Blackwell Handbook of Social Inequalities  (2004)



 Ken  Plummer

(University of Essex)

Are you unaware that vast numbers of your fellow men (sic) suffer or persish from need of the things that you have to excess, and that you required the explicit and unanimous consent of the whole human race for you to appropriate from the common subsistence anything besides that required for your own?

Jean Jacques Rousseau 1755 Essay on Inequality

The rich is the one who says: “I am going to do it” and does it. The poor, in contrast, do not fulfill their wishes or develop their capacities.”

A poor woman in Brazil. Deepa Narayan’s Voices of the Poor 2000

In  a world of globalised, deregulated commerce in which everything is tradable and economic strength is the only determinant of power and control, resources move from the poor to the rich, and pollution moves from the rich to the poor. The result is a global environmental apartheid.

Vandanda Shiva The World on the Edge p 112

In the small Brazilian community of Bom Jesus de Mata and the shantytown of urban squatters Alto de Cruziero, the mothers do not cry when their children die. The death of a child seems to the west one of the most intimate (and sad) of experiences, but when death is everywhere it becomes less so. Mothers do not even name their young babies when they are under a year old; they do not get involved as the child’s death seems so likely.

In Essex, England by contrast two millionaire gay men fly to California where they arrange for their sperm and a woman’s eggs to be placed in a surrogate mother. They pay something like £200,000 for the birth of their twin children. A little later they arrange for another baby boy to be born this way, and later still for a fourth child to complete their new family. They are sent to private schools.

In Los Angeles, a group of (illegal), Hispanic migrant workers go on strike. They clean the offices for a large multi-corporation on very low pay. The managers step over the workers whilst they are on their knees cleaning, and one of the workers suggests that the bosses give them their special overalls and uniforms because it ‘makes them invisible’. One woman does not go on strike: she has had to be a whore over and over again in order to send money back to the family in Mexico, in order to get her sister work, in order to pay for her husbands medical bills, and in order to just survive. She is a traitor… to the union, but one can see why.

Meanwhile, also in the USA, Americans spent around $9billion on plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures in 2001- with about 8.5 million procedures (an increase of 48% over 2000) – according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Growing numbers of people it seems are not happy with all manner of their body parts, and are able to spend small fortunes on perfecting them.

In Philadelphia, and many inner cities in North America, a pervasive street violence exists: many young people come to live lives tormented lives in the midst of drugs, death and a decaying environment. Discount stores appear, along with graffiti and very run down buildings – many no longer inhabited. It is here that groups of black youths start to appear; hanging around – on street corners, outside stores, in the street, and at major complexes. The air is thick with danger and potential violence. It is the world of Boyz and the Hood. Street families seem to show a lack of consideration for others. And at the heart of the problem  ‘is the issue of respect – being treated ‘right’ or being granted one’s ‘props’ (or proper due) or the deference one deserves’.

Here are some invisible lives not accorded much dignity or respect, lives lived without resources, status or power. Often damaged lives. [1] And here too are other lives with resources, able to choose what they want and to be accorded status and power. Priviliged lives.

Clarifying Intimate Inequalities

In a time when the world seems to be seeing the growth of inequalities- with some groups gaining more and wider choices for a comfortable life and others finding their lives becoming more coerced, restricted and brutalized – these opening vignettes capture, albeit briefly, how inequalities touch on intimate lives and personal experience. Whilst most people engage in intimacies over their lives (even the dying infant is usually close to its mother), these are always shaped profoundly by social divisions.  Indeed, inequalities invade and structure the personal life across the world. Just how we can fashion our families and relationships, raise and care for our children and loved ones, live with our bodies and develop our emotions, be men and women, and experience our diverse sexualities differs widely across the inequalities of time and space. I argue in this paper that the link between these inequalities and the intimate / personal life have not generally been given sufficient attention, and that we need to develop ways of capturing and analyzing this. This is not the first paper by any means to try and do this, but it is a relatively rare concern and should be examined more extensively and intensively in the future.

To take an extreme example. Intimacies under systems of slavery or caste may be very tightly structured and defined. Who can marry whom, when one can have sex, how to be a man or a woman, the very sense of identity that marks who one is, and even the restrictions placed on the body – all these must set quite profound limits to intimacies. Issues of bride marriage, child marriage, arranged marriages and forced marriages all raise their head. Likewise, under systems of abject poverty the experience of love, the body, and sexuality may be extremely restricted. Of course, even under these systems, people resist and withdraw, rebel and accommodate, and struggle to actively build their own ways of handling intimacies. They always have some kind of  ‘agency’. But the choices and the actions are indeed severely limited. This is in stark contrast to the worlds described by contemporary social theorists of late modernity – who often sense both a modern world of growing choice and individuality, alongside a postmodern one characterized by a full panoply of variant life style options to which there seem no limit. In these worlds it seems agency arrives full blown trumpeting multiple choices for a better life. We have, it seems, to live our own life.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes( 1992:189) senses this contrast strikingly when she talks about the situation in Brazil:

The rich fare better over all and at all stages of life, just as men fare better than women. The rich are ‘exempted’ from the struggle that is life and appear to lead enchanted lives. Their days and nights are given to erotic pleasures (sacanagem) and to indulgence in rich and fatty foods; yet rarely do their bodies show the telltale signs of moral dissipation and wretched excess: bad blood and wasted livers. The poor, who can hardly afford to brincar (have fun, also used with reference to sex play) at all, are like ‘walking corpses’ with their sangue ruim, sangue fraco, sangue sujo ( bad, weak, dirty blood); their ruined and wasted livers (figado estragado); and their dirty and pus filled skin eruptions, leprosy, yaws, and syphilis. These illnesses come from “inside” and they are not sent from God but come from man, the wages of extravagance, sin and wretched excess. The body reflects the interior moral life; it is a template for the soul and the spirit.

In this essay, then, my interest lies in both ‘inequalities’ and ‘intimacies’ – and both are contested and problematic ideas. The latter – intimacy -is often restricted to our romantic and sexual life; but I use the term to refer to an array of arenas in which we ‘do’ the personal life – doing body work, doing gender, doing relationships, doing eroticism, and doing identities. The array of arenas helps us to see the multiple forms of intimacies whilst the focus on ‘doing’ enables us to persistently see the social world as actively achieved, as processual, as an accomplishment and not an entity simply fixed and given (Plummer, 2003:ch1; Jamieson,1998).

The former – inequalities- is conventionally used to depict matters of economic inequality but this is only one dimension of a range of  institutions of social divisions– class and caste, race and ethnicity, gender and sexualities, age and health- which work to pattern the doings of the intimate life. We know now from feminism, anti-racism theory, queer studies, post-colonialism and the like that inequalities are organized along a number of dimensions and that these are major vectors through which we live our lives. Low income, patriarchy, age stratification, heterosexism are all structures -dealt with elsewhere in this volume- which generate different patterns of interconnected inequalities. Just how they work also depends upon a number of social processes of exclusion and inclusion – like violence and care, enrichment and pauperization, empowerment and dis-empowerment, marginalization and mainstreaming, the silencing and presenting of voices. All this needs to connect to the subjective experience of inequalities – how people actually experience these inequalities on a personal and everyday life level. This can lead us to study the ways in which people can be placed in hierarchies of esteem. It leads us to look for the ways in which people can be ignored and rendered invisible. It will document how they can be ‘kept waiting’, and made to live through ‘symbolic assaults to [a ] sense of self worth and efficacy’ (Anderson & Snow: 2001: 399). Drawing from a broad symbolic interactionist perspective, Anderson and Snow suggest an array of questions:

What are the different ways in which systems of stratification manifest themselves at the micro, interactional level of social life? What are the consequences of these differences for those who experience them? How do they affect one’s sense of self and self esteem? And how do people negotiate and manage the affronts, insults and other manifestations of inequality as they go about their everyday routines? (Anderson and Snow, 2001:396).

