Courses, teaching and presentations

Between 1967 and 2005 I loved teaching and taught a great deal. Since my illness I do very little.

On these pages I will put some courses and lecture outlines of presentations since my recovery.


This first one was for a day workshop at Brescia, Italy.

Others can be found by hovering on the title.  


Brescia Qualitative Day Conference May 2011ecture outlines from different short courses and lectures that I have given since my recovery. 

Symbolic interactionism, Critical Humanism and Narrative Research

Brescia, 2011

Ken Plummer

Tuesday 24th May  9.30-6.30



Tuesday 24th

9.30                1. Symbolic Interactionism, Critical Humanism, and the Social Reality of Narratives: An Introduction to humanistic research

11.15              2. My Multiple Bodies: An Auto/ethnography. Ken Plummer will outline some of his research interests over the years and present a short extract from his recent work on auto/ethnography and illness.

This will be based on a forthcoming paper: My Multiple Bodies: Symbolic Interactionism, Auto/ethnography and The Sick Body ( to be published in Bryan S. Turner: Handbook of Body and Society ( 2012 forthcoming).

1.00 -2.30      Lunch break

2.30                3. An Afternoon on Narratives and Stories in Research.


This will deal with three concerns:

                        (a) Creating Narratives:  examining ways stories are told

                        (b) Appreciating narratives: strategies for analysing stories

                        (c)Living stories: ethics & politics of stories

6.15                Overview and conclusions


6.30.                End

Coffee and tea breaks will be arranged as needed.


  1. Introduction                                                              Page
  2. Reading:  the Short Bibliography                            Page
  3. Key Words                                                                 Page
  4. Notes for the Sessions                                              Page
  5. My Multiple Bodies                                                   Page
  6. Note on convenor                                                      Page

To follow:

  1. Reading List                                                               Page
  2. Other Resources                                                        Page
  3. Appendices                                                                Page


 .. There is no best way to tell a story about society. Many genres, many methods, many formats – they can all do the trick. Instead of ideal ways to do it, the world gives us possibilities among which we choose. Every way of telling the story of a society does some of the job superbly but other parts not so well……Howard S Becker      Telling About Society  2007 : 285

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

How different things would be … if the social sciences at the time of their systematic formation in the nineteenth century had taken the arts in the same degree they took the physical science as models

Robert Nisbet, Sociology as an Art Form, 1976, p. 16).

This day course will look at some recent trends in qualitative research, but especially those developed within symbolic interactionism which cultivate the use of narratives and stories. Narratives, and the stories they are embedded within, are basic human social processes. We are the narrating animal; human societies are always narrative societies. Although such story tellings are often neglected in the orthodoxies of mainstream social research, they are usually critical to every stage of the human social research process. In the broadest terms we study the stories that people tell of their lives; we connect these stories to the stories of our lives; and we ultimately represent them as our ‘social science stories’ – in essays, theses, books, films, photos, media, conferences, exhibitions. Story telling also places a critical role in shaping political debate and in ethical choices. Humanistic research places the human story at the research centre and adopts humanistic values in such research. It is interested in a wide array of tools for telling these stories – including photos, self analysis, artefacts, documentaries.

 This day course will probe and investigate, amongst other things the nature and rise of what might be called ‘humanistic narrative research’ and its links to symbolic interactionism. After an opening, general introduction session, Ken will provide an account of some of his research which has used symbolic interactionism and story telling. This is meant to give participants a sense of ‘research in the field’; but it might also become an opportunity for students to indicate their own areas of research and how interactionism may be applied.

The afternoon session will be a workshop to address three major questions around narratives and stories:

  1. How do we create ( construct, make, present) stories?
  2. How do we appreciate ( analyse, make sense of ) stories?
  3. How do we live stories – in our lives, politically and ethically?


(a much more detailed bibliography will be available from Ken)


Ken Plummer                                    Documents of Life -2: An Invitation to Critical Humanism (201) Sage

Ken Plummer                                    Sociology: The Basics (2010) Routledge. Esp Ch 1,5,6 & 8.

Howard S Becker                   Telling about Society (2007) Chicago

C.Wright Mills                        The Sociological Imagination : Appendix (1962) Oxford

Narratives and Stories

Arthur Frank                         The Wounded Storyteller: Body Illness and Ethics, 1997 Chicago

Arthur Frank                         Letting stories breathe: A socio-narratology  (2010) Chicago

Jane Elliott                             Using  Narrative in Social Research (2005) Sage
Catherine Kohler Reisman  Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences (2007) Sage

Brian Roberts                        Biographical Research (2002) Open University

Norman Denzin                     Interpretive Biography (1989) Sage
Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson  Reading Autobiography: A guide for interpreting life narrative  (2001) Minnesota

Symbolic Interaction Methodologies

 Herbert Blumer                                 Symbolic Interactionism (1969) Prentice

Cathy Charmaz                                  Constructing Grounded Theory (2006) Sage

Norman Denzin                                 The Research Act (orig. 1971: reprint 2009) Aldine

Norman Denzin &

Yvonna Lincoln eds                           Handbook of Qualitative Research (various editions) Sage

