Symbolic Interactionist Conference

The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) and European SSSI

Lancaster University 4 , 5 and 6 July 2018


‘Whose side are we on?’ Power, Stigma, Transgression and Exclusion in Everyday Life.





Some Notes for: “Whose Side Are We On?” Revisited: On Narrative Power, Inequality and The Struggle for Human Value

Ken Plummer


A Abstract

‘To have values or not to have values: the question is always with us’. And so Howard S. Becker opened his celebrated Presidential Address, Whose Side are we on?at the American Society for the Study of Social Problems in 1967. Today, a half-century later, this conference returns to this puzzle – and Becker, with his key idea of the ‘hierarchy of credibility’.


My talk will fall into three parts. I start by briefly reviewing Becker and some key developments in our understanding of values and ideology since that time. The body of my talk will turn to my new book Narrative Power, and introduce some key ideas about narrative power, narrative inequalities and narrative exclusion, sketching out a basic model of intersectional and locational power which highlights Domination, Exclusion, Negotiation and Resistance. I highlight the dynamics of the subordinated standpointand narrative othering, drawing out a wide range of examples where these processes are featured and suggest many of us tacitly work with this in our studies.  I end with a discussion of the importance of trying to understand the struggle for human valuethroughout history, one that is grounded upon our embodied and emotional humanity. I suggest what some of these values might look like. Knowing our values helps us to understand better whose side we are on.

B Basic Overview


1 Past: The Early Debates on Values

2 Present: Narrative Power and Narrative Inequality

3 Futures: The Struggle for Value


C Some Resources

Table1:  Four Sources Of Dialogic Narrative Power


Sources of Narrative Power Examples Focus on
1 Institutional Stories of power: Economic, political, violence, cultural, religion etc


Social institutions like economy and government
2 Communication The language, writing, print, media and digitalism of stories


Media worlds

Digital worlds

3 Locational Stories situated at the intersections of class, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, sexuality, nation etc….


Social divisions, Inequalities and social movements
4 Everyday The Lived Stories of Everyday life: at home, prison, work, street etc…



Situations and encounters



Table 2 Living with Locational Power and Narrative Standpoints: An Ecology of Stories
The Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me.(Levinas: Totality and Infinity 207)



Who am I?

Binary othering

Who is other?


Emergent Standpoints: their tensions and movements
1 Economic Poor/Rich e.g. Work narratives, Class narratives, trade union narratives, slave narratives, caste narratives –
2 Gender Male/Female e.g. Women’s narratives, Gender Narratives  from De Beauvior to Beard
3 Ethnicity Black/White e.g Ethnic narratives : Blacks and others
4 Age /


Young/Old e.g. Generational narratives; stories told historically by different age cohorts. Also: narratives of youth, old etc. and their social movements
5 Sexuality Hetero/Queer e.g. Queer politics and their stories. The rise of Trans. and their social movements
6 Religion Religious/Secular


Religious stories of all kinds, and their movements including Fundamentalist narratives
7 Health/



Abled/ Disabled

e.g Disabled/Crip Stories ; Health Storoes – AIDS Movements, Cancer Stories etc. ( and their health movements)
8 Family and Community Local/ Outsider Stories of belonging to ‘my primary group’ and their social movements
9 Nation Citizen/Immigrant e.g Nationalism and their social movements

War narratives Post Colonial Narratives

Indigenous Narratives

10 Environment & Universe Nature/Technology e.g. Stories of nature v technology

Narratives of sustainability and humanity and their social movements


Table 3: Exclusion: The March of the Subordinated Standpoints

Looking back over history, we find an extraordinary parade of people whose narratives have been marginalized, silenced and inferiorized. These are stories that could not initially be told but that eventually found a way to be told in art and poetics, literature and film, documentary and research. Here are a few of the multitudes of moving and often elegantly told stories of how people react to the power of extreme situations of brute power: the subordinated standpoints of:

