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Literature and Sociological Theory


Richard Winter
Published online: 10 Jul 2006.

To cite this article: Richard Winter (1975) Literature and Sociological Theory , Cambridge Journal of Education, 5:1, 30-39,
DOI: 10.1080/0305764750050104
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Literature and Sociological


Theory1

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RICHARD WINTER
Professor Hirst's claim that the arts constitute "a unique area of
knowledge"2 is really rather a minimal one. He merely notes that
in aesthetic communication, as in any other "language", there
must be a system of rules for intelligible form and there must
be criteria for appropriate usage. Although his argument seems
at first to be a claim for the value of aesthetic modes (which is
what Professor Reid wants3), it is really nothing of the sort: it is
a statement about the usage of the term "knowledge". Thus
Professor Hirst's argument falls short in an important respect:
by emphasizing the "uniqueness" of the aesthetic mode of knowledge as a distinct "language game", he manages to avoid raising
any questions about the boundaries of different forms of curriculum knowledge, or about existing status relationships between
them.
In contrast, the following argument does raise such questions
because it suggests that literature is a form of knowledge not
in a unique and different way but in a way which is very similar
to, for example, sociology. By examining some recent statements
of sociologists about their work and comparing them with those
of poets and novelists, I hope to suggest that sociology and literature can not be simply distinguished as "science" as opposed
to "art", "analysis" as opposed to "description", or "objective
knowledge" as opposed to "subjective vision". Instead I shall
suggest that sociology and literature are comparable, parallel
traditions of theorizing about the social world. The argument
begins with a critical look at some work in "The Sociology of
Literature" which operates with very simple assumptions about
the ways in which sociology (as "science") is unproblematically
different from, and in a sense cognitively superior to, literature
(as "art"), and can thereby claim to "use" literature for its own,
sociological purposes. The following section puts forward some
conceptual similarities between sociological and literary theorizing, and finally some examples are given of how works of
Richard Winter teaches Sociology at St. Osyth's College,
Clacton.
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literature can be read as fully achieved theoretical understandings


of society.
Literature as Grist to the Sociological Mill
In the sociology of literature, literature is explained, or used;
it is not seen as contributing powerfully and autonomously to the
same activity of theorizing about social reality as is sociology.
How, then, we may ask, do sociologists pull rank?
One common method is to consider literature as a source of
evidence for theory. Thus the literary artist becomes an "informant" and a novel is taken to be a "report". We can see this
view exemplified clearly in L.4 A. Coser's introduction to
"Sociology Through Literature". Coser contrasts "the trained
sensibilities of a novelist" with "the impressions of untrained
informants on which so much sociological research currently
rests". The work of the novelist, it is clearly implied here, is comparable in kind not with that of the sociological theorist but with
the data gathering of the latter's team of field assistants. So the
distinction between sociology and literature corresponds to a
distinction between theory and data: sociology is "conceptually
mediated knowledge" but social life itself is known to us as
"the immediacy of concrete experience", so that, although "fiction is no substitute for systematically accumulated and certified
knowledge", the literary imagination is needed to "clothe the
dry bones of social theory with the living, plastic tissue". But no
matter how "sensitive" the reporting, sensitivity does not, by
being increased, undergo a qualitative transformation into
validity and thus, if Coser's novelistic reports are to amount to
anything, he would seem to need a whole team of "trained"
novelists! The main problem is that he takes no account of any
aesthetic structure a work of literature may have and treats it
instead as a sort of superb diary. And this leads him to include
in his anthology extracts from larger works which fail to be
illuminating because the extraction, the violence done to the
form of the work as a whole, has rendered them inert and thereby
destroyed their meaning.
In certain Marxist approaches to literature the subjection of
the aesthetic to the sociological seems to originate in a determinist theory of culture as "superstructure" (i.e. culture as the
product of economic, historical conditions). Thus history, which
is assumed to be known, becomes the criterion by which a
novelist must allow himself to be judged, and the power of literature as an analysis is neglected in favour of its significance as a
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symptom. Caudwell's analysis of D. H. Lawrence as an example


