Ken Plummer teaches sociology at the University of Essex. Plummer has published Documents of Life: An Introduction to the Problems and Literature of a Humanistic Method (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983) and Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change, and Social Worlds (London: Routledge, 1995).
Editors' note: In his discussion of "a sociology of stories," Plummer explores the methodological implications of narrative in social and cultural analysis, in terms of accounts of sexual identity (Gray and McGuigan, 1997, p. 244).
Recently, "stories" have moved to the centre stage of social thought. In anthropology, stories serve as the pathways to understanding culture; in psychology, they serve as pathways to understanding identity; in history, they provide tropes for making sense of the past; in psychoanalysis, they provide "narrative truths" for analysis; in philosophy, they provide the bases for new forms of "world-making" and the key to creating communities (p. 333).
Sociologists might be the last people to grasp the point of this "narrative moment." In fact, sociology is bound up with gathering other people's stories (via interviews and so on) and telling stories (about modernity, class, the degradation of work, and so on). Interestingly, Patricia Clough (1992) claims that "all factual representations of empirical reality, even statistical representations, are narratively constructed. David Maines (1993) argues that the sociologist can approach almost any topic from the narrative perspective.
2. my project
I would like to help develop a sociology of stories--but will do so at an angle. I take as my topic the personal experience narratives of the intimate: the kind of story we see everywhere today. I mean all those stories about coming out as gay and lesbian; about women who discover that they "love too much"; about abortion, rape, and incest as told by survivors; about "new men" who are discovering their newly masculine roots through mythical stories. This book will concentrate on the personal narratives of the intimate in the late 20th century.
These ideas could be applied to any story-telling process; the focus on sexuality is merely one instance. Here, I lay out some of the contours a sociology of stories might take--with wider applicability than just the intimate. Maines and others focus on narrative structures. Key elements relate to the way "events are selected from the past"; the "story" elements of plot, setting, and characterization; and creating a "temporal ordering." A formalist analysis (say) might investigate the artful arrangement of all the parts that make up the "telling," in terms of (a) the "story" elements, (b) the arrangement or presentation of these via the structure, and (c) the effect the author has achieved (pp. 333-34).
By contrast, a sociology of stories would be concerned not with analyzing the formal structures of stories/narratives, but with studying the social roles stories play: they ways they are produced, read, change, and so on. This means trying to answer the following research question: What social role does a particular instance of story-telling play in society? What political process does a particular instance of story-telling play in society? (p. 334). As I said, I take as my "case" the distinctly modern quest to provide personal narratives around the sexual life; much of what I say can be applied to other kinds of story work. I concentrate on the social work they do in cultures, as symbolic interactions and as political processes. I say: It is time to go beyond the text.
I approach this task from a symbolic interactionist perspective: that is, I see the social world in terms of a few ever-changing symbolic interactions--as human beings we are "social world-makers." We use the symbols/languages given us. We play, love and hate, and so on, telling stories about our pasts, presents, and futures. We constantly write the story of the world around us: its times and places, purposes, peoples, and so on. We invent identities for ourselves and others: we locate ourselves and others on these imagined maps. We create communities of concern and areas of activity, for example, politics, religion, domestic life, and so on (p. 334). The point is that these stories continually change. Social science is not cut off from this activity--but is a part of it. In this way, sociologists engage in active problem-solving (pp. 334-35).
Story-telling can be placed at the centre of our symbolic interactions. We focus on neither the solitary individual (who is unknowable) nor on the text (which means nothing standing on its own), but on the interactions which are part of story-telling. We think of story-telling in terms of joint-actions, i.e., people fitting together lines of activity. We say they are engaged in story actions (p. 335).
producers of stories
Some of the people engaged in joint actions may be regarded as producers of sexual stories: these are the sexual story tellers who write lengthy works in which they explore their inner sexual natures. These are the people who provide life histories for sociologists, oral histories for oral historians, and case studies for psychologists. They can even perform their stories.
coaxers, coaches, and coercers
These people possess (momentarily) the power to provoke stories from people. They seduce stories from other people: coaxers become listeners and questioners. They probe, interview, and interrogate. Sometimes they gather in groups to make other people tell their stories. They are the Sigmund Freuds, the Oprah Winfreys, the Shere Hites who probe for the personal narrative. They are the courtroom interrogators, the doctors, the therapists, the tabloid journalists.
consumers, readers, audiences
These people consume the stories, that is, interpret and make sense of them. These people are the viewers who watch the documentary of a transvestite life on prime-time television; the bookworms who consume the biographies of Rock Hudson, Jan Morris, Woody Allen, Madonna, or the latest "sexual scandal."
We study how these "readers" in particular instances interpret stories is a crucial part of understanding stories. Sometimes, they are brought to outrage; sometimes, they are brought to a better understanding. Such consumption might become a passionate hobby--or a matter of great indifference.
I employ the following analytical method: interpretation. We apply the mechanism just outlines to particular cases, analyzing the social and the political work being done by the (three) participants.
All these people are engaged in assembling life story actions around lives, events, and happenings--although they may not be able to grasp the actual life. At the centre of much of this action is the story products: the objects which harbour the meanings that have to be handled through the interaction. These congeal or freeze preconstituted moments of a life from the story teller and the coaxer and await the handling of a reader or a consumer. The meanings are never fixed: they emerge out of a stream of changing interaction between producers and readers in shifting contexts (p. 336).
Stories are told and read in different ways in different contexts. The consuming of a story centres on the different social worlds and interpretive communities who can hear the story in certain ways and who may come to produce their own shared "memories." For example, the stories of people with HIV infection feed into some communities, where care is offered, but into others, where fear is the interpretive frame. These communities are more than just cognitive or symbolic units: they are emotional worlds. These communities themselves are part of wider habitual or recurring networks of collective activity. Stories do not float around abstractly but are grounded in historically evolving communities of memory, structured through age, class, race, gender, and so on.
The mechanisms through which a story is told matter. Telling a story face to face by a camp fire is one thing; telling a story via a pulp-paperback book is another. The modes of story telling vary, from oral, print, electronic, and so on. Once sexual stories were conveyed by the oral modes of folklore and myth; however, today they are conveyed in symbolic forms by a variety of media technologies. Story-telling is not in decline; rather, the channels for story-telling are changing. Many regard film as the narrative medium of the 20th century (p. 337).
We can argue that the developments just mentioned (see Figure 30.1) have much in common with recent developments in linguistic, literary, and media theory. We can see that story-telling has no simple, unitary, or fixed character (pp. 337-38). In fact, setting things out in this way desconstructs, decentres, and destabilises the story. Stories depend upon the constant flow of joint actions linking tellers, coaxers, texts, readers, and contexts in which they are told: tellers can only select, coaxers can only sift, texts can only sieve, and readers can only interpret. These processes link one to another until the connection between reality and the story becomes fragile. We can think of postmodern social theory--except that this approach does not stay at the level of textual analysis: it insists that story production and consumption is an empirical social process involving a stream of joint actions in local contexts--themselves bound into wider negotiated social world (p. 338).
several questions can be asked
It is now possible to ask several questions about sexual stories:
I have chosen one genre of story to analyze: that of the personal experience narrative, the tale told by a person about the self. This is only one kind of sexual story: we might talk about the pornographic tale, the fictional tale, and the scientific tale. The task is to unpack the types, the languages, the tropes at work inside the text of a sexual story. For the sociologist, however, the analysis must go further. The genres and structures of story telling may also link to the generic social processes and structures at work in social life.
Telling cannot be isolated from hearing, reading, consuming. When can a story be heard? How is it heard? A voice with no listener is silence. How might a reader interpret a text and what role might the story play in the consumer's life? We note a flow of action, and producers become consumers, whilst consumers become producers (pp. 338-39). Think of the work of Constance Paley (1992), who studied a group of women who had "consumed" Star Trek since the 1970s and who then turned to rewriting the stories, making the lead figures gay. In this case, production and consumption became part of a continuous spiral (p. 339).
Stories are not just practical and symbolic actions: they are also part of the political process. Sexual stories ooze through the political stream. Power can be viewed as a flow, a process, a pulsate, undulating through the social world and working to pattern the degree of control people experience and have over their lives. Power connects processes which make a difference to the conduct of life: it is a flow of negotiations and outcomes (pp. 339-40).
This flow is negative--repressing, oppressing, depressing--and positive--constructive, creative, constitutive. It flows into situations, making some open and flexible, making others closed and rigid. It flows through the negotiated social order, controlling and empowering, closing and opening (p. 340). Sexual stories live in this flow of power. The power to tell a story or indeed not to tell a story, under conditions of one's choosing, is part of the political process. What allows a "rape story" to be told, to be felt, to be heard, to be legitimated? What allows gay and lesbian stories to be told, to be felt, to be heard, to be legitimated?
The ability to tell the story of a rape/of being gay shifts in different "arenas" of interaction: economic, religious, work, home, media, government. To tell the story of being gay may well be linked to the ability to take the role of others; to the kinds of reference groups and social world perspectives assumed (p. 341).
Every part of the interactionist story telling model presented above needs to be placed in the political flow. We have to ask another series of questions (p. 242):
5. concluding remarks
An image of "gendered heterosexism" may also help reveal the hierarchy of sexual stories. This notion refers to a set of acts which are organised around the division of men and women, and through which heterosexual relations are given priority (p. 344). I have been less concerned with sexual stories per se than with providing a wider agenda of questions for the new emerging sociology of story telling. A sociology of stories seeks to understand the role stories play in everyday social life.
Clough, P.T. 1992. The End(s) of Ethnography. London: Sage.
Maines, D.R. 1993. "Narrative/s Moment and Sociology's Phenomena: Toward a narrative Sociology." Sociological Quarterly 34(1):17-38.
Plummer, Ken. 1995. "An Invitation to a Sociology of Stories." In Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader, ed. Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan. London: Arnold, 1997, pp. 333-45.
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