One day course on illness

A one day course will be run by Ken on illness stories on Friday June 14th

Stories of Health and Illness: An Introduction:
(Essex Short Courses in Social Research)

Professor Ken Plummer from Department of Sociology, University of Essex

At 09:30 in Seminar Room 3, Constable Building, Essex University, Colchester Campus .


Course overview

Telling stories about our illnesses has become a widespread and common feature of the modern world. We find these sickness stories on blogs and web sites. We tell them in support or therapy groups. They are to be found in bestselling books and films. Newspapers and television provide photo-essays, videos and documentaries around the sicknesses of our lives. Every illness from Alzheimer’s and depression to cancer and HIV/AIDS has developed its own stories.

This course will critically examine some of these recent trends and the development of what has been called ‘illness narratives’ or narrative medicine. A one-day course can only be exploratory and maybe set agendas: it will aim to introduce some of the key ideas of such research, create a space for discussion of a wider array of such experiences including those of the participants, and develop a series of specific critical debates around the content, purpose and analysis of such analysis.

Course programme

The course will be run in a structured but informal manner with mini-lectures mixed with a lot of discussion. The proposed outline content of the course is:

09:30-10:00: Registration

10.00. Introductions

10.15. An Introduction to illness stories – varieties, histories, meanings

This opening session will introduce the development of the new social science discipline of narrative medicine and overview the critical humanist approach to narratives and stories. It will also provide participants with a chance to talk a little of the their own interests in this area.

11.15 Coffee

11.30 Auto/ethnography of an illness

In this session, Ken will introduce his own work on illness drawing partially upon his own illness.

12.45 Lunch break  (please note that lunch is not provided but there are outlets on campus where you can purchase food if you wish)

1.45. Workshop on Sickness Stories.

Ken will present a simple model of story/narrative analysis which analyses the creation, appreciation and living of stories.

Analysing key themes of illness stories

He will then selectively focus on a range of examples of sickness stories, consider how they are best appreciated , suggesting some of the core generic themes that can be seen to arise from them.

The role and value of illness stories:

We will end by asking about the significance of sickness stories in contemporary society and health care. Ken will ask why such ‘sickness stories’ matter –ethically, politically, therapeutically and personally- and critically discuss their role in the twenty first century.

4.00-4.15 Conclusion and ways ahead

(If you want to establish an e-mail / blog connection for the group, someone will need to volunteer to do it). .

Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citzenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

                                    Susan Sontag  lllness as Metaphor (p1)

I would advise every sick person to evolve a style or develop a voice for his or her illness. In my own case I make fun of my illness. I disparage it….adopting a style for your illness is another way of meeting it on your own grounds, of making it a mere character in your narrative.

Anatole Broyard Intoxicated by my illness ( p61)

Who is the course aimed at?

The course will be most useful for practitioners in a wide range of health practice. More and more there is a need for understanding the social circumstances of medical problems and stories and narratives are seen as key tools for gaining access to this. In the USA, narrative medicine is growing as a field in doctors training; in the U.K., stories of patients are becoming of greater interest in nurse training; everywhere social movements around health are finding stories to be an important area of work for self understanding and political awareness of illness. The course may also be of value to those who are thinking of writing their own sickness stories. Some educational background in sociology and narrative would be a distinct advantage.

Course fee

  • Standard fee (Commercial and central/local government organisations): £180
  • UK higher education academic staff or registered charities: £120
  • UK registered PhD students (non-Essex): £120
  • University of Essex academic staff (Please see below for exceptions): £120
  • University of Essex academic staff from the Department of Sociology and associated units: £50 (refundable on attendance of the course)
  • University of Essex PhD students:  £50 (refundable on attendance of the course)

How to apply

To book your place, please use our on-line booking form

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.

Further information and reading

There are no assignments attached to this course but a detailed reading and ‘going further listing’ will be provided on the course. Before the course, it would be ideal if you could look at: Arthur W Frank The Wounded Story Teller: Body illness and ethics (1995) Chicago.
We will be discussing his work during the day. Some background reading to ‘stories’ could also be helpful: see Ken Plummer Documents of Life-2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism (2001) Sage (which is out of print but online). A short selection of very different sickness stories include:

Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My illness (1992) New York: Clarkson. Potter
Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (1980) San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books. Paul Monette, Borrowed Times: An AIDS memoir (1988) NY: Harcourt.
Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly. (2002/2008) London: Harper.
Arthur W.Frank, At the Will of the Body: Reflections on illness (2002) Houghton Mifflin.
Carolyn Ellis, Final Negotations: A story of love, loss and chronic illness (1995) Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Ann Oakley Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body (2007) Polity.

But find your own examples: they are everywhere

Tutor information

Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He has been involved in developing a focus on life story and narratives in sociology through teaching and writing for over thirty years. His books includeDocuments of Life: An Invitation to Critical Humanism ( 1st ed 1983; 2nd ed 2001), Telling sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds (1995) and Intimate Citizenship: Private Decisions and Public Dialogues (2003). He has fostered a sociology that works against the grain through its focus on individuals, reflexivity and political values – a sociology he calls Critical Humanism. His most recent book Sociology: The Basics (2010) is a call to arms for a sociology that will help make a ‘better world for all’. Between 2004-7 he was seriously ill and has written his own auto/ethnographic account of it. The generosity and skill of a liver transplant saved his life.

This event is open to the general public.




Miss Fay Wilson

First Year Administrator and ESC Co-ordinator
Department of Sociology
University of Essex
Wivenhoe Park
Colchester CO4 3SQ
United Kingdom

Telephone: 01206 874892
Fax: 01206 873410


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