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Fiction and Social Reality

This is an eloquent, erudite and original study on the relationship between

literature and sociology. Drawing on an impressive range of sources, Mariano
Longo invites us to challenge the seeming incompatibilities between rhetoric and
fact, narrative and objectivity and to think afresh about the literary text as a
powerful device of sociological imagination. His achievement is to offer us an
illuminating account of sociology as a creative art, as a poetics of science.
Lilie Chouliaraki, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK

Classical and Contemporary

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A Sociology of the Total Organization
Atomistic Unity in the French Foreign Legion
Mikaela Sundberg
ISBN 978-1-4724-5560-4

Fiction and Social Reality

Literature and Narrative as Sociological Resources

Mariano Longo
University of Salento, Italy

Mariano Longo 2015

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Features and Structure of Narratives


The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


Writing Sociology: Social Sciences as Texts


When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


On the Sociological Use of Narratives




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As laymen, at least intuitively, we know that tales, stories, and narratives are
relevant. Indeed, our perception of the world, our knowledge of other people, our
cultural perspectives (including behavioural standards, social norms and values)
are both the output of our lived experience, and the result of experiences we
share with other fellow people, where narratives play a relevant role as a mode
of communication. This book concerns the sociological relevance of narratives,
of literary narratives in particular. When I started thinking of the subject of this
monograph, I turned to my own recollections and memories. I tried to recall the
stories which were part of my biographical background. Some traditional fables
came to my mind, which my grandmother used to tell me in my southern Italian
dialect, as well as some family stories, which moulded my identity during my
childhood. As for literary narratives, I was able to recall a remarkable number of
plots, characters, milieux, and atmospheres, almost as vividly as the oral stories of
my childhood. They were real to me, just like the tales of my early life, although
they had been experienced outside the lively context of social interaction. The
literary narratives I have read are part of my personal experience, as much as
the stories I heard in my family and social context. These brief autobiographical
remarks are relevant to me for at least two reasons. The first is connected to the
fact that the stories I have heard and read (as well as the stories that I still hear and
read), contributed to defining the man I am, including my professional role as a
professor of sociology and a social scientist: they are relevant components of the
models of thought I adopt to approach reality, the concepts I use to categorize social
facts and events, the typification upon which I construct my explication of the
social; secondly, they justify, from a subjective and biographical perspective, my
interest in the use of narratives (including literary ones) as a source for sociology.
The theme of narratives is ambitious, yet I will treat it from a consciously
partial perspective. My partiality is unavoidable since the topic has a great variety
of thematic implications, as narratives may be considered one of the most relevant
forms of human communication (Fisher, 1987). Indeed, narratives are everywhere
(Barthes, 1975): they may be oral or written, fictional or true; they cover a wide
range of genres (jokes, police-reports, newspaper articles, metropolitan legends,
novels some of which are distinguishable as sub-genres: romance, detective
stories, historical novels etc.); they tend to colonize all available communicative
media (print, old as well as new media) (Ryan and Thon, 2014). Moreover, the
theme is relevant as an object of scientific scrutiny in a wide range of related
disciplinary fields (sociology, anthropology, psychology, literary criticism,
semiotics, history, to mention just a few) and a specialized interest in narration

Fiction and Social Reality

gave rise to a dedicated field of investigation: narratology. All that entails a wide
range of scientific material on the topic, which has induced me to offer a highly
selective list of references of authors and works.
The specific theme of this book is the relation between sociology and narratives,
literary narratives in particular. It is not an original theme. What is unusual, if at
all, is the attempt to put the topics of everyday narratives and literary narratives
together. The rationale motivating this attempt is justified by a common set of
structural elements shared by everyday and literary narratives,1 as well as by the
fact that the use of everyday narratives is well established within sociological
empirical methods. What happens when we choose to adopt as our empirical
material a fictive narrative, that is a document which has as its object a pretend
reality? Is asking a sociologist to use literary documents as tools to deepen their
knowledge of social reality demanding too much? Indeed one of the tasks of my
work is to show that sociologists, at least intuitively, have often turned to literature
as a possible source, and that they have done so ever since the discipline developed
as an autonomous field of investigation. The relevance of literary narratives for
our discipline has been carefully dealt with from a variety of points of view (e.g.
the traditional sociological analysis of literature, empirical research on the reading
public and the artistic milieu, cultural studies as a specific approach, to mention but
a few). Nonetheless, this book is not concerned with the sociological analysis of
literature as a social phenomenon, a task which has been assumed by the sociology
of literature. On the contrary, my intent is to sketch the specific features of fictional
narratives as compared with non-fictional narrations and to explore their potential
as instruments for sociologically understanding reality. In this restricted sense,
literary narratives are conceived of here as tools that a sociologist may adopt to get
in contact with dense representations of specific aspects of the social (Jedlowsky,
2000; Turnaturi, 2003; Kuzmics and Mozeti, 2003). Employed as tools, literary
sources force us to face a paradox, which will be dealt with in greater detail later,
connected to the fact that constitutively fictive materials are here intended as
instruments to better understand non-fictitious aspects of the world.
Leaving this relevant question aside for now, I turn to the question of the
sociological relevance of narratives. Narratives are part of our experience of
reality (Jedlowsky, 2000) so that stressing their importance for a sociologist is both
nave and necessary. They mould our perception of events, by putting them into a
meaningful connection. Their relevance is such that it is even possible to conceive
of narratives as the prerequisites of cognition, as they are the root of human
thought (Turner, 1996, p. 12). The social sciences have taken everyday stories
seriously, hence producing a methodological debate about the use of narratives,
the ways in which they may be adopted as a research tool to investigate specific
aspects of the social, the best modalities by which to gather and employ them as
1By everyday narratives (oral or written) I intend non-fictional narratives, both
natural or provoked by the researcher, which are the source of data of most qualitative
research and have therefore been put under the scrutiny of methodological reflection.


a peculiar sociological material (Czarniawska, 2004). Gathering narratives is one

aspect of the everyday work routine of the social researcher, who adopts a whole
set of well-established research techniques (in-depth interviews, focus groups,
diaries etc.) in order to get rich narrative data, both natural or provoked. Everyday
stories are sociologically relevant for a variety of reasons: they may represent
privileged access to the subjectivity of the social actor, so clarifying ideas, values,
or subjective forms of representation of reality; they help the social scientist define
the social dimension of the storytelling, which is culturally determined; they
contribute to a better knowledge of how a social actor strategically adapts a story
so as to produce a socially adequate presentation of his self and actions.
Narratives are socially endowed with three main functions (aside from
enhancing sociality as such). They are a useful tool for spreading information,
by locating events within a logically coherent sequence. Thus, much of what we
know about the world (what Umberto Eco, 1979, once called our encyclopaedia)
derives from narratives. They are, moreover, instruments of value reinforcement,
as they provide musters of virtues and vices, and thus behaviour-models to
be emulated or avoided (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 14). Finally, social actors use
narrative strategies to justify their past actions, to negotiate the meaning of their
interaction, to prefigure their future activities and goals. This brief sketch shows
how complex the social relevance of narratives is: narratives give order to events
and, by interconnecting them, they also provide a schema to qualify action, as well
as a linguistic set against which actors may legitimize their actions, in conformity
with (but even against) established cultural values.
Telling a story is not only a matter of ordinary oral communication in social
face-to-face interaction. Although the very possibility of recounting emerges within
the social situation of physical co-presence, narration adapts to contexts which are
different from those in which it is generated. Narratives as reiterated soliloquies,
for example, are a way to systematize knowledge and experiences from the earliest
phases of cognitive development, as psychologists have clearly shown (Bruner,
1990, p. 87 ff.). As a mode of communication, narration is particularly flexible,
adaptable to different media and communicative contexts. The relevant distinction
is not only that between orality and literacy (Ong, 1982). One may already detect
different narrative genres in oral communication (e.g. myths, epic, fables), as well
as in written and printed narratives. Paintings may be organized as a narration
(Barthes, 1975, p. 237; Chatman, 1978, p. 34), as may other expressive forms
(cinema, television, dance and, more recently, new media).
By adopting an inclusive perspective, one becomes aware of the ubiquitousness
of narratives, which makes a definition of the essential features of narration even
more difficult. Which are the characteristics of a discourse, that may be qualified
as a narrative? The debate which developed, beginning with Russian formalism
up to French structuralism, aimed to detect a number of structural elements
which a text (written or oral, it is not relevant here) had to posses in order to be
qualified as a narrative. Indeed, if we assume that narratives are an ubiquitous
element of communication, in so far as they are part of our knowledge of past

Fiction and Social Reality

events, of our everyday representation of present reality, of our projection into

the future, a clear-cut definition of the constitutive elements of a narrative seems
of the foremost relevance. Narratives produce a suspended social vacuum, as
compared with other forms of more transactional communication (Toolan, 1988,
p. 4). In oral conversation, they produce a subversion of the usual turn-order,
so that the narrator is accorded the privilege to hold the turn until the story has
come to an end. Oral and written narratives cut off narrator and audience from
the normal social processes of the immediate here and now. They re-create a
circumscribed representation of time and space, of actors, actions, events and of
the interconnections among them. They create worlds which are reality-like, as
well as a temporally and logically coherent meaning structure, within which a
portion of reality is represented, given significance and relevance. Chapter 1 is
devoted to this topic, in an attempt to define the structural and social features of
narratives (both non-fictional and literary).
A theme of the recent sociological debate has been the so-called narrative turn
(Berger and Quinney, eds., 2004) which stresses the relevance of storytelling in
the construction of our experience of the (social) world. This approach underlines
the constitutive role of narrative in the social construction of reality. If there
is by now a generalized consensus on the relevance of everyday narratives for
sociology and the social sciences, the question of the use of literary narratives as
a source of sociological investigation is more complex. Literature is the subject
matter of a specific branch of sociology: the sociology of literature. Although the
sociology of literature has by now lost part of the appeal it had up to the 1980s
(English, 2010), it allows an interpretation of literary phenomena from a variety
of points of view. Literature has been the object of sociological investigation from
a plurality of different perspectives: the relationship between a literary work and
its social contexts (Goldman, 1975), the social determination of the reading public
(Radway, 1984), or the constitution of competing fields among groups of artists
endowed with different cultural and social capital (Bourdieu, 1995), to mention
just a few examples.
If one conceives of literature as a source of data rather than a field of
sociological investigation, the topic of the relation between sociology and
literature has to be analysed from another point of view. As a rule, the most
common attitude of sociologists towards literature has been a generic appraisal
of the capacity of literary works to describe and understand reality (including the
psychological substratum of the characters, their motivations, the social milieu in
which they act and interact). It is assumed that the deep insight of the person of
genius ought to make fictional narratives able to show (more fully than a piece
of sociological analysis could), sometimes unwittingly, deep interconnections
among events, psychological drives and actions. The emphasis has been put on
literature as able to depict the features of an epoch, to describe a social context or
a peculiar social environment (for example an underworld), to anticipate trends,
social transformations and changes. Yet, at the same time, literary works seem to
the serious sociologist devoid of the specific character which makes a narrative


employable as a source of data: a clear-cut reference to something out there in the

world. Literary works are fictive, and lack therefore the character of truthfulness.
Chapter 2 is explicitly devoted to this question, by thematizing the cognitive value
of narratives (both fictional and non-fictional).
As far as literary narratives are concerned, the question of their cognitive
value is particularly thorny. They may be plausible but, as Searle (1975) puts
it, although they have all the features of assertive texts, they only play at being
true. Indeed, the Searlean solution, linked as it is to the supposed truthfulness of
assertive texts, assumes that non-fictional narratives are always to be conceived
of as faithful reproductions of reality, the opposite being a deviation from what is
normally expected. This referential stance has often been adopted by sociologists,
chiefly those who employ qualitative techniques, who tend uncritically to trust the
truthfulness of everyday narratives.
At a deeper inspection, the emphasis on narratives as a privileged access to
the personal authentic representation of reality or the self seems methodologically
misplaced (Atkinson, 1997). When adopting storytelling as a privileged way to
understand reality, a social scientist may take a nave attitude, overrating the
capacity of narration to accede the true essence of the actors personal experience,
his actions and the motives justifying it. A more sophisticated approach assumes
that narratives are not faithful mirrors of reality, but instruments by which reality is
represented and rationalized (Atkinson, 1997; Atkinson and Delamont, 2006): by
narrating, an actor makes his personal experiences plausible for himself and other
fellow people, giving it a social meaning. Even an everyday narration (e.g. an
assertive text) is always a selection among possibilities: an actor may decide what
to tell, how to describe what he has selected as relevant, which elements to stress
and which to leave in the background. Yet, a prevailing realistic attitude towards
narratives may be considered responsible for a positivistic scepticism towards
literary works as sources of data. Indeed, if narratives are to be truthful depictions
of reality, this quality may be attributed to everyday, non-fictive narratives rather
than to literary narrations, which would make the use of literature, devoid as it
is of the character of truthfulness, of no use as a sociological source. Although
this solution might at first sound sensible, by adopting it, a sociologist would
disregard the artificiality of the process of narrating as such. If on the contrary, one
assumes the opposite attitude, according to which narratives are always artificial
reconstructions of reality, their cognitive potential resting on their capacity to
construct verisimilar (Bruner, 1986, p. 52) rather than truthful accounts, then the
distinction between non-fictional and fictional narratives appears less relevant, and
the topic of their sociological use once again becomes plausible.
Once the question of truthfulness has been left aside, literary narratives show
their relevance as a mode of reality cognition and reality construction. Moreover,
if we assume, as will be clarified later, that narrating is less a way to report about
facts than a peculiar form of cognitive approach to reality (Bruner, 1986; 1990;
Polkingshorne, 1988), narratives (whether fictional or non-fictional) appear as
relevant instruments through which we are able to give order to the fragmented

Fiction and Social Reality

and apparently dissociated elements of our experience: by narrating, we connect

events, propose relations (temporal, causal, of mutual implication) among
differentiated aspects of the world. And, if one stresses the rhetorical dimension
of narration (Fisher, 1987), one may notice that while recounting, a story is told
and, at the same time, values are transmitted and reinforced. So, telling a story
is not simply a form of sociality, it is one of the ways whereby social reality is
reproduced, value systems strengthened and behavioural standards confirmed.
And the former holds true both for everyday and literary narratives.
Indeed, literary narratives contribute to constructing our sense of reality, the
way we perceive events and relations. Some of the concepts we use to describe
social types and social phenomena come directly from literary pieces (Kundera,
1988), which implies that literature is not only able to create its own peculiar
fictional worlds by using socially available categories, it also creates categories
of its own, now available for a diffuse social use (think of a Kafkaesque or
Pirandellan situation, or of Bovarism as a typically modern malaise, to give just
a few examples). The relation of the literary world with the real is, therefore,
much more complex than the simple question of its truthfulness would suggest.
A literary work may propose a fictional representation of reality, but that is just
one aspect of a complex relation. It may also detect the relevance of themes and
questions which are not yet on the social agenda. It may create new cognitive
categories by which to understand social and psychological phenomena. In a few
words, literary narratives may help define and modify the way we make sense of
our reality (Ricoeur, 1984).
Thus, although fictive narratives may not have an identifiable referent in the
world, they still produce rich, culturally determined documents, which it would
be nave to exclude as sources for our sociological understanding, on the basis
of a misplaced quest for referential truthfulness. Indeed, the idea of employing
literature as a source is no post-modern novelty. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the
reconstruction of the debate about the use of literary sources, dating back to
the first decades of the 20th century. Authors such as Park and Burgess (1925)
and Znaniecki (1934) dealt with the topic, from a methodological perspective
(Chapter 3). Within a humanistic tradition, internal to the American social
sciences, sociology could even be conceived of as an art form (Redfield, 1948;
Nisbet, 1962, 1976), thus paving the way to the post-modern debate on sociology
as a form of rhetorical writing (Chapter 4). Yet, regardless of relevant exceptions
(notably Florian Znaniecki and Robert Nisbet) the reference to literary sources
has either been intuitive, lacking an adequate theoretical and methodological
conceptualization or, by taking the similarities between literary narratives and
sociological writing to the extreme, has been adopted so as to propose a dilution
of sociology into literature (and vice versa).
By reconstructing the topic of the relevance of fictional narratives for sociology,
my intent is to try and give a plausible explanation of an apparently trivial
question: why does one find in social sciences (in sociology in particular) so many
references to the relevance of literature as a kind of substitute for or integration


to sociological knowledge? Further, why is it so difficult to go from the simple

appreciation of literature as a proper means to access and understand social reality
to a systematic and well-thought theoretical and methodological reflection on the
use of literary sources? One possible answer is to be linked to the similarities
between the objects we investigate as sociologists and the world as described by
novelists. Indeed, one may envisage relevant overlapping areas between sociology
and literary narratives. To offer a few examples, which will be dealt with in more
detail below: action and the subjective motives giving impulse to human action are
elements which belong to the sociological as well as the narrative understanding
of reality (see Van Dijk, 1975; 1976). When Kenneth Burke conceived of the
Dramatic Pentad (Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, Purpose), he traced the essential
philosophical conditions of narrations (Burke, 1945, pp. xv-xvi). Narratives are
about purposeful action, to be imputed to a conscious agent who does not act
in a vacuum but within a specific environment. The description proposed by
Burke shows more than one similarity with the accredited sociological theories
of action. Hence, at the core of the attraction for sociologists to literature is an
interest in human and social facts, treated from perspectives which are in many
ways incompatible and yet, paradoxically, consistent.
When a sociologist resorts to literary narratives, he confronts himself with
complex texts, containing a wide variety of modes of discourse (including
argumentation and description, etc.), which makes for extremely rich, meaningful
material, highly compatible with the cognitive interests of sociological investigation:
the description of social milieux, the display of physical or urban environments,
the account of manners and mores as well as the presentation of moral ideas and
values. Moreover, thanks to the peculiar structure of literary narratives, what is
otherwise precluded from observation becomes fictitiously visible: the subjective
interior world of characters, and thus the complex combination of instincts,
environmental influences and psychological motivations. This world would be
otherwise invisible to a sociologist, who is methodologically aware of the fact that
the actors subjectivity has to be treated as a black box, and thus he tends to be
particularly careful in adopting intrusive techniques into the interior world of the
actors he observes. Literature as a source gives a social scientist the opportunity to
go beneath the surface of social phenomena, which results in a relevant cognitive
reward, worth the methodological caution he has to adopt by managing data of a
highly peculiar kind (Otto, 2007, pp. 78-9).
In Chapter 5, I will sketch the ways in which sociology has made use of
literature (novels in particular) as a source. Literature has been used as an
exemplification of sociological concepts, especially in the teaching of sociology.
That use has a long tradition, dating back to Cosers Sociology through Literature:
A Reader (1963). Since literature deals with people, their actions, interactions and
the motives underlining them, literary sources may function as an exemplification
of the phenomena sociology explains, adopting the somewhat abstract jargon of
the discipline. Those who adopt literary sources as a didactic instrument conceive
of literature as more apt than sociology for describing the minute aspects of social

Fiction and Social Reality

reality, in a way that, paradoxical as it may sound, is a-referential and yet trueto-life. The other possible use of literary sources could be as a non-technical
confirmation of theoretical insights. The relation between literature and theoretical
thinking is analysed by adopting as a guiding light Cosers hypothesis (1963, p. 5),
according to which literary sources give the sociologist deep intuitions which may
be subjected to further theoretical systematization. Literary fiction has, thus, an
epistemic and exploratory function, since literary narratives may provide insight
into the structure of the world, society, mental structures, existing conventions,
rules and laws (Van Dijk, 1975, p. 292). Fiction may do even more: it may present
reality from an unexpected perspective, giving access to the usual from a new
point of view, which is an unsophisticated wording of what Bourdieu probably
meant when he wrote of the literary discourse as a way to reveal while veiling,
or to produce a de-realizing reality effect (Bourdieu, 1995, p. 4). The complex
relation between literature and social theory will be exemplified by making
reference to Alfred Schutz (1964b) and Peter Berger (1970, 1984).
The last chapter deals with the methodological questions linked to the use of
literary narratives as sources. At the core of my argument is the idea that literary
fictions, regardless of their fictionality, are life-like and may thus provide the reader
with a representation of reality which is consistent with the representation of the
layperson. This point is argued by making reference to Schutz (1962a) and his
postulate of adequacy. The proposed idea is that, in so far as sociological analyses
are written in a technical jargon and according to the theoretical, methodological
and rhetorical norms of the discipline, they are incompatible with common sense
and pre-scientific interpretations of reality. In its turn, literary fiction is, as a rule,
able to depict the world in a way that is consistent with common understanding.
The distinction between fiction and social sciences can be so re-specified: whereas
fictional narratives provide a knowingly false yet likely representation of reality,
social sciences reports are generally both more objective and (yet) untrue-to-life.
It would be therefore unfair to qualify the function of literary fiction solely as
entertaining or emotional. Regardless of the obvious fact that literary narratives
do not have objective references, regardless of the fact that they describe possible
worlds (Eco, 1979; Doleel, 1998), their richness and the possibility that they offer
of penetrating otherwise inaccessible contexts make literature relevant as a source
of data for sociological investigation.
From a methodological point of view, literary narratives are documents; that is,
sets of data that are present in the public sphere and do not require any active role on
the part of the social researcher in their production (Cardano, 2011, pp. 31-2). Yet
they are documents of a peculiar kind and in so far as they are specific, they have to
be treated with appropriate methodological accuracy. Indeed, every literary work
says something about the imagined, fictive world it creates, the relation between
the fictive world and life being the output of our interpretative activity (Gibson,
2007, p. 141 ff.). Thus the use of literature as a source entails a creative process of
sociological interpretation, by which the text is subdued to the logic of sociological
reasoning. There is no doubt that a sociologist has different tasks from a novelist.


He has, moreover, a different language, a different form of representation of the

worlds out there. So good sociology based on literary narratives has to re-specify
its fictional material, making sociological sense of it. Whenever a sociologist
adopts a literary text as data, two strong forms of representation of reality come
into contact, which implies that a strong process of conversion from one mode of
discourse (the literary) into the other (the sociological) is required. The process
of selecting literary texts will be discussed, as well as the necessary reduction of
the symbolic, stylistic and meaning complexity of fictional narratives. Any use
of a literary source implies a necessary translation into the jargon of sociology,
according to the cognitive objectives and the research strategies of the social
scientist. It is a complex process, which requires not only methodological and
theoretical competence on behalf of the sociologist, but also interpretative finesse
in his use of literary material. The idea is here suggested that the complexity of
the process and the specificity of literary narratives should represent no excuse for
systematically denying sociology access to literature as a source.

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Chapter 1

Features and Structure of Narratives

Sketching the Character of Narratives
What is a narrative? In its most simple definition, dating back to Aristotle (Eco,
1979, p. 30), a text may be defined as a narrative when it tells a story; that is, when
it deals with one or more actors and describes a process of transformation from an
initial stage x to a final stage y. This minimal definition contains the fundamental
feature of narrations: one or more actors and their actions are described in a
temporal sequence. Thus a narrative, and that is its essential feature, has to do
with changes in time. Indeed, the reference to action is, from Aristotle on, the
characterizing element of narration, since it may be configured as a specific form of
imitation (mimesis) of reality, e.g. the imitation of an action (Dowling, 2011, p. 1).
Adopting a minimal definition of narrative is one of the possible options a scholar
may take when confronted with the ubiquitousness and variety of narrations. This
minimal definition is inclusive, so that the description of any process whatsoever
may be intended as a narrative.1 The alternative attitude is to carefully define
which features a story should possess in order to be defined as a narrative (Labov,
1997), thus excluding all those texts that, although describing processes, are not to
be intended as narrations.
A minimal definition does not suffice to clarify the constitutive elements of
a narrative text: in order to make the definition more rigorous, one has at least
to single out the basic features of narratives. By telling a story (narrating) one is
supposed to describe actors (it does not matter now whether real or fictitious) who
do things. Yet, actions (things that occur which are imputable to one of the implied
characters) are not the sole elements of a narrative. Following the suggestion
proposed by Chatman, events are either in the mode of DO (changes consciously
brought about by actors) or in the mode of HAPPEN (things which occur outside
any conscious plan) (Chatman, 1978, p. 32). What is reported in a narrative, as well
as the consequences of the events, is not always to be ascribed to the conscious
efforts of the actors, but to a complex combination of chances, cases and plans,
which makes the plot and its possible outcomes unpredictable. Even the simplest
oral report of action may be intended as a narrative provided that it contains some
unexpected elements: a narrative is never the sole description of the ordinary,
but it deals with the introduction of the unforeseen into the taken for granted
(see, for example, Labov, 1997; Van Dijk, 1975). A first connection with social
1Umberto Eco (1979, p. 30), just to offer a relevant example, shows how even an
argumentative text (e.g. Spinozas definition of God) may be read as a narrative.


Fiction and Social Reality

sciences (sociology in particular) thus becomes evident. A narrative text consists

of descriptions of actions, and action is among the constitutive elements of society.
As action takes place within a physical and social environment, narratives show
the interplay between individual intentions and the environment in codetermining
the results of action. What is remarkable in narrative as a communication-mode is
its effectiveness in combining processes and statuses. A narrative text is a hybrid,
as it employs other text forms (description in particular) which accounts for the
cognitive quality of narration: it tells not only what happens, but also something
about the qualities of the actors and the environment in which actions take place
(in Chatmans vocabulary: existents). Even in its more elementary examples, a
narrative often contextualizes actions and happenings, and in so doing it has to
describe characters, milieux, the physical environment etc. The effectiveness that
narratives (even in their simplest variations) show in describing reality lies in this
mix of time-recounting and space- and character-description. The combination of
modes of discourse as specific features of narratives accounts for their sociological
relevance. A narrative (regardless of its fictionality) describes characters, their
actions and their supposed motives, as well as contextual elements (fate, natural
events, social opposition) which may prevent individuals from achieving their
foreseen ends. This capacity to describe action in context accounts for the relevance
that the reports of the social actor have for social research.
A combination of these structural elements is evident even in simple, short
narratives, such as those analysed by Labov and Waletzky in their seminal work
dating back to 1967. Labov and Waletzky (1967) refer to narratives defined from a
specific, consciously narrow perspective. They are interested in short narratives, i.e.
oral reports of personal experience in everyday conversation. The presupposition
is that, in order to understand the complex structure of more articulated narratives,
one has to catch the constitutive elements of oral versions of personal experiences
as told by common native speakers (ibid., p. 12). The analyses by Labov and
Waletzky (1967), and their later development by Labov (1997), are based on
extensive empirical work consisting in the collection of thousands of oral narratives
among native English speakers. The collected material gives both scholars the
opportunity to detect structures, rules and functions of oral narratives, in principle
compatible with narratives of other kinds (e.g. myths and folk-tales Van Dijk,
1975, p. 276). Both papers underline two important aspects of oral narratives:
the structural and the functional. As to the structural elements, an oral narrative
locates events in time and space and introduces the involved actors. (Labov and
Waletzky [1967, p. 32] call this function orientation). The action is set in motion
by some sort of interruption in the ordinary flow of events (complication ibid.,
pp. 32-3) and its prosecution is intended as a reaction to the unusual (resolution
ibid., p. 39). In order to make the passage from complication to resolution clear,
a narrative needs an evaluation; that is, the explication of the narrators attitude
towards the events as reported (ibid., p. 37). As stressed by Labov (1997) the
element of complication is essential to the narrative: by breaking the ordinary, a
complication makes the narrated events reportable, i.e. relevant to the audience.

Features and Structure of Narratives


By elaborating upon Harvey Sacks (1995) analysis of turn assignment, Labov

underlines how narration is one of the few cases in which the rules of taking turns
in conversation do not hold, such that the narrator may keep his turn to the end
of his recounting. A code clause implies a return to normal turn-taking, thus also
precluding any request for further explanation related to the story.
Oral narratives as a mode of communication have two main specific functions:
the referential and the evaluative (Labov and Waletzky, 1967). An oral narrative
is, first of all, a way to represent events by reproducing them in their temporal
sequence (ibid., p. 13). As Labov (1997) stresses, in personal narratives experiences
tend to be objectively represented (they are referred more commonly to the state
of fact than to inner states) and their credibility is strictly linked to their factuality.
Moreover, narratives entail an implicit causal theory in relation to events, i.e. a
series of causal connections, so that not only is a tale presented of what happened,
but also a possible explanation of what occurred. Yet, the reproduction of events is
not aseptic, as it is associated with a meaning construction process, by which events
are given a specific significance for the narrator or for the actors involved. Thus,
even in this everyday referential dimension, a narrative is more than the report
of former experiences: it entails a process by which events, actors and actions
are presented on the social scene under a specific evaluative light. The casual
explanation is linked to the possibility of assigning praise or blame to the actors
and to the action as reported, which implies a moral and ideological dimension
of oral narratives (ibid.). Therefore a narrative, even in the minimal form of an
oral report, is a process of meaning construction, which implies the presentation
of the events as perceived and selected by the narrator and a casual explanation
of what is reported, as well as an evaluation of actions and a presentation of the
moral value of the actors involved. Narrative as a mode of discourse proves to be a
prototype, playing a central role in every conversation, able to convey information
within a structure organized as a sequence (a beginning, a middle and an end)
(ibid.). One may notice that the structural characters of narratives as exemplified
by Chatman (time and action, reference to some unusual event, description of
actors and context, to which we may add causal explanation and moral evaluation)
are present in nuce even in simple everyday narratives.
The work of Labov concentrates on narratives of a peculiar kind (oral speeches
with a specific content) and, although his speculations achieve interesting
generalizable results as to the structure and function of the oral narratives, they are
conditioned by the specific empirical interests of the author. Let me go back to a
more general presentation of narratives by selecting, from the enormous literature
on the subject, a perspective which, by stressing the strong interconnection between
action, time and narration, has a peculiar interest for the sociological investigation
of the topic. The linguist Teun A. Van Dijk (1975; 1976), has tried to define the
structural traits of narrative texts starting from a general, philosophically-oriented
definition of action. In his essays dating back to the 1970s, Van Dijk explicitly
connected action, action theory and narrative. Since narrative discourse is about
action or sequences of actions in time, an appropriate linguistic definition of


Fiction and Social Reality

narrative should take into account what action is, from a general, conceptual point
of view (Van Dijk, 1975, p. 273). As Van Dijk writes, formal action description
may yield insight into the abstract structures of narratives in natural language
(Van Dijk, 1976, p. 287).
Action is to be distinguished from simple doings or involuntary bodily
movements, in so far as it is characterized by intentions (motivating our doings)
and purposes (broader tasks within which our actions are embedded) (Van Dijk,
1975, pp. 279-80). Thus an act may be defined as what an actor intentionally
performs in order to bring about a certain state of affairs under a specific purpose
(ibid., p. 277). By introducing the subjective dimension of intentionality and
purposefulness, philosophical action theories (and I might add sociological action
theories too) show the complexity of human acts and help distinguishing them
from mere behaviour. An intentional act entails not only a change in state (from
stage x to stage y), it also implicates a series of internal states (wishes, wants,
fears, etc.) which become relevant as soon as one moves from the actual level
of empirical facts to the linguistic level of action description. Indeed, whereas
doings are connected to what actually happens, an action has to be interpreted
as a specific kind of intentional activity. Moving a pen on a piece of paper, for
example, is a doing, which may be interpreted as signing a contract (ibid., p. 281),
but also otherwise. Thus a narrative is an action description (or, when it consists of
more than one sentence, an action discourse), which takes into account intentions,
desires, inner emotional states, a whole grammar of motives which may be evoked
in order to explain the subjective dimension of what is done (ibid., pp. 282-3). By
making reference to the subjective element in narration, one makes a further step
towards the definition of the sociological relevance of the narrative discourse: as
it describes not only action but also the individual motives underlining it, each
narration is an attempt (nave or sophisticated, depending on the author and the
context) to understand action from the perspective of the actor (for the sociological
relevance of motivated action see Wilson, 1970, p. 698).
As for oral narratives, Van Dijk intends them as structural elements of the social,
with a series of functions not to be restricted to the exchange of information. A
narration is a way to bring about a change in the knowledge of the hearer, although
it may have additional functions. A story may be told so as to give the hearer an
example of what it is sensible to imitate or to avoid, in which case a narrative
converts itself into a model of experience (Van Dijk, 1975, p. 286). It may have
an emotional function, when the narrator receives praise for the action performed
or for his ability in telling the story. In any case, narrating appears not simply as
a form of communication but also as a way by which society is reproduced. One
may add that sociologically, a normal narrative (so not a simple description of
events, but an everyday account of a fractured and re-established order) appears
as an instrument of normalization of the unusual (Garfinkel, 1967). Hence it is a
strong communicative tool by which society constantly reconstructs the sense of
its normality.

Features and Structure of Narratives


Another plausible definition of narratives refers to the way events are connected
together, i.e. to the coherence of the sequence in which they are ordered. Nol
Carroll (2001), for example, has tried to identify narratives by concentrating on
what he calls the narrative connection, i.e. the specific relation between events
and states of affairs which configure a text as narrative. His analysis is explicitly
directed to historical and fictional narratives, but it may also be applied to other
kinds of text. According to Carroll, a narrative is an interrelation of at least two,
and possibly more, events and/or states of affairs which have to be in a significant
connection with one another (Carroll, 2001, p. 120). Two elements are necessary
although not sufficient to qualify a text as a narrative: a unified subject and an
ordered temporal sequence. An ordered temporal sequence makes for a kind
of text which historians call annal; that is, the simple recording of significant
events in a yearly sequence. A unified subject connected to an implicit ordered
temporal sequence is a chronicle which may be better qualified as [a] discursive
representation that (temporally, but non-causally) connects at least two events in
the career of a unified subject so that a reliable temporal ordering is retrievable
from it (and/or from the context of enunciation) (ibid., p. 121).
Both annals and chronicles are still not, according to Carroll, to be defined as
narratives, as they lack a tight connection among events and/or states of affairs
(ibid., p. 122). A structural feature is necessary in order to make the sequence of
events a proper narration, which Carroll detects in some sort of casual relation
(ibid.). By causal relations, a sequence of events in which the first is sufficient
to determine the subsequent in a direct and necessary connection is not what is
intended. Rather, Carroll refers to a looser form of causality by which an event
may be intended as part of a net of cooperating factors, enabling a state of affairs
to come about (ibid., p. 128).
The narrative connection, as described by Carroll, is an alternative, philosophical
representation of the structural quality of narratives: a narrative is such in so far as
it presents events and states of affairs which are temporally ordered, thematically
coherent and which have some kind of casual interconnection. The casual relation
is loose, since an event is to be considered as a necessary but not sufficient condition
for another event to occur, which makes its consequences unforeseen and the plot
open to the unexpected. The openness of the plot is, however, conditioned by
the previous events (owing to what has already been narrated, not everything can
happen,), which complies with the principle of thematic and logical coherence.
As Labov, Van Dijk and Carroll clearly show, a narrative, even in its more
elementary manifestation (e.g. oral exposition of an experience) is always
more than a sequential presentation of events: it entails a causal explanation of
what happened as well as an evaluation of actors and actions. This shows the
constructed character of narratives as such: a narrative presupposes a selection
of aspects of reality from the perspective of the narrator, which makes any
attempt to consider non-fictional narration as objective representation of reality,
weak. Having identified the constructed character of narratives (whether fictional
or non-fictional) and before turning to the definition of the specific features of

Fiction and Social Reality


literary narratives, it is necessary to summarize which elements are indispensable

to viewing a text as narrative. What follows is an attempt at summarizing the
fundamental features of narrations:

Temporality: a narrative text has to do with time, in so far as it has to connect

events, so even the most parsimonious attempt at defining a narrative has to
take sequentiality into account.
Action and events: the most common content in a narrative is action (Van
Dijk, 1975) or at least a combination of action and unplanned events (or
happenings) (Chatman, 1978, pp. 44-5).
Connection among events: events are not only sequentially reported, they
are non-randomly interconnected (Toolan, 1988, p. 7), in order to identify
significant relations (for example cause and effect) among everyday
happenings and actions (Bruner, 1986, p. 12)
Consistency: the interconnected events and actions have to be linked by
some principle of coherence. Stories do not simply juxtapose events and
actions. Events and actions are organized within a narrative in order to
make the evolution of the story in terms of change and transformation
plausible (Todorov, 1977, p. 233).
Fracture in the taken for granted: in order to be perceived as a narrative,
even in its most simple structure, a text has to tell a story of broken and
re-established order (Labov and Waletzky, 1967, p. 32; Van Dijk, 1975,
p. 289; Toolan, 1988, p. 8) which makes the related events interesting for
readers or listeners.
Coexistence with other text-modes: although one can hardly imagine a
narrative text in which nothing happens, the complexity of a narrative text
depends on the fact that other communicative modes are compatible with
narration (e.g. description, argumentation, evaluation). So, a narrative text
is a combination of other modes of discourse, provided that the narrative
mode is predominant (Franzoni, 2010, p. 596).

Two Approaches to Fiction

When we consider literary narratives, the question of their truthfulness is to be
taken into account. A literary narrative may be intended as a mode of discourse
with no external referents. What is told is fictional, i.e. the output of individual,
artistic creation. Yet, on the one hand narratives as such, regardless of their fictional
character, may be regarded as the result of a constructive and selective process,
by which the representation of reality that they convey may be intended as highly
artificial; on the other, if fictional narratives make sense, it is in so far as they
greatly rely on socially shared knowledge. One may ask oneself: if one assumes
that narratives are meaning construction processes, is a neat distinction between
fictional (literary in particular) and non-fictional narratives still needed? To answer

Features and Structure of Narratives


this question, one may take Walsh as a guideline, when he writes: I want to grant
full force to the claim that all narrative is artifice, and in that very restricted sense
fictive, but I maintain nonetheless that fictional narrative has a coherently distinct
cultural role, and that a distinct concept of fictionality is required to account for
this role (Walsh, 2007, p. 19). The task of this section is to take what Walsh
calls a distinct concept of fictionality seriously by sketching the chief features of
literary narratives as compared to non-literary ones.
Is there any specific character of a text which may help us to identify it as
fictional? Or should one suppose that any narrative text is such in so far as it
possesses a set of well-defined (linguistic, semantic, semiotic, structural)
characteristics and that the differences between the fictional and non-fictional are
to be located outside the text, in some social convention connected to its actual
production and fruition? Both hypotheses have been sustained in the debate
about the narrative. John R. Searle (1975) is here assumed to be one of the main
supporters of the second hypothesis. In his influential essay, The Logical Status
of Fictional Discourse, Searle proposes a conception of fiction as a simulation
of referential speech. Searles intention is not to distinguish between literary and
non-literary texts, his leading distinction being between serious and fictional
utterances, where the character of the fictional is clearly defined by opposition
(what is not serious, and is hence untrue). The essay deals with the vast number of
narratives which have no reference in actual events or characters (e.g. comics or
jokes) (ibid., p. 319).
The question Searle poses is paradoxical: how is it possible that in fictional
discourse the referential rules, attaching words to their meanings, seem to be
operating and yet do not actually operate in their normal way? In other words:
how is it possible to construct an apparently ordinary discourse about a simulated
reality (van Ort, 1998, p. 439)? The logic underlining Searles argument is part
of a conception of language conceived of as a realistic reproduction of reality
(ibid., p. 445). Narratives are chiefly made up of a peculiar kind of illocutionary
act: assertions, which is to say, acts committing the speaker to the truth. Searle
compares a narrative taken from a newspaper and one reproducing a passage from
a novel and shows that, whereas the first extract has to comply with the rule of
truthfulness, the second clearly does not (Searle, 1975, pp. 321-4). Of course, even
a newspaper article (as well as an oral narrative in an ordinary conversation) may
transgress the rule of truthfulness: in that case, it is simply false and its author may
be accused of an incorrect behaviour. Fictional narratives, on the contrary, are
untrue without any social consequences for their author. A narrative fiction may
therefore be defined as a text that employs the character of assertiveness while
overtly breaking the basic rule of veracity.
According to Searle, the fundamental criterion by which to identify a text as
fictional is extra-linguistic, in so far as this has to be identified in the intention
of its author. When telling or writing a story, the author produces assertive texts
which do not comply with the truth as the fundamental condition of assertiveness
(ibid., p. 325). To make the paradox of an untrue assertive communication


Fiction and Social Reality

plausible, a set of social conventions is presupposed, which makes the expectation

of veracity inessential among the audience (ibid., p. 326). Thus fiction is not
to be understood as a specific mode of discourse, but, as it were, as a parasitic
form of communication, based as it is on the simulation of specific speech acts.
Indeed, Searle seems to be aware of the relevance of fiction, especially of literary
narratives and, although his analysis is nave in places (van Ort, 1998), it sets out
the idea of fiction as the result of an extra-textual implicit agreement between the
author and the audience (Koten, 2012, p. 174).
What if one tries to detect the character of literary fictional narratives by
assuming that they represent not a simulation of other forms of communication,
but a specific mode of discourse? A number of features have been detected by
scholars, which are relevant in this regard, in so far as they qualify literary texts as
documents of a peculiar type, i.e. documents which, despite their fictionality
communicate profound truths about life (Chatman, 1993, p. 13). A relevant
approach is structuralist narratology, which proposes a deductive, theoretical
perspective as a valid method for detecting the intimate structures which turn a
discourse into a narrative. Narrative as a mode of discourse and narration as a
social practice may be considered universal (Barthes, 1975, p. 237). Narratology is
an attempt to make sense of the enormous variety of empirical forms that narratives
may concretely assume. By advocating theoretical reflection about the structural
elements of narrative, the approach is the exact opposite as compared to the patient
empirical labour brought about by Labov (see also Chatman, 1978, p. 18). It is a
theoretically oriented quest for order in the bulk of possible empirical variations,
based on a dismissal of inductive logic and what it implies: an impossible extensive
knowledge of all the different forms that empirical narratives may assume.
Roland Barthes (1975), to mention just one of the most influential deductive
analysts of narratives, tries to unveil the inner functioning of a narrative text.
Although Barthes intention is to sketch the character of narrative as such, it is
clear, even at a first glance, that in his attempt to detect the elements of narration,
Barthes has more articulated narratives in mind, literary fiction in particular. In
his hierarchical model, narratives are organized on three levels: functions, actions
and narration. The first level of the narrative structure is connected with its basic,
constitutive elements (ibid., p. 243). Those elements are analytically detectable
in so far as they have a relevant function for the narrative discourse (ibid.,
p. 244). Barthes distinguishes two types of functional units, somewhat overlapping
with the distinction, proposed by Chatman (1978, p. 19 ff.), between events and
existents: the first (functions properly) are elements in the story able to reproduce
the action flow (the purchase of a gun entails its possible use, for example). The
second (indices) are connected to the atmosphere as well as to the physical and
psychological description of characters and, although functional to the narrative,
are not so to the development of the plot. A narrative constitutes itself as a sequence
of nuclei; that is, cardinal functions, e.g. events particularly relevant for the story
to progress, and collateral actions and events which, although not essential to

Features and Structure of Narratives


the plot, enrich and complete the story and keep the attention of the reader alive
(Barthes, 1975, p. 249).
Action is the second structural level of a narrative: Barthes stresses that a shift
has been made by narratology from actors to actions. Indeed, as has been shown
by Russian formalists, Propp in particular, a great variety of narratives (especially
traditional ones) place action in the foreground, the character being the mere
expression of a narrative function. On the contrary, modern literary narratives
(the novel in particular) by stressing the psychological component of the story,
have given increasing relevance to the character, now narratively treated as an
individual endowed with his or her own personality. The Western novel, especially
in its golden age (in the 19th century), is often praised for the fact that it is a
psychological study of the complex personalities of the characters involved, the
protagonist in particular. The shift from actor to action, which Barthes proposes,
gives the opportunity to define a character not in psychological terms, but as an
actant that is, only in so far as he participates in a restricted number of typified
actions. By making reference to action, narrative theories may, define a character
by his participation in a sphere of actions, such spheres being limited in number,
typical, and subject to classification (ibid., p. 258).2
The choice to theoretically put action in the foreground is closely linked to
the cultural milieu in which Barthes developed his conception of narrative. Being
deeply influenced by structuralism (Greimas, 1966; Todorov, 1969), he aims at
detecting the basic, universal elements of a story. The sphere of action is easier
to categorize than the plurality of actors who may perform certain kinds of action.
Yet, when one thinks of the sociological relevance of narratives (including literary
ones) the analytical shift from actor to action seems to have advantages as well as
disadvantages: it may give the opportunity to analyse a narrative text by adopting
an aseptic scheme, linking actions to function rather than to subjective motivations
(see Cardano, 2011, pp. 259-64, who, by adopting the actant model developed by
Greimas analyses qualitative interviews as narratives); the risk is that one may
lose access to the complex description of inner motives, feelings and thoughts
(what Bruner, 1990, pp. 51-2, calls double landscapes of narratives one of the
reasons for the fascination of the social sciences for narrative texts) in favour of a
more technical analysis of the textual elements and their functions.
What is relevant, at any rate, is that a conception of narration emerges whose
main feature is not mimesis but artificiality. A narrative does not represent reality;
rather, it shows some enigmatic aspects of it. Roland Barthes writes, What goes
on in a narrative is, from the referential (real) point of view, strictly nothing.
This does not imply that a narrative is devoid of meaning (Barthes, 1975, p. 271).
What Barthes is aiming at, is demonstrating that a literary narrative is a meaning
construction process, with its own rules and structures, its own temporality and
its own conventions, which we naturalize, as we tend to remove the structural
2The last level analysed by Barthes, the narrational, being the less relevant from a
sociological point of view, will not be dealt with here.