of "the artist in capitalist society" concludes:
"It is Lawrence's final tragedy that his solution was ultimately Fascist and not Communist. It was regressive."3
But Caudwell relies entirely on the methods and evidence of
sociology and psychology, and hardly mentions the books which
are the evidence for Lawrence's tragedy and the reason why
we are interested in the first place in the viability or otherwise
of Lawrence's existential and political choices. My contention is
that if Caudwell had analyzed in detail the problems raised by
Lawrence's art, he could have shown more precisely what was
wrong with Lawrence's politics, and thereby thrown new light on
the nature of Communism, Fascism and "regression".
A considerable body of work has been concerned with the
analysis of the institutional context of literaturethe audience
for whom it was written, the public by whom it came to be read,
the methods of publication, contemporary critical response, prevailing intellectual
and aesthetic concerns, etc. A recent essay by
Bourdieu0 illustrates the problem very well: the work of literature is "explained" in terms of its context, so that its own
authority as an account of that context disappears. Clearly one
is tempted to wonder how the sociologist gets his authority for
his "explanation"!
Even when sociologists are explicitly concerned to moderate
their own claims to certainty and to appreciate the value of
literature, their compliments to art tend to be rather backhanded. J. B. Mays, in a lecture called "The Poetry of Sociology"7
emphasizes that, like the poet, the sociologist must exercise his
imagination, his capacity for a Keatsian empathy:
"The study of man .. . m u s t . . . include elements of the
numinous, the mystical, the poetic and the ineffable."
"The poetic" here seems to be invoked as a warning: without
an awareness of the mysteries of the human heart any discoveries
of the sociological mind will be incomplete and barbarous. What
he seems overall to be suggesting is that sociologists are people,
and that they will be more sensitive, more compassionate, if they
read poetry. But clearly, for J. B. Mays, reading poetry will
deepen one's reaction to, not one's analysis of, social reality.
Truth and Theory in Sociology and Literature
Sociological attempts to use literature can be seen to rest on
implicit claims that sociology is objective, whereas literature is
not. In contrast I wish to suggest that for neither sociology nor
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literature is objectivity an achievement; instead it is for both an


aim, a commitment to seriousness.
As a first step in this argument let us note recent realizations
of the failure of sociological positivism. Phenomenological sociologists stress that social actors' interpretations of reality cannot
be reduced to operationalized variables. Since we can never have
an exhaustive account of the judgements by which compilers of
statistics (e.g. "social scientists") are able to classify social
events as indeed examples of particular theoretical categories, the
relationship between such statistics and the original social8 reality
remains unknown. We do not know what statistics mean. Consequently, where previously a sociologist might have used the
persuasive authority of a statistical table,
we are now presented
with an anotated, interpreted tapescript.8 Although some writers
hope that such descriptive, interpretive work will ultimately lead
to "objective understanding" they are without an explanation of
how it is to be achieved.10 Indeed, say others, the attempt to
achieve an objective explanation of another's activities can even
be considered contradictory:
"If, indeed, the guiding thoughts and principles of the mind
at each moment are only the results of external causes which
act upon it, then the reasons for my affirmation are not the true
reasons for this affirmation. They are not so much reasons as
causes working from the outside. Hence the postulates of the
psychologist, the sociologist, and the historian are stricken
with doubt by the results of their own researches."11
Of course, the fact that objectively valid social theory has not
been achieved does not mean that sociologists are not committed
to a search for validity, for "generalizable truth", in some way or
at some level. The point to be made here is simply that such a
commitment to validity as a project has almost always been considered essential to the task of artistic creation as well. Yeats
says that the poet transcends his subjectivity by submitting himself to traditional poetic forms:
"(Eighteenth century poets) had one quality I admired and
admire: they were not separated individual men; they spoke
or tried to speak out of a people to a people... I hated and
still h a t e . . . the literature of the point of view.""
Richard Wright, in his introduction to "Native Son", says:
"(The novelist's) imagination is a kind of community medium
of exchange: what he has read, felt, thought, seen, and remembered, is translated into extensions as impersonal as a worn
dollar bill."
He compares the novelist to a scientist in a laboratory, using his
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imagination to solve problems posed by the relationship between


