Tales of a Critical Humanist: BSA Presidential Lecture 2011

TALES OF A CRITICAL HUMANIST British Sociological Association, October 2011


The BSA President, Professor John Brewer, proudly announces the third of a series of Presidential events to mark the 60th Anniversary of the British Sociological Association. The event will take place at the British Library Conference Centre, London on Monday 17th October 2011. The conference starts at 10:00 and ends at 16:00.

Monday 17th October 2011

10:00 – 10:20 Coffee and Registration

Conference Centre Foyer

10:20 – 10:30 Welcome

Professor John Brewer, BSA President & University of Aberdeen.

Jude England, Head of Social Sciences, British Library


10:30 – 11:30 Ken Plummer – Tales of Critical Humanist                   followed by questions and discussion



11:30 – 11:45 Break

Conference Centre Foyer

11:45 – 12:30 Jeffrey Weeks – Plummer on Sexualities

with contributions from the floor



12:30 – 13:15 Liz Stanley – Plummer on Narratives, Life Stories and Autobiography

with contributions from the floor




13:15 – 14:15 Lunch                                                                                                                            

Conference Centre Foyer                          

14:15 – 15:00 Rob Stones – Plummer on Symbolic Interactionism and Critical Humanism

with contributions from the floor



15:00 – 15.45 Future Directions? Roundtable Discussion

Chair: John Brewer

Ken Plummer, Jeffrey Weeks, Liz Stanley and Rob Stones, with contributions from the floor


15:45 – 16:00 Refreshments

Conference Centre Foyer

16:00 Close


Ken Plummer’s short Powerpoint Presentation to honour 60 years of the BSA –  Sociology Dreaming: A Celebration of 200 years of Sociological Imaginations in the U.K. will be shown at 10:10,  2:05 & 4:05.

 The day aims to celebrate 60 years of the British Sociological Association and to do this through a consideration of one U.K. sociologist whose work has spanned forty-five years of the Association’s life. Ken Plummer has worked to bring ‘marginal’ topics, theories and methods to the forefront of contemporary sociology and the day will consider the value of such developments.  His ’tales’ will provide a personal, panoramic view of the state of sociology.


 Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and has been a doubting sociologist for over 45 years. Since the 1960’s, he has helped to pioneer the sociological study of contemporary gay life and develop a critical sexualities studies as well as playing a prominent role in developing a focus on life story and narratives in sociology. Amongst his key books are Sexual Stigma (1975), The Making of the Modern Homosexual (edited, 1981), Documents of Life: An Invitation to Critical Humanism (1st ed 1983; 2nd ed 2001), Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds (1995) and Intimate Citizenship: Private Decisions and Public Dialogues (2003). He has aimed to foster a humanistic sociology that works against the grain through its focus on individuals, reflexivity and political values – a sociology he calls Critical Humanism. His most recent book Sociology: The Basics (2010) is a call to arms for a sociology that will help make a ‘better world for all’.

Jeffrey Weeks is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at London South Bank University and a pioneer of gay and lesbian studies and the social historical study of sexualities. His most recent book is The Languages of Sexuality (2011).

Liz Stanley is Professor of Sociology & Director of the Centre for Narrative and Auto/Biographical Studies at the University of Edinburgh and a pioneer of feminist epistemology, and auto/biographical studies. Her most recent book is Mourning Becomes… Post/Memory and the Concentration Camps of the South African War (2009). A new edited collection is currently being worked on (with Ken’s involvement): Documents of Life Revisited.

Rob Stones is Professor of Sociology & Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Essex and a pioneer of structuration theory. His most influential works are Structuration Theory (2005) and Key Sociological Thinkers (2nd ed 2008).