Fiction and Social Reality

complexity of narrations and perceive them not as cultural processes, but as

unproblematic descriptions of referents and their actions in the world (Barthes,
1972, p. 131 ff).
Sketching the Character of Literary Narratives
As a specific text, a narrative is about actions, events and changes (from an
initial status x to a final status y), which is a somewhat artificial way of saying
that a narrative tells a story. Since a narrative text tells a story, and does so by
describing a series of actions or events, its more appropriate dimension is time.
Narrative accounts of ordinary experiences respect the sequence in which events
actually took place (Labov, 1997). On the contrary, a literary narrative produces a
highly artificial construction of time. Two dimensions may be distinguished, one
connected to the actual temporality of events (story-time), the second linked to the
way those events are represented within the narrative (discourse-time) (Chatman,
1993, p. 24). A series of inconsistencies between story-time and discourse-time are
typical aspects of the way time is reproduced in literary narratives. In particular,
the order of events may be modified, for example through the use of flash-backs
and flash-forwards (Genette, 1980; Chatman, 1978, p. 63). Duration is another
relevant element: discourse-time may not overlap with story-time (and actually it
often does not) in so far as long lapses of time may be synthesized in a sentence or,
on the contrary, a single day may occupy a whole novel (Toolan, 1988, p. 55). In a
literary narrative, time appears as a construction of the narrator: the natural order
of time may be subverted; it may be either compressed or expanded according to
the necessities of the narrative process of meaning construction (Barthes, 1975,
p. 251). Thus, although action and state-change are the chief elements characterizing
a narrative text as such, the way temporality is represented in a novel or a short
story follows rules which are strictly literary.
As already stated above, literary narratives may contain other text forms, in
particular argumentation and description (Chatman, 1993, pp. 7-8). Although
fiction shares this aspect with other non-fictional narratives (oral accounts,
newspaper reports, for example) the combination of the sequence of actions and
events and other textual forms has peculiar consequences in the case of literary
fiction. Description gives the opportunity for a double contextualization of action
and events: actions are referred to characters, which may be described in their
physical as well as psychological components; actions and events may be referred
to settings (natural and human environments) which complete narrative temporality
with the dimension of space. Within the perspective of structuralist narratology,
both characters (Toolan, 1988, p. 91 ff.) and settings (ibid., p. 103 ff.) have been
deprived of any mimetic value, in so far as it seems irrelevant to analyse them in
their capacity of representing individuals or milieux, e.g. psychological qualities
or environmental characteristics. By rejecting any traditional form of mimetic
criticism (including psychoanalytical, sociological, Marxist), both characters and

Features and Structure of Narratives


settings have been conceived of as the results of detectable linguistic procedures.

Characters have not been intended as representations of psychological traits to
be potentially found in actual individuals, but as linguistic artefacts; settings
have not been conceived of as representations of actual environments, but as the
outputs of well-defined descriptive procedures. Indeed, a diffuse sense of unease
has spread towards the structuralist reduction of literary fiction to its linguistic
functions (Walsh, 2007, 10) and although one may not ignore the constructed
character of fictional worlds, there are elements in the way a fictional narrative
depicts actions, characters and milieux which may not be simply reduced to their
linguistic qualities: they are modelled on our ordinary conceptions of reality and
in this they are reality-like (see Rimmon-Kennan, 1983, p. 33 who refers to the
quasi-mimetic qualities of the sole characters).
Aside from the technical aspects of its structure, a literary narrative comes
out of the interplay between pretended assertiveness and actual fictitiousness
which guarantees an unproblematic acceptance of two apparently contradictory
aspects: the made-up character of what is reported, and the perceived reality of
the fictional construction (including actions, characters, and settings). Thus, the
artificiality of literary fiction (and, one may add, its usefulness as a document) may
be better understood by taking into account the results of its structuredness. One
of these results, connected to the co-presence within literary fiction of narration and
description, is its capacity to create a dual landscape (Bruner, 1990, pp. 51-2); that is,
the coexisting possibility of describing both the external landscape of physical objects
and the interior landscape of the characters feelings, thoughts and motivations.
Indeed, what would be rejected as unnatural in an everyday narrative is assumed
as normal in a novel or a short story: the direct access to the interior complexity
of the actors. The dual landscape of fiction implies that events and actions in
a putative real world occur concurrently with mental events in the consciousness
of the protagonists (ibid., p. 51). The combination of the interior and the exterior
landscapes seems plausible to the reader not only as a consequence of the artificial
pact between the author and the reader, but also as a result of the reality-like character
of literary narratives. A thought (or an emotion) can have no reference outside the
pretended identity of the narrated characters: it is, evidently, a construction of the
narrator and yet it can be acknowledged by the reader as compatible with what he
knows about reality.
From a technical point of view, the possibility of accessing the inner
complexity of the characters psychology is a qualifying feature of fictionality.
Only in literary narratives is it possible to describe someone elses inner processes
(including decisions taken and motives to act), within a convention which
allows the narrator to penetrate the black box of the characters individuality. Of
course, the characters individuality is the authors construction, yet the reader
has the impression that he may share in the otherwise inaccessible world of
the intimate thoughts and feelings of other (albeit fictional) human beings. In
everyday narratives, on the contrary, one can describe ones own inner feelings


Fiction and Social Reality

and motives or deal with someone elses only de relato (in so far as one has been
told about them) (Van Dijk, 1976, 41-3).
The conventional possibility to accede the characters interior being may be
intended as the output of another feature of fictional narratives: the conceptual
distinction between the author and the narrator (Genette, 1990). Whereas in factual
narratives the author and the narrator necessarily overlap, this is not the case in
fictional narrations (ibid., p. 764 ff.). The supposed objectivity and truthfulness
of non-fictional narratives (e.g. oral reports of personal experiences, historical
accounts, journalistic reports etc.) are chiefly to be imputed to the coincidence
of author and narrator: in this case, the author assumes full responsibility for
the assertion of his narrative and, consequently, does not grant autonomy to any
narrator (ibid., p. 765). The contrary holds for literary narratives, where the
narrator is intended as a narrative function rather than an identifiable social actor
and, in so far as he does not overlap with the author, the latter is not subdued to
the rule of truthfulness. By being logically separated from the author, the narrator
(no matter which technical form he has been given by the author) has the textual
function of unveiling aspects of the plot (incidents and events) and aspects of
the personalities of the characters which would otherwise remain unknown to
the readers.
Narratologists have adopted a series of distinctions (e.g. extradiegetic/
intradiegetic; internal/external; intrusive/detached) to define the different roles the
narrator may assume within a literary fiction (see Toolan, 1988, p. 82; Genette,
1990; Chatman, 1993, p. 91). Indeed, the narrative function of the narrator has
assumed in time a wide variety of different technical features, all related to the
attempt to make the conventional access to the interior landscape more plausible
and realistic. In more general terms, a process was set forth, which Wayne C. Booth
(1961, pp. 3-20) once effectively described as a transition from telling to showing.
By telling one should understand a wide range of variations, from the omniscient
narrator of classical fiction to more recent techniques (character-narrator or
witness-narrator, for example), whose main characteristic is that the reader may
perceive his presence: he interferes with the story, makes ethical comments on
characters and events, or is often implausibly aware of hidden aspects of the
related events and characters (Chatman, 1988, p. 91). By showing Booth refers
to the opposite stance, related to a more objective and detached narrator, who is
now devoid of any perceivable presence, his function, similar to a camera, being
reduced to showing actors, events and settings from a peculiar point of view (ibid.,
p. 92). The process from telling to showing may be intended as a quest for realism,
an attempt to produce a more impersonal and objective representation of reality,
the unexpected consequence of which may be, as Ricoeur puts it, the end of our
capacity to narrate (Ricoeur, 1985, p. 10).

Features and Structure of Narratives


Fictional Worlds or mimesis?

Literary narratives open up a number of opportunities which are closed to other
kinds of narrations. The dual landscape as described by Bruner is a relevant
example, connected with the narrator as a specific discourse function. It gives the
opportunity to describe the complex reality of characters, with their psychological,
cultural and ethical implications. It creates a world of interplaying levels open
to a great variety of possible interpretations (including the sociological). Yet a
question emerges here, connected to the use of fictional narratives as a way of
better understanding the non-fictional world: Are literary narratives independent
constructions; that is to say, possible worlds, with no contact with the actual world,
or is there some detectable relation, which justifies the use of fictional material as
showing something about the world?
It is by now clear that no nave conception of literature as simply reflecting
reality is plausible. This idea, based on a referential conception of language, made
Searle puzzle over the very possibility of a pretended assertiveness. Literary
narratives are not simply to be conceived of as simulations of assertive texts.
They are texts endowed with a constructive power, which results in the creation of
alternative worlds. Indeed, more than representing reality, they construct a fictive
world which did not exist prior to the process of artistic production, and for this,
are to be distinguished from descriptive texts:
constructional texts are sharply differentiated from descriptive texts.
Descriptive texts are representations of the actual world, of a world existing
prior to any textual activity. In contrast, constructional texts are prior to their
worlds; fictional worlds are dependent on, and determined by, constructional
texts. As textually determined constructs, fictional worlds cannot be altered or
cancelled, while the versions of the actual world provided by descriptive texts
are subject to constant modifications and refutations. (Doleel, 1988, p. 489)

By contrasting the idea of literary narratives as mimesis (i.e. a referential

representation of the world out there) Lubomr Doleel (1988, 1998) has analysed
the product of artistic poiesis by adopting the philosophical concept of the possible
world. This concept has been developed within contemporary philosophical
thought as a way to solve internal problems of modal logic. When applied to
the field of narrative, this concept acquires specific features: Fictional worlds,
Doleel writes, are possible worlds in that they are ensembles of non-actualized
possible particulars persons, states, events and so on. Hamlet is not a man to be
found in the actual world; he is a possible person inhabiting an alternative world,
the fictional world of Shakespeares play (Doleel, 1998, pp. 787-8).
Fictional worlds are as-if worlds endowed with an authenticity of their own,
connected to the world-constructing force of the text, whose creative power,
calls the world into existence and determines its structures (ibid., p. 790). This
constructive power (poiesis) legitimizes the autonomy of literary narratives, which


Fiction and Social Reality

are not intended as mirror-representations of specific aspects of reality, but, even in

their more realistic versions, as constructions of alternative worlds, characterized
by fictional references (ibid., p. 788, see also Walsh, 2007, p. 32).
Sophisticated as the concept of the narrative world may be, it seems to exclude
any use of narrative contents as a way to understand the world of human interaction
which, on the contrary, the concept of mimesis is able to legitimize. A possible
alternative to both a reduction of narrative to its own internal references and a
nave conception of narration as a form of direct access to the world of facts is Paul
Ricoeurs analysis of time and narrative. The work of Ricoeur is so articulated
that I will not even attempt to summarize it. As specific aspects of Ricoeurs
complex reasoning will be dealt with elsewhere in this book, it will suffice here to
remark some aspects of his conception of narrative, in particular those linked to
literary fiction as a peculiar kind of mimesis. According to Ricoeur, narrative is the
imitation (mimesis) of actions. Besides its mimetic capacities, a narrative is also a
form of an understanding of reality which may be compared to metaphors:
By means of the plot, goals, causes, and chance are brought together within
the temporal unity of a whole and complete action. It is this synthesis of the
heterogeneous that brings narrative close to metaphor. In both cases, the new
thingthe as yet unsaid, the unwritten springs up in language. Here a living
metaphor, that is, a new pertinence in the predication, there a feigned plot, that
is, a new congruence in the organization of the events. (Ricoeur, 1984, p. ix)

Through narratives, we give sense to a variety of apparently scattered elements,

making a coherent action out of them, in a process similar to the connection of
apparently non-connectible elements which constitute metaphors. Thus narratives
are meaning constitutive processes through which a synthetic understanding is
reached, consisting in, grasping the operation that unifies into one whole and
complete action the miscellany constituted by the circumstances, ends and
means, initiatives and interactions, the reversals of fortune, and all the unintended
consequences issuing from human action (ibid., p. x). In Chapter 2, I will analyse
Ricoeurs idea, developed in his monumental trilogy on Time and Narrative (1984,
1985, 1988), of narrative understanding as a three-phase process, connected to
three different concepts of mimesis. According to Ricoeur, the construction of plots
(Mimesis2) is rooted in our pre-understanding of human action (Mimesis1) which,
after being assimilated through the act of reading (Mimesis3) may retroact on our
comprehension of everyday reality (Simms, 2003, p. 86). These brief hints show
that Ricoeurs conception of mimesis has nothing in common with any narrowminded idea of narrative mirroring reality. Mimesis is a hermeneutic process,
in which narrative (Mimesis2) has a mediating function between the everyday
premises of understanding and the redefinition of shared meanings consequent on
the interpretative moment of reception (Ricoeur, 1984, pp. 64-5).
Mimesis2 overlaps with the process of emplotment, i.e. the construction of a
logical uniformity in the heterogeneity and incoherence of human action. (Ricoeur

Features and Structure of Narratives


writes of a synthesis of the heterogeneous brought about by plot [Ricoeur, 1984,

p. 7, 84].) According to Ricoeur, both historical and literary narratives share this
capacity to create coherence and consistency from a variety of scattered elements.
The distinction between fictional and non-fictional, therefore, is not to be detected
in some sort of structural difference between narration and historical discourse:
historical accounts are narration, in so far as they put events together, within a
cause-effect relation (Simms, 2003, p. 87). Yet there is an intrinsic difference
between narrative causality and historical causality. The first is the result of the
sole emplotment (the selection of events and characters which are coherently put
together in the process of narrating). The second is the emplotment connected to a
selective process whereby an historian puts facts together on the basis of evidence.
Fictional narratives create imagined realities, somewhat autonomous from
external referents, which is what distinguishes history from fiction. Autonomy
implies the construction of a fictional world thanks to a set of rules and
conventions which makes the audience aware that they are entering a fictive realm.
Does autonomy mean complete separation? Ricoeurs critique of structuralist
narratology legitimates a negative answer to the question. Indeed, although such
authors as Propp and Greimas give relevant contributions to a formal analysis
of narratives, their revolutionary approaches, end up by eliminating history to
the profit of structure (Ricoeur, 1985, p. 31). Yet, a narrative is not simply the
output of rules of composition: it is endowed with a telos, which justifies a story
in terms of its moral value (Dowling, 2011, p. 44). Even for Ricoeur, a narrative
is a world on its own, yet in a different sense as compared to structuralism. Its
main function is to give sense to the discordant experience of lived temporality
and the incoherence of everyday life. Since it gives structure and coherence to our
experience, it cannot be the simple imitation of life, in the sense of mirroring or
representing it. Narrative mimesis for Ricoeur is not reproduction but production,
invention. It may borrow from life but it transforms it (Carr, 1991, p. 170).
Thus narration is the result of an aware construction (poiesis), which configures
it as a highly artificial process. A narrative presentation of events implies a
description of reality with logical as well as formal rules (e.g. the Aristotelian
rules). It entails a conventional use of tenses (past tenses in particular) which have
the function of signalling to the reader that he is entering a fictive world (Ricoeur,
1985, pp. 61-99). Moreover, a narrative implies a telos; that is, a movement to
a destined or predetermined end (Dowling, 2011, p. 9), and thus a development,
known to the narrator and unknown to the reading public. The narrator resembles,
as it were, the role of God, in so far as the development of the plot is to him
totus simul, as the universe to the divinity: he knows how events in the plot will
evolve, although we, as readers, may experience them in the form of recognizing
the unexpected (ibid., p. 9).
What is relevant in Ricoeur is that all the elements as sketched above (past,
narrative temporality, narrator) are both part of the structural characteristics of
fictional narratives and the prerequisites of a meaning construction process which
is neglected by structuralist narratology. A narrative, Ricoeur suggests, is much


Fiction and Social Reality

more than the sum of its constitutive elements: it is a way to unveil otherwise
covered aspects of reality. It is a metaphor-like process that gives coherence to
separated elements and events, within a circular process of mutual influences:
from everyday life to narrative and, through re-figuration, from narrative to our
perception of everyday life. According to Ricoeur, narration, in so far as it allows
the connection of events within the plot, is an essential part of our understanding
of the world, and this is why, although he gives credit to the sophisticated analyses
of both formalists and structuralists, he is against the elision of the story from the
analysis and in favour of an approach which conceives of narratives as a specific
mode of comprehension.
According to Ricoeur, stressing the constructing power of fiction does not
necessarily imply considering literary narratives independently of the social
context in which they have been generated. A complex interplay is at work, which
makes the use of literary narratives as sociological sources theoretically and
methodologically relevant: literary narratives construct fictional worlds, which
are able to escape from the narrow borders of narrative structures and retroact on
reality. The opposite holds true as well: narratives are deeply rooted in our prenarrative understanding of the world which is, in its turn, able to influence plots,
characters, settings and events. Both influences are relevant from a sociological
point of view.

Chapter 2

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives

Narration and Knowledge: A Controversial Question
Chapter 1 was an attempt to sketch the structure and function of narratives
(including literary ones) as a communicative mode whose main feature is the
imitation of action. As I have tried to show, this simple characterization of narrative
does not do justice to its complexity: a narrative (no matter whether everyday or
literary) is much more than a simple, sequential presentation of actions and events.
It is, rather, a presentation of action and events in a relational dimension, e.g. in
the form of a meaningful interconnection. In this specific sense, narratives are
endowed with a cognitive character: they give sense to reality and, in so doing, are
means for the comprehension of aspects of the world. This chapter is devoted to
this comprehending process, hence to the cognitive quality of narratives; that is,
their capacity to produce a peculiar form of knowledge.
Before analysing the topic, two preliminary remarks are necessary. The first
is that narration provides a localized knowledge, linked to specific facts, actors
and events, which is of a very different kind from the generalized knowledge
which scientific discourse claims to achieve. In this sense, the critical discourse
about narrativity updates the old debate opposing human and hard sciences,
the former aspiring at a minute knowledge of the particular, the second at
generalizable knowledge and the formulation of general laws. Once applied
to the social sciences (sociology in particular), the reference to narrative is to
be seen as a benchmark, distinguishing between those who are interested in
the close observation of social processes as they actually occur and those who,
disregarding the narrative presentation of reality as a source of data, prefer a more
general description of society, which can be achieved by adopting a detached
perspective and resorting to quantitative techniques. The second remark refers
to a character of narration, which I have already hinted at: its universality. As
Hayden White clearly states, although we may not understand the complex
implications of an exotic culture, we are generally able to understand the pattern
of a story, no matter how far the culture which has produced it is from our own.
Narratives are universal modes of converting our experience of the world into a
communicative mode which is trans-culturally understandable and translatable.
Let me quote White directly:
narrative might well be considered a solution to a problem of general human
concern, namely, the problem of how to translate knowing into telling, the
problem of fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to structures


Fiction and Social Reality

of meaning that are generally human rather than culture-specific. We may not
be able fully to comprehend specific thought patterns of another culture, but
we have relatively less difficulty understanding a story coming from another
culture, however exotic that culture may appear to us. (White, 1980, p. 1)

Narration has been configured as a knowing process, which implies a slight

correction of Whites formulation. A narrative is not a solution to the problem
of translating knowledge into telling, but a process of knowing through telling.
Ricoeurs (1984) and Minks (1970) conceptions of the narrative as a process
by which the scattered elements of reality find an internal coherence within
the structure of narration is perhaps the most adequate exemplification of the
mechanism by which, as we tell a story, we make sense of a variety of differentiated
elements which would remain otherwise unrelated.
The universal character of narrative as a form of understanding is probably
linked to the fact that it is through narratives that we understand action. In the
first chapter, I have already underlined the strong relation between narration and
action, which implies that in everyday life we tend to use narratives so as to give
account of our own and other peoples behaviour. If we are to explain an unusual
behaviour (say a young man running in a crowded street while carrying a large
potted plant and shouting the name of a woman) we may achieve an appropriate
explanation if we are able to tell a story about it (he is trying to catch up with
his ex-girlfriend, who has just left him and is moving to stay with a friend, using
her favourite plant as a pretext for convincing her to come back home) (both
examples and argument are in Carr, 2008, pp. 19-20). According to Carr, what
makes telling a story particularly apt as a mode of explanation is its proximity to
everyday common sense. It never strays far from ordinary discourse, Carr writes
(ibid., p. 21), by which he does not mean that narrative as a mode of explanation
is necessarily the same as that supposedly furnished by the actors involved,
but that it is compatible with ordinary language and reasoning. Explanation
through narratives appears familiar, far from the technical jargon of specialized
disciplines. Its style of explanation is analogous to the style we adopt to make
sense of events in our everyday life. A narrative explains by locating events in
time, by selecting events as relevant to the narrative and expunging those which
are not, by assimilating the unfamiliar to the typical. In so far as it places the
explanation of action in the wider context of a temporal sequence of events, as a
way of comprehending reality, it is more complex and promising than the attempt
to understand action by reconstructing the intention of the actor (as is the case with
traditional interpretative sociology):
The idea of telling a story about what people do seems broader and richer in its
scope than that of simply understanding their actions by means of their intentions,
though it may involve this too. A story seems capable of encompassing multiple
actions and events, as well as long-term actions, sub-actions and reactions to
events; it calls attention to the narrators retrospective point of view, introducing

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


the ironic element of viewing actions in relations to their unintended as well

as their intended consequences; and it appeals to a logic of the flow of action
through time, a structure of events that gives them a distinctive form. (ibid.,
p. 25)

Rich and complex as this mode of explanation may appear, Carr is aware that it
does not comply with the standards of scientificity, at least as defined by those who
think that to apply the method of hard sciences to the social and human sciences
is both desirable and feasible. Narrativity has been contrasted in many fields,
from history to psychology, reproducing the old debate opposing hard sciences
and humanities. Claiming the cognitive value of narrative, although apparently
commonsensical, requires appropriate justifications, as the topic has been debated
from opposed positions.
Paisley Livingston (2009) has sketched the positions in favour and against the
cognitive value of narration. Those who reject the idea of narration as a cognitive
mode tend to conceive of it as a pseudo explanation, either because it conflates
temporal sequentiality with casual relations (post hoc ergo propter hoc), or because
it confuses some aspects of reality for its totality (pars pro toto). Stories may be
misleading due to the rhetorical resources they adopt or the seductive appeal they
make to the emotional sphere. Narratives may, moreover, be empirically deceptive
as they often overemphasize the role of the agent and his freedom (ibid., pp. 25-6).
The ones who criticize the cognitive value of narratives do not deny the relevance
of storytelling. Although creating stories is an intellectually complex activity and
telling them a highly relevant social process, this does not automatically entail
that stories are endowed with a cognitive quality. Livingston assumes as a wellargued discussion against the knowing capacity of stories Robyn Dawes Everyday
Irrationality. According to Dawes, narratives are always the source of erroneous
representations of reality. A story gives a partial, often misleading reproduction
of settings and events and that not only because, as we reproduce narratively past
circumstances, we tend to mnemonically distort our experiences, but also (and
what is even more relevant to Dawes argument) because a story always refers to
particular events which are put into a supposed and unverified causal relation; on
the contrary genuine explanations justify a hypothesis about types of events and
their correlations by means of statistical evidences (ibid., p. 29).
As Livingston argues, Dawes conception of narrativity is somewhat nave
since it intends narration as the presentation of particular events which are
causally interconnected in a highly subjective, unverifiable way. As a matter of
fact, narration is much more complex than that: it may aim at the presentation of
general virtues and vices (Livingston cites the classical fables), or may include
other discourse modes for example, argumentation. What is at the core of
Dawes argument in any case is a negative conception of narrativity, linked to a
solid mistrust of any form of representation of reality which, according to him, is
devoid of the qualities of scientific thinking. In so far as narrations appear to him
as containing unreliable conjectures about causal relations among events, they


Fiction and Social Reality

do not seem to have the necessary properties for qualification as an appropriate

explanatory strategy. If there is one correct approach to reality, which produces
adequate knowledge, i.e. the scientific, narration appears not only partial, but
also essentially erroneous as a way of penetrating the proper features of reality.
David Vellman contrasts the idea, strongly supported by Nol Carroll (2001),
according to which narratives are to be qualified as forms of causal explanations.
If there is some explanatory force peculiar to narrative itself (Vellman, 2003,
p. 3), it is not causality, since causation belongs to other modes of communication
as well, for example, scientific argumentation. Vellman proposes that narratives
operate more emotionally than rationally. Therefore, it may be sensible, Vellman
writes, to think of narrative understanding from an original perspective and even
find a term other than explanation to define it (ibid., p. 1).
Thus, what qualifies a story is neither temporality nor causality: both are
presupposed aspects of a narrative, since it would be impossible to conceive
of a timeless story or a story of unrelated events. Yet, as per Vellman, a
stretch of discourse can qualify as a story, more generally, by reliably producing
in the audience some emotional resolution (ibid., p. 7). Therefore, if a narrative
provides the audience with an understanding of the reported events, it does so not
because of the causal network the narrator is able to build up, but in so far as he
is able to raise emotional involvement. In fact, according to Vellman, the main
feature of narration lies in its power to initiate and resolve an emotional cadence
in the audience (ibid., p. 18). This power is linked to the capacity a narrative
has to present events as a coherent whole, which is recognized by the audience
as a typical sequence of sentimental outburst and resolution. This means that,
according to Vellman, a narrative, enables its audience to assimilate events,
not to familiar patterns of how things happen, but rather to familiar patterns of how
things feel (ibid., p. 19. See also Currie, 2006).
Narrative understanding is primarily emotional. It does not necessarily imply a
causal understanding of events (how things came about [ibid.]); it always entails
a comprehension in emotional terms. That has at least two consequences: the
first is that narratives convey a necessarily subjective knowledge, which may be
misleadingly confused as objective; the second is that the better argued stories are
not necessarily true. This is the reason why Vellman warns against any simplistic
acceptance of narratives among, inter alia, philosophers of law, who tend to
emphasize the relevance of stories without taking into account the persuasive
power of good narratives, which arises from their being structured around a strong
emotional component (Vellman, 2003, p. 21).
From different perspectives (the scientific and the emotional) both Dawes
and Vellman deny the explanatory force of narratives and in so doing are
representative of a more general tendency, which conceives of knowledge as
the construction of universal certainties, or at least of well-grounded hypotheses
about statistically founded provisional assertions. Narrative is either too
strongly connected to the personal view of the narrator to be generalized, or
it is emotionally biased and thus prone to distorting reality. In both cases, the

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


cognitive power of narration, as a subjective representation, is poorly equipped

to compete with more reliable, scientific, approaches. If we assume Carr (2008)
as a guiding light, we see that the question is indeed ill posed. Narration is a way
to make sense of our action in the world, a means by which we get our bearings,
a process of meaning construction which gives us the opportunity to understand
the grammar of human motives, by connecting them in a network of events,
actions and circumstances. Thus, regardless of its being in principle an ad hoc
explanation, a narrative implies culturally defined typifications (Schutz, 1962a)
sedimented in a socially shared stock of knowledge (Berger and Luckmann,
1971), which makes it evident that the way we narratively explain events is
neither inconsistent nor arbitrary.
Regardless of Vellmans argument against the idea of casuality as the central
feature of narrative, an implicit theory of causation seems to be an essential
component of even the simplest narrative reports (Labov, 1997). Presupposition
about causal relations among events characterizes brief accounts of personal
experiences, the kind of short oral texts which Labov analysed. Although the
causal link between two actions or events is not always explicit, it appears of the
foremost importance in order to reconstruct the process of meaning production
in the empirical material collected by Labov and his research group: all the more
reason to conceive of causality as one of the constitutive features of narrative
texts as such.
In Chapter 1, by sketching a philosophical definition of narrative texts, I
have already described the model proposed by Nol Carroll (2001), one of the
objectives of Vellmans critique. What operates in Carrolls analysis is not an
implicit, personal, commonsensical concept of casual relation (as in the case of
Labovs personal accounts) but a philosophically grounded idea of causality, used
to explain what, according to Carroll, makes a temporal sequence of reported
events a narrative. In Carrolls view, a text is a narrative when it puts events not in
a simple sequence (post hoc) but in a more complex causal relation (propter hoc).
A first kind of causal relation, according to which an event or state of affairs is a
sufficient and a necessary condition for another event or state of affairs to come
true, although it may appear in a narrative text, is not the typical model of what
Carroll calls the narrative connection. Doubtless, this form of mono-causality
would do no justice to the complexity of narrative texts, which are often articulated
descriptions of interrelated actions and events, difficult to reduce to the abovedescribed mechanical scheme. Indeed, narratives are, in most cases, descriptions
of human affairs, which are seldom explainable by adopting a mechanical kind of
causality. Real life is much more complex, as events are generally co-determined
by a plurality of contributing factors.
A further model is linked to what logicians call the INUS (that is, an insufficient
but non-redundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient) condition, which is an
attempt to reconcile the plurality of possible causes which marks the complexity
of possible events, with a certain degree of predictable regularity. Exemplifying
the technicality of the logical jargon, this means that an event or state of affairs


Fiction and Social Reality

may contribute to the occurrence of another event or state of affairs provided that
other events and circumstances operate as co-determining factors. This conception
of causality is both more realistic and more apt for describing what is characteristic
of the way in which events and states of affairs are interrelated within narratives.
Events do generally not (even if they may) casually entail other events, but form
part of a network of causalities, which makes the advancement of the story partly
undetermined (there are plenty of alternatives) and partly coherently connected
with what came first (ibid., p. 124).
By conceiving of causality as the most proper quality of a narrative, Carroll
stresses its capacity to give plausible explanations of why events took place. So,
the construction of a causal network is not only what turns a text into a narrative,
causality also qualifies as the explanatory force of narratives as such. Let me quote
Carroll directly:
narrative is a common form of explanation. In ordinary speech, we use
narratives to explain how things happened and why certain standing conditions
were important. Narrative is capable of performing this role because it tracks
causal networks. The rationale for citing earlier events in the course of an
explanatory narrative is that they play some role in the etiology of the events we
wish to explain. To perform that role they must minimally belong to the causal
network, a requirement that can be satisfied by their being a causally necessary
ingredient (or a contribution thereto). Thus, insofar as what we call narratives
are explanatory, it seems advisable to regard narrative properly so called as
connected to causation and not merely temporal succession. (ibid., p. 128)

Yet, as Vellman argues, by locating the explanatory capacity of a narrative within a

network of causal relations, one has hardly detected the proper type of narratively
determined knowledge. In fact, the information contained in a narratively casual
network would maintain its explanatory potential even if it were recast in another
communicative format (e.g. argumentation). Here, a question emerges: is it
possible to conceive of a narrative as an alternative mode of approaching reality,
in which the casual model, although relevant, is just one of the aspects of the wider
range of cognitive possibilities?
The Cognitive Value of Narration
The assumption that narrative is a way to understand reality is not epistemologically
neutral. A conception of knowledge is implied here, by which the act of knowing is
not reduced to the sole process of generalization and construction of regularities. As
an alternative to the scientific model, narrating is understood as a process by which
elements of our everyday perception of reality find a unified framework within
which they are understood as part of the same incident. Narrating is, as it were,
a process of construction of meaning which makes sense of both action and time.

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


Put otherwise, narrative is a way of organizing human experience in a meaningful

temporal sequence: human experience is re-configured within a sequence of
temporally meaningful interrelated episodes (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 1).
Narrative is capable of representing the vicissitudes of the actors involved
(with their conflicts, incongruence, paradoxes) in such a way that, by making
sense of the particular aspects of a given situation, it may cast new light on human
experience as such. This feature of narration is linked to its structural capacity to
interconnect, in a coherent whole, a sequence of unrelated events in a meaningful
structure. This process, typical of all kinds of narratives (from short everyday
narratives to great historical and fictional narrations) is what Mink (1970, pp. 5479) and Ricoeur (1984, p. 66) have called grasping together, a selection and a
subsequent interconnection of otherwise separate events and action. In its essential
aspect, our understanding of events through narrative is connected to our grasping
of the mutual relation of actions, states of affairs and events. Thus, narrative as
a mode of understanding is related to the construction of meaning through the
integration of happenings (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 13). This form of temporal
organization of events is closer to the way individual actors mould their everyday
experience, as a meaningful interconnection of actions and events. Narration is a
particular way of dealing with the way people, in their everyday intercourses, give
meaning to their daily experience.
A relevant question is related to the specificity of narrative as a mode of
knowing. What do we know by constructing narratives? If one expects narratives
to able to give access to the kind of certain, generalizable knowledge as that
evoked by Dawes, they would be disappointed. Stories as a way of knowing give
access to the ideographic as opposed to the nomothetic, to the narrative as opposed
to the paradigmatic (Bruner, 1986, p. 11 ff.). By telling a story, one conveys a
peculiar understanding of reality, connected to the creation of a unity in the chaotic
complexity of human existence.
The strength of narration as a cognitive tool may be reduced to one single
relevant element: as a meaning construction activity, narration is to be intended as
a scheme (Polikinghorne, 1988, p. 16) through which we are able to make sense
of human activities and human intercourses. As it gives sense to social interaction,
a set of social functions may be related to the process of recounting (memory
keeping, conflict management, integration, to mention but a few). The awareness
of the interconnection between narrating and knowing has produced a wide
range of intellectual speculations about narrative as an alternative way to access,
understand and even explain the complexity of the outer world. Indeed, narratives
do not only make pieces of information socially available and transferable from
one actor to the other, they also make them intelligible both to the speaker and
the addressee.
Narrative as a mode of knowing appears as an integration to the idea that
studying human affairs implies a reconstruction of meaning. Narrative is a
reconstruction of interrelated meanings in the temporal, diachronic dimension,
which gives the social scientist the opportunity to understand located meanings


Fiction and Social Reality

in the intersubjective process of their making. The relevance of meaning in the

human perception of the environment cannot be overestimated: social sciences,
sociology in particular, have underlined the relevance of meaning as a structural
element in our significant relation with ourselves, our fellow men, the social and
the natural environment (Weber, Mead, Blumer, Luhmann). We live in a world
which is endowed with culturally defined meanings, which we adopt to give order
to our experiences, within a complex process by which socially and personal
sedimented experiences come to terms with the livid experience of the actual
situation (what phenomenologists call the here and now [Berger and Luckmann,
1971, p. 35]). So our experience of the world (both natural and social) is always
mediated by culturally defined meanings, which, although adapted by our personal
experience, condition how and what we perceive of reality. Narrative is one of the
instruments given to the social actor to construct the world by giving sense to it. Its
relevance is evident if we agree with Polkinghorne, according to whom narrative
as a cognitive scheme: presents to awareness a world in which timely human
actions are linked together according to their effect on the attainment of human
desires and goals (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 16).
Narratives are thus able to display, within a meaningful scheme, the connection
between action, goals, individual desires and external circumstances, as well as other
peoples reactions. A unit results from the reconfiguration of a plurality of discrete
elements in a unified happening (ibid., p. 18), whose coherence is produced by the
order of narration, i.e. the emplotment process. By emplotting, the narrator selects the
relevant events and actions, puts them in relations and recognizes the role each event
plays in the development of the story as a whole (ibid., pp. 18-19; Ricoeur, 1984).
In this process of selection and ordering one may recognize the proper function of
narratives as a meaning construction process. Meaning emerges in the activation of
conjunctions, since the meaning of an event depends on the interrelation it has with
other events within the story, and that regardless of whether what is told is fictional
or otherwise. As Polkinghorne puts it, [w]ithout the recognition of significance
given by the plot, each event would appear as discontinuous and separate, and
its meaning would be limited to its categorical identification or its spatiotemporal
location (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 19).
Narratives are encompassing in their unifying capacity, since they are able
to give coherence to a single incident, to a biography and to historical events, as
well as to culturally determined fictional stories:
The narrative scheme serves as a lens through which the apparently independent
and disconnected elements of existence are seen as related parts of a whole. At
the level of a single life, the autobiographical narrative shows life as unified and
whole. In stories about other lives and in histories of social groups, narrative
shows the interconnectedness and significance of seemingly random activities.
And in the imaginative creation of stories about fictitious characters, either
passed on as part of a cultural heritage or as contemporary artistic creations,

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


narrative displays the extensive variety of ways in which life might be drawn
together into a unified adventure. (ibid., p. 36)

If narratives give coherence and meaning to otherwise separate events and

circumstances, it should be evident that they produce local explanations and hence
a kind of knowledge strongly connected to a specific context. In the narrative logic,
an event is explained if it is clear what role it plays in the development of the story.
The explanation is ad hoc, since, in so far as it places human action in a meaningful
connection with other peoples action and with ones goals and purposes, it does not
aspire to generalization. Yet it produces knowledge, in a way which is alternative
to the form of explanation of the hard sciences, by activating comprehension and
understanding of human events and intercourses (Mink, 1970, p. 544).
Jerome Bruner has clearly detected a specific mode of thought in narratives,
with its communicative strategies, forms of argumentation and verification
procedures, to be neatly distinguished from the logical-mathematical approach
to knowledge. Both cognitive modes, the paradigmatic on the one hand and the
narrative on the other, have different cognitive ends: the first aims to demonstrate
the truth, the second the lifelikeness of the interconnected events (Bruner, 1986,
p. 13). Although they both attempt to establish relations among facts (often
in the form of causal relations), they achieve their task in two different ways.
The paradigmatic mode is a logically controlled attempt to define generalized
causes and to ascribe single events to general categories. Its language is logically
consistent, often formalized, and its assertions are driven by hypotheses and tested
through empirical observation (ibid.). Thus, in the paradigmatic mode, knowledge
is conceived of as a quest for general assertions which may be adopted, whenever
they may be properly applied to the case, to explain single events and phenomena.
It could be connoted a striving for abstraction, which has as its consequence a
necessary lack of interest in the singular and the peculiar.
The narrative mode works as its exact opposite. It may be defined as a process
by which the universal aspects of human experience are, as it were, located in
the here and now of a specific case, of a singular consciousness, of an individual
experience. In Bruners words, It deals in human or human-like intention and
action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives
to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the
experience in time and place (ibid., p. 13). Moreover, narratives give plausible
representations of what Bruner calls the vicissitudes of human intentions (ibid.,
p. 16). Thus, a narrative makes sense not only of located actions and interactions,
but also of individual intentions which may be fulfilled or collide with competing
intentions or states of affairs. Intentionality as a proper field of narratives renders
them capable of going beneath the surface of human action and interaction, thus
giving plausible manifestation to the subjective motives which would otherwise
remain unexpressed.
Psychology, writes Bruner (1991), both in its empiricist and rationalist
versions, has emphasized the process of acquisition of competences which are


Fiction and Social Reality

essential in order to understand reality from a logical or scientific point of view.

