‘I can't bear the thought that he might not recognise me’: Personal narratives as a site of identity work in the online Alzheimer’s support group


  • Bartłomiej Kruk Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań




Alzheimer’s disease, conversation analysis, membership categorization analysis, online identity construction, online support group, personal narrative


Narrative of personal experience, as a subjective interpretation of a set of events, constitutes a particularly fertile site for the construction of identity. It enables the teller to voice and (re-)organize disruptive phenomenological experiences, socialize emotions or forge interpersonal relations. Consequently, the narrator is able to access various facets of their identity and ‘bring multiple, partial selves to life’ (Ochs and Capps 1996: 19). Informed by the methods and insights of computer-mediated discourse analysis, conversation analysis and membership categorization analysis, and positioning narrative as a situated practice within social interaction, this paper scrutinizes publicly accessible data (15 forum threads) nested within a UK-based online Alzheimer’s support group to demonstrate how Alzheimer’s patients’ family caregivers co-construct their sense of self when disclosing morally delicate aspects of their identities. The analysis demonstrates that the discursive space of the online support group encourages caregivers to disclose disruptions of predicates and activities associated with the ‘family’ membership categorization device. It also shows that the medium-afforded mode of engagement enables caregivers to gradually incorporate their unveiled aversive experiences into their autobiographical flow, with the help of other participants’ responses which normalize these category disruptions.

Author Biography

Bartłomiej Kruk, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań

Bartłomiej Kruk is a PhD student at the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. His research interests fall within the scope of language and gender, African American women’s discourse and health communication, and his primary research methodology is conversation analysis and membership categorization analysis.


Antaki, C., Ardévol, E., Núñez, F. and Vayreda, A. (2005) ‘For she who knows who she is’: Managing accountability in online forum messages. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11 (1): 114–132. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.tb00306.x

Antaki, C. and Widdicombe, S. (eds) (1998) Identities in Talk. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Arminen, I. (2004) Second stories: The salience of interpersonal communication for mutual help in Alcoholics Anonymous. Journal of Pragmatics 36 (2): 319–347. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2003.07.001

Bamberg, M. and Georgakopoulou, A. (2008) Small stories as a new perspective in narrative and identity analysis. Text & Talk 28 (3): 377–396. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/TEXT.2008.018

Bauman, R. (1986) Story, Performance and Event. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511620935

Braithwaite, D., Waldron, O., Vincent, R. and Finn, J. (1996) Communication for social support in computer-mediated groups for persons with disabilities. Paper presented at the Speech Communication Association Convention, San Diego.

Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (2004) Life as narrative. Social Research 71 (3): 691–710.

Bury, M. (1982) Chronic illness as biographical disruption. Sociology of Health & Illness, 4 (2): 167–182. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.ep11339939

Buttny, R. (1993) Social Accountability in Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

De Fina, A. and Georgakopoulou, A. (2012) Analyzing Narrative: Discourse and Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dyer, J. and Keller-Cohen, D. (2000) The discursive construction of professional self through narratives of personal experience. Discourse Studies 2 (3): 283–304. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461445600002003002

Ess, C. and Association of Internet Research (2002) Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research: Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee. Retrieved from http://www.aoir.org/reports/ethics.pdf

Eysenbach, G. and Till, J. (2001) Ethical issues in qualitative research on internet communities. British Medical Journal 323 (10): 1103–1105. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.323.7321.1103

Flicker, S., Haans, D. and Skinner, H. (2004). Ethical dilemmas in research on Internet communities. Qualitative Health Research 14 (1): 124–134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1049732303259842

Frank, A. (1995) The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226260037.001.0001

Georgakopoulou, A. (2013) Narrative analysis and computer-mediated communication. In S. Herring, D. Stein and T. Virtanen (eds) Pragmatics of Computer-Mediated Communication, 695–716. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/9783110214468.695

Giddens, A. (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-16161-4

Giles, D. C. and Newbold, J. (2013) ‘Is this normal?’: The role of category predicates in constructing mental illness online. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 18 (4): 476–490. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12022

Harré, R. (1987) The social construction of selves. In K. Yardley and T. Honess (eds) Self and Identity: Psychosocial Perspectives, 41–52. New York: Wiley.

Harvey, K. and Koteyko, N. (2013) Exploring Health Communication: Language in Action. New York: Routledge.

Herring, S. C. (2004) Computer-mediated discourse analysis: An approach to researching online behavior. In S. A. Barab, R. Kling and J. S. Grey (eds) Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning, 338–376. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hester, S. and Eglin, P. (eds) (1997) Culture in Action: Membership Categorization Analysis. Washington, DC: University Press of America.