his fictional characters and his personal biography. He describes
at length the various theoretical perspectives he brought to bear
on his central character, and implies that he could decide to
modify the whole structure at a late stage in the light of a notion
of what one might call "adequate theory":
"the entire guilt theme... was woven in after the first draft
had been written."
For Sartre, writing is "taking responsibility for the universe":"
"It is not true that one writes for oneself... It is the joint
effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that
concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind.
There is no art except for and by others."
The writer should always say to himself:
"What would happen if everyone read what I wrote?""
Not only do sociology and literature share a commitment to
truth, but they share a stance towards the everyday world,
whether it is called "observation" (for the social scientist) or
"contemplation" (for the artist). Both have been described in
phenomenological terms as "bracketing off" the definitions and
motives of the rest of the world. For Schutz, phenomenological
bracketing is the means whereby the social
scientist tries to
achieve a theoretical stance of disinterest,10 and for Natanson it
is the means whereby the artist "frames" an experience to give
it aesthetic form and limits."
Describing the theoretical stance of the sociologist, Schutz
emphasizes that each province of meaning is constituted by a
particular set of definitions and criteria of relevance. There are
no rules for translation between provinces of meaning, and thus
the social scientist has to make a Kierkegaardian leap of faith
when he tries to transcribe the activities of the social
actor in the
everyday world into his own "scientific" system.18 And what sort
of an act of faith does the social scientist have to perform?
Nothing more or less than the creation of a "fictional consciousness", a theoretically based typification of that social actor by 19a
dual process first of empathy and then of logical elaboration.
Thus Schutz, following Weber, is suggesting that a sociologist
interprets the meaning of a situation by creating a character to
fit it; the sociologist's theoretical world is peopled with ideal
types just as the novelist's fictional world is peopled with "characters".
This parallel has been worked out in some detail. Lukacs20 has
argued that the writer's view of the world, his perspective, is
embodied in a "typology" of significant, typical actors ("charac34

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ters") giving, as an example, Camus' novel "The Plague".


Characters are not in a novel, they constitute it, just as a
typologya range of hypothetical possibilitiesconstitutes one
form of sociological theory. In both cases we are presented with
a series of hypotheses set up in order to investigate the nature
of the world. The outcome is not at first known: theories prove
disappointing, characters (novelists tell us) take on a recalcitrant
life of their own.
Finally in this section on the conceptual parallels between
sociology and literature, what about the mode of response, the
method of reading? Here again conventional distinctions spring
easily to mind. We expect to formulate a "personal response to"
literature, but simply to "understand" a work of sociology. Yet
there are authoritative critical traditions limiting what can count
as a feasible reading of, say, Chaucer or Golding and, conversely,
new readings of Marx, Weber and Durkheim continue to be
published all the time. In both cases, then, "reading" is an
engagement with intellectual tradition and at the same time a
"reformulation of the self" in Alan Blum's suggestive phrase.
Sartre, writing on this question, stresses how much the reader
has to contribute to a poem or a novel in order to read it: writing
is an act of giving, carried out in the expectation that the reader
will in turn give himself.21 The writer initiates a dialogue to which
the reader42 responds. Both collaborate to constitute the work of
literature. The implication is that there are no correct readings,
only serious, responsible readings. Thus when Alan Segal, in 1971,
read "Portnoy's Complaint" as an elaboration of power relations
between cultural groups in modern American society and claimed
that his elaboration was "The latent structure of meaning which
emerges from Roth's novel",23 we can indeed find it interesting,
but as Segal's reading, not as "the latent... meaning" of the
novel. Readings vary and readings change.
That all this is equally applicable to sociology has been explicitly argued by Alan Blum. In the introduction to his book
"Theorizing" he says:
"I will not characterize the book or present you with a
position with which to read it for that would create a beginning
for you which you ought to recover for yourself in your own
reading... Instead I shall trust you to achieve the reading
which I require (which is less of a concrete "position" than a
level of involvement). My writing is intended, then, to invite
you to reconstitute yourself through the very inter-action of
the reading..."
Clearly there are problems in Blum's formulation, but my reading
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of him suggests the interesting possibility that we should read