What about those competences which we need in order to understand the rich
and messy domain of human interaction (ibid., p. 4)? Even this domain, like that
of the logical-scientific reality construction, is characterized by its own principles
and procedures, which are connected by Bruner to our ability to organize our
experience of human affairs by using narratives (ibid., p. 4). Thus, narrative is
a tool by which we organize our understanding of human actions and related
events and, although it is universal (Barthes, 1975), it is at the same time socially
conditioned and culturally determined. As compared to scientific procedures of
reality construction, which are based on the possible verification of what is stated,
a narrative bases its reliability on its verisimilitude; that is, a degree of internal and
external coherence or, as Bruner calls it, narrative necessity (Bruner, 1991, p. 4).
Two things are remarkable in these complementary (although not overlapping)
modes of knowledge. By making reference to the uniqueness of human experience,
the narrative mode (which may be broadly identified with the humanities) activates
an understanding of the world from a variety of possible points of view. It makes
sense of the multiplicity of meanings without attempting a simplification of the
multiplicity of human intentions. By contrast, the paradigmatic mode achieves
knowledge by abstracting from the multiplicity of events, so creating a world
that has an existence linked to the invariance of things and events across
transformations (Bruner, 1986, p. 50). Both operate with a peculiar attitude
related to the context: the first activates context sensitivity, the second context
independence (ibid.). By applying this distinction in the narrower domain of the
methodology of the social sciences, one finds oneself confronted with two ways
of approaching social reality: the first, strongly influenced by the paradigmatic
mode, has traditionally attempted to adopt standardized procedures; the second,
compatible with the narrative mode, is more interested in the subjective and intersubjective processes of meaning construction, and in order to analyse reality from
this theoretical stance, it adopts flexible techniques, adaptable to the specific social
context. In the jargon of the discipline, the opposition between quantitative and
qualitative approaches synthesizes this methodological duality.
The preference for narratives is a way to stress the relevance of the subjective
understanding of reality. The narrative mode, although it has a wide range of
possible uses and applications, is much more akin to common sense and the way
the social actor makes sense of his own and his fellow mens experience than the
paradigmatic mode will ever be. Bruner points out that common sense, structured
around beliefs and desires as a folk psychology, is a way to narratively organize
our experience of the world according to what we believe to be true or appropriate
and according to what we desire. (For a compatible sociological description of
common sense see Schutz, 1962a.)
Narratives are, moreover, normative instruments. As we saw in the first
chapter, narrations deal with some breaks in the orderly sequence of events.
Through narratives the social order is re-established every time it is broken due to
the disappointment of socially consolidated expectations (Bruner, 1990, p. 39). If

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


we understand culture to be constituted by different elements, among which are

norms, then when exploring rule deviations and rule reintegration, narratives give
a plausible understanding of the normative setting of a specific social context.
Narrations activate a set of interpretive procedures for rendering departures
from those norms meaningful in terms of established patterns of belief (ibid.,
p. 47). Narratives are able to achieve a plausible interpretation of norm violation,
reintegrating the departure from the normative standards into the dimension of
cultural normality. In other words, when the exceptional appears on the social
scene, it is reintegrated into the ordinary by telling a story which contains reasons
justifying why the exceptional took place (ibid., p. 49). In cognitive terms, a
narrative may furnish a deontological explanation, an explanation of why things
should have been not so but otherwise, giving plausibility to the set of socially
shared norms and consolidated uses.
As a specific mode of discourse, narratives give sense to events and their
relations; they are useful tools for interpreting the normative dimension of the
social and justifying any departure from the normative order; they may even be
intended as alternatives to apparently more reliable communication modes, such
as rhetorical argumentation or scientific demonstration. It would therefore be
a mistake to reduce the complexity of narration to the mere reproduction of a
story. This is the thesis of Walter Fisher (1987) who, after locating the disjunction
between the narrative and the rational at the root of the intellectual history of
Western culture, proposes narration as a paradigm in its own right.
According to Fisher, starting from Plato and Aristotle, logos assumed a
specific sense as it was sharply separated from mythos. Logos being intended
as a rational discourse, it was eventually confined within philosophical,
scientific and technical communication (ibid., p. 5). At the same time, the
poetic and the rhetorical were considered lesser forms of rationality, the poetic
dealing with mythos, i.e. with narration, and the rhetorical being posited in a
sort of no-mans-land, shifting from logos to mythos and the reverse. The very
process by which logos (i.e. rationality strictu sensu) was segregated to the
philosophical and scientific discourse, has produced a collateral mechanism by
which rationality has been gradually expunged from other modes of discourse,
including argumentation (rhetoric) and narration (the poetic). This means that
both were relegated to a secondary or negative status as to their connections
with truth, knowledge, and reality (ibid.). Fisher proposes a detour from this
established route: the rhetorical and the poetic are also rational, especially when
one considers the human being to be endowed with narrative rationality; that
is, with the capacity to understand each discourse as a sequence of actions,
conflicts and characters. As traditional philosophical discourse has deprived
rhetoric and especially poetic (narration) of any cognitive and rational value,
the purpose of Fisher is to contrast the reduction of rationality to the domain
of science and philosophy (logos) and to show not only that narratives have a
rational component, but also that every form of communication is endowed with
a narrative character.


Fiction and Social Reality

The main assumption of what Fisher calls the narrative paradigm is that
human beings are storytellers (homo narrans). If we conceive of human beings
as storytellers, it follows that: 1) as human beings we are able to recognize the
intrinsic coherence of a narrative; 2) our experience of life is organized as a
series of on-going narratives, as conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles and
ends (ibid., p. 24); 3) all forms of communication may be seen as stories, i.e.
interpretations of things in sequence, which implies both that there is a narrative
component in non-narrative modes of discourse and that narratives entail their
own form of rationality (ibid.).
At the core of Fishers position is a series of assumptions, which are aimed at
re-positing narration as a relevant form of world description and understanding.
The process of understanding the world through narratives is based on what Fisher
calls narrative rationality, i.e. the internal and external coherence of narratives. In
order to be plausible, a narrative has to comply with the prerequisites of probability
(coherence) and fidelity (truthfulness) (ibid., p. 47). A story has to be endowed
with structural and argumentative coherence (the way it is told cannot be either
clumsy or contradictory); it has to possess material coherence (in so far as the facts
related are not to contradict what we know about the world or other stories) and,
last but not least, a story has to be charactereologically coherent, which means
that its characters have to behave in a predictable, plausible way. Fidelity refers
to, whether or not the stories [the audience] experience rings true with the stories
they know to be true in their lives (ibid., p. 64).
The antagonist paradigm, that of logical argumentation, based as it is on the idea
of a convergence between the mode of argumentation and reality, was traditionally
intended as the best way to reach a rational decision (ibid., p. 60). Logical
argumentation presupposes that human beings are essentially rational and that the
world may be understood as a set of logical problems to be solved by applying the
appropriate rational argument. The narrative paradigm, on the contrary, subdues
decision-making and agreement to narrative rationality. According to narrative
rationality a human being is to be understood as a homo narrans, a metaphor which
tends to grant relevance to narratives not only as a mode of discourse, but also as a
form of argumentation. A narrative entails two components: recounting (narration
as such) and accounting (argumentation, giving reasons for) (ibid., p. 62), which
means that a narrative has argumentative elements in it, based on what Fisher
defines as the logic of good reasons: an everyday, situational logic, resting on the
definition of a preferred course of action in an ought-to preposition, according
to specific values. We tend to accept the content of a story due to its internal
and external coherence (what Fisher calls narrative probability and fidelity). The
combination of narration and argumentation, coherence and good reasons makes
a narrative a strong instrument for understanding the world, even in its moral and
value implications, which is another way to underline the strong cognitive as well
as persuasive relevance of narrative.

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


The Truth of Fiction

Narrativity has been considered the essential feature of our human capacity to
understand reality. Stories are foundational because (and this is more a realization
of the neurosciences than of literary criticism and the humanities) it is through
stories that we structure our cognitive perception of reality. Narrative imagining
story, writes Turner, is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities
depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of
planning, of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition
generally (Turner, 1996, pp. 4-5). This means that our everyday mind is essentially
literal, as it makes sense of and gives order to reality by recognizing small spatial
stories (trivial actions and events such as crossing a road or pouring tea) which we
eventually recognize as belonging to categories. This implies, according to Turner,
that our narrative capacity for understanding reality is the premise for other, more
formalized, kinds of knowledge construction. It is this naturally literary character
of our mind (a different way to express Ricoeurs idea of Mimesis1) which, on the
one hand, makes the discussion about the cognitive value of narratives somewhat
ideological (narratives surely are one of the ways to accede to knowledge) and, on
the other hand, renders the distinction between literature and natural narrative less
dramatic, since, as Turner shows, they both belong to the same order of thought.
Yet, fictional narratives are specific, in so far as they consciously construct
stories as made-up representations of human intercourse. What, then, if we
ask ourselves about the cognitive value of fictional narratives? Is it possible to
consider fiction (that is to say, a narrative with no actual external reference) as a
way to understand reality? And what is the relation between fiction and truth? The
problem is relevant and may be re-formulated as a paradox: how is it possible to
use fictional texts; that is, texts that are consciously constructed as referring to an
imagined world, as instruments to understand reality? The questions posed are
complex and I will try to exemplify them by making reference to those intellectual
standpoints which, with different levels of sophistication, either dismiss or foster
the idea of the cognitive value of literary fiction.
One possible solution is to treat the question of truth in fiction from the
standpoint of non-fictional communication. If language generally conveys
referential information about reality, fiction is an exception to the rule and is
analysed as such. The question may be summarized thus: how is it possible to
give knowledge value to texts which adopt an a-referential use of a referential
language? As Falk once put it: [a] literary text of fiction, while making reference
to the referential or descriptive resources of our ordinary language, nevertheless
does not make reference to them in a referential or descriptive manner (Falk,
1988, p. 363). From this perspective, fiction is understood as a residual form of
communication (an attitude we have already come across in Chapter 1, when
discussing Searles conception of fiction) and its features are therefore interpreted
against the model of the information-conveying statements of the real world
(ibid., p. 363). These kinds of approaches tend to view literature from an external,


Fiction and Social Reality

referential perspective, thus missing the opportunity to unravel the specificity of

fictional texts. In the most extreme formulation, a work of fiction is considered
unable to contain any truth assertion about reality, and that because of its fictional
nature. According to Joseph Margolis (see Sparshott, 1967), since a story constructs
an imaginary world, the question of truth in narratives is logically ineligible. Thus,
what is part of a story may not claim any truth: a novel, for example, may be
used to make general assertions about reality, yet statements which pretend to say
something about the real world are either part of the story (e.g. an assertion made
by one of the characters), in which case, since they are fictional, they have no
referential quality, or they are to be taken as non-fictional sentences incorporated
into the story, and thus form no part of the fictional narrative (ibid., p. 3). In simpler
terms, a statement in a fictional story, which legitimately claims to truth, is not part
of the narrative and, at the same time, any statements which are part of a story may
not have any referential capacity.
By facing the topic from the perspective of logic and of the philosophy of
language, the question of truth in fiction is reduced to the propositional correctness
and logical consistency of a single sentence, generally referred to a single character
and his or her characteristics (for an interesting review see Glezakos, 2012). Taking
this approach to its extreme, (see as a significant example Lewis [1978]) one might
say that the problem of truth in fiction is limited to the assertion that what is true
in fiction is what would be true in cases where what is told had actually happened
(Carlshamre, 2004, p. 34). Thus, the ontological problem of fictional truth is
minimalized and reduced to questions such as whether Sherlock Holmes was or not
a cocaine user, which in its simplest logical treatment would result in truth when
presupposing the prefix in the Sherlock Holmes stories (Lewis, 1978, p. 38).
The perspective changes if from the level of the single sentence one moves
to that of the work of fiction as a whole (Glezakos, 2012). Clearly enough, even
considering the work of literature in its entirety, one could be disappointed if
looking for objectively verifiable truths. Yet, truth is not always propositional: it
may be linked to the subjective experience of the individual, as it may refer to what
it is like for example, to be in a certain situation, to be part of a certain cultural
group, or to be a certain kind of person and, according to some philosophers,
we can encounter such truths via fiction, and perhaps even receive confirmation of
them (ibid., p. 184). In this configuration, fictional truth is much more complex
(and even more evanescent) than the simple confirmation of the truth claim of a
specific fictional content (Gibson, 2007, p. 89).
Indeed, by reducing the topic of truth in fiction to the logical verification of
the consistency of fictional sentences, one might hardly resolve the paradox of
the cognitive value of non-referential statements. An interesting treatment of the
question, in an attempt to connect fictional worlds and reality, was proposed by
F.E. Sparshott in an essay dating back to 1967. At the core of Sparshotts argument
is the idea that fictional worlds, although autonomous, are always fragmentary
and incomplete. We as readers are supposed to fill in the gaps by recourse to our
memory, common sense and to what we know about the actual world. A fictional

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


world is never constructed ex nihilo, but by presupposing a continuity between

what is not told or described and the world as we experience it (Sparshott, 1967,
p. 4). By making reference to the untold, hence to the reconstructing function
of memory in fiction, Sparshott advocates a less sharp distinction between the
fictional and the non-fictional: fictional texts are constructed by implicitly referring
to what is commonly known about the real. Therefore, a fictive world (even the
most alien one) is the result of the interplay of what is written and what is not, of
what is expressly described as different and what the reader, by making reference
to socially shared knowledge, integrates as similar. As Sparshott points out, The
reader or hearer is invited to imagine a world that is identical with the world that
he knows except in certain specified respects; and the identity of the unspecified
background is as much an essential part of the fiction as are the specified differences
themselves (ibid., p. 5).
From Sparshotts perspective, fiction may make truth claims in so far as a
constitutive part of it is constructed through memory processes completing what
is missing in the fragmentary fictional picture. In this process, the meaning of
fiction is achieved by integrating its implicit information into the stock of shared
social knowledge. So, the world of fiction is never totally self-sufficient: it needs
the active intervention of the reader who makes recourse to his social competences
and culturally determined knowledge in order to make a narrative interpretable.
Since the reference to common sense is a prerequisite to understand the fictional
message, the gap between the fictional world and the real world is not dramatic:
what is described in fictional terms is generally compatible with what we know
about reality. In a more general formulation, fiction may suggest that the actual
world is such that what is described and recounted might find a place in it (ibid.).
Although the essay by Sparshott is dated, the author clearly sees a problematic
aspect of those approaches which, by concentrating on the work of fiction as an
independent, autonomous world, are compelled to justify the internal consistency
(either logical or aesthetic) of fictional truth. The reference to memory as being
able to complete otherwise fragmentary fictional worlds is a way to implicitly
suggest a strong relation between fiction and reality, yet a simplistic acceptance
of this relation would be of no use to resolving the question of the cognitive
relevance of fiction, since it does not take into account the specificity of fiction as
a form of communication. In the quest for fictional truth one may even disregard
the question of referentiality and locate the truthfulness of fiction in its capacity to
transmit a discerning of a deeper reality within the actual (real) world that we
live in (Falk, 1988, p. 369).
An articulated discussion on the topic of fictional truth, one which tries to
respect the peculiarity of literature as a specific form of communication, has been
developed by John Gibson (2007) within the perspective of literary criticism.
Gibson clears the air of any nave conception of fictional narrative as a form of
referential access to truth (the stance he calls humanism). At the same time, he
rejects the otherwise well-argued positions of those (sceptics, according to Gibson)
who deny literature any cognitive value whatsoever. Once the difference between


Fiction and Social Reality

literature and ordinary speech has been stated (A hallmark of ordinary speech
is the use of language to describe the world; a hallmark of literature is the use of
language to create one [ibid., p. 130]), one can reason on the topic of the relation
between literature and life without being caught between the opposite standpoints
of both humanists and sceptics.
For the humanist, the work of literature is able to speak about the world in so
far as the world as represented in fiction may tell us something about how we are:
Though it is true that works of literary fiction trade in the unreal, the humanist
still wants to claim that the content of literary works is not only, if you will,
fictional-worldly but in some significant respect also our-worldly. The humanist
wants to assert that through works of literature the significance of very real
human experiences, practices, and institutions can be revealed when they were
once mysterious or obscure; that a grasp of reality can be gained from close
reading. (ibid., p. 17)

The sceptic, on the contrary, denies this possibility, their most relevant argument
being the non-referential character of literary language:
since worldly truth, reference, and (more generally) representation do not
guideindeed are absent fromthe literary use of language, literature cannot
present to us a direct vision of reality. It is because of the semantic functions
of language , that it is not hopelessly self-referential. Indeed, it is because of
this system of reference, of mirroring and imaging the actual, that words can
aspire to be revelatory of something called reality . The sceptic shows that
literary language performs none of these semantic acts, and thus that humanism,
requiring as it does that literary language be revelatory of our world, appears a
hopeless position. (ibid., p. 34)

When advocating the cognitive value of the literary work, Gibson is not supporting
any mimetic theory of the duplication of reality through art (ibid., p. 72). In his
view, literary narratives do not mirror reality as such but give us a sense of the
cultural practices by which we make sense of our lives. By virtue of literature,
we may make sense of the familiar routines of the everyday, of the eruption of the
unusual, of greed and sacrifice, of the complex set of cultural ideas by which we
understand large regions of cultural reality (ibid.). Thus, even if one accepts the
a-referential idea by which literary fiction represents nothing real, we can see it as
bringing into view our standards of representation, our criteria for what the world
is (ibid., p. 79). The task of Gibson is to reformulate humanism on the basis of
a deeper awareness of the a-referential character of literary language, so that one
may still foster the cognitive value of literary narratives, yet reject the simplistic
metaphor of art as a mirror. Indeed, if art merely reflected reality, Gibson remarks
by quoting Danto, we would see in the work of art a mere duplicate of what we
would otherwise see in the world, since works of art for the mimetic theories do

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


nothing more than bring before us a world with which we are already very much
acquainted (ibid., p. 83). Yet, and that is what the sceptic would argue, what is
left to the humanist belief in the cognitive relevance of narratives, if it holds that
literature merely gives an aesthetic form to what is already known?
The solution that Gibson envisages is that literature does not produce new
knowledge, but embodies socially shared knowledge in precisely shaped human
situations (ibid., p. 116). By dramatizing what is familiar, literature allows the
passage from mere knowledge (the fact that we know what something means)
to acknowledgement (its operative application in the practical context of social
interaction). Thus, he admits that literature does not offer an elaborated, wellargued knowledge of the world, yet it gives substance to the range of values,
concerns, and experiences that define human reality (ibid.).
In this sense, Gibson argues, literary narratives resemble moral narratives in
so far as they do not furnish a clear-cut knowledge of an event, but clarify the
readers stance towards it:
literary works, rather than stating truths about our world, bring to light the
consequence, the import, of those aspects of reality they bring before us. It is
in this respect that literary works represent ways of acknowledging the world
rather than knowing it. A literary narrative is in effect a sustained dramatic
gesture, a way not only of presenting some content or material but of responding
to it. (ibid., p. 117)

And according to Gibson, it is in this dramatic embodiment of culture that the

cognitive value of literature may be reasserted again. Although we should not
expect any argumentative knowledge from a literary narrative, [b]y weaving
the knowledge it assumes into the fabric of the social, literature traces and gives
testament to the bond between our words, our concepts, and the concrete body
of our culture (ibid., p. 120). In so doing it sets our cultural concepts in motion,
giving fulfilment to our philosophical conceptuality, bridging the gap between our
mind and the world (ibid.). The complex argument developed by Gibson redefines
the truth value of literary works, connecting it to the specific features of literature:
no simplistic mirroring of reality is to be expected, but rather a dramatized
presentation of our culture and its contradictions, as well as a vivid picture of the
actor in his world.
Two Ways to Understand Mimesis: Lukcs, Ricoeur
Gibson fosters an idea of literature which, by concentrating on the specific features
of the literary text, rejects mimesis as a mere mirroring of extra-textual elements.
In Gibsons argument, this does not lead to a rejection of the cognitive value of the
literary work. Yet, by overlapping mimesis with the process of mere mirroring of
reality, he underestimates the relevance of a plurality of conceptions which try to


Fiction and Social Reality

root the fictional work in the wider social and cultural milieu which have produced
it. Without advocating any nave conception of the work of art as a simple reflex of
social and economic conditions, a closer scrutiny of the concept of mimesis is due,
particularly if one considers that, by giving credit to the conception of fiction as
capable of representing reality, the reference to mimesis implicitly legitimates the
use of literary fiction for cognitive purposes (including sociological ones).
Indeed, a possible answer to the question of the cognitive value of art and
literature is the materialistic translation of the old idea according to which the work
of art is able to reflect reality. Reality, as endowed with an objective compactness
of its own (including social and economic contradictions) is somewhat able to
permeate a work of art, which in its turn reflects real objective social and economic
conditions, regardless even of the actual purposed project of the artist. Gyrgy
Lukcs is the best known representative of such a perspective. What is relevant
in his arguments on aesthetics, which makes his approach to mimesis relevant
to the question of the cognitive value of narrative fiction, is the category of the
particularity that enables him to distinguish literature from both common sense
and science.
Within the philosophical perspective of dialectical materialism, Lukcs
assumes that art (including literature) is to be intended as a reflection of reality.
Although art is an aspect of the ideological superstructure, it is intended as
relatively autonomous, since it is determined partly by coeval economical
forces and the connected social relations, partly by internal laws defining its
functioning and structure (Perus, 1976, p. 111). Regardless of the specific
ideological and theoretical stance assumed by Lukcs, what is relevant to
my argument is the idea, which Lukcs develops by making reference to the
concept of the particularity, that art (and literature among the arts) is to be
intended as a specific way of representing and understanding reality. Against
any constructivism, objective reality is conceived of by Lukcs as a set of
elements and relations independent of human will. Science and art reflect the
same objectives and the same categories that build up reality. The difference
between the two fields is not to be detected in the content of science and art (both
reflect a reality understood as objective) but in the way they select a subject
from the infinite possibilities of choice offered by reality and deal with it within
their specific and relatively autonomous cognitive processes (Lukcs, 1971,
pp. 10-11). Although Lukcs is a theoretical realist, he is also aware that the
way we approach reality entails a selection process, similar to that envisaged by
Weber, by which what would remain otherwise unobserved is given relevance
and meaning. However, if reality is to be intended as one, how is it possible to
differentiate between the ways science and art reflect the world? In defining the
differences, Lukcs clarifies his theory of the particularity (Besonderheit) as a
specific category of the artistic reflection of the world.
Art (and literature among the arts) represents a specific form of knowing which
may be distinguished from the imperfect episodic cognition of everyday life, as
well as from the more precise but abstract knowledge guaranteed by theory and

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


science. According to Lukcs, the process of knowing is essentially dialectical,

moving from the singular (the phenomenon as it appears) through the particular
to the universal (the definition of generalizable characters or laws). Art (including
literature) happens to have another function as compared to science: it neither
attempts to reach universal generalizations nor confines itself to the reproduction of
singular cases. Its task is to represent, with the greatest intensity, a particular stage
in the development of society, its contradictions, its peculiarities (Perus, 1976,
p. 113). Thus, the mimetic capacity of art is neither reducible to the reproduction
of singular events or characters, nor elevated to the detection of general laws,
the cognitive task of art being to depict (often unwittingly) the character of a
determined social context.
In its quest for the general, science builds a gap between scientific knowledge
and common sense, as singular aspects of reality and their relations have to
be subsumed under universal laws in order to become meaningful (Lukcs,
1971, p. 145 ff.). Since the singular as such is scientifically irrelevant, a formal
separation emerges between the concrete phenomena and their essences (their
universal generalizable meaning as detected by scientific investigation) (Perus,
1976, p. 115). Art, on the contrary, achieves a knowledge of the world in which
the phenomenon and its universal meaning coexist (Lukcs, 1971, p. 236). This
unity of the phenomenon and its essence, which is a peculiar character of the
work of art, is guaranteed by the specific means of the artistic production which,
unlike science, does not reproduce reality through formal concepts but through
images: thanks to images, art may show the peculiarity of an epoch or a context
and in so doing artistic cognition overcomes the fracture between essence and
phenomenon typical of science, so as to preserve both the peculiarity of the
perceivable phenomenon and its related universal value (ibid., p. 187; Perus, 1976,
p. 116). Indeed, for Lukcs, by aesthetically mirroring reality, art achieves its own
specific cognitive value: the universal of the abstract understanding of science and
the singularity of the individuals, cases and events are mediated by the artistic
mimesis which acquires a generalizable relevance, not regardless of but due to
its representation of the singularity. Therefore the particularity as an aesthetic
category is to be defined by this capacity of mediation between universal truths
and triviality, general laws and common sense.
A work of art reflects reality in a process by which the singularity of everyday
existence does not become lost, but is understood in its typicality, as a means to
represent a social context, the objective conditions of human existence, including
their contradictions. Indeed, the mirroring process is such in so far as a work of
art is always the form of a determined content: art reflects the objective reality
and its contradictions, regardless of the individual consciousness and ideological
position of the author (Lukcs, 1964, p. 21). Therefore, although a work of art
is always a selection of possibilities, as it describes a section of specific aspects
of reality, the selected individualities are represented in order to give a faithful
representation of reality as a whole, as well as of the contradictions of a specific
historical moment in their entirety (Lukcs, 1971, p. 240). The cognitive relevance


Fiction and Social Reality

of art (including literature, which is the proper subject of Lukcss theoretical

investigation) is connected with its mimetic capacity to represent reality and its
inner contradictions (ibid., pp. 224-5).
Lukcs and his aesthetic theories were clearly influenced by Marxism, with the
result that a work of art is not only considered capable of mirroring the objective
conditions of social reality, but should also be aimed, within a partisan perspective,
at an active transformation of the social world. This strong political connotation
is probably one of the reasons why Lukcs, who was highly influential after the
Second World War, has now lost much of his intellectual appeal. What is relevant
here is his theory of the cognitive value of art (including literature). The particularity
as an aesthetic category entails a positive conception of art. Art may not be intended
as an as-if structure, a mere fictional reproduction of aspects of the world. Art is, on
the contrary, a way to penetrate aspects of the real that would remain non-transparent
from the cognitive perspective of the layman or of the scientist.
A more sophisticated conception of mimesis has already been dealt with
in Chapter 1, where I outlined Ricoeurs complex approach to narrative. Here
Ricoeurs analysis will be proposed in connection with the general question of
the cognitive value of narration. In dealing with the cognitive value of narratives,
I have already hinted at the question of emplotment as a meaning constructing
process specific to narration. Here the question will be treated more extensively, in
close connection with the circular process that characterizes Ricoeurs approach.
The first relevant aspect is related to the fact that narrating implies a reconstructing process, which is able to connect otherwise separate signifiers
(Simms, 2003, pp. 79-80). As Ricoeur puts it, the cognitive value of narration,
regardless of its fictional or non-fictional character, is to be located in the process
by which coherence and unity is bestowed upon a variety of circumstances, ends
and means, initiatives and interactions, the reversals of fortune (Ricoeur, 1984,
p. x) which may now be understood as a unitary action.
According to Ricoeur, mimesis is a circular process based on the
interconnection among three retroacting elements the cultural background of
narration, narration as a cognitive ordering of events in a temporal sequence and
the reception of narration through which a narrative text may retroact with its
cultural background. Starting from the idea of art as a form of mimesis (imitation/
representation) of nature, Aristotle developed a conception of narration as an
imitation of action. By re-elaborating Aristotle, Ricoeur defines a three phase
process (Mimesis1, Mimesis2 and Mimesis3), each correlated with a conception of
narrative as a cognitive instrument indispensable to giving sense to human actions
and interactions. What matters is the process by which a narrative text, rooted
within a cultural and symbolic system, may produce a plausible representation of
human action and the motives and goals driving it, which may be then understood
and interpreted as meaningful by the reading public or the audience. For Ricoeur,
the three correlated levels of mimesis are the pre-figurative level of everyday
understanding of action and interaction, the configurative level of the narrative
text and the re-figurative process linked to the moment of its reception. The

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


narrating process is hermeneutic, since it entails not only the structuring of a plot
(Mimesis2), but also its rooting in the cultural context understood as a symbolic
system (Mimesis1) and the retroaction which the interpretation of the text by the
reader produces in the cultural sphere (Mimesis3) (Dowling, 2011, p. 2).
The proper character of a narrative is its being constructed through emplotment,
a process by which incidents, actions and events are understood as belonging to
the same narrative structure and which makes unrelated elements meaningful
as parts of the same narration. However, structuring a plot needs a previous
understanding of action, of its symbolic and temporal implications, which entails
a pre-reflexive comprehension within everyday interaction. Mimesis1 refers to
this pre-understanding of the social world, in which Ricoeur roots narrativity
(including literary narratives): The composition of the plot, he writes, is
grounded in a pre-understanding of the world of action, its meaningful structures,
its symbolic resources, and its temporal character (Ricoeur, 1984, p. 54). The
understanding of action is, according to Ricoeur, a prerequisite of narrative. Hence,
Ricoeur underlines the relevance of a semantics of action; that is the conceptual
network that structurally distinguishes the domain of action from that of physical
movement (ibid., pp. 54-5). In order to make the distinction between action and
mere movement meaningful, one has to be able to use a whole set of concepts
appropriately (actor, goals, motives, purposes, conflicts, cooperation etc.) which
are part of our practical understanding of the social reality around us (ibid., p. 55),
yet the terms belonging to the conceptual network of action acquire coherence and
their full meaning only when integrated within a plot (ibid., pp. 55-6).
A further prerequisite of narration is a set of symbols (signs, rules, norms), the
reference to which makes action narratable. Through symbols, action becomes
culturally mediated, which means it acquires a collectively shared meaning.
Indeed, a symbol is not to be intended as a psychological operation. On the
contrary, it is, as per Ricoeur: a meaning incorporated into action and decipherable
from it by other actors in the social interplay (ibid., p. 57). Symbolic mediation
means essentially that in order to understand an action, one has to understand the
shared symbolic system in which it acquires its meaningfulness. So, the meaning
of an action depends neither on its physical dimension (what has been done),
nor on its underlying intentionality (what the actor aims at), as it is essentially
symbolically mediated. (Raising a hand, Ricoeur writes, may be interpreted as a
way of greeting someone, of hailing a taxi, or of voting [ibid., p. 58].) Moreover,
the normative dimension of culture may define what has been done in relation to
specific socially shared rules, which may have been either respected or broken.
This normative aspect locates action within an ethical dimension and since actions
may be evaluated in terms of good or evil, writes Ricoeur, human behaviour seems
endowed with an ethical quality, which represents the presupposition for any
artistic representation of action in terms of ethical evaluation (ibid.).1
1Paradoxically, as Ricoeur underlines, the ethical character of action in everyday life is
a prerequisite of the contemporary idea of the ethical neutrality of art (Ricoeur, 1984, p. 59).


Fiction and Social Reality

At the core of Ricoeurs analysis lies the idea that narrativity (Mimesis2)
finds the conditions of its actualization in the cognitive processes by which we
understand action in everyday life (Mimesis1). In turn, every process by which we,
as social actors, understand the social world, is deeply rooted in a sort of prenarrative quality of experience (ibid., p. 74), a need for the not-yet-told stories
to be narrated: in order to understand motives, goals, aspirations and conflicts, in
fact, we need to translate action and its semantics into a narrative plot (Dowling,
2011, p. 5). Narration is a dynamic integration of a variety of scattered events and
accidents and, as such, it is not only connected to the artistic creative process,
but is an essential component of our cognitive understanding of everyday reality.
So even at the level of Mimesis1 e.g. the pre-reflexive level of experience, we all
construct stories through an orderly interconnection of events, and in doing so we
trigger a process of causal explanation (ibid., p. 12).
The second level is properly narrative and is connected with the process of
representation of human action within a logical structure characterized both
by a causal scheme of explanation and an implicit telos, a finality which is the
precondition of the development of the plot. Ricoeur is aware of the relevance
of emplotment as a meaning constructive process, able as it is to make sense of
the otherwise meaningless variety of the real. It is through the emplotment that
a story is constructed from a diversity of events and incidents (Ricoeur, 1984,
p. 65), so that an unrelated series of events in a serial order is converted into a
meaningful whole. Emplotment permits an intuitive grasping together of what
would otherwise remain separate. So a variety of elements, (agents, goals, means,
interactions, circumstances, unexpected results) which are constitutive parts of
the semantics of action, acquire significance and consistency in so far as those
elements are understood as part of a plot, endowed with a specific telos. By telos
is intended the movement that drives a story toward an anticipated conclusion
(Dowling, 2011, p. 6). Thus, a plot may be interpreted as a selective structure
which gives coherence to actions and circumstances in so far as they are relevant
to the development of the story. Through the emplotment, what Ricoeur terms the
temporal synthesis of the heterogeneous is achieved; that is, a meaning production
process by which unity is bestowed on what would appear otherwise unrelated
(ibid., p. 10). Moreover, the elements in the plot are perceived as connected
within a causal relation. Plot transforms a simple sequentiality (one thing after
another) into narratively coherent causal relations (one thing because of another)
(Ricoeur, 1984, p. 51). The configuration process (i.e. the construction of a plot)
implies narrative causality; that is, the fact that events in a narrative are likely
to be seen as correlated within a causal relation. This causal relation is strictly
linked to our pre-understanding of the world as guaranteed by Mimesis1. Given
the mediating function of Mimesis2, which Ricoeur functionally locates between
the pre-narrative understanding of everyday life and the moment of reception,
narrative causality, refers back to the understanding immanent in the order
of action and to the pre-narrative structures stemming from real action (ibid.,
p. 180). Therefore, the cognitive relevance of narration, its ability to connect

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


events and to make sense of them, is linked to the rootedness of plots in the prereflexive structure of the life-world, which facilitates the meaningful reception of
narratives in the Mimesis3 phase.
The process is completed when from the configuration of a narrative one
moves to its reconfiguration; that is, the hermeneutic moment of reception which
may be qualified as an interconnection of the fictive world of narrative and real
experience. In Ricoeurs words: mimesis3 marks the intersection of the world
of the text and the world of the hearer or reader; the intersection, therefore, of
the world configured by the poem and the world wherein real action occurs and
unfolds its specific temporality (ibid., p. 71). Mimesis3 reintroduces narratives into
the everyday context of common experience, through a re-figuration process by
which what is potentially present in the text is re-actualized and made significant
through the act of reading.
What is remarkable in Ricoeurs analysis of narrative and cognition is that
narration is intended as essential in the way we understand action, interaction and
temporality, while making sense of our and our fellow mens existence. Narrative
is a means by which we give our unformed experience temporal coherence
and significance, in a way that is sharper and more effective than philosophical
speculation. Let us read a short direct quotation from Ricoeur:
I see in the plots we invent the privileged means by which we re-configure
our confused, unformed, and at the limit mute temporal experience In the
capacity of poetic composition to re-figure this temporal experience, which is
prey to the aporias of philosophical speculation, resides the referential function
of the plot. (ibid., p. xi)

From this perspective, the question of fictional truth is quite futile, and it is so not
because, as in Lukcs, fiction is able to mirror reality by realistically reproducing
its contradictions, but because the only way we have to access the sense of
action is through the process of emplotment. Literary plots are not constructed
ad libitum, but are integrated within a cultural world that is the precondition
of their meaningfulness. This strong relation between the pre-narrative and the
narrative (which had already been envisaged, though in a less sophisticated way,
by Sparshott [1967]) is a further reason why the question of the use of literary
narratives as sources of critical knowledge should not be simply dismissed by
making reference to the fictionality of fiction.
Some Final Remarks
A reformulated conception of mimesis is relevant to re-evaluating the idea of
the cognitive function of literary fictions. The alternative is the conception of
literary narratives as autonomous, separated worlds, which would have no relation
whatsoever with reality, hence no capacity for representation (Doleel, 1998).


Fiction and Social Reality

By adopting a radical constructivist stance, one may even dismiss the question
of the truthfulness of fiction by conceiving of any form of description of reality
(including science) as fictional in its own way (Schmidt, 1984). Post-modernism
has, for example, denied any substantial difference between fictional and nonfictional narratives. According to White (1987), the traditional distinction between
history (conceived of as a narrative with external referents) and literary fiction (as
devoid of actual referentiality) is inessential since both are structured as narratives.
The historian, by selecting events, narratively reconstructs the reality of the
reported facts within a structure that is rhetorically distorted. That does not mean
that narrative history is devoid of any truth value: it is true like literary narratives
are, as a metaphorical means of access to reality, as a presentation of facts in
their partiality (Carroll, 2001, 134). These alternative ways to intend narratives are
relevant since they stress the fictional component of every form of understanding
of reality, including the sociological approach.2 However, although they may
enhance our awareness of the constructed component of scientific knowledge,
they leave the question of the cognitive value of literary fiction unresolved.
What we need is a reasonable account of what each reader implicitly knows:
that one learns by reading or listening to stories. The aesthetic category of the
particularity as developed by Lukcs may give a first, provisional, answer to
the question. Literature (fiction in particular) gives us a kind of knowledge that
is half way between the generalized abstraction of scientific learning and the
knowing of the man in the street, based on the singularity of events and actors.
Indeed, as Bruner (1991, pp. 6-7) stresses, although literary narratives generally
relate to particular happenings, they still exemplify the singular, which assumes
the features of a more general type. In this sense, a narrative is always a story
about particular events and actors that may be understood in their emblematic
dimension (ibid.). The old distinction between hard sciences and the humanities
may find a refreshing treatment through reference to the capacity of narratives
to convey mildly generalizable descriptions of the singularity of human events.
In this context, the relevant distinction is not between the nomothetic and the
ideographic, but between a strong generalization and a process (somewhat
akin to the moderate generalization of qualitative methodology) by which the
description of singular events and actions is useful to explain other contexts
and actions.
Another relevant quality of literary fiction is that it works with the unexpected.
Indeed, a temporal report of actions has to contain some breach in the ordinary
(peripeteia in Aristotle) so as to be qualified as a narrative. Therefore, a narrative text
always results from a rupture of the canonical rhythm of common events. It is true
that even the breach in the ordinary may be part of a canonical scheme. This is what
happens in some literary genres, characterized by highly conventional plots, where
even the extraordinary is conventionally produced, for example by introducing
2The question of the constructed character of sociological writing will be dealt with
in Chapter 4.

The Cognitive Value of Fictional Narratives


highly stereotyped characters (ibid., p. 12), yet the interplay between the canonical
and its rupture gives great literature the opportunity to provide the reader with new
perspectives from which to observe and understand reality. By going beyond the
conventionality of literary genres, a novelist may lead people to see human
happenings in a fresh way, indeed, in a way they had never before noticed or even
dreamed (ibid.).
A further element is that narratives, more than simply referring to reality,
construct realities (ibid., p. 13). This poses a question, which Bruner has referred
to as the distinction between sense and referentiality. The sense of a narrative
presupposes ordinary meaning, although it does not have any actual referent in the
world, since what is narrated is, as it were, captured within the narrative structure.
Yet, although we have necessarily to refer to what is narrated and described in the
text, by reading we may also understand something about ourselves, human beings,
social contexts and our culture (Gibson, 2007, p. 116 ff.). If the construction of a
culture is, as Bruner states (Bruner, 1991, pp. 18-20) the result of the accrual of
narratives of the most various kinds (personal stories, historical recounts, narratives
produced within old and new media etc.), then a place in the construction of our
culture must be reserved to fictional narratives. As Ricoeur has clearly shown, a
narrative is both the product of our culture and a component of it: it may produce
changes in our culturally and socially defined stock of knowledge through the
process of its reception. Fictional narratives not only reconstruct reality on the
basis of our common shared knowledge about it, but they may also contribute to
modifying our culture.
Milan Kundera (1988) once stressed from the point of view of the novelist
that fictional narratives (the novel in particular) do not only confirm our sense of
reality, but sometimes recreate it from a new, unusual perspective. The category
of the Kafkaesque, for example, is used to define certain contradictory aspects of
modern society, yet the set of ideas that it condenses was not even conceivable
until Kafka wrote his stories. Regardless of his intentions (political, polemical,
merely artistic) Kafka provided contemporary common sense with a new key to
understanding the world outside his novels (ibid., p. 48). Kafka was not alone.
The novel as a modern form of narrative was able to reincarnate the crises of
European culture, its philosophical perplexity, its loss of certainty, and at the same
time to represent contemporary mans loss of bearings (ibid., p. 4). All of this was
achieved not by claiming the unambiguous truth of what was narrated, but by
forcing the reader into a continuous questioning (ibid., p. 8). Thus, novels create
worlds, which are able to interact with the actual world of our everyday existence.
They are fictional worlds, their language is a-referential, their content is overtly
false, yet fiction is capable of describing or even anticipating a plurality of aspects
pertaining to our common experience, and this is sufficient reason to consider
fiction, in so far as it is fictional, as a proper source for the social sciences.

