Narrative Powers: Edinburgh April 2017


Fragments of, Notes Towards

‘Narrative Powers: Making Critical Stories for a Better World’

Ken Plummer: Talk at New Directions 2017, Sociology Department, University of Edinburgh

I am currently writing a book for Polity Press with the above title. In this talk, I will aim to give you a short overview of this study; and then share some of the issues with you.  My goal in this book is to think about the dialogues between power, politics, stories and narratives. The importance of power in understanding narrative has been a growing concern throughout my work; and here I pose the question: how does power shape narrative and how does narrative shape power? I suggest a power-narrative dialogue, where each feeds on each other and generates changes. I have not found this an easy puzzle to handle. Time is limited, but, using examples, amongst the issues I hope to raise are:

  • Narrative Suffering / Narrative Complexity, which looks at the multiplicities of stories ans the background to the whole study
  • Narratives and Power, which examines a few key words ; and suggests the dialogues between power and story
  • Narrative Inequalities, which looks at hierarchical, dominant voices and reactions to them
  • Narrative Contingencies, which examines the life history of a story from birth to death
  • Narrative Wisdoms and Critical Narrative, which ponders both ways of making narratives better and their value; and how narrative is linked to reality and truth? I discuss Critical Narrative questions; and suggest a triangle of narrative truths/ wisdoms: of science, aesthetics and ethics.
  • Narrative Hope, which looks at some of the best ways for narratives to move ahead.

Sociology is a narrative based discipline: we read narratives, research the narratives of our subjects, and ultimately have to write our own narratives. So I hope everyone will find a little something of interest in what I have to say.


“All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice to

The citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.” W.H. Auden September 1st 1939  From Another Time, 1940
We are commending an approach to social inquiry that stands opposed to the view that that researchers should work on presenting themselves as dispassionate experts operating above the fray of morality and politics. All social life takes place as an enactment of substantive human values, and the practice of social research, as much as any other social practice, involves us in unavoidable commitments of value. The proper development of our social understanding requires us to acknowledge ourselves as passionate beings and to be motivated by a passionate concern for understanding the social lives of others. (There are..) human interests at stake in social life. Wilkinson, Iain & Arthur Kleinman (2016) A Passion for Society: How We Think About Human Suffering, Berkeley: University of California Press p197


NARRATIVE POWERS: Making Critical Stories for a Better World

Ken Plummer; April 2017 outline; Contracted by Polity Press March 2016: with deadline November 2017: Word limit: 60,000


Going Backstage: Why a book on Narrative Powers?

Overture: In the Beginning
1 Narrative Suffering and Narrative Complexity: Six Stories in Search of a Better World

Act I Framing Power and Narrative

2 Narrative Powers: Understanding Basic Issues

3 Narrative Humanities: Developing the Powers of Stories

4 Narrative Pragmatism: Making the Stories of Politics
5 Narrative Communications: From Talking Power to Digital Power
Act 2 Making Narrative Trouble
6 Narrative Inequalities: Resisting Dominant Tales

7 Narrative Contingencies: Negotiating the Life of a Story

8 Narrative States: Democracies, Autocracies and the Regulation of Stories

9 Global Narrative Media: Digital Stories and their Discontents.

10 Narrative Sufferings: Transcending Unbearable Lives with Critical Storytelling
Act 3 Pursuing Narrative Hope
11 Narrative Wisdoms:  Finding Stories of Truth, Beauty and the Better World

12 Narrative Futures: Creating Sustainable Stories and Cultivating Radical Storied Imaginaries

Reprise:   In the end

14 Into the Woods: Could we ever live happily ever after?
SEE: Plummer, Ken (2016) ’Narrative Power, sexual stories and the politics of story telling’ in Ivor Goodson ed (2016) The Routledge International Handbook of Narrative and Life History. London: Routledge p280-92. This is the background paper which stimulated my interest in writing this book.


All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.

-Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen (1885-1962), Danish author.  And cited in Arendt.

Real Worlds of Human Suffering/Narrative Worlds of Human Suffering

1 Extreme Inequalities and Abject Poverty
2 Ravaged Environments

3 Global Violence, Wars and Cruelties

4 Gender, Sexual Hostility and Violence

5 Expulsions, Exclusions, Dispossessions and Precariousness: from slaves to the dispossessed

6 Capitalist Crises/Economic Breakdown

7 Global Health Risk
8 Religious Hatred, Hostility and Fundamentalisms

9 Digital Inhumanities
10 Criminality, Violence and Lawlessness across the world

11 Political failure; democracy, populism and trouble.

11 Existential Risks

War and Peace              I am Malala                  Weight of the World
9/11                             Tweets from Tahir         Citizen Four

Animal’s People           The Falling Man           Fire at Sea
I have a file with 40 other possibilities from child sex abuse and AIDS to  Torture Stories and Tapestries!