The Peasants (Scott, 1985,1999); the Indigenous Peoples (Samson & Gigoux, 2017:Ch6); the Colonized (Fanon, 1961); the Slaves (Douglass, 1984; Botkin, 1992); the Poor (Sainath, 1996); the Working Class (Bourdieu, 1989); the Refugees, Immigrants and Displaced (Sayad, 2004; Nguyen, 2018); the Homosexuals and Queers (Plummer, 1995; ADD Sedgwick,1990; Weeks, 2017);  the Inmates (Goffman, 1961); the Prisoners (Sykes, 2007); the Welfare Claimants (Tyler 2013); the Women (De Beauvoir, 1949) – veiled (Abu-Lugod, 1986/2000), raped (Brownmiller, 1975 ), abused (Woodiwiss, 2009, 2017); the Young ( Willis, 1978; Skeggs, 1997) ; and the Survivors – of the Holocaust (Levi, 1979), the Gulag (Solzhenitsyn, 2003), Stalin’s Russia ( Figes, 2008), and the rest. Of those living with the everyday racism around the world  (Lamont et al, 2016).


Table 4 Narrative Responses to Domination and Dehumanization

I Collaborative Narratives: staying with dominant stories

  1. Hyper Conformist Narratives: exaggerated acceptance; self-loathing; the HyperNormal.
  2. Conformist Narratives: deferential, colonised.

II Negotiated Narratives: living under dominance but developing weapons to resist but challenge existing order.

  1. Innovation Narratives: develops new creative story, but not threatening of dominant stories (e.g.
  2. Retreatist Narratives: withdraws from the dominant narrative into own world (e.g isolation, illness, mental illness, religion, drug use, denial, ‘dropping out’, indifference, despair, etc)
  3. The Ritualist Narratives:resists dominant stories through repertoires of rituals (of humour, mockery, games, distancing, posing etc)

III Counter Narratives: not accepting dominant stories, seeking change

  1. Resistance and Rebellious Narratives: challenging, arguing against, finding ways to reject
  2. Reformist Narratives: Looking for ways of changing within the system
  3. Radical and RebelliousNarratives:Rejecting and seeking change; rejecting and seeking return to the past. Possible violence.Five useful early studies help us to sense a system to these dense complexities of domination and their repertoires of responses. In the 1930s Robert K. Merton  (1938) gave us the foundational model when he looked at US culture generally and located five basic responses to the dominant culture: conformist, innovator, retreatist, ritualist and rebel. In the early 1960s, Erving Goffman’s field work inside total institutions (like mental hospitals, prisons), researched how inmates responded to their guards through four key responses that were a little different from Merton’s: colonization, conversion, withdrawal, intransigency. Goffman’s own interest was primarily with the modern mental hospital in Canada, and the under life of adjustments that it generated; but we can find more recent approximate versions of this perhaps though the Rwanda genocide and Guantanamo Bay. In the 1970s, the sociologist Stuart Hall (1973) simplified responses into three: dominated, oppositional and negotiated. And a little later still, looking at peasants, James C Scott located the arts[1]of resistance ( Scott, 1990) and ‘the weapons of the weak’ (Scott, 1985). These days the crucial response is to the dominant reality of the media – how the seemingly passive act of watching is rendered active: and here the work of David Morley(1980) has been widely used.



Table 5 Human Sources of Narrative Value

Source Questions Value possibilities See:
(1) ExistentialOur being- agency, capabilities vulnerability

& value

At birth we are surrounded by problems posed by the human condition: of body, relationships, environment and living. How to be in  the world? How to exist? Ways of being-in-the world
Human actualizationResilience




De Beauvoir, 1948

Arendt, 1958


Nussbaum, 2011

MacIntyre, 1984


(2)Relationships & attachments with self, others and community From birth to death we live and connect with other people. How best to live with others? Empathy- Compassion
Smith, 1759, 2000

Rifkin, 2009

Armstrong, 2011

Yuval- Davis, 2011

Tronto, 2013

(3) Social

With state, economy and society


We live in a society. What is a good society, and good governance? How might this be achieved? The Golden Rule

Social Justice

Social Equality
Social Rights


Gensler, 2013

Sandel, 2009

Sen, 2009

(4) Human Flourishing

the best in life and society

How to do our best in one’s time on earth? What is the good?


Virtue Ethics:
Truth, beauty and the good life
Besser and Slote (2018)
(5) World-universe

other cultures and world, being in the pluriverse

How to live with others across human variety, cultures and nations? How should we live in the cosmos? Environmental Ethics
Cosmopolitan EthicsPeace Ethics

World Values

Cosmo Ethics

Spirituality, Religion

Tremblay, 2009

Widdows, 2011



Zygmunt Bauman                Postmodern Ethics(1999) Blackwell

Sayer, Andrew (2011) Why Things Matter to People: Socila Science, Values and Ethical Life,Cambridge: Cambridge Universality Press.

