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Seeing the Light

The Social Logic of Personal Discovery

Seeing the Light

The Social Logic of Personal Discovery

The chorus of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” reads, “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind but now I see.” Composed by a minister who formerly worked as a slave trader, the song expresses his experience of divine intervention that ultimately caused him to see the error of his ways. This theme of personal awakening is a feature of countless stories throughout history, where the “lost” and the “blind” are saved from darkness and despair by suddenly seeing the light.
In Seeing the Light, Thomas DeGloma explores such accounts of personal awakening, in stories that range from the discovery of a religious truth to remembering a childhood trauma to embracing a new sexual orientation. He reveals a common social pattern: When people discover a life-changing truth, they typically ally with a new community. Individuals then use these autobiographical stories to shape their stances on highly controversial issues such as childhood abuse, war and patriotism, political ideology, human sexuality, and religion. Thus, while such stories are seemingly very personal, they also have a distinctly social nature. Tracing a wide variety of narratives through nearly three thousand years of history, Seeing the Light uncovers the common threads of such stories and reveals the crucial, little-recognized social logic of personal discovery.

256 pages | 11 halftones, 4 line drawings, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Cognitive Science: Language

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Psychology: Social Psychology

Sociology: Social Psychology--Small Groups, Theory and Sociology of Knowledge


“This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Eschewing simplistic approaches, DeGloma brings a full arsenal of tools from cultural sociology, ritual theory, moral philosophy, and semiotics to develop a rich account of awakening narratives. For anyone interested in autobiographical accounts and the roles they play in social life, Seeing the Light is the book to read.” 

Robert Wuthnow | Princeton University

“Seeing the Light is a fascinating study of a class of public stories that Thomas DeGloma calls awakening narratives—autobiographical accounts of religious conversion, political transformation, identity alteration, and the like. While some of these types have been studied in isolation, DeGloma shows how such stories, recounting a fundamental change of mind and heart and at first glance seemingly unrelated, not only share a common narrative structure but play formally similar roles in society. Lucidly written, tightly-organized, and richly illustrated, Seeing the Light is a remarkable achievement.”

Joseph E. Davis | University of Virginia

“Individual epiphanies that awaken the self to a new world seem unique and ineffable. Yet DeGloma shows us how our narratives of awakening are patterned and generic as we recount them in autobiographical communities. Seeing the Light sheds its own masterful light on autobiography and autobiographical narrative. Anyone interested in the dynamic nature of the relation of self and society should read this book.”

Robin Wagner-Pacifici | The New School for Social Research

"Stories of personal transformation are all around us. Seeing the Light excavates the timeless logic of their deep meaning structures. At the same time DeGloma shows them to be socially grounded in specific communities of interpretation, solidarity and contention. As such this important book suggests new and much needed paths for connecting cultural sociology to the study of the self."

Philip Smith, Yale University

Seeing the Light is well written and makes a compelling case for sociologists with a wide range of interests to pay attention to awakening narratives and autobiographical work more generally. For scholars already working in the areas of narrative identity and narrative analysis, the book contributes a careful analysis of awakening narratives and the awakening story formula as particular (and particularly important) types of narratives. More broadly, the particular types of awakening narratives and autobiographical communities discussed throughout the book provide relevant insights for the study of religion, trauma and mental health, sexuality, political ideology, social movements, and more.”

American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 Discovering “Truth”
Three Dimensions of Autobiographical Work
The Awakening-Story Formula
The Semiotic Stricture of Awakening Stories
The Awakener as a Social Type of Storyteller
Autobiographical Communities and Autobiographical Fields
Methods and Data
Outline of the Book

2 Awakenings: A Cultural History
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Foundational Religious Awakenings
Foundational Political Awakenings
Freud and the Psychoanalytic Case Study
Late Modern Awakenings

3 Mnemonic Revisions and Cultural Contentions
Formulaic Mnemonic Revisions
Autobiographical Memory and Cultural Contention
Shaping the Collective Mnemonic Record
Shaping the Cultural Milieu for Personal Memory

4 Vocabularies of Liminality
Sociomental Express Elevators
Sociomental Staircases
Combining Elevators and Staircases

5 The Temporally Divided Self
Portraying the Temporally Divided Self

6 Culture and Autobiographical Narrative
Notes References Index


Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction: Charles H. Cooley Award

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