Narrative Matters: Vision and History

William Randall, Mark Freeman, Hanna Meretoja, Brian Schiff, Anneke Sools


Within numerous scholarly and professional communities, increasing attention has been paid in recent decades to the narrative dimensions of human experience on a variety of levels: the psychological, emotional, interpersonal, cultural, political, spiritual, among many others. The result has been a “narrative turn” within the human sciences.  In the wake of problematizing positivistic conceptions of knowledge and truth, narrative ideas have thus come to possess both immense conceptual potential and broad popular appeal. On the one hand, they have important theoretical implications for the social sciences, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and gerontology, as well as for the humanities, such as literary studies, history, theology, and ethics. On the other, they have profound practical applications in everything from healthcare to education and from social work to journalism and beyond.

Despite this potential and appeal, many of those who are attracted to narrative as an organizing construct can feel isolated in their respective fields, having less in common with departmental colleagues than with fellow narrative scholars in other fields entirely. In several quarters, then, the need has been felt for opportunities, networks, or events through which to connect, converse, and collaborate on inquiries and projects that straddle traditional disciplines. To help make possible such opportunities, the Narrative Matters conferences were conceived.

The vision behind these (typically) biennial events has, from the outset, been to nurture an international community of theorists, researchers, and practitioners committed to exploring the narrative complexity of human life on numerous levels and in multiple domains. Indeed, it is in the cross-pollination of perspectives and approaches that occurs when people convene between domains that this exploration is importantly advanced – a vision that, in fact, inspired the establishment of Narrative Works, an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal that grew out of the conferences themselves. The range of areas represented by those attending Narrative Matters (or contributing to Narrative Works) has thus included: psychology, sociology, gerontology, anthropology, narratology, history, philosophy, education, medicine, social work, religious studies, gender studies, culture studies, ethics, literary theory, theater, and the arts.

This broad range should not be surprising, of course, insofar as narrative, however simple it might seem, is rarely “about” one theme alone (e.g., love, politics, spirituality). It is about a number of themes at once, all intertwined. Accordingly, the storied nature of human experience resists being confined to any one field of inquiry. While narratology, for instance, has traditionally focused on narrative mainly from the perspective of form, structure, and technique, the focus of the Narrative Matters community has been on the entanglement of narrative with lived experience in all its complexity. It was to foster interdisciplinary dialogue concerning this complexity by bringing together scholars and practitioners from the social sciences and humanities alike that these conferences were envisioned.



Though the vision guiding them has been largely the same, organizers of the (now) ten individual Narrative Matters events have been based in various disciplines, institutions, and countries, have structured their programs around different themes, and given their conferences a distinctive flavor, as indicated by the following sketch of the Narrative Matters history (which is somewhat uneven, unfortunately, due to information on some events being less available than on others).


Narrative Matters 2002 – May 16-19, Delta Hotel, Fredericton, NB, Canada

Bill Randall, professor of gerontology at St. Thomas University (STU), a small liberal arts undergraduate institution in Fredericton, Canada, and Dolores Furlong, professor of nursing at the (much larger) University of New Brunswick, teamed up to organize this first event with the aid of a $10,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The two had met as doctoral students at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, education being one of the fields on which narrative ideas and perspectives had come to have a particularly strong impact. Indeed, from that field came a sizable portion of delegates to all four of the first Narrative Matters events. Inspiring Randall, Furlong, and their team of colleagues and students were the words of Jerome Bruner in his letter of support for their application to SSHRC: “The time is ripe for people working on narrative to get together, to repent their sins, to get a fresh perspective on this ancient topic.”