Delegate list


First Name Institution Email Address
Alldred Pam Brunel University pam.alldred@brunel.ac.uk
Allegranti Beatrice Whitelands College b.allegranti@roehampton.ac.uk
Almack Kathryn University of Nottingham k.almack@nottingham.ac.uk
Aoyama Kaoru Kyoto University kaoru@jca.apc.org
Arber Anne University of Surrey a.arber@surrey.ac.uk
Arrowsmith Anna anna@easyote.co.uk
Bacchini Simon The British Library simone.bacchini@bl.uk
Banafshei Moslem
Becker Jane Office for Criminal Justice Reform – Equalities Team Jane.Becker@cjs.gsi.gov.uk
Birks Steve University of Warwick
Boahen Godfred Open University
Boggis Allison University Campus Suffolk a.boggis@ucs.ac.uk
Bowstead Janet London Metropolitan University j.bowstead@londonmet.ac.uk
Braybrook Debbie Leeds Metropolitan University d.braybrook@leedsmet.ac.uk
Brewer John University of Aberdeen j.brewer@abdn.ac.uk
Carlin Eric Birbeck College, London eric.carlin@live.com
Carrabine Eamonn Richard University of Essex eamonn@essex.ac.uk
Carrigan Mark University of Warwick m.a.carrigan@warwick.ac.uk
Cartlidge Jacqueline Canterbury Christ Church University jacki.cartlidge@canterbury.ac.uk
Chalari Athanasia University of Manchester
Chappell Anne Brunel University anne.chappell@brunel.ac.uk
Charles Vikki Kings College London vikki.charles@kcl.ac.uk
Ciupijus Zinovijus University of Leeds zc@lubs.leeds.ac.uk
Clark John
Clement Sarah Kings College London sarah.clement@kcl.ac.uk
Colgan Fiona London Metropolitan University f.colgan@londonmet.ac.uk
Compton Richard King’s College London richard.compton@kcl.ac.uk
Coombs Sarah University Campus Suffolk
Cordingley Kevin Brunel University London kevin.cordingley@brunel.ac.uk
Crowhurst Isabel Birkbeck University of London i.crowhurst@bbk.ac.uk
Davies Jacqueline City University j.p.davies@city.ac.uk
Deacon Maureen University of Chester m.deacon@chester.ac.uk
Dewan Indra University of East London indradewan@yahoo.com
Dhuffar Manpreet Brunel University manpreet_dhuffar@hotmail.co.uk
Dysart Tony tonydysart@yahoo.co.uk
Earthy Sarah University of Surrey s.earthy@surrey.ac.uk
Edelmann Achim University of Cambridge ae272@cam.ac.uk
Ellingham Brett Cranfield University brettellingham@yahoo.co.uk
Evans David University of Sussex de49@sussex.ac.uk
Fathi Mastoureh University of East London fathi.mastoureh@gmail.com
Fincher Sally University of Kent s.a.fincher@kent.ac.uk
Fisher Kimberly University of Oxford kimberly.fisher@sociology.ox.ac.uk
Fleetwood Jennifer University of Kent j.fleetwood@kent.ac.uk
Fox Nick University of Sheffield n.j.fox@shef.ac.uk
Franchi Marina London School of Economics and Political Science m.franchi@lse.ac.uk
Fraser Wilma Canterbury Christ Church University wilma.fraser@canterbury.ac.uk
French Maggie
Gabb Jacqui The Open University
Glucksmann Miriam University of Essex glucm@essex.ac.uk
Greer Chris City University Chris.Greer.1@city.ac.uk
Guest Carly Birbeck College, London carlyguest@yahoo.co.uk
Hadley Robin Keele University r.a.hadley@ilcs.keele.ac.uk
Hargreaves Katrina Institute of Education, University of London k.hargreaves@ioe.ac.uk
Harrington Jean University of Exeter j.l.harrington@exeter.ac.uk
Harris Magdalena London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine magdalena.harris@lshtm.ac.uk
Hart Graham University College London g.hart@ucl.ac.uk
Henry Philip University of Derby p.m.henry@derby.ac.uk
Herbrand Cathy Universite Libre de Bruxelles cathy.herbrand@ulb.ac.be
Hetherington Donna University of Edinburgh d.m.hetherington@sms.ed.ac.uk
Hickman Nicola University College Plymouth St Mark & St John nicolahickman@live.co.uk
Hilaire Antoinette University of Essex asaint@essex.ac.uk
Hollworth Ivan ihollworth@mac.com
Howes Cassandra University of Bedfordshire cass.howes@beds.ac.uk
Jackson Liz British Sociological Association Liz.Jackson@britsoc.org.uk
James David University of the West of England david.james@uwe.ac.uk
Jasper Ian Canterbury Christ Church University ian.jasper@canterbury.ac.uk
Jenkins Celia University of Westminster jenkinc@wmin.ac.uk
Jolly Margaretta University of Sussex m.jolly@sussex.ac.uk
Jordanoska Aleksandra aleksandra.jordanoska@cantab.net
Jugureanu Alexandra Brunel University alexandra.jugureanu@gmail.com
Kaasa Adam London School of Economics and Political Science a.r.kaasa@lse.ac.uk
Kelly Liz London Metropolitan University l.kelly@londonmet.ac.uk
Kinkead Randal randalkinkead@yahoo.co.uk
Klesse Christian Manchester Metropolitan University c.klesse@mmu.ac.uk
Kong Travis The University of Hong Kong travisk@hku.hk
Krishnan Sneha Oxford University sneha.krishnan@qeh.ox.ac.uk
Kulpa Robert Birbeck College, London roberto@kulpa.org.uk
Landstrom Catharina University of East Anglia c.landstrom@uea.ac.uk