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Chapter 3

Narratives and Sociology: At the

Roots of a Forgotten Tradition
Sociology and Literature: Converging or Conflicting Fields?
If a learned sociologist is asked to name a book in which literature has not been the
object of sociological scrutiny (as is the case with most sociology of literature), but
has been used as the support and illustration of sociological knowledge, he is likely
to name Lewis Cosers Sociology through Literature: An Introductory Reader. The
reader, published in 1963, is an attempt to use literary passages (chiefly narratives)
to introduce students to the often nebulous concepts of sociological theory. This
quasi-systematic attempt to use literary sources to exemplify sociological concepts
should not be understood as a personal, individual enterprise of Lewis Cosers,
but is rather to be located within the American sociological tradition as set at
the University of Chicago. The review article which Robert Blauner devoted to
Cosers reader starts with a reference to the Chicago School and the role literary
sources play among Chicagoans. After ironically alluding to those who uncritically
accept the mutual relevance of sociology and literature, he gives Coser credit for
having scientifically dealt with this relation:
The idea that our understanding of social processes can be advanced through
the study of great works of literature was common at the University of Chicago
years ago. Today it has become a clich to which most sensitive sociologists
nod assent. Lewis Coser, on the other hand, has gone beyond lip service and has
actually implemented this idea in his new reader, Sociology through Literature.
(Blauner, 1964, p. 425)

In his review of Cosers reader, Blauner reminds us that the idea that a literary
understanding of reality may be useful for sociologists was firmly rooted in
American sociology. It was not so in Europe, where sociology had at first developed
as an autonomous discipline.
In 1985, some 20 years after Coser had published his introductory reader, Wolf
Lepenies, a historian of sociology, published his Die Drei Kulturen, translated
into English in 1988 as Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology.
The book is an interesting reinterpretation of the origins of sociology, its relations
with the hard sciences on the one hand and with literature on the other, and a
reconstruction of a disciplinary identity, which focuses on the process by which a
sharp distinction was drawn between sociology and literary schemes and modes


Fiction and Social Reality

of representing reality. The ambiguous location of sociology, as Wolf Lepenies

demonstrated by making reference to the European context, is at the root of the
discipline and may explain its development and internal contradictions. Since the
middle of the 19th century, sociology and literature contested with one another
the claim to offer the key orientation for modern civilization and to constitute the
guide to living appropriate to industrial society (Lepenies, 1988, p. 1). In the
period in which sociology was struggling to establish itself as an acknowledged
academic discipline, the realistic novel, especially in France, pretended to give an
objective, scientific representation of society. Balzac described himself as a doctor
in social sciences, implying in this designation a little self-irony and a great
deal of self-awareness (ibid., p. 5); authors such as Flaubert and Zola presented
themselves as objective observers of social reality and the latter could characterize
his novels as a sociologie pratique (ibid., p. 7).
Lepenies concentrates on three historical case studies: France, England and
Germany, all characterized by national peculiarities. Since sociology emerged
as a kind of third culture between the natural sciences on the one hand and
literature and the humanities on the other (ibid.), in order to take a more defined
disciplinary identity, it was subdued to a purification process which consisted
chiefly in distancing itself from its own earlier literary form (ibid.). As compared
to the American situation, where, as the quotation from Blauner shows, the relation
between sociology and literature was partly taken for granted, the European
context was much more complex and problematic. This produced a great amount
of discussion about the distinctive roles of sociology and literature, their different
functions and tasks, which assumed a diverse nuance in the different countries
that Lepenies analyses. With few exceptions (notably Simmel) this discussion
hardly produced any interest in the question of the sociological use of literary
sources. Regardless of the literary quality of classical sociology, since sociology
and literature appeared as competing cognitive modalities for approaching
reality, the cultural context was potentially ready to accept sociology as a form of
knowledge, but not yet ripe for any fruitful combination of sociological method
and literary material.
In France, mile Durkheim was able to promote sociology as an academic
discipline and in 1902, a chair of sociology was created for him at the Sorbonne
(ibid., p. 45). The men of letters, by contesting the new discipline and its
disintegrating effects on French traditional culture, stressed the capacity of a
Balzac (who had named himself docteur n sciences sociales), a Zola, a Flaubert,
to give vivid representation to the mobile panorama of French society (ibid.,
p. 82). At the same time, sociology presented itself as a highly influential discipline,
both in the first elaboration of Comte and in the more mature and sophisticated
version of Durkheim. Even if the situation was much more complex than a
straightforward conflict between two competing factions (Lepenies describes
the complex intellectual milieu in which French sociology originated), the attack
of the men of letters against Durkheim and his school was fundamentally the

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


struggle of the old France against the way in which modern industrial society was
tending to evolve (ibid., p. 90).
England institutionalized sociology only in the 1960s, which means that in the
academic competition between sociology and the humanities, sociology was the
loser. Lepenies describes the origins of English sociology, in particular the two
giant figures of Beatrice and Sydney Webb, their interest in empirical research
and social reforms and the influence they had on political and intellectual circles.
Sociology came to influence literature, which, in the form of the sociological novel,
became increasingly interested in present day questions and the description of
possible futures (the utopian novel). Since sociology had not been institutionalized
in England, the conflict between sociology and literature was never dramatic in
tone. Lepenies writes that, as they did not have to compete for academic positions,
the intellectuals taking part in the debate belonged to the same cultural milieu and
often gave to the conflict the character of a game (ibid., p. 154).
In Germany the situation was more complex. In the 19th century, a strong
artistic and philosophical aversion towards science was widespread among the
German intelligentsia, and this anti-scientific attitude partly affected the newly
born German sociology. German sociologists did not construct general systems
la Comte or la Spencer and, although some of them are included among
the restricted circle of the founding fathers, they did not consider themselves
chiefly as sociologists. The vitalism typical of German philosophy and literature,
according to which life is more relevant than science, may be detected in Simmels
impressionist sociology, a careful observation of the processes by which life is
given rigid, objective social form (ibid., p. 241). According to Lepenies, even Max
Webers theoretical and methodological accuracy may be read not as a devout
belief in science but as a form of personal asceticism (ibid., p. 256). Thus, although
we find in Simmel the idea that art may furnish a possible clarification for a critical
scrutiny of reality, and in Weber the concept of Verstehen as the methodological
and cognitive basis for any conscious sociological use of literary material, little is
to be detected as to the question of literature as a sociological source.
In the European intellectual scene, at any rate, the conflict between sociology
and literature prevented any form of possible integration between the two fields,
let alone any methodological discussion on literature as a potential source for
sociological analysis. Some of the founding fathers, controlled the quality of their
writing, giving them a quasi-literary form. Yet, one had to wait for the development
of the less theoretically and methodologically sophisticated (yet disciplinarily
more self-confident) American sociology to read explicitly about the questions
which the sociological use of literary sources might pose.
Using Literature as a Source: Park, Burgess
In the United States, one can find traces of the sociological interest in literature
as a tool for a better understanding of human reality as early as in 1921, when


Fiction and Social Reality

Peter E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess published their Introduction to the Science of
Sociology, one of the first handbooks on the discipline. A second important year
was 1934, when Florian Znaniecki published his methodological monograph, The
Method of Sociology. Both books present a set of ideas on the relation between
sociology and literature which are relevant for our argument. Although the theme
is not central in their respective books, literature is conceived of as a possible
source of knowledge about the social available to the sociologists. The general
assumption is that literature produces images of social settings, social types and
social situations, which, although devoid of the rigour in the presentation of reality
which one expects from sociology, is nonetheless useful as a preliminary access to
human relations and society.
The introduction to sociology, proposed by Park and Burgess almost a century
ago, has a structure which might appear strange to a modern sociological eye. The
book is in part a reader, as it proposes to the students a number of materials selected
from different authors (not all of them sociologists), and in part a handbook,
as all of the anthological passages are preceded by a critical introduction and
followed by a section on the state of the art (investigation and problems) and
a selected bibliography. Compared to contemporary sociological handbooks, the
themes dealt with in the different chapters are sometimes unusual (e.g. Chapter 4,
Isolation; Chapter 5, Social Contacts; Chapter 10, Accommodation), sometimes
old-fashioned (e.g. Chapter 2; Human Nature) and sometimes expressed in an
antiquated jargon (e.g. Chapter 11, Assimilation; Chapter 14, Progress). Some
of the chapters titles, however, do overlap with contemporary sociological
terminology (e.g. Chapter 9, Conflict; Chapter 12, Social Control; Chapter 13,
Collective Behaviour).
Though now dated, the handbook of Park and Burgess represents a remarkable
attempt to propose to the American reading public a complete account of what
the discipline had produced up until the 1920s. The modern reader may be
upset by the old-fashioned style and language, as well as by some of the topics
included, yet he should form the clear-cut impression that he shares a common
disciplinary learning with the authors, a disciplinary stock of knowledge handed
down to the present day. It is, nonetheless, a text which diverges from what
one would expect from contemporary sociological textbooks. Modern manuals
are the output of a process of systematization of sociological knowledge which
coincides with the attempt to define a unitary sociological paradigm (chiefly
within Parsonian structural-functionalism). The manual-like systematization of
sociological knowledge is part of a selection of themes, questions and theories
which Raewyn Connell (2007), borrowing the term from literary criticism, has
defined the sociological canon. This selection process, which may be seen as
the theoretical counterpart of the technification of social research against which
Nisbet would later argue, was at an early stage when Park and Burgess published
their introductory textbook and this is probably one of the reasons why the
authors refer to exogenous sources, including literature.

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


Literature is conceived as a way to crystallize, in written or oral form, the

natural human interest in the behaviour of other people. In this sense, literature
is able to provide social actors with nave generalizations concerning human
conduct, virtues and vices. Thus, a joke or an epigram may manifest the humor
of the contrast between the conventional and natural motives in behaviour (Park
and Burgess, 1921, p. 64). The Nordic sagas and German legends manifest, for
example, the strength of sentiments and emotions. Characters (whether historical
or fictive) are presented in works of letters as exemplifications of human qualities.
Literature thus translates, in a more elaborate fashion than ordinary common sense,
the interest we have in our fellow men as a consequence of our mutual dependence.
Moreover, it reveals in new and ever changing circumstances the characteristics
of an unchanging human nature (ibid.). Nevertheless, a literary work is still
unable to transform observations of human conduct into a scientifically articulated
discourse: this task is ascribed by Park and Burgess to science, thus reproducing a
neat distinction between art and sociology.
The question of the sociological use of literary sources is expressly dealt with
in the second chapter of the handbook, where Park and Burgess devote a section
to the topic of the relationship between sociology and literature (Literature and
the Science of Human Nature). According to the authors, the poets and artists
anticipated, with their understanding of human nature, the systematic investigation
of man and human relations which psychologists and sociologists would later
develop from a more scientific perspective. In more recent years, however, the
authors write, the distinction between the literary and the scientific understanding
of social reality became less rigid: the realistic novel was moved by an effort to
make fiction more true-to-life, as an almost objective representation of contexts
and characters which aspired to share the scientific character of sociology
and psychology.
The contemporary novel in particular, paying as it does greater attention to
the social milieux and psychological traits of the characters than to the plot and
action, is, according to the authors, particularly apt as a tool for studying man and
society. Park and Burgess make reference to mile Zola, quoting a long passage
from a theoretical work of the French novelist (The Experimental Novel). In the
quoted passage, Zola underlines how the naturalistic novelist, when observing
facts and individual characters, describes them in such a way that his description
is the coherent output of forces operating in society and in the individual psyche
according to deterministic laws. Therefore, according to Zola, the naturalistic
novelist does not invent; or, rather, he invents within the narrow space delimited
by a logic predetermined by natural principles and social norms. This experimental
attitude of the naturalistic novelist, according to whom the evolution of plots and
the development of characters must necessarily follow universal laws, has, as
its literary output, scientific narratives able to produce an articulated, objective
knowledge of the individual and the social context in which he lives and interacts
with his fellows.


Fiction and Social Reality

Compared to the contemporary conflictual relation between European sociology

and literature (Lepenies, 1988), the attitude towards fiction as expressed by Park
and Burgess is less rigid. Indeed, they engage in an interplay between admiration
for the novelist and his work and a claim for the autonomy of sociology as a
science. Although the two authors confine a properly scientific understanding of
social reality to the monopolistic domain of sociology, they admit that narrative
and art are relevant, complementary sources for the understanding of society and
social characters. From a strictly scientific point of view, Park and Burgess write,
the main limitation of the novel as a source of knowledge about the social is the fact
that what is described in a fictional work may not be generalized. This equates the
novelist with the historian: both are more interested in the detailed reconstruction of
peculiar aspects of characters and events than in the abstraction of regularities and
norms. And that holds true even for what was then considered the most advanced
form of contemporary fiction: After all that may be said for the experimental novel,
however, its primary aim, like that of history, is appreciation and understanding, not
generalization and abstract formulas (Park and Burgess, 1921, p. 142).
Nonetheless, the capacity to reconstruct characters and contexts is properly
a literary quality which sociologists have to take into account. With his fictional
material, the novelist gives a vivid representation of social characters, described in
the network of social relations and within their specific milieu:
Insight and sympathy, the mystical sense of human solidarity, expressed in the
saying to comprehend all is to forgive all, this fiction has to give. And these are
materials which the sociologist cannot neglect. As yet there is no autobiography
or biography of an egocentric personality so convincing as George Merediths
The Egoist. The miser is a social type; but there are no case studies as sympathetic
and discerning as George Eliots Silas Marner. Nowhere in social science
has the technique of case study developed farther than in criminology; yet
Dostovskys (sic) delineation of the self-analysis of the murderer in Crime and
Punishment dwarfs all comparison outside of similar studies in fiction. (ibid.,
pp. 142-3)

So, a good novel is not a mere description of social types and contexts. It may
be a powerful illustration of a case study (a pertinent example being Crime and
Punishment) and as a case study it can be more effective than any criminological
account of a murder in so far as, besides describing environment and contexts, it
may probe into the psychological motivation of the murderer, through the report
of the self-analysis of the protagonist.
Having underlined the sociological usefulness of literary sources, the concern of
Park and Burgess is to distinguish between literature and sociological knowledge.
Whereas literature has a descriptive value, in so far as it gives accounts of specific
psychological characters and social environments, sociology as a science has a
nomothetic function. According to Park and Burgess, this function corresponds

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


to the capacity of sociology to go beyond single details, and to define the general
principles which govern human behaviour and social intercourses.
The function of the so-called psychological or sociological novel stops, however,
with its presentation of the individual incident or case; it is satisfied by the test
of its appeal to the experience of the reader. The scientific study of human nature
proceeds a step farther; it seeks generalizations. From the case studies of history
and of literature it abstracts the laws and principles of human behaviour. (ibid.,
p. 143)

Like history, literature is an essential source through which the sociologist might
achieve a better knowledge of man and human action in its concrete unfolding.
The task of sociology is to reach a kind of knowledge which must be both more
general and abstract; that is, more scientific. Indeed, even when sociological
analysis is grounded in fictional narratives, sociology does not aim, according
to Park and Burgess, to present the single case as narrated by the novelist, but to
detect, starting from the fictional material, the general laws of human conduct.
Notwithstanding their formal advocacy for scientific accuracy and generalization,
in their empirical work both Park and Burgess showed impatience with abstraction
and an attention to human types, unique contexts and individual settings. Park in
particular, whose intellectual background was a mix of academic education and
professional experience as a journalist, brought the sensibility of romantic poets and
novelists to the sociological observation of the city, its growth and the problems
which its rapid development produced (Cappetti, 1993, pp. 24-6).
Park and Burgess wrote in a cultural context (Chicago in the early decades of
the 20th century) in which the mutual influence between sociology and literature
was a matter of fact. The Chicago School of Sociology was one of the most
relevant intellectual sources for a group of novelists who were chiefly interested
in urban life and urban problems (ibid., p. 12). At the same time, urban novels
were of the greatest importance for Chicago sociologists: they used literary
material in their courses and adopted a biographical and narrative approach in
their methodology. They even borrowed a literary style when writing sociology
(ibid., p. 17). In contrast to Europe, where sociology emerged by differentiating
itself from literary learning, in America the situation was less neatly defined. This
produced interesting results, both on the level of the methodological use of literary
sources and the level of theoretical reflection on the relation between sociology
and literature (and, more generally, between art and science).
Carla Cappetti has shown how deep the mutual influence between literature and
sociology was in Chicago during the first decades of the 20th century. Sociology
was then a discipline in its early development, and in fact most of those who taught
sociology in Chicago had been trained in other fields, often in the humanities.
William Isaac Thomas, for example, one of the leading figures in Chicago
sociology, started his academic career teaching classical and modern languages
(ibid., p. 21). His literary competence may account for his methodological attention


Fiction and Social Reality

to personal records and life histories as a way of penetrating both the subjective
aspects and the objective dimensions of the social. Robert Park, characterizing
Thomas, stressed this unusual combination of the poetical sensibility of the man
of letters and the curiosity for the minute aspects of human reality which is one of
the long-lasting aspects of the Chicago School: Thomas interest was always, it
seems, that of a poet and of a man of letters He wanted to see, to know, and
to report, disinterestedly and without respect to anyones policies or programs, the
world of men and things as he experienced it (Park, quoted by Cappetti, 1993,
p. 23).
What is relevant is a strong interconnection between sociology and the novel.
Literature was perceived as a privileged way of accessing human personalities,
human characters and human relations, which implied locating the social sciences
among the humanities (Redfield, 1962). This implied that a social scientist might
learn from literature not only from a substantive point of view (e.g. accounts of
urban habits, costumes, way of life, psychologies), but also from a methodological
one. The use of biographical material, case studies as privileged methods and
accurate accounts of social settings, as well as attention to the stylistic components
of sociological writing, are all aspects of the positive influence of literature on
Chicago sociology (Cappetti, 1993, Chapter 2). At the same time, urban sociology
was one of the main sources of contemporary realistic novels in contemporary
Chicago. The representation of gang life, of migration, of slums and ethnic
neighbours, the vivid presentation of social problems such as youth violence and
prostitution or the social condition of Afro-Americans as presented in the literary
works of such novelists as James T. Farrel, Nelson Algren and Richard Wright, are
all indebted to the sociological production of the Chicago School (ibid.).
Not only the sociologists, but also the novelists who wrote in that period, were
aware of the mutual influences between fiction and the newly born American
science of society. James T. Farrell (1954), then one of the most influential
novelists in Chicago, wrote retrospectively of the 1930s as a period in which a
sociological approach to literature was highly popular (Farrell, 1954, p. 180).
Although by the time Farrell wrote, a sociological attitude in fictional narrative
had given way to other approaches (notably the psychoanalytic), the sociological
representation of the metropolis and its many problems provided by the empirical
works of Chicagoans was, Farrell admits, of the greatest relevance for the realistic
novelist. As Park and Burgess had done before him, even Farrell distinguished
clearly, from the point of view of the man of letters, between literature and
sociology. Sociology was to be concerned with facts, selected in relation to certain
hypotheses, themselves to be proved in relation to specific cognitive questions
(ibid., p. 5). Literature had no such constraints. Yet, provided that sociologists
did not quote fictional facts as true, they might refer to literary sources so as
to suggest the way social processes affect and become bound up in the lives of
human beings (ibid., p. 187). Thus, from the perspective of the realistic novelist,
the function of literature is to illuminate the material that the sociologists study

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


(ibid.), although both activities must be distinguished as to their cognitive tasks

and to the way in which they refer to reality.
Regardless of the legitimate distinctions which both sociologists and novelists
draw between their fields, there was hardly a period like Chicago in the 1920s and
1930s in which sociology and literature, now conceived of as neatly separated
activities, shared a set of common values and conceptually and methodologically,
aesthetically and thematically, stood as the primary reference point for one another
(Cappetti, 1993, p. 32). That does not mean an identification between the two or
lack of mutual criticism. It was common for Chicago sociologists to review novels
in the American Sociological Review. When McKay published a short comment
on Farrells Studs Lonigan, he explicitly disapproved of the lack of psychological
characterization and proper representation of the social environment in the
novel (McKay, 1934). However, a close interest in literature as a source among
the Chicagoans is undeniable. While nowadays, mainstream ideas insist upon a
good sociological work being bad literature and good literature being devoid of
sociological pretensions, the practice of Chicago sociologists and novelists
points to a time when good sociology and good literature held hands (Cappetti,
1993, p. 32).
Florian Znaniecki, Literary Sources and the Method of Sociology
A methodologically aware use of literary sources is the main feature of the
discussion Florian Znaniecki devotes to the topic of literature and sociology. Coauthor with Wiliam J. Thomas of The Polish Peasant in Poland and America,
Znaniecki was an anomalous yet well-integrated figure in the American
sociological community of the early half of the 20th century. Of Polish origins,
with a classical and philosophical background, he taught sociology both in Poland
and in the United States, where he first moved at the invitation of William Thomas
in 1914 and where he definitively settled after the Nazi occupation of Poland
(Bierstedt, 1969, pp. 1-5),
Znanieckis European philosophical background is evident in his writings and
gives its peculiar flavour not only to his more theoretical essays (e.g. Cultural
Reality [1919] and Cultural Sciences [1952]), but also to his methodological works
(from the long Methodological Note to the first volume of The Polish Peasant in
Europe and America [Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918, Vol. I, pp. 1-86] to the Method
of Sociology, [1934]). At the core of his introductory work on the methodology
of social research (Znaniecki, 1934) is the attempt to locate sociology and its
empirical approach to reality within the broader context of the scientific selection
and analysis of data. By the time Znaniecki planned his methodological book,
he had become aware that an appropriate methodological reflection in sociology
could no longer be postponed. Indeed, sociology was no longer a synthetic science
interested in society or civilization a special kind of philosophy of history
(Bierstedt, 1969, p. 15), but was converting itself into an analytical, empirical


Fiction and Social Reality

science investigating a detailed, particular, and specific kind of empirical data

(ibid.). Znaniecki intended sociology as an empirical science, not a general,
theoretical discussion on society. However, it was empirical in a specific sense:
a science with its own restricted domain, to be analysed in reference to a specific
set of empirical facts, e.g. human values and human activities (Znaniecki, 1934,
p. viii).
Two elements must be clarified before turning to the topic of the use of literature
as a source for sociology: the definition of the proper field of sociology and the
definition of sociological data. Sociology is to be understood as a social science
with its own field of investigation, which Znaniecki limits to social actions, social
relations, social persons and social groups (ibid., p. 130). Social systems, as they
refer to the above-mentioned topics, distinguish themselves from other systems
(e.g. the economic, the religious, the linguistic) which are subject matter of other
positive sciences. Moreover, sociology is a cultural science, a science which
refers to cultural data. Unlike natural data, cultural data derives from social actors
and is already meaningful for people in their everyday lives before becoming
scientifically significant for the social researcher (ibid., p. 37). Sociological data
derives, according to Znaniecki, from the specific areas of interest of sociology
(such as social actions, social relations, social persons and social groups).
Written about a decade after the introductory work to sociology by Park and
Burgess, although The Method of Sociology is a necessarily time worn book, it is
still capable of surprising the modern reader with its methodological sophistication
and its theoretical subtlety, as well its volume and quality of quoted literature.
The book begins with a general consideration: methodology is indispensable,
especially in periods of deep crisis in a particular discipline (Kuhn would later
speak of a paradigm shift):
The essential principles of investigation and systematization which were
universally recognized during a certain period cease to be regarded as valid and
other principles must be elaborated. At such times, methodological reflection
assumes a leading role in formulating new ideals of scientific achievement.
(ibid., p. v)

Sociology, writes Znaniecki, is going through a deep crisis, which implies the
necessity of an accurate reflection on method. The question has already been
sketched above: when it was established, sociology was intended as a synthetic
science adopting the results of other fields of investigation in order to give a
generalized, encompassing representation of social reality. It is now converting into
an empirical science, gathering data directly and analysing it. As a new discipline,
it often lacks the capacity to properly generalize starting from empirical analysis
and this is the reason for which methodology must be developed as a necessary
support for empirical sociological research (ibid., pp. v-vi). Distinguishing himself
from a generalized tendency of American sociology to underestimate the relevance
of theoretical and methodological reflection in favour of an often nave approach

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


to empirical research, Znaniecki emphasizes that empirical investigation is devoid

of scientific value when it lacks an appropriate methodological background.
Methodology has both a practical as well as a theoretical function: it guarantees a
general improvement in empirical investigation:
A science directed by methodology in contrast to a science proceeding by
undirected monographic contributions represents a stage of intellectual
development parallel to modern planful technology in contrast to the trial-anderror techniques of the past. (ibid., pp. vi-vii)

As stated above, one of the questions which Znaniecki deals with in the book is
the delimitation of the specific field of sociology as a scientific discipline. He starts
by making general remarks: knowledge (including scientific knowledge) is always
selective. The scientist may not achieve any scientifically relevant result unless he
selects, from a plurality of discrete facts, the ones which are relevant as referred to
his theoretical and methodological premises:
Every one of the sciences dealing with empirical reality makes in the course of
its development a continuous selection of those objects and facts which it means
to study as belonging to its particular field of reality research. This selection
is chiefly due, however, to methodological reflection as to the possibilities
and limits of future discovery and systematization. (ibid., p. 3)

In this process of necessary selection one may detect a likewise necessary

process of complexity reduction, which is guaranteed by a theoretically driven
methodological approach. In fact, empirical science has to do with objects and
processes. Neither objects nor processes may be known in all their aspects by
scientists; they may be known only to the extent permitted by certain selective
criteria defined by the scientist in advance. If a scientist insisted on an exhaustive
knowledge of facts and processes, he would sink deeper and deeper back into
the inexhaustible and chaotic wealth of concrete empirical reality (ibid., p. 11).
In order to explain this selective process, Znaniecki argues that sciences build
up closed systems; that is, systems each of which is composed of a limited
number of elements more intimately interrelated with one another than with any
objects which do not belong to the system, and each possessing a specific internal
structure which isolates it in certain respects from external influences (ibid.,
p. 13). A system is qualified as such not by some specific ontological character of the
interrelated objects, but rather by the specific perspective adopted by the scientist.
This perspective is closely connected to the cognitive question that the scientist
intends to resolve with his research (ibid.). The task of sociology as a science is
to activate its selective capacity by defining those closed systems of interrelated
social facts and objects (systems of actions, systems of interactions, systems of
persons and system of groups, as stated above) which may be investigated by
sociologists as properly social.


Fiction and Social Reality

Znanieckis proposal is both theoretical and methodological. From a theoretical

point of view, he is interested in finding, within a sociological framework, stable
interrelations among specific elements to be configured as a social system. From
a methodological perspective, he intends to show that knowledge is selective and
hence limited by the specific cognitive problems at hand. The scope of this essay
prevents me from analysing Znanieckis complex text on method in detail. Two
questions do need to be dealt with, however: the first is related to the specific
character of sociological data; the second, which is of direct interest here, is linked
to the possibility and limits of any methodologically aware sociological use of
literary sources.
In the second chapter of the book (The Principles of Selection of Cultural
Data), Znaniecki deals with the prickly question of the distinction between natural
and cultural data. The distinguishing features, he writes, are quite obvious, and it is
this obviousness which has made many methodologists and philosophers ignore
them in attempts to create an artificially monistic conception of science (ibid.,
p. 34). Znaniecki is against a methodological monism influenced by sociological
positivism and stresses the peculiarity of cultural systems, hence the need to define
specific approaches to penetrating human and social contexts. The differentiation
between natural and cultural data is, first of all, linked to the distinction between
natural and cultural systems: Natural systems are objectively given to the
scientist as if they existed absolutely independently of the experience and activity
of men (ibid., p. 35). The components and structure of a planetary system or the
geological composition of the earth are so, regardless of any influence of human
consciousness or activity. Whereas natural systems seem to be endowed with an
objectivity of their own, since they would exist regardless of human activity and
cognition (ibid.), cultural systems are such in so far as they are part of the vivid
experience of individual and collective actors:
Generally speaking, every cultural system is found by the investigator to exist
for certain conscious and active historical subjects, i.e. within the sphere of
experience and activity of some particular people, individuals and collectivities
living in a certain part of the human world during a certain historical period.
Consequently, for the scientist this cultural system is really and objectively as it
was (or is) given to those historical subjects themselves when they were (or are)
experiencing it and actively dealing with it. (ibid., pp. 36-7)

The cultural system is objective, yet in a different way from the natural system:
its objectivity as experienced by the scientist has already been experienced by
the individuals who form part of it. The concrete, historically determined cultural
system, which is now the object of scientific observation, is the field of the actual
experience of historical subjects, who have actively dealt and still deal with it.
This characteristic of cultural systems, which implies the direct experience
and the actual activity of historical subjects, makes it necessary to specify the

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


characteristics of cultural data. According to Znaniecki, cultural data are already

meaningful for those whom the cultural scientist is setting out to investigate:
the data of the cultural student are always somebodys, never nobodys
data. This essential character of cultural data we call the humanistic coefficient,
because such data, as objects of the students theoretical reflection, already
belong to somebody elses active experience and are such as this active
experience makes them. (ibid., p. 37)

As explained above, according to Znaniecki, sociology is a specialized cultural

science which has defined its field of investigation by detecting a number of
specifically social systems. By converting itself from a general into a specialist
discipline and thus delimiting its scope, it has now to undertake an accurate
methodological reflection which takes into account the peculiarity of its data.
Znaniecki devotes Chapter 4 to the topic of the sources of sociological material, and
it is here that the question of literature and its sociological use emerges. According
to Znaniecki, sociological data may derive from 1) the personal experience of the
sociologist, both direct and vicarious; 2) observation by the sociologist; 3) personal
experiences of other people; 4) observation of other people; and 5) generalizations
used as materials. Although Znanieckis methodological arguments are interesting
in themselves, I will restrict my analysis to a single aspect: the use of literature as
sociological material.
The fourth type of material that a sociologist may employ is the observation of
other people and it is within this category that literature as a sociological source is
analysed. Let us follow Znanieckis argument. Compared to the direct experience
of social actors, writes Znaniecki, observations made as outsiders on specific social
contexts are less relevant as sociological material (ibid., p. 193), yet they may be
employed as an appropriate description of specific social contexts, provided that
the observer has acquired specific skills in the observation of those contexts which
are alien to his everyday experience. There are two kinds of professional observers
of social life: the man of letters and the scientist (ibid., p. 194). According to
Znaniecki, a person of letters is an accurate observer of the social and as such,
his observations are relevant for the sociologist as a way to penetrate specific
aspects of social characters and social reality. However, the question of the use of
literary sources is controversial. Contemporary sociological debate on the topic,
Znaniecki writes, revolves around two antithetical positions: that of the rationalist,
according to whom literary material, in so far as it provides a set of subjectively
significant data, is of no use for the sociologist, and that of the intuitionist, who, in
advocating an empathic approach to accessing knowledge, criticizes rationalism
as abstract schematism. From this second perspective, the glimpse of genius in
the person of letters is considered an adequate source of sociological knowledge
(ibid.). When reflecting on methodological questions, a sociologist must reject
both the unconditional refusal of the rationalist and the uncritical acceptance of the


Fiction and Social Reality

intuitionist and consider the relation between sociology and literature, rejecting
any radical standpoint.
Against the rationalist, Znaniecki states that any knowledge derives from
personal experience and direct observation and that the observation and description
of reality constitute the main elements of literary works. Hence, in barring entirely
the use of literature for scientific purposes we would certainly deprive ourselves of
a valuable source of material (ibid., p. 195). The argument against the intuitionist
is more complex. The task of any science is generalization. A case, once it has
been observed and described, has scientific relevance only provided that it is
representative of a whole class of cases which have not been so well observed; and
its description is valuable in so far as it is valid for the other cases of this class, and
thus dispenses us from the need of studying them(ibid.). Although the person of
letters considers his descriptions typical, in so far as they are supposed to be valid
for a whole class of data (ibid.) and although the cases he represents as unique
are characterized so as to emphasize features which with individual variations
are common to all the cases they represent (ibid.), from a methodological point
of view, a salient problem is that the novelist is neither capable of nor interested
in theoretically demonstrating the procedures by which it is possible to establish
that the case which has been described is valid for the whole class (ibid., p. 196).
Znaniecki thus moves beyond the simplistic idea expressed by Park and
Burgess according to which no kind of generalization is to be detected in a literary
work. Although the novelist does not even attempt to find general laws of human
behaviour, he is nonetheless able to convey typical representations of mans
conduct. Thus, Znaniecki anticipates the idea of the particularity, which was to
become the guiding principle of Lukcs argument on the cognitive value of the
arts, according to which typicality is the main feature of the artistic representation
of reality. The novelist conveys a thick representation, so that, although he describes
unique cases, they tell us something about other similar contexts and situations,
regardless of his methodological indifference to the process of abstraction. To
update the question, the problem that Znaniecki poses is linked to the different
modes of reality construction adopted by persons of letters and sociologists. The
novelist may legitimately be indifferent to the process by which he detects the
typical in the individual. The sociologist may not, which is why he must handle
literary sources with care. Indeed:
The scientist who wishes to rely entirely on literary cases as evidence would find
himself in a position where he would be forced to accept the artists view of what
is typical, essential to a class of cases, as if this view were the result of scientific
induction, without being able to test the method used in this induction. (ibid.)

As literature and sociology are two different modes of reality construction and
reality representation, a sociologist may make correct reference to literary sources
as auxiliary evidence, yet, even this narrow acceptance means that literary
material is of great sociological utility:

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


The scientist has no right to accept the artists presentation as an inductive basis
for any generalization in the same way as cases observed by himself or by another
scientist, but he may use this presentation as a help in his own induction. (ibid.)

Hence, literature may be used as an intuitive starting point for further sociological
analyses because the person of letters is often able to anticipate tendencies, give
alternative perspectives and understand the relevance of facts and events that
are often ignored by the sociologist (ibid.). Moreover, in testing his scientific
hypotheses a sociologist may refer to literary sources not in search of additional
data to confirm them, but in order to verify whether the literary descriptions on the
same matter may throw any side-light which would raise new problems (ibid.,
p. 197).
If Znaniecki considered literature a valuable sociological source, even within
a set of well-argued limitations, that is owing to his conception of the data which
the sociologist may derive from literary material as being socially rather than
psychologically conditioned. In 1952 Znaniecki wrote Cultural Sciences: Their
Origin and Development, a book which marked his return to philosophy. In a dense
page, the reader learns about Znanieckis conception of literature, which accounts
for its relevance as sociological material. A work of literature, writes Znaniecki, is
clearly the product of the conscious life of its author, yet his consciousness is deeply
influenced by the culture in which he lives and which he shares with other people,
who are themselves part of the network of his social interactions. Therefore, the
data a writer selects and uses in his work is part of a socially shared conception
of the world. Regardless of the uniqueness and originality of the representation of
reality provided by an author, his work is also the crystallization of a language,
of styles, of literary genres, of culturally shared social representations. Even
sentiments as expressed in the work of literature are partly socially determined.
Thus, a work of literature is a social fact: it is produced by a cultural milieu and,
once produced, becomes a datum actively experienced in reproductive imagination
by all its readers (Znaniecki, 1952, p. 134). This conception of literature accounts
for the relevance that Znaniecki ascribes to literary works as sociological material:
although a work of literature must be imputed to the individual creativity of the
person of genius, Znaniecki writes, it is also a social construction as it depends
on cultural context for its production and its interpretative reception hence the
value of literary sources for the sociologist, as well as their capacity to present the
unique in a typifying fashion.
The arguments about the sociological use of literary sources common in
the American sociology of the first decades of the 20th century are laden with
methodological implications. Reference to works of letters is recommended,
provided that one duly takes into account their specific features, thus adopting a
methodologically aware stance. Park, Burgess and, in a more sophisticated way,
Znaniecki realize that the literary representation of reality is capable of giving
access to a plurality of social contexts, not only by representing characters,
actions, interaction and milieux, but also by prefiguring social problems and


Fiction and Social Reality

questions of which sociology is still unaware. However, literary material is to be

dealt with with methodological care. The sociological use of literary sources, as
Florian Znaniecki writes in fine terms, constitutes auxiliary evidence, which the
sociologist must translate into his own language, by adopting the concepts and
the specific methodological procedures of his discipline. The arguments of these
authors, temporally so distant from us, are still surprisingly modern: they do not
temper the distinction between sociology and literature, as post-modernism would
later do, but stress the cognitive differences that exist between sociology and
literature as a direct consequence of the different procedures by which they both
attempt to approach reality. In so doing, they neither reject literature as fictional
(and hence useless as a cognitive instrument), nor accept a non-mediated use of
literary discourse. On the contrary, they recognize the evocative power of the work
of letters, as well as its cognitive worth, thus legitimizing its cautious use as a tool
to get to know the social world from an unusual perspective.
Robert Redfield: The Art of Social Science
By considering the question of the sociological use of literary material as one
of the aspects of his complex argument on cultural data and their specificity as
compared to natural data, Znainecki shows deep theoretical and methodological
awareness on the matter. His European philosophical background rendered
Znanieckis methodological reasoning compatible both with contemporary trends
in theoretical debates in Europe and with the diffuse sensitivity in Chicago School
and American sociology to the interconnection between the social sciences and
humanities, which legitimated the bridge between sociology and literature. This
sensitivity, which for a short period was the mainstream in Chicago, was doomed
to lose its popularity and yet it produced a strong reaction against a way to conceive
of the social sciences, sociology among them, as being subject to the rules and
methods of the natural sciences.
Znaniecki had already complained about the use of statistical techniques in
sociology, considering them an inappropriate reduction of the complexity of
social reality (Zanaiecki, 1934). His argument was connected to his conception
of sociology as a humanistic discipline. Up to the 1950s, this remained a matter
of discussion in the United States, related as it was to the matter of the proper
academic location of the social sciences. What was in question was not a rejection
of the new quantitative research techniques altogether, but the reduction of
the complexity of sociologically relevant problems to the logic of quantitative
methods. In going to the root of the question, Wolf Lepenies (1988) is informative.
Lepenies described the evolution of sociology from an eccentric point of view, by
analysing the process of differentiation between sociology, the hard sciences and
literature. According to the German historian of sociology, the discipline evolved
as a third culture, no longer to be understood as art and not yet fully developed
as a science. Early sociologists were caught in a dilemma. In trying to distinguish

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


themselves from the persons of letters, they could stress similarities with the
natural sciences, thus differentiating their representations of social reality from
literary ones, but in so doing they were bound to lose their capacity to understand
the specific character of the social from the inside.
Eventually, sociology configured itself as a discipline between literature and
the natural sciences, a precarious location which may be considered as being due
in part to its historical evolution as an autonomous field of investigation, and in
part to its peculiar subject matter (society, human action, interaction), which it
shares with the humanities. The ambiguous position of the discipline accounts
for the pre-paradigmatic character of the social sciences (see Kuhn, 1996, p. 15;
p. 174). The pre-paradigmatic status of sociology explains the methodological
conflict between a humanistic approach, emphasizing the individual actors and
their narratives, and a more technical approach, which, thanks to the use of ever
more sophisticated statistical instruments, attempted to configure sociology as
an objective science. Both conceptions, legitimized within different theoretical
backgrounds, competed for primacy in sociology, the former contesting the
uncritical use of statistical techniques and the capacity of statistical methods to
penetrate human affairs, the latter considering any humanist approach to be a sort
of sociological impressionism, devoid of scientific accuracy (Wilson, 1970).
In the first half of the 20th century, within the cultural milieu of Chicago School
sociology, the humanistic approach was temporarily the mainstream. Robert
Redfield (1962), criticizing the reduction of the social sciences to mathematical
methods, underlined how new techniques had greatly increased the reliabilities and
measurability of human phenomena, yet now left complex questions, ones which
could be hardly reduced to variables, unconsidered. At the core of this protest
against the technification of the social sciences (which would later influence
authors such as Nisbet and Mills) is an implicit humanism which accounts for
the substantial acceptance of the arts and literature as appropriate sources of
understanding of man in society from which social scientists may enrich their
insights and their sense of problem (Redfield, 1962, p. 46). Acceptance of literary
sources and critique of the emphasis on research technique were two sides of the
same coin. As Redfield stressed, literature and the social sciences have humanity
in common as their subject matter. They are interested in the way people act, think
and feel (ibid., p. 47). Thus, by taking into account their common subject, Redfield
wrote, it would be immediately evident that social sciences and humanities are akin.
The question that Redfield posed is related to the cultural identity of the social
sciences, of anthropology and sociology in particular, as well as to the relation
that they have with their peculiar object. Social scientists deal with a subject
matter which differs substantially both from the lifeless material of the physicist,
and from the genetically determined material of the biologist. They deal with the
meaningful material of human interaction, with values; that is, with moral, aesthetic
and intellectual standards (ibid., p. 49). Moreover, whereas the social sciences
analyse the spontaneous products of everyday life, the humanist chooses the
products of creative imagination as his object of investigation: in both cases a


Fiction and Social Reality

relation is to be established with an object which is endowed with a meaning

of its own. Both humanists and social scientists encounter the objects of their
investigation as a Thou, writes Redfield (who here quotes von Weizsker) since,
before being significant for the researcher, they are meaningful both for those
who have produced them (a book or a document), and those who have performed
them (actions or interactions on a social scene). That leads to a circular situation
by which the human nature [of the observer] is itself a part of the method for
understanding human products or human relations (ibid., p. 52).
The idea of an artistic component of the social sciences (sociology and
anthropology in particular) was a constitutive element of a humanistic trend in
the American academic culture of the first half of the 20th century. In November
1948, Robert Redfield published in The American Journal of Sociology a brief
paper whose title, The Art of Social Science, is programmatic. The essay posed
a series of questions which would be later developed, with greater perspicacity
and polemical strength, by Robert Nisbet. Redfield argued that research methods
were not enough to penetrate the complex nature of human relationships (the
actual subject matter of social science). In order to be adequate to its object, social
science needed to be both a science and an art.
The Art of Social Science begins with a series of remarks about methodological
issues. It is highly probable, writes Redfield, that social scientists would agree
about the quality of a piece of social research regardless of its methodological
inappropriateness. Both The Polish Peasant by Thomas and Znaniecki or Webbs
The Great Plains, for example, are considered outstanding works in their field,
regardless of their methodological naivety. This means, Redfield writes, that
there is something in social science which is good, perhaps essential, apart from
success with formal method, that these works have virtues not wholly dependent
on the degree of success demonstrated in performing specified and formalized
operations on restricted and precisely identified data (Redfield, 1948, p. 182).
Methodological excellence does not suffice to promote advancement of our
understanding of man in society. What Redfield is advocating is not a denial of
the relevance of formal methods, but a revaluation of the intuitive capacity, proper
to good social scientists, to understand in a glimpse the differentiated aspects of
the social. As a demonstration, he reviews three classic works (de Tocquevilles
Democracy in America, Sumners Folkways, and Veblens The Theory of the
Leisure Class) which, although lacking methodological accuracy, are universally
regarded as milestones in the field of the social sciences:
None of these books tells very much about research method, in the sense of
teaching special procedures of operation with certain kinds of data. There
is nothing in any of them about kinship genealogies, or sampling, or guided
interviews, or margins of error. There is nowhere in them any procedure, any
kind of operation upon facts to reach conclusions which might not occur to any
intelligent and generally educated person. (ibid., p. 182)

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


Although the merits of the three mentioned books are not methodological, they
increase our understanding of society and the way it works, yet how can knowledge
be valuable from a scientific point of view if it is not the result of the application
of some formal method (ibid., p. 183)? This is the very issue raised by Redfield,
in asking whether knowledge independent of methods and research techniques
is possible in the social sciences. If the answer to the question is positive, the
problem arises of distinguishing the boundaries between knowledge derived from
the social sciences and that from, say, novels or journalism.
The differences between literature and sociology lie in the scope of a work of
art and an essay in the social sciences, the first appealing to the aesthetic sensibility
of the reader, the second promoting a better knowledge of man and society (ibid.).
A social scientist, though starting from personal observation (as de Toqueville
did), has to transpose his analysis from the individual to the general, presenting
his results in objective and analytic terms. The artist, on the contrary, presents his
imagined characters and situations in their individuality, as the free creations of
imagination. Thus, the classics that Redfield proposes as examples, regardless of
their methodological fallacy, are not to be equated with novels in so far as their
representation of specific aspects of social reality is always aimed at some form of
generalization (ibid.).
According to Redfield, they contribute to the understanding of man in society
in three main respects. First of all, they are the critical and objective presentation
of some direct experience of what Redfield calls human nature. Generalizations are
the results of first hand observations of people in societies, not of some quantitative,
second or third hand data. This complies with what Redfield considers a specific
feature of social research: the direct involvement of the social researcher in the
objects he studies. As Redfield writes: To find out the nature and significance of
human nature there is no substitute for the human nature of the student himself
(ibid., p. 184). The direct involvement of the researcher in the object he observes
entails a strict relation between the social sciences and literature. Both a social
scientist and a novelist have as their subject matter people, with motives, desires
and moral judgements (ibid.), yet whereas the novelist is freer in his representation
of human reality, the social scientist has to test his insights by making reference to
his empirical material. The way social science produces knowledge is, therefore,
between the strict methodological procedures of the natural sciences and the
intuitiveness of the humanities (literature in particular):
Social science is neither the same as the humanities nor the same as the
physical sciences. It is a way of learning about man in society which uses the
precise procedures and the objectivity characteristic of physics as far as these
will helpfully go in studying human beings but no further; and which uses,
indispensably, that personal direct apprehension of the human qualities of
behavior and of institutions which is shared by the novelist. (ibid., p. 185)


