Some Thoughts on ‘Sociological Fiction’

Image: Lou Levit

Tuesday 5th April, 2016

Ashleigh Watson

In the seventh part of our special section on Sociology and Fiction, Ashleigh Watson reflects on the unusual status of her doctoral research and addresses the theoretical questions posed by a project which is both fiction and sociology. 

Sociology has a long, well-documented history. Developing through the Enlightenment, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and Romantic and Modern (and Post-Modern) Ages, as a whole sociology now spans a significant quantitative-qualitative spectrum. The relationship between sociology and literature is tied up in this history. The role fiction plays in the discipline has been discussed many times, and there has been substantial attention directed towards this relationship recently. This is directed attention as well; not ‘just’ questions about the truth-fiction scale but questions about purposefully-written fictions, about the role of literature and art.

Rather than marking out and reflecting on this wider trend, I offer some reflections on my own work. 

I’m currently completing a PhD in sociology. My final thesis will be in two parts: part one is a sociological novel, and part two is a theoretical exegesis. Doing this work I’m drawing on many areas of the discipline. Primarily my focus is on public, post-structural and cultural sociology; pedagogy; and C Wright Mills’ sociological imagination. My approach involves a triangulation of autoethnography, literature analysis, and arts-based research methods.

My sociological novel is sociology and it is fiction.

‘What makes this fiction?’ is easy to answer: I made the story up. The world is real and so are some of the major events. The settings, characters, and plot have been developed from extensive autoethnography, a relatively ‘new’ but recognised scholarly method, as well as research into what is (or should be) covered in first-year sociology. I fictionalised from this data. I made the story up.

‘What makes this sociology?’ seems to need more qualifiers. This is understandable – there are important lines drawn between scholarly and non-scholarly work. There are also important qualifiers for this project, not just for it to be deemed capital-S Sociology but to be awarded the degree.

Specifically, my University states:                          

The PhD is awarded on the basis of a thesis prepared under supervision that makes an original, significant and extensive contribution to knowledge and understanding in the relevant field of study, as judged by independent experts applying accepted contemporary international standards.

So my thesis, both parts included, must make an original, significant, and extensive contribution to sociological knowledge. For my novel to do this it must be ‘more’ than fiction written by a sociologist. It must be sociological fiction. Is there an important distinction to be drawn between writing sociological fiction and being a sociologist who writes fiction?

Without giving a clichéd ‘well, yes and no,’ answer, there are important distinctions between sociological fiction, fiction written by a sociologist, and fiction that isn’t written by a sociologist but does offer (space for) sociological insight – whether these distinctions should or even could work to neatly classify texts into separate camps is another discussion. Any distinctions of usefulness depend on the context of use, and distinctions of research value privilege certain methodological and conceptual approaches over others.

What we can do is look at the spectrum of sociological labour: as discussed by Howard Becker, among others, drawing sociological insights out of novels requires doing a lot of work. Novels like Pride and Prejudice, Becker’s example, can provide material for doing sociological analysis but this sociological labour is done by the sociologist as a reader and as a teacher in the classroom, rather than the (non-sociologist) novelist who wrote the text.

A sociologist who is writing fiction may, purposefully or not, incorporate perspectives and insight that are afforded by sociology. These texts may also be analysed sociologically. Sociological labour may have (and likely has) gone into the production of the work.

However in sociological fiction – sociology plus arts-based research methods – these perspectives are not only purposefully ‘written in’ to the text but the writing itself is done to generate sociological knowledge. The writing is not a later ‘writing up’ process but part of the method – an important, central part of the method that becomes part of doing sociology.

Useful questions to ask when understanding a spectrum of labour may include:

Who has written the text (are they a sociologist)?            

How have they written it (what were their methods)?

Why has this writing been done (was it written as scholarly or non-scholarly work)? 

Questions might also extend to:

What theory does this draw on?

Which concepts?                      

Which approach?

What new knowledge does it offer?   

I argue that sociological fiction is written with sociological insight and can be analysed sociologically, but is also written as sociological research.

This is still fairly murky, so more concrete indicators from our neighbours in Creative Writing departments can be applied as well. These are particularly useful as these are the markers used to qualify fiction and poetry as scholarly for academic output records and research grant applications. In Australia, creative works must meet this ERA definition to be verified as a research output: The creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so at generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings.

Overall, fiction that is scholarly is produced through more than ‘fact-checking.’ It must be a product of scholarly research: drawing on and contributing to academic knowledge. Authors/practitioners must be able to clearly demonstrate this by completing statements on the research background, contributions, and significance of the work. The work should also be peer-reviewed where applicable. 

I am doing research with sociological/scholarly methods (autoethnography, literature analysis, arts-based research), and I am analysing the data these methods capture with sociological frameworks and theory (post-structuralism; public and cultural sociology). This covers the who, how, and what of the questions I offered above. 

I am also sociologically writing this analysis. This links back to the question of why – why have I written a novel? My answer is more than ‘to do public sociology’ and ‘to illustrate sociological concepts,’ though I hope the work does both of these. I have written a fictional narrative because I am interested in analysing how narratives work in the social world.

I’m looking at how dominant cultural narratives are embodied and lived through. I’m not looking at culture as something that exists ‘out there’ that will hold still while I try to capture it in writing; I’m sociologically exploring a specific cultural narrative as a mutating, reproduced/ing fiction that exists within a specific society by also reproducing and mutating this fiction. I believe doing this will extend these methodologies and contribute to sociological understandings of narrativity, post-structuralism, culture, and affect.

I’m not trying a new way of writing about existing research. In my work, in a number of ways, fiction is informing the research process itself.

My sociological labour lies in the writing.  The writing is the method, the writing is the data, the writing is the analysis, the writing is the scholarly product. The writing is sociology. Because of this sociological labour, the work is sociological fiction

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