The International Handbook on Life History and Narratives

Editor: Ivor Goodson


Political Narratives

Section Editor: Molly Andrews




Ken Plummer



You just have to look. People are telling stories everywhere to change the world

(Solinger, Fox & Irani. Telling stories to change the world. 2008: p11)
When 9/11 shocked the ‘West’, many had to struggle to make sense of so called Muslim cultures, which were so readily presented to us by our political leaders and media through stories of an ‘enemy other’. Sadly, politicians and media are often not to be trusted as leaders in these matters. They frequently tell very inadequate, and sometimes malevolent, stories. I was friends with a few Muslims, knew a little about the diversity across some fifty Muslim nations, and had visited a few. But I really knew very little. So I embarked upon a programme of reading ‘good stories’ about them. Gradually, listening to the stories of ‘others’ afforded me real insight into the diversity and complexity of Muslim sexualities and gender and hopefully prevented me from making strong and silly judgments. Lila Abu-Lughod’s powerful and deeply humanistic writings ‘against culture’ introduced me to the world of women in a Bedouin tribe showing their struggle to uphold ‘honor’ (`agl) and ‘modesty’ (hashaam) though poetry, resisting tribal hierarchy with rebellion in myriad quiet ways. I learnt also that there were many pious Muslim women who resisted the victim model that had been forced upon them by the ‘West’ (Abu-Lughod 1986, 2013). In stark contrast, Evelyn Blackwood (2010) guided me into a very different world of Muslim women in Indonesia: the Tombois who as masculine females identified as men and desired women; while their girlfriends viewed themselves as normal women who desired men. These contradictory practices draw upon but subvert both conventional Islamic and international notions of men and women. Meanwhile, I learnt from Marcia Inhorn’s (2012) research on infertility amongst Arab men that many of these men are a long way from any violent and macho stereotype and struggle sensitively and caringly with their loving wives over problems of infertility. Here was the ‘New Arab Man’ who was developing new forms of masculinity in the face of a changing world. I learnt too from Momin Rahman (2013)- an ‘English Pakistani Muslim Queer’- about active ‘gay and lesbian’ Muslims in the ‘West’ confronting both homophobia and Islamophobia simultaneously: under attack from two fronts. I learnt of the struggles with modernising sexualities from many Muslim voices. Working through the power of empathy, each of these books became part of a politics of story telling for me. The world changes in both small and large ways through stories like this, and ultimately political change depends on good storytelling. In this article I plan to synoptically review a few of its recent forms, developments and polemics.




When I was first approached to write this article, the editor suggested that I might like to revisit my 1995 book Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds (TSS hereafter). And this is what I will do. But I also want to use this opportunity to go beyond that now rather old book and raise some critical issues for contemporary research. TSS tried to do a number of things. It tried to broaden out the analyses of stories to move well beyond texts to examine the origins and impacts of storytelling processes – a sociology of stories. (And the importance of what others have subsequently called a ‘narrative reality’ (Gubrium and Holstein, 2009). It claimed that stories were bound up with contingency and change – all stories have their time. It examined more specifically three cases studies – ‘gay’ coming out, ‘rape’ survivors and ‘abuse’ therapy – as instances of generic social processes. It built a model of how stories emerge through political actions – how they moved through a flow of storytelling. And it argued for a new form of citizenship and rights centered around the personal – intimate citizenship. The book highlighted power from the outset, setting out its own symbolic interactionist theory of power[i], and suggesting some major questions that needed asking:


What kinds of narratives work to empower people and which degrade, control and dominate? ..What strategies enable stories to be told, how are spaces created for them, and how are voices silenced?.. How do stories feed into the wider networks of routine power?.. Who has access to stories?.. Where is the reader located in the political spectrum?.. What cultural and economic resources – literacy, knowledge, money, time, space – are needed to consume a story?.. How might various strategies of talk be implicated in this story telling?.. How do stories sit with the wider frameworks of power? ……… (Plummer, 1995: pp29-31)


Just how a story is crafted and how it shapes the world politically, ethically and culturally depends on many changing events resting on a fivefold structure of when it is being told (time), where is it being told (place and space), who is being told (audience), why it is being told (motivation), and what is being told (contents)?  Different stories will be told in different times and places to differing audiences with different motivations and impacts. It helps to distinguish here between stories and narratives. While stories direct us to what is being told, narratives tell us how stories are told. Narrative theory is about the arts, philosophies and science of telling: the process and procedures through which our stories are accomplished. But running though all this is the underlying and unmistakeable force of power: narrative power.


