Sunday, August 8, 2010

Literature and Social Science

Mark Thoma links to an interesting blog post on the relationship between literature and social science - specifically, the extent to which we can use literature as data in social science.

This was very interesting because it's been on my mind a lot as I grapple with Lovecraft's political economy. He left a lot of letters and essays that lay out his ideas clearly in straightforward non-fiction. But what to do about the stories and poems? They have insights too, but I want to be very careful about how I use them. One of the most interesting divergences between his stories and his non-fiction is that his explanation of human fear of the unknown and of the future (very important in economics) is completely different in each. Read the first section of Call of Cthulu and the first section of his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and you get two diametrically opposed understandings of our fear of the unknown. I've approached this under the assumption that the view in Supernatural Horror in Literature is Lovecraft's own view, and that the inversion of that argument in the Call of Cthulu was for dramatic effect - to make the fear he considers to essential to good literature more potent (precisely as he says a good author should in the essay!). But this shows some of the pitfalls. This is a straightforward case, but it demonstrates how careful you have to be when you use literature to make objective statements like this.

Here are some good selections from the blog post:

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?...

...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...

...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...

...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
The author goes on to embrace the second option, and I think I do too. The comparison to ethnographers is apt, I think, and to make myself clear and not understate my skepticism I should probably note that I don't put a great deal of stock in ethnographers! But it's not a completely useless effort either. It's simply something that you need to approach with a great deal of caution. You need to be able to determine whether the fiction writer is saying something (1.) about the world that he observes, (2.) about his normative position on the world he observes, (3.) about a world he doesn't observe but wants to describe, or (4.) some mix of the three. Usually it's the last option - some mix of the first three. To have any hope of navigating this, I think it's very important to have a sense of the author's literary theory - to know what they think they are doing. Without that there's really no hope of getting useful information because you have no way of arbitrating between those four options. And even with that it's still highly speculative.

Anyway, these are interesting issues to think about at least. Ultimatley I think literature at best can provide a nice frame for social science. Framing is going to be a more fruitful contribution than the provision of any data.


  1. And I should note - it provides a nice frame for natural sciences too!

    I believe it was in that Rees lecture I posted earlier that he said he tells people "it's better to read good science fiction than bad science - both can have factual problems, but at least science fiction is enjoyable to read and it's an expression of what it is that science is striving towards".

  2. Well, for the historian literature is "data" - indeed, as with the classical world (where perhaps 1%-2% of published works of the time remain) where it may be the only written data of any length available.

  3. And certainly it's "data" in the sense that it is something that someone did at some point in time. If the object of study is literature or literary figures or people's responses to different things, then obviously literature is data in that study.

    I think the blog post is getting more at the question of whether we can enlist writers as data collectors.

  4. Sociobiologists often use literature as evidence. Popular and timeless stories often capture abstract rules of psychology and culture that are otherwise implicit and taken for granted.


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