Short course on life stories

Documents of Life: Narratives and Humanistic Social Research (two-day course):

Professor Ken Plummer from Department of Sociology, University of Essex

This course will run for two days on

Thursday 31st January and Friday 1st February 2013

At 10:00 in Seminar Room 3, Constable Building,

University of Essex, Colchester Campus.

Course overview

Story tellings, and the narratives that accompany them, are basic human social processes; we are the narrating animal. Although such story tellings are often neglected in the orthodoxies of social research, they are usually critical to every stage of the human social research process.

Humanistic research places the human story at the research centre and adopts humanistic values in such research. It is interested in a wide array of tools for telling these stories, including photos, self analysis, artefacts, documentaries.

This course will look at some key recent trends in qualitative research, but especially the concern with narratives and stories. In the broadest terms we study the stories that people tell of their lives; we connect these stories to the stories of our lives; and we ultimately represent them as our ‘social science stories’ – in essays, theses, books, films, photos, media, conferences, exhibitions.


My view of social research is that it not something outside of social life. I am not happy with social research that runs itself away from the people, that does not get close to them, that does not sense the complexities, contingencies, creativities, choices, ambiguities, fragilities and multiplicities of social life. I do not think all of social life can or should be measured or reduced to a statistic, a table, a logarithm, or a ‘methodology’ (though, of course, some can- but we often overuse it). Research needs always to bridge into theory and always to be dialogic, reflexive, ethically-sensitive, empathetic and politically connected. My version of research says: put people first in a globally aware universe and search for a better for world for all. Where possible, avoid grand theory and grand method


This two day course will use a mix of mini-lectures, discussions and activities to investigate:

  • the nature and rise of humanistic research;
  • the centrality and meaning of storytelling in our lives, social life and social research:What is narrative , story and a narrative society?
  • the techniques of storytelling (from life story/autobiography to website blog, from documentary to auto/ethnography);
  • The multiplicities of narratives
  • the tactics and key strategies of narrative analysis;
  • the key modes in which social science tells/reports/writes/presents/performs its ‘findings’; and
  • the implications of such an approach for politics and ethics: the grounded everyday moralities and the ethics of research.

Course programme
The key background reading could be my book Ken Plummer Documents of Life-2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism (2001) (NOT the earlier 1983 edition – HM24.P6 and in short loan in the Albert Sloman Library). This book has now gone out of print but Sage have made it an e-book which can be bought from Sage ; and it is available online from the Essex Library. (view the full text on EBSCOhost) If you can, do look at Chapters 1-4 before the course starts to get a feel for the topics.  Amongst the key stories we will be considering will be health narratives, sexual stories, and ‘tales of suffering’.

A detailed bibliography will be provided on the course.

The sessions will be run in a very open, informal an participatory fashion though with a lot of structure and input from Ken  – mixing mini lectures, discussions, and activities of various kinds.

 Thursday January 31st

10.00.             The Social Reality of Narratives: An Introduction to ourselves, humanistic research and the social worlds of narrative and story telling

12.45 -2.00    Lunch break (but lunch is not provided)

2.00 -4.00      Appreciating Narratives:  a workshop on the understanding and analysis of stories

Friday February 1st

10.00-10.20   Review, Prospectus, Opening discussion

10.20-12.30   Creating Narratives: a workshop on strategies for ‘making our documents’

12.30/45 -2.00         Lunch break (not provided)

2.00-3. 45      Living stories: grounded everyday moralities, the politics of research and the circle of sociological life

3. 45               Overview, conclusions and ‘goodbye hugs’.

 Coffee and tea breaks will be arranged as needed.

Course fee

  • Standard fee (commercial, local and central government organisations): £360
  • UK Higher Education staff or registered charities: £240
  • University of Essex staff: £120.00
  • UK-registered PhD students: £120.00
  • University of Essex PhD students and staff from the Department of Sociology and associated units: £30.00 returnable deposit upon attandance of the course

If participants wish to cancel their booking, they will receive a full refund for the course fee provided they cancel with no less than 1 month notice. No refunds can be given after this time. In the event we are forced to cancel the course, participants will receive a full refund of any course fees paid. Please note that participants will not be reimbursed for any associated costs incurred, including travel and accommodation.

How to apply

To book your place, please email

Further information

Before the course

It will help if you can bring one small sample of a life document with which you are familiar to the first class as an example, and be willing to say a few words about it. This could be a piece of research you are involved with, but it could equally be photos, letters, interview, field notes, observation, or even a blog, a sentimental treasure, a documentary film, a passport or a favourite poem, painting or piece of music! Almost anything in fact that interests you. You might also like to think about what you hope to get from the course.

Possible other prior reading

A feature of the course will be the comprehensive reading guide which will be provided during the course. For the moment, here are some good starting points:

  • Howard S Becker Telling about Society (2007) Chicago
  • C.Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination : Appendix (1962) Oxford
  • Les Back The Art of Listening (2007) Berg
  • Adele Clarke (2005) Situational Analysis: Grounded theory after the Postmodern Turn Sage
  • Kay Schaffer & Sidonie Smith Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The ethics of recognition (2004) Palgrave
  • John Lofland et al (2004 4th edition) Analysing Social Settings Wadsworth
  • Norman Denzin The Qualitative Manifesto. (2010) Left Bank Press

Life stories/ Autobiographical Turns

  • Jane Elliott Using Narrative in Social Research (2005) Sage
  • Catherine Kohler Reisman Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences (2007) Sage
  • Brian Roberts Biographical Research (2002) Open University
  • Norman Denzin Interpretive Biography (1989) Sage
  • Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson (2001) Reading Autobiography: A guide for interpreting life narrative Minnesota
  • Arthur Frank The Wounded Storyteller: Body Illness and Ethics, 1997 Chicago

Tutor information
Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He came to Essex in 1975 and retired in 2006. He is a critical humanist sociologist, meaning that he believes sociology should put human beings at the forefront of their analysis – through always being in their social contexts; using methods and styles of study that respect people and create ethical reflections. He is most noted for his work on narratives and life stories (in Documents of Life, two editions 1983, 2001), which challenged mainstream research methods, and his work on sexual storytelling and intimate citizenship. He was the founder editor of the journal Sexualities in 1996.

… There is no best way to tell a story about society. Many genres, many methods, many formats – they can all do the trick. Instead of ideal ways to do it, the world gives us possibilities among which we choose. Every way of telling the story of a society does some of the job superbly but other parts not so well……

Howard S Becker Telling About Society 2007 : 285

… Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures.. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique…Let every person be their own methodologist; let every person be their own theorist…… and so on
C.Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination 1959 Appendix

This event is open to the general public.

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