John Lofland, David Snow,
Leon Anderson & Lyn H.Lofland      Analyzing Social Settings (2006) 4th ed

Jaber Gubrium & James Holstein    Analyzing Narrative Reality  (2009) Sage

Adele Clarke                                      Situational Analysis: Ground theory after the Postmodern Turn (2005 Sage )

3.  KEY WORDS – GLOSSARY  (Core Terminology (for translation))

Symbolic Interactionism
Social construction of reality

Critical Humanism




Creating stories/ appreciating stories/ living stories

Life stories

Documents of Life



Dialogic / Dialogue


The looking glass self (Cooley)













The humanities and the sciences


Standpoint theory

Normative theory

Stories as resources and topics

Thin description/ thick description (Geertz)


Social Movements





Common Grounds

Narrative issues
Narrative ethics

Narrative memory

Narrative habitus

Narrative embodiment

Narrative coherence

Narrative contingencies

Narrative mood

Therapeutic narratives

Social movement narratives

Literary analysis of stories

Morphology or structure of the story



Life themes eg love, work and play

Plots eg journeys, struggles, being home

Vocabularies of motives C Wright Mills

Epiphanies, turning point, critical moments

Life stages


Oral Histories






You tube

Blogs  (Web blogs)

TV and DVD

Screen culture

Sensory research


The new journalism

The Arts


The five senses

Material Objects –stuff: the physical world of ‘things’

Novels and fictions

Drama/ theatre


Digital narratives

Digital ethnography

Social networking websites

Second Life



Chat shows

Reality TV

The Material world

The Symbolic World




Essence and essentialism




The unencumbered human self

Oral culture/ writing cultures/ electronic cultures

Some of Ken’s own little expressions:

Contingencies,  complexities, contradictions, creativity, emergence

I ponder

Recognise differences

The world as multiple and plural

Writing my own life story in chapter titles

The Narrating Body

The Habitual Body

The Relational Body

The Flourishing Body

The Grounded Body

Stories of difference

Stories of human flourishing

Wasted lives – good enough lives – flourishing lives

Grounded moralities

Narrative saturation

Dialogic Narrative Analysis

The good news and the bad news

Sociologies of Suffering and oppression

Sociologies of Everyday Hope and Kindness

Generosity, Kindness, Love.



Social justice for all

Some little quotes I might use:

The infinity of lists (Umberto Eco)

We are the little Gods who shit ( Book by Ernest Becker)

World is crazier than we think

Incorrigibly plural  (Poem by Louis MacNiece)

Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? ( painting by Gaugin)

The Wounded Story Teller (Arthur Frank)

Alive with Alzheimer’s ( Cathy Greenblat)

No voice is ever singular (Arthur Frank)

We live in the minds of others without knowing it (Charles Cooley)

Only Connect ( E.M.Forster)

What’s the point if it all?

A Blank Canvass: so full of possibility (Stephen Sondheim)

Order, tension, design, balance, harmony

Caressing the Cyborg

We tell stories in order to live

Human Rights and Narrated Lives

Human Capabilities (Nussbaum and Sen)

The Virtues (Aristotle)

To listen, to watch, read and perform inspiring narratives

To create collective stories of the good life

To challenge narratives of harm



  1. Opening session:  Symbolic Interactionism, Critical Humanism, and the Social Reality of Narratives: An Introduction humanistic research

What is Symbolic Interactionism?

What is critical humanism?

What are new strands of qualitative method? Living in the 21st Century

The opening session will introduce my version of symbolic interactionism and show it has led me to a position I now call critical humanism.  I will show how it links to some new trends in qualitative research. My broad concern with developing a humanistic social science.  The main focus will be on the idea of a narrative society and the central role of narrative in human and social understandings. It will briefly contrast a ‘humanistic’ understanding with a ‘scientific’ understanding of social life, although I see them a complementing each other and not to be in tension and conflict.

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

I have long suggested four key themes:

  1. 1.     Meanings: discourse, story, narratives etc…..
  2. 2.     Process: change, emergence, contingencies
  3. 3.     Self, Others and interaction: empathy, sympathy & dialogic
  4. 4.     Empirical groundedness/ intimate familiarity (and reflexivity)


There are many versions but I think all would agree on the above. To these I have now added

  1. 5.     Humanistic ethics and politics
  2. 6.     Differences and multiplicities


On critical humanism?


My own position is that of a 21st century symbolic interactionist –  one who came to it because of its critical stance to most sociology and its sense of humanism. Not all would agree.  In an early statement I said:


“a critical humanism has at least five central criteria. First, it must pay tribute to human subjectivity and creativity – showing how individuals respond to social con­straints and actively assemble social worlds. It must deal with concrete human experiences ‑ talk, feelings, actions ‑ through their social & economic, organization (and not just their inner, psychic or biological structuring). It must show a naturalistic ‘intimate familiarity’ with such experiences ‑ abstractions untempered by close involvement are ruled out. There must be a self‑awareness by the sociologist of their ultimate moral and political role in moving towards a social structure in which there is less exploitation, oppression and injustice and more creativity, diversity and equality…..And finally,  in all of this it espouses an epistemology of radical, pragmatic empiricism which takes seriously the idea that knowing – always limited and partial- should be grounded in experience.  See Ken Plummer, Documents of Life, Ch 12.