Fiction and Social Reality

The second relevant aspect is the capacity of the selected authors to shift from
the particular to the general. De Tocqueville, Veblen and Sumner are able to offer
suitable scientific generalizations, starting from their direct personal experiences
of men in society. Through this process of generalization, the social scientist
is able to detect uniformities in a plurality of apparently scattered events. This
construction of order and meaning assimilates the social scientist more to the
artist than to the scientist who entrusts the truthfulness of his statements to the
application of rigidly defined methods. Generalization is a creative process, the
output of the researchers insight, which emerges irrespective of methodological
accuracy. Methods may be advocated, at most, as tools to validate the worth of
the scholars insight (ibid., p. 186), yet even if the scientist resembles the artist,
he does so in a conditioned way, since the conceptual generalizations he proposes
are to be justified by empirical evidence. In Redfields words: The concept, like
the novel, is a work of creative imagination but a work more closely and publicly
bound to particular facts of observation and record (ibid., p. 185).
The last aspect which makes the classic books selected by Redfield so relevant,
regardless of their methodological inaccuracy, is their fresh approach to the topics
that they deal with. It is as if the authors wanted to dismantle consolidated scientific
assumptions, so as to propose a new analytical perspective and a new conceptuality.
All these aspects rendered the results of the social sciences somewhat independent
of the sophisticated methodological resources, often statistically supported, which
were beginning to become available when Redfield wrote his essay. Against the
assimilation of the social to the natural sciences and the technification of the latter
that this assimilation was bringing about, Redfield proposed a stronger integration
between the social sciences and the humanities. Just like an artist, in order to
become a good social scientist one had to grasp ones topics and subjects, and to
understand them intuitively. All these considerations allowed Redfield to equate
the social scientist with the artist and to conceive of the social sciences as a form
of art:
In stressing the necessity, in good social science, for the investigator to think and
to speculate independently and freely, in emphasizing the reliance of good social
science upon the personal and human qualities of the investigator, one seems
to be talking not about a science but about an art and to be saying that social
science is also an art. It is an art in that the social scientist creates imaginatively
out of his own human qualities brought into connection with the facts before
him. (ibid., p. 188)

Redfield thus represents the social scientist as unable to locate himself within
a well-defined disciplinary field, yet he advocates a choice compatible with his
deep humanism. In the period in which Redfield wrote, the need to legitimize
sociology as a newly born academic branch drove ever more social scientists to
associate themselves with the stronger natural scientists, regardless of the fact
that the specific object they dealt with would have made it necessary to employ

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


appropriate research strategies, foster intuitiveness and consider innovative

techniques as research means, rather than as ends in themselves (Redfield: 1962).
Sociology as an Art Form
In 1962, Robert Nisbet published a paper whose title, intentionally provocative
(Sociology as an Art Form) reminds us of Redfields. It was the printed version
of the inaugural speech that Nisbet gave in Sacramento in the same year, as
President of the Pacific Sociological Association. In 1976 the essay would become
a monograph sharing the same title, in which the thesis expressed in the paper took
a more complex form. The general production of Robert Nisbet, a conservative
political sociologist acquainted with the themes of community and modernization
(Nagel, 2004) will not be the object of my discussion. I will here focus on his
two essays on sociology as an art form. The thesis developed by Nisbet may be
synthesized thus: the technification of sociology, which is characterized by an ever
stronger use of sophisticated methods of empirical research, often supported by
statistical instruments, tends to deplete the discipline, thus reducing its capacity
to capture social reality and to give adequate sociological explanation of its
complexity. Research techniques, Nisbet states, replace the intuitive capacity of
the scholar, filtering those aspects of reality which are sociologically relevant and
in so doing artificially select what is meaningful for the sociologist to analyse.
However, subordinating sociological analysis to research techniques, writes
Nisbet, was alien to classical sociology. The founding fathers did not elaborate
their descriptions of society starting from codified data, but rather on the basis
of a deep insight into contemporary reality. By making reference to some of the
concepts which sociology has developed since its classical thinkers (in particular
alienation, anomy, rationalization, community, social disorganization) the
American scholar writes:
It occurred to me that none of these ideas is historically the result of the
application of what we are today pleased to call scientific method. If there is
evidence that any one of these ideas as first set forth in the writings of such men
as Tocqueville, Weber, Simmel, and Durkheim, is the result of problem-solving
thought, proceeding rigorously and self-consciously from question to hypothesis
to verified conclusion, I have been unable to discover it. (Nisbet, 1962, p. 68)

In Nisbets presentation, sociology is, at the same time, one of the sciences and one
of the arts (Nisbet, 1976, p. 9), in the sense that the discipline shares with the arts
the processes of an imaginative approach to reality. This does not mean that science
and art are to be confused: they are based on different communicative procedures,
different techniques and different modes of making their argument persuasive, yet
aside from the fact that both art and science are triggered by intuition, regardless
of the differences, artist and scientist alike are primarily concerned with the


Fiction and Social Reality

illumination of reality, with, in sum, the exploration of the unknown and, far
from least, the interpretation of physical and human worlds (ibid., p. 10). While
there is always an aesthetically-motivated curiosity in scientific discovery,
art is often experimental in scope. So art and science are cognate, especially in
so far as they both contrast the endless literalness (here Nisbet quotes Robert
Bridges) of everyday reality (ibid., p. 12) and give new access to the world from
an unexpected point of view. Moreover, both art and science are able to give order
to the scattered objects and events of which reality consists. This ordering function
equates the artist and the scientist, at least at the outset of their activity: In terms
of intellectual experience, what the artist and scientist have in common is their
desire to comprehend the external world, to reduce its apparent complexity, even
chaos, to some kind of ordered representation (ibid., p. 15).
According to Nisbet the conceptuality developed by the founding fathers is
not so much the final output of a process defined within a research design aimed
at verifying well-delineated hypotheses, as the product of intellectual processes
which are much more similar to those generally associated with artistic creation,
specifically: processes of intuition, impressionism, iconic imagination and
objectification (Nisbet, 1962, p. 68). It would be reductive to consider the
first paper written by Nisbet as a mere criticism of quantitative sociology and
its research and cognitive methods. It is much more. It is a short and passionate
argument about the character of contemporary science and its renunciation
of an understanding of reality which should be not merely technical, but also
philosophical. Thus, according to Nisbet, the most dangerous aspect of the question
is not the development of ever more sophisticated research methods (which may
on the contrary be hailed as positive) but the emphasis placed upon them, allied
with an unsound mechanism of hyper-specialization: in modern culture, science
and art are sharply differentiated as a result of a process which applies the same
logic to intellectual production as that operating in the social division of labour.
Art and science tend to be distinguished, after the model of a radicalized Taylorism
which gives shape to the whole of contemporary society (ibid.).
This conception, according to which art is an intuitive way of cognitively
approaching reality and as such has to be opposed to science, understood as a
methodical process of knowledge acquisition, is typically modern. Nisbet
maintains that such a neat differentiation between art and science would have been
meaningless up until the threshold of modernity and, in order to demonstrate his
hypothesis, he makes reference to two fundamental phases in the development of
Western thought: the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. During the Renaissance
art and science coexisted, often in the same intellectual, the most emblematic
case probably being Leonardo Da Vinci (ibid., p. 67). The same holds for
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who would probably have considered senseless
any attempt to distinguish between the cognitive processes at work during his
artistic activities and those giving substance to his penetrating geological and
botanical investigations (ibid.). Intuition was considered a fundamental vehicle
of knowledge, so that the arts literature as well as the figurative arts had a

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


relevant function in the advancement of learning: they were considered capable of

promoting innovative images of man and nature, and anticipating and influencing
philosophy and science.
Although the differentiation of knowledge has produced a neat separation
between art and science, the process by which we come to know and understand
reality is, in both cases, strictly linked to processes of insight. Nisbet makes
reference to scientists who, by describing their creative activity, underline how
intuition is an essential aspect even of scientific work. In this respect, science is not
different from art: even for a scientist (including one working in the so called hard
sciences) the creative process starts from a peculiar intuition of certain aspects of
the world. In order to be recognized as science, intuition must be transformed into
highly formalized arguments, expressed in an extremely sophisticated language,
within a well-defined theoretical and methodical framework. In other words,
intuition must be made credible within the dominant scientific paradigm, yet,
without the original insight there would be nothing to be made credible.
Nisbet does not advocate an improbable return to the past. Differentiation
between art and science is a matter of fact, and contemporary sociology is by
now aware that, regardless of the similarities that exist among individual cognitive
processes, they are separate, distinct social fields. In more recent times Niklas
Luhmann has analysed art and science in modern societies as autonomous social
systems which employ forms of social communication based on substantially
distinguishable communicative codes and communicative media (Luhmann,
1997, p. 316 ff.). Rather than proposing a reintegration of art and science, Nisbet
was much more interested in the fact that in modern society intuition is demeaned,
since scientific investigation is subjected either to the logic of the market or to
the requirements of technological innovation: generally speaking, the modern
scientist does not define the themes and procedures of his research, but rather finds
them, as it were, already predefined by the market, as the new needs of industry.
An analogous process was, according to Nisbet, at work in the social sciences.
In the period when Nisbet wrote, assuming the natural sciences as a model to be
imitated, the social sciences, including sociology, were undergoing a process of
increasing technification. In those years, Paul Felix Lazerfeld (1993) emphasized
the necessity of empirical verification of theoretically supported research
hypotheses and introduced into social research a deductive method based on exact
correlations among variables, thus creating a new language for empirical social
research. The reliability of more refined research methods (the survey in particular)
and the definition of statistical samples increased the general esteem of sociology.
Regardless of these positive aspects, according to Nisbet, the technification of
sociology had two consequences, both already envisaged by Redfield: a reduction
of the sociologically relevant questions to those that lent themselves to formulation
as hypotheses that could be verified through statistics and quantitative techniques;
and a trivialization of sociological analysis, now reduced to synthetic descriptions
and unable to give sophisticated, thick, counter-factual accounts of social reality.
Nisbet writes:


Fiction and Social Reality

Too many sociologists have assumed that because scientific thought is by
definition rational and logical in expression, its psychological roots must therefore
be limited to strictly empirical and logical processes. Only that is scientific
so runs the folklore of scientism that proceeds from an unambiguous and
precisely delimited problem, drawn from statistically aseptic data, to a carefully
tailored hypothesis. All else is, by definition, art or philosophy. It is hard to think
of a better way to apotheosize the routine and insignificant. (Nisbet, 1962, p. 70)

The trend towards the technical treatment of sociological data and the concurrent
reaction against the reduction of sociology to mere technique had started long
before Nisbet wrote his first essay. Indeed, in 1962 Nisbet quoted Florian Znaniecki
who as early as 1934, in his introduction to the sociological method, attacked the
over-exemplification of empirical research brought about by the introduction of
statistical methods. By preferring tabulation techniques to intellectual reasoning,
writes Znaniecki, statistical methods eliminate theoretical thinking from the
process of scientific research (Znaniecki, 1934, p. 234). The research process is
reduced to a routinized activity, from gathering data to analysing data and drawing
conclusions. By adopting supposedly rigorous methods, sociology may have
acquired greater technical accuracy, but at the cost of creativity and originality
(ibid.). Creativity will be reduced to the function of formulating hypotheses
which are to be tested by technical means (ibid.), but since the hypotheses
which may be statistically verified are no more than superficial generalizations
of common-sense practical reflection (ibid., p. 235), by following the route of
statistical technification, sociology will lose the acute grasp on social reality which
had characterized its earlier development.
In line with Redfields argument, Nisbet opposes to the conception of sociology
as a discipline driven by research techniques an alternative perspective, according
to which sociology is understood as a form of art, namely a science able to nurture
and foster intuitive processes. There are at least three correlated analogies between
sociology and art which legitimize Nisbets configuration of sociology as an art
form. The first is the strict historical relation between the concepts developed by
classic sociology and Romanticism. Sociology does not develop as a prosecution of
the Enlightenment, which, if at all, is best understood as a historical antecedent of
classical political economy, utilitarian political science and psychology. Although
it would be unrealistic to suppose that the Enlightenment had no influence on
the evolution of sociological thought, the way that sociology adopted certain
Enlightenment ideas was, at any rate, characterized by a process of conflictual
revision. Nisbet links sociology to Romanticism. Romanticism and sociology
developed against the same historical background, characterized by momentous
processes such as great political and economic revolutions and increasing
scepticism as old social customs and certainties were upset by urbanism and
scientific and technical progress. The resulting bewilderment and preoccupation
with the lost order, and the characteristics of the new society, represented the

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


common social and cultural environment for Romanticism as an artistic and

cultural tendency and for sociology as a discipline.
Furthermore, the main themes that classical sociology developed in the period
spanning its origin to the first decades of the 20th century had been anticipated,
in almost identical shape and intensity, by artists, chiefly Romantic, in the
nineteenth century (Nisbet, 1976, p. 8). Thus, although one cannot deny the
relevance of sociological representations of modernity such as those handed down
by the founding fathers (mass society, alienation, bureaucracy, industrialization,
metropolis and the like), one may find their intellectual roots in the artistic works
of men of genius like Burke, Blake, Carlyle and Balzac whose reaction to the
democratic and industrial revolution created the pattern of consciousness (ibid.)
which would later deeply influence the emerging social thought.
The link between sociology and art is not purely historical, however. It is
also substantial, as any science (including the social sciences) may be explained,
according to Nisbet, in terms of its origin in the artistic experience. By making
reference to the German philosopher of art Conrad Fielder, Nisbet explains that
art was, from the outset, a means that mankind adopted to come to terms with the
enigmatic complexity of the physical world, an instrument for the development of
human awareness and consciousness. This is perhaps why the first representations
of such scientific concepts as the space, mass and motion of the natural and human
world were handed down in artistic form. When it comes to sociology, the question
is more circumscribed: Nisbet tries to show how themes and representations of
the passage to modernity where able to transmigrate from artistic works to the
classics of sociological thought. The great landscapes of masses, industrial plants
and metropolises, the portraits of human types such as the bourgeois, the worker,
the bureaucrat and the intellectual, the representation of great processes such as
progress and its consequences, are part of the way that we are used, as sociologists,
to conceptualize reality. And yet, as Nisbet shows in his extended version of
Sociology as an Art Form (1976), they are largely derived from a cultural milieu
external to sociology, greatly influenced by the contemporary artistic (especially
literary) culture.
In its shorter version, Nisbet presents two ideas in particular, which intertwine
sociology and Romanticism. The first remains relevant in contemporary sociology:
the modern conception of the individual, ever more estranged in a meaningless,
anomic society; the second is notable for its reflection of the inner structure of
classical sociological thought: the cold rationality of modern society as opposed
to the strong communitarian ties of the past:
[T]he sociological image arises in the first instance from visions which had their
earliest and most far reaching appeal in Romantic art. Weber has somewhere
likened his own concept of rationalization to the poet Schillers earlier view
of the disenchantment of the world. Tocqueville, Simmel, and Durkheim
might well have done likewise. From the first burst of the Romantic spirit in
the late eighteenth century rising to do battle with the classicist-rationalist


Fiction and Social Reality

view we find luminously revealed two central visions: (1) the estrangement of
the individual from a growingly impersonal and disorganized society (and the
consequent spiritual inaccessibility of modern institutions city, factory, mass
society); (2) a celebration of status and community whether rural, religious,
or moral in contrast to the individualistic and contractual society of the
philosophes. (Nisbet, 1962, p. 71)

A deeper analogy between sociology and the arts is found in the way that the
founding fathers constructed their representation of reality. As explained earlier,
according to Nisbet, sociological concepts (especially but not exclusively those
developed by classical sociology) do not derive from empirical research, or
emerged from well-defined designs with clear-cut hypotheses, standardized
sampling, data gathering and analysis. On the contrary, they are the result of
detailed knowledge of social reality, based on insight processes very much like
those of the artist. Classical theories (with the exception of Durkheims work on
suicide) are great narrations, the construction of which falls outside the techniques
of knowledge construction in empirical sociological research. In order to clarify
this point, it is sensible to read Nisbet directly:
It is impossible, as I have already suggested, to entertain seriously the thought
that these major ideas were arrived at in a manner comparable to what we think of
as scientific methodology. Can you imagine what would have happened had any
one of them been subjected, at the moment following its inception, to a rigorous
design analysis? Can anyone believe that Webers vision of rationalization in
history, Simmels vision of metropolis, or Durkheims vision of anomie, came
from logic-empirical analysis as this is understood today? Merely to ask the
question is to know the answer. Plainly, these men were not working with finite
and ordered problems in front of them. They were not problem solving at all.
Each was, with deep intuition, with profound imaginative grasp, reacting to the
world around him, even as does the artist, and, also like the artist, objectifying
internal and only partly conscious, states of mind. (ibid., p. 71)

A further feature of the analogy between sociology and art is related to the
cumulative character of sociological knowledge. Whereas the natural scientist
has an instrumental relation with the founders of his field of investigation (the
physicist, writes Nisbet, is generally content with an exact understanding of
Newtons laws, and avoids becoming involved in the difficult task of reading
his Principia), a sociologist has a much more complex affinity with the thought
of the sociologists of the past: by reading them once again, one acquires novel
information, new intuition concerning reality, original theoretical insights. This,
according to Nisbet, enables us, as a community of sociologists, to construct our
knowledge in a manner more akin to the historian of literature, the historian of
art, or the novelist, who all are attentive to both the content and the form of the

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


artistic and literary works of the past and whose activity is a constant elaboration
and reworking of this content.
Nisbets conclusion is not one that implies that sociology should become a
sort of literary representation of reality. On the contrary, he is aware of his role
as a sociologist and of sociology as a specialized academic field: sociology has
developed critical thought on modernity, a set of tools for understanding the
specific features of modern society, its characters and its development. Thus, if it
is true that the ideas we read in classical sociology may, be dependent upon
thought-processes like those of the artist none of them would have survived
in sociology or become fruitful for others were it not for criteria and modes of
communication that differ from those in art (ibid., p. 73). Thinking of sociology
as a form of art, as Nisbet does, is not a post-modern negation of the scientific value
of sociological discourse. On the contrary, it is a way of giving things their due
relevance: methods and techniques alone may not give a vivid representation of
social reality. Besides methods and techniques, we need to foster our sociological
insight, our capacity to intuitively grasp themes and problems, and to train what
Charles Wright Mills (1959) once called sociological imagination.
Beyond the Tradition of Sociology as an Art Form: Monroe Berger
and Richard Harvey Brown
The humanistic conception of the social sciences, which in the first half of the 20th
century was commonplace, was to endure, albeit as a minority trend, in the period
in which structural-functionalism prevailed as a paradigm. It evolved by producing
both a methodologically aware rejection of the uncritical use of quantitative
techniques (Nisbets idea of sociology as an art form being emblematic) and a
re-appropriation of narratives as relevant material for the sociologist. Stories
told by social actors were now gathered as a conscious alternative to quantitative
methods: they provided the sociologist with narrative data about the motives,
actions, vicissitudes, cooperation and conflict of individuals, thus preserving in
the analysis of a given social phenomenon the perspective of the actors involved.
Herbert Blumers symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969) Harold Garfinkels
ethnomethodological approach (Garfinkel, 1967), Sacks conversational analysis
(Sacks, 1995) are all examples of an interest in the social construction of meaning
and the way that meaning may be conveyed through narratives.
Within this tradition, sociology came to be interpreted as a way of constructing
stories through stories. In 1974 Fred Davis published a short essay whose title is
meaningful in this context: Stories and Sociology (Davis, 1974). The essay is a
methodological attempt to deal with the proper way to treat ethnographic data. How
can a sociologist organize a whole set of often apparently incoherent raw material
which he has gathered during his empirical observation? The answer proposed
by Davis is simple and complex at the same time: through sociological stories.
Sociology, writes Davis, has its own brand of stories and what we have to do


Fiction and Social Reality

is see what stories will work and what wont in terms of what weve collected
(Davis, 74, p. 310). Durkheims anomic suicide when somebody has achieved
success too fast is a sociological story, as is Webers idea of the routinization
of charisma. One can even find imaginative support in literary narratives, Davis
claims. For example, The Great Gatsby may be understood as the literary
equivalent of Durkheims sociological concept of anomie (ibid.). It is by detecting
a coherent set of narratives that a sociologist may organize his scattered qualitative
data into a plot, imposing consistency, making sense of it, detecting sociological
meaning in what would otherwise have been devoid of sense. Following Daviss
argument, one could conceive of sociology as a narrative-making process which
adopts narratives (both theories as narratives or narratives as theories) to activate
sociological emplotment. If this idea makes sense, the distinction between
sociological narratives and literary narratives becomes less marked and one may
thus reconsider the idea of sociology as an art form and its tradition in sociology.
Even the theme of the cognitive similarities between art and science, literature
and sociology, persisted. In 1977, one year after the publication of Sociology as an
Art Form, two books again took up the theme of the relation between sociology
and art. The first tried, from a historical perspective, to clarify certain similarities
and differences between sociology and the novel, understood as different cognitive
modalities for understanding reality (Berger, 1977). The second, more ambitious
in scope, was intended as an attempt to redefine from an epistemological point of
view the logic of scientific discovery in the field of social science, by presenting
an aesthetic theory of scientific knowledge (Brown, 1977).
The book by Monroe Berger (Real and Imagined Worlds: The Novel and
Social Science) focuses on the relationship between the novel and the social
sciences by stressing both differences and similarities. The task of the book is
not to advocate a possible use of the novel as proper material for sociological
investigation, but rather to stress the cognitive potential of narrative as a specific
form of knowledge of various aspects of social and psychological reality. From a
perspective reminiscent of Nisbets, Berger intends to show how the novel has
contributed to a knowledge of the same landscape upon which social science has
focused, but through a different lens (Berger, 1977, p. 6). The similarities between
the novel and the social sciences are in the first place historical: both emerged in
the same social and cultural milieu (ibid., p. 12 ff.), yet more relevantly, they are
two ways of commenting on human behavior and social institutions (ibid., p. 6),
although they form different perspectives. Berger emphasizes that the novel, like
the social sciences in a later period, was originally seen as a lesser genre (ibid., p.
28). By competing with scientists, the novelists tried on the one hand to qualify
their representations of reality as capable of penetrating specific aspects of reality
more fully than natural scientists could. On the other, the attempt to legitimize
the realistic novel as a relevant intellectual achievement was accomplished by
adopting technical devices aimed at bringing art closer to life (ibid., p. 6). Thus,
instead of being simply a form of amusement for the upper classes, the novel
presented itself as an innovative form of literature, capable of producing specific

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


knowledge about human nature and social reality. The novel presented itself (at
least in some of the approaches to narrative that emerged at the end of the 19th
century, notably naturalism) as an instrument for objectively penetrating the world
of human interaction.
According to Berger, the peculiar knowledge of the social which the novel is
able to convey is achieved through two modalities. The novel deals with social
institutions by directly depicting events and characters (i.e. by narrating and
describing), which is a way to clarify such broad themes as the basis of human
association, the differences of culture and race, political power, and social class
(ibid.). The second modality is commentaries, e.g. intrusions of the narrator in
the story, which, by stepping out of the plot, may convey further information on
such topics as class, law, human relations and the like. It is this second modality,
Berger argues, that is more akin to the form of argumentation typical of the social
sciences and the scientific method. Fiction shares with other types of narrative an
articulated form of representation of reality, which combines the description of
actions (narrative in its more proper form), descriptions of characters and milieu,
and argumentation in the form of comments, imputable both to the narrator or some
character in the novel. This complex structure (the argumentation in particular)
leads Berger to equate the novel with social science, not only with regard to the
overlapping of themes and sensibilities, but also with regard to the methods.
Berger identifies the combination of communicative mode as one of the peculiar
features of narratives (see also Franzoni, 2010), which is one of the elements of
sociological interest in the novel and a further reason to equate the novel and the
social sciences.
Moreover, Berger compares the methods adopted by the novelist to construct
knowledge about the social with those adopted in the more systematic social
inquiry (Berger, 1977, p. 218). Similarities and differences emerge from his
analysis. Abstraction, hypotheses, evidence and experiment, cumulative coverage
and prediction are aspects of both fiction and social inquiry, yet each aspect
is employed in a specific way by the novelist and the social researcher. Thus,
although the novel conveys its peculiar knowledge about the social, the conversion
of fictional knowledge into a sociological framework is not simply a matter of
mere adaptation, but a process of translation from the literary mode, in order to
formulate hypotheses about social institutions or human nature in the logic of the
social scientist (ibid., p. 161).
In 1977 the doctoral thesis of Richard Harvey Brown was published as a
monograph by the University of Chicago Press. The title is programmatic: A
Poetic for Sociology: Toward a Logic of Discovery for the Social Sciences. The
monograph may be considered an attempt to reconcile science and art, both
intended as appropriate modalities for understanding reality. Both scientists and
artists, writes Brown, are involved in the same activity, making paradigms through
which reality becomes intelligible (Brown, 1977, p. 2). Every intellectual activity,
in fact, produces a symbolic system be it artistic (e.g. baroque iconography),
pre-scientific (astrology) or scientific (anthropology or quantum physics) none


Fiction and Social Reality

of which is better than the others as a cognitive tool: all are equally real, writes
Brown (ibid.). Cognitive aesthetic is the expression Brown chooses to define
his approach, whose main task is to fill the breach between art and science as
alternative ways of understanding reality. Traditionally, art is conceived of as a
non-cognitive approach, linked to sentiment, emotion and the unique. By contrast,
science: is thought of as the province of rationality, ordered and disciplined
thought, clearly defined problems, and carefully tested solutions (ibid., p. 3).
Such a distinction legitimizes the cognitive predominance of science over art
(scientific realism) to which Brown opposes symbolic realism, a perspective by
which there is no fundamental difference in the way in which science and art
empower us to articulate the world (ibid., p. 24). By anticipating a post-modern
stance, Brown clearly states a convergence between science and art as cognitive
tools (both relative and to be contextualized) for interpreting and understanding
the world.
From a sociological perspective, what is more relevant is that within symbolic
realism, theoretically antagonistic approaches in sociology may be reconciled,
according to Brown. By transporting the old opposition between art and science
within the narrower field of sociology, the nomothetic-ideographic debate is
reformulated in terms of an opposition between an experimental-statistical
methodology and participant observation and clinical approaches (ibid., p. 11). This
opposition has historical roots, dating back to the 19th century when positivism
and romanticism developed as alternative ways of approaching reality. Positivism
assumed the scientific method as the only appropriate way to capture the world as
it is, through a continuous verification of scientific statements. Ordinary language
and art were, on the contrary, deprived of any cognitive value, the former lacking
the exact terminology of science, the latter being the domain of subjectivity and
emotion (ibid., p. 25). In consequence, art would eventually renounce its referential
quality (its capacity to represent the world) and, in concentrating on symbols and
beauty, abdicate any relation with reality and truth (ibid., p. 26). When applied to
the social sciences, the contrast between science and art produced a permanent
dualism. Some sociologists identified their discipline with the natural sciences,
expunging from their analysis and methods any reference to subjectivity and
emotion. By assuming art as a model, some sociologists aimed at an empathetic
understanding of human beings and interaction (ibid., p. 27). For Brown, the
principle of symbolic realism, according to which the study of anything is always
the study of it from the viewpoint of something else (ibid., p. 47) must be applied
to science, religion and the arts. By stressing the equivalence of these different
ways to understand reality, Brown shows the irrelevance of the theoretical and
methodological distinction in the fields of sociology, thus advocating a study of
society that includes both objectivity and subjectivity, the actor and the structural
component of reality, free will and social constraints. Although Browns approach
was undoubtedly influenced by sociological humanism (and by the tradition of
sociology as an art form advanced by Redfield and Nisbet), his work aimed to
overcome the dichotomy between humanistic and positivist sociology in search

Narratives and Sociology: At the Roots of a Forgotten Tradition


of a new synthesis, thus harmonizing with coeval integrative approaches in

sociology (Elias, 1970; Giddens, 1984; Luhmann, 1984; Habermas, 1984, 1987;
Collins, 1988). Moreover, by assuming the equivalence of any system of symbols,
including science and arts, Brown anticipated a conception of science as a social
and rhetorical construction, paving the way to post-modernism as a radical
criticism of the traditional theories of knowledge.

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Chapter 4

Writing Sociology: Social Sciences as Texts

Writing Modernity: The Founding Fathers and the Representation of
Society in Change
In his attempt to show the deep interrelation between sociology and the arts, Nisbet
presented a number of analogies by which he tried to clarify how early sociologists
were influenced by coeval artistic trends. The first analogy is connected to social
landscapes. The same social landscapes of the incipient modernity, writes Nisbet
(Nisbet, 1973, p. 43) were the objects of both artistic (novels and paintings) and
sociological representation, yet each of these landscapes may be seen taking
shape in the works of the poets, novelists and painters well before it becomes
clearly visible in the writings of Marx, Toennies, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel
(ibid.). By sociological landscapes Nisbet intends an extensive portion of cultural
or social reality, represented from the specific point of view of the sociologist
(ibid., pp. 42-3). Thanks to a form of artistic insight (and not the reference to welldefined methodological procedures) the early sociologists were able to convert the
selected aspects of social reality into durable sociological concepts, such as mass
society, society/community, alienation, anomie, power, and so on.
Besides spatial representations, the founding fathers were able to depict
human types as the individual counterparts of the macro social, cultural and
economic processes which were then affecting Western society. In a passage
that resembles Lukcs concept of particularity (Lukcs, 1971), Nisbet points
out that, although it is generally thought that artistic portraits tend to emphasize
individual characteristics, art is often able to transcend individuality, such that
Raskolnikov in Dostoevskys Crime and Punishment, for instance, is both the
plastic representation of a unique character and the personification of a social
type: the revolutionary nihilist of Dostoevskys time (Nisbet, 1976, p. 69). The
sociological representation of human types, although at a more generalized level
than the representation of literary types, has the same capacity to depict, from
the perspective of the individual, general features of contemporary society. The
portraits of the bourgeois, the worker, the bureaucrat and the intellectual are all
examples of the literary capacity of the early sociologists to produce typological
representations of the human characters inhabiting sociological landscapes such as
factories, metropolises and great bureaucratic apparatuses (ibid., p. 68 ff.).
Both literary and sociological landscapes and characters are seen by Nisbet as
compatible modes of understanding and representing reality. Sociology contributed
to the great narratives of the transition to modernity, based, as Nisbet writes, much
more on the intuitive elaboration of the personal experiences and knowledge of the


Fiction and Social Reality

founding fathers than on any rigidly defined quantitative research design. These
representations are a relevant part of the conceptual tools of our discipline and are
unanimously accepted as established sociological heritage.
Taking Nisbets lesson seriously, and in order to illustrate the narrative quality
of the sociological representation of reality among the classics, I shall make
reference to the topic of modernity and the way it has been explored by two of the
acknowledged founding fathers: mile Durkheim and Georg Simmel. A necessary
preliminary remark is due: when dealing with both sociologists, I shall select,
from their wide sociological conceptuality, a single aspect (individualism in the
case of Durkheim, the metropolis in the case of Simmel), which will be used to
exemplify the way that each approached modernity as a period of crisis. Although
other classical sociologists could have been selected, Durkheim and Simmel have
been chosen because they approached sociology from very different perspectives.
The first was the radical supporter of a scientific version of sociology and its
institutionalization, the second an occasional sociologist who preferred to define
himself as a philosopher and who in places had maintained the value of literature
as a sociological source (Lepenies, 1988, p. 244). Although proposing opposite
versions of the discipline, their presentations of modernity both display some of
the artistic qualities that Nisbet ascribes to the founding fathers.
mile Durkheim: Recounting Modernity and the Individuals
In a brief essay of 1898 (Individualism and the Intellectuals), Durkheim deals with
the relevance of individualism in contemporary France. As a sociologist and a
social thinker, Durkheim is chiefly acknowledged for his conception of social facts,
which he considered to be the precondition of individual action. Consistently with
his theoretical approach, Durkheim imputes the development of individualism not
to individual choices, but rather to complex social processes, independent of the
subjective will. In particular, he analyses individualism as a social phenomenon
as one of the results of the social transformations leading to modernity and, at
the same time, a moral value: Not only is individualism not anarchical, but it
henceforth is the only system of beliefs which can ensure the moral unity of the
country (ibid., p. 55).
In Durkheims narrative, modernity has its own protagonist, the individual,
who is nonetheless the product of structural and historical processes. In fact, when
societies differentiate, become more complex and spread over extended areas,
they are obliged to maintain themselves in a state of plasticity and inconstancy
which no longer offers enough resistance to individual variations (ibid., p. 51).
This process is sharpened by the division of social labour which strengthens the
differentiation of collective and individual consciousness, through a multiplication
of subjective points of view (ibid.). In such a complex society, which is now made
up of individual actors who are ever more differentiated and who have ever less
in common, what is the element that keeps single individualities together? The

Writing Sociology: Social Sciences as Texts


interconnecting element, writes Durkheim, is the fact that they share the quality of
man, now conceived of as a value in itself:
we make our way, little by little, toward a state, nearly achieved as of now,
where the members of a single social group will have nothing in common among
themselves except their humanity, except the constitutive attributes of the
human person (personne humaine) in general. This idea of the human person,
given different nuances according to the diversity of national temperaments, is
therefore the only idea which would be retained, unalterable and impersonal,
above the changing torrent of individual opinions. And the feelings it awakens
would be the only ones which could be found in almost every heart. (ibid.,
pp. 51-2)

Thus, individualism may be intended as a constitutive element of modernity, able

as it is to convert itself into an integrating value, provided that it does not drift into
utilitarianism, that ideal without grandeur which, as Durkheim writes, reduces
society to nothing more than a vast apparatus of production and exchange (ibid.,
p. 44).
However, on Durkheims sociological analysis the individual, although the
protagonist of modernity, does not stand alone. In contrast to political economy,
which reduces the individual to the pursuit of his needs and interests, Durkheim
considers the individual as a tangled complex of egoism and sociality, corporeity and
morality, personal interests and solidarity. The individual as intended by Durkheim
is a homo duplex, both natural and social, such that whereas the individual would
tend to expand his needs by avoiding social constraints, society opposes subjective
impulses with the strength of its collective ties, in the form of social conventions
or religious, moral or juridical norms. This produces a dramatic tension in the
individual, torn between the dual aspects of his being human (Durkheim, 1914,
p. 151). In this duplicity the individual is constantly ill-at-ease with society: he may
not express his own instincts completely since society, in order to guarantee itself
integration, imposes upon him, transforming social constraints into self-control.
The tension between the two aspects of human nature may not be solved; on
the contrary it tends to grow in so far as modern society emphasizes the second of
the two components that make up our contradictory nature:
Therefore, since the role of the social being in our single selves will grow ever
more important as history moves ahead, it is wholly improbable that there will
ever be an era in which man is required to resist himself to a lesser degree, an era
in which he can live a life that is easier and less full of tension. To the contrary,
all evidence compels us to expect our effort in the struggle between the two
beings within us to increase with the growth of civilization. (ibid., p. 163)

A theoretical problem emerges here, which is fundamental in Durkheims thought:

how is social order possible in a society which is more and more individualized?


Fiction and Social Reality

Once the economic solution has been rejected, according to which order is simply
generated from the summing-up effects of rational individual actions, another
solution has to be detected, more consistent with sociological categories. If order
is not to be understood as the result of individual action and interaction, Durkheim
has to define some super-individual structure able to guarantee, at the same time,
social stability and individual agency. In The Division of Labour in Society (1893)
Durkheim introduces the distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity
which, by differentiating between simple and complex social structures, gives
a plausible theoretical representation of the question of order in an ever more
differentiated society. In simple societies, where mechanical solidarity is in
force, integration is guaranteed by low social differentiation and the substantial
homogeneity of values and interiorized norms. Integration is, in this case,
produced by similarity (ibid., p. 31 ff.). Organic solidarity, by contrast, is achieved
by differentiation: it is the result of the functional balancing of the increasingly
diverse roles and competences which are necessary for the dynamic stability of
an ever more complex society (ibid., p. 68 ff.). At this stage of the evolution of
Durkheims thought, social integration is conceived of chiefly as a consequence
of social differentiation. Since individuals do not share the same feelings, values
or collective representations, it is the division of labour itself which becomes
the predominant source of social solidarity, at the same time as it becomes the
foundation of the moral order (ibid., p. 333).
Society is portrayed as a biological organism: as in the biological body the
interconnections between the organs are functionally determined, so in a complex
society each different task, role and function are interconnected so as to provide
for the good integration of society as a whole. The question is: does a simply
functional interconnection suffice, without culturally unifying values, to produce
social integration? In Durkheims view the concept of the individual is able to
furnish modern society with a shared cultural reference, the functional equivalent
of now decaying religious and moral beliefs. Durkheim faces an ostensible
paradox: the individual is both a product of functionally differentiated societies and
an instrument to legitimize them, fostering their integration. In order to overcome
this paradox, Durkheim distinguishes between the individual (a personality aware
of his uniqueness) and individualism as a social value: the first is the structural,
the second the cultural consequence of the division of labour and to the second,
Durkheim ascribes the difficult task of guaranteeing a certain degree of valuesharing within modern society:
[N]othing remains which men can love and honour in common if not man
himself. That is how man has become a god for man and why he can no longer
create other gods without lying to himself. And since each of us incarnates
something of humanity, each individual consciousness contains something
divine and thus finds itself marked with a character which renders it sacred and
inviolable to others. Therein lies all individualism; and that is what makes it a
necessary doctrine. (Durkheim, 1898, p. 52)

Writing Sociology: Social Sciences as Texts


The essay on individualism belongs to a transitory phase in the evolution

of Durkheims social thought, a phase when he still thought that increased
differentiation (organic solidarity) could provide for social integration. In his
later works, Durkheim becomes more critical towards functional integration and
individualism would seem to him only one of the possible substitutes for the old
belief which once stabilized simpler societies. Modern societies are considered
societies in transition: this is a tragic condition, yet not devoid of positive aspects
because, as they are no longer in a phase of equilibrium, they are now obliged
to renovate and transform their old structures. Old certainties are disappearing,
without being substituted by new ones. In consequence, individual actors
experience a loss of bearings and increasing social restlessness, yet Durkheim
is convinced that the transitory phase will end with the definition of new social
values, more appropriate to the structure of modern society:
The old ideals and the divinities which incarnate them are dying because they
no longer respond sufficiently to the new aspirations of our day; and the new
ideals which are necessary to orient our life are not yet born. Thus we find
ourselves in an intermediary period, a period of moral cold which explains
the diverse manifestations of which we are, at every instant, the uneasy and
sorrowful witnesses.
But who does not feeland this is what should reassure uswho does not feel
that, in the depths of society, an intense life is developing which seeks ways to
come forth and which will finally find them. We aspire to a higher justice that no
existing formulas express to our satisfaction. But these obscure aspirations which
agitate us will finally, one day or another, reach a clearer self-consciousness
and translate themselves into definite formulas around which men will rally and
which will become a center of crystallization for new beliefs. (Durkheim, quoted
in Bellah, 1973, p. XLVII)

Durkheim thus accepts the problematic dimension of modern society and conceives
of the present-day crisis as a prelude to a new positive evolution, so becoming, as a
social scientist, an advocate of the process of social transformation. What emerges
is an ambivalent conception of modernity in which the critics of the side-effects
of rapid social change brought about by modernity are mitigated by the theoretical
awareness that a period of crisis is often the premise for a superior, more stable,
form of integration.
Georg Simmel: Modernity and das Geistesleben
Among the founding fathers, Georg Simmel is the figure who best personifies an
artistic attitude towards the sociological representation of reality. An impressionist
of sociology (Lepenies, 1988, p. 241), he even hinted in his Philosophie des
Geldes to the potential usefulness of the aesthetic point of view for the sociological


Fiction and Social Reality

interpretation of phenomena (ibid., p. 244). Simmel produced sophisticated

analyses of the relations between modernity, cultural change and new forms of
subjectivity in the modern individual. He was able to observe with keen eyes the
consequences of modernization on the individual subject, on the way he perceived
his social environment and defined his social relations (Frisby, 2002, p. 27). What
social theory owes to Simmel is a series of descriptions of the concrete subjective
experiences of modernity (or better, of some of its aspects: the increasing relevance
of money in social interactions, life in modern metropolises, the intellectualization
of life etc.), rather than a coherent analysis of its causes and its evolution (ibid.).
Where other sociologists (Durkheim in particular) look for causal relations,
Simmel detects subjective experiences, fragments of the perception that the social
actor has of his own world. Those fragments are the subject matter of Simmels
analysis of modernity. Even when this analysis takes into account the structural
components of modern society (social differentiation, money, fashion, life in
big cities etc.), it does so in search of their influence on individual experience.
This analysis, consisting of fragments, accounts for the truly modern character
of Simmels sociology, so that the German sociologist has been considered the
most contemporary of the founding fathers, even anticipating in his work certain
aspects of post-modernism (Frisby, 2002, p. xxxv; Dal Lago, 1994b, p. 34 ff.).
Simmels interest in the individual consequences of modernity is not, as
Durkheims is, linked to growing social complexity and the related loss of normative
and cultural references; neither, unlike Webers work, is it focused on growing
rationalization and the influences of this on the macro-dimensions of society and
the micro-level of the individuals action. Simmel is more interested in the inner
dimension of subjectivity (das Geistesleben) and in the transformation which a
society in transition produces on this dimension. The protagonist of modernity is the
individual, but in contrast to Durkheim, Simmel does not approach this individual
in his general dimension as a value, but in the concreteness of his reaction to an
ever more complex world: fluidity, ever changing images, rationalization and their
reflex on the inner life, the latter becoming more and more inconsistent, overstimulated and intellectualized (Frisby, 2002, p. xxxvii).
Even when Simmel deals with the theme of social differentiation, he
concentrates more on its subjective consequences. Unlike Durkheim, who is
chiefly interested in the way that the division of labour entails a more rational
form of societal organization, now based on complementary roles and functions
rather than shared values, Simmel looks at the social actor, at his relation with
his group, and at the transformation of the individuals experience in connection
with increased social complexity (Simmel, 1890, p. 25). Differentiation is linked
to an ever stronger individualization of the subject, who, as social ties and social
belongings become looser, can now perceive himself as an autonomous individual
rather than as a mere member of a group. Thus, the individual is conceived of by
Simmel not as a substance just as society is not an object but as the transitory
composition of actions and reciprocal reactions. Similarly, an actor can perceive