Much of this is also implicit in Bourdieu’s discussion of kinds of capital – especially the social, cultural and symbolic where inequalities (and distinctions) are omnipresent. Such issues have been discussed previously in books like Sennett and Cobbs classic The Hidden Injuries of Class (1977), Lillian Rubin’s Worlds of Pain (1977), Jodi O’Brien’s and Judith Howard’s (1998) Everyday Inequalities, Laura Kaye Abraham’s Mama Might be Better off Dead (1994), and Pierre Bourdieu’s The Weight of the World (1993/1999). Taking all these dimensions together I call this a matrix of inequalties.  Table 1 sketches this out as a framework for future thinking.

Insert Table One. See attachment

Intimacies, then, are structured very differently in situations of equality and inequality. In the former, there is a great emphasis upon choice – an emphasis that is increasingly linked to the rise of ‘post modern’ or late modern worlds’. In the latter, there is very limited choice. Indeed, in these worlds, the intimate life is often linked to disempowerment, brutalization, coercion and a massive lack of autonomy.  In my view, advocates of the postmodern see only a very partial, if nevertheless growingly important, picture of the way the global, social world is organized. It is to be found especially, but not wholly, amongst the young and wealthy of the west  who are starting to develop their own postmodern values (Ingelhart and Norris, 2003; Gibbins and Reimer, 1993). It remains a very limited perspective for most.


In Search of Intimate Citizenship

Part of this interest in intimacy has led to the increasingly significant recent debates over ‘intimate citizenship’. The past twenty years has seen new theorizing over citizenship. Applied to intimacies, citizenship implies the rights and obligations surrounding different intimate life styles, the participation of different intimate groupings and the recognition  of people’s different intimate identities. Ideas around intimate citizenship have been increasingly placed on the political agenda. In much of the western literature on this, the great emphasis has been placed on citizenship as the right to choose: to choose your partner, your sexual activities, whether you have a child or not, or what you do to your body. Often couched in the language of ‘sexual citizenship’ (Evans, 1992; Bell and Vinnie, 2000; Richardson, 1998; Weeks, 1997);  ‘sexual rights’ (Petchesky, 2000),or ‘intimate rights’ (Plummer,2003)  it is a citizenship of choices and in this paper I will look briefly at some of this seemingly escalating array of choices as part of what theorists Beck (2003) and Bauman (2002) have called the ‘individualized society’. Yet whilst recognizing the growing importance of this, there is also a need for intimate citizenship debates to focus upon the more traditional role of inequalities in considering citizenship. Although elsewhere I have argued the need for intimate citizenship in the wealthy, Western post-modern world, I am now asking the question: Can we have intimate citizenship in an unjust world?

And this problem is at the heart of this exploratory article. The problems of intimacies, choices and inequalities exist in profoundly different forms amongst different groups in the same society as well as across different parts of the world. In the high income ‘rich’ West, the problem is often one of rapid change, growing diversities, increasing choices and a deep sense of conflict and crisis engulfing all this (but not everywhere: as is well documented, there are huge pockets of poverty in the west- see Devine and Waters, 2004)). In the low income ‘poor’ rest of the world, the problem is usually one of unchanging traditions, deep exploitation, abject poverty and a closure of any sense of power and choice (but, again, not everywhere: there is also some extreme wealth and privilege in poor countries). In the former, the political struggles are over gay rights and gay marriages, new forms of assisted reproductive technologies, feminist campaigns over sexuality and the body, new patterns of sexuality from sadomasochism to ‘live sex acts’. In the latter, the struggles are over inequality highlight the selling of body parts, sexual slavery, the death of children at early ages, living with HIV and all kinds of illnesses, executions for criminal sex, female genital mutiliation, forced and arranged marriages and so on. They seem, and indeed are, very different worlds of intimate inequalities.

So I will now turn to the post-modern citizenship of choice, and then to the more traditional citizenship of equality and redistribution (see Table 2). Finally, I will suggest how the term ‘citizen’ may be of value in looking at these tensions and problems. In all of this, I am merely making preliminary skirmishes into new and somewhat uncharted territories.

Insert Table 2.


The Post-modernization of Intimacies in Rich Worlds: Choice, Change and Conflict

At the heart of intimacy debates in the rich world lies a sense of massive and accelerating changes. Here we have the digitalizing, technologizing, globalizing, medicalizing, commodifying, and destablizing of intimacies. With it, we find we are increasingly loosing any one grand narrative of how to live the personal life. This is the age of ‘reinventing the family’ (Beck-Gernsheim,2002 ), ‘liquid love’ (Bauman, 2003), ‘global sex’ (Altman, 2000), ‘the demoralization of society’ (Fevre, 2000), ‘the clash of sexual civilizations’ (Ingelhart and Norris, 2003), and ‘the death of character’ (Hunter, 2000).. Here we witness the growth of individualization and the seeming advance of ‘choices’.  It seems that almost everybody believes they have a right to choose how to live their personal life. As Ulrich Beck says:

We live in an age in which the social order of the national state, class, ethnicity and the traditional family is in decline. The ethic of individual self fulfillment and achievement is the most powerful current in modern society. The choosing, deciding, shaping human being who aspires to be the author of his or her own life, the creator of an individual identity, is the central character of our time.  It is the fundamental cause behind changes in the family and the global gender revolution in relation to work and politics. Any attempt to create a new sense of social cohesion has to start from the recognition  that individualism, diversity and skepticism are written into Western culture. (2000: 165)

Now Ulrich Beck not only overstates – a regular feature of his analyses as a lot of people in the Western world experience no such choice- he also seems to neglect the vast bulk of the world’s population. His is a predominantly ‘masculinist’, overly abstract, western model. Still, he is right in claiming that in some pockets of the Western world, all manner of new dilemmas in the intimate life do indeed confront us. Thus, in this late modern world, many of us may increasingly take for granted that:

  • If we want to get married, we most surely have the right to choose our partner and will not be expecting others to tell us who to marry. This includes the right to lesbian and gay registered partnerships and marriages (e.g.Weeks et al, 2001)
  • If we want to separate, divorce, or remarry- provided there is adequate moral continuity and care, protection for the best interests of any child- we should not be stopped (Smart & Neale, 1999).
  • If we want to have a child, we most surely have the right to have one (and more: if we do not want one, we have the right not to have one). If we want a child, and can’t have one, then we can surely get one-even if by assisted conception, fertility clinics and sperm banks (Becker, 2000; Ginsburg and Rapp, 1995))
  • If we have desires (gay, lesbian, polyarmorous, transgenderered, fetishistic, even sado-masochistic) then surely we have rights to them – providing that is we do not hurt anybody along the way (Bell and Binnie, 2001).
  • If we are not happy with our bodies, then once again, we have the right to change them. This could means cosmetic plastic surgery; it could mean transgender medical intervention; it could mean the purchasing of much needed body parts for medical treatment; it could even mean the right to freeze our bodies for future storage (Gray, 2001; Haiken, 1998)
  • If we are not happy being part of the gender we have been born into, then we again may have rights to change it (Whittle, 2000).
  • If we are not happy with any of our identities, then we can change them too (Gergen, 1991).
  • If we are aging, we should have the right to choose how to live our lives in the latter years.