Lawson Nick
Lewis Ruth London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Ruth.Lewis@lshtm.ac.uk
Lockwood Kelly University of Huddersfield k.lockwood@hud.ac.uk
Lomax Helen The Open University h.j.lomax@open.ac.uk
Longland Everard
Lyon Dawn University of Kent d.m.lyon@kent.ac.uk
Macdougall Alastair alastair.macdougall1@virgin.net
MacMillan Amy University of Leeds a.l.macmillan07@leeds.ac.uk
Madden Mary University of York madden.mary@gmail.com
Maddocks Katie Brunel University London katherine.maddocks@brunel.ac.uk
Mangas Richard richard.mangas@gmail.com
Marques Ana Cristina Instituto Universitario de Lisboa ana.c.marques@iscte.pt
McCourt Christine City University, London christine.mccourt.1@city.ac.uk
McGeeney Ester The Open University e.m.mcgeeney@open.ac.uk
McIntosh Mary marymac@dircon.co.uk
Meah Angela University of Sheffield a.meah@sheffield.ac.uk
Meichsner Sylvia University of Essex smeich@essex.ac.uk
Moon Lyndsey ltmoon24@hotmail.com
Morgan David morgdav389@aol.com
Morgan Marcus Goldsmiths College, University of London marcusmorgan100@gmail.com
Morris Charlotte University of Brighton cmorris392@hotmail.com
Morrow Clair Goldsmiths, University of London clair_morrow@yahoo.com
Mudd Judith British Sociological Association Judith.Mudd@britsoc.org.uk
Mullins Jane University of Essex jmulli@essex.ac.uk
Murcott Anne University of Nottingham anne.murcott@cookbook.plus.com
Newfield Gabriel gabrielnewfield@tiscali.co.uk
Nicholas Lucy University of Edinburgh loocy_n@yahoo.co.uk
Nixson Annabel City University a.nixson@talktalk.net
Njuguna Florence Nyawira
OBrien Gemma gemgem66@talktalk.net
Oktem Pinar University of East Anglia
Oliphant Laurence lal.oliphant@gmail.com
Oliver Caroline University of Cambridge
Oswell David Goldsmiths, University of London d.oswell@gold.ac.uk
Owen Jean ojean27@yahoo.com
Paske Christine
Paternotte David University of Brussels david.paternotte@ulb.ac.be
Pitcher Jane jepitcher@btinternet.com
Plummer Ken University of Essex plumk@essex.ac.uk
Plummer Geoffrey
Plummer Stephanie
Plummer Jonathan jonathanplummer@yahoo.com
Potter William Birkbeck College, University of London william_w_potter@hotmail.com
Reed Vicky Peterborough Regional College
Reynolds Jennifer University of York jmr522@york.ac.uk
Richards Sarah University Campus Suffolk s.richards@ucs.ac.uk
Rivera Macias Berenice Anglia Ruskin University berenice.riveramacias@anglia.ac.uk
Rogers Chrissie Anglia Ruskin University chrissie.rogers@anglia.ac.uk
Roseneil Sasha Birkbeck College, University of London s.roseneil@bbk.ac.uk
Ryan-Flood Roisin University of Essex rflood@essex.ac.uk
Sanger Tamara Anglia Ruskin University tam.sanger@anglia.ac.uk
Schofield Michael University of Essex
Scicluna Rachel The Open University
Sharpe Darren Anglia Ruskin University
Silva Elizabeth Bortolaia The Open University e.b.silva@open.ac.uk
Silva Flores Jeannette University of Warwick jesil2001@hotmail.com
Skamballis Agnes University of Essex askamb@essex.ac.uk
Skyrme Anthony University of Essex
Smart Carol University of Manchester
Smith Kate University of Huddersfield kate.smith@hud.ac.uk
Sorensen Penny University of East Anglia p.sorensen@uea.ac.uk
Spandler Helen University of Central Lancashire hspandler@uclan.ac.uk
Squire Corinne University of East London c.squire@uel.ac.uk
Staddon Patsy University of Plymouth patsy.staddon@plymouth.ac.uk
Stanley Liz University of Edinburgh liz.stanley@ed.ac.uk
Stewart-Park Angela angela@sparkdesign.biz
Stones Salakchome
Stones Klong
Stones Rob University of Essex stones@essex.ac.uk
Storme Marie-Luce storme3@gmail.com
Suen Yiu Tung St Antony’s College, University of Oxford yiu.suen@sociology.ox.ac.uk
Sullivan Oriel University of Oxford oriel.sullivan@sociology.ox.ac.uk
Sweetman Paul King’s College London paul.sweetman@kcl.ac.uk
Swirsky Ruth University of Westminster R.Swirsky@westminster.ac.uk
Taylor Yvette Newcastle University Yvette.Taylor@newcastle.ac.uk
Thomas Michael Cardiff University thomasmj2@cardiff.ac.uk
Thomas Adrienne adriennegoddess@gmail.com
Thorogood Nicola London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine nicki.thorogood@lshtm.ac.uk
Tryfonidou Alina University of Reading a.tryfonidou@reading.ac.uk
Walker Susan Anglia Ruskin University susan.walker@anglia.ac.uk
Ward Richard Manchester University richard.ward@manchester.ac.uk
Weeks Jeffrey London South Bank University weeksj@lsbu.ac.uk
Weir Hanna City University h.h.weir@city.ac.uk
Wellard Ian Canterbury Christ Church University ian.wellard@canterbury.ac.uk
Wilkinson Iain University of Kent I.M.Wilkinson@kent.ac.uk
Williams Lucy University of Kent l.a.williams@kent.ac.uk
Wright Tessa Queen Mary, University of London t.wright@qmul.ac.uk





