Ken Plummer interview 2017 with Charlotte Morris
This is a partially edited version of an interview conducted by Charlotte Morris in 2017 with Ken Plummer. It has been published as an Appendix in Researching Sex and Sexualitiesed by Charlotte Morris and others. Zed Books 2018.
Q: Charlotte: So what first drew you into researching in the field of sexualities?
A: Ken: Well I’ve realised actually it’s been fifty years that I’ve been doing this so there is a lot I could talk about… So it’s 1966, I’m doing my first degree in Sociology in what was then called Enfield College and became known as Middlesex Poly and I was doing the London degree in Sociology which included social psychology. My tutor was Stan Cohen, it was his first teaching post and I was in awe of the man. He taught me symbolic interactionism and the following year he taught me deviance as it was known then – criminology – and he let me write an essay on homosexuality so that’s the key to it. I knew since I was a little boy that I was gay – certainly as a very young boy I can remember being attracted to men and it goes all the way through but it was at that age – about 19, 20 – that I was really trying to sort it out and you have to remember, it was still against the Law, it was still considered a ‘sickness’ and all the rest of it and I thought about this when I went to the lecture. And so suddenly Sociology became more than a discipline of study, it became something that I could use to make sense of my life and my environment, through symbolic interactionism and through what was then called deviancy theory, labelling theory in particular and I wrote an essay on sociological aspects of homosexuality for Stan Cohen and he was really very positive and encouraging about it and it led me to think, ‘I’m enjoying this’! I enjoyed studying, I was a very bookish sort of boy, my family weren’t bookish but I liked books – so to cut a long story short, what drew me to this field of study were very personal reasons about being gay and wanting to understand it and wanted to apply this theory I’d learned about to my life and to the world and to see how the Law was changing and seeing how I could bring all these things together. So it was a very exciting moment in my life.
1966 was the year I came out as gay, hung about in the gay bars of London – I encountered symbolic interactionism, Stan Cohen inspired me – I didn’t decide then and there I was going to do research, that came by at about 1968 – 69 and was backed up by the gay liberation front, which I became a member of, and all those things coalesced and before I knew where I was I was embarking on a career of being an academic homosexual.
And can you relate any stories about your earliest research encounters?
Yes, well I get my first degree, I have a year out where I don’t know what I’m going to do – initially I was going to be an employment officer, I did that for about four months then I was a community volunteer then I decided to do my PhD. My PhD was to look at – this was very early days – gay men and how they responded to being stigmatised and so forth. Every single interview is a story and they are all more or less interesting so I have lots of stories. I could tell some good stories but they would be the slightly atypical ones… so for example, in those days to interview people I hired a room in the LSE, it was a small boxy office and one of the interviews was a very strange, tall orthodox priest and you have to remember I was 21 and not entirely ugly and he just came in and went for me so there were a whole series of interviews a bit like that. I mean these days with ethics committees people would want to know what I was going to do… this particular man pursued me for several months and he was nice enough but he didn’t want the same thing that I wanted so there was that going on but that was exceptional… there were times when I fell in love with the person I was interviewing and had to restrain myself so it was the other way round! This is all very early days, I’m still very young and I don’t know much about what I’m doing quite honestly. In those days there were no methodological handbooks – there were a lot of books you could read but not the emphasis on methods, you’d just go out there and interview people.
So what were some of your big learning curves in terms of doing research?
Everything! Absolutely everything was a learning curve. If you look back on the history of sexualities research, there’s obviously a history going back to the 19thcentury at least – people doing sexology, interviews and so forth but in the main it moved into a clinical tradition – psychiatric and often medical. There were not many people doing social [research] – there were people and I could probably list them all now – Mike Schofield, Gillian Hooker, Mary Mcintosh… there weren’t many people in the field and so there wasn’t much to go on and that of course was a very exciting thing because you’re at the forefront of something for a little while but you’re not getting much guidance – deep learning curves about everything!
Were there any colleagues who helped you to develop?