The list goes on. To make such suggestions of such presumed ‘rights’ in most countries even a hundred years ago would have been an impossibility. Even today in most countries these are not considered as feasible. Most cultures today do not begin to offer such choices. Still, elsewhere, and in some detail, I have both charted the uneven rise of new forms of intimacies in a newly unfolding social world (called variously many names from second modernity to liquid society [2]– and each bringing their own nuances). I have, suggested the enormous conflicts they are generating, and discussed how certain resolutions to such conflicts may be found through the ideas of intimate citizenship, dialogues in pluralized public spheres and grounded moralities  (Plummer, 2003). To give the quickest listing of examples, the kinds of intimate issues that concern me under the heading of the post-modernization of intimacies would include the new issues around infertility and ‘designer babies’  such as the conflicts over surrogate motherhood, test-tube babies, in vitro fertilization (IVF), egg donation, artificial insemination by donor (AID/ ID), gamete and intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT), cloning, the freezing of the fetus, embryo research, the commercial market in babies and the decline of male fertility along with fertility boosting.  Also on the agenda are conflicts over the new  ‘families of choice’, single parenting, lesbian and gay partnerships, living alone, divorce, ‘out of wedlock conception’, cohabitation, multiple stepfamilies. There are issues too around sexualities: no longer is penis-vagina coital sex the only or main option as we make choices about non procreative, non -penetrative, non-reproductive, ‘recreational’, ‘safer ’sexualities: everything from telephone sex and masturbation to cybersex and  sadomasochism, ‘fist fucking’ and the fetish scene. Likewise, there are conflicts over different kinds of femininities and masculinities (the so-called ‘gender wars’) and newer concerns over  bisexualities and polyarmory, gender blenders, queers, lesbian daddies, dyke boys , drag kings and transgender warriors. There are also ‘choices’ to use the many new technologies which can transform that most central organ of intimacy: the body. These include the options of new information technologies, medical implants, cosmetic surgeries, new medications like the impotency wonder drug ‘Viagra’ and the miracle ‘morning after’ abortion drug. It is a New World and language of people as ‘cyborgs’, as becoming ‘post-human’.  Just what does this mean; and do we really want to become post-human? (Fukuyama, 2002;Habermas,2003; Hales, 2001).

What is very apparent over many of these new life style choices is the way they are embedded in deep (moral, but especially religious) conflicts which occur interpersonally, between groups, nationally and internationally. Moral conflicts about how to live the personal life are central to current thinking about intimacies. To take just one example: the new reproductive technologies (NRTS or Assisted conceptions). Some religious groups will contest them on moral grounds. Some feminists will champion them on the grounds that the NRTs will serve to liberate women from their bodies. Other feminists will condemn them as tools which further the control and regulate women’s bodies and lives. Some will see the need for regulation. Others will be a happy with marketplace free for all in which frozen sperm, eggs, even embryos can be bought and sold. Ultimately this is all part of a wider debate over women’s rights to choose or not. For the radical feminists consent is not possible in an ‘unfree society’. ‘For feminists must go beyond choice and consent as a standard for women’s freedom. Before consent, there must be self determination so that consent does not simply amount acquiescing to the available options’ (Raymond,1994: 103).

Central to much of these new intimacies, then, is the way in which they are seen both as matters of individual choice and as matters of rights. There is a proliferation of socially patterned – often market driven – “choices”. Post modern worlds put our individual needs at the center of our lives and make us opt for a life style. It is a politics of life style, not class (Giddens, 1990).Yet, as I have already hinted, there are clearly problems with all this. There is both a tyranny of choice, and a paradox of choice by which we may become overwhelmed with the decisions we have to make about our lives – indeed, enough some time to make ourselves overly anxious, depressed and ill (Schwartz, 2004). We may also enter the realm of false needs – where a host of unreal choices confront us. These are not really ‘free choices’ at all; for the choices themselves are socially patterned. We are structured into a world of ‘choices’ and ‘individuals’ driven by markets. [3]

But more than all this. It is also clear that these ‘choices’ are not equally distributed. At one extreme, there are situations where there would seem to be no choices at all – or only severely minimal ones. In situations of slavery, imprisonment, or even abject subsistence poverty, ‘choices’ are most decidedly not on the agenda -although there may be a myriad of ways devised to survive on a day to day basis.[4] At the other extreme, there do seem to be situations of massive choice – the extremely wealthy may have options for choice that go far beyond most people (the worlds richest three people have a wealth that is greater than that of the 43 poorest nations!). Many people living in high income societies and rich groups do indeed see their lives as wide open to choice. [5] Yet, in truth, inequalities of all kinds invade them. Rickie Solinger has put this well in her discussion of women and abortion in the USA and it can be generalised out to most of our choices. She says:

The contemporary language of choice [ in the abortion debate] promises dignity and reproductive autonomy to women with resources. For women without the language [they ]are a taunt and a threat. Where the language of choice is applied to the question of poor women and motherhood, it begins to sound a lot like the language of eugenics; women who cannot afford to make choices are not fit to become mothers (Solinger , 2001:223).

So even within the post-modern worlds of presumed choices, there are clearly problems.

Intimacies, Traditionalism and Inequality in Low Income Societies

It is it not hard to see that many of the changes around intimacies mentioned above to be found in every part of the globe- from controversies over one child families in China to debates on the role of women in Islamic states. Nevertheless, once we move into discussions of intimacy in other parts of the world, a significant change has to be taken on board. We are now addressing countries where the basic economic conditions of life make intimate relationships very different and often much harder. Debates on citizenship are much less developed. As I say elsewhere, ‘It is hard to discuss the legitimacy of “choices” around lesbian and gay marriages in cultures where most of the population lives on the breadline ( and indeed where much of homosexuality may be open to execution!). It is hard to discuss the  ‘contested bodies’ of the rich when the bodies of the poor are diseased, dirty, and dying in their millions’ (Plummer, 2003). There is a certain luxury- even smugness- about ‘intimate citizenship’ debates when confronted with grinding poverty and growing inequalities. ‘To talk of the rights of lesbians and gays to have registered partnerships, get married and raise children seems a luxury in the face of many countries where lesbians and gays can be put to death for simply being recognized. To talk of the rights and choices of the infertile to take advantage of the often costly new reproductive technologies may again be a luxury when much of the world lives on the brink of starvation, watching their children die at birth and being unable to afford to raise children in any way. To talk of the rights ands choices to become cyber-citizens engaging in new forms of cyber-sex on the world wide web is surely yet another luxury when most of the world has no access to such communications’ (Plummer, 2003). For much of the world’s population, choices over a new intimate life are not remotely on the agenda.

Worse: some of the choices may actually militate against them. The choices of the rich may work against the poor. Thus people in the rich parts of the West who adopt the children in the poor parts of the world may well not be acting in the interests of the poor. The choice to have body parts in the West may be at the cost of the sale of poor bodies in low income societies. The selling of sex by sex workers in Thailand may provide some money for the poor families of Thailand, but it is really contingent upon the sexual needs of the wealthy west. And it is not just between countries – we can also see that choices within the USA or the UK are much greater for the wealthy, and hardly exist for the poor. To speak of a woman’s right to choose may not make much sense for poor women who have few spaces of choice and no money to make them.

The questions that now need to be addressed in low income societies then are largely different. They need to be seen against a background of intimacies shaped in conditions like those reported regularly by the United Nations. Thus, a recent report states that:

Across the world we see unacceptable levels of deprivation in people ’s lives. Of the 4.6 billion people in developing countries, more than 850 million are illiterate, nearly a billion lack access to improved water sources, and 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation. Nearly 325 million boys and girls are out of school. And 11 million children under age five die each year from preventable causes —equivalent to more than 30, 000 a day. Around 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day (1993 PPP US$), and 2.8 billion on less than $2 a day. Such deprivations are not limited to developing countries. In OECD countries more than 130 million people are income poor, 34 million are unemployed, and adult functional illiteracy rates average 15%.

(Human Development Index Report 2003)

Under such conditions, the luxury of post-modern intimacies are rarely on the agenda. Poor people have to daily confront corruption, violence, powerlessness, and insecure livelihoods. They may well have a much diminished sense of self, struggling to create relationships in worlds of great hardships, suffering a personal rage and inadequacy. [6] Here are some voices of the poor speaking: just what can their intimate lives be like?[7]


Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair– a poor woman, Moldova.


