“how did you become an X?”

Stories about profession

This weekend, I am reading one of my favorite researchers, Charlotte Linde, and a chapter that I had not known of before: “Explanatory Systems in Oral Life Stories” in Dorothy Holland and Naomi Quinn’s Edited volume Cultural Models in Language and Thought.

This chapter explores life stories, and specifically the stories that we tell about our professional choices.  Data come from oral interviews about choice of profession with 14 people who had “professions that were important to them and that could be expected to form a major part of their life stories” (345).  Interviews began with the question “What is your profession?” and went on to ask “How did you arrive at that,” or “How did you become a _______.”  As she notes, an appreciation for the relevance of this question, and its centrality in our lives can be noted by simply reflecting on the frequency with which we are posed these questions by strangers, or indeed the strangeness felt when we know someone for a while but do not know what they do.  Linde explains: “One’s occupation is a publicly available piece of information, from which many inferences may be drawn as to what sort of person one is.”

But first a definition – life story:

For the purposes of this investigation, a life story is defined as: All the individual stories and the relations drawn between them told by an individual during his or her entire life that satisfy the following criteria:

1. The stories contained in the life story make a point about the speaker, not about the way the world it
2. The stories have extended reportability.

Her first criterion is resonant with my recent post “finding your lens through story” – that when you are using a story to talk about yourself, it is not simply THAT something happened but WHY it is that you remember it, WHY you are choosing to tell about something that took place then and there in the here and now.   This second observation becomes relevant as we begin to have stories about career, not simply stories about this job or that job.

Additionally, for Linde, it is also significant that the life story not be defined as simply a particular subset of stories but as the relations the speaker draws among them.  Thus, when new events take place, as the speaker changes jobs for example, old stories may be revised or dropped to maintain coherence.   This encapsulates, much more eloquently that I managed to do at the time, the point I was trying to make about pocket examples, that we want to work on our stories so that they collectively show something about who we ARE and not simply what we DO (or have done).

And now for the analysis:

For Linde, there are three kinds of explanatory systems of interest in linguistically analyzing these kinds of life stories:

1. The basic lx level of text structuring devices (e.g. narrative structure, that the order of temporally ordered clauses reflects the order in which they occurred)

2. The level of implicit philosophical categories, such as causality, accident, continuity, and discontinuity.  Without realizing it, this has been the primary level at which I have been analyzing narratives in this blog and in my work, for example in this post.

3. semiexplicit explanatory systems, the focus of her analysis, which are the difference for example between saying “I became a banker because I was good at it” (an explanatory principle from common sense) and saying “I became a banker because my father wanted me to become a doctor and I’ve always had a love-hate thing with my father (a psychological explanatory principle).  And while we are sometimes aware of thinking about implicit philosophical categories in job searching (perhaps especially continuity when we are confronted with the task of presenting coherence in a job interview), we seem to be less practiced at thinking about explanatory systems that undergird the ways we think and talk about our careers, not to mention the ways we listen to and evaluate the career stories of others.

The explanatory system she finds most frequently and fully represented in her data is a Popular Freudian Psychology, which embeds with it: 1) the splitting of the self into component parts, which are in disagreement; 2) the notion that real causes are to be found in childhood and childhood experiences; and 3) the notion of levels of personality, some of which are deeper than others.  This system would be different from a Behaviorist Psychology comprised of 1) the need for reinforcement; 2) separation of self from emotion; and 3) nonagency – the self described in such a way as to never be an active agent in causing events.

Readers of this blog will observe that my own writing about career could be described most easily as being staunchly reactive to (what I now know is) Skinner’s notion of nonagency, as evidenced in the recent post TMAY in everyday life and everywhere presuppossed in my approach to shifting your deictic center.  Leave it to Charlotte Linde to blow your mind and show you that there are much more things to career narratives than had been dreampt of in my philosophy!  🙂

Reading this chapter has certainly reinvigorated my quest to articulate my explanatory system of luck and mistakes. What explanatory systems are present in your own thinking about career?  Astrology?  Fate?