The 21st Century World:

I would now add three significant features of the 21st century world:

  1. 1.     Differences and Inequalities – which shape all social life
  2. 2.     Technologies and Cyberworlds and new media
  3. 3.     Globalization


Finally: The importance of hope and utopian visions



  1. Analysing the Auto/ethnographical : taking the self seriously
  2. Sensualising the Social : include body and emotions
  3. Teasing the Trope: be aware of language and writing
  4. Performing the Problematic: life is not all talk- look at performance too and do it
  5. Caressing the Cyborg: use the machines for human benefits
  6. Debating the Dialogic: always see the others and the other sides

2. My Multiple Bodies: an auto/ethnography of illness. Ken’s recent research

This will be based on a forthcoming paper: My Multiple Bodies: Symbolic Interactionism, Auto/ethnography and The Sick Body ( to be published in Bryan S. Turner: Handbook of Body and Society ( 2012 forthcoming).

(a) On Auto/ethnography


I suggest that auto-ethnographies usually have some of the following characteristics – and each brings its own problems. Auto/ethnographies:

1.write in the first person. In most social science, this breaks all rules of distanced objective science writing.

2. place the social scientist’s own self on the line: his or her voice has to come out, be discussed and situated at the forefront of the analysis. Often this is claimed to be self indulgent and can lead to awkwardness and embarrassment. Even shame.

3. explicitly connect to wider aspects of studying the culture of which they are a part. They draw from the academic traditions of cultural theory, cultural anthropology, cultural sociology, etc. They take an interest in thick – as opposed to thin- description and try to enter the culture. Often though such methods are seen as bringing their discipline into ill repute.

4. connect to matters of autobiography and documentary. They raise all kinds of methodological questions linked to the truth of the story and the life that tells it.

5. and are conducted in the very context which produces them. This context shapes their understanding, language, practices. The story is bound up with its habitus, and is part of a tradition known more widely as self reflexive sociology.

Auto-ethnographies often take on a strong political and critical stance – they provide a resistance to dominant cultures and dominant voices and narratives. Some go further and take on a performative stance – making the story telling part of the performance and drama of culture. And with the established new technologies, they now come in many shapes, sizes and forms from  the blog to the face book. At their best, they will  be dialogic, never monologic – establishing a discussion rather than a neat and uniform  text.

(b) On Embodiment and Symbolic Interactionism: Some puzzles


1. Meaning and materialism Mind/Body Embodiment
Material bodies & Interpretive bodies
The Narrating Body
2. Process Permanence and change; essence and ephemera; continuity and contingency The Habitual Body
3. Interaction/others Atomism/Holism; Action/Structure; Individual/Society The Relational Body
4. Pragmatic ethics and politics Abstracted principles/grounded moralities and politics The Flourishing/Just Body
5. Intimate Familiarity Scientific distance/ human engagement The Grounded Body



C. A TEXT: A fragment of my own story:  my multiple transforming  bodies


Being ill brings multiple bodies. At various time I had an obese body, a ghostly body, a cyborg body, a wounded body, a born again body, an absent body, an encephalopathic body, an exhausted body, a hallucinating body, an itchy body, a hospital body, a sick body, a toilet body, a learning-to-walk body. Illness shapes the body in different ways and at different stages, and each time the body has the project of re-assembling itself. You – the sick person – are the orchestrator of its new forms and its new ways of being. You are in charge of the body as it shapes and refashions itself under siege.


My first new body started to appear in 2004. A beer gut had accompanied me for much of my adult life, but just recently I noticed that things were getting a little out of hand. Not only was my stomach becoming hugely unsightly – though people were kind, they never commented, except for saying I was cuddly!- it was bringing problems: breathing was becoming noticeably more difficult, moving around was harder and more exhausting, energy was fast drained. But more serious were new signs that accompanied my old fatness: the feet were swelling, toes looked as is if they were going black, bending over to pull on my socks became an issue each morning. And slowly this got worse and worse. Going to bed meant finding the right angle to lie; washing and dressing started to take much longer to do; long walks had to be dropped from my repertoire of activities; shirts had to become floppy and baggy – XXL became my size; I looked out for trousers with elastic waists. Oddly, my face became more emaciated. I became less focused on things. I could not sit down comfortably for any period of time. It was when my enlarging ankles and now legs started to look blacker and blacker that I decided a doctor should be seen. Fat and obsese body. Bruised and blackened body.


The hospital in Santa Barbara handled this superbly and quickly. My ascites – as it was identified to be- meant a long but effective fluid draining (paracentis). A pipe is inserted in my abdomen and then litres of fluids were drained from me within a few hours of arrival. I entered with a heavy body way out of control, and left 24 hours later as a very thin person instructed to stop drinking, cut out salt, take some pills, rest for a few weeks  and move very carefully. Indeed a life warning had been placed on me. Drained, threatened, sick body.