A few conceptual matters are in order here. Power itself is a muddled area of enquiry.[ii] At the broadest level, the key ideas in this article are narrative power and narrative empathyNarrative power speaks to the capacities of both (a) texts and (b) story tellers and listeners to influence, control or regulate the voices and stories of self and others. The theory of narrative power asks how does power – domination, subordination, authority and legitimacy, flourishing and autonomy – work its way through stories? And how do different narratives fit with different kinds of political systems? Several key ideas link to this: macro-narratives and micro-narratives alongside both narrative processes and structures of narration. Macro-narratives link to wider political systems like totalitarianism (bringing the closure of all stories?), authoritarianism (bringing the regulation of all stories?), or democratic (bringing the opening of stories within certain limits and boundaries?), and ultimately to cosmopolitan societies (where we find narratives freely comingle and where we might find the most varied exchange of multiple stories?). Micro-narratives, by contrast, descend from the heavens and get down to earth and are grounded in local processes – asking questions about the processes through which stories emerge – the situations, people and subjectivities that make it happen. Narrative processes refer to a wide array of social actions that make stories and narratives work. Structures of narration speak to the historical and cultural structural contexts in which these processes are embedded. With these concepts in mind, storytelling becomes a creative political and symbolic strategy to bridge the macro and micro, the process and the structures: it becomes a key human active way of transforming how we grasp, connect to and change the world.


A closely linked idea is that of the Politics of Narrative Empathy.  As I see it, the beating heart of the politics of storytelling is empathy – the ability to ‘climb into the skin’ of another person and see the world from their point of view as deeply as we can. And this also takes us to the heart of what makes us human. Listening to the stories of others and engaging in dialogues with them is both a key indicator of our humanity and a key strategy of this politics. It means an ingrained habit of grasping and appreciating the differences of others (including enemies). Much has been said about empathy [iii], and it straddles many disciplines and approaches.  It is the foundation of social care, part of a ‘circuit’ of human cruelty and kindness, connected to a deliberative democratic reasoning, and linked to a developmental theory for social justice. In their best selling blockbusters The Empathic Civilization (2009) and The Better Angels of our Nature (2012) Jeremy Rifkin and Steven Pinker claim boldly that as societies move forward they accelerate their empathic potentials. And it comes with two close companions: dialogue and compassion. Together they help in our humanization and civilizing. Stories are the key sources of this empathy as we get glimpses of other worlds and start trying to live with them in various ways. The same is true of course of our sexual lives: ‘empathic sexualities’ suggests that we grasp something of the sexual life of those we engage with, we can see the sexual world from ‘within their skin’. Again this helps humanize our sexualities. Stories and empathy helps us to live with sexual variety: they help us see a utopian vision of cosmopolitan sexualities.[iv]

These ideas are the backdrop of what follows.
Revisiting Sexual Stories
TSS was written mainly back in the hopefulness of 1989 and the early 1990’s though it actually had a longer gestation back to the mid 1970’s. The world has since become a lot darker. This was all long before 9/11, the new wars and the rise of the new religious discourses of hate; it was long before the 2008(It was even before the widespread development of digital communications in everyday life; ‘multiculturalism’, and the widespread awareness of globalization). The book was only published in 1995, just twenty years ago – but that most surely was another century: even twenty years becomes a very long time in speedy modernity. One generation, possibly two, have moved on. In this short article I do not wish to look backwards but to briefly suggest instead a number of emergent themes that have developed since then, all of which are important for the analysis of sexual stories in the coming generation, and all of which highlight in various ways the importance of narrative power. They suggest the need for both a politics of narrative flows and a politics of narrative structures. This is much to cover in a short space and I see this article as simply suggestive and indicative of directions ahead.


My interest in power in TSS is revealed most clearly in the fairly straightforward process model of storytelling – ‘storytelling in the stream of power’ (Plummer, 1995: 26). The book developed a political model of the contingencies of constructing stories which can be briefly summarised as:


  • Imagining – visualizing – empathizing;
  • Articulating- vocalizing – announcing;
  • Inventing identities – becoming storytellers;
  • Creating social worlds/ communities of support;
  • Creating a culture of public problems.