A BSA ‘Presidential Lecture’ to celebrate 60 years of British Sociological Association:
17th October 2011 British Library Conference Centre


What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another… William James, in Richardson 2006 p381

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.  George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1869.

The paradox of great factual work is that it restores wonder. David Hare. ‘Mere Fact, Mere Fiction’ Lecture to Royal Society of Literature, April 2010

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 as they took the physical sciences as models’
Robert Nisbet,1976: p16

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Joan Didion (title of collection of her essays in 2006).


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


My opening session aims to take stock and set scenes. The short power point on Dreaming Sociology overviews U.K. sociology through images and is my celebration of 60 years of the British Sociological Association. My lecture focuses on the meaning of critical humanism and tells autobiographical tales of my journey through academia before highlighting the pragmatic and storytelling imaginations. Ultimately the key feature of critical humanism is the development of a normative social science and so I will end by briefly connecting to some major politico-ethical values seeking a ‘better world for all’. I always try to connect the personal, the social and the political and this lecture will likewise try to do this. Much of my earlier work lay in ‘subterranean worlds’ (Plummer, 2009) and was on the margins of sociology; but forty five years on, these worlds have become much more mainstreamed (even though far from centre stage). I was delighted when the BSA wanted to do this day, not because of its interest in my own work, but because it marks a public interest and concern with a style and form of sociological work that many adopt but which is still often not taken very seriously by most.  

Prologue: Dreaming Sociology: Celebrating 200 Years of Sociological Imaginations in the U.K. (to honour 60 years of the BSA)

1. Biographical Tales: Becoming a Critical Humanist

2. What Critical Humanism is – and is not

3. The Pragmatic & Storytelling Imaginations

4. Tales of Meliorism and Humanist Hope? Dreaming of a Better World



Biographical Tales: From Queer Interactionist to Critical Humanist

1960-1966           A Queer Youth? From ‘Victim’ to ‘Coming out’: Sexual Stigma (1975)

1966-1975           Gay Interactionist/ Gay Liberationist: Making of a modern homosexual (1981)

1975-1985           Studying Sexual Differences through life stories & the darkness of AIDS: Documents of life (1983)

1985-1995           Going global, postmodernism and a queer citizen: Telling Sexual Stories (1995)

1995-2004           Inequalities, social justice and the bigger picture: Intimate Citizenship (2003)

2004-2007           Illness: (A Transplanted Life! ? 2008)

2007 onwards    Born again; reclaiming life thankfully.


Tales of the Search for Meaning: “ I arrive and I try to make sense of it…..

The film Basil Dearden’s Victim(1961): starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms was the first English film to (sort of ) use the term ‘homosexual’ and became a major vehicle for law change.
I started my first ever article (in 1973) with the following:
In both England and America, homosexuality is a stigma symbol. To be called a homosexual is to be degraded, rendered as morally dubious, or treated as different. To be publicly known as a homosexual is to invite your employer to sack you, your parents to reject you, the law to imprison you, the doctor to cure you, the moralist to denounce you, the priest to pity you, the liberal to patronise you and the queer basher to kill you. Further, given the currently fashionable theories of homosexuality which locate its origins in the parents, it is to court shame not just for yourself – but for your parents and loved ones too.Given such costs it is little wonder that most homosexuals elect to conceal their identity from public gaze.
And ended it with:
In the immediate future, there are signs that this is about to change – that homosexuality will become increasingly visible, spoken about and an issue; and that sexuality will become a more public experience. If this does happen, the interaction problems analysed in this article will become speedily updated.  P103 ; p120

(See: Ken Plummer ‘Awareness of Homosexuality’ (1973) in Roy Bailey and Jock Young Contemporary Social Problems  (1973) Farnborough: Saxon; Lexington, Mass: Lexington)


On Critical Humanism: What it is – and what it is not

“What Humanism means to me is an expansion, not a contraction, of human life, an expansion in which nature and the science of nature are made the willing servants of human good.” — John Dewey, “What Humanism Means to Me”

I have written about this in a number of places & I cannot repeat it all here. But here are a few more clarifications:

1. A focus on human
a. Human
: a clear focus on human beings – persons, people and a species – that embodied, huffing and puffing, little animal …… Looking out for people and their (funny/queer) ways….
b. Humane – characterized by kindness, mercy, sympathy, etc; inflicting as little pain as possible. Looking for kindness….

c. Humanitarian  – ‘having concern for or helping to improve the welfare and happiness of people’. Looking for a better world for all…..

d. Humanities– ways of understanding which include arts and sciences: from poetry to statistics, from life stories to interviews, from art to maps, from film to drama, from documentary to journalism: (see Nisbet, 1976).