My fat body had become my thin body. I stopped drinking. I lost my appetite (and avoiding salt meant cutting many kinds of foods from my diet). My face looked drained and older, much older. I weighed myself everyday and kept notes on keeping thin. A little acites returned though I never again needed to be drained. Still, I did look a very different person. When I got back to the UK, some people did not even recognise me. Others said later that I scared them: I looked so different, so thin, so very ill. Some people, I know, avoided me and I did not make it easy for them as I tried to carry on – with lectures and classes- as normal. However ill I was, and whatever I was, I was most certainly not the old Ken. Thin, aged, scary, on death’s door body.


My body at home became manifestly exhausted and tired. I had to learn that using my energy had to be a careful choice. My old body had a lot of energy and I could do a lot; I soon realised my body would warn me within an hour or so if I tried to do much. This was a very different body I was living with. It kept telling me, sit down, rest, relax and sleep. This tired body needed its chair, its afternoon rest (which moved from being one hour to taking up many hours most days). Doing things became harder and harder, I could do less and less. Was I being lazy? I could soon answer this: if I tried doing a lot (and this even included mental energy) I would soon reach a point where I just had to stop. This was my base line body for two years and it was a very different body to the one I had known all my life. Low energy, lazy, tired, sick body.


This tired body could wander off into a world of its own. It was not just that I would spend long hour’s day dreaming (usually to the accompaniment of romantic music – new age, musicals, cabaret singers), I would sometimes be on the edge of my encephalopathic body. This body gave radically different meanings to the world around me. I could not quite see the furnishings in the same way; the house became a bit of a maze, an obstacle course; I no longer quite knew where anything was, or indeed how any gadget – a kettle, a bath shower, a toothbrush, a TV control – actually worked. Indeed, to my intense irritation, I recall that often nothing worked. Or my body could not work them. My body often drifted into a world of unfathomably complicated things. And it moved around very slowly – dreamlike- trying and failing to deal with them. Of course, I realised afterwards that I may well have been having one of ‘my turns’. At the time, my body encephalopathic body was a slow-moving, memory-less and utterly estranged sick body. 


My hospital body was something else. Here I literally place my body under the care and control of others. This is true in a very obvious sense: doctors, nurses and carers prod my body, prick my body, connect it up to a stream of machines, draw blood, empty my plumbing and drains. There is a strict regimen of medication punctuating the day: my lactulose, spiro, tacrolimus, thiamine, insulin, prednisiolone, fluconazole, and mycophenolate to take. They look in my eyes, hold my pulse, prick my fingers, take sugar levels, pump up my blood pressure, measure my temperature. My body is under constant surveillance. There are also dramatic moments: the surgery itself for example; and an armoury of medical testings which surround the everyday. Placed into the wheel chair or back on to the trolley and off you go: for an endoscopy, a colangiogram, an ultra sound, a simple X ray, or a MIR or CAT scan, a cardiogram, a chest test. For your time in the hospital, and kind as everyone usually is, your body is no longer yours. It is now a hospital body, under the control of the hospital- on loan to them for a while as you try to get better! Medicated,  monitored hospital body.


But there are more extreme versions of this. In the intensive care unit my body took on two distinct new forms: the cyborg body and the hallucinating body. It is almost an embodied moment of the mind/ body split. My body is now that of a cyborg: it is wired up and linked to so much technology, that it seems to be a machine. It is not really open to my own mind moving it or owning it; I have to lie there on my back, there is nothing I can really do. Am I real or am I a machine? Cyborg, machine body.


And all around me, my mind sees the craziest things. Yes, I am at some moments all wired up with nowhere to go. But at others I am well and truly rolling around the world in my mobile bed: escaping the bombed hospital, rolling down Christmassy country lanes in Essex, flying into shopping malls at Turnpike Lane, living on sea cliff hotels in small villages on the Cornish coast. This is a body that seems almost to be a non body flying around the country in its own ward like vehicle. An out of mind, hallucinating, flying body.


Then there is my body in recovery. Immediately after the intensive care experience, I became aware of my transformed body and had to spend some time coming to terms with it. In many ways, I saw this as a re-birthing of me. I have almost been killed off – my old body (certainly my old liver)  had gone in the surgery. Now, attached to machines and surveyed all the time by nurses and doctors, the challenge was to reclaim my body back to myself.


