Liz Stanley, ed.
Documents of Life Revisited: Narrative and Biographical Methodology for a 21st Century Critical Humanism
Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013
Address for correspondence: Department of History, Boston University,
226 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215, USA
Academic inquiry is always full of twists and turns, but it seems that the pathways of scholarship have become more winding of late. Or perhaps scholars are simply more intent on labeling all the zigs and zags. Cultural turn, linguistic turn, imperial turn, environmental turn—these are just a few of the designations used to plot recent trajectories of research in the humanities and social sciences. Documents of Life Revisited, edited by sociologist Liz Stanley, tackles the narrative turn—the recent focus on stories and storytelling as lynchpins of human experience. This collection of 14 essays is an inspired response to sociologist Kenneth Plummer’s Documents of Life (Plummer 1983, 2001), which calls for a kind of intellectual rapprochement between the humanities and social sciences. Plummer urges social scientists to give more scholarly weight to individual biographies and stories and to draw on the interpretive apparatus of literary scholars, linguists, and philosophers in order to understand how narratives are constructed. Conversely, Plummer appeals to scholars from humanistic disciplines to be more attentive to the social structures, contexts, and consequences of stories by incorporating methods from sociology, history, anthropology, and social geography. For such a marriage to be achieved, Plummer contends, scholars from all of these disciplines must become “critical humanists,” a role he outlines through a set of methodological and ethical recommendations. These include acknowledging individual subjects’ embeddedness (socially, spatially, and temporally) but also their agency to narrate and create their own lives. Moreover, scholars must listen and be sympathetic to their subjects rather than to essentialize, flatten, or dehumanize them through all-encompassing theories.