Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy

, Volume 41, Issue 3, pp 187–198 | Cite as

Overcoming Problems of Relativism in Postmodern Psychotherapy

Original Paper


Relativism as an ideal of postmodern informed therapy remains a topic of debate. The thesis that no truth in conversation is privileged over and above another appears to leave the impression that a narrator can shape any preferred version of reality. This has often led to accusations of ideological neglect of issues such as power abuse, and cultural or political discrimination. This paper proposes a step towards a solution to this problem, by challenging the postmodern notion that one can speak of historically and culturally situated contingencies of multiple realities, while also stating that no truth is privileged. It shall be argued that the idea of clients’ multiple realities implies that these must be treated as socially reproduced realities, in which many forms of truth may resist the freedom of narrative choice. Further, the different realities of the client call for both a nomothetic and ideographic concept of truth, and correspondingly both strictly scientific and pragmatic ideals within narrative therapy. These aspects shall be combined in an outline of a concept describing ‘Complex Social Realities’, which opens narrative therapy towards integrative and cooperative approaches to therapy.


Relativism Postmodernism Narrative therapy Multiple realities Neutrality Anti-authoritarianism 


  1. Adams, A. (1992). Bullying at work: How to confront and overcome it. London: Virago.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, H., & Goolishian, H. A. (1992). The client is the expert: A not-knowing approach to therapy. In K. J. Gergen & S. McNamee (Eds.), Therapy as social construction (pp. 25–39). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  3. Baird, F. (1996). A narrative context for conversations with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Progress: Family Systems Research and Therapy, 5, 51–71.Google Scholar
  4. Baker, R. A. (1998). Child sexual abuse and false memory syndrome. New York: Prometheus Books.Google Scholar
  5. Broberibb, S. (1992). Nothing mat(t)ers: A feminist critique of postmodernism. North Melbourne: Spiniflex Press.Google Scholar
  6. Cecchin, G. (1987). Hypothesizing, circularity, and neutrality revisited: An invitation to curiosity. Family Process, 26(4), 405–413.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Craig, W., & Pepler, D. (1995). Peer processes in bullying and victimization—an observational study. Exceptionality Education Canada, 5, 81–95.Google Scholar
  8. Doan, R. E. (1997). Narrative therapy, postmodernism, social constructionism, and constructivism: Discussion and distinctions. Transactional Analysis Journal, 27(2), 128–133.Google Scholar
  9. Dreier, O. (2009). Persons in structures of social practice. Theory & Psychology, 19(2), 193–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Eagleton, T. (1996). The illusions of postmodernism. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  11. Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality: An introduction. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  12. Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  13. Freedman, J., & Combs, G. (1996). Narrative therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  14. Gergen, K. J. (1991). The saturated self. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  15. Gergen, K. J. (1999). An invitation to social construction. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  16. Gergen, K. J., & McNamee, S. (1992). Therapy as social construction. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  17. Golann, S. (1988). On second-order family therapy. Family Process, 27(1), 51–65.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Guilfoyle, M. (2005). From therapeutic power to resistance? Therapy and cultural hegemony. Theory & Psychology, 15(1), 101–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Held, B. S. (1995). Back to reality: A critique of postmodern theory in psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  20. Laing, R. D. (1967). The politics of experience and the bird of paradise. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  21. Lanning, K. V. (1987). Child molesters: A behavioral analysis (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.Google Scholar
  22. Lieblich, A., McAdams, D. P., & Josselson, R. (Eds.). (2004). Healing plots: The narrative basis of psychotherapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  23. Luborsky, L., Singer, B., & Luborsky, L. (1975). Comparative studies of psychotherapies. Archives of General Psychiatry, 32(8), 995–1008.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. McKenzie, A. (2005). Narrative-oriented therapy with children who have experience sexual abuse. Envision: The Manitoba Journal of Child Welfare, 4(2), 17–29.Google Scholar
  25. McLeod, J. (1997). Narrative and psychotherapy. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  26. Morss, J., & Nichterlein, M. (1999). The therapist as client as expert: Externalising narrative therapy. In I. Parker (Ed.), Deconstructing psychotherapy (pp. 164–174). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  27. Parker, I. (Ed.). (1998). Social constructionism, discourse, and realism. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  28. Parker, I. (1999). Deconstruction and psychotherapy. In I. Parker (Ed.), Deconstructing psychotherapy (pp. 1–18). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  29. Pollock, N. L., & Hashmall, J. M. (2006). The excuses of child molesters. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 9(1), 53–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Popper, K. R. (1963). Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  31. Prigatano, G. P., & Schacter, D. L. (1991). Awareness of deficit after brain injury: Clinical and theoretical issues. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Richert, A. J. (2002). The self in narrative therapy: Thoughts from a humanistic/existential perspective. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 12(1), 77–104. doi: 10.1037//1053-0479.12.1.77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Selvini-Palazzoli, M., Boscolo, L., Cecchin, G., & Prata, G. (1980). Hypothesizing, circularity, neutrality: Three guidelines for the conductor of the session. Family Process, 19(1), 3–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Vaandrager, C., & Pieterse, H. (2008). The pen and the couch: Possibilities for creative writing and narrative therapy in South Africa. The Social Work Practitioner-Researcher, 20(3), 1–16.Google Scholar
  35. White, M. (1995). Re-authoring lives: Interviews and essays. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.Google Scholar
  36. White, M. (2003). Narrative practice and community assignments. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 2, 17–55. Retrieved from
  37. White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  38. White, M., & Morgan, A. (2006). Narrative therapy with children and their families. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.Google Scholar
  39. Willig, C. (1998). Social constructionism and revolutionary socialism: A contradiction in terms? In I. Parker (Ed.), Social constructionism, discourse, and realism (pp. 91–104). London: Sage.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of LearningUniversity of AarhusCopenhagen NVDenmark

Personalised recommendations