Documents of Life: Narrative and Humanistic Research (Dublin 2011)



Documents of Life:

Narratives and Humanistic Social Research

Ken Plummer

7-8th June 2011, 5th Qualitative Research Summer School

School of Nursing, Dublin City University



Documents of Life:

Narratives and Humanistic Social Research

Ken Plummer



Overview and outline                       p 4

Programme: Four sessions               p6

Appendices                                        p22

Tutor                                                  p29

Bibliography: Reading List with web sites and resources (these will be provided as a separate document).

.. 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).




“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”. Gaugin
This course will look at some recent trends in qualitative research, but especially the concern with narratives and stories. Story tellings, and the narratives that accompany them, are basic human social processes. We are the story-narrating animal; human societies are always story-narrative societies. Although such story tellings are often neglected in the orthodoxies of 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.  In short, we create, appreciate and live narratives and stories enable us to live our lives. Critical 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 two day course will probe and investigate, amongst other things:

  1. The nature and rise of what might be called ‘humanistic research’
  2. The centrality and meaning of narratives and ‘story telling’ in our lives, social life and social research;
  3. The multiplicities of forms and techniques of story telling (from life story/autobiography to website blog, from documentary to auto/ethnography);
  4. Some key modes in which social science creates ( tells/reports/writes/presents/performs) its ‘findings’;
  5. Some key tactics and strategies for appreciating (analysing/ evaluating/appraising) stories;
  6. The implications of such an approach for living a life: its personal value, its ethics and politics (grounded everyday moralities/ narrative ethics and the ethics of research/political change/ the circle of sociological life)

The key background reading should ideally be my book Ken Plummer Documents of Life-2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism (2001 – NOT The earlier 1983 edition), but it is currently out of print. It is however an e book and can be accessed via


Or .
A more detailed bibliography will be provided on the course.




Tuesday 7th June

10.00.             The Social Reality of Narratives: An Introduction to ourselves, humanistic research and the social worlds of narrative and story telling

1.00-2.00       Lunch break

2.00 -4.30      Creating Narratives: a workshop on strategies for ‘making our documents’

Wednesday 8th June

10.00-10.30   Review, Prospectus, Opening discussion

10.30-12.30   Appreciating Narratives:  a workshop on the understanding and analysis of storied data

1.00-2.00       Lunch break

2.00-4.00       Living stories: grounded everyday moralities, the politics of research and the circle of sociological life

4.00                Overview, conclusions and goodbye hugs.


Coffee and tea breaks will be arranged as needed.


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, a table, a logarithm, or a ‘methodology’ (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





It will help if you can bring one small sample of a life document with which you are familiar to the first class as an example, and be willing to say a few words about it. This could be a piece of research you are involved with, but it could equally be photos, letters, interview, field notes, observation, or even a blog, a sentimental treasure,  a documentary film, a  passport or a favourite poem, painting or piece of music! Almost anything in fact that interests you. You might also like to think about what you hope to get from the course.


OTHER READING: But see major bibliography that accompanies course

Howard S Becker                   Telling about Society (2007) Chicago

C.Wright Mills                        The Sociological Imagination: Appendix (1962) Oxford
Ken Plummer                                    Sociology: The Basics   (2010) Routledge Ch 1, 5,6,8.
Les Back                                 The Art of Listening (2007) Berg

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

Kay Schaffer & Sidonie Smith Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The ethics of recognition (2004) Palgrave

Norman Denzin & Yvonna
Lincoln                                    The Handbook of Qualitative Research ( and its offshoots paperbacks) 3rd edition 2005 4th edition forthcoming in 2011
John Lofland et al (2004 4th edition) Analysing Social Settings  Wadsworth

Narrative/ Life stories/ Autobiographical Turns

Arthur Frank                         Letting Stories Breathe (2010) Chicgao

Jaber Gubrium &
Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson Reading Autobiography: A guide for interpreting life narrative  (2001) Minnesota

James E Holstein                   Analyzing Narrative Reality (2009) Sage

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

Norman Denzin                     Interpretive Biography (1989) Sage

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





: An Introduction to ourselves, humanistic research and the social worlds of narrative and story telling.

The opening session will provide introductions to our selves and our interests as well as the backgrounds to the key ideas of the course. Ken will introduce the idea of a narrative society and the central role of narrative in human and social understandings. It will briefly contrast a narrative understanding with  a ‘scientific’ understanding of social life. I will discuss briefly the nature of my own position – that of a critical humanist.  Finally, I will link into one aspect of narrative order – that of inequalities.

Overview of first session: Six tasks-

  1. What is narrative , story and a narrative society?
  2. What are new strands of qualitative method?
  3. What is Symbolic Interactionism and what is critical humanism?
  4. Introductions to ourselves
  5. On The Multiplicities of Narrative
  6. Method and life 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 broadest concern is 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.




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


Background Position: From Symbolic Interactionism to Critical Humanism

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


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.