It seemed like a long process – in fact it took no longer than two weeks. But bit by bit, each party of your body has to be got back under control again (re-assembling Ken). It starts with re-learning how to breathe as tubes down your throat are removed (breathing Ken), and moves on to physically becoming aware again of senses, fingers and hand – pain control requires that you lightly touch a small button placed by your fingers (fingered Ken). Lying on your back, it is almost impossible to move for a few days but little movements are seen as great glories (fixed and fidgety Ken). All your orifices have been blocked or tubed up, and initially there is no control over any body functions (blocked up Ken). I thought of my Freud: and watched anew the oral, anal and genital functions start to become slowly (very slowly) back under my control (oral Ken; anal Ken; genital Ken). Odd foods were placed in my mouth- no grand eating yet. I watched the urine and the bile pour down tubes near my body (tubed Ken). My bowels needed bed pans (eating Ken). Bit by bit, I participate in the re-assembling of my body. Struggling with clothes (dressed Ken), it took hours and hours to wash. Half an hour for teeth cleaning. A whole morning for a shower – or so it seemed (clean, washed and showered Ken). I pondered how speedily is the daily care of the body in the outside world: in hospital it is a long and central process. There is in truth little else to do but worry about the body. And then there is getting out of bed: slowly, I have to learn to walk again. This very simple child like act takes about a week: getting out of bed and just standing, with all the fraility and fragility that this brings – will I fall? Making a first step. Going to the bathroom. How to hold bags and move around. Moving from the bed to a chair. Going out of the room.  A few steps down the corridor. At the end of the corridor. Hallelujah! Down a flight of stairs (Walking Ken). Exhausted Body.


Finally, and most significantly, there is the realisation that I have a new body – a transplanted body with a new life. One body has ended and their dead body parts have brought another imminently dead back to a new life. An old body lives on in a new body. And what kind of body is that?  A transplanted body.(Plummer, 2009: & extracted from Turner: The Handbook of the Body, forthcoming



Feet gone black,

Bloated gut.
Cramp attack,
Bowels shut.
Eyes sunk deep
Liver rotting.
Jaundice weep,
Blood clotting.
Red blood spewing.
Nauseous pain.
Stinky pooing.
Toxined brain.
Red vein spiders,
Body thinning.
Shivering  sliders
Itchy skinning.
Dark stain pissing.
Brain gone missing.
Mouth all drying.
Am I dying?

And these are a few of my favourite things.

The popping of pills
The clearing of spills
The draining of bile
The syringing of blood
The measuring of sugar
The pumping of arms
The tubing of noses
The bottling of piss
The panning of shit
The nagging of anaesthetised nerves
The jellying of ultrasound sliders
The gagging of endoscopic tubing.
The loneliness of the big scanner.
Ah yes, I remember it we


3.  An Afternoon on Narratives and Stories in Research


                          This will deal with three major concerns:

Introduction : so what are narratives

                        (a) Creating Narratives:  examining ways stories are told

                        (b) Appreciating narratives: strategies for analysing stories

                        (c)Living stories: ethics & politics of stories

New Directions and languages





What is a narrative and what is a narrative society?

Narratives and stories are among the most powerful instruments for
ordering human experience. Narrative can be expressed in oral or
written language, still or moving pictures, or a mixture of these media.
It is present in myths, legends, fables, tales, short stories, epics,
history, tragedy, drama, comedy, pantomime, paintings, stained glass
windows, movies, local news, and conversation. In its almost infinite
variety of forms, it is present at all times, in all places, and in all
societies. Indeed, narrative starts with the very history of mankind….”
(Barthes, 1975).

We tell ourselves stories in order to live

Joan Didion, title of her collected stories.

Stories animate human life: that is their work.

Arthur W.Frank   Letting Stories Breathe


Narrative makes the earth habitable for human beings” Frank, again: p46

We have each of us, a life story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense is our lives…. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative to maintain his identity…

Oliver Sachs  opening to The man who mistook his wife for a hat

This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were  (recounting it) telling a story.

Jean Paul Sartre Nausea

Our life is essentially a set of stories we tell ourselves about our past, present and future… we ‘story’ our lives…in fact, restorying continually goes on within us

G.M. Kenyon and L.W. Randall  Restorying Our Lives

Our society has become a recited society, in three senses: it is defined by stories (Recits, the fables constituted by our advertising and informational media) by citations of stories, and by the interminable recitation of stories.

Michel de Certeau The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984 p186



Narratives and stories as symbolic interactions:


Narratives as……

The search for meaning in a material world

Flows of time – change, emergent, contingent

Dialogues and empathy


Political and ethical









Samples of modes and mediums of stories and narratives


Research Modes

Artistic  Life ‘Documents of Life’ ‘Visuals of Life’ Digital-Cyber life
Literature Autobiography Artefacts Websites
Drama Life stories Art Blogs
Poetics Auto/ethnography Photographs You tubes
The Novel Oral histories Film Social network websites
Music Family histories TV/DVD Second life
Film Self analysis You Tube Twitter
Art Diaries Screen cultures Video-cam
Pottery Letters Dress Etc etc
Architecture Web sites /Blogs Documentary
New journalism

Plus the stuff of everyday life  etc

The artefacts of academic life  etc

3 . Diagram: The Everyday Flow of Narratives and Stories


“A blank page so full of possibility”  Stephen Sondheim. Sunday in the Park with George

How do narratives come into being?  Why some stories rather than others?  What are the contingencies which shape story telling?


Four levels of answer-

  1. Socio-historical: structures, history, technologies
  1. Cultural: cultural frames and ‘domain assumptions’ (Gouldner); artefacts and props; habitus; memories
  1. Contextual: situations & encounters; dialogic others, significant others & generalized (imagined) communities; performance; organizational features
  1. Personal: reflexivities, creativities, habits, embodiments, psychic

We could also ask about the contingencies of story making: the who , what, where, when , why and how of narratives.