Well, Stan Cohen inspired me theoretically and encouraged me; Paul Robinson was my supervisor at the LSE and he was a wonderful supervisor. He commented on my PhD, saw me about once a term and he infused me with the subtlety of symbolic interactionism – I became a symbolic interactionist, that was what he was helpful with. He just knew about the complexity and ambiguity, the contingency and the flux of it all – he spoke like that, wrote like that and slowly over the five years I was doing my PhD part-time it soaked into me and when I was teaching I had an inspirational colleague called Rob Young who broke the rules really, he didn’t read from a text, he sort of stomped up and down the room and shrieked and I realised in retrospect that it was terribly influential on my lecturing style which was not following a text really, not being too bound by reading things out so he was a great influence and then of course there was Mary Mcintosh. I wrote to her in ‘67 when she was at Leicester university and she replied – she was just on the verge of writing ‘The homosexual role’ article which I read and subsequently in the ‘70s we became colleagues and lifelong friends so she was influential… Michael Schofield was another very important person in my life. Never an academic, he wrote four books on homosexuality and a book on sexuality and young people in two volumes – from the 1940s to the 1970s he was quite a prominent name – and then I went to his house in Hampshire and we actually became lifelong friends. He died a few years ago and he inspired me as he was a kind of pioneer in what were actually very dangerous times to write about homosexuality – and he did write under a pseudonym, he had to write under another name – these were very different times. He was very involved with the homosexual reform society, with changing the law and of course it did eventually change. That’s why I’m saying fifty years – half a century ago it was not the same world…
So what was it that prompted you to start writing on research methodologies?
Well, when I was doing my PhD I wrote a paper – and I still have it on file somewhere – called ‘Forty problems with participant observation’ so that’s what I was doing. In London clubs I was doing participant observation and interviewing people and coming out all at the same time and I was very young and so… I was reading books like Bryun’s The Human Perspective in Sociology (no-one talks about it much anymore) and Norman Denzin – tremendously important even in 1967, 68 – he wrote a book called ‘The Researcher’ and so these were the textbooks I was looking at to struggle my way into trying to do fieldwork properly so that’s when I started to become interested in method because I wanted to know how to do it much better than I was doing it because much of it I didn’t think was at all good and it wasn’t at all good actually… and in the end I dropped the methodology and if you read my PhD which was basically Sexual Stigma, I don’t do methods, I did theory all the way through it and actually that’s what I’ve done for most of my life.
One of the problems I have – and maybe I shouldn’t be saying this – I have enormous trouble with data and I think everybody does because I don’t really necessarily believe everything someone is telling me – I know as an interactionist I know they will say different things at different times and I know the complexity of a life is that whatever you say at one moment can only scraping the surface of that moment and there’s lots and lots of other things going on which you’re not touching into and so I became more and more interested in the complexity of doing research. Another big book that was around at that time was ‘Method and Measurement in Sociology’ by [?] but that also made data very problematic – and ethnomethodology was around at that time and data was a problem, there was nothing straightforward about it at all… this was fifty years ago and I think that what’s happened is a huge and largely fake methodological apparatus has been produced and I think you don’t want to be as primitive as I was but nor do you want to be driven by methodological protocol whereby you’ve got to do this or that and everything’s laid out – you’ve got to have your beginning, your middle and your end before you’ve even started and I think that’s damaging. If PhD students are told ‘you’ve got to follow this protocol’ it’s a disservice to intellectual life – a really serious problem and unfortunately I feel it has gone that way… so I’ve gone from fumbling around – in one of my earliest papers I invented a methodology, I used to joke about it, I called it AHFA – Ad hoc fumbling around! And that was my methodology. This was by the 1970s I was referring to AHFA and that’s how difficult it was and there did need to be some thought put into it and I was pleased to see there had been and I put a bit into it myself but I think you mustn’t go too far.
Do you have any advice about working with some of those imposed constraints?
This is a very difficult time for universities – they’re dominated by markets and management and metrics and they’re ruining universities, that’s my very strong view. That’s not to say that when I see students they’re not as wonderful as ever, they’re just as vibrant and interesting and curious but they’re being sat on by all this bureaucracy and administration which is taking over so I stay away from universities as much as possible. What surprises me is that there hasn’t been massive resistance to this – it started in 1984 when the first research assessment exercises were done – it was a one off, it was not supposed to dominate the whole of university life subsequently but they have and now I gather there’s a teaching assessment coming up too which is also dominating university life – it’s all terrible crap – expensive, damaging, dangerous crap!
This leads quite nicely into the next question which is about your personal and political values – what they are and how they’ve underpinned your research.
Well I can’t say that I had strong values clearly sorted out at an early stage – you know, the whole of life is a fumbling around – now I’ve got that phrase back in my mind – but it is. I mean there are people who have a passionate set of beliefs and commitments – Marxism or Christianity or whatever – and they follow them through for the whole of their lives but not many people really. I think they have doubts, they change, even within their frameworks. I was a Christian once but being gay and being Christian in the ‘60s wasn’t at all compatible because the church was very hostile – its’ less so now but it was and many religions are hostile. I decided on the side of gayness rather than Christianity so there were big issues around that but I suppose it’s only in the latter years (by which I mean in the last 25 years) that I’ve started to seriously think that you need in research to be clear about value baselines – I was clear in the early stage that ethics came into research and that values came into participant observation and I read Weber on value baselines. I was always aware that there were issues but I had never articulated my values and I think that instead of having [ridiculous] research methods training sessions that get you to think about all sorts of rigorous things that don’t make much sense once you’re in the field you should really talk about the ethics – the principles and values that shape you and your life and why you want to do this research – what’s the purpose of it? What’s the point of it? Where are you coming from – are you doing it for the sake of it? Surely not – you’ve got some view of what the ethical life should be like. So in the latter years in my writings I constantly harp on about ethics and values. I call them loosely humanist but I have to be careful with that as the secular humanists have co-opted that word so I call it critical humanism partly to differentiate in a number of ways – critical humanism. Actually last week I was commissioned to write a book about critical humanism so that’s my next major project and it’s very simple.