Writing Sociology: Social Sciences as Texts


himself as an individual when the social spheres in which he takes part tend to
multiply and become less stable.
But where does modernity manifest itself completely? And what is the
chief instrument of its development? For Simmel, the setting of modernity
is undoubtedly the metropolis, in which money assumes the central role as an
instrument of mediation. Simmel conceives of society as the composite whole
formed by the mutual relations that exist among social actors. Modern society
is complex because social relations and social spheres have multiplied, as well
as their reciprocal effects of interaction (Wechselwirkungen). In this context,
money shows its typically modern function: money exemplifies social relations,
as it substitutes the calculability of value for the quality of the exchanged objects
or services. Money is much more than an instrument of the modern capitalistic
economy. It is an indicator of the spiritual relations of our era (Dal Lago, 1994b,
p. 94). Moreover, it is a metaphor of modernity as a whole: of its economy as well
as of its culture.
Money as a universal equivalent makes economic transactions easier and
socially neutral, as they are no longer linked to the old social constraints of
reciprocity. It is an instrument which increases subjective opportunities for
action, as it guarantees the fulfilment of a multiplicity of goals. However, a more
satisfying life condition is not the logical outcome of this growth in subjective
opportunities (ibid., p. 108). Money is the chief cause of the intellectualization
of mental life; that is to say, the introduction of calculability to social relations,
which entails a necessary adaptation to a social environment different from the
stable and secure social milieu of less articulated societies. The new condition of
the modern individual is ambivalent: although he is now free from the constraints
of his restricted social group, he must submit to the rigid rules of the market,
otherwise his economic action will be ineffective (Simmel, 1900, p. 433 ff.)
If money is the instrument of modernity, then the metropolis is the place of
its actualization. In Simmels analysis, modernity represents the crystallization
of social relations in the spatial dimension of the metropolis rather than the result
of a historical process (Frisby, 1986, p. 77 ff.). It is in the metropolis that the
individual experiences the opportunities and constraints of contemporary society.
The experience of modernity becomes, for Simmel, metropolitan experience tout
court (Jedlowski, 1995, p. 20), since it is in the big city that the individual may
fully experience all the features of contemporary society, as well as the role of
money and the market economy.
As always in Simmels work, attention is focused on the individual and on his
mental life: the result is a representation of the metropolitan inhabitant as neurotic,
whose psychology is characterized by a multiplicity of external sensorial stimuli,
which results in an intensification of nervous stimulation (Simmel, 1903, p. 415).
As a defence mechanism, the urban individual intellectualizes his relation with
reality, which is now more than ever based on the calculability of effects rather
than an emotional participation in events and interactions. Thanks to money as an
instrument, calculability may be transferred from the restricted field of the natural


Fiction and Social Reality

sciences to the broader area of social relations. Social relations may now be based
on an evaluation of costs and benefits, which may make action more effective,
but also makes social relations colder and more anonymous (ibid., p. 412). At the
individual level, since money transforms quality into quantity, objective neutrality
becomes a trait of the modern personality, often coupled with an inconsiderate
hardness (ibid., p. 411). Indifference is the other attitude activated as a defence
mechanism by the city dweller. Both the market economy and the metropolis
cooperate in the production of indifference as a modern psychological attitude:
the city, by multiplying encounters, relations, social occasions; and the market
economy, in its turn, by increasing the amounts and variety of goods available.
Increased external stimuli produce a blas attitude; that is to say, an indifferent
reaction to everything, as if all has already been experienced:
[Everything] appears to the blas person in an evenly flat and gray tone; no one
object deserves preference over any other. This mood is the faithful subjective
reflection of the completely internalized money economy. By being the
equivalent to all the manifold things in one and the same way, money becomes
the most frightful leveler. (ibid., p. 414)

A further effect of the money economy, which finds its location in the big city,
is the rationalization of time. In the tangled set of interrelations which make
up social life in a metropolis, time must be necessarily based on synchronism.
It loses its mystical-religious dimension and becomes an instrument of actioncoordination. The money economy imposes a rational reference on time, since only
by respecting synchronism may collective and individual goals be achieved (ibid.,
p. 413; see also Elias, 1992). Spatial proximity, the co-presence of a multiplicity
of subjects, accounts for a necessary phenomenon of the isolation of the individual
within the crowd. Simmel anticipates mechanism, which Goffman (1972) would
later call civil inattention, according to which, in a crowd, it is necessary to build
up invisible barriers, both psychological and social, between ourselves and other
people (Simmel, 1903, p. 415).
All this accounts for the complex position of the individual within the
metropolis: a place of greater autonomy and greater insecurity, of freedom
and instability, a series of apparent contradictions which are emblematic of the
ambivalence of modernity. This ambivalence is probably better understood by
making reference to an element in Simmels work that clarifies the unease of
modernity: the discrepancy between objective and subjective culture. Durkheims
concept of homo duplex refers to an analogous conflict: that between the natural
attitude of the individual to self-fulfilment and the increasing tendency of
modernity to the production of norms and values. In Simmels thought the conflict
does not refer to the distinction between nature and culture; rather, it concerns
the cultural dimension of society: the metropolis is the place where, more than
anywhere else, the individual actor perceives the gap between the overgrown
objective culture (the stock of knowledge socially available yet accessible only

Writing Sociology: Social Sciences as Texts


on the basis of individuals skills and competences) and his atrophied subjective
culture (individual knowledge). Whereas objective culture is condensed within
social institutions (e.g. the state or the technique) the individual seems unable to
cope with its superabundance.
In his description of this gap, Simmel synthesizes the problematic character
of modernity: the individual, now freed from the constraints of social belongings,
perceives himself as a negligible quantity:
The individual is reduced to a negligible quantity, perhaps less in his
consciousness than in his practice and in the totality of his obscure emotional
states that are derived from this practice. The individual has become a mere cog
in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all
progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective
form into the form of a purely objective life. (ibid., p. 422)

A new form of alienation is detected by Simmel, a more general one than that
prefigured by Karl Marx: not only alienation as lack of control of ones own
productive processes, but a constitutive separation of the individual from the
different aspects of the objectified culture. As Simmel writes:
The process by which labour becomes a commodity is thus only one side of
the far-reaching process of differentiation by which specific contents of the
personality are detached in order for them to confront the personality as objects
with an independent character and dynamics. (Simmel, 1900, p. 461)

And in the imbalance between objective and subjective culture Simmel detects the
opacity of modernity, its being the place of our subjective bewilderment and of our
neurotic search for meaning.
Meta-narratives or Dioramas?
The way classical sociology treated social phenomena may be regarded as
a narrative presentation of reality. Some sociological narratives involved a
protagonist (the individual in Durkheim, the city-dweller in Simmel), a social
landscape (modernity or modern metropolis), an antagonist (society as such or
the objectification of culture) and sometimes a possible resolution (Durkheims
aspiration for new forms of integration). They may even be assimilated to literary
genres (the resemblance of Durkheims analysis to realistic novels, Simmels
to psychological novels describing the problematic character of the modern
individual). According to Nisbet, compared to fictional narratives, classical
sociological accounts have a scientific character, in so far as the intuitive grasp
of particular aspects of society is employed as a starting point for generalizations.
The conceptuality developed by classical sociology rests on these generalizations,


Fiction and Social Reality

resulting from the logical passage from the description of social phenomena to their
conceptual framing. Regardless of the substantial differences between theoretical
styles, classical sociology (even in non-systematic authors such as Georg Simmel)
was able to give credible representations of society, its landscapes and social types.
In contrast with the relative cognitive optimism of classical sociology, in the last
two decades of the 20th century, the idea that no clear-cut, overall knowledge of
reality is possible emerged and gained influence.
The belief that in post-modernity knowledge is contextualized and fragmented,
no longer able to give a full representation of the whole, has been powerfully
argued by Jean-Franois Lyotard. The thesis of the French philosopher is well
known: the great legitimizing narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries have
lost their plausibility, leaving, in their place, provisional, incoherent, pluralised
narratives. According to Lyotard, narrative and science produce two alternative
kinds of knowledge. Narrative is the chief form of knowledge in more traditional
societies, its typical feature being that it produces social ties by its very enactment.
A traditional narrative is a product of the cultural milieu which it describes and,
in so far as narratives and shared culture overlap, it has no need of external
legitimation (Lyotard, 1984, p. 23). Science, on the contrary, must find legitimation
in its own methodological procedures (e.g. verification of results, reliability, etc.),
yet as science appears separate from the social context which produces it (and that
is one of the elements which distinguishes sciences from narration), it needs some
form of external narrative justification, so that its cognitive relevance and its social
functions may be socially legitimized. Thus, we have the paradoxical situation in
which narrative, a form of knowledge rejected by science as unscientific, appears
as a necessary form of exogenous legitimation of scientific learning. Traditionally,
a narrative of knowledge was constructed in order to justify the cognitive relevance
of science, as well as a narrative of liberty that should underline its social and
political function for the advancement of mankind (ibid., p. 31).
The lack of plausibility of grand narratives, typical of post-modernity,
induces science (including the social sciences) to justify itself from the narrow
perspective of its performativity; that is to say, its technical usefulness for the
market and political apparatus (ibid., p. 41 ff.). What about when a discipline,
as is the case with sociology, lies between science and narrative, yet it aspires to
recognition as a science? The loss of plausibility of grand narratives may produce
a recurring reference to research techniques as one of the possible reactions, a
fetishism of method based more on concerns with legitimization than cognitive
reasons. The second reaction is the post-modern acceptance of the partiality of
any representation of reality, including the sociological representation of the
social, which is parallel to a rejection of the sociological grand narratives. On the
level of the representation of the social, grand narratives become fragmented in
a plurality of minute, scattered, limited descriptions of social life, the individual
and the future, a radicalization of uncertainty as a specific characteristic of the
modern individual.

Writing Sociology: Social Sciences as Texts


The rejection of sociological grand narratives, configured as grand theories,

is one of the elements which associate post-modernism and the idea that I have
analysed with reference to Redfield and Nisbet, of sociology as an art form. Nisbet
in particular, by continuing a tradition deeply rooted in American social thought
(Adler, 2014) and drawing a parallel between sociology and artistic intuition,
denies sociological adequacy to any abstract, de-contextualized, representation
of the social, which was then personified by Talcott Parsons. Nisbets polemical
object is Parsons theory of social evolution which, by juxtaposing static portrayals
of societies intended as representations of stages in social development, proposes
change as a sequence of static forms of societal organization (Nisbet, 1976,
pp. 97-8). As opposed to the great narrations of progress and evolution, what is
sociologically effective, according to Nisbet, is the detailed representation of a
social phenomenon, in the form of a diorama: a miniaturized, scale model which
does not pretend to offer a universal history but presents particular figures and
structures against the backdrop of unique times and places (Adler, 2014, p. 17).
What Nisbet appreciates most in the critical description of modernity handed
down by the classical sociologists, is the construction of tentative narratives,
configured as dioramic representations of specific, even complex phenomena, yet
localized in time and space, as opposed to the generic, abstract conceptualizations
of the social as proposed by grand theorists. One is a timeless, generic panoramic
description of the social, unable to give plausible accounts of the dynamism of
social phenomena, the other, a restricted, yet more realistic, portrayal of singular
aspects of society.
There is another peculiar quality in the narratives of the classical sociologists,
which Nisbet greatly appreciates: they constructed complex theories, only to forget
them once the curiosity with social phenomena and human interaction led them
to focus on the actual dimensions of society. It is one of the reasons why Nisbet
(1959) praises Georg Simmel above the other founding fathers. Simmels formal
approach to sociology is a relevant theoretical achievement, yet his greatness
as a sociologist rests on his infidelity to his own theoretical and methodological
postulates: Had Simmel held chastely to his methodological commandments when
he turned to such subjects as secrecy, subordination, and the stranger, sociology
would be the poorer (Nisbet, 1959, p. 480). Simmels writing has, moreover, a
literary quality which may guarantee his work a lasting influence. The artistic
quality of writing is taken as a sign of the disciplinary quality of sociological
works: a quality that Nisbet acknowledged in the founding fathers and which he
believed to have become lost as a result of an absurd obsession with trying to
emulate the natural sciences (Adler, 2014, p. 11).
Writing Cultures: Ethnography as a Literary Genre
In 1986, ten years after Nisbets Sociology as an Art Form had been published
and independently of the ideas expressed by the American sociologist, a seminal


Fiction and Social Reality

book was printed, which was to have a deep influence in the broad field of social
science. The book, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography,
edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, gathers the texts developed during
a one week seminar held in Santa Fe, Mexico, by an interdisciplinary group
of anthropologists, historians and literary critics. The topic of the seminar was
writing ethnography: the process of writing in a specific disciplinary field was
subjected to critical investigation. Is writing ethnography (and latu sensu writing
social sciences) a kind of partial, rhetorical, even fictional activity? Is it possible to
sharply distinguish social scientific writing from other kinds of writing? Is there a
set of recurrent tropes, or metaphors, which makes our writing an artificial mode by
which we navely pretend to mirror an objective reality? The book provocatively
tries to give partial answers to these complex questions and, in so doing, casts new
light on the problem of the technification of social research and the artistic quality
of sociological writing as sketched by Robert Nisbet.
In the introduction to the collective volume, meaningfully titled Partial
Truths, James Clifford stresses how the practice of writing had not been given due
attention by positivist anthropology. The truth about culture was to appear as the
result of objective, systematic observations. The process of writing was a simple
rendering of an experience which had already been systematized within the due
scientific categories. The whole volume rejects the neutral, aseptic idea of writing
as an innocent technique. Against this ideological representation, Writing Cultures
opposes a composite conception of ethnography, by which ethnographic texts are
to be understood as highly artificial, constructed representations of cultures, not to
be neatly distinguished from literary texts with which they share rhetorical forms
and tropes. At the same time, they are political texts, giving partial representations
of complex phenomena such as cultures, from the specific perspective of the
ethnographer (Clifford, 1986a, p. 2).
Ethnography is an art not in the aloof sense in which art has come to be
understood in modernity. It is an art like the skilful fashioning of useful artefacts.
The making of ethnography is artisanal, tied to the worldly work of writing (ibid.,
p. 6). The conception of ethnographic writing as fiction is to be placed in the
context of this artisanal process. Ethnography is fictional in the two senses of
the Latin root fingere: the first implies the constructed character of ethnographic
narratives, hence the relevance of the composing activity of the ethnographer. It
is also relevant, states Clifford, to keep the second meaning of the Latin word,
according to which fingere implies a certain degree of falsehood (ibid.). By
making it clear that a navely positivist conception of the objective ethnographic
representation of reality is no longer possible, Clifford stresses the relevant fact
that writing ethnography is now a conscious process of selection, partial redescription and translation of the otherness of cultures into our own categories,
adopting, as a way to convey ethnographic meaning, certain tropes, figures and
allegories in a word, a rhetoric which is specific to the disciplinary discourse.
Once the parallel with literary writing has been drawn, one may analyse
ethnographic writing adopting the standpoint of literary criticism. Ethnographies

Writing Sociology: Social Sciences as Texts


may be read as allegories, saying something other than what is actually stated
(Clifford, 1986b) and by assuming allegory as a key to interpreting ethnographic
writing, one may dismantle the well-established idea according to which they
are clear-cut, objective representations of another culture and it otherness. Thus,
for example, on an allegorical interpretation, the representation of Samoan
adolescents in Margaret Meads classic Coming of Age in Samoa shows a
dislocation of certain American values into an exotic context (ibid., p. 102). When
recognizing the relevance of allegory, one gives to realistic ethnographic reports
a set of associated, additional meanings, which transcend the literary one. They
are theoretical, aesthetic, moral, even political meanings which are, according to
Clifford, the unexpected result of writing ethnography (ibid., p. 100).
This process is inescapable and has to do with the conversion of empirical
material into a discourse which, in order to be suited to scientific standards, tends
to conceal its internal artificiality. Scattered biographical materials, for example,
analysed using the conceptual and methodological tools of the discipline (lifehistory, life-cycle), are reconstructed so that from the fragmented recountings
of respondents a narrative emerges. However, the emerging narrative is not an
objective representation, but is rather the result of the artisanal work of writing,
which gives coherence to a variety of incoherent episodes and events (ibid., p. 106),
a process similar to that identified by Paul Ricoeur (1984) and Luis Mink (1970).
The textual character of anthropological knowledge poses a series of questions
concerning authority and interpretation. Who is the author of the anthropological
text? Is it possible to envisage the constructed, creative process by which social
scientific texts are created and treated as meaningful (Clifford, 1988, p. 38)?
What is at stake here is a demystification of the idea of ethnographic observation
as a way to objectively reconstruct a culture. By textualizing an experience, the
ethnographer separates a set of actual behaviours, speeches and traditions from
their actual context, in order to interpret them within his own conceptual scheme.
As Clifford writes with reference to Ricoeur, text making is a selection process by
which a part of the world is cut out of the flux of the experience (ibid.) and given
meaning within a specific context, i.e. the set of theoretical and methodological
rules that make ethnography a way to interpret cultures. The text thus created
has less to do with the direct experience of the participant in a lived experience
than with the rules (methodological, but also rhetorical) which are proper to the
disciplinary style of argumentation and text construction, hence the artificial,
fictional character of ethnographic texts.
The problems which the book edited by Clifford and Marcus poses are huge,
and relevant for anthropology as well as for sociology and the social sciences in
general. The somewhat metaphorical use of the idea of sociology as an art form,
typical of both Redfield and Nisbet, is here converted into a radical questioning
of the cognitive value of science, of the very possibility of conceiving an actual,
positive understanding of reality. The logical consequence of this radical position
is that no clear-cut distinction is possible between fictional narratives and scientific
discourse, at least in fields akin to ethnography and sociology is one such field.


Fiction and Social Reality

On Writing Sociology
Is a clear-cut distinction between sociology and artistic, fictional representation of
reality still relevant? Or, is it the case that in stressing the importance of intuition
and artistry to the detriment of technical accuracy, one is tempted to dismiss the
scientific value of sociology and kindred social sciences? The problem, on the
theoretical and methodological level, is much more complex than the questions
above would suggest. It has to do with the way that sociology represents itself as
a field of investigation which, since it has not reached a paradigmatic status, is
articulated as a series of competing, often conflicting, theories and methods. What
is healthy in the different, non-mainstream positions that I have summarized here is,
on the one hand, the awareness of the constructed character of scientific knowledge
(including, of course, sociological knowledge) and, on the other, a conscious use
of writing employed as a rhetorical instrument to give plausible sociological
representations of social reality. Starting from the idea that sociological writing
is endowed with a rhetorical character of its own, social theory can demystify the
positivist idea of a convergence between scientific representation and reality.
Taking this position to the extreme, one may even question whether the fictional
representation of facts and facts as presented by sociology are constitutively
distinguishable. Sociology has often represented itself as an objective science,
and as a science it could state its cognitive superiority over literature. From this
detached position, it could analyse the literary phenomenon as a social fact.
McHoul (1988) advocates a more sophisticated standpoint which, by overcoming
the distinction between truth and fiction, stresses a greater epistemic equality
between the fields by taking the category of literature as a domain of knowledge
in its own right, including its being a form of knowledge of society (ibid.,
p. 209). McHoul considers literature and the human sciences (including sociology)
as different technologies of representation, the former historically associated with
pleasure (fantasy and desire, for example [ibid.]), the latter associated with
reason (truth and knowledge for example [ibid.]). Historically it has been an
inveterate habit to connect fiction with the irrational and untruth. Nonetheless,
though partially removed, there are fictional aspects to the apparently rational field
of the social sciences: simplified types such as the reasonable man of law, the
calculating man of economics or the competent speaker/hearer of linguistics,
are mock exemplifications not to be found in real life. As fictional characters they
are more comic-book-like and wooden than those to be found in quite a deal of
literary fiction, yet social scientists tend to consider them rational typifications of
aspects of human conduct, thus removing their fictionality (ibid., p. 211).
If one considers that both literature and sociological writing are texts, the
distinction between sociology and literature becomes less dramatic. From
such a standpoint, literature may be understood as a possible source of social
understanding and insights or even as a proper resource for the elaboration of
social theory (ibid., p. 209). McHouls proposal is to equate sociology and literature,
beginning from the assumption of the fictional character of both literature and the

Writing Sociology: Social Sciences as Texts


human sciences and a conception of literary texts as productive of social theory.

Taken seriously, this implies that sociology, now understood both as a text and as
a discourse, has lost any monopolistic claim over social theory.
One need not completely agree with McHouls position. What is relevant is that
he testified to the awareness, which was gradually developing during the 1980s,
of the theoretical relevance of fiction as well as of the relevance of sociology
as a style of writing. The fictionality or scientificity of a text is to be imputed
to a communicative pact between the author and the readers. When the author
declares his work to be scientific, this implies that the reader should expect to
find facts and hence truth stated therein (Watson, 2011, p. 396). Thus, the
reliability of a scientific text is closely linked to its being perceived by the reading
public as belonging to a peculiar genre, characterized by a peculiar rhetoric and
specific tropes.
Qualitative sociologists have tried to bridge the gap between the fictional and
the scientific (ibid.) by thinking of their inquiries in terms not only of a specific
set of research techniques, but also as a form of writing, in which the distinction
between fictional and non-fictional tends to lose relevance. Thus, the ethnographer
may legitimately employ literary techniques in order to make sociological
writing aesthetically more self-conscious (Richardson and Lockridge, 1998,
p. 331). Adopting a more radical course, Norman Denzin proposes an erasure of
the distinction between fictional and non-fictional texts (including ethnographic,
sociological texts). From his constructivist perspective, facts and events are not
to be navely found out there, since they are the result of the narrative effort
of a coherent construction. Sociology is a discourse among others, with its own
rhetoric, tropes and rules. If all is narrative, as Denzin writes, then it can be argued
that narrative techniques are neither fictional nor factual (1996, p. 231). They
are ways to give sense to reality within their particular field: Truth is socially
established by the norms that operate for each form, or genre (ibid.).
A conception of sociological knowledge as a form of rhetorical construction
has begun to gain ground since the late 1980s. Although stylistic attention to
writing had already been a relevant aspect of the sociology as art tradition, the
act of writing has since become theoretically and methodologically laden. Indeed,
if one assumes that all knowledge is socially constructed, writing is not simply
a true representation of an objective reality; instead, language creates a particular
view of reality (Richardson, 1990, p. 116).
The awareness of the artificiality of science makes the distinction between
objectivity and subjectivity, as well as the separation between art and science,
less dramatic. From this standpoint, it appears evident that the scientific quest
for truth, though a highly artificial social process, has been naturalized, so that
contemporary science is fictionally conceived of as a natural process by which to
achieve rigorous knowledge (ibid., p. 121). The compliance with a set of rhetorical
rules accounts for the objectivity of what is reported. In the social process of the
naturalization of science, its narrative component is concealed, and this holds true
not only for the hard sciences but also for the social sciences, including sociology.


Fiction and Social Reality

Nonetheless, sociology needs narrations, not only as meta-narratives to legitimize

its social role, but also as a set of metaphors to give sense to its data and to interpret
it, even in mainstream, quantitative sociology, which is all the more reason to
advocate greater narrative-awareness within the discipline. Narratives are not
only proper empirical material for sociological research (think of the plurality of
individual and collective narratives a sociologist may gather and analyse), they
may also be adopted as rhetorical devices to make sociological writing less alien
to lived experience, and to render the separation between poetics and science less
sharp (ibid., pp. 134-5).
Being by now aware of the constructed character of sociological knowledge,
a certain number of sociologists have begun experimenting with writing. Their
experimentations include: using writing techniques to make research reports
more vivid (Caulley, 2008); experiments in sociological poetry (Bloor, 2012);
ethnographic poetry (Brady, 2013); writing fiction as a form of interpretation
of non-fictional research data (Vicker, 2010); writing fiction (from an art-based
research perspective) in order to erase the distinction between the fictional and
the scientific (Leavy, 2012b). All these attempts tend to make the original conflict
between sociology and literature (Lepenies, 1988) irrelevant, taking seriously the
idea, which Nisbet fostered in his vivid presentation, of sociology as an art form.
However, in contrast with the contemporary efforts at blending the language
of sociology and the language of literature, Nisbet, in identifying the similarities
between sociology and art, did not intend either to renounce the specific character
of sociological discourse or to advocate an improbable reduction of sociology to a
merely artistic representation of reality. Science and narrative as modes of discourse
are constitutively different, which does not mean that one is more objective and
suited to representing reality than the other, but that they use different rhetorical
devices, consistent with their different cognitive tasks (Dal Lago, 1994a). This
brings about a sense of unease when confronted with attempts to write sociology
as fiction or poetry. Moreover, by making reference to the differences between
sociological and literary representations of reality, an awareness has emerged that
any sociological use of literary sources presupposes a subordination of literary
texts to the logic of sociological discourse. Regardless of the relevant differences,
both literature and sociology describe, from their own specific standpoints, actors,
actions and interactions among actors, which accounts for the similarities between
sociology and literature and justifies a non-nave use of literary materials as
sources for sociology.

Chapter 5

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources

Literature and the Teaching of Sociology: Lewis Coser and After
In his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association delivered in
San Francisco in August 1975 (Coser, 1975b), Lewis Coser focused heavily on
the contemporary development of American sociology. He criticized two main
trends, the first being the excessive confidence in standardized research methods,
the insistence among many sociologists on the primacy of precise measurement
over substantive issues (ibid., p. 692). The second, exemplified with reference
to ethnomethodology, was the constitution of hyper-specialized groups within
the main body of the discipline, often dealing with single, limited aspects of
reality, which tended to isolate themselves from the rest of the community and
form sects (ibid., p. 695 ff.). Although the speech did not refer to the question
of the relation between sociology and literature, it is of interest for developing
a better understanding of Cosers approach to the topic. When Coser attacks
the tendency of American sociology to emphasize methodological rather than
substantive questions, one is tempted to relate his remarks to the polemical attacks
on the technification of the discipline found in the work of such authors as Florian
Znaniecki, Robert Redfield and Robert Nisbet. The questions that Coser poses
are analogous: should sociology renounce its capacity to understand society as
a whole, in favour of more sophisticated techniques of research and analysis?
According to Coser, the excessive reliance on the technical components of the
discipline (Coser refers to statistical regression analyses and the use of computer)
has, as collateral effects, its theoretical impoverishment (a theme we find already
in Znaniecki) and a dangerous tendency to select themes according to their
suitability for the new research techniques (ibid., p. 693) (a danger that Redfield
and Nisbet had already hinted at). Ethnomethodology is criticized by Coser as an
example of a narrow-minded interest in a small area of investigation, as well as
for the esotericism of its members, resulting in often uselessly cryptic language.
By criticizing both trends, Coser manifests his interest in a theoretically oriented
social analysis, all-encompassing in its scope, and able to produce substantive
knowledge of social reality.
This critical approach, which Coser shares with other relevant American
sociologists, coheres with a conception of sociology which is compatible with
the use of literature for sociological purposes: indeed, literary texts provide
the sociologist with a set of qualitative data, difficult to analyse with standard
statistical procedures, yet able to give a flexible and accurate representation of
the social world, to enhance theoretical understanding and to exemplify, through


Fiction and Social Reality

the typicality of the representation, the somewhat obscure conceptuality of the

discipline. Thus, Cosers critique of the contemporary emphasis on research
techniques is at one with the value ascribed to more complex forms of representation
of reality (e.g. narratives) and a conception of sociology as a humanistic science.
In the introduction to his Sociology through Literature: An Introductory Reader,
Coser writes, The great traditions of sociology are humanistic (Coser, 1963,
p. 3). Sociology, according to Coser (who in this regard quotes Edward Shils), is an
attempt to understand human beings and their vicissitudes on Earth, hence the role of
literary sources: since they provide dense representations of actors in social contexts,
their use makes sociological analyses richer and more articulated (ibid., p. 4).
Sociology through Literature is a sociological handbook with educative
purposes, intended as an introductory manual to the different areas of the discipline.
In the book, literature is understood as a powerful explicative tool, useful for
introducing students to the often complex and abstract concepts elaborated by
sociologists. The handbook, organized as a reader which systematically adopts
literary documents in order to exemplify sociological jargon, is firmly rooted in
the American sociological tradition of the Chicago School (Blauner, 1964, p. 425).
In his review of the reader as discussed earlier, Blauner reminds us that the idea
that literary documents may be employed as tools to support our sociological
understanding of reality is not original. However, when compared with the
previous treatments of the relation (for example in the work of Peter E. Park and
Ernest W. Burgess [1921]) Cosers attempt to integrate sociological concepts and
literary texts is theoretically more sophisticated and wider in scope. In Cosers
reader, literary texts are used to concretely illustrate the often abstract sociological
conceptuality. They are appropriate means in so far as they accurately describe
the social world, social actors and their action in their processual dimensions.
Coser selects about a hundred passages from literary works belonging to different
literary traditions, including novels, short-stories and poems and uses them
as introductory exemplification of conceptual areas of sociology. The volume
introduces the basic notions of sociological knowledge (culture, stratification,
socialization, etc.) by referring to literary passages which representatively deal
with the topics. A brief theoretical premise anticipates each extract so as to clarify
its sociological significance.
In his introduction, Coser underlines the fact that literature is capable of
representing social reality, social mores, social types and social relations. Since
literature gives well-defined representations of the social world, its sociological
use may be of great relevance:
Not only novelists, but most literary artists have endeavored, according to
Henry James prescription, to try and catch the color of life itself. In so doing,
they have provided their reader with an immense variety of richly textured
commentaries on mans life in society, on his involvement with his fellow men.
Literature, though it may be many other things, is social evidence and testimony.
(Coser, 1963, p. 2)

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


If literary works are capable of giving representations of places, of sequences of

actions, of modes of interrelation (such as conflict or cooperation), and if these
representations are more effective than those provided by the usual sources
adopted by sociologists, then why, Coser asks, should sociologists restrain
themselves from making reference to literary works as sources of sociological
data (ibid., p. 3)? Thus anticipating Lepenies (1988), Coser explains that, by
excluding literary sources, sociologists are trying to emphasize the scientific
character of their discipline in order to strengthen its academic reputation. This
attempt is noteworthy given that sociology has not yet achieved a well-defined
epistemological identity and is now, as Coser writes, in a formative state (Coser,
1963, p. 3). Cosers intention is not to replace the sociological understanding
of reality with literature. The questions he poses are indeed more complex: is
it possible to sociologically understand reality even through reference to literary
works? Can the representation of social phenomena that we find in great novels
enhance ones understanding of the more complex and abstract theoretical
schemes of the great sociologists (ibid., p. 4)? Coser is clear in stating that his
task is not to make a scientific contribution to the sociology of literature; rather,
his aim is to use literary sources as a way to understand specific social processes
and phenomena (ibid.), and, by making reference to literary sources, to clarify and
refine sociological concepts. Thus, literature has a pedagogical function, which is
all the more evident when one considers that Sociology through Literature was
conceived as an introductory handbook for students of sociology.
If Cosers argument stopped here, his contribution to the discussion of the
relationship between sociology and literature would be interesting but largely
inconsequential. Literary works would be viewed simply as tools for clarifying
what sociology had already theoretically defined. However, there is another
relevant role which Coser assigns to literary works: they may have the same
function that Merton ascribes to empirical research. In Mertons view, empirical
research is not simply to be considered a way to verify theoretical assumptions. On
the contrary, it may provide the theoretician with insights for the re-formulation of
well-established theoretical principles. Therefore, in Mertons opinion, empirical
research does not have a solely ancillary role, since theoretical reflections and
arguments may be triggered off by the results of empirical investigation (Merton,
1968, pp. 156-7). According to Coser, literature may too have the same function,
providing a stimulus to sociology and the development of its theoretical framework:
one ventures to think that literary perception may upon occasion perform
a similar role for sociological theory; a certain type of knowledge, attained
by intuitive methods, may be harnessed for use of theoretical systematization.
(Coser, 1963, p. 5)

Fictional narratives, by giving insightful representations of the social world,

produce a stock of knowledge of which sociology may take advantage in order to
better understand social reality and to explain it theoretically. According to Coser,


Fiction and Social Reality

that does not imply diluting sociological knowledge into its literary sources.
Indeed, the sociological process of knowledge construction has its own rules and
its own forms of discourse, differing from the rules and forms of discourse typical
of literature. Being aware of the substantial differences between sociology and
literature, Coser underlines the role of literary sources as providing a body of nonsystematic knowledge of society available for further sociological systematization.
At the root of the idea that literature may illustrate sociological concepts, one
should find Cosers conception of the person of letters as a keen observer of social
life and psychology, a connoisseur of the human mind and an acute interpreter of
social intercourse:
[T]he trained sensibilities of a novelist or a poet may provide a richer source
of social insight than, say, the impressions of untrained informants on which so
much sociological research currently rests. There is an intensity of perception
in the first-rate novelist when he describes a locale, a sequence of action, or a
clash of characters which can hardly be matched by those observers on whom
sociologists are wont to rely. The literary creator has the ability to identify with
wide ranges of experiences, and he has the trained capacity to articulate through
his fantasy the essential problems of his contemporaries. Why then should not
sociology harness to its use, for the understanding of man and his society, those
untapped sources in the rich accumulation of literature? (ibid., pp. 2-3)

In a manner reminiscent of Znanieckis idea of literary sources as falling into

the category of the observation of other people (Znaniecki, 1934, p. 193),
Coser conceives of the literary author as both an informant and more than an
informant. Indeed, he vividly describes social reality and is therefore able to give
the sociologist unexpected insights into reality, which may usefully be employed
in either theoretical or empirical investigations. Cosers approach to the use of
literature as a sociological source is pragmatic: he is clear in his assumption that
literature may not be seen as a substitute for or functional equivalent of sociological
inquiry. He simply wishes to urge sociologists to refer to literary works as stocks
of knowledge about reality (including social reality). A sociologist may draw
on literary works for insights and evidence, stimulated by descriptions of social
reality which, although unusual when compared to the most common sources of
empirical data, are nonetheless powerful instruments for understanding specific
aspects of life in society. Sociology, in its turn, has its own conceptual tradition
and its own research methods, which converge into systematic analyses of specific
social phenomena. However, taking into account one of the most relevant aspects
of literary narratives (their capacity to represent social reality and networks of
social relations) literary works may be understood as tools for accessing and
understanding particular aspects of the social world. As such they can provide
valid support both for the study of society and for the teaching of sociology: The
attempt here is to use the work of literature for an understanding of society, rather

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


than illuminate artistic production by references to the society in which it arose

(Coser, 1963, p. 4).
Coser may be given credit for having legitimized a diffuse educative practice:
the reference to literary texts as the exemplification of sociological concepts. Since
the publication of Cosers reader, teaching through the use of literary texts has
largely increased, above all in English speaking countries, with the aim of finding
alternative, more stimulating ways of teaching sociology. Following the path set
by Coser, literature has been referred to either as an instrument for introducing
basic sociological concepts, or as a substitute for direct observation, or even as a
quasi-real field, made up of literary descriptions of social contexts and narrative
reproductions of actions and interaction, to be interpreted using sociological tools.
These attempts, which are not exclusive to didactic sociology, but also operate in
other, similar disciplinary fields, are all motivated by the necessity of bridging the
gap between the analytical orientation and the perceptual life-worlds of students
(Negash, 2004, p. 186).
Taking advantage of one of the characteristics of literary narratives, their
ability to transmit a thick representation of social milieu and social interaction,
Teresa A. Sullivan makes an explicit reference to the use of literary passages as an
equivalent of ethnographic observation: Although field observation is not possible
in my large course, I can help students see with new eyes into the descriptions of
gifted writers (Sullivan, 1982, p. 109). Sullivans approach is clearly influenced
by Cosers and is based on the premise that sociological concepts are often general
and abstract to the point that students on introductory sociology courses are often
discouraged from a deeper study of the discipline. With its greater concreteness
and its illustrative capacity, through which sociological concepts seem to come to
life in the action of literary characters, literature assists the teacher of sociology.
As such, literature is an aid to teaching in so far as it provides examples of actions
and contexts capable of clarifying often difficult sociological jargon.
Paradoxical as it may sound, literary texts are conceived of as a visual field,
on which students may exercise their sociological gaze. Fictional material, writes
Sullivan, gives a teacher of sociology the opportunity to move away from more
traditional sociological teaching methods that emphasize deductive learning, in
order to make use of educational techniques based on the discovery method, that
is, a teaching process based on inductive reasoning. Inductive methods need to
make reference to a set of data as a basis for generalization. When the use of other
data (such as statistical or demographic data) is not suitable (due, for instance,
to the large number of students attending classes), literature is a valid substitute.
Literary texts give students a common denominator of vicarious experience,
(data, if you will) for the class (ibid., p. 113), starting from which students may
inductively construct sociological competences.
There are other possible uses of literary texts for educational purposes.
Literature (or even other artistic works) may be assumed as quasi-experimental
research-fields. In this case, sociological concepts are used in order to cast new
light on plots and characters. Castellano, De Angelis and Clark Ibez (2008)


Fiction and Social Reality

describe their teaching methods starting from the assumption that they share with
Sullivans pedagogic approach, according to which a teacher of sociology has to
stimulate students by offering them thought-provoking material. Clark Ibez
relates a case involving the didactic use of a journalistic report (therefore a nonfictional narrative) dealing with two families living in the Bronx. The text helps
him to demonstrate to his students that drug addiction and recourse to crime as a
means of survival are not to be imputed to personal characteristics but rather to
the ethnic origin and the location of the social actor in the system of stratification.
In order to corroborate the impressions derived from reading about the reported
people and their vicissitudes, students are asked to gather statistical data on the
ethnic origin of inmates of American prisons (ibid., pp. 242-3).
The theoretical stance taken by De Angelis when teaching his course on
contemporary social problems is that of constructivism, his purpose being to show
what is meant by claiming that social problems are socially constructed. After
letting his students choose a contemporary best-seller dealing with a debated
social problem, he invites them to discuss whether its author may be considered
a moral entrepreneur. Students have to ask themselves a series of questions about
the book: how is the social problem described by the author? How are criminals
and heroes represented? Does the author propose a solution to the problem? Does
he overlook or minimize alternative solutions (ibid., pp. 243-4)?
The last approach is that of Castellano, who uses a mystery novel as didactic
material with the intention of exploring, testing and applying sociological ideas.
He adopts Ax, a novel by Donald Westlake, using the books protagonist (an
unemployed paper mill manager, who, stressed out by his difficulty in finding
a new job, starts killing his potential competitors), to explain the individual
consequences of downsizing processes. Fictional characters, writes Castellano,
are also referred to as exemplifications of sociological concepts such as Marxs
alienation, Durkheims division of social labour and Mertons anomie (ibid.,
pp. 244-5). Although the selected materials lack the density of meaning found in
the passages selected by Coser for his reader, they show that literary narratives (in
so far as they represent networks of relations and describe actions, interactions,
forms of reciprocity from cooperation to conflict and social problems), are a
proper field for the application of sociological concepts, and useful in aiding the
student of sociology to discover the potential of sociological argumentation.
The last teaching experience I have selected is described by Michael Lewis
(2004), who proposes the use of literary texts within discussion groups (book
clubs) intended as a substitute for seminar activities. Lewis writes that his teaching
activity in the field of the sociology of mental illness had always adopted the
seminar format, owing to the small size of his classes. When he was asked to
teach to a class of 35 students, the increased size of the class led Lewis to redefine
his teaching strategies: he split the class into three groups, organized them as
discussion groups and substituted sociological material on mental illness with
literary documents. According to Lewis, literary texts are an effective supplement
to sociological material in so far as they corroborate both the sociological

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


conviction according to which mental illness is socially determined and the idea
that being stigmatized as mentally ill has practical consequences, even with regard
to the effectiveness of therapy. In Lewis teaching experience, the use of narrative
sources in the discussion groups fostered debate, as well as an active acquisition
of specialized competencies.
In the three summarized essays, the recourse to literary material is adopted for
the purposes of exemplification in teaching, so as to promote the understanding
of sociological concepts and foster analytical skills among the students. Literature
may offer illustrative evidence of sociological concepts, or it may be conceived
of as a fictive empirical field, whereupon the students may train their sociological
imagination. As a matter of course, given their authors interests and the nature of
the scientific journal in which all were published (a journal devoted to the teaching
of sociology), the essays thematize didactic questions. They all emphasize specific
problems, such as the efficacy of sociological teaching to non-sociology students,
or the evaluation of the capacity of didactic tools to stimulate students attention
and enhance their understanding of specific areas and themes. They share with
Cosers reader both its merits a more stimulating means of teaching sociological
concepts as well as its limits: specifically, a nave reference to literary documents,
lacking both a thematization of the process of their selection and an accurate
analysis of the translation of literary texts for sociological purposes.
A nave use of literary works as educational tools (or even its use as a stimulus
for the elaboration of sociological analyses and theories) may disregard two
aspects, which are relevant for our argument. The first is linked to the necessarily
fictional character of literary sources: literature has its own conventions, narrative
forms and structures which are culturally determined, and hence artificial. As this
approach is linked with a conception of literary texts (narratives in particular) as
mimetic reproductions of reality, these authors seem unaware of the articulated
debate about the proper characteristics of literary narratives and the cognitive
value of fictional texts. Literary representations of reality are taken as replications
of the world out there, their as if character being, as it were, put into brackets.
However, if it is undoubtedly true that the richness of literary materials provides the
opportunity for a multi-layered sociological analysis, the sociologist who resorts to
literature should take into account the constructed, fabricated character of fictional
sources. When rejecting the old fashioned idea of fiction as a mechanical mirroring
of reality, a more sophisticated analysis is required, which should consider the
structural features of literary narratives and the mutual influence that real and
imagined worlds may exert on one another. If fiction is a constitutive aspect of
the way we make sense of the world (Denzin, 1996), then literary sources may
offer us insights into the socially shared mechanisms of representation of reality
and construction of truth. Paraphrasing Searle (1975), one could say that narrative
fiction is a referential way to represent realities devoid of actual referents, and this
awareness is what the essays mentioned above probably lack.
The second aspect is connected to the artificiality of the sociological
understanding of reality: in order to make literary texts suitable for sociological


Fiction and Social Reality

use, a sociologist has not only to select them as thematically relevant, he must
also select appropriate reading strategies, compatible with sociological concepts
and discourses. A sociologist always translates his literary sources into his own
language, so distorting their original meaning, their literary relevance and the
purposes for which they were produced (Carlin, 2010). Paradoxical as it may
sound, it is only if this distortion is successful that literary works become useful
instruments for sociological analyses.
Literary Narratives and Social Theory: Alfred Schutz, Peter L. Berger
In 1955, Alfred Schutz took part in a panel on Aspects of the Social Role of
Literature organized by the Alumni Association of the Graduate Faculty of
Political and Social Sciences of the New School for Social Research. What is
left of Schutzs presentation are the preparatory notes, which have been carefully
analysed by Lester Embree (1998) in order to shed new light on Schutzs approach
to literature, which is testified to by plenty of passages devoted to this theme, in
both published and unpublished material.1 Schutzs intent is to analyse the microsociological dimension of literary works; that is to say, the type of relation which
may be established between the one who enjoys literature (in Schutzs wording
the beholder) and the author. Moreover, Schutz formulates a phenomenological
theory of literature (Embree, 1998, p. 7) aimed at verifying, with reference
to different literary genres, the meaning construction process based on the
asynchronous dialogue between author and beholder. By investigating this specific
kind of Thou-relation (that between the author and the beholder), Schutz is able
to single out a series of features which distinguish the three literary forms (poetry,
drama and the novel) he has selected for his analysis (ibid., p. 4).
These differences become evident in relation to a certain number of dimensions,
present in Schutzs notes and extensively analysed by Embree, such as the
language, the author-beholder relation, the types of situation represented, motives,
reality, and so on. In Schutzs opinion, poetry, drama and the novel, intended as
ideal-types and not analysed in their mixed forms, are sub-universes of meaning,
belonging to the category of fantasy (ibid., p. 43). At the basis of the concept of
sub-universes is the idea that reality is a subjective construction: the individual
actor bestows the accent of reality on specific areas of his experience, which differ
in so far as each is endowed with a specific cognitive style. Therefore, although
our paramount reality is everyday life, which we share with our fellow men and
which is characterized by the practical natural attitude, others of the individuals
experiences, endowed with their own cognitive style and temporality, are also real
to the perceiving consciousness (Schutz, 1962b). Literature partakes in the larger

1A long, unfinished paper on the topic, belonging to Schutzs Bergsonian period, has
been recently republished, edited by Martin Barber. See Schutz (2013).

