Links between literature and the social sciences

Some novelists take as part of their task the description and evocation of certain social realities. James Baldwin captured one slice of African-American life in the 1950s and 60s. Tim O’Brien captured aspects of infantry life in Vietnam in The Things They Carried. And Tolstoy caught much about social attitudes and relations in elite Russia at a certain time and place. We could interpret these sorts of novels “realistically” and ask a range of questions about them: how accurate are they? Do they leave out important aspects of the picture? And what was the epistemic location of the author, such that he/she could claim to observe and portray accurately?

If we take this function of literature seriously, then it is natural to ask how this creative act relates to various areas of the social sciences. Does the knowledge offered by Baldwin complement the work of sociologists and historians of race in America? And, for that matter, can the realistically-minded novelist find valuable synergy in the research of historians and sociologists?

These questions are taken especially seriously by critics who are developing the framework of “critical realism”, including especially Satya Mohanty. Particularly valuable is Identity Politics Reconsidered (Future of Minority Studies), edited by Linda Alcoff, Satya Mohanty and Michael Hames-Garcia. The topic is a core concern for the Future of Minority Studies project (link).

So, what about it? Can a work of fiction have realistic, referential content? Is a novel sometimes an empirical statement? Can a fictional character truthfully represent aspect of what it is like to be black in America, South Asian in Manchester, or gay in a suburban Illinois high school? For that matter, can a novel be faulted for “getting it wrong” — for example, for representing an American Muslim as being completely oblivious to issues of racism?  Or is “right” and “wrong” out of place when it comes to evaluating the relationship between a novel and the world?

Here is one possible answer: fiction is always fiction, and normally does not have empirical validity. If we want to make empirical statements about social relations, class attitudes, or typical social values of specific groups, we need to do so based on valid methods of social research: surveys, focus groups, interviews, and observations of behavior. And we need to analyze the data we collect according to valid methods of aggregation and inference. That is what is required in order to arrive at knowledge about the social world.

Another very different response goes along these lines. Novelists are sometimes skilled social observers, and some of these are also skilled “painters” or evokers of what they have seen. A great novelist can pull together his/her many insights and observations into a powerful description of a fictional world or experience that captures an important sociological truth about the society depicted.  So these novelists do in fact gain knowledge of social life through observation, and they represent that knowledge through the fiction they produce. Both parts of this epistemic process are subject to criticism; but both are valid knowledge practices.

According to the second view, readers have the possibility of gaining real knowledge about the social world through the novel.  Seen in this way, a novelist is somewhat akin to an ethnographer, trying to make sense of a complex system of behaviors and meanings and expressing his/her findings in a way that is truthful to the social reality observed.

It seems that one would have to be a pretty narrow-minded epistemologist to hold that there is only one kind of knowledge, and that literature necessarily falls outside its bounds.  This might have been credible when the program of logical empiricism still seemed possible — that there are observations that can be unambiguously arrived at, and that theories are evaluated through a specific logic of confirmation marshaling a domain of observations in support of hypothetical statements.  But this epistemology doesn’t work well even in the sciences.  And within the framework of an anti-foundationalist epistemology, it seems reasonable enough to believe that literature has the potential of revealing important aspects of the social world.
This brings us back to the question of linkage between literature and the social sciences.  If we think that Platoon or The Things They Carried express some important truth about the nature of the experience of that war for American soldiers, this suggests the possibility of framing other sorts of social-science investigations to probe the extent and variation of these characteristics on the ground.  In other words, there is a simple kind of synergy that can exist between novelists, sociologists, and historians, when it comes to framing interpretations and explanations of a complex social reality, and designing further empirical studies to evaluate and qualify these findings.

4 responses

  1. You're misunderstanding empirical epistemology.We can actually read, watch or listen to a book: its content comes to us by solid empirical means. That is as far as the empirical foundation goes. One is not being unacceptably epistemically narrow to consider only works of fiction we can actually read.Everything else is the scientific method: what is the simplest theory to explain the evidence of our senses? Trying to find a categorical scientific theory (other than the most basic level of the scientific method itself) that subsumes or supervenes on all experience we arbitrarily label "reading fiction" is an exercise in futility. We must tailor our theories to the actual evidence. The most obvious scientific conclusion (so obvious we usually benignly take it for granted) we draw from any work of literature is that some actual human being existing at a specific time and place had actual thoughts corresponding closely to the words written, and chose to collect those particular word in that particular order.We have other evidence: a works empirically determinable immediate and long-term popularity, critical reaction. We can also compare the content to historical evidence taken more literally, and theories drawn from that evidence.Fiction can actually be seen, therefore its text is evidence. We can categorically ignore evidence only by making a particular theory partial: i.e. we can exclude evidence only at the cost of the theory. On the other hand, to take all fiction as absolutely veridical at the most superficial level requires ignoring other evidence.There's just no magic bullet as to how to treat any kind of evidence, even fiction.Of course, science is not a Hegelian idealistic process, it is a material dialectical process: continuously being refined and re-synthesized through a dialectical interaction between our hypothetical speculations (material thoughts in our material brains) and the totality of empirical (material) evidence.

  2. I suggest that there is an additional aspect beyond the choice you offered (literature is/is not a valid source) – which is that literature (and film, etc.) help to create the culture. For example, the U.S. understanding of what the role of the military is has been informed largely by both non-fiction and fiction, almost certainly more than by direct experience.

  3. It's important to see this in a larger historical context. The social sciences are much younger than the novel or storytelling more generally. Asking whether novels are realistic or empirically significant is really just asking whether the observations of individual novelists conforms with the (more recent) methodological standards of some set of professional academics.Because the social sciences are much younger, it's worth considering how developments in the social sciences have displaced and streamlined some of fiction's highest ambitions.E.g., Nietzsche wrote that Dostoevsky was "the only psychologist from whom I have something to learn: he belongs to the happiest windfalls of my life, happier even than the discovery of Stendhal." Few people look to novels anymore for the best psychologists.The splintering of academic disciplines and the self-sorting it encourages has changed the pool of potential novelists — and many of the best students of human nature do research in psychology, anthropology, etc. Whereas 150 years ago, the social sciences weren't developed enough to offer the same outlet that fiction did.I think it's important to keep sight of the fact that it's all observation and involves normative choices about what is significant and what isn't. It would be a mistake to think that fiction is not reflective of a social reality, time, place. And often it communicates its insights about humanity and society more directly and forcefully than any empirically verified study could ever hope to.

  4. I guess that the answer is between representativeness and possibility. Findings based on scientific methods guarantee representativeness of those findings, while findings from fictions can guarantee only the possibility of those findings. Sometimes scientific methods omit findings of small possibility. In this case fictions contribute a lot because the degree of possibility is not equal to the significance of findings which have small or even tiny possibility. In history, sometimes we can see that a person out of a billion changed the path of a country, or the whole world.

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