This is a ‘journey narrative’ – from narrative silence through story creation to public narrative. It is this move from ‘inner worlds’ (of falteringly and inchoately telling stories to the self privately) to an increasingly public one where the circle of discourse becomes wider that I think is most important. As I say: ‘In the earliest moments, the story can hardly be imagined; it may be told privately as a tale to oneself. Later it gets told to a few people – a lover, a friend, a psychiatrist. Slowly it can move out into a public domain where it comes to take on a life of its own. It becomes part of a public discourse….’ (Plummer, 1995: 126). This was perhaps also the concern that the great Hannah Arendt (1958) had when she suggested that stories are our key way for moving from the subjective to the public; from the personal world to the political one.


In recent years I have been modifying this in a number of ways. Not seeing them as necessarily linear – the world is rarely that orderly- I have added a few more critical ‘moments’ suggesting the life story of stories, and the changing fates of our story makings. I am talking about the birth, institutionalization, re-negotiation and ultimate entropy of stories. And in each moment we ask questions about the role of narrative power and narrative empathy being transformed: how the capacity to speak and develop dialogues and understanding are constantly transformed, alongside how empathy is being developed.  Put schematically, I now suggest the following ‘moments’ need scrutiny:


  1. Narrative Void: Narrative Absence, Narrative Silence and Putative Narratives: This starts with the importance of the story not told. But this area, of all areas, is the least researched or understood. We are trying to grasp a story before it becomes a story! This is the shadow ghost land of ‘no stories’, an ‘uncertain, shadowy kind of existence’ that Arendt talks about (1958: p50). Here are murmurings and ambiguities floundering to be made sense of. In the sexual world such muddles can be enormous – a widespread dimly articulated world of sexual fantasy, passion, love and hate – that is rarely understood at all. And there are also forms of stories we have hardly begun to speak about. Much of the poor world lives with what I have elsewhere called pauperised sexualities, unhygienic sexualities, emaciated sexualities, homeless sexualities, exiled and dispossessed sexualities (Plummer, 2005,2015). There are almost no stories told about such matters yet surely there is much to say for a third of the world’s population? This is a curious world, then, of untold stories that shadow us, so to speak. We can’t find the words; maybe we can’t even think the experience. There is little empathy and a lack of power in any of this to help the stories form. Indeed the power of other peoples’ power may prevent new imaginings. Here are powerless ‘putative’ stories, ‘waiting in the wings’.
  2. Narrative Birth: Narrative Creativity, Narrative Imagining and Narrative Visualizing: This is the moment of birth: of natality, creativity, imagination, the unique moment of conception. How does an inchoate ‘putative’ story get a start in the head? How is something shaped from an emotion, an embodiment, an act, an event, a fantasy turned into a unique, singular, personal subjectivity. This is the fascinating untold story of the narrative imagination in creating stories, of how our unique differences start to get voiced. These so often are dependent upon chance factors – contingencies. It suggests the question of how random moments of life lead towards or away from self-empowerment: a self-power or self-willing that critically brings them into being, or fails to. This moment of the ‘birth’ of new stories is much unstudied.


  1. Narrative Voice: Narrative Articulating: This brings the first public utterances, though maybe just to the self. It is the moment of first vocalizing. How does power shape these first utterances and announcements? How does the story start to move into a web of relationships and begin an articulated life of its own? Are there indeed relational worlds it can move into? These days we can find a great deal of these opening stumblings on the Internet; and this is transforming the process as it can enter new public arenas very speedily.

A gradual sense of empowerment or powerlessness is central to the movement through all these three opening moments. We are asking questions about how people find their own stories.