Attfield, Robin (2014 2nded) Environmental Ethics, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gensler, Harry J (2013) Ethics and the Golden Rule, London: Routledge.

Nussbaum, Martha (2011) Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach,Cambridge, Mass: Belknap/Harvard.
Sayer, Andrew (2011) Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sen, Amartya (2009) The Idea of Justice, London: Allen Lane.

Smith, Adam (1759/2000) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, NY: Prometheus.

Smith, Christian (2003) Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, Christian (2010) What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up, Chicago: University of Chicago.
Sznaider, Natan (2001) The Compassionate Temperament: Care and Cruelty in Modern Society,  Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.

Turner, Bryan S  (2006) Vulnerability and Human Right: Essays in Rights,PA: Penn State University.

Van Hooft, Stan (2009) Cosmopolitanism: A Philosophy for Global Ethics.  Stocksfield: Acumen


Table 6 Grounded Utopia?
A Society Fit For all Human Beings: A Politics Of Humanity

1 a politics that values human difference, uniqueness, dignity and hope for all

2 a politics based on care, compassion and love; a ‘politics of the other’

3 a politics of global social justice: equality and rights

4 a politics of human flourishing

5 a cosmopolitan politics

6 an environmental and existential politics – that makes a good habitat for a small animal in a vast history and pluriverse



D Some Quotes


Stories animate human life: that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided…  A good life requires living well with stories. When life goes badly, a story is often behind this too… Narrative makes the earth habitable for human beings…..

…Arthur Frank, Letting Stories Breathe 2010 p1, p47 ???


Every conflict is in part a battle over the story we tell, or who tells and who is heard.

… Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark (2016 3rded) pxiv


That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the prepolitical and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without end. But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes the storybook of mankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors is that both are the outcomes of action      …Hannah Arendt,   The Human Condition p184

We only become what we are by the radical deep –seated refusal of that which others have made of us.

Sartre  Preface to the Wretched of the Earth  1968:17


Those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts. Salman Rushdie 1991. footnote: This is an extract from a speech  ‘1,000 days trapped in a metaphor’ partially reprinted in New York Times, December 12th1991.


I am a writer and I understand the power of the stories we tell. Everything starts as a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Every political movement begins as a counter-narrative to an existing narrative. Jeanette Winterton

E Some References


1 The Early Debates on Value


Becker. H.S (1967) Whose Side Are We on? Social Problems Vol 14 No 3 Winter p239-47(downloadble)

Gouldner, Alvin (1970) The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. Heinemann (On Line)


Hartsock, Nancy (1998) The Feminist Standpoint Revised and other Essays, Boulder, Colo; Westwood Press

De Sousa Santos, Boaventura (2014) Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide,London: Routledge.

Medina, Jose (2013) The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Race, Oppression, Epistemic injustice and Resistant ImaginationsOxford: Oxford University Press.


2 Narrative Power and Narrative Inequality


Plummer, Ken (2019) Narrative Power: The Social Sources of Human Value, Cambridge: Polity   in press

Andrews, Molly (2007) Shaping History: Narratives of Political Change,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Selbin, Eric (2010) Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story. London: Zed Books.
Schafer, Kay & Sidonie Smith (2004) Human Rights and Narrated LivesPalgrave.

Agamben, Giorgio (1995) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt (2004) Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Cambridge: Polity.

Sassen, Saskia (2014) Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy,Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.

Kapuściński, Ryszard (2006/2008) The Other, London: Verso.

Fanon, Frantz (1961/2001) The Wretched of the Earth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Arendt, Hannah (1951/1979) The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harvest Books.


3 Struggle for Human Values


Hope and Utopia : Making Positive Social Imaginaries


Rebecca Solnit 2nded 2017  Hope in the Dark,  Canongate.

Erik Ohlin Wright                Envisioning Real Utopias2010 Verso

Ruth Levitas                         Utopia as Method2013 Palgrave
Ernest Bloch                          The Principle of Hope 3 Vols  (1938-47 ) 1986, MIT

Ken Plummer                       Intimate Citizenship: Private Decisions and Public Dialogues(2003) Washington







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