The conference took place at Fredericton’s Delta Hotel along the lovely Saint John River. There were two keynote speakers (Mary Catherine Bateson and David Kuhl, MD), three pre-conference workshops, and 108 presentations of various types (e.g., posters, papers, panels, symposia) by as many as 150 delegates in total. Besides Canada and the US, the regions they travelled from included Finland, Germany, Sweden, Israel, and South America. While the conference had no “theme” as such, the Call for Papers listed the following as areas that it was anticipated attendees would represent and presentations address:


  • The origin and impact of narrative theory in the humanities and social sciences
  • The function of narrative in politics, art, religion, education, and the media
  • Narrative and diversity (e.g., culture, ethnicity, gender, age)
  • Narrative perspectives on memory, identity, and community
  • Collecting and analyzing narratives in qualitative research
  • Narratives in therapeutic processes and relationships
  • Understanding and using our stories as reflective practitioners
  • The storied construction, and complexity, of everyday life


Narrative Matters 2004 – May 20-23, Delta Hotel, Fredericton, NB, Canada

Though the organizers of NM 2002 expected it to be a one-off occurrence, delegates were insistent at an open-ended session on the final day that a second one be held the following spring at the same hotel. Such was the hunger for a “narrative community” across disciplinary lines that the first event had helped to awaken. While Randall and Furlong consented in principle, they requested two years to plan it. The theme for Narrative Matters 2004 was “The Power of Story in a Postmodern World.” SSHRC funding ($10,000 CAD) was once more applied for and obtained. Keynote speakers were Mark Freeman from the College of the Holy Cross, Canadian memoirist Sharon Butala, and Tone Kvernbekk, Associate Professor of Education at the University of Oslo. Seven pre-conference workshops were scheduled, including one by Michael Bamberg on Narrative Analysis.

Three outcomes of this conference are worth singling out.  One of the delegates, Ann Beer, editor of the McGill Journal of Education, invited Randall and Furlong to co-edit a special issue of MJE (Winter 2005) featuring revised versions of eleven papers presented at the conference, plus an invited piece by Jerome Bruner, entitled “The Reality of Fiction.” The editors of Interchange: A Quarterly Review of Education invited Randall and Furlong to co-edit a two-part special issue that came out in 2007 and featured a number of papers presented at the 2004 event, along with Mark Freeman’s keynote and Catherine Bateson’s keynote from 2002.  Another 2004 delegate was Bernie Lucht, Executive Producer of CBC Radio’s prestigious cross-country program entitled “Ideas.” He arranged for CBC technicians to record the keynotes by Freeman, Butala, and Kvernbekk, and incorporate excerpts into a special episode of Ideas devoted to Narrative Matters.  It was first aired in 2005.


Narrative Matters 2006 – May 25-27, Acadia University, Wolfville, NS, Canada

Organized by Dr Pat O’Neill, Professor of Psychology at Acadia University, the theme was “The Storied Nature of Human Experience: Fact and Fiction.” Keynote speeches were given by Robyn Fivush, Professor of Psychology at Emory University; by composer R. Murray Schafer, who spoke on “Memory and Narrative, Self and Voice”; and by Bob Barton, professional storyteller, whose address was entitled “And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon: The Collective Creation of a Myth.”


Narrative Matters 2008 – May 7-10, Courtyard Hotel, Toronto, ON, Canada

Organized by Dr Penny Kinnear from the Professional Writing and Communication Program of the University of Toronto (Mississauga campus), the conference was held in downtown Toronto. The theme was “Storying Our World.” Keynote speakers included:  James Pennebaker of the University of Texas and Rita Charon, founder of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.


Narrative Matters 2010 – May 20-23, Delta Hotel, Fredericton, NB, Canada

Judging from the success of these (now) four events, momentum around narrative ideas was building in several corners, not least in St Thomas University. In 2008, STU faculty from social work, English, psychology, sociology, and gerontology received a grant of $90,000 from SSHRC to launch Narrative Works, establish a Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative (CIRN), and host a fifth Narrative Matters.  In addition, a further $500,000 of SSHRC funding was obtained in 2010 to hire Dr Clive Baldwin as a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Narrative Studies, the first position of its kind in Canada and, perhaps, worldwide.

Principal co-organizers for Narrative Matters 2010, held at the same hotel as 2002 and 2004, were Bill Randall and Elizabeth McKim, Professor of English at STU. The theme was “Exploring the Narrative Landscape: Issues, Investigations, and Interventions.” Two pre-conference workshops were offered and there were three keynote speakers: Ruthellen Josselson of Fielding Graduate University, Jean Clandinin of the Faculty of Education, the University of Alberta, and Kenneth and Mary Gergen of Swarthmore College and Penn State University respectively. Approximately 180 presentations were made and the list of first-time delegates signaled that awareness of these events was extending in encouraging ways.