Children are hungry, so they start to cry. They ask for food from their mother and their mother doesn’t have it. Then the father is irritated, because the children are crying, and he takes it out on his wife. So hitting and disagreement break up the marriage. Poor people in Bosnia

Poor people cannot improve their status because they live day by day, and if they get sick then they are in trouble because they have to borrow money and pay interest. Tra Vinh, Vietnam.

Security is knowing what tomorrow will bring and how we will get food tomorrow. Bulgaria.

There is no control over anything, at any hour a gun could go off, especially at night. A poor woman in Brazil.

Poverty is “like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free.” A young woman in Jamaica.


It is neither leprosy nor poverty which kills the leper, but loneliness. Ghana.

A Middle-aged men in Bulgaria said, When you are poor, nobody wants to speak with you. Everyone’s sorry for you and no one wants to drink with you. You have no self-esteem and that’s why some people start drinking.


If we knew that there would be an end to this crisis, we would endure it somehow. Be it for one year, or even for ten years. But now all we can do is sit and wait for the end to come. A woman from Entropole, Bulgaria.

In slums in Malawi, the physical conditions were so bad and hopeless that the poor said, “the only way we can get out of poverty is through death.”

A resident of Nova California, a slum in Brazil, said “The sewage runs in your front door, and when it rains, the water floods into the house and you need to lift the things…the waste brings some bugs, here we have rats, cockroaches, spiders, and even snakes and scorpions.

In the Kyrgyz Republic, poor people said that they were forced to take many risks to survive, including stealing (with the risk of getting caught) or borrowing money (with the risk of becoming indebted). “The rich do not have to take this risk, they have money to protect themselves, and they also have power.”


You grow up in an environment full of diseases, violence and drugs… you don’t have the right to education, work or leisure, and you are forced to “eat in the hands of the government”…so you are easy prey for the rulers. You have to accept whatever they give you. A young woman, Padre Jordano, Brazil

What kind of intimate life is possible in worlds of pain experienced like this? Table 3 suggests some contrasts.


Insert Table 3

To take one example: Social scientists have recently taken more and more interest in ‘bodies’ and embodiment. But a somewhat neglected feature of this is what Iris Young has called the ‘scaling of bodies’ (Young, 1990). Bodies change across space and time, and much of this may also be linked to bodies in poor and rich countries. What we could call ‘poor bodies’ may be linked to dirt (sanitation), disease, death, danger and diet (or lack of it), whilst bodies in high income countries (‘rich bodies’) engage with ‘body projects’ such as dieting, exercise, training, body modification – from tattoos and haircuts to plastic surgery to transgender surgery and on to cyborgs. (Shilling,1993 ) If intimacies are grounded in bodies, then the scaling of bodies give very different meanings and responses in rich and poor worlds.

The growth of trafficking in body parts is indicative of this. Everything from skin, bone and blood to organs and genetic materials of  ‘the other’ is now up for sale, and this global trafficking is almost invariably in one direction: from the poorest to the richest. Often justified in terms of ‘choices’, this is part of a process of bodily commodification.[8] As two people remarked in seeming desperation:

I am willing to sell any organ of my body that is not vital to my survival  and which could help save another person’s life in exchange for an amount of money that will allow me to feed my family.  (Ad placed in the Diaro de Pernambuyco, Recife, Brazil, by Miguel Correira de Oliveira, age 30).

Please, I need money to get dentures, and am a senior desparet [sic] for money.  Want to sell a very good kidney.  Am desparet for money for teeth.  Am a senior citizen in excellent medical shape, but need $ for dentures.  My husband and I have no dental plan.  (E-mail from E.B., Oak Hills, California, to N.S-H@ Organs Watch, 26th January 2001)

Nancy Scheper-Hughes has chronicled the rise in this process of bodily commodification and the sale of organs and puts it dramatically:

Continuous throughout these transactions across time and space is the division of society into two populations, one socially and medically included and the other excluded, one with and one utterly lacking the ability to draw on the beauty, strength, reproductive, sexual, or anatomical power of the other…. commercialised transplant medicine has allowed global society to be divided into two decidedly unequal populations – organ givers and organ receivers.  The former are an invisible and discredited collection of anonymous suppliers of spare parts; the latter are cherished patients, treated as moral and body parts of the poor, living and dead, are virtually unquestioned.

Ironically, at the same time as the poor are driven to sell their body parts, so the better off can spend small fortunes in the growing industry of cosmetic surgery. As we have already seen, in 2001, for example, it was estimated that Americans spent around $9billion on plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures, with about 8.5 million procedures (an increase of 48% over 2000) – according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. (see also Haiken, 1997 for an illuminated history of these procedures.)

Another issue which social scientists have found of more and more interest is the global interconnectedness of work and the impact this has on the intimate life. One part of this is the work of ‘caring’, especially looking after other people’s children or older family members. There is nothing new about the idea of others caring for members outside of their own families: what is new is the international dimension this has now taken. Thus, Arlie Russell Hochschild has written about ‘global care chains’ in which a series of personal links appear between people across the globe ‘based on the paid or unpaid work of caring’. ‘A third world supply of mothering helps create a first world demand for it’ (2000:140) as women (and it is largely women, though children are involved too) leave their home countries, families and aging parents to find work in other countries often caring for the children of wealthier families. What is striking here is the migration of millions of poor women (‘the feminization of migration’) from low income societies to richer ones- serving as maids and nannies , looking after other people’s children (whilst there are own children are often left behind in the country of origin), providing elder care, doing housework and sometimes providing sex. They are routinely women of colour – Mexican in the US, Algerians in France, Asians in the UK. They are kept in the background, but often work extremely long hours in poor conditions with minimal incomes [9] – which in turn they have to return to their own families in other countries, families in which their own children are often neglected and poor. They may witness extreme situations (sex, drunken violence etc) but the more mundane problems come form worrying about the child all the time, rarely having holidays or breaks, getting low pay and very poor accommodation. Meanwhile, they worry about their own families ‘back home’ which are often becoming become weaker and weaker. Maybe worst of all is the sense of general invisibility with no real employment contracts: it is often vulnerable and demeaning work. Intimacy is invisibility, and work is done by a non-person (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003).And all this suggests major shifts in the dynamics of world families whilst creating dilemmas for first world feminism: how liberated women with good jobs can employ poor women from low incomes societies in this way with little conscience.

A final striking example intimate divide may be found in what Zillah Eisenstein has called the information ‘have and  have nots’, and Castells has called the ‘Digital Divide’ which now pervades the intimate life. The ‘new intimacies’ can be conducted on mobile phones and through cyberspace, the politics of new intimacies can be galvanized through web networking, and choices may seem to abound everywhere. But for most people this is not remotely possible. Not only are there major differences within countries (the USA for example reproduces most of the old inequalities of class, and ethnicity through internet availability and access (Castells, 2001: 249-51)) but there are also massive global differences. As Castells says:

In September 2000, of a total of about 378 million Internet users (representing 6.2 percent of the world’s population), North America’s share stood at 42.6% and Western Europe at 23.8%, while Asia represented 20.6% of the total (including Japan), Latin America 4% and Africa a meager 0.6 % (with most being in South Africa) (2001: 260).

The figures here are changing all the time, but what is clear is that there remain large regions where almost nobody has direct access to these cyber-realities. They do not have any choice over this: there are no lines of communication, and the costs would be prohibitive (there is often little access to the more ordinary telephone).