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


category of fantasy and is seen by Schutz as a specific finite province of meaning

(the other provinces being working, dream and theory) (Embree, 1998, p. 43).
The distinctive feature of Schutzs approach to the literary phenomenon is its
subjective dimension. Schutz aims to verify how the beholder perceives a text
as a finite province of meaning, with its own temporality and a specific form of
intersubjectivity, by which a literary text is observed as an horizon of imaginative
experiences that originate from an Other (McDuffie, 1998, p. 102). Literary
experience is possible only where the beholder refers to the text after adopting
the appropriate accent of reality, hence a congenial cognitive style, which allows
him both to grasp the specific meaning of the work and to establish a relation
of quasi-simultaneity with the author (ibid.).2 Schutz identifies, McDuffie writes,
a pre-communicative orientation to the text which, by allowing the beholder to
adopt the appropriate cognitive style with reference to the specific genre (poetry,
drama or novel), gives him access to the literary work as a manifestation of the
experience of alter. The beholder accesses a literary text always as a text belonging
to a specific literary genre, and it is only thanks to this previous selection, which
anticipates the reading, that the beholder may grasp the actual meaning of the
text, here understood as anothers significations (ibid.). The prerequisite of the
readers understanding a literary text is familiarity with the external horizon of
the direct experience of the literary work. The literary cultural context allows the
beholder to place what he reads within a literary genre and subsequently to define
a relation with the work, intended as expression of the flux of experience of the
author, now crystallized within his work (ibid., p. 103).
The relation between the beholder and the literary work is mediated both by the
socio-cultural horizon which defines literary genres and by the text itself, which,
by crystallizing the lived experience of alter (the author) does not allow mutual
access to the subjective worlds of ego (the beholder) and alter (the author). Direct
accessibility is typical of social interaction (the We-relation in Schutz), whereas
mediated social relations, where the actors do not share the same space and time,
are Thou-relations; that is, relations in which ego makes experience of alter, for
example through a written text, while the converse does not hold. McDuffie shows
that literary works, by allowing the beholder to re-actualize, through his reading,
the experience of alter as well as his flux of consciousness, represent a peculiar
kind of Thou-relation, made vivid through one of the features of good literature;
that is, its capacity to give the reader access to the subjective vision of the author.
The strength of literary texts makes a relation of quasi-simultaneity between
the beholder and the author possible, thus filling the spatio-temporal gap of the
Thou-relation (ibid., p. 111). The relevance of the lost conference presentation
of Alfred Schutz lies in its underlining the continuous process of approaching
and interpreting a literary text. Martin Endress (1998) shows how the Austrian
sociologist anticipates interesting debates concerning the work of art, which would
2Quasi-simultaneity is a relation in which the actors are not co-present, where the
meaning of alter is sedimented within an object (for example a book) (Schutz, 1967, p. 148).


Fiction and Social Reality

be later proposed by the most advanced trends in literary theory. By stressing the
relevant fact that the meaning of a work is to be ascribed to the interpretation
of the reader, Schutzs lost paper shares with literary theory a conception of the
interpretative process as an enduring dialogue between the reader and the written
text (ibid., p. 117).
The different genres, which Schutz analyses as ideal types, are characterized by
specific modalities of the relation between beholder and author, which depend on
structural differences. Poetry is the intimate presentation of the self, so its main task
is expression rather than communication. Drama uses language to communicate
a simulation of action in which the beholder is vividly involved. The novel, in its
turn, aims to represent reality. Indeed, the novel as an art form is characterized by
its closer resemblance to the objectivity of everyday reality: the narrator presents
his story in the past-tense, therefore as a given objectivity which may only be
interpreted, not changed, by the reader. Thus, in contrast to drama, in which the
beholder partakes in the communicative situation of the performance, the novel
fictionally represents a solid world, objectified by the fact that it is told (in the
past) by an omniscient narrator. Furthermore, novels have as their reference the
paramount reality of everyday-life, which means that the situations they describe
refer to the regular world of our common experience (Embree, 1988, p. 36). Even
when the fantastic is represented, it is always intended as an enclave of everyday
reality.3 Therefore, regardless of its fictional character, a literary narrative leads the
reader into a world which has the solid aspect of reality.
It is probably the strong relation between the novel and everyday reality which
accounts for the fact that, when referring to literary materials, sociologists generally
choose fictional narratives. This also holds when the use of literary sources is
intended for theoretical purposes. As Coser (1963, p. 5) underlines, literature
as a sociological resource does not only provide a clear-cut exemplification of
sociological concepts, it may also give useful insights into and stimuli for theoretical
reasoning. Indeed, the relevance of literature for sociological theory accounts for a
theoretically oriented use of literary sources (fictional narratives in particular). In
what follows, I shall further explore the question of the theoretical use of literary
sources by making reference to three essays, written by Alfred Schutz and Peter
Berger, which are intellectually very close, Schutz being Bergers acknowledged
mentor. I shall begin with Schutzs interpretation of Cervantes Don Quixote.
Don Quixote and the Theory of Multiple Realities
Alfred Schutzs approach to literature, as sketched in the foregoing discussion
of his lost conference paper on the topic, is an original attempt to understand
literary phenomena in the subjective dimension of the beholders experience.
However, as it is focused on the relation between the beholder and the literary
text (and in a mediated way, the relation between beholder and author), it has
3See Schutzs treatment of CervantesDon Quixote as analysed below.

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


to be seen as an interesting contribution to the sociology of literature. The essay

that Schutz (1964b) devotes to Cervantes Don Quixote better fits in my attempt
to show a relevant function of literary sources: that of stimulating and training
the sociological imagination. Schutzs work on Don Quixote dates to 1953,
although it was only published two years later in Spanish in a Mexican journal,
a delay which Schutz regretted (Endress, 1998, pp. 114-15). The essay refers to
Cervantes novel as an exemplification of Schutzs theory of multiple realities.
The concept of multiple realities entails that reality is not to be conceived of as an
ontological quality of an object or context, but rather as the result of a subjective
process wherein objects and contexts are qualified as real by the experiencing
subject (Schutz 1962b). Schutzs essay is a clear example of a kind of theoretical
argument in which literature functions as a stimulus, confirming and strengthening
a well-defined theoretical approach.
Studies in Social Theory (1964a) is the title of the second volume, published
postumously, of Alfred Schutzs Collected Papers. The volume consists of two
parts: the former is on pure theory, the second on the applications of Schutzs
theory to specific social contexts. The essay devoted by Schutz to Don Quixote
(Don Quixote and the Problem of Reality) is in the second part. Schutz refers
to Cervantes novel as a sort of literary treatment of the multiple dimensions of
reality. This concept derives from William James and a plausible trivialization
of it might be to say that an object (or context) is real if we refer to it as such.
As suggested above, reality is not an ontological feature of the object; it is rather
a matter of subjective definition. It depends, moreover, on the positioning of an
object within a specific sub-universe of reality. In Schutzs opinion, there is a
plurality of sub-universes (or limited provinces of meaning), all characterized by
a specific cognitive style and their own logic. They include disparate experiences,
from theoretical thinking to madness, the everyday experience of the ordinary,
intersubjective world being the paramount reality. Having devoted many pages
to the theme of reality (Schutz 1962a), Schutz now puts his theoretical approach
to the test, dealing with Don Quixote as a case study upon which to verify the
consistency of his argument. He writes:
The thesis we want to submit is that Cervantess novel deals systematically
with the very problem of multiple realities stated by William James and that the
various phases of Don Quixotes adventures are carefully elaborated variations
of the main theme, viz. how we experience reality. (Schutz 1964b, p. 136)

Since, according to Schutz, Cervantes novel is an exemplification of the concept

of multiple reality, it may be investigated as a quasi-real set, giving a lively
representation of social interactions, clashes of opinions and conflicting ways
of conceiving of the outer world. The richness of the novel is thus reduced to
Schutzs pragmatic exploration of the literary material in search of a number of
theoretically relevant topics. The first theoretically relevant question, which relates
to the fundamental motivation of Don Quixotes actions, concerns the relation


Fiction and Social Reality

between the sub-universe of the protagonists madness (whose internal logic is,
in its turn, conditioned by another sub-universe: the world of chivalry) and the
paramount reality of everyday life:
How does it come that Don Quixote can continue to bestow the accent of reality
on his sub-universe of phantasy if this clashes with the paramount reality in
which there are no castles and armies and giants but merely inns and flocks of
sheep and windmills? (ibid.)

The second question concerns the possibility of reconciling the absolute radicality
of Don Quixotes world, affected by his extensive reading of chivalric romances,
half way between pure madness and daydreaming, with the everyday reality that
we all share with our fellow men:
How is it possible that the private world of Don Quixote is not a solipsistic
one, that there are other minds within his reality, not merely as objects of Don
Quixotes experience, but sharing with him, at least to a certain extent, the belief
in its actual or potential reality? (ibid.)

And the final question concerns the relations between different sub-universes. Are
they absolutely separate worlds, or are there forms of mutual contamination and
reciprocal interferences? The novel gives Schutz the opportunity to show that subuniverses, even our paramount reality, are not as structurally closed as one would
be inclined to think:
neither Don Quixotes sub-universe of madness nor the paramount reality
of the senses in which we Sancho Panzas live our daily lives, turns out to
be as monolithic as it seems. Both contain, as it were, enclaves of experience
transcending the sub-universes taken for granted by either Don Quixote or
Sancho Panza and referring to other realms of reality not compatible with either
of them. (ibid., pp. 136-7)

The two last questions are particularly relevant, in so far as Don Quixote does
not live his adventures in a solipsistic world, but rather within a series of social
situations which he interprets starting from his peculiar sub-universe of meanings.
The same situations have, for the fellow men interacting with him or testifying to
his actions, the ordinary meaning of events in everyday life. Another theoretical
problem therefore emerges: how is it possible to give intersubjective consistency
to divergent interpretations of reality, particularly when the incongruity of
interpretations depends on the fact that the interpreting actors refer to different
limited provinces of meaning?
The first strategy of reconciliation is linguistic: Don Quixote builds up
plausible arguments based on the plausibility of his interpretation of reality. He
claims the veracity of chivalric romances, all published with royal authorization,

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


which implies the authenticity of the adventures narrated therein and ascribed to
valorous knights of the past. These are books which accurately describe life and
adventures of famous knights, locating them in a well-defined spatial and temporal
dimension. Don Quixote makes reference to the stock of knowledge he shares with
his contemporaries to show the truthfulness of his sources. Giants truly exist: in
Sicily their skulls and bones have been discovered, and the Bible, whose veracity
may not be doubted, describes Goliath, who is clearly a giant. Chivalry as a limited
province of meaning shows its undeniable reality: it has its own economy (have
you ever read of a knight who pays when accommodated in what Don Quixote
perceives as a castle which is in fact an inn, for those whose accent of reality is
on everyday life?); it has its own law (have you ever read of a knight charged with
the crime of murder, even if a great number of assassinations may be imputed to
him?); it has also its physics, its temporality, its proper spatiality. All these peculiar
aspects of chivalry (ibid., p. 137 ff.) are referred to by Don Quixote in order to give
plausibility to his behaviour and to confirm the consistency of his sub-universe of
meaning (chivalry) which is to be understood as his home-base from which he
interprets all the other provinces of reality (ibid., p. 141).
How may his peculiar interpretation of the outer world be integrated with the
interpretations of those whose home-base is the ordinary reality of everyday life?
Schutz underlines the fact that in his first journey Don Quixote is alone: Sancho
Panza is not with him yet and he is the undisturbed master of his universe (ibid.),
a universe which for his fellow men is pure madness and which he strengthens
with a constant internal dialogue. In his loneliness, he does not need to reconcile
his representation of reality with the representations of his fellow men and he may
therefore keep on acting in accordance with his fantasies, without being compelled to
justify what he does. The problem arises when, during his second journey, he has to
justify his behaviour, especially to Sancho Panza who, in the meantime, has become
his squire. The clashes of two different interpretations of reality, the former based on
the rules of chivalry, the second on common sense, makes it necessary for him to
establish a sub-universe of discourse with the fellow-men with whom he shares a
face-to-face relationship within the world of common sense (ibid., p. 142). Indeed,
as Schutz writes (ibid., p. 143), the social world is based on the presupposition that
ego and alter perceive objects in the world as substantially identical: when the belief
in this substantial identity fails, the very possibility of intersubjective communication
is in danger. Anticipating Harold Garfinkels interest in the intersubjective reconstructive processes of restoring the broken social order (Garfinkel, 1967),
Schutz describes, starting from Cervantes novel, the mutual rapprochement of Don
Quixotes and Sancho Panzas perceptions of reality, conditioned by their prevailing
limited provinces of meaning, in a process of construction of a common discursive
sub-universe. Sancho Panza seems willing to accept Don Quixotes justifications,
which often refer to the interference of magic. Don Quixote is ready to provide
explanations, thus demonstrating that Sanchos arguments are implausible within
his personal sub-universe. Although a total sharing of the sub-universe of alter is


Fiction and Social Reality

not achieved, a communicative strategy is activated which reduces the differences

between the two characters.
The second part of the novel, which narrates of the last expedition of Don
Quixote, was published ten years after the first, and Cervantes, thus playing with the
interaction between the world of the novel and the everyday reality, underlines that
the vicissitudes of the protagonist are known to the people he meets, because they
have read about them in the first part of the novel (Schutz, 1964b, p. 145). Now no
common universe of meaning can be defined between Don Quixote and those who
interact with him, since the anonymous community of the reading public has already
constructed an ideal-type of the protagonist of the novel, as well as corresponding
expectations about his actions and possible reactions. Don Quixotes hypothetical
madness is made an object of mockery, within a make-believe game conceived to
humour the protagonist in his subjective universe. Since both Don Quixote and
Sancho Panza are objects of ridicule in a series of social games based on the quasiobjective reality of their previous adventures, (Schutz analyses here the episodes at
the court of the Duke and the Duchess), the intersubjective harmonizing which could
allow the creation of an interconnection between parallel worlds (as in the case of
Don Quixote and Sancho) is no longer possible.
Focusing his essay on the sociological aspects of the reception of literary
texts and Schutzs interpretation of Cervantes novel, Martin Endress (1998) has
shown that Don Quixotes three journeys not only represent different modes of
constructing the plausibility of sub-universes, they are also connected with the
three main literary genres: poetry, drama and the novel. In the first journey the
world of chivalry is for Don Quixote part of a constant internal dialogue which
needs no justification or legitimization from his fellow men. The internal world
of the protagonist is self-sufficient and, in this respect, his attitude is similar to
the poets, while his internal dialogue is analogous to poetry as a literary form, as
becomes the expression of a subjectivity which does not need to share its meaning
(ibid., pp. 121-2). The process of meaning construction is subjective and therefore
the private sub-universe of the protagonist does not need to be shared. The second
journey, the first that he makes with Sancho Panza, requires Don Quixote to build
the plausibility of his world and his adventures within what Schutz names a shared
sub-universe of discourse: since Don Quixote and Sancho Panza communicate,
meaning is the mediated result emerging from their social intercourses. The
situation is similar to drama, where the co-presence of actors and the public is
required so as to mutually stabilize the meaning given to the circumscribed reality
of the stage (ibid., pp. 122-3). In the last journey, Don Quixote meets people who
have read about his adventures, which entails that a quasi-objective relation is
established, based on a quasi-objective typification (Schutz writes of an idealtype) which the characters have constructed after reading the first part of the novel.
As Endress underlines (ibid., p. 123), Don Quixote does not know whether the
impression that the people he meets have of him is created by the actual interaction
or whether it in fact depends on the typification they have constructed by reading
about his earlier vicissitudes.

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


Endress also shows that the way Don Quixote relates to the social world on his
three journeys may be read in terms of the different relations that exist between
author and beholder as these characterize different literary genres, as described
by Schutz in his lost conference presentation of 1955. On his first journey, the
representation of reality is subjective, based as it is on Don Quixotes interior
dialogue, so, as in poetry, the beholder is a listener, a mere observer of the
protagonists interior world (ibid.). On the second journey meaning is a matter
of intersubjective construction. It resembles the theatre, where meaning is the
output of a dynamic interaction between the actors on stage and the audience.
On the last journey, meaning is the result of a complex balancing of previous
typifications produced by the reading of the novel and the actual interaction
between Don Quixote and the people he meets. Along the lines established in
the lost conference paper, the three journeys present different forms of reality
construction and representation: the subjective construction of the first journey
(poetry), the intersubjective construction of his second trip (drama) and the quasiobjective construction of his third expedition (the novel).
This last, quasi-objective representation causes Don Quixote to perceive his
personal sub-universe as substantially similar to the sub-universe of madness,
which leads the novel to its conclusion. By analysing the final part of Don Quixote,
Schutz shows his theoretical mastery, his capacity to put the interpretation of
a literary work and sociological reasoning together. The intersubjectivity of
everyday reality is grounded in a tacit (yet unstable) agreement, according to
which ego takes for granted what for alter is real life, daydreaming or fiction
(Schutz, 1964b, p. 155). Compelled to accept his own madness as a matter of fact,
yet still unable to accept common sense reality, Don Quixote is seen by Alfred
Schutz as a metaphor for the social actor, and even of the human being as one who
is enclosed in everyday reality as in a prison, and tortured by the most cruel jailer:
the common sense reason which is conscious of its limits (ibid., p. 157).
The essay that Alfred Schutz devotes to Don Quixote shows clearly how fertile
the encounter between sociology and literature may be. With his paper Schutz shows
that he is much more than the refined analyst of the taken for granted, of common
sense and of the everyday life-world. In his treatment, Don Quixote becomes the
symbol of the human condition. Therefore, the reference to Cervantes novel is not
a rhetorical strategy for making the theoretical question of multiple realities more
appealing, but rather an illustrative mode of demonstrating the fragility of the
bond that links social actors existences, resting as it does on the belief that we all
will come to terms with the complexity of the social world simply by bracketing
the radical otherness of our fellow men, and by supposing that our representation
of the world is the same as the representation of other social actors. Don Quixote
is not simply a chance for Schutz to illustrate his preferred theoretical themes;
the literary reference gives the sociological question of multiple realities a new
complexity and a new pathos. Thus, Schutzs theoretical reasoning is not to be
reduced to an objective analysis of the life-world, since it may even show the


Fiction and Social Reality

tragic component of everyday life: its being, for us just as for Don Quixote, not
only our daily world but also our daily prison.
Berger, Musil and the Modern Self
In 1970 Maurice Natanson (ed., 1970) edited a book devoted to the memory of
Alfred Schutz (Phenomenology and Social Reality: Essays in Memory of Alfred
Schutz). In the volume Peter Berger,4 who had had Alfred Schutz as mentor, dealt
with the theme of multiple realities, referring to a great contemporary classic, The
Man without Qualities, by Robert Musil.5 Here too the novel is a source of insights
for theoretical argumentation. The Man without Qualities, Berger writes, is a
complex novel, whose complexity may keep at least two generations of Germanists
busy. However, the sociological interpretation proposed by Berger selects only one
relevant aspect: What Musil attempted in his gigantic work was nothing less than
a solution to the problem of reality from the perspective of modern consciousness
(Berger, 1970, p. 213). This quotation reveals a first relevant thematic difference
from the essay by Alfred Schutz: the theme, for Berger, is modernity and the way it
affects individual consciousness. Although Don Quixote, particularly at the end of
the novel when he is forced to accept the paramount reality of everyday life, shows
elements of modernity, Ulrich, the protagonist of The Man without Quality is from
the outset a fully modern character, who manifests the main features which, as
sociologists, we are used to ascribing to the individual in modern society. There
is, moreover, another substantial difference: whereas Cervantes describes the
process by which Don Quixote goes from the identification with his personal subuniverse of meaning to the desolate acceptance of everyday reality, Ulrich is, from
the beginning, in search of the other condition (der andere Zustand), another
reality that haunts the reality of everyday life and the quest for which becomes
the principal concern of Ulrich (ibid.). The process described by Musil goes in
the opposite direction to the evolution of Don Quixotes consciousness: not from
a personal sub-universe to the tragic acceptance of common sense, but rather
from the rejection of everyday reality to the search for a personal sub-universe
of meaning. Moreover, in the process of change, which is another element of
modernity, Ulrich is aware and reflexive.
What is to be emphasized is that the theoretical relevance of the novel is not to
be found in its realistic, mimetic description of reality. Indeed, Berger underlines
the fact that the usefulness of Musils novel for social theory lies neither in its
description of a certain number of sociologically relevant human types, nor in its
4In the case of Peter Berger, the approach to fiction as a resource for theoretical
thinking is made more complex by the fact that he himself writes fiction. Jay Mechling (1984)
has shown that there is a substantial homology between Bergers work as a sociologist and
his literary works, as the main themes in both activities are the precariousness of everyday
life and breaches in the ordinary texture of events.
5For the relevance of Musil for sociological thinking, see Harrington, 2002.

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


intention to give a realistic and thorough representation of Austria in the early 20th
century (ibid., p. 215). The interest that Berger shows in the novel goes beyond
the realism of its content. As Berger writes, quoting Musil himself, The Man
without Qualities is not a great Austrian novel, nor a historical report, nor
a description of society. Rather, this particular society is presented to us with
the intention of bringing out certain key features of any society, that is, with the
intention of delineating the essential structure of everyday-life (ibid., pp. 215-16).
By further specifying the scope of Peter Bergers paper, one could understand
Bergers interpretation of Musils novel as a detailed analysis of multiple realities
in modern society and, in particular, of the way the multifaceted identity of the
modern individual comes to terms with the multiplicity of reality.
Ulrich, as a personification of the modern individual, is impatient towards
everyday reality and is therefore in search of another condition, a new way to
relate to his own consciousness and to reality. Everyday life, which the fully
awake ego shares with his fellow men, is the world of the intersubjectively
taken for granted. The taken-for-granted (as Schutz shows) rests on a continuous
and collective effort to give plausibility to our experience of reality. Although
the experience of reality is ultimately subjective, it is socially meaningful only
if we simulate its intersubjectivity. For a phenomenologist, this is possible by
suspending doubt about the existence of reality, thus accepting that it exists and
that it exists for me as for my fellow men, and assuming that our perception of
the external world is essentially the same. Using phenomenological terminology,
Schutz calls the suspension of doubt the epoch of the natural attitude; that is, the
normal actors suspension in his natural attitude of any doubt about the existence
of the outer world: What he puts in brackets is the doubt that the world and its
objects might be otherwise than it appears to him (Schutz, 1962b, p. 229). It
is against this epoch that Ulrich directs his feelings of exasperation. This leads
him to search for the other condition, a condition which lies outside our shared
everyday reality. This latter, resting on an unavoidable reduction of our capacity to
understand the world, is rejected by Ulrich: As Ulrich puts it to himself being
at home in the world of everyday reality presupposes a perspectival abridgement
of consciousness (Berger, 1970, p. 216). Although everyday reality manifests
itself with the solidity of its taken-for-grantedness, its solidity is the result of a
tacit intersubjective agreement, which qualifies it as inherently precarious (ibid.,
p. 217).
By adopting a critical attitude, which makes him a modern character, Musils
Ulrich shows, in Bergers view, an irresolvable impatience with the existing
system, i.e. our paramount reality. However, the existing system may be upset when
the individual has new, extraordinary, experiences of reality (ibid., p. 218). When
the ordinary course of events is broken, the social actor may have the first, faint
perception of what Ulrich calls the other condition, which represents, according to
Berger, a finite province of meaning, disparate with reference to the commonsense reality of everyday life, and possessing a distinctive cognitive style (ibid.,
p. 223). Breaches in the everyday order caused by violent events, (ibid., p. 218), by


Fiction and Social Reality

erotic experience (ibid., p. 219), by an intense aesthetic engagement (ibid., p. 220)

or by scientific speculation (ibid.) demonstrate how faint our belief in the shared
world of everyday life actually is. Indeed, as Don Quixotes vicissitudes show,
Everyday reality contains alien enclaves and, to protect its own integrity and the
peace of mind of its inhabitants, it must control these enclaves (ibid.).
Ulrichs experience may be read as a conscious attempt to escape the
reassuring cage of everyday reality in search of possible alternatives, but what is
the other condition that Ulrich often mentions? And how is it possible that it may
acquire a stable meaning for the protagonist of Musils novel? Berger identifies in
Musils novel an incident relevant to activating in Ulrich a systematic search for
the andere Zustand: Ulrichs encounter with his sister Agathe, on the occasion
of their fathers death. Brother and sister decide to live together and isolate
themselves from the rest of the world, devoting all their efforts to the search for an
alternative to everyday reality. It is in the relationship between brother and sister
that the other condition may be communicated, verbalized and objectified within a
dual continuous dialogue (ibid., p. 223).
The experience of the other condition which the two characters have is
often described in the novel. One may equate it, Berger writes, with a mystical
experience, its main features being a communion or identification with things in
the outer world, as well as a different perception of time and space, and a dilatation
of the here and now as an eternal present (ibid., p. 224). Berger underlines that,
although Musil devotes many pages to the characterization of the other condition,
all the descriptions he proposes are inadequate. However, this is not to be imputed
to the incompetence of the novelist, but rather to the fact that our ordinary language,
which originates in and is refined by the direct experience of everyday life, is at
any rate inadequate when adopted in order to describe our experiences in other
sub-universes of meaning (see also Berger, Luckmann; 1971: 54-5). What is more
relevant is that the presence of enclaves of other finite provinces of meaning in
everyday life reduces its intrinsic plausibility and, at the same time, throws our
belief in the solidity of our life-world into crisis. According to Berger, who in
this context activates his sociological imagination, society produces strategies of
legitimation, so to justify the relevance of other sub-universes, without denying
the predominance of the everyday world as our paramount reality. Since other
sub-universes of meaning may try to occupy areas of our paramount reality,
forms of neutralization of those enclaves are to be found, otherwise it would be
impossible to keep faith in the reality of our shared social world and our everyday
life would implode.
Berger identifies three modalities appropriate for circumscribing the
intrusiveness of other sub-universes. The first entails a belittlement of their
relevance. They are to be seen as limited realities, and as such they are unable to
throw the consistency of our everyday reality into crisis (Berger, 1970, p. 225).
One enters a sub-universe (let us say the sub-universe of a dream) certain that one
will be able to get out of it, without pretending, as Calderon de la Barca did, that
life itself is a dream. The second modality is more sophisticated from a theoretical

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


point of view: it implies the institutionalization of alternative experiences of reality,

for example through rituals or other kinds of religious practice, or even therapeutic
strategies such as psychiatry, for instance (ibid., p. 226). In this second case, the
relevance of the sub-universe is neither denied nor belittled. It is, in fact, used to
legitimize the predominance of the shared world of everyday life. The last modality
is more general as it refers to a typical feature of Western culture, which considers
the individual and his internal experience as a preamble or accompaniment of
purposeful activities in the empirical world. This general orientation makes it
possible to view the inner world of the mind as a beautiful and profound thing
but nevertheless deals with all this beauty and profundity as mere appendages to the
real life of activities in the world as socially defined (ibid., pp. 226-7).
However, the limited provinces of meaning are to be justified, in order to
strengthen their feeble structure when compared to the consistency of the lifeworld. Generally speaking, according to Berger, this process is made possible
thanks to narrative constructs; that is to say, by defining structures of plausibility,
legitimizing the sub-universes and so giving them coherence against the solidity
of the paramount reality. In the novel, these structures of plausibility are defined
within a dialogue between Ulrich and his sister: the solution is unstable since it is
the result of a correspondingly unstable social structure (a dyad, to use Simmels
terminology) and because, although brother and sister may consider their everyday
life the premise of going back to their alternative condition, they are, at any rate,
compelled to live in this world (ibid., pp. 228-9).
This search for legitimation of the other condition is made possible by the
modernity of the two characters, Ulrich in particular. As Berger writes, with
reference to recent literary criticism, Ulrich is, in fact, the prototype of the modern
individual. His being a man without qualities (which, on the narrative level is
evident in Musils choice not to describe his physical features) characterizes
him as an individual open to a multiplicity of possible biographical horizons. To
this characteristic, one has to add his constant reflexivity; that is, his capacity
to interpret his own actions and thoughts and the world in which he lives. All
these features make the man without qualities a subject open to an indeterminate
number of reality and self-transformations. Put differently, modern man is prone
to alternation between discrepant worlds of reality (ibid., pp. 230-31). Therefore,
Ulrich may be understood as a modern, reflexive version of Don Quixote. He
shares with Cervantes character the same desperate attempt to substitute our
everyday life with another sub-universe of meaning. Moreover, and herein lies
Ulrichs modernity, although we do not know how the unfinished novel might
have ended (would Ulrich and Agathe stay in the other condition or would they go
back to ordinary life?), Ulrich personifies the necessity of the fully modern subject
to constantly reflect on the multiplicity of his experiences of reality.
The sociological question of the self, which in the first essay that Berger devotes
to Musils novel is clouded by the theme of multiple realities, is the main focus
of the second article on The Man without Qualities, whose title is, significantly,
Robert Musil and the Salvage of the Self (Berger, 1984). In this essay, Bergers


Fiction and Social Reality

attitude towards the novel is slightly different: he does not refer to the novel in
order to confirm his theoretical insights; rather, the novel is the empirical material
which allows the sociologist to explore a specific feature of contemporary society:
the crumbling of self, typical of modernity.
The question of the self, as Berger writes, is both an ontological and a historical
problem. There is, in every society, a common element of self and identity (the
perception of oneself as a unity endowed with psyche and body). The self as an
element of human nature does not vary across space and time, yet it has different
features according to the specific historical and social context in which it develops.
Contemporary social sciences have shown that, in modern society, the self as a
social construction is particularly unstable, as it depends on the way that ego is
perceived by a plurality of alteri in an increasing number of social contexts and
in the many situations in which the social actor finds himself involved. However,
historians, sociologists and psychologists have not been able to give effective
analytic explications of the fluidity of modern subjectivity. In this regard, literature
helps: Literature, and especially that specifically modern form of literature
which is the novel, may be the best guide to the delineation of modern Western
individuality (ibid., p. 638). Musils The Man without Qualities contains, as one
of its main topics, the question of modern subjectivity, which Musil deals with
not only by showing his narrative mastery, but also the competences of a qualified
philosopher (ibid.).
One of the chief themes of the novel, Berger writes, is the questioning of the
idea of the self as a stable and coherent unity. What is the true self? Is there a nucleus
of ones consciousness to which motivations and actions may be ascribed, or are
we all similar to Moosbrigger, the jovial character in the novel who eventually
reveals himself to be a murderer? According to Berger, who interprets the question
of the self beginning with Musils narrative, the idea of a true self is no longer
plausible in modern societies. One may argue about a certain stability of personal
identities, but such stability is not a natural matter of fact. To Musil and Berger, the
self seems a vacuum with no meaning, which is given significance from time to
time either by the individual himself, or by the social actors who interact with him:
The idea that the self is some sort of central entity, and that every individual
therefore has a true self is an illusion. Perhaps an individual may, through great
efforts, acquire such a center; but it does not exist as a given of human nature.
Rather, the self is a hole which must somehow be filled both by himself and
by others. (ibid., p. 642)

If the self is no longer to be perceived as a natural feature, but rather as an artificial

construction of the individual and of his fellow men within interactive situations, the
idea of a solid and unitary self gives way to the feebler sociological concept of the
role. A role is a socialized fragment of the self, which depends on the social context
in which the individual acts. Acting according to the expectations of a social role
is the only way open to the modern individual seeking meaning in the absence of a

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


stable subjectivity: In practice, for most people, the best way to fill this hole is
by means of action (in Meadian terms, the individual performs his socially assigned
roles, and the aggregate of these roles constitutes what he is (ibid.).
The fragmentation of the modern self is linked to the multiplication of social
roles, typical of modern society. Referring to the opening pages of the novel,
Berger identifies at least nine features (vocation, nation, state, class, geographical
context, sexuality, consciousness, unconscious mind and private life) which, by
fragmenting the unity of subjectivity, impose on the individual a continuous search
for an identity which can no longer be taken for granted. The plurality of the self is
connected to the pluralisation of the social world. Indeed, the pluralisation of social
contexts entails a necessarily multiple self, with an increasing number of possible
horizons, which makes a unitary biographical perspective no longer plausible
(Jedlowsky, 1992, p. 50). All of this implies the loss of the unitary consistency
of the self and, at the same time, increases opportunities, which results in anxiety
leading to action, so typical of modern subjectivity. Quoting Musil, Berger speaks
of a utopia of the motivated life (Berger, 1984, p. 649) as an attempt to recover
in the activity of the individuals, the unity of the self.
Here I end my brief analysis of the second essay that Peter Berger devotes
to Musils unfinished novel, aware that some interesting themes have been
disregarded (for example, the fictive construction of Austrian national identity or
the relation between identity and religion). More relevant here than an extensive
interpretation of the essays by Schutz and Berger is the reference to literary
material as a quasi-real field on which to test theoretical concepts and arguments,
both as an exemplification of theories (for instance the theory of multiple realities)
and as a starting point for a substantive analysis of specific aspects of social reality
(the features of modern subjectivity, for example). What is evident in this context
is that the use of literary sources is not neutral: literary sources are adopted for the
purpose of theoretical argumentation, which entails a re-specification of themes,
characters and events for sociological purposes. This matter will be discussed
more extensively later.
Literary Narratives as Social Theory
Both Schutz and Berger propose a non-trivial, imaginative use of literature which,
by transforming literary sources, shows their unsuspected knowledge potential.
Their approach is utterly different from a mimetic conception of literature,
according to which the novel would be able to immediately reflect reality (Foley,
1979). If social scientists adopt this conception, it follows that the analogy between
sociology and the novel is to be based on the capacity of both to faithfully represent
a solid, objective reality. The analogy implies, too, that the detached sociological
observer is comparable to the omniscient narrator of most realistic novels, the
scientific knower of the world out there and the discoverer of its hidden laws.
A nave sociological conception of the modern novel understands the genre as a


Fiction and Social Reality

literary reflection of reality, without considering the relevant issue of the narrative
construction of the coherence of the external world. However, as Mink has clearly
shown by making reference to history: Individual statements about the past may
be true or false, but a narrative is more than a conjunction of statements, and
insofar as it is more it does not reduplicate a complex past but constructs it (Mink,
1987, p. 19). If the quotation from Mink makes sense in the disciplinary field of
history, it becomes more relevant when applied to fictional narratives, where the
question of the truth of a fictional statement is even more vague.
The modernist novel, writes Norman Denzin, presumes a stable external
social reality that can be recorded by a stable, objective, scientific observer
(Denzin, 1994, p. 7), yet according to Denzin, the objective character of reality
is now questionable, as is the capacity of both the novel and the social sciences
to objectively reflect it. Post-modern approaches to the use of narratives tend to
emphasize the limits of both fiction and social research as realistic approaches
to the social world. Fiction and the social sciences, traditionally considered
irreconcilable (Phillips, 1995, p. 626) now seem much closer: they are both
forms of representation of reality, with an interest in the social world and how
it functions (ibid., p. 627). Thus, the distinction now operates more on the
conventional level of the self-representation of the respective tasks of fiction
and the social sciences, than on the level of actual, substantial incompatibilities.
Some trends in contemporary social science tend to dispense with the distinction
altogether, conceiving either of sociological analyses as a kind of fiction, or of
fiction as social theory (Brinkmann, 2009, p. 1389).
By stressing the similarity between literary fiction and sociology, some authors
have gone beyond the highly refined idea of fiction as a support to social theory,
conceiving of the best fiction as social theory in its own right. According to Kuzmics
and Mozeti (Kuzmics and Mozeti, 2003), there are at least two ways to refer to
literature: the first is to consider literature a source, i.e. as a document; the second is
to consider literature as able to give, from a privileged point of view, a theoretical
representation of the social world. When Kuzmics (Kuzmics, 2001) criticizes the
use of literature as a source, he has in mind Lasletts (1976) conception of the
sociological use of literature as misleading and inappropriate. Lasletts critique is
substantially linked to the fact that literary sources are not able to provide the social
researcher with quantitative data about social phenomena of a measurable kind
(e.g. the dimensions of the household or the age of marriage in a given society
or epoch). If the sole objective of sociology is the acquisition of quantitative
knowledge of social phenomena, then one can hardly condemn Lasletts preference
for demographic or statistical sources. For fictional sources to have sociological
credibility, a different conception of sociology and its function is required. If we
consider sociology an instrument for giving sense to human action and interaction,
and the ways in which social constraints condition our objectives, feelings and
motivations, then literature may give us important insights into the social. Referring
to Lasletts misleading way of treating fiction as data, Kuzmics rejects the idea that
literature may be adopted as a source in order to confirm or reject a ready-made

When Sociologists Use Literary Sources


theory (Kuzmics, 2001, p. 127). Pointing to the use that Norbert Elias makes of
literature, he indicates an alternative way of making reference to the novel: a person
of letters seems endowed with an implicit social theory when describing aspects
of society. Therefore, when referring to literary works in order to represent reality
from a theoretical point of view, a sociologist depends in this enterprise on the
novelist as a sort of co-author. The resulting theoretical interpretation is the output
of the combined efforts of both the novelist and the sociologist.
A sociologist may, therefore, resort to fiction as social theory. In adopting
this stance, one has to deny the distinction between facts and fiction, together
with the related separation between sociology as dealing with facts (which may
include literature as a social fact) and fiction as dealing with imagination. Such a
separation, writes McHoul (1988) is historically determined and has legitimized
the sociological use of literary works as sources of data, to be analysed from the
objective standpoint of the sociology of literature. In this case, fictional meanings
are, as it were, the premise for a sociological reinterpretation, which assumes the
conceptual tools of the discipline to explain literary works as social facts. McHoul
proposes an alternative approach, no longer based on the opposition between
objectivity (sociology) and invention (literature): his proposal is to conceive of
literary fiction as a way of understanding aspects of the social world, containing
a latent theoretical understanding of society and social phenomena (ibid., p. 209).
Although tentative, McHouls essay raises a relevant theme: treating literature
as a form of sociological knowledge in its own right rather than as the mere
embellishment of sociological texts.
From this perspective, a work of narrative may be equated with sociological
writing dealing with the same subject matter. Brinkmann (Brinkmann, 2009), for
example, analyses the novels by the French author Michel Houellebecq as examples
of sociological accounts of the condition of man in post-modern society, thus
showing the analytic power of fictional literature and its substantial equivalence with
sociological writing on the same topic. The novelist is not understood as an intuitive
social theoretician, but as a sociologist in his own right, able to give plausible
sociological accounts. Such a theoretical stance is legitimate only on the assumption
that the social sciences contain fictional components. Both literary narratives and
sociology are ways of understanding reality; the differences between them are
now located in the rhetorical forms of their argumentation (ibid., p. 1391) and the
authorial claim regarding the type of text that has been produced (either scientific
or literary) (Richardson and St. Pierre, 2005, p. 961), rather than in an inappropriate
distinction between sociology and literary narratives as being concerned with the
realm of facts and fiction respectively (Phillips, 1995, pp. 626-7).
However, even in the case of interpreting literature as theory, the question of
the autonomy of both domains remains relevant: indeed, we should ask ourselves
whether social theory as emerging from a literary text is an aspect of the text
as such, or is rather a superimposition of sociologically-minded interpreters, in
which case the complexity and density of the literary text risk being compromised
in favour of a reductive disciplinary reading (McHoul, 1988, p. 218).