The Fiction –Reality Continuum: Documentary Truths

Mimesis: art and reality
Table: Transforming Narratives in the Digital Era

Digital Life?                                                                Earlier Life? Away from Traditionalism?


Fast ? Slow?
Short? Long?
Fragmented /Hypertext/ Non Linear? Holistic /Bounded/ Linear?  
Formulaic ? Open?
Shallow ? Depth?
Segmented, Niche? General?
Visual? Oral, written?
Outer worlds? Public display? Interior Worlds, Public Life?

Overloaded?                                                                 Time to sit and stare?



The Power of Stories: personal, relational, pratical, community, cultural:
Stories make us human….Jonathan Gottschall The Storytelling Animal (2012) book subtitle
Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies..Yuval Noah Harari  Homo Deus (2016: p178)
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

There does not exist, and never has existed, a people without narratives Barthes, 1966

The Stories of Power
Storytelling is the lifeblood of politics… it is what politicians do, what organizers do, what lobbyists do, what joiners and voters and protesters do. That stories matter is not news to those who practice politics, of course … Frederick Mayer, Narrative Politics 2014 pviii

Notes for a theory?
Definitions: Narratives and Power

An Interactionist theory of power?
Ontology: Language and stories

Human Condition: Differences, uniqueness, vulnerability (Arendt)

The ‘Objective’ Social Reality of Narratives – out there (Durkheim; Arendt; MacIntrye, 1984): Plots, characters, motives, themes: who, what, where, when, why and how?

Narrative Dialogues/Narrative Communications (Bakhtin, Habermas, Benhabib, Frank).

Narrative Actions and Narrative Political Actions

Narrative and Agonistic Politics: Conflicts and cooperation (Wenman, 2013)

Performance and dramatic narrative politics (Edelman, 1988, Butler, 2015; Alexander, 2011)

Narrative Power; the on-going dialogues between telling stories and political actions.

Some dilemmas
The relationships between narrative and story
The relationship between words and deeds, story and action
The relationships between the narrative and reality: mimesis

The nature and truth of narratives (narrative wisdom)

The nature and truth of reality (the humanities and sciences)

The structural versus personal issue (‘The individualism challenge)


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 3rd ed) pxiv


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 New York Times 1992  (Widely quoted but I have not yet tracked this piece….

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


Mobilities: The hierarchical vortex of narrative acts
Narrative acts of           The Politics of the

Speaking                      Hierarchies of Voice and linguistic competence

Reading                       Hierarchies of Literacy

Hearing                        Hierarchies of Listening

Seeing                          Hierarchies of ‘Ways of Seeing’
Feeling                         Hierarchies of Empathy (and emotional intelligence)

Knowing                      Hierarchies of Credibility and Ignorance

Digitalism                    Hierarchies of Digital Skill: The Digital Divide


The dominated live in a world structured by the narratives of others…they can agree to them, adapt to them, or resist them.

Dominant narratives: the key sources of power

1 Economic Power: stories of economy: consumerism, markets, money, financialization, work etc

2 Political Power: stories of nation states, governance, rulers, ‘ocracies’, social movements etc
3 Cultural Power: stories of religion, education, laws

3a Media /Digital Power: stories of media and digital life
4 Military Power/ Violence:: stories of violence, war, armies, coercion
5 Everyday Power: stories told to each other in day to encounters


Interconnecting narratives
(dominant narratives interacting in key intersectional social worlds (locations) of

Stratified Worlds: stories of class, caste, slavery, global poor etc

Gendered World: stories of men, women, feminism, masculinities etc
Ethnic and Racialized Worlds: stories of ethnicity and race, post colonialism etc
Generational Worlds: stories of children, young and old
Worlds of Nation and Place: stories of my country, my community, my home.
Health and Disability Worlds: stories of illnesses and health
Sexualities Worlds: stories of gay, queer, BDSM, trans etc


Religion Worlds: stories of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Judaism etc
Family Worlds: stories of family life
Work Worlds: stories from work

Community worlds: stories of community life
Criminal Worlds: stories of drugs, corruptions, violence

Dislocated worlds: stories from the dispossessed, the marginal and the outside

Counter Narratives / Resisting Narratives
Put bluntly, I can see these as suggesting five major ‘ideal type’ narratives and counter narratives.  This is a basic listing inspired by Robert K Merton (1938).