Choice and Inequalities

We can briefly draw a lot of these tensions over intimacies together by suggesting that:

  • If, in some parts of the world, people have choices about who to marry, when to divorce and whether to have gay partnerships, in other parts of the world, the choice may be restricted to arranged marriage, forced marriage, child marriage and mail order brides – all of which is offer no choice at all.
  • If, in some parts of the world, people have choices over keeping their bodies fit, buying cosmetic surgery and accessing drugs that enable their bodies to remain well, in other parts of the world, the choice may be restricted to selling their body parts to eke out a meager existence and merely subsist -or die -with a frail body.
  • If, in some parts of the world, people have choices over the work-life balance and ways to maintain a high standard of living, in other parts of the world people are driven to sell their own labor looking after other people’s children and families across the world, sending the money home to help their own families survive.
  • If, in some parts of the world, people have choices over fertility and reproductive problems to purchase or gain access to new reproductive technologies, in other parts of the world, the choice may be restricted to selling their wombs, sperm, or babies to others whilst also finding their own children going to war or dying at early ages.
  • If, in some parts of the world, people have choices over their sexualities – being able to afford to buy it if necessary- in other parts of the world, the choice may be limited to the need to sell sex, and engage in sex trafficking.
  • If, in some parts of the world, people have choices over their mobilities – jet setting across the world, becoming tourists in resort hotels, opting for sex tourism – others have little such choice. If they move, it may be part of the new slave trade, the migration of refugees, those fleeing genocide.
  • If. for some, there is an opening up of access to all kinds of new communication technologies – from phone and mobiles to cyberspace and the net; for most people  there is no choice of access at all. Zillah Eisenstein speaks of the information ‘have and  have nots’, whilst Manuel Castells calls it the ‘Digital Divide’
  • If, in some parts of the world, women have choices over their agency, in other parts of the world, the choice may be restricted.
  • And if in some parts of the world, people may find their identities to be stabilized, uncertain, fluid and open to change, in other parts of the world, the issue of identity may hardly present itself.

It turns out that the choices that seemed to abound everywhere are simply not remotely possible for most.

For some, there is an opening up of options ands answers to the question of how to live a life? This is close to what Giddens has called a life style politics. For others, these choices are very limited – indeed, the notion of life style and life style politics seems almost non existent.  What we have is a politics of inequalities and a politics of choice, and it takes us to contemporary debates on citizenship and politics.

Table 3: Two Kinds of Politics


Low incomes                                                    High incomes

Traditional                                                       Post-modernizing

Social exclusion                                                Social inclusion

Strong stratification                                         Life style politics

Restricted choices                                            Structured choice

War on Poverty                                                           Moral Conflict

Redistribution                                                   Recognition, dialogues

See : Giddens (1991); Gibbons and Reimer (1999); Fraser and Honneth (2003); Ingelhart and Norris (2003)

The Clash of Intimacies: The Case of Same Sex Relations


We have, then, seen some really contrasting features in the ways intimacies are socially organized, how they patterned through choices for some, and through inequalities for most. Many of these inequalities are profoundly organized through patriarchy (as in the case of  coercive marriages and sexual violence),  heterosexism (as most obviously in the case of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered lives), and racism (as is the case with much of AIDS). A problem here though is that such inequalities may be positively encouraged. Intimacies are often strongly contested, part of the culture wars, or even the so-called clash of sexual civilizations. And these conflicts are implicated in the organization of inequalities.

To take a major example: sexual minorities (cf Altman, 2000). In many countries around the world today the issue of equality of lesbians, gays, transgendered people etc before the law is taken seriously in an attempt to reduce invidious inequalities. Indeed, the claims being made go further than could have been imagined say forty years ago: to legalize ‘registered partnerships’ ‘families of choice’ or even ‘marriages’. (Partnerships laws currently exist in Denmark (1989, amended 1999), Norway (1993), Sweden (1994, in force 1995), Iceland (1996), The Netherlands (1997, in force 1998), France (PACS, 1999) and Germany (2001). Only in the Netherlands though is marriage and adoption formally recognized as well. Partnership laws are currently also being considered in Finland, Portugal, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Spain).

But it is also the case that in many countries, sexual minorities may be bullied, harassed and mocked, discriminated against in work and school, suffer unfair arrest and imprisonment, be treated as ill, be rendered the victims of ‘hate crimes’, fined, flogged, tortured, raped, and executed. They may be driven into self loathing and suicide. More than 70 countries have laws which criminalize homosexual relations. In Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya, gay sex can lead to the death penalty. From Europe to Africa to the Americas to Asia, case after case of  torture, ill treatment, violence and discrimination against lesbians and gay men is documented. In Columbia, “death squads” routinely target and kill gay men and transvestites as local authorities promote “limpieza social” (social cleansing).  The death squads operate without fear of prosecution as the gunmen themselves are often police officers and gays  are regarded as ‘disposable people’. There are also very many cases of transgender rights activists – ‘ the ultimate gender outlaws’ – being abused across the world.[10] In short, sexual minorities are at the receiving end of a gross lack of equality in the acceptance of different kinds of sexualities. Yet such inequalities in some societies are championed by state and religion. There is not even a sense that this is a form of inequality. Indeed, it is seen as an appropriate religious or moral response to treat such people

Whilst there are many sources of this heterosexism and homophobia, a prime legitimating mechanism has come through religions of all kind. Be it the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Islamic faith or many others , there is a clash over intimacies. We could argue that In postmodernizing societies, there is a growing concern with choices over the ways to live lives in families, an openness to gay and lesbian marriages, an interest in the new reproductive technologies, a desire to equalize relationships between the genders and to enhance democratic intimacies : true there are conflicts over all these things. We could also argue that in other more traditional societies, marriages are often forced, there are severe penalties for adultery even death, there is an abhorrence of many sexualities and  a strict hierarchical setting to the relations between men and women. Indeed, some scholars have argued that there is a sexual clash of civilizations:

‘At this point in history, societies throughout the world (Muslim and Judeo-Christian alike) see democracy as the best form of government. Instead the real fault line between West and Islam, which Huntington’s theory completely overlooks, concerns gender equality and sexual liberalization… the values that separate the two cultures have much more to do with eros than demos…… (Inglehart and Norris, 2003a: 65; 2003 b)


There is here however a serious risk here of creating ‘the other’ as ‘traditional societies’, and I do not wish to do this because there are complexities across the board. The real conflicts seem to me to be authoritarian or fundamentalist tendencies in all countries and progressivism or liberal ones. Religions themselves are usually fractured along these lines (cf Huntington,1996; Hunter, 1991)

Intimate Citizenship in an Unjust World

I have painted a somewhat dark picture. In high income societies, we see the post-modernization of intimacies bringing major conflicts and what might be called ‘the politics of choice’. In low income societies, we see – against a background of abject poverty- the ways in which intimacies are shrouded in problems such as AIDS, global care chains, forced and child marriages, sex trafficking, the commodification of bodies and what is called the ‘politics of redistribution’. Of course the line between low income and high income societies is not a hard and clear one. [11]For many people everywhere, the intimate life is a problem.

