Thoroughly Post-Modern Mary. A Biographic Narrative Interview With Mary Gergen

  • Kip Jones Bournemouth University
Keywords: Mary Gergen, Ken Gergen, social constructionism, feminism, biographic narrative


Method: The Biographic Narrative Interpretive Method (Prue CHAMBERLAYNE, Joanna BORNAT & Tom WENGRAF, 2000; Tom WENGRAF 2001; Gabriele ROSENTHAL 2004; Kip JONES 2004) uses an interview technique in the form of a single, initial narrative-inducing question (minimalist-passive), for example, "Tell me the story of your life," to elicit an extensive, uninterrupted narration. This shift encompasses willingness on the part of the researcher to cede "control" of the interview scene to the interviewee and assume the posture of active listener/audience participant. A follow-up sub-session can then be used to ask additional questions, but based only on what the interviewee has said in the first interview and using her/his words and phrases in the same order. Through hypothesising how the lived life informs the told story, the case history is then finally constructed from the two separate threads of the "lived life" and the "told story." In this paper, the "lived life" and "told story" are presented in a "raw" form with the further involvement of the reader in mind. The story has not been "analysed" by the interviewer, but left open and transparent. Still, the production of the story becomes the creative output and social construction of both the storyteller and the interviewer (the performer and the audience) and, in this case particularly, one story of many stories that could have been told by the person interviewed. Routine facts are often back-grounded by the narrator through the use of this method in favour of spontaneity in the storytelling and the creation of meaningful life metaphors. In this way, the personal journey to "who the interviewee is today" is described, rather than merely a list of accomplishments. The Lived Life: Mary GERGEN (née McCANNEY) was born in 1938. The first part of her childhood was spent in the small town of Balaton, Minnesota. She subsequently moved with her family to Minneapolis when she was 12. She attended a suburban middle-class high school where she was popular. She went on to the University of Minnesota after graduating high school and continued to be both a gifted student, well-liked and social. In her final year she met an architecture student and married him shortly after graduation. The couple had a girl, Lisa, and a boy, Michael. Over the next seven years, Mary studied part-time for a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology. Her husband was a fast track architect and they expected to move to Rome in the early 60s, but moved instead to Boston where he could continue his studies at MIT. At a Halloween party given at Harvard, Mary met Ken GERGEN for the first time. They had a long conversation and she discovered that he had an opening for a research assistant, a position for which she immediately applied. She got the job and Ken encouraged her to finish her Master's Degree. She worked for him for two years; he later accepted a position at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, leaving Harvard (and Mary) behind. Both of their marriages began to end. Ken received a fellowship to study in Rome and Mary and her two children left with him on a ship to Rome in 1968. They were married in October of 1969. Back at Swarthmore, they began to work together on experimental projects, antiwar protests, etc. Ken and Mary lived and worked in Japan in 1972-73. By the mid-70s, Mary realised that she wanted a PhD and became a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1974 where she quickly became involved in teaching. In 1976-77 the couple spent a year in Paris. After receiving her PhD, Mary worked for a time at ATT doing longitudinal studies on managers' lives. Eventually, she got a teaching job at the Pennsylvania State University local campus, fifteen minutes drive from their house, where she went through the ranks from assistant professor to associate professor to full Professor of Psychology and of Women's Studies. In 1988-89 Ken and Mary went to Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, but Ken spent most of the year at Heidelberg in Germany, leaving Mary on her own in the Netherlands. She and Ken persist in teaching and are involved in the Taos Institute promoting social constructionist ideas, as well as co-editing The Positive Aging Newsletter. Mary continues to travel, teach, write and give papers and workshops. Recent publications include Social Construction: A Reader with Ken GERGEN and Feminist Reconstructions in Psychology Narrative, Gender, and Performance. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0403189


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Author Biography

Kip Jones, Bournemouth University
Kip JONES ( (BA MSc PhD) is Reader in Qualitative Research at the School of Health & Social Care and the Media School, Bournemouth University. He is Leader of the Performative Social Science Group. He is Associate Book Review Editor for FQS. He facilitates the online newsgroup, Performative Social Science.