Looking for Sociological Wisdom: Science alone – crucial as it is – will not ‘save us’. We need to combine science with the arts – and experience, imagination and pragmatics.
We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)
2. A diversity of humanisms. Alfred McLung Lee – an early champion-sees it everywhere:

Humanism has figured in a wide range of religious, political and academic movements. As such it has been identified with atheism, capitalism, classicism, communism, democracy, egalitarianism, populism, nationalism, positivism, pragmatism, relativism, science, scientism, socialism, statism, symbolic interactionism, and supernaturalism, including versions of ancient paganisms, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Mohammedanism. It has also been rationalized as being opposed to each of these. It has served as an ingredient in movement against each. And these terms do not at all suggest all of humanism’s ideological and social associations’ (Lee, 1978: 44-5)

3. Essentialist Critique: An openness of humanities: Humanity is open not fixed – yet critical: it does not presume what this human being ‘really’ (essentially) is and keeps its eye open to a wide range of possibilities. It strongly rejects the critiques that:

  1. Humanism is a secular view. No ! It is not necessarily atheistic – but it is against religious absolutism and dogma, and many of its institutional forms.
  2. Humanism is  a product of the West, of Europe or the Enlightenment. No! It is most surely found in many cultures and across history (although there is a specific, if limited and limiting, form identified with the West)
  3. Humanism is too cheery and simple minded. No! It agrees that much of human history and contemporary experience shows human beings can be nasty, vile, cruel beasts- but there is a positive side too, a world of possibilities for good, and that has to be encouraged
  4. Humans are a superior being in the universe. No! Sadly there are versions that do say this- but  critical humanism places the human being in a much wider environment of animals and nature in a vast universe: it values the species but has to be humble about it. We are a small insignificant – but self important – little animal, we are the ‘little gods who shit’ of Ernest Becker (1976).

4.Some Key features of a Critical Humanist Stance

The potentialities and capabilities of human beings should lie at the centre of our social analysis: we look at a cascade of continuous complexities and possibilities, multiplicities, contradictions, contingencies etc…(The Existential Predicament). We dwell in grounded human social worlds of:

Communications:  we are symbol manipulating , meaning-making, narrating animal

Complexities and multiplicities: the vastness of space and time   – the search for simplicity
Contingencies: hurled out in the universe, we confront moments  – the search for causality

Creativities: we act in this world (though much is ruled by the law of inertia) 

Contradictions: pushed by opposites, antimonies, dialectics. Paradoxes, polarities all the time

Change: emergence, flow moving on all the time

Today:   a) The Practical World

b) The Narrating Animal

c) The Pluralistic World

d) The Contingent Life

e) The Contradictory World

The Pragmatic and Storytelling Imaginations


a) The Practical World

If we strain out the differences, personal and philosophical, they had with one another, we can say that what these four thinkers (Homes, James, Peirce and Dewey) had in common was not a group of ideas but a single idea- an idea about ideas. They all believed that ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools – like forks and knives and microchips – that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves. They believed that ideas are produced not by individuals – but by groups of individuals – that ideas are social. They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and unreproducible circumstance, their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability. Luis Menard: The Metaphysical Club 2001 pxi-xii

Pragmatism is in reality… only the application of Humanism to the theory of knowledge’ Schiller

‘Human beings have responsibilities only to one another  (and this) entails giving up representationalism and realism….. (Bernstein : 2010: p211)

If there is anything distinctive about pragmatism, it is that it substitutes the notion of a better human future for the notions of ‘reality’, ‘reason’ and ‘nature’. Richard Rorty: Philosophy and Social Hope


Pragmatism might be summarised in three simple exhortations:

  1. 1.      Stay Grounded! 
  2. 2.      Be Practical! (look to consequences, outcomes, final things)
  3. Do It Well! (raising issues of norm – what is ‘well’).


b) A key feature of human life: narrative – we are the narrating animal: Stories as our Practical Companions in Life


We need stories in order to live. Joan Didion (in book of that name).

Narrative makes the earth habitable for human beings.  Arthur Frank

[There is ] a crucial feature of the human condition that has been rendered almost invisible by the overwhelmingly monological bent of mainstream modern philosophy… This crucial feature of human life is its fundamentally dialogical character. …The monological ideal seriously underestimates the place of the dialogical in human life  Charles Taylor Multiculturalism 1992

We are the Narrating Animal: we create, appreciate and live ‘narrative realities’

Narrative Realities as Doubly Dialogic: We have internal and external ‘others’

Narratives as companions in life: we invent, travel and die with them  (they can be good or bad companions)
My Coming Out Stories
My Sickness Stories

Both saved my life!

So careful the stories we tell,
Stories have consequences


c) The Pluralistic World: On a multiplicity of stories: William James and A Plural World
Key: Vincent Van Gogh Starry Starry Eyes ( and see also the video on you tube by Don McLean)

The Met
Brian Cox Wonders of the Universe

Kenneth Librecht, Snowflakes.  Snow (Louis MacNeice)

Marcel Proust Rembrance of Things Past
Umberto Eco  The Infinity of Lists
Gustave Dore’s On Dante’s Divine Comedy

Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project

Ridley Scott & Kevin MacDonald Life in a Day
Mike Davis Planet of Slums

Death and genocide….“We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war”—King George V, 11 May 1922


d) The Contingent World

The films: Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors (1998) with Gwyneth Paltrow & John Hannah;
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) with James Stewart, Donna Reed & Lionel Barymore

‘Plausible worlds’ in history: ‘alternate worlds’ in science fiction; The Black Swan thesis.


e) A Contradictory World

The nonsense of the polarised world: grand abstracted dualism……”In the Pragmatic Attitude, traditional dualisms are undercut wholesale and wholly bypassed “ John Stuhr:2010p198

Illness as a denial of contradictions – body/mind; freedom/choice; social/individual are lived together in experience. etc
An aside: My Own Story Continues with TALES OF A TRANSPLANT

TALES OF MELIORISM & COSMOPOLITAN HOPE: grounded world stories of human difference flourishing as a baseline for a normative sociology

Caveat: “It’s not given to people to judge what’s right or wrong. People have eternally been mistaken and will be mistaken, and in nothing more than in what they consider right and wrong.”

Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)


Meliorism – and Cosmopolitan Hope: Progress depends on what human beings do. Avoid misanthropy, miserabilism and melancholia wherever you can – they incapacitate. Be hopeful and positive. Watch out for the negative face of too much critique.  Grasp the future of new generations. Go global. A whisper of utopia

Sociology has to be theoretical, empirical – and normative. Normative sociology is charged with examining the normative base lines of social life. It can do this abstractly but it can also do this through the empirical examination of human stories – through Grounded Moral Stories, Narratives of Ethics, Tales of Justice and Rights, and Stories of Hope and Human Flourishing….. It can do all this practically and with small scale images of new and better societies….

1 The Society of Meliorism & Cosmopolitan Hope: ‘Dreaming ahead’ (Bloch)

2 The Empathic Society
: Create a Social Bond, Cultivate Dialogic and Compassionate Ethics:

From James: We have as many selves as there are situations. From Cooley: We dwell in the minds of others without knowing it; the looking glass self. from Mead: The self is reflexive. From Dewey: Human life is experience. From Becker: We do things together. From Goffman: The world in truth is a wedding. From Strauss: Mirrors and identity, continuous permutations of action.

The relational flow and the making of the social bond:

  • Communication
  • Recognition
  • Role taking
  • Reflexivity
  • Respect
  • Dialogue
  • Empathy
  • Sympathy
  • Compassion
  • Generosity & Kindness
  • Caring for others


3 The Flourishing Society Encourage worth while Flourishing Lives: Human possibilities and capabilities facilitated:

It is time sociology took her work more seriously. Links to Nussbaum and capability/ development theory.  NB

i)               keep practical not abstract ( Nussbaum keeps close to women & India)

ii)              capabilities are wide open and changing – they are not fixed

iii)            Social relations helps shape them and enable them to flourish

The Just/Human Rights Society:  Work for Social Justice and Human Rights for all:
[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.

I am against a world riddled with the values of the market place
I need Cosmopolitan Hope – a dreaming forward-

in a world of often unbearable darkness.

I need Wisdom – experience and science ands art-

in a world of chaotic complexity.
I need Empathy- my bridge to the others –

 in a world of monologic terrorism.

I need a Human Flourishing  – a potential developed for all-

in a world of wasted lives.

I need Social Justice for all- a fairness and freedom and equality-

in a world ruled without justice
I need Meliorism – those practical actions

which will make the world a better place.

Above all: recall the golden rule:
Treat others as you would be done by.

And Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.


Table: Dreaming of a Better Social World: In Defence of Social Values over Economic and Nationalistic Values  (in process)

Feature of Society and People to be developed Value Literature ‘Enemies’ to question & challenge
Hope; Melioration; Progress Progress; cautious optimism Science Fiction


Despair, nihilism
Role taking, empathy & dialogue Sympathy The Empathic Society; Dialogic ethics, Recognition theory, Monologic Terrorism; lack of empathy; a certain blindness in human beings
Altruism – concern with others Compassion, kindness & care Feminist Care Theory

The Compassionate Temperament




Justice, Democracy and Social Rights Fairness, Freedom, Equality The Philosophies of Justice and Human Rights Authoritarianism; Tyranny of others, Elitism, Scapegoating, Bullying….Slavery, the Unfree, Unjust. Unequal
rights denied
Human Flourishing ‘The Good Life’ & ‘The Virtues’ Human Capability Theory with Rights and Flourishing Neglect, Exploitation

Denial of opportunities,

Incapacitation. Societies based on economic values centrally.

Cosmopolitanism Acceptance of differences Cosmopolitan theory/ Difference theory Narrowness


Humanitarianism Societies based on caring for the others The Humanitarian Society Cruel, violent, genocidal societies
Wisdom Experience– both historical and personal;

Science – both hard and soft;

Imagination – both limited and unlimited

Confucius and all the ‘wise thinkers across cultures and throughout history Folly , Stupidity (which is not the same as ignorance); Blind science, blind rationality.


Closing Thoughts: From William James (composed with the centenary of William James in mind (b1842; d1910)

William James asks his uncle : What is a life for
? And is told: Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.

(cited in Robert Coles: Handing one Another Along (2010) p241.)
Now the blindness in human beings … is the blindness with which we are all inflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves. We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his (sic) own duties and the significance of the situations that these call forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of their lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to deal in an absolute way on the value of other person’s conditions or ideals…What is the result of all these considerations…?  It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly happy and interested in their own ways, however unintelligible they may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he (sic) stands… William James, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings…. James (1899/1913).

