Reviews

Reviews Archive

The Sociological Review has been publishing book reviews for over 100 years. In 2018, we expanded our reviewing and moved it from the print journal onto our website. This compendium is an archive of reviews published in 2018-19. It includes 43 reviews of monographs, edited collections, film and photography that open out possibilities for both thinking sociologically and thinking differently. We take the ‘review’ of The Sociological Review to connote a process of critical engagement rather than a more or less comprehensive survey, and this is reflected in both the selection of work and the style of reviews, which range from concise to long-form reviews and review essays that bring together two or three publications. At the same time, this compendium offers a snapshot of the discipline and highlights some of the most exciting work being produced today. Click on the image to download the compendium.

Writing a Review

We welcome proposals for book reviews in connection with our themes, reviews of books written in non-English languages, and reviews of sociological fiction and film. To suggest a title for review please get in touch with our reviews editor at: reviews@thesociologicalreview.com. Don’t forget to say why you want to review the selected title and how it connects to your own work and expertise. Our reviews are usually around 1,000 words and are published online.


Book Review: Narrative Power

Narrative Power: The Struggle for Human Value by Ken Plummer. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019.

Ken Plummer is a UK sociologist and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He has researched widely and published some fifteen books and over 150 articles on life stories, narratives, symbolic interactionism, humanism, rights, intimacies, global inequalities, queer theory, sexualities, masculinity and the body. His key early works included Sexual Stigma (1975), Documents of Life (1983, 2nd edition 2001), Telling Sexual Stories (1995) and Intimate Citizenship (2003). He retired in 2006, due to illness; and a successful liver transplant saved his life. After retirement he continues to write.  His post-transplant books have included: Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination (2015) and Sociology: The Basics (also published in Indonesian, Portuguese, Chinese and Spanish, 2nd edition 2016). His next book will be published in 2021 by Polity: Critical Humanism, A Manifesto for the Twenty First Century. He has a website at: http://kenplummer.com/ 

Review by Chelsea Haith, 16th July 2020.

Building on his long and distinguished career working in sociological queer studies, Ken Plummer’s recent offering, Narrative Power: A Struggle for Human Value, weaves personal reflections on the role of stories in the construction of identity with critical humanist ethnographic accounts of narrative self-making. Story-telling has long been central to Plummer’s research interests. This monograph stems from interests evident in the last thirty years of Plummer’s important contributions to queer theory and critical humanist debate. From Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds (1994), to Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination (2015), the last thirty-odd years of Plummer’s work are developed further in this new work under the banner of what Plummer calls “narrative actions” (p.xi). Narrative, Plummer argues, is a central framing device for the problem of ongoing human suffering and our collective failures to fully recognise and act on individual human value.

Presented in three acts, the structure of the monograph reflects the stage-play story-telling form, moving from stage-setting through accounts of narratives of power to concerns with and criticisms of the changing demands of modern technology on narratives of truth, and culminating in the third act concentrated on an optimistic proposition for the future. Preceding the three acts, Plummer provides an overture, noting that: “Every day, a life will entail an immersion in a steady stream of grounded telling and listening to stories in their rich multiplicities of forms” (p.3).  For Plummer, narratives define the status quo of lives that, while lived dip into the metaphorical stream, and when concluded, leave it. The stream, Plummer implies, continues without the actors who presume to be constitutive of the water. The variety of the narratives is what determines the narrative power as it is distributed. Repeating the thrust of the work of narratologists from Mieke Bal to Jacques Derrida, Plummer indicates a distinction between narrative and story. Narrative, for so many theorists of social power and inequality, is all. Stories, which lay the foundation for the multiplicity of narratives that compete for meaning-making primacy in the story frame, continue to be generally untreated, except in those areas of literary studies that concentrate on plot and content rather than on the narrative and the political implications thereof. To encounter reflections on story and narrative in a sociologist’s work reinforces the necessity of a shift to interdisciplinary mixing between the disciplines where sociology may for example, foreground the increasing importance of storytelling in methodological accounts. It is significant for the contribution of this monograph that Plummer submits stories of inequality and undervalued human lives in his exploration of how narrative action might force political change.

Storytelling is as much a part of Plummer’s interest as it is his methodology, which takes six main narratives and uses these as illustration. The thrust of Plummer’s contribution is in his consideration of the role of power structures in promoting and/or undermining certain narratives to produce inequalities and to limit the value of certain groups of human beings. The now familiar maxim of gender studies that the ‘personal is political’ underscores much of Plummer’s argument that: “Behind every story there is a social – often political – story waiting to be unpacked” (p.5).

