The Promise of Sociological Fiction

It’s been far from obvious to me what I should say for my talk at the Design Fiction event at Goldsmiths on Wednesday. The motivation behind this event has been little more than “isn’t this interesting? let’s talk about it” but I realise that I’ve become slightly clearer through the process of organising the event about why I find it so interesting. I’ll leave it to Tim to introduce design fiction. It’s a concept which is still relatively new to me but it’s one that I immediately found exciting. But it isn’t the only kind of sociological fiction.

I first encountered the social fiction of Patricia Leavy a few years ago. She found an outlet in fiction for expression of the cumulative knowledge which journals are ill suited for, as well as an opportunity to reach a much wider public. She edits a Social Fiction series which now has 16 titles. Fiction can, as she puts it, “enable us to crystallize micro-macro links through showing instead of telling”: it can allow the sociological imagination to be exercised in a way which is vivid and direct but nonetheless grounded in research.

There are also surprising numbers of distinguished academics who have written novels without, as far as I’m aware, seeing these as social scientific projects per se. For instance Ann Oakley has written 7 novels and Richard Sennett has written 3. Rob Kitchin, who’s a leading figure in digital geography has written 4 novels and 2 collections of short-stories. It would be fascinating to know more about how such thinkers see their fiction and its relationship to their research. Then there’s someone like Sudhir Venkatesh whose work sits uneasily between fiction and non-fiction, in a way open to legitimate criticism, but who shows how sociological writing can exceed conventional categories in a way which engages a mass audience.

I’m interested in how sociological fiction can, as Bourdieu put it, give “symbolic force, by way of artistic form, to critical ideas and analyses”. There’s a potentially powerful political function here: both in communicating ideas in an engaging way but also by unsettling that which is taken for granted by vividly representing futures that are either likely or which are being suppressed.

There’s another lovely phrase Bourdieu uses, he talks about the need to “throw their grain of sand into the well-oiled machinery of resigned complicities”. I think sociological fiction can help do this by helping illustrate that there are alternatives and by exploring their character in a systematic but engaging way. I’m not for a second suggesting this is something only sociologists can do, such a claim would be absurd, but rather hoping that sociologists begin to experiment with fiction more widely in order to bring our particular insights and skills to an endeavour in which non-sociologists have long excelled: showing the interplay between biography and history.

I’d love it if Sociological Imagination could become a platform for sociological fiction: if you’ve written anything that you’d like to see published then please do send it to me (mark AT I’d love to read it.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Sociological Craft

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