“Ethnographic writing is determined in at least six ways: (1) contextually (it draws from and creates meaningful social milieux); (2) rhetorically (it uses and is used by expressive conventions); (3) institutionally (one writes within, and against, specific traditions, disciplines, audiences); (4) generically (an ethnography is usually distinguishable from a novel or a travel account); (5) politically (the authority to present cultural realities is uniquely shared and at times contested); (6) historically (all the above conventions and constraints are changing). These determinations govern the inscription of coherent ethnographic fictions

FROM: James Clifford, Writing Culture 1986 p6.



How do we make sense of stories?

Often called the Analysis of Stories.  We could use images of archaeology (layers of depth) or theatre (drawing back curtains) or dress(unveiling). The move is from simple, surface or common-sense to complex, deeper, wider analysis.

I think it is helpful to distinguish: narrative stories and their analysis (which is usually focused on texts, forms and literary analysis) and narrative realities which links the story to a much wider social functioning (and hence more sociological and historical).

  1. Formal analysis:  science; genre and form; structure and morphology; semiotics and signs; tropes and metaphor; rhetoric; postmodern and deconstruction
  1. Social-historical: dialogic and hermeneutic; power and inequalities; time and history; geography and space; structural locations ;
  1. Deep, rich, wider: brings the above together- pragmatics, functions, dialogues, reflexivities.



The tasks and challenges:

1 Narrative description of content: what is this all about? Opening with ‘Common sense descriptions’ to get the analysis going.

2 Narrative analysis:  how to analyse the narrative in itself?  e.g semiotics, structures and morphology, metaphors and tropes, deconstruction. Some familiarity with so called literary theory is needed here as it has much to say on the formal analysis of texts.

3 Sociological analysis of narratives realities and their stories :  What is the social reality of  the narrative and how does it work?  What are the social conditions and processes which organize such narrative work? How can we appraise their truths? e.g. sociology of knowledge;  social worlds analysis; pragmatic analysis ; hermeneutic and dialogic analysis; political & moral issues;  logics of theory generation and falsification. Familiarity with sociological theory needed.

4 Final Sociological analysis: which incorporates discussion of  the three earlier stages in order to provide a thick, dense account of social life

All this needs theorizing and locating in a cycle of telling and linking to an epistemological connection to ‘the truth’.



How do we live our lives through stories? Linking stories to the personal, ethical/moral and political life.

  1. Personal: unifying & connecting; identity shaping; trauma and repair; prophetic roles.
  1. Political: stories of difference and other voices (empathy and dialogue); stories of flourishing (and not) (wasted lives, good enough lives, flourishing lives etc)
  1. Moral: stories of the bad and the good life: grounded moral tales.

[There is].. a powerful argument for the efficacy of storytelling in advancing the ongoing and constantly transforming pursuit of social justice….’ Schaffer and Smith, Human Rights and Narrated Lives.  Conclusion page 233.

What is the circle of sociological life?





Narrative Forms                                           Narrative Content

(features to look for)                                       (content to look for)

Coherences                                                      Character

Memory                                                          Life themes

Contingencies                                                  Plots

Embodiments                                                  Vocabularies of Motive

Habitus                                                           Epiphanies

Connectedness                                                            Turning Points

Mood                                                              Archetypes

Ethics                                                              Stages



A NOTE ON KEN PLUMMER: biography and select bibliography


Ken Plummer taught at Essex University from 1975-2006 and is now Emeritus Professor. He taught social psychology, criminology, sexuality, research methods and sociological theory – and ran the introductory first year sociology course for 18 years. He has written some ten books and over 100 articles. Most recently he has published on rights, symbolic interactionism, life stories, intimacies, global inequalities, humanism, queer theory, studies of sexualities, masculinity and the body. He was on the editorial board of the Sage Encyclopedia of Social Science Methods  (4 volumes (2004) and the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (11 Volumes, 2007) and is the founder and editor of the journal Sexualities.  See:

Outside of Documents of Life ( 2001) , Telling Sexual Stories (1995) and Intimate Citizenship (2003),  Ken’s methodology writings in articles include:
Sociology: The Basics (2010) Routledge
‘Generational Sexualities’: Symbolic Interaction Vol 33, No 2 2010 p163-90

‘On Narrative Pluralism’ Preface to Phillip L. Hammack & Bertram J.Cohler eds The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative Perspectives on the Gay and Lesbian Life Course (2009)