  1. Narrative Identity: This brings the moment when the stories people tell become part of their lives: fragile momentary contingencies have been transformed into more stable organising essences. The stories become the person. When people become the holders of their own stories they often start to invent their identities around them and this becomes part of their own narrative world and order.
  2. Narrative Mobilization and Community Making. This is probably the most researched of all the moments so far. People come to meet people that want to tell and share similar stories – creating new social worlds, communities of support and, for many, new social movements. The story becomes overtly and explicitly political. Many groups across the world in community groups, religious groups, welfare groups and social movements of all kinds tell stories of political mobilization. Some of these deal, with more conservative movements: there are many pro-family, anti-feminist, anti-gay and right-wing movements here too. And these stories from all political directions have helped to fashion political identities, construct political campaigns, foster imagined – even utopian- communities of past and future: to assemble discourses of the ‘others’, and write the literature of human rights. We can see it in South Africa, the Berlin Wall and Northern Ireland etc where stories directly feature in bringing about change (Much research has been done on this. See, as examples, Andrews  (2007), Davis (2002), Jackson (2002), Poletta (2006), Schafer & Smith (2004), Selbin (2010), Sollinger et al (2008), Tilly (2002)).
  1. Public Narratives/ Private Narratives: This speaks to the ways stories enter public arenas- governmental, media, digital – creating a culture of public problems. ‘Stories of political change’ are now to be found in ‘political spectacles’ everywhere. They can be found in news stories; in commissions, tribunals and government reports; in personal testimony and celebrity stories; in historical and anthropological case studies; in documentary film and photo; in journalistic reportage, interviews, blog activism, and indeed in much fiction writing, film production, music making, poetic vision and art across the world: all those media which tell us daily of a failing world we need to change.
  2. Narrative Hegemony and Routinization: This speaks to the ways in which stories become repetitive, stable and habitualised. They could be called ‘hegemonic’ in the sense that many people now come to accept the key story lines unchallenged. (They could be connected to Bourdieu’s ideas of habitus: we might talk of the habitus of stories). In the simplest terms, these are often the stories that become our habits and stereotypes: they feel comfortable and unchallenging, they become our routines. In their more sophisticated and complex forms they can be identified as ‘genres’ or basic forms.


  1. Narrative Negotiation: This suggests while many routine public stories – of child sexual abuse, of honour crimes, of AIDS, of sex trafficking and so forth – circulate widely in the public sphere and close down debate and restrict vision, others start to appear which resist and modify this. Mainstream orthodox stories are renegotiated. Since the publication of TSS, there has been a significant new writing about the development of counter narratives and resistance narratives (e.g. Bamberg and Andrews (2004); Nelson (2001), Woodiwiss (2009)).
  2. Narrative Entropy and Death: And this is the moment – maybe the land- where the old stories go to die? This is hardly ever discussed. We can ask for example where all the old ‘Western stories’ of witchcraft hysteria went? Or what happened to the tales of ‘masturbation insanity’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Or, more recently, the storied panics over unwed mothers and premarital sex of the 1950’s? How does narrative power shape the ending of a story?




So stories have lives and the question becomes: How are people empowered (and disempowered) in telling their stories at different moments of this narrative flow? The ‘narrative flow’ model outlined above is valuable in showing how people gain strength from a collective process of working with others and turning private issues into public and political ones. But its weakness is it that is lacks a sense of the wider, historical structures of power and inequality in which this takes places. We need to supplement accounts of these basic moments of the narrative flow and process with a focus on the wider structures of narration in which we find power at work. TSS largely focused on a wider gender structure; but the situation is more complex than this.


A Politics of Narrative Inequality


At the outset this means recognition of the inequalities of the world, which reflect so deeply in the organising and telling of stories. At the heart of my concerns is the idea that most people in the world simply do not have a voice that is heard. Of course they tell stories all the time, but bigger more powerful stories swamp them out. There is a profound inequality of storytelling. This should come as no surprise: there is now a substantial documentation of the fact that our world is massively unequal (Piketty, 2014; Therborn, 2013). The most extreme division across the globe is between the rich 1% and the remaining 99% poor (Dorling,2014). One study in 2014 showed that ‘the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth’, and predicted that by 2016 ‘the top 1% will have more wealth than the remaining 99% of people’  (Oxfam, 2015). This clearly has major consequences both for narrative tellings – and sexual lives. While the rich dominate in wealth, their stories may also dominate; and meanwhile a very large group of the destitute, the dispossessed, and the disenfranchised – maybe the poorest 20 per cent of the world’s people- struggle to survive, living damaged lives as refugees, the global poor, the ‘socially dead’. Their lives fall in the cracks or are pushed beyond society, beyond care, beyond rights, beyond humanity.


