History as story

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

Many colleagues over the 1970s and 1980s reacted completely against the tradition of social history taking, writing off this approach on the back of reports that they often saw as pop psychology, as providing excuses that enabled offenders to evade responsibility for their behaviour, as irrelevant to the decision about how to respond to the present offending. Understandable though that reaction may be, I did always feel that something important was missed and I would now say that the omissions were:

  • The opportunity to see how a person saw their own history, and how they were able to articulate it, not as an explanation for current behaviour but as a pointer to what issues needed to be tackled if progress was to be made, and as a diagnostic indication of their progress.
  • The opportunity to facilitate a development towards a more personal and enriched sense of self, and as a person’s account of themselves developed, to affirm and confirm a recognition of this richer person in a way that people could intuitively recognise.

There are inevitably fashions in people’s approach to human problems and it was with interest as I was writing this section, that I came across the following introduction to a research proposal regarding drug treatment:

“the advent of developmental life –course theories of delinquency is perhaps the most important advance in theoretical criminology during the latter part of the twentieth century.”

This is referring to ‘story’ rather than just history – looking forward as well as back – a new take on the idea that people ‘grow out’ of many life problems. It has a similar kind of approach to the historians in that it is looking for patterns, tipping points, crises that might shed light on how people change. It is a recognition that a simplistic preoccupation with the immediate events and the behavioural and cognitive factors around them will get us only a small way towards designing services that produce real change.


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