Some of the values are – how to put it in a nutshell? – Basically humans are ethical creatures and it starts from the moment of birth – at the moment of birth you are drawn into a bond which is a caring bond with your parents and from that moment on there’s role playing and pleasing the mother and the mother looking after you and the creation of that bond is around empathy and caring so all that is established and then I think – I’m not a mother but I think you are – it’s not just the empathy and the caring for the child that the child picks up on but it’s also the dignity of the child, the respect for the child as a person growing and you put these things together and you begin to respect the basic human right of the dignity of a person and so much comes from that… I’ve recently watched ‘I Daniel Blake’ and it divides the world into two types of people really – there are those who have respect and dignity for people and there are those who simply don’t and it’s horrifying to see when people don’t. In terms of research you can just go and do your research and not look after the people you’re interviewing and I did that to some extent in my earliest days – I wanted to get my PhD! They had no regard for me (because sometimes they were pursuing me quite dangerously) and I had no regard for them because I simply wasn’t ticking the boxes. But from that dignity, other values such as the importance of human flourishing and other values such as justice – so all those things hang around together but it takes a while to get there and that’s where I’ve got to now fifty years on – I wasn’t told that at the beginning! I think I’ve always had [those values], I think a lot of people have them but I’ve only now articulated them and I ground them in being human.
Where do you think these values came from?
I suppose they come from living in the world, from reading a lot of moral philosophy – these are reoccurring themes throughout history – they’re not just Western ideas, there are many flaws in Western thinking but the basic features of caring for each other, empathy, dignity of people, these have been part of a lot of philosophies and religions.
For you personally, what have been the highlights of your career?
That is a difficult one! Let’s put it like this… there’s a sense in which my life’s a drift. I had no idea – if you had told me I would have done any of this when I was young – if you’d told me I was going to go to university, I had no idea when I was at university I was going to go on to do a PhD – I had no idea when I finished my PhD that I was going to go on and teach and then teaching all those years – I was teaching for 30 years before I became a Professor. I had no idea I was going to be a Professor – Professors in those days were extremely rare so it wasn’t for me to become a Professor so none of these things were sort of planned, they just happened which is… but these days people are much more driven – I mean it was a better time, an easier time – you could drift in and out of things. When I got my first job eight other people were appointed Sociology jobs on the same day – you don’t have that now! So it’s a totally different environment.
So the highlights flowing from that would be – there are so many rewarding moments – the simple things would be the students’ ‘thank you’, that’s very nice because most of life, you just do it and nowadays I deal with a lot of professionals – medical people – and I make sure I thank them because they’re doing their job and they do it well and it’s important to thank them and how they are appreciated and they are very nice moments. There are critical moments like big turning point moments so I would say a moment would be when I got the job at Essex because that completely transformed my life. I felt that I was in a really serious Sociology department where people were doing really serious things. I was just in awe of almost everyone around me when I arrived and I couldn’t believe my luck, I also thought, ‘I shouldn’t really be here – little dim me amongst these giants!’ and slowly you come to realise that they’re just human beings, not monsters at all but very nice people and they’re very stimulating environments. Another critical moment would be me going to Santa Barbara – that was a big year for me, it was 1976, I’d come to Essex in ’75, I’d set up my first and only research project in the 1970s with an ESRC grant and so I’d started that project and I met someone and went to America and part of the project was a two month tour of sex research in America so I went to the Kinsey institute, Jonson’s institute and various institutes in San Francisco so it was a very lively, dynamic moment with a lot happening – going to America, going to Essex, getting established, I’d finished my PhD and got my first book out, getting a grant and going to America – it was extraordinary! And actually having complicated relationships at that time. I met [my partner] in 1978 and slowly my life became settled. There was a kind of whirly burly period in about 1966 till 1978 where life was very on the go and then I settled down with love… I don’t know if it’s the right word to use – love – but anyway, I became much more settled with a good relationship and being at Essex – so that was a big, big moment.