Recent work on intersectionality suggests how structures of inequality (and oppression) are organized through vectors of not just economic class but also ethnicity, age, disability, religion, state, sexuality – as well as gender (e.g.Yuval-Davis, 2011). Stories are always bound up with these wider structures of social division, social inequality and social power. There is an important academic industry that studies both power and inequalities, but so far these big questions have only thinly been explored in narrative theory. We need to start asking questions about narrative inclusion and narrative exclusion, narrative elites and narrative privilege, narrative underclasses and the narrative dispossessed as we question issues of narrative resources and narrative justice. As we become more and more sensitive to economic and intersectional inequalities, we will be able to develop a deeper understanding of narrative inequalities. (And this in turn may help us to better understand how hegemony works).


A Politics of Digital Narratives


Another key context for the story telling flow is that of the ‘new technologies’. In 1995, believe it or not, ideas about digitalization were only just coming on to the agenda. This was a time when I was still trying to persuade my more conservative colleagues that e-mail was here to stay and the mobile phone would soon be in wide use! Nowadays, digitalisation and globalisation have set significant new agendas for thinking about stories – and this includes sexual stories. For at the heart of the new global worlds of storytelling now lies electronic connectivity. The global convergence of info-technologies has brought a multiplicity of new sexual worlds of story telling being transformed through computers (cybersex), video (camsex), phones (phone sex), computer games (gamesex), mobile phones (‘sexting’) and social networks  (sexual networking). Taken together, they signpost multiple new intimate relationships and sex practices that simply did not exist before the late twentieth century. And they potentially bring complex new global stories of digial sex, digital dating, digital queer, digital porn, digital stalking, digital bullying, digital grooming, digital rape, digital victim, digital cottage, digital carnality.


And, in a major way, the new technologies also bring a key shift in narrative power. For around the world, sites such as Avaaz, All Out, Amnesty International and many others are creating instant global responses to key issues of sexual politics as a new ‘networked advocacy’ of horizontal, leaderless, ‘swarms’ mobilize on key issues (Castells, 2012; Gerbaudo, 2012). Nearly always they do this through telling a story. Sexual stories of injustice and cruelty can flash now round the world instantaneously: in Russia (the Pussy Riots; and All Out); in Nigeria (Jail the Gays Bill); in Uganda (The hate laws); and in Delhi (Gang Rape) (Plummer, 2015). New political opportunity structures for women’s activism and queer change are rapidly in the making. New political worlds of digital activism are becoming prominent.


Of course, in some countries, there are major Internet restrictions that make global communications less easy (eg Iran, China, Syria, and Ubekistan). But in others, such as much of South East Asia and parts of Africa, this changing communication also opens more and more avenues to changing sexual stories and indeed rights activism.


A Politics of World Narratives

Central to this is globalization. TSS was published at the start of the widespread concern with globalization: but it turns out I did not really incorporate its ideas. On rereading the book, I was amazed to find I had little say about; for I was certainly aware of the significance of the global by then (Plummer, 1993) and it has become a major preoccupation of my more recent work (Plummer, 2003; 2005; 2015). But it really does not figure very much in TSS. Still, my examples and debates then were overwhelmingly based on examples from the US and the UK.


Times have changed; and one of the central contexts in which stories have to be placed now is surely ‘the world’ with its links between the global, the ‘glocal’ and ultimately the hybrid forms that this takes (Robertson, 1992). Sexual stories now dwell in a world of globally mediated sexualities and digital sexualities alongside an international circulation of new forms of erotica and pornography and new forms of regulation. We now have stories of migrating sexualities, tourist sexualities, transnational friendships, long-distance relationships – ‘distant love’, global marriage, gay global parties (the celebrated ‘white parties’), ‘cross-border marriage’, global sex commodification markets, international sex work, sex trafficking, mail-order brides, international markets of pornography and the like. And as the multibillion global AIDS industry spreads across the world, it develops new languages, laws, treatments and education – and, of course, more stories. Ultimately, a new world of global sex politics narratives has emerged. Sexual stories are migrating, transforming and moving across the world, creating the possibility for dialogues across the Diasporas of North and South (see Plummer, 2015: Ch2.).


