Social Fiction: Writing Social Science Research as Fiction

By Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.

I am a feminist sociologist turned novelist. My primary interests are in gender and methodology. For me, methodological issues are about how we can best build and share knowledge. The desire to make social research engaging, provocative, impactful, and accessible, brought me to arts-based research.

Arts-based research practices (ABR) are methodological tools that adapt the tenets of the creative arts in order to address social research questions in engaged ways. They can be used for data collection or data generation, analysis and/or representation (Leavy, 2015). ABR requires researchers to think conceptually, symbolically, metaphorically (Saldaña, 2011) and thematically and requires us to use intuition, creativity and flexibility. ABR also pushes us to think seriously about the audiences for social research as well as the craft of writing. Genres of ABR include any art form or combination of art forms, but for this piece I am focusing on fictional formats which might include novels, novellas, short stories, experimental writing, graphic novels, and so on. I turned to fiction as a research practice as a way of sharing cumulative insights from my research, teaching and personal experiences, engaging readers on deeper levels with the hopes of causing self and social reflection, and to contribute to public sociology. There is also reason to believe that readers can learn more, and more deeply, from fiction then from other forms of writing. There’s a field called “literary neuroscience” that examines how literature impacts our brains. There have been several recent studies that show reading fiction can impact us deeply, engage more parts of our brains, and leave more lasting impressions as compared to nonfiction. This research accounts for experiences such as getting so immersed in a novel you lose track of time, or not being able to get a story you are reading out of your mind.

I have written two novels based on my research (and recently released an expanded anniversary edition of my debut novel). Over the course of a decade, I conducted hundreds of interviews with women, as well as some men, about their relationships, body image, sexual and gender identities and related topics. I learned about women’s struggles for self-esteem, the impact of toxic media on body image and sexual identity, and the challenges young women face in their romantic and other relationships. During the same time period I was a professor teaching sociology courses about gender, popular culture and intimate relationships. Both inside and outside of my classes students often shared their personal experiences and stories about their peers and peer culture. I learned endlessly about their experiences, including their struggles with self-worth and identity. For instance, many young women had experienced dysfunctional or confusing relationships, abusive relationships or sexually dissatisfying relationships. Some women recounted roller coaster romances where they never quite knew where they stood; others described “game playing” and other power issues that I interpreted as disempowering, and many others simply resigned that they were “unlucky” in the romance department. Beyond this, most of the women I interviewed over the years struggled to build an identity for themselves that was not dependent on their relationship status. I also heard story after story of poor body image and even body hatred, low self-esteem, unhealthy eating habits, extreme exercising, and so on. What was frustrating in all of these situations was that as an interviewer/professor I was limited in my ability to respond freely. Interviewers are not therapists and they are not there to judge or deliver advice about how one should live her life. Professors are discouraged from getting overly involved with their students personally.

Although I did publish some of my research as journal articles and deliver conference papers, those formats are very constrained and I was not able to properly share the stories I’d heard or express all of my interpretations. Moreover, scholarly journals are not keen on publishing “cumulative knowledge” but rather focus on specific studies. Many of my insights were cumulative and based not only on my research but also my encounters in and outside of class with students, as well as my own experiences and those of my friends. In short, I felt like I had learned a lot that I wanted to share in the hopes of helping others. I also owed a debt to the women who gave me their time and trust, whose stories hadn’t been properly told. And let’s face it, academic journal articles are inaccessible in every sense of the word. They are jargon-laden, dry, and circulate in hard-to-get journals. They simply don’t reach the public. So I decided to write a novel titled Low-Fat Love.

Thematically, Low-Fat Love explores the psychology of dissatisfying relationships, identity-building, the social construction of femininity within popular culture and the importance of self-acceptance. The novel is underscored with a critical commentary about how, too often, women become trapped in limited visions of themselves. Women’s media is used as a signpost throughout the book in order to make visible the context in which women come to think of themselves as well as the men and women in their lives. In this respect Low-Fat Love offers a commentary about popular culture and the social construction of femininity. Ultimately, the book explores women’s identity struggles in relation to the men in their lives in light of their attraction to men who withhold their support. Women often develop myopic images of themselves as a part of “face-saving” strategies employed to cover up shame and a learned devaluation of self. Low-Fat Love suggests women seek new ways to see that are not dependent on male approval so that they will value themselves and reject degrading relationships. Moreover, as the main characters in the book learn, the most toxic relationship a woman may participate in is often with herself. So, too, the male characters learn that one must find one’s voice or suffer the consequences. I hope an empowering message emerges through the characters’ struggles.