Another big moment would be the AIDS crisis – that was maybe ‘82 to about ‘87, ‘88 and that was just… it’s very hard for people now to realise; this was an epidemic of massive proportions where we actually thought gayness was going to be killed off – everybody was dying, it was constantly in the press and the gay community as we’d seen it in the ‘70s was now gone and gay radicals of the 70s had now become professional AIDS workers – the whole world had changed. And actually, you know, for a long while it looked, a bit like it does with Trump at the moment, like the end of the world – you can’t imagine what it’s going to be like any longer because it’s all getting so bad so that was a very troubled time and I did do quite a bit of research into HIV and AIDS at that moment but I only published one major article and then I left the whole field. It actually led me for a while to leave the whole field altogether and I did some books on Chicago Sociology and symbolic interactionism, all sorts of things to take me away from that field, I didn’t want to do it anymore at that time – it reduced me to tears basically, it was too much and I thought ‘I don’t have to do this’. I know I should have done it but actually I also noticed out of the corner of my eye, there were thousands of people doing this research, it was a sort of research industry – of colossally large proportions and I simply didn’t want to be part of that. So that’s another moment.
Another key moment comes to mind – I was Head of department for a time and a moment comes in life when you become the bureaucrat you never wanted to be although I always tried not to be the bureaucrat. But then when that finished and [my partner] finished teaching in around 1995, we went on a world tour – for three months we travelled. We got a thousand-pound ticket to travel the world and see places and we had a very nice time. During that time two major projects entered my life and one was the journal ‘Sexualities’ which became a very important part of my life. Actually when I was in Thailand during this world tour I was communicating with Sage and writing a proposal for a journal which – well if I hadn’t done it someone else would have done it because it needed to be done. There was so much beginnings of work at that stage which needed a journal – now of course there are a lot of good journals and a lot going on but at the time – well I didn’t know that Health, Culture and Sexuality was also starting at the same time but they both really started at the same time. I think Health, Culture and Sexuality has been more successful as it has a wider audience… but that was a big thing and of course at the same time also I started writing text books so both of these things happened in 1996 and quietly I’m pleased the journal got going and I’m very pleased about the text books because I really enjoyed doing it and it broadened my perspective very significantly.
One thing I’d like to add… one thing I would like to add, one thing I used to say to people at the beginning of their careers then though I’d not say it now. was ‘diversify’, don’t get caught in a rut of doing one thing only because Iife’s too short for that but of course that’s what people now tend to do – just the one thing – so even as I was doing my early research I was very interested in symbolic interactionism, I was interested in method and methodology issues to do with epistemology, and other things and I taught widely and that showed all the way through my [trajectory] really that the text books are very wide ranging and it’s very good for your specific subject – it prevents boredom creeping in and it just gives you a bit more resilience than if you do one thing.
I was going to ask you a bit about ‘Telling sexual stories’ it seemed to be a thread running through our conference – what is it about this idea that has captured the imaginations of researchers?
I don’t know if has but I’ve had a knack it seems retrospectively for coming up with sexy one liner titles! ‘Sexual stigma’ was for a while… it was a very different world in the ‘70s and ‘80s and sexual stigma was a major theme then. Telling sexual stories seems to be everywhere but it’s not anything to do with the book per se but there are lots more people telling sexual stories – that’s what that book was partly about but I didn’t know that’s what that book was going to be till I’d written it because it’s based partly on the research I did in the ‘70s and so there’s a good 15 years between that and that book and it’s actually a critique of methodology… In the ‘90s I got this grant and it was on symbolic interactionism and sexual differentiation because I’d hear that the [tabloids] loved exposing ESRC grants for what they were up to so I kept it very obscure what I was doing but I was interviewing – I wanted to take the interviews I’d done and apply them to exploring sexual variety and a lot of interviews were conducted and I worked with [?] and I had the same problems that I had when I was doing gay research – I was doing lots of interviews with people but what did it mean? And that led to writing about the life story methods that I was using so I knew a lot about the methods but the sub-text of that book was that I had such a problem with the data that I wanted to sort out the methodology. It’s the other way round to what you might think! I wrote the book in frustration at not being able to handle the data better – why could I have not done this better? ‘Telling Sexual Stories’ is about taking that data and saying ‘these are the interviews but how do you produce those stories?’ They’re not ‘the truth’ of that situation, they’re not ‘the facts’ of that situation; I have simply coaxed – that was one of my favourite words at the time – out of people and if you’re lucky you get some passion, you get a moment’s clarity but a lot of the time you felt you were drawing, forcing people to talk about things they didn’t want to talk about.
You identified some archetypal stories that were being told – do you feel that it still true today?