Part of this has seen the development of global moral panics around sexuality in which public stories always play a critical role. In India, for example, the story of Jyoti Singh and the ‘Delhi Bus Gang Rape’ led to an enormous global and local outcry, and to the One Billion Rising campaign (Ensler, 2013). In many Muslim countries moral panics are deeply connected to ‘the honour code’, highlighting the honour of being a man and a woman. In Africa such panics have direct links to the Christian Right in the USA. In Uganda in 2011, the story of David Kato (born 1964: murdered January 2011) became emblematic of Africa’s struggles over gay rights. In 2009 the South African athlete Caster Semenya won the women’s 800 metre race at the 2009 International association of Athletics World Championship in Berlin and was given ‘the gender test’ raising the global issue of what it means to be a man or a woman.  And in 2012, the story of Malala Yousafazi (2014), most famously of all, was shot in the head in for campaigning in Pakistan for women’s education at the age of fifteen, became a best seller, and brought the plight of girls and education to millions. Moral panics it seems are going global. These, and many others, have been raised as global stories bring issues of sexuality and gender to the public global arena.


A caution is needed. Such stories can now often be heard in Western media and whilst they can be seen to bring prominent gender and sexual issues to global attention (like sexual violence, homophobia, ‘sexual and gender rights’ and the situation of women), they do also raise political issues reminiscent of the post colonial debates of the 1980’s: the ‘West’ is once again asserting its moral superiority over the rest of the world. These stories raise new problems of misappropriation as western cultures use these stories for their own ends, often to stigmatise other religions, groups and cultures. A range of commentators have made clear how much of this story writing can infantilise Muslim women, turn them into victims in need of being rescued, and seek to impose a tyranny of ‘Western rights’ that are not appropriate to different cultures (see for example: Abu-Lughod (2013), Agustín (2007), Doezema (2010) & Massad (2002)).


More positively, what can come ultimately of all this is a growing sensitivity to the complexity of sexual cultures and their stories across the world. Sylvia Tamale’ s African Sexualities, for example, provides African voices that ‘seriously challenge Eurocentric approaches to African sexualities’ (Tamale, 2010). With essays coming from sixteen of Africa’s fifty-four countries, the book shows different sexualities speaking from within these diverse cultures and displaying a new African scholarship that ‘defies categorization.’ Here we hear stories of polygamy rather than monogamy; the widespread acceptance of intergenerational sexualities, and the omnipresence of HIV on all lives but especially the young and women. Similar significant volumes have also emerged that look at Latin America, Muslim Cultures, East Asia, Thailand and ‘The Global South’ [v].  There is a growing abundance of sexual stories being told from within a wide range of world sexual cultures.

And as more and more stories of human sexualities flow from places far removed from the previous Western hegemony so both western assumptions about gender, family, identity and sexuality, and local ‘own’ cultures are challenged. The potential for political change grows.


A Politics of Narrative States
Out of all this, a new area of storytelling analysis and politics is emerging (one only in its infancy), that is starting to ask questions about the ways in which stories (including sexual stories) are organized differently under different political systems. How do opportunities to tell stories differ across politico-economic state formations? Stories are clearly being told in all cultures and in all political systems throughout history and at all times: the human animal is the story telling animal. People never stop telling their tales. But most surely, too, they are told in different ways under different systems of power. We really know very little about this (cf. Jackson, 2002; Weiss and Bosia, 2013). Let me sketch a few preliminary, basic and sensitising ideas here.


If we start with the systems of totalitarianism and authoritarianism it is apparent that the formal opportunities to tell stories become severely restricted. This means that much of what I have discussed above as a flow of stories will surely be curtailed: public speech about many things is prohibited, political mobilization is limited and many stories are not told. So public stories are likely to be limited and narrow. But this will not stop stories developing – they will just be driven underground and said more cautiously and with more pain. A world of subterranean narratives, of creating alternative yet stigmatised and secretive stories may become abundant. Such worlds are hard to research and grasp. The public telling of sexual stories in such societies will be limited,