The novel format invites readers into the characters’ stories with the hopes of achieving resonance, disrupting the familiar and prompting them to engage in self-reflection. If readers get immersed in a novel they may engage in self-reflection and in essence, connect the dots for themselves and in a way that works for them, individually. Based on the incredible response to the novel which is widely used in both college courses across the disciplines and has a popular audience, I wrote my second arts-based novel, American Circumstance, which explores appearance versus reality in people’s lives; how our lives and relationships look versus how they feel. For me, the turn to fiction as a part of my sociological practice has been enormously rewarding. I have been able to share my insights freely, reach public audiences, and connect with readers who have sought me out to tell me how their lives relate to the novels.

Writing sociology as fiction isn’t for everyone or for every project, but if you’re interested in exploring this approach, here is my list of top 10 tips for turning research into fiction (which originally appeared in The Huffington Post on July 2, 2013):

  1. Goals: it’s important to start by clarifying your goals. While you always want to write a great story, what is the topical or thematic content you want to explore? What do you want readers to learn or reflect on?
  1. Target Audience: determining your target audience(s) will help you select an appropriate genre, style and tone.
  1. Meticulous Research: once you’ve selected your topic it’s important to do your homework and seek multiple perspectives on the subject. Your research may consist of a literature review to see what experts have written about your topic and/or first-hand data through interviews and the like.
  1. Distill Themes: after you compiled your research you need to sort through it and reduce it to key themes.
  1. Let Go: despite all of the work you’ve done conducting extensive research, you need to let it go so it doesn’t bog you down and detract from writing a great story. While you’ll never be able to fit all, or even most, of your research directly into the fictional rendering, the more you have learned about your topic the stronger the result will be.
  1. Good Story: don’t lose sight of writing a good story. At the end of the day if your work isn’t engaging, authentic and resonant, readers are unlikely to take anything away from it. So pay attention to aesthetics, literary craft and the construction of narrative.
  1. Literary Tools: use the power of literary writing, such as the ability to represent interiority (the inner life of characters) through interior dialogue. Fiction is uniquely able to engage, transport and build connections with readers.
  1. Specificity: incorporate specific details from your research into your fictional work in order to build authenticity, believability and trustworthiness. The fictional world should ring true.
  1. Foreword/Preface/Afterword: consider including a brief foreword, preface or afterword in which you note the research you conducted.
  1. See It Through: all writing takes guts. When we’re blurring genres and innovating we open ourselves up to even more potential critique. See your vision through by believing in your goals and staying true to your vision.

References

Leavy, P. (2015). Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice Second Edition. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Saldaña, J. (2011). The Fundamentals of Qualitative Research. New York, NY: Oxford University  Press.

Related Books by Patricia Leavy (with discount offers)

To learn more about arts-based research, including fiction as a research practice check-out Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice Second Edition (Guilford Press). Use promo code 2E for 20% off and free shipping here: http://www.guilford.com/books/Method-Meets-Art/Patricia-Leavy/9781462513321

To learn more about the Social Fictions novels including Low-Fat Love: Expanded Anniversary Edition and American Circumstance (Sense Publishers). Use promo code 192837 for 25% off and free shipping on all series paperbacks here: https://www.sensepublishers.com/catalogs/bookseries/social-fictions-series/


Categories: Committing Sociology, Sociological Craft

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4 replies »

  1. I have long thought that what we study in sociology should be expressed in narrative form and appreciate your post for its honesty and advice. Looking forward to reading your novels for inspiration!

    • Thank you so much! I hope you enjoy them. There are loads of other examples out there, by other authors, so you could be reading for a while if you so choose. 🙂

  2. Fascinating approach, thanks for laying it out so clearly. I’ve struggled with the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction or years. In fact, I turned to poetry as a result. Research pulls me in so deep I have a hard time staying true to task. I think the last tip is the most difficult.

    • Thanks so much for your comments. I think so many struggle with those boundaries. I have several colleagues who write poetry as a part of their research (there’s a terrific book by Sandra Faulkner with Left Coast Press if you’re interested in that topic). So true, seeing it through is always the hardest (I think for many reasons). Good luck in your work!

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