sociology as we read a work of literature: the writer's work is
an occasion for the reader to "reformulate his self" by confronting his concerns with those of the writer. Thus, "reading" involves us in a serious commitment to a "critical response" which
is, of course, neither a gratuitous opinion about, nor a correct,
final possession of, the work in question.
Literature as Analysis of Social Reality
So far I have shown how some sociologists have tended to
misunderstand and undervalue literary accounts of social reality,
and I have also given some reasons for thinking that literature
and sociology are engaged in very similar projects. In this final
section I shall draw attention to some examples of work which,
in different ways, does do justice to the contribution of literature
to the analysis of society.
Much of Alfred Schutz's work discusses the ways in which
social actors sustain definitions of the social reality in which
they act, and in two essays he pays tribute to the penetrating
understanding of his theme contained in works of art, i.e. in
Cervantes' novel "Don Quixote" and in Mozartian opera. He
reads "Don Quixote" as an analysis of the tensions between
private and public realities:
"The thesis we want to submit is that Cervants' novel deals
systematically with t h e . . . problem of multiple realities . . .
and that the various phases of Don Quixote's adventures are
carefully elaborated24variations of the main theme, viz. how we
experience reality."
When Don Quixote realizes that his private reality is indeed
private but chooses nevertheless to reaffirm his faith in it, Schutz
comments:
"Don Quixote here makes a statement which is at the core
of our problem and surpasses in its logical boldness all the
paradoxes of Russell's theory of classes, which can also be
found in Cervantes' novel... 'To make an end of the matter,
I imagine all I say to be true, neither more nor less.' This is the
basic axiom which identifies truth with existence in the particular sub-universe upon which the accent of reality has been
bestowed."
(Although the aesthetics of literature and music are different, it
seems apposite to note here Schutz's rather similar celebration
of Mozart's operas:
"Mozart's dramatic art i s . . . a representation of the basic
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structure of the social world . . . Mozart solved the problem of


the philosophers in his own way."25)
In other words Schutz finds that in Cervantes and Mozart he can
discover, advance, and thus "reformulate" (invoking Blum once
again) his own deepest theoretical concerns.
The same is true of some of Lukacs' work. In his early,
Hegelian book "The Theory of the Novel" he analyzes historically
changing relationships between "the subject and the object" in
terms of the relationship between the literary hero and the
fictional world (the work of art) in which he acts. In examining
in turn the aesthetic structures of the epic, the classical tragedy,
and the different types of the novel, Lukacs simultaneously reviews crucial sociological mattersthe bases of solidarity and
order, community and individual autonomy, and alienation as a
symptom and a strategy. Although one can be critical of his
methods (he rarely relates his general argument to details of the
works he invokes), what he does do is to suggest that in reading
Homer, Sophocles, Cervantes and Goncharov, for example, we
should, or at least can, engage in the same sort of debate, review
the same concerns, as when we read Hegel, Marx or Durkheim.
I find the same implication in Ian Watt's detailed presentation
of "Robinson Crusoe" as the mythology of capitalism.28 But Ian
Watt is more like Schutz in that he makes his general points
about capitalism through a detailed study of Defoe's text.
But taking a work of literature seriously as social analysis
does not, clearly, preclude a negative response to it. MerleauPonty criticises Koestler's novel "Darkness at Noon" for simplifying the nature of politics by presenting it as a dichotomy
between subjective morality opposed to objective, impersonal
history. Rubashov, Koestler's hero, the moral individual, the
victim, is uncritically endorsed, and the party leaders are portrayed as inhuman. But for Merleau-Ponty political action is
tragic precisely because the individual is always both the creator
and the victim of history, never just one or the other. Thus
Merleau-Ponty's criticism of the novel as politically naive is
paralleled by an aesthetic criticism. Koestler's novel is "sentimental" (the cruel persecution of the victim) whereas the subject
demands a fully "tragic" treatment of the moral, historical
dilemma which confronts all political leaders, Rubashov and his
persecutors alike:
"To govern is to foresee. The politician can therefore not
excuse himself for what he has not foreseen. And
yet there is
always the unforeseeable. There is the tragedy".27
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Here again we can see the important sociological relevance of