Narrative Matters 2012 – May 29-June 1, American University of Paris, Paris, FR

Along with Dr Sylvie Patron of L’Université de Paris (Diderot), Brian Schiff, Professor and Chair of Psychology at AUP, organized a stellar event in which a deliberate effort was made to bring narrative researchers within the social sciences together with theorists in the fields of narratology and literary studies. The event was rendered more stellar still by virtue of the location of AUP, where all of the sessions took place, within the Septième Arrondissement, home of the Eiffel Tower, on the banks of the Seine.

The theme was “Life and Narrative.” Keynote speakers were:  Jerome Bruner, Research Professor in the Faculty of Law at New York University and author of the seminal 1987 essay, “Life as Narrative”; James Phelan, Professor of English at Ohio State University; Alexandra Georgakopoulou, Professor of Discourse Analysis and Sociolinguistics at Kings College London; and Mark Freeman, College of the Holy Cross. Pre-conference workshops included one on narrative analysis facilitated by Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich, who offered it at the 2018 and 2022 events as well. Given that the event was promoted through a number of networks in Europe and beyond (e.g., European Narratology Network), an unprecedented number of proposals were received, thus requiring an extra rigorous review process. A significant feature of the conference was a panel discussion on the closing afternoon about the implications for narrative thinkers of the tragedy of 9/11 as represented in oral history and literary fiction. Panelists were:  Mark Freeman, Jens Brockmeier, Brian Richardson, Alexandra Georgakopoulou, and James Phelan.

A notable outcome of the 2012 event was the publication in 2017 of Life and Narrative: The Risks and Responsibilities of Storying Experience, by Oxford University Press. Part of OUP’s series entitled Explorations on Narrative Psychology, edited by Mark Freeman, the book is co-edited by Schiff, Elizabeth McKim, and Patron, and features keynote addresses, selected conference papers, and presentations from the closing panel.


Narrative Matters 2014 – June 23-27, L’Université de Paris (Diderot), Paris, FR

Jointly organized by Sylvie Patron and Brian Schiff, and held this time at L’Université de Paris, the event had as its theme “Narrative Knowing/Récit et Savoir.” Reflecting the continuing shift in more theoretical directions, keynote speakers included Jacques Bouveresse, Professor of the Philosophy of Language and Knowledge, Collège de France, and Philippe Carrard, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, the University of Vermont and Visiting Professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. Also giving a keynote was Donald Polkinghorne, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Southern California, and author of the influential text, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. A key outgrowth of the 2014 event was the establishment by Sylvie Patron and Brian Schiff of The Paris Centre for Narrative Matters.


Narrative Matters 2016 – Royal Roads University & University of Victoria, Victoria, BC

Co-chaired by Brigitte Harris, Professor of Leadership Studies at Royal Roads University, and Catherine Althaus, Associate Professor, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria, this event had as its theme “How Narrative Research Transforms People and Communities.” Jointly hosted by the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria and the School of Leadership Studies at Royal Roads University, the conference was organized around the following six “streams”: (1) narrative methodologies and what we mean by narrative; (2) research in narrative care, practice, and therapy; (3) narrative in literary studies; (4) narrative research in leadership, policy making, organizations, media, and society; (5) narrative research and Indigenous Peoples; and (6) narrative research in the professions.

There were five keynote speakers. Mark Bevir, Professor of Political Science at University of California-Berkeley, spoke on “A Genealogy of Governance.” Sunil Bhatia, Professor of Human Development at Connecticut College, spoke on “The Power of Narrative Capacity: Transforming Cultural Practices, Identities, and Aspirations.”  Norma Cameron, owner of The Narrative Company, spoke on “We Are Our Stories.” Mark Johnson, from the department of philosophy, University of Oregon, spoke on “Embodied Meaning and Narrative Simulation.” Hanna Meretoja, Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of SELMA, Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientiality, and Memory, University of Turku, Finland, spoke on “Exploring the Possible: The Ethics of Storytelling.”


