2014: Narrative Research and Documents of Life

Narrative Research and Documents of Life: An Introduction to Humanistic Social Research (two-day course)

University of Essex, Colchester Campus.
Tutor: Ken Plummer from Department of Sociology, University of Essex
This course will run for two days on Thursday 30th  January –Friday 31st January 2014
At 10:00 in Seminar Room 3, Constable Building,


This course will provide an opportunity to examine some recent trends in qualitative and humanistic research, especially the concern with narratives and stories. Telling stories, and their narratives, 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 mainstream social research, they are usually critical to every stage of the human social research process (even as they are so often avoided). In the broadest terms we study the stories that people tell of their lives; we connect these stories to the wider culture and political systems; 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 dwell in the narratives and stories that 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 the very wide potentials of a multiplicity of tools for telling these stories (including photos and film, biography and self analysis, artefacts and art, documentaries and new technologies); and how stories link to values such as care, dignity and justice.


This two day course will have an open style, drawing from participant’s experiences and research whilst also providing a strong critical frameworks for thinking and a detailed referencing system to follow up. It will probe and investigate, amongst other things:

  1. What is ‘humanistic research’?
  2. Why are narratives and ‘story telling’ so central to our lives, social life and social research?
  3. What are the multiplicities of forms and techniques of story telling (from life story/autobiography to website blog, from documentary to auto/ethnography)?
  4. What are the key modes in which social science creates (tells/ reports/ writes/ presents/ performs) its ‘narrative findings’?
  5. What are the key tactics and strategies for appreciating (analysing/ evaluating/appraising) narratives and stories? How do we do life stories?
  6. What are 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 sessions will be run in a very open, informal and participatory fashion, though with a lot of structure and input from Ken  – mixing mini lectures, power points visual, discussions, and activities of various kinds.


Before the course

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.

Thursday January 31st

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

12.45 -2.00    Lunch break (but lunch is not provided)

2.00 -4.00      Appreciating Narratives:  a workshop on the understanding and analysis of stories

Friday February 1st

10.00-10.20   Review, Prospectus, Opening discussion

10.20-12.30   Creating Narratives: a workshop on strategies for ‘making our documents’

12.30/45 -2.00         Lunch break (not provided)

2.00-3. 45      Living stories: grounded everyday moralities, the politics of research and the circle of sociological life

3. 45               Overview, conclusions and ‘goodbye hugs’.

 Coffee and tea breaks will be arranged as needed.



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); it can also be accessed  on line at Essex University or via ebooks.com.

It would also be useful to read my Manifesto for Social Stories:

Ken Plummer  “A Manifesto for Social Stories” in Liz Stanley ed Documents of Life Revisited: Narrative and Biographical Methodology for a 21s Century Critical Humanism  (2003) Ashgate               (also on line at web site: http://kenplummer.com/manifestos/a-manifesto-for-stories/)


Note: A feature of the course will be the comprehensive reading guide which will be provided during the course

Tutor information

Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He came to Essex in 1975 and retired in 2006. He is a critical humanist sociologist, meaning that he believes sociology should put human beings at the forefront of their analysis – through always being in their social contexts; using methods and styles of study that respect people and create ethical reflections. He is most noted for his work on narratives and life stories (in Documents of Life, two editions 1983, 2001), which challenged mainstream research methods, and his work on sexual storytelling and intimate citizenship. He was the founder editor of the journal Sexualities in 1996.


This event is open to the general public, but participants in the past have tended to be graduate research students from a range of UK universities. The standard fee for the 2 day course is usually £200 for participants coming from non profit organisations; but this can vary. Students at Essex could use their “Proficio points”.

How to apply

To book your place, please use the online Booking Form on the link below.

For more informal information contact Ken at : plumk@essex.ac.uk


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