Method and Life in the 21st Century

Generational methodologies

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


On the multiplicities of narratives : a narrative glossary

Narrative Meaning  – which may lead to:

Narrative story, Narrative Plot, Narrative Character, Narrative Archetypes, Narrative Themes, Narrative Stages, Narrative Epiphanies & Turning Points, Narrative Memory, Narrative Hermeneutics

Narrative Others – which may lead to:

Narrative Monologue and Dialogue, Narrative Recognition, Narrative Reflexivity, Narrative Role Taking, Narrative Empathy, Narrative Sympathy, Narrative Self & Narrative Identity, Narrative Generosity

Narrative Process – which may lead to:

Narrative Time, Narrative Flow, Narrative Emergence and Narrative Entropy, Narrative Moments, Narrative Contingency

Narrative Multiplicity (or Narrative Pluralism)

Narrative Embodiment – which may lead to

Narrative Performance, Narrative Emotions, Narrative Mood

Narrative Agency – which may lead to:

Narrative Creativity, Narrative Habits, Narrative Subjectvity, Narrative Positionality. Narrative Habitus

Narrative Power – which may lead to:

Narrative Inequality, Narrative Voice, Narrative Resources

Narrative Values-which leads to:

Narrative Ethics, Grounded Moralities, Narrative Politics

And when put into a wider social contests , we soon find:

Mediated Narratives

Global Narratives


Samples of modes and mediums of stories and narratives

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

Diagram: The Everyday Flow of Narratives and Stories

            (a) Creating Narratives:  examining ways stories are told

                 (b) Appreciating narratives: strategies for analysing stories

                    (c)Living stories: ethics & politics of stories






: examining some of the tools of story telling
from life story to digital blog. telling (from life story/autobiography to website blog, from documentary to auto/ethnography)

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


  1. How do narratives come into being – from a blank page?
  2. A mini –workshop on our own writing
  3. New styles of creating social science narratives
  4. An example: Ken’s auto/ethnography of illness

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


Four levels of answer-

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

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.

Writing poses questions of:

i.     Audience

ii.     Intent

iii.     Genre

iv.     Intrusion

v.     Intertextuality

vi.     Narrative

vii.     Rhetoric

viii.     Mechanics

ix.     Domain assumptions

x.     Medium

FROM : Ken Plummer, Documents of Life  2001  Ch8


The trouble with academia

As we move well into the twenty first century, with its wars, inequalities, cyberspace and economic and environmental crises, social research finds itself on the brink of new ways of speaking and writing the lives of others. What might be called ‘Classical Social Science Texts’ with their introduction, literature review, ‘methods’, findings, discussion, conclusion, notes and bibliography may be on their way out for more critical thinkers. Past texts are machine like and are usually written for highly specialised audiences, with all the accoutrements of ‘academia’.  And now with the RAE, citations index and the Audit Culture generally, intellectual life is now manifestly and unashamedly bureaucratized. There is now a pathetic correct way of doing everything if your work is to be judged highly!

Yet to suggest doing it any other way is often to be seen as frivolous, non academic, indulgent. But why should there be only the one approved way to present social science material? And why, indeed, if this is always an elitist and none populist mode? It seems to me that increasingly the human sciences should face the daunting task of learning how to communicate in more popular and accessible ways. There are many experiments in photography, recording, film, photographs, video, diaries, and letters that have been taking place throughout the twentieth century : and increasingly there is the growth of performance studies and hi tech worlds – Web 2 etc.

We will spend a little time exploring all this. Maybe write a poem or two? Think on.

New ways of presenting ‘data’

  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 side

A case study: 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).

1 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.

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



3  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.
( Extracted from a much longer illness memoir and used for an article in 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


a workshop on strategies for doing narrative analysis

‘putting it together, bit by bit’: Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George

This is what some might call ‘data analysis’ but this is not my term. There is no shortage of methods guides on data analysis.


  1. How do we make sense of stories?
  2. Layers, forms and contents – a sort of a (weak) model


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). It is also useful to be clear about the differences between narrative form and narrative content (often story).

  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. VIZ:
Formal Content: locate the substance and characteristics of the narrative told?
Thematic analysis: what are key story lines, plots and characters. Who what where when why?
Form: locate the story as a kind of genre – comedy,tragedy, romance?- a type?
Structure: locate the story through its morphology – a pattern of story;
and its formal linguistic properties – a structured discourse?
Means: through what kind of medium is the story told? What is distinctive about each  tool for story telling – there are different issues for each (cf  2 above)

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’.



            NARRATIVE TEXTS                                     NARRATIVE REALITIES






CONTENT 1 Describing it 4 rich account
FORM 2 Literary analysis 3 Sociological analysis





Careful the tale we tell, children will listen: Sondheim – Into the Woods


[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.