Dominant Narratives

  1. The Conformist Narratives – which goes along with the story told by dominant groups
    Adjustment Narratives
  2. The Innovation Narratives – which develops a new creative and imaginative story, but one that does not threaten the dominant tales
  3. The Retreatist Narratives – which withdraws from the dominant narrative into its own private world (of indifference, despair, isolation, mental illness, drug use etc)
  4. The Ritualist Narratives – which work to resist dominant stories through a wide ranging repetoires of rituals ( humour, mockery, games…….
    Counter Narratives- Resistance Narratives
  5. The Rebellious Narratives – which reject and may be radical


What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from

T.S. Eliot Little Gidding

Guzmán Nostalgia for the Light (2011)

Contingencies, Moments and Epiphanies in The Social Life Story of a Story
I start to describe a kind of ideal type of ‘journey narrative’ of key moments in stories that start inevitably with narrative silence, move into personal everyday tellings and often public feelings and ultimately dwindle and vanish? I speak of moments rather than stages, as moments move around and change – this is no simple linear trajectory. Far from being linear, these moments and contingencies loop into each other… I raise the issue of narrative tellability: what can be told well and what can’t – and when, where, why and how? And each generation will have different moments….

Before stories

1 Narrative void: what is a ‘putative story’ – the story that is not yet; and how can we speak of it?
In the beginning
2 Narrative birth: how does a story start to be told? Finding a Narrative Voice

Movements into public worlds, mediated worlds
3 Narrative identity: how do stories become part of a sense of self, and possibly ‘stable organising essences’?
4 Narrative mobilization: how do stories move into public spheres and social movements, bridging into community making? How are stories shared, creating new social alliances and worlds? How do stories enter public spheres? How do stories become political?
5 Narrative mediation: how do stories enter digital and traditional media? What are the pathways of our stories into a range of media?
The everyday living of stories: reproduction, institutionalization and resistances

6 Narrative hegemony and narrative habitus: How do stories become clichéd, standardized, habitualized, institutionalized? How do stories become dramatic rituals routinely enacted?
7 Narrative agonistics: How are the original stories questioned and challenged: by whom, where, when, how, why? What are the patterns of accommodation and resistance to a dominant narrative order?

8 Narrative negotiation: How are mainstream stories ‘renegotiated’ and how do challenges bring about modifications and increasing varieties of stories?
The Decline, Death and After Life of a Story

9 Narrative dying: How do stories atrophy, fade, and maybe die? Where do old stories go to die? What is narrative mortality? (eg destruction of buildings, art, book burnings etc)

10 Narrative memories: How are stories memorialized and live on? What is the afterlife of a story? What are Narrative Ghosts? Narrative Legacies? Narrative Archives? Is there a perpetual open endedness….. or?

A note on Narrative Birth:
1 Discovery Narratives: here something that exists is slowly discovered.

2 Meteoric Narratives: a story explodes into consciousness without much or any warning.

3 Evolutionary Narratives – a story unfolds and changes as it moves.

4 Creative Narratives – story inventions, imagining worlds

5 Coercive Narratives – confessionals, coercions; torture stories

Discuss key examples like:

Black, Feminist, Queer and Disability Movements; Truth Commissions; Hiroshima, Vietnam, Ieaq- and war narratives; AIDS; Child Sexual Abuse; Slavery; Torture; Holocaust; Environment
A note on the Politics of Memory, Ghosts and Truth Commissions

Memory, memorializing; collective memory; memory sites, generational memory, autobiographical memory, post memory…
Stories and Testimonials of Trauma, Truth, Remembrance, Reconciliation, Guilt, Shame, Forgiveness, Redemption

Guzmán Nostalgia for the Light (2011)
affirming the value of memory because, as he states, “those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moments. Those who have none don’t live anywhere.”

Narrative Legacies and the changes across Generational Cohorts


No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues. Hannah Arendt ‘Truth and Politics’ in Between Past and Future  p223

Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction. [Bakhtin: From Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics]

Social progress may come about through the employment of vivid stories of personal experience (Allport (1942, p40)).

[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.


The current crisis of ‘Fake News’ etc is far from new: it has been central to academic work on media for a very long time; and indeed even goes back to Plato and Aristotle.

1) Critical Narratives
2) The Triangle of Narrative Wisdom/ Truth


1 The Challenge of Critical Narratives: asking rigorous questions of any story
Look both within the story (what the text says) and outside the narrative (the psycho-social context) to ultimately build critical narratives. Critical Narratives probe:
1 Narrative Complexity: what are the dialogues, pluralities and tensions within and outside?
2 Narrative Powers: how does power work within and outside ?

3 Narrative Humanities: what work is the story doing here for people and society within and outside? How does it function in the world here? And for whom?

4 Narrative Agonistics: what are the political sides, conflicts and tensions within and outside?

5 Narrative Communications: how does the media shape the message within and outside ?

6 Narrative Markets: how is the story turned into a sellable tale within and outside ?

7 Narrative Inequalities: who has a voice and who does is not heard within and outside ?

8 Narrative Contingencies: What is the story of the story within and outside ? How was the story, born, how does it live, where does it go to die? What is the afterlife of the story?