By contrast, democratic systems may well cultivate multiple opportunities for storytelling. There are wide ranging differences across world democracies and democratic processes. Yet democracy, in itself, never guarantees a positive climate: many terrible things have happened under democracies. Still, in these systems stories (including sexual stories) might get shaped by ideas of ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’. Is it the case that more ‘sexual stories’ can indeed be told in democratic states? On the surface this would seem likely and can be illustrated by looking at those countries where diverse stories of rights and freedom have proliferated.
A third cluster of stories can be seen as transitional societies where former authoritarian states who have subsequently come to face an anomic upheaval with a search for a new order: a major disruption has happened with visions of a better future. The strong case of this has been storytelling in South Africa, where the breakdown of the discriminatory and anti apartheid situation has led to the replacement with an explosion of new story tellings alongside a new progressive agenda of human rights, which included gay rights.  Likewise the fall of Franco in Spain, Galtieri in Argentina and others elsewhere created opportunities for new more democratic story telling. New sexual stories have indeed proliferated in these countries., even as they change and become re-contested.


Another cluster of social orders might be called broken societies: societies that are in obvious trouble and where opportunities for story telling are likely to be broken too. Often called ‘failed states’, they experience chronic breakdown through genocide, civil war and strife, extreme poverty and famine or natural disasters. These extreme situations, marked by trauma and damage, must give rise to a different narrative shape. People often are traumatised and forced to live with a deep sense of loss and wasted life, in fear and pain. These are usually countries engaged in major conflicts (e.g Syria, Colombia, Afghanistan); those that are frequently named ‘failed states’ (e.g. Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo); and those who have suffered recent major ‘natural disasters’ (e.g. Haiti and now the Philippines). It includes large numbers of people who become refugees and dislocated. Such damage may be short term or long term; but it is clear that such nations currently provide a very different opportunity structure for story-tellings. How can stories of all this be told? Even as many tales are told on the ground, they have little impact on a public sphere. There may be few opportunities here for telling a wide range of sexual stories.


There are many other patterns. There are colonized societies. Here stories are shaped by histories of subordination and repression by a former dominant state. In the long historical span, there are very few countries this does not exclude! Here storytelling often centres on confronting the traumas left by former dominating, colonising nations. Indeed, just as post-colonial nationalisms are often defined in response to their former colonization, so colonised stories are shaped, often traumatically, by these invasions of culture. And, as a final example, there are also societies where religious fundamentalism has taken hold: These are counties where religious story telling becomes the absolute story: others cannot be readily told. Often these are theocracies where absolutist religious affiliations have taken hold, shape the stages of a life and provide limited stories. In countries where fundamentalisms thrive – whether Muslim, Christian or whatever – crusades against both women’s rights and gay rights and their storytellings are usually to be found. (A map of the world shows these parts quite clearly: some are often highlighted as MENA, The Middle Eastern and North African Region (cf ILGA, 2013 p12-20); as well much of Central Africa where often evangelicals from the USA are at work). These are regions where political opportunities for sexual story tellings are severely restricted.

This chapter has briefly raised some sensitising concepts and tools for thinking about narrative power. I’d like to end with a sense of how this kind of analysis can work practically in politics.


Practically, we can think in terms of long-term narrative strategies and short-term narrative tactics.  In TSS, for example, I closed with a long-term political strategy of intimate citizenship; and in a more recent study I speak of a political strategy of cosmopolitan sexualities (Plummer, 2015). The former focused on ways to bring about change to enhance the recognition of people’s rights and responsibilities in the intimate and sexual sphere of life as the world rapidly changes. The latter suggests ways of enhancing the ability of people to live with diversities of all kinds, but especially sexual diversity. The arguments are complicated but in both cases I ended up with arguing for the importance of grounded story telling and narrative dialogue as critical political practices. The tactics of this politics are hence the tools of storytelling: they are the quite profound shapers of how we think and move politically.


The iconoclastic Hannah Arendt once argued that ‘nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives or will live’ (Arendt, HCp7-8) and out of this sense of each person’s uniqueness, difference and ultimately vulnerability, she claimed that ‘politics rests on the fact of human plurality’. While each personal narrative is unique and has to be recognized as such (they challenge any strong generalisations), we can also build collective and public narratives to be shared and which can exist independently. ‘Good ‘governance is charged with being sensitive to the unique story at the same time as it creates and oversees these public narratives that enable citizens to have flourishing and better lives. They provide us with both a sense of our pasts and our futures. Often, though, as we have seen they are driven by inequalities. Most governance, of course, is not ‘good’.