Critical Humanism and Queer Theory: Living with the Tensions’’ for 3rd edition of Handbook of Qualitative Research edited by Norman K Denzin and Yvonne Lincoln     (Sage: 2005), London..
‘Humanistic Research and the Polish Peasant’.  Preface to Spanish Edition of  ‘The Polish Peasant in Europe and America’ translated by Juan Zarco.
‘Critical Humanism in a Post-Modern World’ Studies in Symbolic Interaction, Volume 25, 2001 p291-301.
‘Queering the Interview’, with Travis Kong and Dan Mahoney in Jaber Gubrium et al eds The Handbook of Interviewing, London, Sage ( 2001)p239-58.
‘The Call of Life Stories in Ethnographic Research’  Paul Atkinson et al eds The Handbook of Ethnography, London: Sage (2001)p395-406.
‘The ‘Ethnographic Society’ at Century’s End: Clarifying the Role of Public Ethnography’ Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol 28, No 6 December 1999.
“Herbert Blumer and the Life History Tradition” Symbolic Interaction Vol. 13, No 2 Fall 1990  p125-44 (Together with : Norman K. Denzin, “The Spaces of Postmodernism: Reading Plummer on Blumer”, and Ken Plummer, “Staying in the empirical World : Symbolic Interactionism and Postmodernism”, Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 13 p155-60.)
‘Life Story Research’ in Rethinking Methods in Psychology eds Jonathan A. Smith, Rome Harre & Luk Van Langehove, 1995: London: Sage p 50-64.
‘Doing Life Histories’, (with A. Faraday) Sociological Review, Vol. 27, 773-92, November l979.

And Ken’s ‘not-so-good’poetics!:

‘Subterranean Traditions Rising: The year that Enid Blyton died’ in Gurminder Bhambra & Ipek Demir eds 1968 in Retrospect: History, Theory, Alterity. (2009) Palgrave

‘A quiet catharsis of comprehension: A poetic for Paul’ Symbolic Interaction (2009) Vol 32, No 3p 174-7

See also the short piece ‘ Pragmatism and Poetics’ at:  Writing across boundaries-





Some key qualitative journals

Auto/Biography (now Auto/Biography Annual Review)

Journal of Contemporary Ethnography

Forum: Qualitative Social Research
Qualitative Research

Qualitative Sociology

Qualitative Inquiry

International Journal of Qualitative  Research

Some centres and websites

International Auto/Biography Association
Centre for Narrative (University of East London)
Centre for Qualitative Research (University of Bournemouth)
Qualitative Research Unit (University of Exeter)

BSA Auto/Biography Group: access via British Sociological Association


ESRCH Narrative Studies seminars accessed from University of Edinburgh, March 2007 – June 2008
Sage Research Methods On Line

See also the project: Writing Across Boundaries.

This is a project which gets various social scientists who have published quite a bit to reflect on the nature of their writing. It includes pieces by  Howard Becker, Harvey Molotch, Marilyn Strathborn and Liz Stanley, myself and many others: see

 On this website you will also find resources relating to a variety of themes that engage writers in the social sciences. These include and Drafting and Plotting, the Data-Theory Relationship, Narrative, Rhetoric, and Representation and Hints and Tips on Writing





 Appendix 1 Narrating Lives in an Unequal World

The Narrative Contexts of Inequalities

Narrative and stories are always embedded in culture; they are the social reality of narratives. Cultures themselves are always stuffed full of multiplicities, contradictions and differences. Central to these differences are those patterned into inequalities. Whatever narrative concerns you, it pays to ask how they bridge into some or all of the following main patterns of inequalities.  How may the contemporary global, capitalist world shape the very narratives we speak and hear through their inequalities?


Stories and narratives which display…. 
  1 Class  Order Classism and class consciousness
  2 Gender Order  (& patriarchy) Sexism and gender identity
  4 Age stratification and generational orders Ageism and generational self
  5 Nations Nationalism and national identity
  6 The sexual order Heterosexism, homophobia & heteronormativity: sexual identity
  7 The disability and health order Sickness and ‘disablement’ ideologies: health/ability identity


Source: Plummer 2010




Appendix 2



(this is not meant to be comprehensive
Preliminary overview of the field Key word on line searches will help you sketch out an area of research and see what already exists Search engines like Lycos (formed in 1994), Google (formed in 1998, and the world leader) or Bing(formed in 2009).The now ubiquitous Wikipedia, which despite its limits, is ‘good enough’ for a starting point
Accessing data A core feature of the 21st century world is its developing and managing of information which has never been possible before.  Students can now access both primary and secondary data on line, with ease and little cost- as never before. For secondary data, major statistical resources are provided by organizations like:
Eurostats (on the EU)
World Fact Book (CIA)
United Nations Statistics
But there are also data bases for films (IMDb), literature  (Project Gutenberg), and on line archives for newspapers, sociology books etc.
(see Resources: Part 6 of this book).
Using internet tools for accessing original data Web 2 is highly interactive and enables you to gather data from your informants in many different ways On line and phone interviewingOn line ethnographies of  networking groups from many spheres of social lifeAnalysing life stories and data found on blogs, twitter and other sources
Storing and managing the data you collect This is a core function of the information technologies! Save your own data in well organized and easy accessible files and folders on well labelled  and coded discs and memory sticks
Organising your research  project Setting up your research web site , possibly including a blog where you can communicate with an emerging on line research community working in similar areas Apart from setting up a web site ( see xxxx), this is where skills with Facebook, Blogging and  other network sites become important
Constructing and managing bibliographies and reading Nearly all sociologically relevant books and articles are electronically catalogued- often with abstracts, sometimes in e book format. Become familiar with the systems of your local library; use INTUTE; use search engines for recent books – and sites like Amazon. Keep all this catalogued in a data base programme  like EndNote
Taking seriously the visual side of social life Much sociology of the past has ignored the visual world but new technologies have created key ways of capturing and storing the world we live in through photographs and video. The use of digital cameras makes on the spot image possibleDigital camera for ease of documentary workUbiqitous web camsVisual web sites like flickr (for photo sharing)
The value and use of YouTube
Using programmes for the analysis of your data Tools for inspecting your data range from simple table making (like Access and Excel) to the more elaborate but widespread softwares for data analysis NVivo 8 is the most common qualitative programme and it lets you combine detailed analysis with linking, searching, modeling and charting.
The most common quantitative package is SPSS for windows, which has become increasingly user-friendly over the last few years.
The presentation of your data No longer do you have to stick with the straight essay and paper- there are many tools that help you enhance your presentation Power Point needs to be used creatively and imaginatively- never ever use it for plain text that you could put in a book or an essay.There are many programmes to help you design maps, charts and visuals of all kinds. Think of photos and how these lead you on to think….