9 Narrative Digitalism: How does digitalism tell this story within and outside?

10 Narrative States: How is it linked to state freedoms within and outside ? Locate in the wider world of nations and trans nationality.

11 Narrative Sufferings: How does suffering emerge here, for whom? Within and outside? And what is being done about it?

12 Narrative Wisdoms: What is the truth, beauty and ethics of the story here within and outside?
13 Narrative Futures: How might this story help cultivate Sustainable Stories within and outside for a better future for all?

  1. The Triangle of Narrative Wisdom
    : In search of Complex Truths: what make a good story?

    1 Epistemological Wisdoms: We need research and ‘the sciences’ to help us document and be critical of what is ‘really real’. The three linked wisdoms of ‘ways of knowing’: cultural, science, realism?

2 Aesthetics Wisdoms: We need appreciative tools to help us understand the better ‘ways of seeing’. The wisdoms of  ‘beauty’ over the ages.

3 Ethical-Political Wisdoms: We need reflexive guidelines on what ‘really’ might make for a good world and a good life. The wisdoms of better worlds over the ages.

Building Epistemological Narratives
drawing from the varying debates on the nature of the best ways to gain human knowledge.  Sciences, Standpoints, Humanities: positivism, hermeneutics, realism and so forth.

Building Aesthetic Narratives
It helps us make judgments about what is valuable and beautiful in human life: a sense of pleasure, beauty, the sublime and the tragic, lightness, irony, metaphor, imagination and its horizons, a sense of the ecstatic, peak experienced or consummations. Above all, it helps make us appreciate what is a good human experience and how life can be distinctive, valuable, and important. Think of anything that engages you – from the heights of music and poetics to dance or reading; to painting and quilting, photography or …..   Think maybe how your heart has soared and your life given meaning, however momentarily, through its creativity and joy….. what does this look like?

Building Narrative Ethics (Derived from: Plummer 2016)

The ethics and politics of ‘Grounded Human Values’ Cultivating grounded narratives and institutions for ‘Better Worlds For All People’
politics and ethics of care
looking after ourselves, each other and the world we live in
A Caring Democracy (Tronto, 2013)

A Peace Making Society (Brewer, 2010)

A Low Carbon Society (Urry, 2011)

politics and ethics of justice, freedom and equality

“being fair and making a more equal world”

A Fair, Just and Democratic Society
(Alexander, 2006; Sandel, 2012;Sayer, 2015; Standing, 2015 ; Urry, 2014; Unger, 2007)
politics and ethics of recognition, dialogues and empathy

“ recognizing, appreciating  and living with human differences”

A Compassionate Society (Sznaider, 2001)
An Empathic Civilization (Rifkin, 2009)
A Dialogic Society (Bakhtin, 1982)

A Multicultural Society (Taylor, 1994)
A Cosmopolitan Society (Beck, 2006; Plummer, 2015)

A Society of Belonging (Yuval-Davis. 2011)

politics and ethics of human capabilities and flourishing

“encouraging human potentials for all”

A Development, Flourishing, Actualizing Society (Sen1999; Nussbaum, 2011)
politics and ethics of human rights, citizenship and dignity

living with dignity and respecting the rights of all to an equal dignity

A Human Society with citizenships, human rights and dignity (Marshall, 1950; Isin and Turner, 2002; Plummer, 2003; Turner, 2006b)

These are almost the foundations of our humanities: truth, beauty and the good world.  But we need much more:



I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question: “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part “ Alasdair MacIntyre After Virtue

Critical narratives are vital but they are not enough. We may live in dark times, but there may also be too much negativity in the world. Here we find the inevitability of disappointment but the importance of hope.  Realistic utopianism and the need to dream forward.

New sociologies of hope and optimism: Bloch, Wright, Levitas, Solnit, Holmes.
Narratives of Hope, Narrative Hope

Narratives of Hope

1 Cultivating Sustainable Cosmopolitan Narratives

2 Seeking Grounded Everyday Narrative Utopias

3 Developing Future Narrative Imaginaries of Better Worlds …. to come

4 Building Narrative Communities with good stories to tell… to come

5 changing our stories for a better world….to come

Narrative Hope
Stories make us human. Human life is vulnerable. We need stories to get through the day; and we need good stories to make a better world. The very act of telling and acting with good stories can give us hope…. How to make sure this works well?
And so: can we/ did we all live happily ever after?

Careful the tale you tell, children will listen….

You move just a finger, say the slightest word,
Something’s bound to linger, be heard
No one is alone.
Stephen Sondheim, 1986, Into the Woods


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