aesthetic categories.
I have tried to suggest that conventional distinctions between
sociology and literature (which contrast "objective" and "subjective" understandings, "science" and "art", "theory" and
"vision", and so on) do not do justice to poets' and novelists'
accounts of their commitments to "valid theorizing", nor, conversely, to sociologists' inevitable reliance on faith, rhetoric,
metaphor, and imagination. Our problem, surely, is to investigate
how more of our students or pupils can come to engage seriously
in "theorizing" (both for themselves and with some sort of
cultural inheritance) about their social world. And in order to
pursue that problem it seems more important to note how the
images, forms and theories of sociology and literature can illuminate one another, than officiously to patrol the boundaries of
curriculum areas in the name of rather simple and questionable
notions of the "conceptual" distinctiveness of "unique" forms
of knowledge.
NOTES AND REFERENCES

1 I should like to express my appreciation of the help I


received, during the successive stages of the work for this
essay, from Michael F. D. Young, Madan Sarup and Anita
Jackson.
2 P. Hirst, "Literature and the Fine Arts as a Unique Form of
Knowledge", Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 3, No. 3.
3 L. A. Reid, "The Arts as a Unique Form of Knowledge"
Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 4, No. 3, p. 165.
4 L. A. Coser, Sociology Through Literature, Prentice Hall,
1963, pp. 3-5.
5 C. Caudwell, Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture,
Monthly Review Press, 1971, p. 56.
6 P. Bourdieu, "Intellectual Field and Creative Project", reprinted in M. F. D. Young, Knowledge and Control, CollierMacMillan, 1971.
7 J. B. Mays, The Poetry of Sociology, Liverpool University
Press, 1968.
8 See, for example, H. Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology,
Prentice Hall, 1967, and A. Cicourel, Method and Measurement in Sociology, The Free Press, 1964.
9 See, for example, any of the well-known works of Howard
Becker or Erving Goffman.
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10 J. Douglas, Preface to Understanding Everyday Life, Routledge, 1971, for example.


11 M. Merleau-Ponty, quoted by M. Phillipson in P. Filmer et al.,
New Directions in Sociological Theory, Collier-MacMillan,
1972, p. 121.
12 W. B. Yeats. "A General Introduction to my Work", in J.
Scully, Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, Collins (Fontana),
1966, p. 16.
13 Richard Wright, Introduction to Native Son, Penguin, 1972,
p. 9.
14 J. P. Sartre, What is Literature? (Trans. Frechtman), Methuen, 1950, p. 44.
15 Ibid, pp. 14 and 29-30.
16 A. Schutz, "Common-Sense and Scientific Explanation", in
Collected Papers, Vol. I, Ed. Natanson, Nijhoff, 1962.
17 M. Natanson, Literature, Philosophy and the Social Sciences,
Nijhoff, 1968.
18 A. Schutz, "On Multiple Realities", in Collected Papers,
Vol. I.
19 A. Schutz, "Common-Sense and Scientific Explanations".
20 G. Lukacs, Realism in Our Time, Harper Torchbooks, 1971,
pp. 56 and 59. The idea is more fully worked out in Martin
Price, "The Other Self: Thoughts about Character in the
Novel", in E. & T. Burns, The Sociology of Literature and
Drama, Penguin, 1973.
21 J. P. Sartre, op. cit., pp. 39-42.
22 This idea is central to Warren and Wellek's notion of literature as a "collective possession", as a "structure of norms"
in Theory of Literature, Peregrine Books, 1963, pp. 150-2.
23 A. Segal, "Portnoy's Complaint and the Sociology of Literature", British Journal of Sociology, Vol. xxii, No. 3, Sept.
1971. (Excerpts in M. Douglas, Rules and Meanings, Penguin,
1973, pp. 257-65.)
24 A. Schutz, "Don Quixote and the Problem of Reality" in E.
& T. Burns, op. cit.
25 A. Schutz, "Mozart and the Philosophers", in Collected
Papers, Vol. II, ed. Natanson, Nijhoff, 1964.
26 Ian Watt, "Robinson Crusoe as a Myth", in E. & T. Burns,
op. cit.
27 M. Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror (Trans. John
O'Neill), Beacon Press, 1969, p. xxxiii.
39