These then are my last words to you. Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.  The Will to Believe. (1896)

The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me…William James

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride. William James: Letters; and also cited in Biography” by Robert D Richardson   2006/7   p384



Dreaming Sociology: Celebrating 200 Years of Sociological Imaginations
Wolf Lepenies                                             Between Literature and Science: the Rise of Sociology 1992 Cambridge
Philip Abrams                                             The Origins of British Sociology 1968 Chicago
A.H. Halsey                                                   A History of Sociology in Britain 2004 Oxford
Jennifer Platt                                               The British Sociological Association: A Sociological History 2003 Sociology Press
Mike Savage                                                 Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1948 2010 Oxford
Jojn Brewer & Jennifer Platt eds            “60 years of Impact- reflecting on 60 Years of the BSA and British Sociology”                                                    Sociological Review Online Vol 16. August 2011.

Humanism & Critical Humanism

Robert Nisbet                                             Sociology as an Art Form 1976   Oxford

Richard Rorty                                            ‘The Humanist Intellectual: Eleven Theses’  In Richard Rorty Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) Penguin

Umberto Eco                                               The Infinity of Lists (2009) Macelhose Press
Martha Nussbaum                                      Cultivating Humanity (1997) Harvard/ Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities (2010) Princeton

Robert Coles                                                Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection. (2010) NY: Random House
Alfred McLung Lee                                     Sociology for Whom?(1978)Oxford/Toward Humanist Sociology(1973)Prentice

Ernest Becker                                             The Denial of Death
Herbert Blumer                                          Symbolic Interaction (1969) Prentice Hall Ch 1


The Pragmatic Imagination

John M Stuhr  ed                                         100 Years of Pragmatism: William James’s Revolutionary Philosophy. 2010 Indiana

Richard J. Bernstein                                 The Pragmatic Turn ( 2010) Polity
Ralph M Leck                                               Georg Simmel and Avant-Garde Sociology (2000) Humanity
Maurice Hamington                                   The Social Philosophy of Jane Addams  2009  Illinois

Filipe Carreira Da Silva                            Mead and Modernity: Science, Selfhood  and Democratic Politics  2008  Lexington

Louis Menand                                             The Metaphysical Club   2001  Flamingo

Steven Fesmire                                           John Dewey & Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics 2003 Indiana

William R.Caspary                                     Dewey on Democracy   2000 Cornell

Malachowski, Alan                                     The New Pragmatism  2010 Acumen

Richardson, Robert. D                             William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism. 2006 Mariner

William James                                              Collected Works

Mitchell Aboulafia                                      The Cosmopolitan Self: George Hebert Mead and continental philosophy (2001) Illinois

Ian Wilkinson                                             Suffering: A Sociological Introduction (2005) Polity

Zygmunt Bauman                                       Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its outcasts (2004) Polity

———                                                           Collateral Damage (2011) Polity

Pierre Bourdieu et al                                Misery of the World/ The Weight of the World : social suffering in contemporary society   (1993)Polity

Rebecca Solnit                                             A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) Penguin


Narratives & Dialogues

Arthur W Frank                                         Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology (2010) Chicago
Christopher Booker                                 The Seven Basic Plots  (2004)  Continuum

Arthur Kleinman                                        Writing at the edge: discourse between anthropology and medicine (1995) California

Taylor, Charles  et al                                  Multiculturalism: Examining the politics of recognition (1994) Princeton

Arnett, Ronald C. et al                               Communication Ethics, Literacy: Dialogue & Difference (2009) Sage

Visions Of A Better World: Samples of Debates On Social Justice, Human Flourishing and Dialogues
Ernst Bloch                                                  The Principle of Hope 3 Vols 1953  (new edition from MIT)
Vincent Grapanzano                                  Imaginative Horizons  (2004) Chicago

Raymond Tallis                                           Aping  Makind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2011) Acumen
Sznaider, Nathan                                        The Compassionate Temperament: Care and Cruelty in Modern Society ( 2001) Rowman & Littlefield
Martha Nussbaum                                      Creating Capabilities:  Human Development Approach  (2011) Harvard

Amartya Sen                                                The Idea of Justice (2009) Allen Lane.

Michael Sandel                                             Justice: What’s the right thing to do? (2007/2009) Penguin
Iris Marion Young                                                       Justice and the politics of difference (1990) Princeton

Andrew Sayer                                             Why Things Matter to People. 2011. Cambridge
Kay Schafer & Sidonie Smith                  Human Rights and Narrated Lives (2004) Palgrave

Molly Andrews                                           Shaping history: Narratives of  political change (2007) Cambridge
Frank, Arthur W. (2004)                         The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine and How to Live. Chicago

Noblit, George W. & Van O Dempsey    The social construction of virtue: the moral life of schools (1996) SUNY.
Nelson, Hilde Lindemann ed (1997)     Stories and their limits: Narrative approaches to bioethics. Routledge

Rickie Sollinger et al                                  Telling stories to change the world  (2008) Routledge