As I suggested in the opening of this article (and have developed in more detail elsewhere (Plummer, 2003)), the concept of ‘intimate citizenship’ is one tool for starting to look at such issues. Traditionally, citizenship has meant being recognized as belonging and participating in a group where one is expected to do certain things- obligations– in return for certain rights. One achieves the status of citizen through this. And following from T.H.Marshall’s (1950) influential discussion three domains of rights have usually been seen as central: legal, political and welfare, recognizing them as part of a slow process of achieving the democratic state. Since Marshall’s time, the world has both moved on and regressed – ideas around citizenship have been extended and even post-modernized, whilst inequalities across the globe have shown little sign of abating.[12] It is hard to see much of the world as even minimally meeting the legal, political and welfare requirements of citizenship. Yet now, the new citizenship debates have highlighted an array of other domains of citizenship- from cultural to feminist, from global to cybercitizen – and at the same time have produced more complex ideas, problematizing the very notions of boundaries which were more or less assumed in earlier work. This is not the place to detail all this (see: Isin and Turner, 2002). Suffice to say that citizenship now highlights a plurality of rights, responsibilities, recognition and participation connected to inequalities, but is also linked to a ‘differentiated universalism’. This raises the problems of universalism and differences and the need to clarify the problems of shifting moral boundaries. Citizenship is contingent upon the building of recognized identities around which rights and responsibilities get developed. It highlights inequalities and those who get excluded from citizenship definitions, and new forms of rights often connected to new forms of identity, community (and social movements). New areas  of citizenship are developing outside the traditional ones of law, politics and welfare which now can draw  from a wider range of politics (including those of redistribution  and recognition (cf. Fraser, 1997))

So where  does ‘Intimate citizenship’ stand in all this? It may be seen as part of a developing sociology of intimacies which highlights the doings of gender, eroticism, relationships, reproduction, feelings and identities. Elsewhere, I have suggested that it ‘is concerned with all those matters linked to our most intimate desires, pleasures and ways of being in the world. Some of this must feed back into the traditional citizenship (of civil, political and social rights]; but equally much of it is concerned with new spheres, new debates and new stories. Its starts to provide a normative frame – and maybe even a legal one- in which people can make decisions around the control (or not) over one’s body, feelings, relationships; access (or not ) to representations, relationships, public spaces etc; and socially grounded choices (or not) about identities, gender experiences, erotic experiences’ (1995: 151). It does not imply one model one pattern, one way.. it is a loose term which comes to designate a field of stories, an array of tellings, out of which new lives, new communities and new politics may emerge  (1995:152). It is a ‘sensitizing concept.. open and suggestive’ (2003:13) and suggests a bridge between the personal and the political. It ‘recognizes emerging intimacy groups and identities, along with their rights, responsibilities and the need for recognition in emerging zones of conflict, and suggests new kinds of citizen in the making”  (2003:66). It designates’ public discourse on the personal life’. Traditional models of citizenship are more aligned to the politics of redistribution; postmodern models are more aligned to the politics of choice.

Postmodern Intimate citizenship debates look at the recognition of emerging ‘intimacy groups and identities’, their rights, responsibilities, and recognition  in emerging zones of conflict, and  suggests new kinds of ‘citizens’ in the making. Amongst these may be the cybercitizen, the new reproductive citizens ( surrogate mothers, ‘lost fathers’, ‘test tube citizens’ and the like),  new family citizens (including post-divorce citizens, children and stepfamily citizen, grandparent citizens, single parent citizens, the elderly citizens), as well as the transgendered citizen, the fetishistic citizen, even the S & M citizen, and aware of the controversy this must bring, the pedophile citizen. I invent such a listing a little tongue in cheek; but to say such things does create an awareness of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, whose rights and responsibilities we may need to look more closely at. The pedophile for instance is one modern figure that most people would probably agree should not have citizenship rights – that may indicate a mark for the far end of the boundaries of intimate citizenship we can accept. [13]

I call all this ‘the Intimate Citizenship Project’ and table 4 suggests some of the key problems it raises. We need to look at social changes and the conflicts that are growing everywhere; the shifting pluralized public spheres and whose voices get heard; and the new grounded moral narratives which need to be put in dialogue to search for common ground.[14]

Insert Table Four

Yet these are distinctively post-modern ( or late modern, or liquid etc) worlds. They make claims that much of the worlds has no access to and cannot even begin to even see as a possibility. More than this, many societies may well find the suggestions that they should engage within these debates is to become involved in a kind of postmodern colonialism. There is a terrible assumption that where the rich and the west are now,m so shall the world follow. So here, once again we face the problems of universals and the clash of differences. But now perhaps on a more global scale.

There are more traditional pathways to intimate citizenship which are lodged largely in a politics of redistribution. Dialogues around intimate citizenship are embedded in worlds of inequalities, with some people marginalized and excluded. It is hard, if not impossible, for unequals to dialogue equally. Recognition of this inequality needs to be part of the dialogic process. Elsewhere, I have suggested some key ways of enhancing dialogue – to respect and recognize who you are talking with, to establish reflective solidarity, to avoid the argument culture, to connect arguments to wider cultures and to emotionally embedded lives, to avoid monologic conflicts, and to search for common grounds.

The idea of intimate citizenship was born as an idea to look at conflicts generated over the post modernization of intimacies in parts of high income societies. Initially it may seem to have a more limited usefulness in looking at lower income societies and groups. Initially, it will mean taking very seriously the rights of people in low income societies to their bodies, their feelings, their relationships, their children. Already, we see some attempts at establishing such rights through the work of the United Nations, the World Women’s Movement, UNICEF, The International Lesbian and Gay Movement and others[15]. Equally, a focus on facilitating voice, enhancing choices and reshaping the public spheres of rights in low income societies are all challenges for the future.

What is required here is a dual analysis – one which, keeping a firm hold on what I have called the matrix of inequalities – looks at the simultaneous growth of ‘choice’ and the prevalance of restrictions in intimate lives. Once low incomes societies and the poor of rich societies are brought into the picture the concept of intimate citizenship starts to demand further clarification. Looking at issues of abject poverty, forced marriages, sexual slavery, the commodification of bodies etc, intimate citizenship takes on wider meanings. For here are people who often have little control over their bodies, feelings, relationships; little access to representations, relationships, public spaces etc; and few socially grounded choices about identities, gender experiences, erotic experiences. And yet, whilst the idea of citizenship may work reasonably well once certain levels of affluence, individuality and power have been attained, there is a long way to go before it can work well amongst groups and societies where basic human rights have not yet even been attained.

Hence attaining intimate citizenship may be seen as a luxury in societies where basic legal, political or welfare rights have not yet been established. I do not see it like this: the right to pursue a ‘personal and intimate life’ of some contentment must surely be a basic feature (and maybe the defining feature?) of human existence?  We can perhaps start from the premise – common enough these days amongst human rights theorists- that there are minimal capabilities necessary for human functioning and flourishing. Human beings have capacities for life, indeed ‘the intimate life’, that need to be enabled. Meeting basic human requirements must be followed by an attempt at ‘human flourishing’ on a personal level.[16] Without being sentimental, we need to articulate and be clear about the values and moral guidelines we wish to draw upon. In a world of postmodern ethics (Baumann,1991). I am not making claims for grand absolutes here. Rather the goal is to produce grounded moral stories of lives as they experience their intimacies and from which we can learn ‘how to live ‘. Such values might include recognition, care, love,[17] redistribution, freedom and democracy (e.g. Fraser, 1997; Honneth, 1995; Twine,1994). Social ‘science’ needs to be normative. To have a role in the twenty first century, it needs to become much more concerned with moral and political debate.



Abraham, Laurie Kaye (1994). Mama Might Be Better off Dead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Altman, Dennis (2000) Global Sex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Amnesty International (2001) Crime of Hate, Conspiracy of Silence

Anderson, Elijah (1999) Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City. NY W.W. Norton

Anderson, Leon & David A. Snow 2001 ‘Inequality and the Self: Exploring Connections from an Interactionist Perspective’ Symbolic Interaction, Volume 24, No 4 p395-406

Baird, Vanessa (2001) The No-Nonsense Guide to Sexual Diversity. London New Internationalist/ Verso

Bale, Kevin (1999) Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press

Bauman, Zygmunt (1993) Postmodern Ethics Cambridge: Polity

———– (2001) The Individualized Society.  Cambridge: Polity

————(2003) Liquid society. Cambridge: Polity

Beck-Gernsheim, Elizabeth (2002) Re-inventing the Family: In Search of New Life Styles  Cambridge: Polity

Becek, U & Beck-Gernsheim, Elizabeth (2003) Individualization. London: Sage

Beck, Ulrich (1992) Risk Society Cambridge: Polity

Beck, Ulrich (2000) ‘Living your life in a runaway world’, in Hutton, Will and Anthony Giddens,2000 eds On the Edge. Op cit

Becker, Gay (2000) The Elusive Embryo. California UP

Bell, David & Binnie, Jon (2000) The Sexual Citizen. Cambridge: Polity Press

Berlin, Isaiah (1969) Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bourdieu, Pierre et al (1993.orig; 1999 translation) The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Cambridge: Polity Press

Castells, Manuel (2001) The Internet Galaxy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, Stanley and Laurie Taylor (1976x?) Psychological Survival. Harmdonsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Cohen. Stanley and Laurie Taylor (1993x?) Escape Attempts. London: Routledge

Devine, Fiona and Waters, Mary C.eds (2004) Social Inequalities in Comparative Perspective. Oxford: Blackwell

Ehrenreich, Barbara &  Hochschild, Arlie Russell (2003) Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and sex Workers in the New Economy. NY: Metropolitan Books.