Well, yeah – if I can recall, there’s the ‘coming out’, the ‘survivor story’ and the ‘therapy story’, they’re the three major ones, the three ones I was working on and interested in for various reasons and in the 1980s I got very involved with ‘abuse stories’, they were the ones I naturally gravitated to. So these do fit in with broader literary theory, these are the journeys that people take in life – these are sub stories, the sexual ones, they’re versions of the big stories that people are telling all the time so there’s nothing that unusual about them. I’m now writing a book called ‘Narrative Powers’ and it’s about the politics of story-telling and it’s got a wider range of stories including concentration camps and atrocities, environmental stories – quite a wide array of stories.
Having been the editor of Sexualities for twenty years you must have had such an insight into how the field was developing…
If you put in the fifty years scale – then it’s almost unbelievable how it has changed, there is no recognition, no comparison – I mean there were a few of us around – Jeff Weeks, Mary Macintosh… but there were hardly any of us around. We did set up a British Sociological Association sexualities strand in the mid ‘70s to ‘80s and we did have two or three conferences but there really just was a handful of people and many of them became my PhD students at that time – there wasn’t much going on and… it got of course muddled a lot with feminism so there was gender studies beginning to appear and sexuality studies beginning to appear but there weren’t many courses around – now, for example, the MA in Sexual Dissidence at Sussex, very important course and as far as I can recollect it got going somewhere like 1986 – it’s been going for some time now but it was one of the first ones in the country and I’d already been in the field for twenty years before that and so there was a moment around about that time and leading up to Queer Theory in around 1989 or so that you start to sense there’s a lot of people gravitating towards this field and then by the 1990s it really is taking off – there’s a lot of stuff happening. Bookshops were full of sexuality studies and particularly gay and lesbian studies – really a book explosion at that time and conferences were beginning to appear all over the world and so that’s what led me towards ‘Sexualities’, the journal, in 1996. So there’s a kind of – just a complete, massive growth across the world and the most exciting thing about that was by 1996 you could identify it was a global phenomenon. I had written about trajectories and history of sexualities, I’d done a four volume collection which was trying to take stock of this massive explosion. So now almost every social sciences department had to have a gender and sexualities course – many, many courses now across the globe and in many countries other than North America and England have got courses flourishing too. Recently I bumped into someone at Hong Kong university and they have several appointments there – so it’s been very substantial. Which means of course that in terms of support at university, students are not in isolation any longer so that’s all the good news really… I mean the bad news is that universities have become marketised, bureaucratised soul destroying places but I don’t think they are for students if they could find their own pathways through them – and just, I don’t know, resist or ignore or create their own pathways of creativity which is not the way the university will encourage them to go. I mean I might be totally wrong because I’m not in there.
Do you get a sense of the status of gender and sexuality courses in the current environment?
Well it must be very low I’m afraid to say but that said, I remember seeing that gender studies in America is the number one field and it is over here too, it’s incredibly popular.
Is there anything else you would like to say about the field?
Life is a series of travails and along the way you can see changes taking place – one hundred years ago there was very little except pathology, fifty years ago there was very little but laws were beginning to change – now there’s this fantastic amount of stuff and it’s out there and it’s changing the world. And what will it be like in twenty-five years’ time? There’ll be more of it – more things have been set up and they will be modified, they will be changed but these ideas are not going to go away.
What is it specifically about studying this topic that is special?
I could say that in the 1960s what was important about this topic for me was that it wasn’t discussed very much and it needed to be put on the table and it was very stigmatised and I had to go very carefully and it was potentially quite dangerous (and for me it was quite often!) and all those things put it apart from , for example, stuff in social class or education – they don’t have those problems attached but now there is such a community of scholars and the world has moved on in terms of public talk about sexuality – it’s just everywhere. If you want to talk about sexuality you don’t have to go anywhere, it’s there on your phone that’s no longer really an issue – it’s not any longer a special issue… there are problems but they’re the problems all research faces – the danger of quantifying things that are not quantifiable, there’s such a willingness to rush in and give statistics but these things are not really measurable in that way but that is true of many topics. The danger of taking at face value what people say when in fact there’s a complexity of layers of argument and muddle that lie behind it, you’ve really got to try and unpack. The fact that you can change the world as you research it – and quite dangerously so sometimes if you’re not careful – you can change people’s views on sexuality. Some people were literally coming out in my interviews and articulating for the very first time what it means to be gay and so the interview was actually changing someone’s life – and what a responsibility but this is true of a lot of research.