The six stories Plummer sets out to foreground narrative suffering at the outset of the twenty-first century are titled: ‘Malala Yousafzai: Injustice Icon’; ‘The Weight of the World Parisians in a World of Class’; Animal’s People: A Fictional Memoir of Environmental Justice’; ‘Tweets from Tahrir: Quasi-Digital Narratives?’; ‘Luz Arce and the Chilean Truth Commission: New Testimonials’; and ‘9/11 and the New York Twin Towers: Global Icon’. These stories are referred to amongst many others in the course of the monograph and their breadth and variation of themes and concerns is a defining feature of the whole book.

Act I commences with an exploration of narrative action and the presentation of Plummer’s “Nine Theses of Narrative Power”. These lay the groundwork for the rest of Plummer’s explorations of how narrative is uniquely human and how human beings deploy narrative, shaping our infrastructures and systems within the confines of narratives that may equally oppress or liberate. It concludes with Plummer’s theorising of a “narrative humanity” (p.59) in which he argues that narrative must be reviewed for its potentially liberatory, social communitarian potential. Act II considered the fragility of narratives, and their vulnerability to manipulation for dubious ends. Mass narratives and narratives of governmental power are subjected to particularly scrutiny. Plummer also highlights the digitalisation of narrative and the historical shift this marks as human beings, subject to narrative inequality, struggle to determine what truth is. Act III presents the resolution of Plummer’s optimistic trajectory throughout the book, culminating in the narrative hope that Plummer insists is possible in “a world of stories that can be shaped by a politics of narrative humanity” (p.xii).

While the monograph is called Narrative Power, the fundamental argument is for storytelling as a method of consciousness raising and social theorising. Science fiction and utopian studies theorists have for half a century worked on developing these ideas through concerted debate on leftist ideological positions and the political work of fiction, paralleled by the theorising of narrative’s multiplicities made possible by postcolonial literary theorists, in partial debt to postmodernism. Plummer does acknowledge the role of capital in the production of narratives of power and powerful narratives, and this book indicates the further scope in this work to acknowledge the intersecting possibilities for sociologists collaborating with literary theorists on the role of narrative in political consciousness raising in fiction and other narrative forms.

Chelsea Haith is a DPhil candidate in the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford. She is a Mandela Rhodes scholar and has obtained degrees in literature, sociology and gender studies, and modern studies from Rhodes University, the University of Cape Town and the University of York. Her current research looks at speculative fiction, urban geopolitics and the dystopian imagination. She teaches and lectures on Victorian and Modern/Contemporary Literature at Oxford. She tweets @chelsea_haith


Book Review: Imaginative Criminology

Imaginative Criminology: Of Spaces Past, Present and Future by Lizzie Seal and Maggie O’Neill, Bristol University Press 2019.

Lizzie Seal is Reader in Criminology at Sussex University. She is the author of Transgressive Imaginations (2012, Palgrave) with Maggie, and Capital Punishment in Twentieth Century Britain: Audience, Justice, Memory (2014, Routledge). She tweets @lizzieseal

Maggie O’Neill is Professor in Sociology and Head of the Department of Sociology & Criminology at University College Cork. She co-authored Transgressive Imaginations (2012, Palgrave) with Lizzie and most recently Walking Methods: Research on the Move with Brian Roberts (2020, Routledge). She tweets @maggieoneill9

Review by Phil Crockett Thomas, 2nd July 2020.

There is a current trend within criminology for combining a hitherto marginalised word with the name of the discipline and branding a distinctive approach with its own canon, which perhaps reflects the dominance of the neoliberal imagination of academia as a ‘marketplace of ideas’. Thankfully Lizzie Seal and Maggie O’Neill’s Imaginative Criminology doesn’t give the impression that the authors are engaging in this kind of intellectual ‘camp building’. Rather that they are extending an invitation to an expanded criminology which is heterogeneous and interdisciplinary both in its methodological approach and intellectual resources.

The book is part of the New Horizons in Criminology series, edited by Andrew Millie, which aims to provide concise introductions to cutting edge or marginalised topics for a non-specialist audience such as the criminology of climate change, and ‘convict criminology’. Well meeting this aspiration, the book is engagingly and accessibly written. In eight short chapters it introduces many interesting projects and stimulating ideas. For readers wishing to deepen their engagement, the book is extensively referenced without feeling clunky to read. Imaginative Criminology encompasses a range of interwoven methodological and analytic approaches: gaining insights from fictional or artistic sources, biographical or participatory research, and employing arts-based methods or collaborating with artists to do creative ethnographic research, notably walking. These are skillfully and satisfyingly combined reflecting Seal and O’Neill’s considerable joint experience working with these methods. It is also interdisciplinary drawing insights from criminology (particularly cultural and critical criminology), sociology, literary theory, cultural theory, and geography.