Evans, David (1993)  Sexual Citizenship. London : Routledge.

Farmer, Paul    (1999/2001 2nd ed) Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues Berkeley: University of California Press

Fevre, R.W. (2000) The Demoralizxation of Western Culkture. London: Continuum

Fraser, Nancy (1997) Justice Interruptus.  London : Routledge

Fraser, Nancy & Axel Honneth (2003) Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philopshical Exchange. London: Verso

Fukuyama, Frances (2002) Our Posthuman Future.   London: Profile

Gibbins, John and Bo Reimer  (1999) The Politics of Postmodernity. London: Sage

Goffman, Erving (1962) Asylums. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Gray, Chris Gables (2001) Cyborg Citizen , London: Routledge

Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity. Cambridge: Polity

Ginsburg, Faye and Rayna Rapp (1995) Conceiving the New World Order Berkeley: California Up

Habermas, Jurgen (2003) The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge: Polity

Haiken, Elizabeth (1997) Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press.
Hochschild, Arlie  2000 ‘Global Care Chains & Emotional Surplus Value’ in Will Hutton & Anthony Giddens eds On the Edge: Living with Global Capitalism. London: Cape

Honneth, Axel (1995) The Struggle for Recognition : the Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts Human Development Index 2003

Huntington, Samuel P. (1996) The Clash of Civlizations and the Re-Making of their World Order. NY Simon and Schuster

Hunter, James Davidson (1991) Culture Wars: The Struggle to define America. NY: Basic Books

______(2000) The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. NY.Basic Books.

Hutton, Will and Anthony Giddens,2000 eds On the Edge: Living with Global Capitalism. London: Cape

Inglehart, Ronald & Pippa Norris (2003a) ‘The True Clash of Civilizations’ Foreign Policy  March/April 2003 p63-70

Inglehart, Ronald & Pippa Norris (2003b) Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Change around the world. Cambridge University Press.

Isin, Engin F. & Bryan S.Turner eds (2002) Handbook of Citizenship Studies. London: Sage

Jamieson, Lynn (1998)   Intimacy. Cambridge: Polity

Levine, Judith (2002) Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Minneapolis: university of Minnesota Press.

Narayan, Deepa 2000 Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear us? Oxford: Oxford University Press for the World Bank.

Nussbaum, Martha (1999)  Sex and Social Justice   Oxford: Oxford University Press

O’Brien, Jodi  & Judith Howard eds 1998 Everyday Inequalities. Oxford: Blackwell.

Petchesky, Rosalind (2000) ‘Sexual Rights: Inventing a Concept, Mapping an International Practice’ in Richard Parker et al Framing the Sexual Subject. London: Routledge

Plummer, Ken (1995) Telling Sexual Stories: Power, change and social worlds. London: Routledge.

Plummer, Ken (2003) Intimate Citizenship: Private decisions and public dialogues. Seattle: University of Washington Press

Pogge, Thomas (2002) World poverty and Human Rights. Cambridge: Polity

Raymond, Janice (1994) Women as Wombs. NY : Harper Collins

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1775) Essay on Inequalities

Rubin, Lillian (1977) Worlds of Pain NY Basic Books

Richardson, Diane 1998 ‘Sexuality and Citizenship’ Sociology Vol 32, No 1 p83-100

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1992) Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everday Life in Brazil. Berkeley, Califronia: University of California Press,

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Loic Wacquant (eds), 2002, Commodifying Bodies, Sage Publications

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, 2002, Bodies For Sale – Whole or in Parts, in Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Loic Wacquant (eds), Commodifying Bodies, Sage Publications

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, 2002, Commodity Fetishism in Organs Trafficking, in Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Loic Wacquant (eds), Commodifying Bodies, Sage Publications

Richard Sennett & Jonathan Cobb (1977) The Hidden Injuries of Class. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Shilling, Chris  (19xx) The Body in Social Theory. London: Sage

Shiva , Vandanda  (2000) ‘The World on the Edge ‘ in Hutton and Giddens (2000) op cit.

Smart, Carol and Bren Neale (1999) Family Fragments? Cambridge: Polity

Solinger, Rickie (2001) Beggars and Choosers: How the politics of choice shapes adoption, abortion and welfare in the United States. NY Hill and Wang

Tronto Joan (1993) Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care London: Routledge

Twine, Fred (1994) Citizenship and Social Rights. London: Sage

Young, Iris Marion (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference  Princeton

Weeks, Jeffrey (1998) ‘The Sexual Citizen’ Theory, Culture and Society Vol 15, no 3-4p35-52.

Weeks, Jeffrey, Brian Heaphy and Catherine Donovan (2001) Same Sex Intimacies. London: Routledge

United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report, 2003 New York: Oxford University Press.

Walby, Sylvia (1990) Theorizing Patriarchy.  Cambridge: Polity Press

Whittle, Stephen (2000) The Transgender Debate



Table 1: in separate file

Table 2: Two Kinds of Citizenship


Low incomes                                                    High incomes

Traditional                                                       Post-modernizing

Social exclusion                                                Social inclusion

Strong stratification                                         Life style politics

Restricted choices                                            Structured choice

War on Poverty                                                           Moral Conflict

Redistribution                                                   Recognition, dialogues

See : Giddens (1991); Gibbons and Reimer (1999); Fraser and Honneth (2003); Ingelhart and Norris (2003)



BODIES                       purchase of body parts                         sale of body parts

purchase of bodies                                sale of bodies

cosmetic surgeries                                FGM

the slimming body                                the diseased body

the luxuriant body                                the abject body

FAMILIES                   families of choice                                 forced marriages / arranged

Living alone                                         centrality of family

Divorce                                                            child mortality

Mail order brides

SEXUALITIES                        gay rights                                             gay negativism

Female sexualities                                hostilities

GENDER                     masculinities                                        clear prespcriptions


REPRODUCTION       AC and New reprduitive rechnologies   Birth control




A Sociology of the Personal Life. What are ‘intimacies’ in the early twenty first century?

Change and the Construction of ‘New Intimacy’ Debates. What are the major social changes (in late modernity?) taking place around intimacies and in them: how deep, how many, what consequences? Describe, clarify and explain such arenas and debates.

Culture Wars and Moral Conflicts: Cultures of Contested Intimacies. What are the key positions on contemporary moral conflicts both within and between groups? What is the nature of these conflicts – their rhetorics and arguments?

Inventing Intimate Citizenship. How are older versions of ‘citizenship’ being reworked? Chart the precarious meanings of ‘intimate citizenships’; and the rise and organization of such languages, rhetorics, claims around relationships, genders, sexualities, bodies, emotions, identities. Interrogate these new ‘citizenship’ debates, and delineate the new kinds of citizens and identities they bring. How do they establish boundaries- and what are the nature of postmodern boundaries?