One of the themes that came up a lot in the conference was negotiating different research contexts, especially different cultures…
Yes, and now one of the things that has developed is an awareness of other cultures – it used to be that only anthropologists talked about it but I think that has changed now through globalisation, the studies of cultures by cultures themselves, not by other cultures looking in on them, appreciating the complexities they might learn from Western research, there are tools they can use but there aren’t many cultures now that aren’t studying sexualities. The first edition of Sexualities lays out a programme of research that I kind of envisaged Sexualities would be heading for and I looked at it and I thought ‘this is the same agenda as today’ – the theory has changed but it lists all the different areas we’re now considering and this was written in 1996 – twenty years ago. When I handed the journal over to people I said you might want to redo it and I noticed there wasn’t a significant change so whether the field has changed very much I don’t know, because in 1996 we were talking about globalisation massively, the need to involve other cultures and many of my students were coming from other cultures.
Are there any particular topics coming up now that you feel are especially exciting or new areas of development?
I’ve just answered that in a way and the agenda is that you take some things but to give on slightly disturbing example, its’ a generational thing that obviously people will come in with new things but there are other things that need redoing so for example I’m not aware and I’m not up to date but how gay communities now work – it just seems to me that they are now radically different from what they were years ago – radically different. I mean by this that they have been transformed by the new digital world which is very centred around sex. The liberation in the world has changed them and so any people who want to, now get married and so it’s got a lot of different structures to it. I read that there is a lot of depression around, that there are lots of gay men in their 20s and 30s are now living very lonely, isolated lives because the community of bars and connections like that have faded out because they’re no longer needed in the way they were in the past and so they have sexual relationships but that’s all they do and can’t establish other relationships beyond that. Now I’m making this up but what I’m saying is that I don’t know if people are doing really substantial research on the changing shape of gay communities but maybe they are and I don’t know about it. Another… a while back I had these mini concepts – sexual stigma and telling sexual stories but then there was intimate citizenship too and about a year and a half ago someone asked me to write a review on writings on intimate citizenship and I started it but dropped it but I did find that that concept’s now ten years old or older and it has kind of gone into some unexpected areas I’d never expected – nothing to do with sex at all and so that’s kind of oozed its way around but never been a major idea for some reason – it got rather lost. I was pleased with that book, probably more pleased than the others but it sort of vanished…
A very important thing to say is that after I got very ill and that was a three-year period of my life and I retired… I suppose having done all those years of sexuality stuff, I have quite happily drifted away from it all. I wrote that book on cosmopolitan sexualities and that’s the last thing I think I’ll do on that – it won’t stop me writing on other things but not necessarily on that so I don’t know the field so much anymore, don’t have much to do with universities anymore but I feel, I mean I’m in another stage of life really which seems to me to be a perfectly natural flow of life. I do still do academic work but I’m not big on sexualities any more – there’s so many people doing it now I can’t possibly keep up. These days you would have to specialise. I mean I never specialised in gay stuff, I always kept it much wider than that. I was asked to join a project on pornography recently and thought long and hard about it but it’s just not the direction I’m going in anymore. When I was doing sexualities it was coming at me from all sides and we were only doing four to six in my time and now they’re doing it almost every month – such a big job. These people are just producing… Actually it doesn’t stop the quality – the quality is still very high, there’s just a lot of it. There’s so much you can do after all.
In terms of methodologies, when you were editing the Sexualities journal, were there any methodologies emerging that looked exciting or creative.
I’m not sure about more methodologies emerging, more methodologies emerged from the 1990s to the mid- 2000s, everything you can think of, and that opened the way for many more methodologies but I think that’s been established now. What is disturbing now is when people still say I’m going to do an interview or I’m going to do a survey. They have their place but there are so many other possibilities now and especially now I suppose the visual has become more prominent now – so while there are a lot of different methodologies they have been around for some time so I’m not sure what the new ones could be any longer – maybe a failure of my imagination!
I remember in 1992, there was the Denzin crowd really, going beserk about story-telling, poetry and all those sorts of things so one was very conscious of that strand of development and the handbooks he produced were full of those sorts of things and now I’d like to think they’ve become acceptable – well maybe to a certain group of researchers – not sure about scientists… I think what’s happened – and this is down to Queer theory and it being a more humanities based, not a social science discipline… and sociologists were not always very keen to adopt it although they took it on because it seemed to be the thing you had to do – well some took it on – but what humanities brings with it is a whole new array of ways of studying the world and so now they’ve started doing ethnomethodology which the social scientists used to do and the social scientists have taken on the poetics and visuals which the humanities were used to doing and do I think there’s been a useful cross-fertilisation. Although the danger of interdisciplinarity is that you lose the disciplines so you’ve got to be careful – it’s a big balancing act. You’ve got to keep the disciplines going strongly – they all have something distinctive to say about their approach to the world and you can have interdisciplinarity or multi-disciplinarity or trans disciplinarity as long as you keep the disciplines the disciplines but there is really have such a distinctive approach in Sociology to understanding, say homosexuality to that of a psychologist and you mustn’t muddle those two up in the first instance because if you muddle them up you risk losing the whole historical structural account of the hostilities and so forth whereas the psychologists can only handle concepts like homophobia – a weak concept – which only deals with individual fears and it’s bigger than that.
