2014:Narrative Research on Sickness and Illness

Narrative Research on Sickness and Illness

Friday June 13th 2014 10.00 -4.15 

Constable Building, Seminar Room 3

Ken Plummer


Course Overview:
Telling stories about our illnesses has become a widespread and common feature of the modern world.  We find these sickness stories on blogs and web sites. We tell them in support or therapy groups. They are to be found in best selling books and films. Newspapers and television provide photo-essays, videos and documentaries around the sicknesses of our lives. Every illness from Alzheimer’s and Depression to Cancer and HIV/AIDS has developed its own stories.


This one day course will critically examine some of these recent trends and the development of what has been called ‘illness narratives’ or narrative medicine. A one-day course can only be exploratory and maybe set agendas: it will aim to introduce some of the key ideas of such research, create a space for discussion of a wider array of such experiences including those of the participants, and develop a series of specific critical debates around the content, purpose and analysis of such analysis.

Course Programme

The course will be run in a structured but informal manner with mini-lectures mixed with a lot of discussion. The proposed outline content of the course is:


10.00. Introductions


10.15. An Introduction to Illness Stories – Varieties, Histories, Meanings.

This opening session will introduce the development of the new social science discipline of narrative medicine and overview the Critical Humanist approach to narratives and stories. It will also provide participants with a chance to talk a little of their own interests in this area. I will use my published Manifesto as a guide: see

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/)




11.15 Coffee


11.30. Auto/ethnography of an Illness


In this session, Ken will introduce his own work on illness drawing partially upon his own illness. I will use my recently published article as a guide: see
Ken Plummer            : “My Multiple Sick Bodies: Symbolic Interactionism, Autoethnography and Embodiment” in Bryan S Turner ed Routledge Handbook of Body.

12.45 Lunch break  (lunch is not provided).


1.45. Workshop on Sickness Stories.

Ken will present a simple model of story/narrative analysis which analyses the creation, appreciation and living of stories

Analysing Key Themes of Illness Stories: He will then selectively focus on a range of examples of sickness stories, consider how they are best appreciated , suggesting some of the core generic themes that can be seen to arise from them.

The Role and Value of Illness Stories:  We will end by  asking about the significance of sickness stories in contemporary society and health care. Ken will ask why such ‘sickness stories’ matter –ethically, politically, therapeutically and personally- and critically discuss their role in the twenty first century.

4.00-4.15 Conclusion and Ways Ahead. (If you want to establish an e-mail / blog connection for the group, someone will need to volunteer to do it). .

Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citzenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

                                    Susan Sontag  lllness as Metaphor (p1)


I would advise every sick person to evolve a style or develop a voice for his or her illness. In my own case I make fun of my illness. I disparage it….adopting a style for your illness is another way of meeting it on your own grounds, of making it a mere character in your narrative.

Anatole Broyard Intoxicated by my illness ( p61)


So who is the course for?

The course will be most useful for practitioners in a wide range of health practice. More and more there is a need for understanding the social circumstances of medical problems and stories and narratives are seen as key tools for gaining access to this. In the USA, narrative medicine is growing as a field in doctors training; in the U.K., stories of patients are becoming of greater interest in nurse training; everywhere social movements around health are finding stories to be an important area of work for self understanding and political awareness of illness. The course may also be of value to those who are thinking of writing their own sickness stories. Some educational background in sociology and narrative would be a distinct advantage.

Further information and reading
There are no assignments attached to this course but a detailed reading and ‘going further listing’ will be provided on the course tp enable you to pursue your own research/ work later.  Before the course, it would be ideal if you could look at: Arthur W Frank The Wounded Story Teller: Body Illness and ethics (1995) Chicago 
We will be discussing his work during the day. Some background reading to ‘stories’ could also be helpful: see Ken Plummer Documents of Life-2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism (2001) Sage (which is out of print but on line). A short selection of very different sickness stories include:

Anatole Broyard Intoxicated by my illness (1992). New York: Clarkson Potter
Audre Lorde The Cancer Journals (1980) San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books
Paul Monette Borrowed Times: An AIDS memoir (1988) NY: Harcourt
Jean-Dominique Bauby The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly. (2002/2008) London: Harper
Arthur W.Frank At the will of the body: Reflections on illness Houghton Mifflin 2002
Carolyn Ellis Final Negotations: A story of love, loss and chronic illness Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1995)
Ann Oakley Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body Polity (2007)

But find your own examples: they are everywhere.

Tutor Information

Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He has been involved in developing a focus on life story and narratives in sociology through teaching and writing for over thirty years. His books include 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 fostered a 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’. Between 2004-7 he was seriously ill and has written his own auto/ethnographic account of it. The generosity and skill of a liver transplant saved his life.


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 course is usually £100 for participants coming from non profit organisations, but can vary. Students at Essex should us 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: plumk@essex.ac.uk


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