The incorporation of participatory and arts-based methods into the social sciences has been growing in recent decades, thanks to several factors including increasing academic acceptability of creative practice-based research, and the perception of the arts as more democratic (and appealing) to research participants. The 50th anniversary of C Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination (1959) saw the publication of a number of texts across the social sciences which returned to Mills’ classic provocation in an effort to refocus the political and methodological orientation of the social sciences. The Sociological Imagination has since functioned as a touchstone to the authors of Imaginative Criminology and many other scholars taking the ontological position that everything could be different than it is and that as such, an important task of the social sciences is to imagine how things could be different (and better). Seal and O’Neill see the arts and participatory arts-based methods as valuable tools in this endeavour.

In many ways, Imaginative Criminology continues in the approach developed in Seal and O’Neill’s previous joint-authored monograph Transgressive Imaginations (2012), which explored representations of criminalised and marginalised groups in fiction and arts-based ethnographic research. Both books take social transgression rather than crime as their foundational concept and explore the nuances of being perceived as socially transgressive, as well as self-identifying as such. Importantly, in its attention to the gendering of social transgression, Transgressive Imaginations served as a corrective to the dominant conceptualisation of transgression-as-resistance within ‘cultural criminology’. Imaginative Criminology diverges from the earlier text in its focus on the spaces and spatial politics of social transgression and punishment. Arguing that criminology is undergoing a (late) blossoming ‘spatial turn’ (p.10), this new work moves away from individual identities to explore the polysemy of space. They attend closely to the way that transgression is spatialised into boundary markings such as borders, and practices of confinement and exclusion. Seal and O’Neill draw on two classics on the politics of space to orient their analysis: Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) The Production of Space and Doreen Massey’s (2005) Space, Place and Gender. From Lefebvre, they take the notion that spaces exist both in concrete reality and the imagination and that these are mutually shaping (p.12). From Massey, that space is lived, polysemic, and relational. Spaces contain multiple temporalities and are alive to the past, present and future. Following this, the authors emphasise the role of history and contested memory, in shaping present spaces.

This is a slim volume which introduces a wide range of topics. Chapters two and three re-imagine spaces past: respectively the violence of colonialism in the creation of homes for forcibly removed Indigenous children in Australia, and the religious and gendered violence of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Both of these sites are explored through analysis of popular cultural representations and archival oral history testimonies. The focus on non-penal spaces of confinement and contested national cultural memory responds to Michelle Brown’s (2009) argument that prison overdetermines how we think about punishment both within research and in wider society. Chapter four discusses two recent participatory arts projects which centred on creative writing with male prisoners in England. They are guided in their analysis by their assessment of participants’ writing as ‘creative writing, rather than simply as exercises of rehabilitative programming’ (p.55). Chapters five and six feature O’Neill’s walking ethnographies. Chapter five is a timely discussion of global mobility, exclusion and containment. For O’Neill walking is a disruptive and ‘subversive’ (p.13) practice, partly for the way it enables an analysis of capitalist and neoliberal spaces. This is evident in their discussion of the gentrification and ‘social cleansing’ of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in chapter six. Also discussed in chapter six isBelfast’s historical spaces of violence and conflict explored through participation in a walking tour (the only section of the book that includes images). This chapter is a little unsatisfying to read because it aims to cover two complex sites briefly. The final chapter discusses the treatment of themes of transgression and control in dystopian teenage fiction. Here they note that it is only in recent decades that criminologists have begun to engage seriously with the arts and literature as a rich source of cultural and social information about crime, punishment and justice. This chapter presents a textual analysis of the content of several novels and conjectures on their potential for social critique. As such, it would have been fascinating to learn about how readers engage with and ‘use’ these books.

This is an exciting, engaging, and generous invitation to an imaginative criminology of space. The authors’ reimagination of the concerns of criminology as global ‘orderings’ (Frauley, 2015) of exclusion and inclusion is both welcome and urgently needed. Perhaps inevitably, depth is sacrificed in the commitment to scope. The brevity of the book and ambitious amount of ground covered means that chapters sometimes end abruptly, and the conclusion feels like a missed opportunity to build connections between chapters. In the meeting of the arts and the social sciences, art world logics and knowledges rarely take precedence over those of the sciences. This book is no exception to that rule, and it feels as if the authors have played it safe with the arts-based methods employed. I am excited to see how this work develops, and no doubt subsequent imaginative criminological scholarship will draw more substantially on the resources of the sensory, sonic, visual, fictional and digital. Encouragingly, the authors write that ‘there is no single or best way to do imaginative criminology; there is a multiplicity of ways’ (p.16).

Dr Phil Crockett Thomas is the research associate on the Distant Voices project, based at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow. Phil has a PhD in Visual Sociology from Goldsmiths, University of London (2018). Her practice combines creating fiction, poetry, collage and film with more traditional social science approaches. Her website is https://crowdedmouth.wordpress.com/, she tweets @crowdedmouth.


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