We’ve touched a lot on the difficulties facing our universities and the challenges current context newer researchers are working in – having you any advice to offer on navigating your way through this?
I think what you’re doing is a major thing in itself, holding conferences outside the mainstream and as long as you can get some funds and some support for that that’s fantastic. Again to go back, in the earliest days when I did research there was a breakaway group, it’s now in the annals of history – the National Deviancy conference but it was based at York a breakaway group of Sociologists who the thought that the whole of Sociology was bourgeois nonsense and it was a breakaway to ‘deviants’ speak who were not being heard and to listen to others, including women who were silenced groups in the 60s. So the National Deviancy conference was set up by people like John Young and Stan Cohen and Laurie Taylor and it ran for about five, six, seven years and there was such a lot of solidarity and support for a range of different fields but what all people had in common I suppose was ‘the outsider’ – the outsider who was not acceptable in mainstream Sociology or Criminology and it was a space for these voices to be spoken so there is a model in there of breaking away from conventional academia and giving each other solidarity which has continued in all sorts of ways and that’s one of the things that’s needed – more groups where people can go. At [some universities] there are a lot of people working in that field but in other places there’s nobody so that’s one thing and there the obvious thing of where one has strength in numbers to resist some things people are trying to do to you and it’s easy to say from afar – in my retirement – but I used to always think that where there’s a will there’s a way. There is an awful lot of just going along with it all – the world doesn’t have to be like that you know and, for example, you don’t have to get big grants but then of course you do now I’m told. Virtually my whole life has been lived without hardly any grants at all. I would never get a job in a university now. I don’t need money – you talk to people, you read books, you analyse things that are going on, you hang around with people, there are all sorts of things you can do… You might need small amounts of money here and there but not much – most qualitative research doesn’t need any money at all! But you’re made to get large sums of money! Which is a waste of funding when things don’t really need it but you won’t get a promotion without winning large sums of money now I’m told which is a disgraceful shame.
It would be nice to just talk a little more about your concept of intimate citizenship if you wouldn’t mind giving me an outline of that and how you feel it is still relevant.
I’m going to have to start rethinking it again and I might well write something else about it because it’s quite an old concept now. It derives from the book I did in the mid-80s called ‘Modern Homosexuality’ and it was a series of studies about where homosexual, gay studies and queer studies were going to go, partly about the global direction and partly about the Human rights direction. It was becoming very clear then, although it wasn’t as clear in the 1970s and 1980s that we were moving towards that direction… there was a gay liberation front but no basic rights front and those arguments would begin to become stronger and stronger in the ‘90s and I was playing around with the notion of sexual rights. I wasn’t happy with it because it was too restricted to sexuality. I wasn’t happy with citizenship because it was too restricted to all the orthodox things that politics is about and it didn’t go into the areas I was interested in and so the word ‘intimate’, implying the personal life, the closeness of people to the personal like seemed a better word than sexual although I have noticed people tend to talk about either sexual citizenship or sexual / intimate citizenship but the people who talk about intimate citizenship tend to take it right out of the field of sexuality into mental health, for example – ageing or all kinds of other things which is fine because I did mean it to go in that direction. It seemed to me that it ties in with these values I’ve been talking about, absolutely centrally because if you start appreciating value based lives of care, of empathy, of dignity of people… the rights based argument on its own isn’t enough, you need to take it into a wider set of values and intimate citizenship starts to do that, it takes it into emotionality, of looking after the body, of human flourishing really and considering not just citizenship in terms of legal rights or welfare rights but the choices people have in their life about how they can flourish best and I still think it’s a good idea, I just haven’t put my mind into it much recently and haven’t seen much about it but the new book I’m going to be doing after this one is called human flourishing and I will return to it I think.
You were writing quite a lot about hope in your last book and it feels like there is a huge need in the world today for hope…
This is very important, it has become so again and a lot of people are talking about hope in different ways which are very important I think are very good. To tell you the truth in all of my 70 years I can’t conceive of more dark times than we are and I can’t stop worrying about it really and I think about where it’s all going to lead and then I think ‘well it’s always going to be like that, the world is a shitty place.’ Before I was born there was the holocaust, there was slavery, it just goes on and on, rolls back through the whole of history – rotten Governments doing rotten things to people… but then you’d just go crazy if you always thought like that so then you have to – and this is to anticipate my next book because I’ve got this little story which comes from Rebecca Thorn (?) because she writes on hope and suddenly she uses my favourite film as a way to thinking about hope.