Narrative Matters 2018 – July 2-5, De Grolsch Veste Stadium, Enschede, NL

The organizing committee of this 9th event consisted of Anneke Sools and Gerben Westerhof of the University of Twente (both associated with that institution’s innovative “Story Lab”), and Liesbeth Korthals Altes and Sjoerd-Jeroen Moenander of the University of Groningen. The conference theme was “The ABCs of narrative” and the stated aim was to address the need for a better understanding and an interdisciplinary dialogue on narrative between (A) the arts and humanities; (B) the natural and computer sciences; (C) the behavioral, social, and health sciences. All of the plenary sessions, break-out sessions, and pre-conference workshops took place not on the University of Twente campus but in the upper rooms of a nearby soccer stadium, truly a first in Narrative Matters history! Keynotes were delivered by Arie Rip, who spoke onNarratives and Social Order”; by John Bateman, on “Narrative From The Perspective Of Multimodality: What Makes A (Multimodal) Story?”; and by Halleh Ghorashi, on “Unsettling Discourse of Othering Through Narratives.” Interdisciplinary dialogue between keynote speakers was organized more explicitly in a duo-keynote and debate onFolk Psychological Narratives and Their Limits: How Boldly Can We Go?” by Marco Caracciolo and Daniel Hutto, moderated by Mark Freeman. Finally, and in addition to more conventional formats (papers and posters), the program offered sessions with a more practical or interactive nature, such as workshops (e.g.,Relax Into Stillness with Tai Chi,” led by Gary Irwin‐Kenyon), demonstrations (on technology and mediated stories, health and illness, education and professional development), and performances (by singer and writer Samira Dainan accompanied by guitarist Bas Geeker).


Narrative Matters 2022 – May 16-19, Mercer University, Atlanta, GA, USA

Don Redmond, associate professor of counselling education and founding director of the Center for the Study of Narrative at Mercer University, and Richard LaFleur, assistant professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia, approached Bill Randall as early as 2017 about hosting the 10th conference – and the first in the United States – in 2020. Given Atlanta’s significance as home of the Civil Rights Movement, and reflecting the more practice-oriented background of the lead organizers, the theme was to be “Narrative in Personal and Social Transformation.” Lined up as keynotes were Dan McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University; Arthur Frank, professor of sociology at the University of Calgary; Hanna Meretoja, University of Turku; and Isabel Wilkerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Warmth of Other Suns. 

As with many conferences worldwide in 2020, planning the Atlanta event proved challenging due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Trump’s 2018 ban on travel to the US from designated Muslim countries made potential delegates outside the US think twice, on principle and on practical grounds, about attending and so promised to keep numbers low. As it turned out, the spread of Covid-19 in early 2020 forced the postponement of the conference anyway. In 2021, the pandemic still rampant, the event had to be postponed again. In 2022, with Covid-anxiety a continuing factor, along with global uncertainty around the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the high cost of fuel, etc., attendance was, as expected, not as robust as at previous events, forcing such last-minute scheduling changes as the folding of the pre-conference workshops into the main program.

Despite this, most delegates to Narrative Matters 2022 reported having a positive experience. In addition to a reception on the first evening at Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the event was marked with excellent keynotes by McAdams, Frank, and Meretoja, as well as by Brian Schiff and Gerben Westerhof, whom the organizers added to the program in 2021. Wilkerson’s moving address on the final afternoon left many feeling that the vision of an international narrative community had been importantly revived, with excitement about Narrative Matters 2023, in Finland, running high.

As vital as the international narrative community may be, important work remains to be done, especially in regard to fostering dialogue between those working in fields such as literary narratology and those working in more social science-oriented fields such as psychology and sociology.  In a related vein, we look forward to further dialogue between the humanities and the sciences as well as further inclusion of those working in the arts.  Finally, we wish to underscore here the importance of bringing into the narrative community those voices – from other disciplines, other cultures, and more – that may not yet have been sufficiently heard. Narrative Matters 2023 will serve as an important site for discussing these issues and more, as well as in strengthening and celebrating the growing community of which we are all a part.