Joseph Davis                                               Stories of Change: Narrative and social movements  (2002) SUNY

Benhabib, Seyla                                          The Claims of Culture: Equality and diversity in the global era (2002)

Zygmunt Bauman                                       Postmodern Ethics (1999) Blackwell

Kwame Anthony Appiah                         The Ethics of Identity (2007) Princeton

Rifkin, Jeremy                                            The Empathic Civilization: The race to global consciousness in a world of crisis (2009) Polity

Some recent articles by Ken Plummer
My first article was:
Ken Plummer ‘Awareness of Homosexuality’ (1973) in Roy Bailey and Jock Young Contemporary Social Problems  (1973) Farnborough: Saxon
and my last(Forthcoming) is: : ‘My Multiple Sick Bodies: Symbolic Interaction, Auto/ethnography and  the Sick Body’ – in Bryan S. Turner ed Blackwell Handbook of the Body  forthcoming 2012
Since my illness, my main articles have been:
2011: ‘Critical Humanism & Queer Theory’ with new afterword and comment ‘Moving On’: 4th edition of Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research

2011: ‘Labelling Theory Revisited: Forty years on’ in Helge Peters & Michael Dellwing eds Langweiliges Verbrechen (Boring Crimes)  Weisbaden: VS Verlag p83-103

2010 ‘Generational Sexualities, Subterranean Traditions, and the Hauntings of the Sexual World: Some Preliminary Remarks. Symbolic Interaction. Vol 33. N0 2 p163-191

2010 ‘The Social Reality of Sexual Rights’, in Peter Aggleton at al eds Routledge Handbook of Sexuality, Health and Rights . Routledge. P45-55

2009 ‘Outsiders, Deviants and Countercultures: Subterranean Tribes and Queer Imaginations’  in Gurminder Bhambra and Ipek Demir 1968 in Retrospect: Amnesia, Alterity. Palgrave

2009 A quiet catharsis of comprehension: a poetic for Paul’ Symbolic Interaction, 32: 3, p174-6.

Studying Sexualities for a Better World? Ten years of Sexualities’ Editor’s Introductory Essay to the 10th Anniversary  Edition of Sexualities Volume 11,  No1-2 p7-22

‘The Flow of Boundaries : Gays, Queers and Intimate Citizenship’, in Christine Chinkin et al: Crime, Social Control and Human Rights: From moral panics to states of denial :Essays in Honour of Stanley Cohen. Devon: Willan Publishing (2007)
‘Intimate Citizenship in an Unjust World’  in The Blackwell Companion to Social Inequalities edited by Mary Romero & Judith Howard (Blackwell, 2005 : Ch 4 p75-99)

APPENDIX: Seven Significant (and inter-related) Social Stories: unfinished and in process              There is a possible bridge here – yet to be explored – to Simmel’s forms of social life

1.SEARCH FOR MEANINGS / Dominant, subterranean, imaginative Remembrance of Things Past The Narrated Life
“ We arrive and try to make sense of it….. e.g.Weber; Interpretive sociologies;stories; discourse, symbols, language, culture Code of the Street
2. GOING ON JOURNEYS/ Transformations The Illiad; The Contingent Life
Origins/ Quests

“ We move on. Our lives are  journeys – we are always changing… we might get there, we might not ….)

e.g.Macro: Social Change
Micro: Careers; contingencies; turning points.

‘Alternate realities’ &

alternate histories

Moral careers of the mental patient
Polish Peasant
The Jack Roller
3.BEING DIFFERENT/ Inequalities Invisible Man; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Stranger The Multiple Life

The Unequal Life

The Outsider Life

“I am what I am but why are you not like me?” e.g.Theories of inequalities, marginality, strangers, social exclusion etc.Muliplicities
William James  & The Pluriverse
Outsiders; Becoming Deviant;

The Politics of Difference

4. EXPERIENCING SUFFERINGS /Troubles The Grapes of Wrath; King Lear; Oedipus; The Scream’ ;Salagana The Wasted Life
The Flourishing Life
“Things go wrong & we are troubled- sometimes very, very troubled” e.g. the troubles of the body, relationships and the environment

Understanding violence,  poverty, the degradation of work, genocide & war:

The Wounded Story Teller; sickness stories;
5. FACING CONTESTS / Conflicts

“We disagree and  struggle with the others”

Moby Dick; Animal Farm; Lord of the Flies The Contested Life
e.g. Power, copnflicts, explitauons; Marx, Simmel, Dahrendorf Feminism; anti –racism; homonormativity; theories of hegemony, power, war, conflict Tilly? Dahrendorf; Feminism…. Patriarchy…Genocide

  We live with ourselves – and the  others”

Middlemarch; To the Lighthouse; The Dialogic Life
e.g.Mead, Freud etc. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; The Managed Heart

“ We have a dream: We look for  utopia, a better world  – or not- and maybe find it….?

The Transcendent Life
e.g. theories of hope, justice, rights, care, empathy, compassion & kindness

8. NOW ADD YOUR OWN….. See Umberto Eco: The Infinity of Lists……….

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