The New Pluralized Public Spheres. What changes are happening in the public sphere in which citizenship debates take place? What are its main arenas, and how is it being animated for different groups? How are the new public spheres shaped and how are these new voices heard (some dominate, some have a space, many are silenced).

Post modern ethics and the Grounded Moralities of Everyday Life. What are grounded moralities? How to study and learn from the ‘narrativisation’ process of grounded moralities? Public Identity Narratives? How can dialogue take place between different groups and their stories? How can the limits of dialogue be identified? How is critique best accomplished?

Dialogic Citizenship and Common Grounds. How might conflicts be resolved within dialogues over intimate citizenship? Are there ‘common grounds‘?

The Globalization of Intimacies? Are intimacies becoming globalized? What are the global public discourses around intimacies, and how do they relate to universals of human rights? How doe they differ in high income and low income societies and how do they flow between them?

Inequalities and Intimacies. How are inequalities linked to intimacies. What are intimate inequalities? What does inequality do to the intimate life- how does it structure it and give it subjective meaning?

Evaluative: What are the positive (utopian) versions of all this and the negative (dystopian) versions? Can (should) a utopian image prevail? Intimate Inequalities and social choice. What are the links to social inequalities?

Practice:  What choices over their families, bodies, genders, sexualities do they have? What rights, recognition , obligations and participations do they have? What pluralized public spheres do they function within?  How are there morally grounded life stories told and heard? What ethical principles guide their lives? What common grounds can be found for dialogue?

Ken Plummer is Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and a regular visiting Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the founder editor of the journal Sexualities and author of many books and articles including Sexual Stigma (1975), The Making of the Modern Homosexual(1981ed), Telling Sexual Stories (1995), Documents of Life -2(2001), and Intimate Citizenship (2003).


[1]  These vignettes are drawn from Scheper-Hughes (1992); Channel Four’s documentary series ‘How to have babies the lesbian and gay way’ (broadcast on Channel 4 on January 29th and February 4th 2004); Ken Loach’s film Bread and Roses which provided a striking drama around the ‘Janitors for Justice’ strikes that took place in Los Angeles in 1999; and Elijah Anderson (1999).

[2] The terms Liquid Society and Individualized Society are titles of books by Baumann (2001; 2002). But for other examples, see The Transparent Society (Vattimo), Disorganized Capitalism (Lasch and Scott), World Risk Society (Beck), Cosmopolitan Society (Beck), Global Age (Albrow), Information Age, Network Society (Castells), The Planetary Society (Melluci), The Surveillance Society (Lyon), The McDonadization of Society (Ritzer), The Exclusive Society (Young) along with Global Modernity, Second Modernity (Beck), and Late Modernity (Giddens).

[3] Bauman has called this the ‘individualized society’ and Beck ‘the individuated society’.

[4]  As discussed for example by Cohen and Taylor (1976; 199x) or Goffman (1962).

[5] The distinguished liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in a celebrated quote on freedom, remarks:

“I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s (sic) acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were from outside… I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing,  active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my own ideas and purposes (Berlin, 1969).

[6] A striking background work on all this is the qualitative study Voices of the Poor (Narayan, 2000). Here, the voices of approximately 60,000 poor men and women from over 60 countries around the world. With striking similarity, poor people describe repeatedly and in distressing detail the impact of poverty. The large majority of poor people included in Voices said they are worse off now, have fewer economic opportunities, and live with greater insecurity than in the past.


[8] She writes further:
“Working in various sites in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Israel, the Netherlands, South Africa, Turkey and the USA, we have identified the following issues: (1) race, class and gender inequalities and injustices in the acquisition, harvesting and distribution of organs; (2) widespread violation of national laws and international regulations against the sale of organs; (3) the collapse of cultural and religious sanctions against body dismemberment and commercial use in the face of the enormous market pressures in the transplant industry; (4) the emergence of new forms of debt peonage in which commodified kidney occupies a critical role; (5) the coexistence of ‘compensated gifting’ of  kidneys within extended families by domestic workers and by hopeless prisoners in the exchange for secure work and reduction in prison sentences; (6) popular resistance to newly mandated laws of presumed consent for organ donations; (7) violations of cadavers in hospital morgues and police mortuaries in which organs and tissues are removed without consent for barter or sale; (8) wasting of viable organs in the context of intense competition between public and private transplant units; (9) medically substantiated allegations of ‘kidney theft’ from vulnerable patients, mostly poor and female during routine surgeries”.

[9] As Ehrenreich and Hochschild say: ‘In Hong Kong, for instance, the wages of a Filipina domestic are about fifteen times the amount she could make as a schoolteacher back in the Philippines’  (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003)

[10] A good documentation of all this is to be found in Amnesty International, Crimes of hate, conspiracy of silence, 2001 as well as the New Internationalist summary of much of it (Baird, 2001). For up to date details, see the web sites of Amnesty International and the International Lesbian and Gay Rights.

[11]  And for ease, I have excluded medium income societies – like the former Soviet block- from my discussion here. Yet these do seem to be countries whoi are facingf more and more ‘trouble’.

[12] Over and over again, Western academics make claims for their own countries which would not really stand scrutiny if applied to other countries, or indeed to poorer groups in their own. It may indeed be the case that there is some kind of ‘trickle down’ effect, and the need for rights amongst the wealthy may presage an extension to other groups later. (Indeed, the issue of lesbian and gay rights is a partial test case for this…as is contraception and abortion). This is a common enough argument. And it may be with have to deal with issues surrounding new reproductive technologies or lesbian and gay rights simply because they are now on the agenda in the rich worlds. But a major critique of ‘intimate citizenship’ stems from a classic problem with citizenship theories: their inability to handle the problem of inequalities and indeed to add to processes of social exclusion. They do this by deciding who is inside as a citizen and who is outside. Feminists for example have amply demonstrated the ways in which women were initially excluded; more recently the gay movement has shown this too. By incorporating them we find citizenship is stretched but then new groups appear who are not included. When placed in the context of globalization, we find that large numbers of the world’s poorest seem to get excluded. These are not the global citizens who are sensed to jet around the world, running the United Nations, NGOS and TNCs.  Quite the opposite, to talk about the world’s poor is to immediately enter the world of non-citizens where much of what I have been discussing above makes very little sense.

[13] Controversial as this may be, I would say pedophilia still needs to be within the debates about intimacy as it raises so many issues – of childhood sexualities, of consent and coercion, of affection and violence –  that these days are taboo (cf Levine, 2002).

[14] The field of ‘violence against women’ has also come to the fore. As Rosalind Petchesky et al has commented, the basic international human rights vocabulary now includes not only

‘ the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and the means to  do so’  but also freedom from ‘violence against women and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation’ including ‘systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy’’ freedom from genital mutilation; ‘the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination , coercion and violence’; and the right ‘ to have a satisfying and safe sex life’ (Petchesky, 2000).

[15] See for example Petchesky, 2000; Nussbaum, 1999; and the web sites…..etc

[16] Martha Nussbaum’s important work, for example, suggests ten Central Human Functional Capabilities: life, bodily health, bodily integrity, senses/imagination/thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation – living in relation to self and others, other species, play and control over one’s environment (Nussbaum, 1999). This is a long, ambitious listing and it clearly (for me) touches on some preconditions for living a flourishing intimate life. Indeed, without them it is hard to see how we can.. This also raises very starkly the problem of universals. It is unfashionable these days to claim universals – but I would have to ask which culture really could make claims against any of these in general? There may be specific disagreements (whether one should have the right to hold property for example) but it is hard to comprehend the rejection of any one of these principles once broadly articulated.

[17] Twine (1994). He makes a significant list of its key features: trust, reciprocity, altruism, commitment, sacrifice, tolerance, understanding, concern, solidarity and interdependence (p 32)