My favourite film is ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, it isn’t just a Christmas joke and it isn’t just an apology for capitalism, it’s a little account of how little lives are lived looking after each other – you take it away, those small ways and life would be very different. So the film brings back the angel to show him that if he hadn’t lived his life all these other things wouldn’t have happened, people have good lives because of the little things he did and the little things they did subsequently, they all hang together in terms of little tiny acts of kindness and that’s how the world is constituted. It is destroyed by all the big monstrous acts of violence but within those little kindness acts, that’s what we have to be concerned with, and we have to nurture those and let them flourish and they’re everywhere so that’s in a sense what we have to study – to move the world forward in those little generous acts.
Interestingly enough, this morning we had our shopping delivery and the guys who deliver are always cheerful and always helpful and always kind and nice and I said this morning, ‘You seem to enjoy your job’ and he said, ‘well they don’t pay very well but I like it, I like meeting people, I like driving and its’ as good a job as any you can get right now and I said to him, ‘do you think most people are alright?’ and he said ‘most people are fantastic’. When I was in hospital I was told – I had to have my blood taken every day and was looked after by the nurses – and I asked ‘are most of your patients alright or…?’ and they said, ‘No, they’re all fantastic’ – ‘Maybe about 95% – once in a while you meet someone who is really awful who spoils everything but on the whole they’re great’ so I’d been working on this 95% thing and I said to this guy ‘do you think it’s 95% good and about 5% a bit troubled?’ and he said ‘no, certainly not – 0.1% are troubled – very rarely do I find anybody who’s difficult’ and it’s the same thing really – most people get through their lives treating each other well, looking after each other – bad moments, things happen along the way but most of the world is run by that philosophical thing… and so the little contributions that academics can make, they’re small, they don’t matter very much on a big scale but in little ways they all add up to make the world a better place – so there is hope!
It’s one way of getting through it – these terrible things, they’ve always been there but good little things have always been there too. There are people in dire poverty struggling through the world but can still get through it because of the little kindnesses that they’re given.
[Apart from the 52% who voted for Brexit…!]
So just in that vein, what would you say to people who said what’d the point of doing research on sex and intimacy with all that’s going on in the world?
Little lives have to do what little lives have to do. If we’re all going to do sex research or physics… the world is full of diversities and we all have to do different things. My great passion is musicals and I go to see musicals and I sometimes think, ‘What am I doing sitting here in a musical when all the world is dropping around me?’ but we all have to do our different things. It’s important that in my experience most people who do sex research do have a passion and they really have a problem and a puzzle and in a small way and they want to in a small way to improve and enhance the way the world works.
You talk a lot in your last book about how a lot of plurality and diversity has opened up – can you say a little bit about that?
Of course the Brexit thing has left me a bit despondent, it’s gone the opposite direction of what that book was about – we did seem to be moving in the direction of more cosmopolitanism, an acceptance of difference and diversities, a reduction in inequalities, a taking care of the Other rather than a stigmatising of the Other and the recent turns have been in completely the opposite direction to that but that’s for the moment and you have to remember 48%… but the trouble is that no-one spoke of these big issues of the environment, of caring for the world and each other – they just weren’t issues on the agenda. It was very badly framed…
So how do we survive?
It is very dark times and I go to bed worrying about things and wake up in the night worrying about things but we’ve got to go on. I suppose many people in the world live terrible, tragic lives and have throughout history and many of us were kidding ourselves, I’ve been kidding myself through much of my life that things were going to get better, things won’t necessarily ever get better but there will hopefully be a growing number of people experiencing flourishing lives and there are hopefully now more people flourishing than in the past – although populations are so large it’s hard to calculate. But in my own life, I have to say I am living one of the most privileged lives that anyone has been able to live throughout the whole of history and I’m not alone so there have been signs of some king of human advance.
So any final words for someone just starting out on their research journey now?
Fantastic – it’s great, there’s so much to be done despite all the terrible things, create new spaces and do new, exciting things. Change the world and make it a better place! It is actually the simple thing about having a good reason for doing it, finding your values, making sure you know where you stand, not just in terms of how you treat people but why you are doing your research and where you want to take it. I meet great PhD students and many feel, ‘It’s not enough just to do a PhD, I have to continue this work, take it on to another point, I’ve got to see how it works in practice, try and get other people to think like this’ – all these little avenues are being created all the time, all of these possibilities. It is going back to A Wonderful Life – put it into the world and bit by bit it will have small consequences – so plenty of scope…!