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White, Michael

Abstract and Keywords

Michael White (1948–2008), academic, researcher, adventurer, and athlete, is known as a leading developer of narrative family therapy. Narrative family therapy focuses on empowerment, strengths, and collaboration and positions people as the experts in their own lives. The theory has application in problem solving and conflict resolution with diverse groups.

Keywords: narrative therapy, family therapy, David Epston, Dulwich Centre

Michael White (1948–2008) was a native of Adelaide, South Australia, and is known as a leading developer of narrative family therapy. He graduated from the University of South Australia in 1979, where he obtained a degree in social work. Prior to obtaining the degree, he worked briefly in the areas of probation and welfare. White began his professional career as a psychiatric social worker at Adelaide Children’s Hospital. He eventually started a private practice at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, specializing in family therapy. He maintained a lifelong professional relationship with Dulwich, and the Centre is the major repository of his work, scholarship, and other materials related to narrative therapy education and community.

Narrative therapy focuses on empowerment, strengths, and collaboration and is seen as part of the post-modern movement; post-modern challenges the ideas of absolute truths. In narrative therapy, counseling and community work center people as the experts in their own lives and problems are viewed as separate from the person. Narrative therapy involves a process of “making meaning” achieved through questioning and collaboration with the client.

Narrative approaches assume that people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments, and abilities that will assist them in reducing the influence of problems in their lives. Emphasis is placed upon the stories of people’s lives and the differences that can be made through particular telling and retelling of these stories. A narrative therapy assists persons in resolving problems by enabling them to separate their lives and relationships from those knowledges and stories that they judge to be impoverishing; assisting them to challenge the ways of life that they find subjugating; and encouraging them to re-author their own lives according to alternative and preferred stories of identity and according to preferred ways of life.

The technique is based in part on having a patient externalize a condition or problem and come up with stories and metaphors to reevaluate the situation from a more positive perspective. White’s work and methodology developed and gained wider acceptance in Australia during the latter part of the 1970s and into the 1980s. During this time he was the editor of the Australian Family Therapy Journal, developed a two-year family therapy training program, and conducted workshops throughout Australia.

In the early 1980s, White formed a lifetime professional partnership with David Epston, a social work practitioner from New Zealand who was also developing and utilizing theoretical ideas and practice around narrative therapy during the same time period as White. Epston and White knew of each other’s work and met in 1981 when both were presenting at the second Australian Family Therapy Conference held in Adelaide.

According to Cheryl White (2009), it was in that context Michael and David began their enduring friendship and intellectual partnership, which was characterized by unshakable optimism, a passion for ideas, what seemed like boundless energy, and a dedication to assist the families with whom they were meeting. Themes emerged and were explored and included the power of shaping personal accounts and memories in facing the lingering effects of childhood inadequacies and other obstacles in patients’ lives.

The narrative technique was explained in what is considered a seminal text on the subject, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. White was a prolific writer and over the decades published several more books and dozens of articles on the subject. A complete list can be found on the Dulwich Center website. White’s work has had significant influence on advocacy and mediation, as evidenced by his ability to bring conflicting groups together through the use of narrative therapy. White saw applicability from his work with situations ranging from trauma victims to mediation and conflict resolution. He was able to draw from these practice research experiences and use narrative therapy to bring communities in Australia, Canada, and throughout the world together for compromise in long-standing land disputes. In 2008, White founded the Adelaide Narrative Therapy Center in Ontario, Canada, as part of this mediation focus.

Beginning in the 1990s, White applied the theory and technique to Aboriginal communities in New South Wales and found that storytelling could be an insightful and highly effective way of helping tribesmen come to terms with dispossession and forced relocation from their ancestral lands. This mediation role is made clear in part of the definition of narrative therapy as a way of working that is interested in history, the broader context that is affecting people’s lives, and the ethics or politics of this work.

White was an adventurer, athlete, and avid cyclist. He entered his first triathlon in his early 50s and, as reported by David Epston, came out of the water first swimming against 20-something semi-professionals. Always in demand as a speaker and educator, White traveled the world, and it was on one of these trips that he died from a heart attack April 4, 2008, while in San Diego, California.

Further Reading

Epston, D. (2008). Remembering Michael memorial. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 27(3), 1–15.Find this resource:

    Epston, D., & White, M. (1992). Experience, contradiction, narrative and imagination: Selected papers of David Epston & Michael White, 1989–1991. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.Find this resource:

      Kelly, M. P. (2008). Narratives. In T. Mizrahi & L. E. Davis (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Social Work, vol. 3 (20th ed., pp. 291–292). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

        Pearce, J. (2008). Michael White, 59, dies; used stories as therapy. New York Times, April 28.Find this resource:

          White, C. (2009). Where did it all begin? Reflecting on the collaborative work of Michael White and David Epston. Context (October), 59–60.Find this resource:

            White, M. (1995). Re-authoring lives: Interviews and essays. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.Find this resource:

              White, M. (1995). Narratives of therapists’ lives. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.Find this resource:

                White, M. (2000). Reflections on narrative practice. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.Find this resource:

                  White, M. (2004). Narrative practice and exotic lives: Resurrecting diversity in everyday life. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.Find this resource:

                    White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. New York: Norton.Find this resource:

                      White, M., & Epston, D. (1989). Literate means to therapeutic ends. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.Find this resource:

                        White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton, 1990.Find this resource:

                          White, M., & Morgan, A. (2006). Narrative therapy with children and their families. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.Find this resource: