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A Sociology Of Stories Essay

2632 words - 11 pages

1. introduction

Recently, "stories" have moved to the center 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...

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