letting go of one’s individual ego is in
every way consistent with empowerment. Self-will
may appear to scientists and professionals as the
primary goal for individuals to achieve when
overcoming addiction, but that is, in Rappaport’s
terms, the dominant narrative. The recovery
Table 1. Community Narrative Method Dichotomies
listed in rank-order by vote.
narrative in this case is that self-will, in the form of
egotistical self-control, is more equivalent to
powerlessness. Surrendering “to a higher power” and
empowerment are both high on the list of bipolar
constructs underlying recovery narratives. Part of the
interpretive process of using the Community
Narration technique is comparing across the bipolar
constructs and discussing such paradoxes with
community members to get a richer understanding of
the community’s identity.
The interpretations of all the subsequent constructs
are valuable. We just want to provide a sample here.
Just one more is #9, support vs. no support. At one
point we as researchers believed social support was
the primary beneficial impact of the Oxford House
model and we hypothesized support as impacting #8,
sobriety vs. using. We still believe these relationships
are vital to understand, but from using the
participatory framework of the CN method, there is
much else happening as well.
The goal of Community Narration is to understand
the identity or identities of an organization or
community. The group’s identity, signified by the
bipolar constructs, is the lens through which the
members see significant parts of their world,
reflecting how the community narrates its shared
The results from the CN confirm the match between
Kelly's (1955) personal construct theory and
Rappaport’s ideas behind community narratives. This
synergy of personal construct and community
narrative theories is most evident in the ways the
underlying nature of bipolar constructs (opposing
contrasts) to the dichotomy of alternative vs.
dominant community narratives. Consistently with
the Oxford House Community Narration, the left side
of the bipolar construct represented the alternative
narrative associated with the recovery setting. The
other end represented the prior life, the dominant
narrative, institutionalized treatment or a life of drug
use, both of which have since been rejected by those
In the first instance, “growth” reflects the alternative
narrative. The dominant narrative is reflected by
“stagnation (or regression).” The right side, the
dominant narrative construct adds an extra
understanding of “growth” here. Growth was
evidently a psychological moving forward, contrasted
to being stuck or pulled back by life. This pattern fit
across all bipolar constructs identified.
Several of the bipolar constructs referenced life in
other treatment centers as the dominant community
narrative pole. One was democracy vs. dictatorship.
In two related instances, “despair” represented the
dominant narrative, once opposed to the alternative
narrative of hope and once to self-sufficiency.
According to the participants, despair reflected their
emotions and experiences as they revolved inside and
out of various treatment centers.
Community Narration expands on the relationship
between Kelly's and Rappaport’s theories in other
ways. Kelly believed all people are scientists living
their lives testing hypotheses about the world in each
new situation they encounter. People use these
constructs, he believed, to reconstruct past
experiences and interpret current interactions. Kelly
also placed great emphasis on construals of the world
through bipolar constructs as a way to anticipate
future events. To the extent that Community
Narration can help decipher how organizations and
communities anticipate their next steps, practical uses
present themselves. This includes working with a
community to decide whether its mission is taking
the group where it wants to go. Some organizations
may be surprised about their own bipolar constructs
that emerge, particularly if they reflect more
dominant narratives, compared to the alternative
narratives they might envisioned when the
community first formed.
Kelly (1955) believed knowledge about bipolar
construals could create more efficient organizational
structures for the self; and the same is true of
communities. Community Narration makes bipolar
constructs more explicit to participants, helping them
better articulate the psychological characteristics of
their group, and may be used to help them better
understand and build on the group’s strengths.
Change does not come easily for all people and all
groups. Kelly (1955) believed that individuals (and
organizations/communities in this case) had greater
or lesser abilities to change productively depending
on their ability (or relatively inability) to incorporate
new constructs into their cognitive system. Some
psychological systems were, as Kelly named them,
more or less "permeable", or flexible and open to
adaptation. The permeability of a group’s
psychological structure may help a community
become more open to new ideas or directions; or, in
cases of greater impermeability, a more difficult time.
Community narrative constructs where the dominant
(as opposed to the alternative) element is at the fore
is likely in greater need of permeability. One may
take the dichotomy found here of diversity vs.
uniform. Diversity reflects broad openness of a
healthy system compared to an inflexible,
institutional setting. Communal recovery, the case for
Oxford House, compared to other traditional
treatment facilities, allows for greater permeability in
a less rigid and dogmatic system. This may reflect
ways in which the Oxford House structure helps
bring about growth, both as an organization and in
the residents themselves.
Community Narration can also act as an aide to
participatory action research. It helped us learn about
how residents of a unique living model construed its
benefits, more specifically, how we could better
understand the process of growth through residents’
greater social connectedness and tolerance for other
ethnic and socioeconomic groups (Olson et al.,
2009). Community Narration also helps us
understand the group’s perception of its own
priorities. While the constructs are effective primarily
as a focal-point for discussion, they can be returned
to continually as organization progresses.
The possible variations on this method are endless. In
summary, they help to identify a community’s
primary interests, and creative ideas toward improved
group functioning. Community Narration can be used
to uncover primary interests, detect problems and
strengths, and determine subsequent steps toward
action. Broadly defined, Community Narration is
about understanding the “culture” of a setting or
group, that is, its belief systems, values, social norms,
and practices (Maton, 2000; Sarason, 1971).
Community Narration is a starting point for exploring
a group’s personal and community values, and—
through identity, cognition, and the empowering
nature of narratives—to help bring about change.
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