For theorists such as Somers and Gibson and Whitebrook, this understanding of narrative provides a welcome relief from essentialist theories which define identity in terms of one unchangeable attribute such as gender or race. From a narrative theory viewpoint, identities are made up of many criss-crossing narratives which change over time, allowing for ‘a more flexible theory of identity’ (Somers 1994:610). This allows for the fact that people may share one significant characteristic and yet also disagree on certain issues and see things differently, depending on the various narratives to which they subscribe.
As Whitebrook (2001:15) puts it:
‘A turn to narratives allows for the de-personalized persons of theory, the bearers of a representative or typified identity, to be understood as separate persons – characters – with singular sets of characteristics, including but not confined to their political context and/or group identity’.
One example can be seen in the case of a social research project investigating the attitudes of Polish immigrants living in Manchester (Temple and Koterba 2009). Far from being one homogenous group united by their situation, the study found that the longer-established Polish community narrated themselves as the keepers of traditional Polish values, while they expected new Polish immigrants to be more similar to English people in their value systems. Despite being united by language and nationality, this was not a homogenous group because of the variety of different narratives which contributed to constructing their diverse identities.
Furthermore, this understanding of identity allows room for change. People subscribe to different narratives at different times in their life and this changes their identity. Another way of describing identity from this theoretical viewpoint is as ‘narrative location’ (Somers and Gibson 1994:61); this frames identity as a temporary place in which we are situated as a result of the particular combination of narratives to which we subscribe at any one moment in time.