Narrative change, narrative stability, and structural constraint: The case of prisoner reentry narratives

Cultural sociologists and other social scientists have increasingly used the concept of narrative as a theoretical tool to understand how individuals make sense of the links between their past, present, and future; how individuals construct social identities from cultural building blocks; and how culture shapes social action and individual behavior. Despite its richness, we contend that the narratives literature has yet to grapple with narrative change and stability when structural constraints or barriers challenge personal narratives and narrative identities. Particularly for marginalized groups, the potential incompatibility of personal narratives with daily experiences raises questions about the capacity of narratives to influence behavior and decision-making. In this study, we draw on prospective longitudinal data on the reentry narratives and narrative identities of former prisoners to understand how narratives do and do not change when confronted with contradictory experiences and structural constraints. We identify and describe the processes generating narrative change and stability among our subjects. These findings inform a framework for studying narrative change and stability based on four factors: the content of the narrative itself, the structural circumstances experienced by the individual, the institutional contexts in which the individual is embedded, and the social networks in which the individual is embedded.