Jodlowski, D., Sharf, B. F., Nguyen-Capistrano, L., Haidet, P. and Woodard, L. D. (2007) ‘Screwed for life’: Examining identification and division in addiction narratives. Communication & Medicine 4 (1): 15–26. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/cam.2007.003

Kalc?k, S. (1975) ‘…like Ann’s gynecologist or the time I was almost raped’: Personal narratives in women’s rape groups. Journal of American Folklore 88 (347): 3–11. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/539181

Kleinman, A. (1988) The Illness Narrative: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition. New York: Basic Books.

Kohler-Riessman, K. (2008) Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Labov, W. (1972) Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.

Lamerichs, J. and te Molder, H. (2003) Computer-mediated communication: From a cognitive to a discursive model. New Media & Society 5 (4): 451–473. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/146144480354001

Morrish, E. and Sauntson, H. (2007) New Perspectives on Language and Sexual Identity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave. http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/9780230599406

Morrow, P. (2006) Telling about problems and giving advice in an Internet discussion forum: Some discourse features. Discourse Studies 8 (4): 531–548. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461445606061876

Ochs, E. (2004) Narrative lessons. In A. Duranti (ed.) A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, 269–289. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ochs, E. and Capps, L. (1996) Narrating the self. Annual Review of Anthropology 25 (1): 19–43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.25.1.19

Paoletti, I. (2002) Caring for older people: A gendered practice. Discourse and Society 13 (6): 805–817. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0957926502013006758

Pawelczyk, J. (2013) Coping online with loss: Implications for offline clinical contexts. [email protected] 10: Article 8. Retrieved from http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0009-7-37489

Pomerantz, A. (1986) Extreme case formulations: A way of legitimizing claims. Human Studies 9 (2–3): 219–230. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF00148128

Radin, P. (2006) ‘To me it’s my life’: Medical communication, trust, and activism in cyberspace. Social Science & Medicine 62 (2): 591–601. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.06.022

Ragan, S. L. (2000) Social talk in women’s health care contexts: Two forms of non-medical talk. In J. Coupland (ed.) Small Talk, 269–287. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Sacks, H. (1992) Lectures on Conversation. 2 volumes. Oxford: Blackwell.

Schiffrin, D. (1996) Narrative as self-portrait: Sociolinguistic construction of identity. Language in Society 25 (2): 167–203. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0047404500020601

Silverman, D. (1987) Moral versions of parenthood: Charge-rebuttal sequences in two diabetic clinics. In D. Silverman (ed.) Communication and Medical Practice: Social Relations in the Clinic, 233–264. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sneijder, P. and te Molder, H. (2005) Moral logic and logical morality: Attributions of responsibility and blame in online discourse on veganism. Discourse and Society 16 (5): 675–696. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0957926505054941

Stokoe, E. (2012) Moving forward with membership categorization analysis: Methods for systematic analysis. Discourse Studies 14 (3): 277–303. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461445612441534

Stommel, W. (2008) Conversation analysis and community of practice, an approach to studying online community. [email protected] 5: Article 5. Retrieved from http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0009–7–15373

Stommel, W. and Koole, T. (2010) The online support group as a community: A micro-analysis of the interaction with a new member. Discourse Studies 12 (3): 357–378. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461445609358518

Stommel, W. and Lamerichs, J. (2014) Communication in online support groups: Advice and beyond. In H. Hamilton and S. Wen-Ying Chou (eds) Handbook of Language and Health Communication, 198–211. New York: Routledge.

Vayreda, A. and Antaki, C. (2009) Social support and unsolicited advice in a bipolar disorder online forum. Qualitative Health Research 19 (7): 931–942. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1049732309338952

Veen, M., te Molder, H., Gremmen, B. and Van Woerkum, C. (2010) Quitting is not an option: An analysis of online diet talk between celiac disease patients. Health 14 (1): 23–40. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1363459309347478

Walstrom, M. K. (2000) ‘You know, who’s the thinnest?’: Combating surveillance and creating safety in coping with eating disorders online. Cyber­Psychology and Behavior 3 (5): 761–783. http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/10949310050191755

Walther, J. B. (1996) Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research 23 (1): 3–43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/009365096023001001

Williams, G. (1984) The genesis of chronic illness: Narrative reconstruction. Sociology of Health and Illness 6 (2): 175–200. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.ep10778250



How to Cite

Kruk, B. (2016). ‘I can’t bear the thought that he might not recognise me’: Personal narratives as a site of identity work in the online Alzheimer’s support group. Communication and Medicine, 12(2-3), 273–286. https://doi.org/10.1558/cam.18453