All this ultimately might just suggest a new vision of grounded ‘Real Utopias’ and a Politics of Narrative Hope (cf Bloch, 1968; Levitas, 2014; Plummer, 2015; Wright, 2010). These are very dark political times but it is possible to sense a new world of global sexual stories that may be in the making as new social movements tell stories that help shape new politics. I can sense in some of this storytelling the formation of a common humanity, a world aiming to give people their dignity. It is a world in which stories help us to imagine better worlds where care and kindness, dignity and rights, human well being and social justice for all lie at the heart of our storytelling. This can indeed be found in the global rights movement, the global education movement, the global interfaith movement, the global music movement and across many other social movement worlds where we can hear stories of everyday grounded utopian hope. At the highest level it may even now be possible to speak of the reaching out for a common human global ethics on which many have already started to agree. The politics of storytelling is ultimately charged with producing better stories told in better ways for a better world for all.



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[i] The interactionist theory of power looks at symbols, contingency, emergence, process, interaction and others. It sees the importance of the self in power and powerlessness. And it grounds politics in ‘social worlds’. Politics as arena and social world making – one social word is that state and its negotiation into orders. See TSS 1995 pages 26- 31: on the ‘stream of power’. I remain a symbolic interactionist; but this has become extended into a wider critical humanism (see Plummer, 2013).

[ii] Yet the very the nature of power itself is always contested. There is an extraordinary wide array of debates about the nature of power. Keith Dowding’s Encyclopedia of Power (2011) provides for a

very suggestive series of accounts from many angles in a wide array of entries. Here I will take power to be empirical (we can observe and study it), ontological (it speaks to matters of humanity such as our vulnerability, plurality and differences) and normative (it prescribes ways of living). The ontological approach asks definitional, conceptual and clarificatory questions about power. The empirical approach examines evidence on power at work in governments, in polling booths, in social movements, in stories. And the normative asks about which systems of power work better (often advocating a politics (green, feminist, conservative, radical, queer, humanist). In this article I combine all three. We can add many other approaches (e.g. geographies of power, histories of power, and, the pragmatics or practicalities of power).

[iii] The term ‘empathy’ itself is a contested little mongrel word that does not seem to enter the English language till the early twentieth century (when it was translated from the German “Einfuehlung”).  But the term sympathy, which is closely linked, has a longer life. We can find it being notably developed in the Scottish Enlightenment (circa 1750) and given pride of place by both David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739 and Adam Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in their theories of the moral sentiments. A century or so later this idea entered the languages of North American philosophy in the work of the early pragmatists but especially the sociologist, Charles Horton Cooley, who highlighted

the ways in which we always ‘dwell in the minds of others without knowing it’. His compatriot in ideas, George Herbert Mead is often seen as a key turning point in the history of this idea. He spoke of the necessity of the social self, of role taking and the capacity for “taking on the attitude of the other.” In Mind, Self and Society, he states: “The individual experiences himself as such, not directly, but only indirectly, from the particular standpoints of other individual members of the same social group.” George Herbert Mead too was a dedicated internationalist and he saw that over the past few centuries, the modern world had been moving more and more aware of an international other.

[iv] I draw a little in this article from my book Cosmopolitan sexualities where a much fuller argument is

developed. See Plummer(2015)

[v]  See, for example, the discussions in Mclleland & Mackie, 2014; Wieringa and Sivoro, 2013;  Duangwises & Jackson 2013. All in their own ways act as landmark books bringing together new authors from different parts of the world to demonstrate the complexity of world global sexual story telling.


Ken Plummer taught in the Sociology Department at the University of Essex between 1975 and 2005 and researched widely in the fields of sexualities, humanism and narrative. He is now Emeritus Professor. His most recent work includes: Sociology: The Basics (Routledge, 2010); ‘A Manifesto for Social Stories’ in Liz Stanley ed  Documents of Life for the 21st Century, Ashgate, 2013; ‘ A Manifesto for Critical Humanism in Sociology’ in Daniel Nehring: Sociology – a Text and Reader. Pearson, May 2013;and  ‘My Multiple Sick Bodies: Symbolic Interaction, Auto/ethnography and the Sick Body’ – in Bryan S. Turner ed Blackwell Handbook of the Body (2012). A new book, Cosmopolitan Sexualities, was published in 2015 by Polity Press


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