  1. What is the purpose of your work – the big story?
  2. How do we live our lives through stories – personally, ethically and politically.
  3. Visions of a better life and a better world

What is the purpose of your work? We will conclude by returning to the humanistic and sociological concerns we started with. My own work is shaped by a critical humanism (introduced in session 1). It has mainly been concerned with the ways in which stories are produced and presented and how often they change the communities we live in. Stories and their communities matter. There has been an enormous growth of interest in this process in the past few years and the links between social movements, human rights and the stories told of lives has become one major prominent strand. In this concluding session we will look at the personal, political and moral workings of stories.

One aim of research is to be concerned with the bettering of social worlds and with facilitating flourishing lives for all (to use my two favourite clichés!).


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.

What are our visions of a better world? Linking stories to our research and politics.


1. Dialogic, communicative, cosmopolitan : enhancing mutual understanding through our stories

Common Grounds?

2. Social Justice & Human Rights

3. Good Lives and Human Flourishing for all


Stories of Damaged Lives, Wasted Lives/ Good Enough Lives/ Flourishing Lives?

Stories of Hope in a Troubled World:

We need a Pessimism of the Intellect and an Optimism of the Will”…. Gramsci:


The appeal of Utopianism arises, I believe, from the failure to realize that we cannot make heaven on earth. What we can do instead is, I believe, to make life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in every generation, A good deal can be achieved in this way.

Karl Popper Utopia and Violence (1948)


1 Only Connect: Bringing together science and art




Task Interpret and understand


Measure and find causes
Focus Worlds of meaning, feeling and experiences Outer structures, objective causes
Tools Empathy, imagination, familiarity   Trained research skills
Values and politics Everywhere   Neutral, value free
Presentation Film, novels, drama, art, music   Technical papers, reports, tables

Source: Ken Plummer: Sociology The Basics (2010): Table 6:1

2. 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.



Stories and narratives which display….


  1 Class  Order Classism and class consciousness
  2 Gender Order  (& patriarchy) Sexism and gender identity

(ethnicity and race)


Racialization, racism & ethnic 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


3. The History of Qualitative Research?


“ In North America, qualitative research operates in a complex historical field hat crosscuts a least eight historical moments. These moments overlap and simultaneously operate in the present. We define them as the traditional (1900-1950), the modernist or golden age (1950-1970), blurred genres (1970-1986), the crisis of representation (1986-1990), the postmodern (1990- 1995), post-experimental inquiry (1995-2000), the methodologically contested present (2000-2004) and the fractured future’( 2005-..)  Denzin, The Qualitative Manifesto 2010  p13.


Personally (KP) I find a lot wrong with this – but it is a useful and widely cited starting point to think about different generations of qualitative research.


4. Analysis of Narrative Data

  A VERY BASIC RESEARCH SCHEMA – how to move from one to the other?


events and lives in their mutliplicties and complexities, which we want to capture, describe and maybe even explain






Communication and language     ……………………………………………..research process              

                                    EPISTEMOLOGICAL ISSUES






captured usually in some kind of text  which may be seen as a

Discourse, Narrative, Story




The need for analytic scrutiny………………………………………… analysis







usually as an essay, a thesis, a report – but there could be other ways from blog to video




5.  What is the circle of sociological life?



6. Martha Nussbaum’s Central Human Functional Capabilities

From Sex and Social Justice. 1999: 41-2; and Women and Human Development ,2000. p78-80.1.

1.Life.  Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living

2.Bodily Health.  Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; being adequately nourished; being able to have adequate shelter

3.Bodily Integrity.  Being able to move freely from place to place; having one’s bodily boundaries treated as sovereign i.e..being able to be secure against assault, including sexual assault, marital rape, and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.

4.Senses, imagination, and thought.  Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason – and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training; being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing expressive works and events of one’s own choice (religious, literary, musical etc.); being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech and freedom of religious exercise; being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-necessary  pain.

5.Emotions.  Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us; being able to grieve at their absence; in general being able to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger; not having one’s emotional development blighted by overwhelming fear or anxiety, or by traumatic events of abuse or neglect..  (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.

6.Practical reason.  Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life.  (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience.)

7.Affiliation.  (a) Being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; being able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for the situation; having the  capability for both justice and friendship.  (Protecting this capability means, once again, protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedoms of  assembly and political speech.)  (b)  Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.  (This entails provisions of nondiscrimination.on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity, or national origin)

8.Other species.  Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature

9.Play.  Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10.Control over one’s environment.  (a) Political: being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the rights of political participation, free speech, and freedom of association (b) Material: being able to hold property (both land and movable goods); having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

7. 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?


Dorothea Lange/ Migrant Mother


Cathy Greenblatt: Living with Alzheimer’s


See 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

Consider web sites for research: as an example, see

Inventing Adulthood : South Bank – at



Ken Plummer taught at Essex 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, Telling sexual Stories, Intimate Citizenship and Sociology: the Basics , Ken’s methodology writings in articles include:

‘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



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