Source: Macionis and Plummer 5th edition 2011

But see also: Ann Lewis and Christina Silver  Using Software in Qualitative Research : A step by step guide. Sage 2nd ed 2007


Appendix 3:


 Photographs : Questions for the Visual

Get into a questioning mode and pose some  questions:

  1. Pragmatic and practical opening:  look at the content and subject matter of the image- begin at the beginning and simply say what it is about. Pay no attention to fussy theories of hidden meanings and symbols – save those for later: start with the direct messages you get from it – what is the content of this picture? Describe what you see . Do not read about it – try to know nothing about it at all ( which is often very hard) and approach it as simply, directly and as raw as you can. Of course, this will imediately raise braoder issues, because it will become apparent that what you see and how you describe it is will always involve some perception, selection and interpretaion.
  1. Locate it thematically – as a genre. No image stands on its own. Usually all images can be connected in various ways to others. Thus images can be typically classified into such themes as portraits, still life, lanscapes, historical, abstract, realist, humorous. They can also be claissfied by their themes – work, families, gender, war, class. Here sociological themes may become relevant. It may also be classified by history – when was this image produced and what point in history does it aim to respresent? Think about how the image connects to other and ask questions that locate it within varioyus traditions. It may be later that you will wish to think or read around these themes – looking for example at the elderly in art ( see Pat Thane’s The Long History of Old Age) or suffering and pain in art ( see Susan Sontag’s Regarding  the Pain of  Others).
  1. Locate it formally: we now move from what the picture is saying and become more interested in the ways – the manner- in which it is depicting something. The image is not real – it is an imaginative repersentation of something, and we need to ask why do they present it this way and not some other way.  Artists for example choose differeny ways to present their images – a Pollock is not a Rothko is not a Bacon. Look at the images in the book and you will soon see that they make their statements in different kinds of ways – they are different in their forms.
  1. Locate it semiotically – see the image as system of signs, of signifers and signifieds. Here we ask questions less about content, or form, or genre – but about the commuinication of the meanings of the image. The meanings are not often obvious but hidden; and nor are they agreed upon by readers – they are usually ambiguous and open to argument. They are lodged in systems of communication and signs through which the meanings can be unravelled.
  1. Locate it culturally – think about the time and place in which the image was produced. How might images change wit time and space – and how does this image reflect a time and space? Does it perform a political role? How miight it have been interperted differently in the time it was made?

1 Describe the subject matter carefully?
2 Locate it as a genre?
3 Locate it formally and think about its formal properties?
4 Look at it as a commuications sign system? What is its meaning?

5Locate it culturally – what roles does it play in the wider society?

Appendix 4

The sociology of consumer objects: a quick review


Material object of consumption The study The book
T Shirt Traces the production of a T shirt from start to end acrtoss the world economy Pietra Rivoli: The Travels of a T Shirt in the Global Economy (2009 2nd ed)
Tomatoes Traces evolution of the tomato within the development of the capitalist market Mark Harvey, Steve Quilley & Huw Benyon  Exploring the Tomato  (2002)
Coca Cola Traces the globalization of consumption through the famous soft drink: the role of the transnational company as it spreads the drink to Papua New Guinea Robert J Foster Coca-Globalization (2008)
Nike Traces the cycle of production, distribution and consumption of the famous shoe and its logo Robert Goldman and  Stephen Papson Nike Culture (1998)
Sony Walkman Now of historical interests as a major  commodity that had mass sales but was morphed into  other newer technologies. Paul du Gay, Stuart Hall et al  The Story of the Sony Walkman (1996)
The McDonalds Hamburger Thde classic study which takes McDonalds as an paradigm for the shifts in bureaucratic social organization George Ritzer The McDonaldization of Society (6th edition in 2010)

Here, look out for ANT: Actor Network Theory:


Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Social  (2005/7) Oxford









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