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Chapter 6

On the Sociological Use of Narratives

The Object of Sociology and the Relevance of Narration
If it is true that when comparing sociology and literature, what emerges are
similarities and differences, and that the relation between the two fields may
be understood both in terms of integration and conflict, then it is necessary to
specify why literature, fictional narratives in particular, has had such great appeal
for sociologists, both as a source of inspiration and a source of data. Before
doing so, I must turn to two preliminary themes central to understanding the
role of fiction for sociology. The former concerns society as the subject matter
of sociology, the latter the relevance of narrativity as a tool for empirically
understanding the social. I believe these themes to be interconnected. When
sociologists attempt to qualify society as an object of investigation, they are
likely to be overwhelmed by the multiplicity of possible meanings that the
word society may assume. My hypothesis is that the sociological relevance of
narratives depends in part on the plurality of answers that may be given to the
ontological question of sociologys proper object. Depending on the different
concepts that have been used to qualify the object of sociology, different ways
of conceiving of empirical reality have been developed, together with different
methods and techniques. Within this plurality of approaches, narratives assume
a unifying role, since, in order to understand social reality, one has to presuppose
a narrative comprehension of social action. My hypothesis is that the ontological
question of the definition of the object is interconnected with the methodological
relevance of narration.
Sociology has always experienced an intrinsic difficulty with the formalization
of its assertions. Whereas other social sciences (e.g. economics, particularly
in its mainstream versions) may represent themselves as neutral inquiries into
specific aspects of reality, sociology deals with an object which it is difficult to
circumscribe, linked as it is to the plurality of spheres (all endowed with different
levels of complexity) which constitute society. Thus, sociological knowledge
never condenses into universal laws. Sociological analyses may only be mildly
generalized, which implies that they are basically contextual. This stems from the
fact that sociology, as a discipline, has from the outset been interested not only in
general trends, but also in the marginal, irrational aspects of society.
In 1970 Niklas Luhmann published the first of the six volumes of his
Soziologische Aufklrung (Sociological Enlightenment). The book collects
together essays which were to prove particularly influential in the development
of sociological theory over the course of the next two decades. In the essay that


Fiction and Social Reality

shares the books title, Luhmann (1983) explains the sense in which one may
talk of a sociological Enlightenment. The explanation is necessary, since the
two concepts (Enlightenment on the one side and sociology on the other) are
conflicting, the former aspiring to the identification of the general laws of human
reason, the latter to the rational explanation of social life, including its irrational
aspects. In contrast to the Enlightenment, Luhmann writes, sociologys main
task is not the detection of the universal laws regulating human action, but the
empirical observation of socially determined behaviours (ibid., p. 73). Guided by
a general conception of reason, the Enlightenment philosopher would eventually
be able to expunge from the social all those elements which were conceived of as
non-rational (e.g. tradition, prejudices, superstition). On the contrary, sociology
aims at the construction of a more limited yet more precise knowledge, capable
of including the incoherent aspects of social reality and analysing them as
social facts (ibid.). Sociology establishes relations among social phenomena
(including those which are residual elements of an irrational or traditional
past) and can therefore be conceived of as a discipline which, in aspiring to
a mitigated generalization of knowledge, is nonetheless able to provide local,
contextual, provisional explanations, inclusive of all those aspects of the social
that contradict the idea of an apparently universal reason. Robert Nisbet (1962;
1976) had already underlined a sharp discontinuity between the Enlightenment
and sociology. Luhmann reinforces the differences by stating that sociology has
diverse theoretical premises, cognitive tasks, and ethical concerns (Luhmann,
1983, p. 74). Sociology discovers the social determination of attitudes, values,
tastes and needs. At the same time, the discipline makes the contingency of
action evident, as well as the relevance of its irrational components (ibid., p. 77).
The theoretical consequences of Luhmanns analysis lie far beyond the
scope of this book. What is relevant for my argument is that he proposes a
conception of sociology as concerned with the contradictory aspects of social
reality. Sociology abolishes the idea of a generically rational actor and analyses
action as co-determined by his social context. In this social context, universal
reason as envisaged by the Enlightenment loses its abstraction and comes to
be linked to social praxes. Sociality is the appropriate context for a kind of
rationality which is limited, partial, contextual and influenced by values. Faced
with the difficulty of providing an exhaustive knowledge of reality and having
renounced the task, derived from the natural sciences, of giving a theoretical
and practical rationalizability of reality (Weber, 1904, p. 85), sociology (or at
least that part of sociology aware of the peculiarity of its object) has assumed
as one of its main tasks the ascription of sociological meaning to fragmentary
aspects of social reality.
As sociology focuses on social action in concrete contexts rather than on
the identification of its rational premises, everyday reality assumes a peculiar
relevance, as well as the ad hoc construction of the shared meaning of social
situations. In 1975, Alvin W. Gouldner published a paper on the relevance of
everyday life for sociology. The paper is part of a volume which Lewis Coser

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


(1975a) edited in honour of Robert K. Merton. In the essay, Gouldner synthesizes,

from a Marxist perspective, the concept of everyday life. The everyday life is the
product of human work, hence a stance from which to analyse the practical activity
by which social patterns, no longer understood as given, are actually constructed
(Gouldner, 1975, p. 417). What emerges in Gouldners definition is the attempt
to single out latent processes that social actors activate when constructing the
everyday dimension of their social existence. Gouldner refers to the dimension of
the ordinary as a political instrument, since he considers it essential to providing
a non-reified sociological account of culture. He shows, moreover, that a focus on
everyday life may give social theory the opportunity to reformulate itself on the
basis of what is currently neglected or removed.
Since the publication of Gouldners essay, the everyday component of our
social experience has been widely recognized as a relevant topic for sociology.
Everyday life is one of the main fields of empirical investigation and a common
topic in sociological theory (Jedlowski and Leccardi, 2003). The empirical
relevance of the ordinary world, in which social actors live and interact, has
been a preferred object of sociological observation since at least the first decades
of the 20th century, when the group of sociologists working in Chicago took
the city and the lives of its inhabitants as the topic of their empirical research.
The modern metropolis was investigated, either producing scientific narratives
(ethnographies) or gathering stories reported by social actors. Hence, narratives
were particularly relevant as a way to portray modern lifestyles and problems.
The model sociologists adopted was realistic: sociological narratives were
conceived of as the objective mirroring of reality (Denzin, 1996), the distinction
between sociological accounts and literary narratives lying in the greater
objectivity of the sociological eye. In their study on the city, Park and Burgess
(1925) acknowledged their debt to literature for their more intimate knowledge
of modern urban life (ibid., p. 3), yet they ascribed to sociology the relevant
task of making the study of the city more searching and disinterested; that is,
more scientific.
Regardless of this alleged distinction, the reference to the ordinary is one
of the elements rendering the novel and sociology cognate. The novel emerged
as a literary genre focusing, like no other genre before, on the ordinariness
of everyday experience (Berger, 1977, p. 28). Common lives, rather than the
marvellous or the lives of the greats, became the subject matter of the new
fictional narratives. By referring to the ordinary, novelists attempted to explain
why things happened among and to the masses of human beings . They
sought patterns of behaviour in individuals and groups, and turned to social
institutions as a tool and a subject of inquiry (ibid., p. 12). The reference to
everyday life makes the distinction between sociology and literature, though
still necessary, less sharp: as everyday reality is where action takes place, and
since both literature and sociology are distinct attempts to explain actions in
their context, the fields of fiction and sociology seem at least compatible, even
if they cannot be equated.


Fiction and Social Reality

The Theoretical Dimension of the Everyday Life

Sociology is indebted to the work of Alfred Schutz for its deep theoretical treatment
of everyday life (Schutz, 1967). With Schutz, everyday life became part of the
actors Lebenswelt, leading to greater theoretical and methodological attention
to the intersubjective construction of the ordinary. The Austrian theorist had the
merit of locating the triviality of everyday life at the core of his theoretical and
methodological reflections (Natanson, 1962). Upon closer examination, Schutzs
sociological relevance is not simply the result of his re-evaluating everyday life
as a proper field of sociological investigation; he also showed the structured
character of our ordinary experience, its being made up of shared presuppositions,
typifications and routines, which allow the ordinary social actor to live his
everyday routines without taking into account the plurality of inconsistencies in
his experience of the real. By linguistically typifying other social actors, situations
and contexts, the individual constructs his cognitive certainties, in opposition to
an ever-changing outer reality: once typified, the world is stable until proven to
be otherwise, and this perceived stability is shared by both ego and alter (Schutz,
1962a, p. 14).
From Schutz on, the intuitive interest that the Chicago sociologists had
shown in the narratives of everyday life acquired theoretical and methodological
relevance. The inconsistent everyday world was now understood as the realm of
the taken for granted, its taken-for-grantedness being guaranteed by the reciprocal
recounting of social actors, their constant communication and their repeated
interactions. Schutz showed the ordinariness of reality to be the result of a routine
and narrative construction. This construction is based on the meanings that social
actors bestow on their experience and the possibility of sharing those meanings.
The production of a socially shared sense entails that the world we analyse as
sociologists is already meaningful for the actors involved. According to Schutz,
every sociological interpretation of reality is built upon the previous interpretation
of common social actors, which implies that in order to understand social reality,
the social scientist has to get in touch with the agent, who must be considered
a competent subject, capable of relating his experience and accounting for the
world around him. Although everyday narratives have to be translated using the
conceptual tools of the discipline, sociological rationality must necessarily be
grounded in the everyday rationality of the observed actors.
When placing everyday life at the core of sociological analysis, sociologists
become aware that most of what they know about the social comes from a
narrating actor. As Schutz shows, language is the constitutive instrument of the
social construction of reality, which implies that sociology must use everyday
linguistic typifications as the starting point for its representations of the social
world. Obviously, a sociologist may legitimately make reference to other
sources (such as demographic or statistical data), but most of what we, as social
scientists, know about the social derives from our direct observation of actors
in their everyday intercourse, from their everyday mutual communication and

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


from our dialogue with the agents themselves. Confronted with the necessity of
affirming sociology as a science, sociologists have often removed the specificity
of their object. Regardless of the relevant exceptions (from Simmel to Weber,
from Znaniecki to Schutz, from Redfield to Nisbet) the sociological mainstream
was (and probably remains) fascinated by the possibility of quantifying social
phenomena and applying mathematical methods to the study of society. The search
for academic acknowledgement brought to the technification of the discipline
discussed earlier, a process which Paolo Jedlowski connects to the fear of what
he effectively calls ideographic infection; that is, the fear that sociology may
turn into a set of ad hoc knowledge, unfit for further generalizations (Jedlowski,
2000, p. 203). Whatever the theoretical definition of society (as social system,
social system and Lebenswelt, the whole of social actions etc.), it is undeniable
that from a strictly methodological point of view, in order to access social reality,
social scientists must take dialogue with the social actor seriously. Sociology as
an empirical science needs to make reference to a talking actor, with whom the
empirical sociologist has to enter into contact in order to receive information about
his experience and his perception of social reality. This feature of sociology, which
concerns the interest of the discipline in social events, interactions and social
settings, justifies the fascination of sociology (at least those sociological trends
not prone to adhering to the exact science model) with narratives, including
literary ones.
Which Narratives for the Sociologist?
If homo narrans (Fisher, 1987) is presupposed by the social researcher to be
an appropriate qualification of the individual, then the relevance of narratives
for social sciences is easier to understand. For the moment, I shall leave aside
the theme of the relation between literary and everyday narratives, in order to
consider how different styles of empirical research refer to homo narrans or at
least presuppose him. Homo narrans is an actor to listen to, either by adopting
structured questionnaires or more flexible interview guides, typical of qualitative
methods. The specific feature of sociological data (its being meaningful for the
actors involved in the research setting) is the main reason why the researcher
has to presuppose that social actors are capable of giving reasons for their
actions, presenting their motives and describing their values. In constructing and
analysing their data, social scientists can hardly deny that they have to do with
actors who already have a meaningful relation with reality. In this broad sense, a
sociologist should not underestimate the relevance of narrative sources, tales, and
representations of reality as reported by the social actors.
Narration represents a connecting element, unifying different theoretical and
methodological traditions. The co-presence of different research traditions reflects
the difficulty that sociology has always had in define its own object, a vexed
question, dating back to the founding fathers. Georg Simmel, for example, dealt


Fiction and Social Reality

with the vagueness of the definition of the term society. Is it a simple aggregate
of social actors and so reducible to their individual actions or psyches, or is it an
encompassing reality, superordinate to the individuals who apparently constitute it
(Simmel, 1950, pp. 3-4)? Society is an object whose borders are difficult to set, as
it changes its features and dimensions according to the peculiar standpoint of the
observer (ibid., p. 8), and this may explain the difficulty of providing a univocal
definition of the term. Mario Aldo Toscano (2011) has stressed this intrinsic
incapacity of sociology to delimit its own object and, referring to Weber and Pareto,
has proposed the image of a discipline chasing its object. Sociology as a discipline
is doomed never to come of age (Weber) and the sociologist is compelled to work
as a tailor who sews a suit for a client whose size constantly changes, such that
the suit is bound never to fit (Pareto). Contemporary sociology is characterized by
a theoretical and methodological attempt to integrate in an encompassing model
long established and antagonistic sociological traditions (Elias, 1970; Giddens,
1984; Luhmann, 1984; Habermas, 1984, 1987; Collins, 1988). The partial failure
of these efforts at integration is probably due to the multi-dimensional character of
society as an object of inquiry. Society is a catch-all word, capable of including
the micro aspects of social interactions (encounters, social relations), the meso
dimension of social organizations, the macro dimension of differentiated social
systems, and the diachronic aspects of complex phenomena (such as social and
cultural changes, globalization, and so on).
A collateral effect of the multidimensionality of society is the impracticality
of methodological monism. Qualitative and quantitative approaches to social
research are no longer considered alternative ways of investigating the social,
but as complementary modalities, chosen (even under the partial influence of
the methodological competences and sensibilities of the individual researcher)
according to the research question and the specific features of the object to be
investigated (Corbetta, 1999, p. 87; Silverman and Marvasti, 2008, pp. 56-7;
Cardano, 2011, pp. 16-17). If one seeks a connection between research methods
which, though all legitimate, are nonetheless based on different research
logics, one may find it in a specific characteristic of social research: empirical
investigation in sociology resorts to social actors so as to gather information about
their biographies, their values and their preferences. The relevance of telling is
feeble in the case of the survey, since in this research technique the respondent
is less a narrator than a source of information and data (for example, concerning
his income, educational attainment, value system, and so on). It is much more
relevant in qualitative research techniques (life history being perhaps the more
adequate example), which highly value the recounting of individual experience
as a way of understanding the interconnection between the biographical and
social dimensions. Regardless of their relevant differences, however, investigative
methods in sociology must at least presuppose a homo narrans, an individual
willing to communicate to the investigator part of his personal and social
experience. This is an inescapable feature of empirical social research, since it
works on data which are already meaningful for the social actors (Schutz, 1962a);

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


that is, data belonging to the individuals before being used by the social researcher
(Znaniecki, 1934).
Even a questionnaire, on closer inspection, contains a narrative component.
Before the actual interview takes place, the social researcher prefigures a set of
thematic units aimed, for example, at the identification of behaviours, opinions
and attitudes that he hypothesizes to be relevant aspects of the universe he wishes
to investigate. As a matter of fact the interest of the social researcher is not
oriented to the specificity of each individual narrative, but to the combinatorial
relations among variables. The uniqueness of the individual actor is fragmented,
as his narrative is statistically relevant only in so far as it may be transformed into
numerical entities. The narrative dimension of a questionnaire is sketchy, as the
respondents choice is limited by what the sociologist has prefigured as relevant
for his inquiry. The uniqueness of the individual and of his narrative loses its
relevance as it has to be translated into what Lazarsfeld has named the language of
variables. The respondent is compelled, as it were, to narrate the same story as all
the other respondents, within a set of alternatives which, although relevant for the
researcher, may be irrelevant for the interviewed actors.
The sociologist eventually interprets numerical data and statistically relevant
correlations, and proposes a representation of reality which often has little to do
with the self-representations of the respondents. Paraphrasing Geertz (1973),
one could say that this is a thin description, an account based on fragments of
subjectivity, converted into the specific language of numerical data, which become
the basis for sociological interpretation. Variables (e.g. sex, age, social class) are
understood by the social researcher as causal factors of attitudes, behaviours
and values. The objectivity of quantitative research is an attempt to hide the
fictional quality of such procedures as calculating averages, which only artificially
represent concrete human beings and social entities (Brinkmann, 2009, p. 1390).
At any rate, the reduction of the narrative potential of the respondents is not to be
considered a defect, but rather as a structural characteristic of the questionnaire
as an investigative technique. Indeed, the academic and practical success of the
survey is to be imputed chiefly to this specific form of reducing the complexity
of the object of study. A reduction process is unavoidable, since the complexity
of reality would otherwise prevent the very possibility of sociological analysis.
Whereas qualitative techniques convey a detailed representation of a circumscribed
research object, which they investigate in depth, quantitative techniques reduce
the number of properties of the object, keeping the domain of observation wide
(Cardano, 2011, p. 17).
In contrast with quantitative methods, narratives are particularly relevant in
qualitative research techniques. The ethnographer, who combines dialogue and
observation, has to get in touch with the language of his subjects, penetrating the
slang or jargon characteristic of their culture as a necessary step in understanding
the specific traits of the observed social setting. Moreover, he adopts narration,
in the form of narrative notes, as an indispensable instrument for giving order
to his observational experience (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007, p. 140 ff.).


Fiction and Social Reality

This specific character of ethnography, its being a narrative account of narrative

accounts, may explain the fact that more than other social scientists, ethnographers
have thematized the literary, even fictional character of sociological representations
of reality (Richardson and Lockridge, 1998), as well as the conscious use of
literary styles and tropes as a way of presenting ethnographic data (Gannon, 2005;
Leavy, 2012a).
Qualitative interviews give the researcher a set of data derived from the
interaction as a research situation. They are closer to everyday narratives, as they
are focused on the motives, values and aspirations of the respondent, rather than
on the methodological and theoretical objectives of the social researcher. When
adopting qualitative interviews (and this holds for similar techniques, such as the
focus group, for example) the social scientist elaborates his interpretations starting
from thick data, which allows him thick sociological interpretations (Geertz,
1973). By narrating, the social actor gives sense to his actions and to the actions
of his fellow men. He orders events in a temporal sequence and explains actions
and events by connecting them in causal relations (Labov, 1997; Van Dijk, 1975;
Carroll, 2001; Carr, 2008). All the features of everyday narratives are present
here, yet constructed within the artificial setting of the interview. Regardless of
the artificiality of the research situation (a constructed and asymmetric interaction
between the interviewer and the respondent), qualitative researchers often consider
the narratives they gather to be both sincere descriptions of the inner worlds of
the respondents and truthful representations of their experiences of the external
world. Moreover, a nave use of narratives tends to take no account of the fact that
narratives are tools for constructing meaning, which, by activating the process of
emplotment, give sense to otherwise separate (rather than interconnected) events
(Ricoeur, 1984; Mink, 1970; Polkinghorne, 1988).
Narrative accounts have been essentially used by qualitative sociologists in
three different ways:
1. A sociologist may refer to a personal narrative in order to validate a specific
theoretical explanation of social contexts or processes. Edwin Sutherland
(1937), in his book, The Professional Thief, uses a long autobiographical
account so as to confirm his theory of deviance as differential association.
Thomas and Znaniecki, in their The Polish Peasant in Europe and America
(1919) use the autobiographical narratives of individual personalities in
order to explain the relation between social actors and society. According
to them, causal explanations of social phenomena, as well as social
regularities and laws, may be detected thanks to an accurate analysis of
biographical data. A direct quotation from Thomas and Znaniecki may
help clarify this point: a nomothetic social science is possible only if
all social becoming is viewed as a product of the continual interaction of
individual consciousness and objective social reality . The study of the
human personalities both as factors and as products of social evolution

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


serves first of all the same purpose as the study of any other social data
the determination of social laws (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1919, p. 5).
2. Narrative data are analysed on the assumption that they represent truthful
accounts of reality. Given this, a sociologist will analyse biographical
narratives in search of thematic units, attitudes and values which are,
regardless of their statistical significance, subjectively relevant. This
methodological attitude broadly coincides with symbolic interactionism
(Blumer, 1969) and is connected to the idea that narratives faithfully portray
the way in which the respondent experiences his internal and external
worlds (feelings, meaning, facts, events, incidents). Following Silverman
and Marvasti (2008, p. 195), this approach may be called realism.
3. Narratives are analysed as cultural products, with their own tropes and
modes of argumentation, and a sociologist may try to detect the way in
which social actors, by using rhetorical strategies, construct the presentation
of their selves, their personal experiences and the social world. In this case,
what is relevant is the use of communicative mode on the part of actors
in order to make their narratives plausible (hence not necessarily true)
presentations of personal experience (ibid., p. 197).
The choice of one of these different ways to refer to narrative data has
consequences for the analysis: each modality presupposes a different relation
between narratives and reality. In the first (old fashioned) modality, subjective
narrations are functional to the validation of a theoretical hypothesis within a
nomothetic approach. Narratives are de-contextualized, in so far as they are
relevant as exemplifications of general laws or confirmations of a theory, rather
than for their subjective meaning. The second modality takes seriously the idea
of the subjective construction of social sense and analyses narratives as a way
for sociology to come closer to the individual actor and the meanings he bestows
on his experience. In its politically engaged variant, sociologists try to give voice
to those who are excluded (Cardano, 2011, p. 21). In the last modality, akin to
ethnomethodology, the attempt is made to understand the everyday processes by
which social meanings are intersubjectively constructed.
By emphasizing the truthfulness of narratives, qualitative researchers who
adopt the second modality claim that their approach is more adequate to giving
voice to the social actors and representing subjective meaning within sociological
analyses. Making reference to the Weberian idea that sociology is based on the
interpretation of the subjective meaning, qualitative sociologists gather individual
accounts (both oral and written: interviews, life histories, diaries, letters, pieces of
conversations, and so on) so as to preserve the unity of the individual actor and
his peculiar perspective on reality. This methodological attitude shows a nave
trust in the truthfulness of the respondents accounts, as if the social actor would
automatically produces a natural representation of his social and interior worlds.
This nave conception justifies the critiques of more sophisticated qualitative
approaches to the so-called narrative turn. When uncritically accepting the idea


Fiction and Social Reality

that personal narratives may give an authentic representation of the individual

world of the respondent, as well as his values and his experience of the social,
sociology may lose sight of the considerable artificiality of everyday narratives,
and hence of the fact that they are social constructions (Atkinson and Delmont,
2006), as well as a resource for the social actor, who may use his narrative skills
to choose among alternative representations of his personal experience. The
distinction between fictional and non-fictional narratives becomes less persuasive
if one takes into account what has been called narrative smoothing: the fact that
the social actor tends to reproduce his experience according to the requirements
of a good story at the expense of its truthfulness (Smyth, 2005, p. 297).
Undervaluing the constructed character of everyday narratives leads to an
unrealistic conception of the relation between the narrating actor, narration and
reality as represented in his narratives. This stance, which paradoxically has been
named narrative realism, emphasizes narrative as a way to communicate the actual
lived experience of the social actor (ibid., p. 298). However, narration is always
a partial account of reality, a presentation (often containing an explanation) of
events and actions from the circumscribed point of view of the respondent, who
adopts rhetorical strategies and tropes in order to make his subjective experience
socially acceptable (Scott and Lymann, 1971, pp. 88-119). The respondent is
neither a detached observer, presenting his experiences, personal attitudes and
motives in an objective manner, nor an isolated individual, uninterested in the
social consequences of an unpleasant narrative presentation of his behaviour.
By accepting the idea that narration is always fragmentary and strategically
constructed, sociology has gradually abandoned the realistic model in favour of an
approach to narratives that, taking Garfinkels lesson seriously (Garfinkel, 1967),
aims to detect the structural features of everyday accounts, such as modes of
argumentation, communicative strategies, ad hoc rationalizations, procedures of
meaning construction, and so on. By stressing the idea that personal narratives do
not simply mirror reality, but rather create its meaningfulness through a complex
process of selective ex post justification of circumscribed aspects of the world,
such an approach makes the artificial character of personal narratives evident and,
at the same time, renders a neat distinction between fictional and non-fictional
narratives less plausible.
The Postulate of Adequacy
Sociology needs narratives and narrators as instruments for understanding social
reality, yet sociologists are now aware that narratives are artificial constructions,
hence never a mere mirroring of reality. In making the distinction between the
fictional and non-fictional less relevant, this awareness legitimizes the use of
literary, fictional narratives, regardless of their supposed untruthfulness. Three
questions remain to be dealt with: 1) If we consider both narratives and sociology
as rhetorical forms of representing reality, then why should sociology resort to

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


literature? 2) Why is literature so appealing for sociologist as a source? 3) Finally,

how is it possible to translate literary narratives into sociological terms? In order
to answer the first two questions, I propose a critical reading of Schutzs postulate
of adequacy.
Schutzs approach to the social sciences may be understood as an attempt to
combine the Weberian analysis of meaningful action with the phenomenological
preoccupation with the world of everyday life as the setting of our pre-reflexive
experience. Schutz thematizes the question of subjective meaning and the processes
of its social construction. In The Phenomenology of the Social World (Schutz,
1967), Schutz stresses that the process of meaning construction takes place in
the actors consciousness: the actor refers his actual to his previous experiences
and to the objectives he wants to achieve (in-order-to motives). What happens
when external observers (including sociologists) try to understand the action of
alter? The observer has to connect the action to typical motivations which, at the
same moment as they make action understandable, tend to anonymise it. Here two
difficulties emerge. The first is that any attempt to understand subjective meaning
is tentative, as it is based on the translation of individual motives into typified
schemes. The second is that a sociologist works on a pre-interpreted reality, which
is already meaningful for the social actor. The thought objects constructed by
the social scientist are necessarily tentative, as he cannot probe into the actors
consciousness and, at the same time, his objects are constructs of the second
degree, since they are constructed on the subjective meanings of the actors as
encountered by the observer. This specific character of the constructs of the social
scientist requires him, Schutz states, to employ mechanisms capable of integrating
common sense and scientific interpretation (Schutz, 1962a, p. 6).
The connection between ordinary and scientific interpretations does not imply
that the logic of science should be replaced by common sense. Science achieves
its understanding of reality by following its specific method. However, Schutz
writes, social scientists should strive to make abstract scientific concepts and
the typifications of common sense at least compatible. This interconnection is
achieved, according to Schutz, thanks to the postulate of adequacy, by which:
Each term in a scientific model of human action must be constructed in such
a way that an act performed within the life-world by an individual actor in the
way indicated by the typical construct would be understandable for the actor
himself as well as for his fellow-men in terms of common-sense interpretations
of everyday life. Compliance with this postulate warrants the consistency of the
constructs of the social scientist with the constructs of common-sense experience
of the social reality. (ibid., p. 44)

Using Husserls idea of a necessary interconnection between science and the

life-world (Zijderveld, 1972 p. 185), Schutz intends the postulate of adequacy
as an exhortation to make scientific assertions consistent with the way that social
actors typify their everyday experience (Schutz, 1962a, p. 44). However, the


Fiction and Social Reality

interconnection between science and common sense poses a series of unsolved

methodological problems. According to Giddens (1976) the postulate is either
trivial or inappropriate. It is trivial if it is interpreted as stating that sociological
constructs have to refer to real individuals or collective actions. If it is intended
as the necessity of sociological constructs being, at least in principle, translatable
into the ordinary language of everyday life so as to make them understandable
to ordinary people, it appears inappropriate (ibid., p. 38). Taken seriously, the
postulate would compel social scientists to make assertions about reality which
are compatible with common sense, thus depriving themselves of the possibility of
proposing original explanations of social phenomena which, in so far as they are
counterintuitive, would hardly be accepted by those who are involved (Bernstein,
1976, p. 164).
What is at stake here is the question of the compatibility between cognitive
styles (the sociologists and the laymans) which are difficult to reconcile. The
way a sociologist looks at the world is deeply influenced by his theoretical and
methodological premises, and his account of the investigated phenomena is
stated in his technical jargon, which is often incomprehensible to the layperson.
Moreover, against the anarchical multiplicity of everyday accounts, the scientific
discourse tends to give order to the scattered elements of social reality by detecting
similarities and comparing similarities and differences (Jedlowski, 2000, p. 182).
This makes sociological descriptions constitutively different from the accounts of
actors: sociologists re-write the world, and this re-writing process, by adopting the
cognitive and linguistic styles of sociological arguments, scarcely overlaps with
everyday representations.
By referring to the difficulty of sociology to comply with the postulate of
adequacy, the sociological relevance of literary narratives may be clarified. Novels
have been seen as a form of representation highly compatible with that of the
layperson. Monroe Berger, for example, has stressed that the novel, understood as
an instrument for producing knowledge about reality, coheres with the readers view
(Berger, 1977). In its more refined forms, at least, the novel appears both as a form
of entertainment and a way to offer explanations and guides for behaviour (ibid.,
p. 12), thus assuming a cognitive as well as a normative value. The novelist may
represent social settings and human psychology by resorting to common sense and
common understanding (ibid., p. 190), while casting new light on the ordinary. In
realist novels, explanation is guaranteed by the possibility, conventionally granted
to the author, of intruding into the plot with personal comments. Indeed, intrusion
was considered by great authors in the past (notably by Fielding) as a mark of the
novelists superiority (understood as an observer of social customs and mores) over
mere storytellers (ibid., p. 119). As Berger states, the kind of knowledge which
emerges from the novel rings true to the reader. Authorial comments conform
to the readers general sense of things, to their common sense about themselves
as social beings (ibid., p. 161) and, in so doing, the novelists conclusion seems
to be relevant both for the social life outside as well as inside the story (ibid.).
Its adequacy to the perspective of the reader makes it more understandable than

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


a treatise of sociology can ever be, which is scarcely surprising since the novelist
shares with the reader the same communicative instrument: narrative. This allows
the novelist to disparage social science techniques, jargon and generalizations,
which cannot grasp the reality of individual and social life (ibid., p. 249). Thus,
paradoxical as it may sound, a fictional genre, whose plausibility is grounded on
a willing suspension of disbelief (ibid., p. 181) appears to adhere more closely to
social reality than does more systematic social inquiry.
The idea that literary narratives are able to give a plausible representation of
social reality and intercourse has been widely endorsed. Carr (2008) has identified
narratives as a mode of explanation that never competes with common sense.
Narrative shows events in a temporal sequence, thus representing interconnections
among them and in so doing, shows itself to be compatible with the way that
laymen understand their own vicissitudes and those of their fellow people (ibid.,
p. 21). Though fictive, though able to construct fictional worlds, narratives are
endowed with a reality-like character (Rimmon-Kennan, 1983, p. 33), which
implies that, even if a conception of narratives as an objective mirroring of reality
is now unacceptable, literary narratives tell us something about the way the world
is collectively made meaningful (Ricoeur, 1984).
Compared to the novel, sociology is, as it were, constitutively inadequate
to the ordinary actors representation of reality. This inadequacy should not be
seen as a limitation, but rather as the consequence of the specific features of
sociological discourse, including its theoretical and methodological premises and
its argumentative style. Paradoxically, sociological discourse appears both fictional
and to refer to reality: it is fictional in so far as it uses artificial and abstract concepts,
often incompatible with the way social actors depict and understand their social
environment, yet, it makes reference to data, which, although methodologically
constructed, makes reference to facts, actions and events in the external world.
The narrator, by contrast, conveys a representation which, though fictional, is
closer to the way that laypersons represent reality. Since literary narratives are
not constrained by methodological and theoretical premises (being of course
constrained by style and genre) they seem to the reader, regardless of their
fictional nature, more coherent and adequate to the represented reality. Literary
representations are, therefore, so conceived that the layperson may recognize
in the vicissitudes of characters both himself and his fellow people. In fictional
narratives the life-world is represented with its complexity and incoherencies, as
if it were real (Crab, 1974, p. 10), yet if the sociological relevance of literature lay
in the mere presentation of the life-world, its value would be inessential. Fictional
narratives do not simply replicate common places, however, but dramatize aspects
of our culture (Gibson, 2007, p. 117), thus giving them a new sense and providing
the social scientist who is willing to confront the multi-layered quality of literary
writing with a complex field on which to use his sociological imagination. Good
literary novels therefore portray reality and transfigure it at the same time. To
make sense of this apparently obscure formulation, we may refer once again to
Lukcs. The category of the particularity, which according to Lukcs characterizes


Fiction and Social Reality

fictional narratives, may refer to the minor aspects of everyday experience and,
by translating the mundane into the typical, transfigure them in a way that is still
understandable to the reader. This capacity of literary narratives to be fictionally
true-to-life (their being intrinsically adequate to the life-world of the readers)
accounts for the possibility of sociologys being able to consider fictional
representations as quasi-real settings a sort of fictional equivalent of reality. The
question of the relation between literature and sociology is, therefore, much more
complex than a simple juxtaposition of fiction and the social sciences, as it involves
two related themes: the idea that fiction tells us something about the world (or at
least about the world as represented, recreated and reconstructed within fictional
narratives) and the possible use of literary data as a way to produce sociological
representations, recreations and reconstructions of reality.
The Character of Literary Data
Before coming to some provisional conclusions, it is necessary to discuss the
thorny question of how sociology, as a form of discourse, may appropriate literary
fiction and convert literary meanings into sociological knowledge. A similar
conversion takes place in the case of normal, everyday narratives, the chief
difference being that through methodological reflection, we are well aware of the
technical processes by which non-fictional narratives (for example, interviews,
focus groups, and so on), once gathered, are converted into sociological data.
The challenge is that of verifying how an analogous process might occur in the
case of literary sources, taking account of the fact that it is impossible simply to
assume fictional material as part of sociological discourse without converting it
into sociologically plausible data.
Narration is sociologically relevant for a number of reasons, four of which are
particularly important. Some of these reasons apply to everyday narratives (EN),1
some to both everyday and literary narratives (LN), some only to the latter:
1. The cognitive dimension (EN/LN): narratives give sense to reality
(including social reality), by selecting fragments of the world, which is in
itself indifferent (Jedlowski, 2000, p. 30).
2. The relational dimension (EN/LN): narration is one of the instruments
of social communication. By narrating, people build social links (EN).
Narratives are part of our everyday experience, since telling a story allows
the exchange of information, as well as the strengthening (ibid., p. 63) or
creation (Grinswold, 1992) of individual and collective identities (EN/

1As already stated, by everyday narratives (oral or written) I intend non-fictional

narratives, both natural or provoked by the researcher.

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


3. Everyday narratives and empirical research (EN): narratives are the

premise of any empirical research which attempts to get information about
social actors. This holds true both when the researcher adopts qualitative
methods and, less intuitively, when he resorts to more formalized
quantitative methods such as the survey.
4. Literary narratives and sociology (LN): literary narratives may give the
empirical and theoretical sociologist deep insights into reality, thanks to
a mode of representation which, within fictive stories assumed as real, is
adequate (sensu Schutz) to the reality as typified by normal actors.
The extensive use of narratives in social research shows the sociological relevance
of narration (Czarniawska, 2004). In the first instance, this is to be imputed to
an intrinsic similarity in the raw material of both sociology and the process of
storytelling. I shall briefly summarize the already sketched similarities. Sociology
has to do with action, motivation, time, and social change, hence with those
features which in Chapters 1 and 2 were discussed as characteristic of narration
as a mode of communication. Moreover, sociology aspires to a causal explanation
of social events, another similarity with narration, which has been defined with
reference to its capacity to connect aspects of the world (it being now irrelevant
whether real or imagined) within causal connections (Carroll, 2001). Moreover,
we are now aware that sociology is not only a research strategy, it is also a mode
of discourse (Jedlowsky, 2000, p. 201). Here the similarities give way to the
differences. Sociological discourse is analogous to narration only in so far as both
sociology and narratives establish links among objects, events, actors and changes,
by singling out, for example, causal relations, and constructing a partial order out
of the chaotic experience of reality. However, when the sociologist selects portions
of reality and interprets or explains them, he always makes reference to the
disciplinary stock of theoretical and methodological knowledge. Acknowledging
the artificial character of sociological discourse does not imply a denial of its
validity. Rather, it entails that good sociology results from the conscious use not
only of theoretical concepts and methodological tools, but also of an appropriate
rhetoric (Dal Lago, 1994a). Once sociology is understood as a specific mode of
discourse, it is difficult to assume a nave attitude according to which sociological
analysis scientifically mirrors reality. Sociological construction is the result of the
interconnection of concepts, techniques and a specific sociological interpretation
of data, whose coherence is internal to the disciplinary logic and only subsequently
adequate to the represented world.
But in what manner may literary data be employed by the sociologist in order
to better understand scientific problems or specific topics? The question sounds
paradoxical, especially now that the realistic model of literature as a mirror of
reality has lost its plausibility. In contrast to other sources, whose authenticity has
to be proved (Topolski, 1976), a literary narrative need not be authentic, in the sense
that it describes facts which are partially or totally fictional. However, by adapting
to our task Topolskis concept of the range of authenticity (the sum of those


Fiction and Social Reality

questions (problems) to which a given source can provide true answers [ibid.,
p. 434]), as elaborated in his reflection on the methodology of historical research,
one may assume that, though technically not authentic, a literary narrative may
provide true answers to specific problems. A fictional document is an instrument
with which to probe into reality, testing certain features of the world as described
in the text. It is authentic in so far as it presents themes, events and characters
which are an a-referential representation (sometimes an anticipation think of
Kafkas work) of the referential world. As a document, then, a narrative, though
ontologically inauthentic, is often a privileged way of indirectly experiencing
aspects of reality which would otherwise remain opaque (Kundera, 1988).
One possible legitimation of the use of literary sources is to take into account
one of the structural features of fictional narratives: the fact that they combine
fictional and non-fictional elements (Laevy, 2012b, p. 518). Fictional narratives
are incomplete in the sense that they do not describe all the aspects of the
portrayed reality. In order to fill the gap, the reader must employ his memory,
make reference to his experience, draw upon his knowledge. Therefore, no novels,
even unrealistic ones, are ever totally fictive, as they result from a combination
of what is expressly written and what is demanded of the cognitive activity of the
reader (Sparshott, 1967, p. 4). Thus, fictional texts are constructed by implicitly
referring to what is commonly known about the real, which accounts for their
capacity to construct an imagined yet credible world; that is, a world which draws
heavily upon the readers stock of knowledge. A literary text selects elements of
the referential world and although their meaning is transformed in the process of
fictionalization, the selected aspects (whether historical, social, literary or cultural)
depend on their original meaning as sedimented in our shared stock of knowledge.
In their turn, textual meanings may retroact on the way that the reader (including
the specialized reader such as the sociologist) refers to aspects of his everyday
experience, opening new perspectives from which to look at the referential world
(Iser, 1997). And this is possible because, in combining fictive and non-fictive
elements, literary narratives do not imitate life, but construct a literary world in
which the reader may vicariously live, experiencing events and learning from
them (Phillips, 1995, p. 634).
A similar process also accounts for the way in which fictional characters acquire
their truthfulness. Literary narratives make reference to a set of culturally defined
types, upon the basis of which fictional characters are defined (Abbott, 2002,
p. 130). Types are social constructions (Berger and Luckmann, 1971), Therefore,
even when emerging from a literary narrative, they tell us something about the
way that individuals are typified in the given social and cultural context. Types
are part of our ordinary pre-narrative strategies for giving sense to social reality:
they originally emerge in social interaction but are elaborated in a multiplicity
of other forms of social communication (law, media and the social sciences, to
mention just a few examples [McHoul, 1988]). By using the technical resources
of creative fiction (for example, the possibility of probing into the mind of its
characters), great narratives are able to construct complex characters, far more

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


articulated than the mock typifications law (the prudent man), economics or
some branch of sociology (the rational, calculating man) (ibid., p. 211). Due to
the complexity of the process of fictional characterization, literary works do not
simply reflect already available social types; they contribute to the creation of new
ones. The capacity to represent character and context in a vivid way leads to the
only apparently paradoxical claim that, by resorting to fictional sources, the social
scientist is likely to enter into contact with real life (Phillips, 1995, p. 365).
Another reason that literary narratives constitute a plausible source of data is
that they provide peculiarly rich representations of actions and motives. Action is
represented in relation to subjective motives, socially determined conditions and the
capacity of characters to reflectively reason about what they have done. Moreover,
action may be explained starting from different points of view (each related to a
character in the story), thus giving a fluid representation of the everyday world of
the protagonists, open to doubt and uncertainty (Phillips, 1995, pp. 628-9; Bruner,
1986, p. 50). Fiction pictures the actor, his conduct and its underlining motives,
as well as the external causes which may determine or hinder action (Negash,
2004, p. 188). Indeed, the presence of an impending cause (or obstacle) and the
corresponding reaction of the characters is one of the main features of narratives,
including non-literary ones (Van Dijk, 1975, 1976; Labov, 1997). In the interplay
between external causes and internal motivations an articulated portrait emerges
which, though devoid of external reference, is nevertheless able to involve the
readers in the vicissitudes of fictional characters. Moreover, a close analysis of
action in literary fiction gives the social scientist relevant information on what is
considered a socially acceptable form of conduct in a given social context. Thus,
regardless of its lack of external references, literary narratives contain a stock
of socially understandable representations of action and interaction: individual
motivations, social conditions, conformity to and deviance from socially defined
standards all are components of literary fiction. This implies a peculiarly
rich, true-to-life representation of human action and social conduct. Compared
to the ideal-typical constructions of the social sciences (think, for example, of
the Weberian typology of action), narrative fiction provides a portrait of human
beings in action, depicting also the variety of contradictory elements which may
characterize human behaviour: the purposeful component of action is represented
together with the contingent and the unexpected (Negash, 2004, p. 193) within
a thick, meaningful description that constitutes a relevant playground for
sociological analysis and theorizing.
Moreover, the fictionality of literary narratives loses relevance when we
consider that, though fictive, literary narratives provides us with clues about the
social credibility of culturally determined representations of reality. Fiction reflects
the culture of a given social context, which influences the way reality is portrayed.
Thus, facts as represented rather than the represented facts may be a relevant
resource for sociological analysis (Grey, 1996, p. 63). What the reader finds by
reading is not facts, but meanings, and the way they are culturally articulated and
made plausible. One of the culturally determined modalities of representation in


Fiction and Social Reality

fiction is the masterplot. A masterplot is a plot which, with slight variations, recurs
in a plurality of narratives. There are masterplots which are almost universal and
can be found in practically every culture and every time (the quest, the revenge and
the rescue, to mention but a few). Other masterplots, being specific to a cultural
or social background (Abbot, 2002, p. 44), are sociologically more relevant. A
literary source may be interpreted in terms of certain masterplots, so as to verify
the congruence of the narrative with a recurrent way of organizing events and
action (for example, the masterplot of the self-made man in American literature).
The more complex a society is, the more numerous the masterplots it potentially
generates. An articulated society may produce a highly sophisticated system of
masterplots, some of them mutually supporting, some of them conflicting (ibid.).
As culturally determined ways of organizing raw actions into interconnected
events, they account for the plausibility and social persuasiveness of narratives.
Thus, when analysing literary fiction in terms of masterplots, textual material may
be understood in connection with the artificial process of meaning construction,
rather than as the accurate and realistic portrayal of aspects of reality.
What has become clear is that literary narratives are a relevant sociological
source, regardless of (or perhaps because of) their fictionality. Making reference
to Milan Kunderas The Art of the Novel, William G. Tierney clarifies that novels
allow readers to examine meaning rather than truth, existence as opposed to reality
(Tierney, 2004, p. 162). In this capacity to make reference to meaning, novels
are able to disclose possibilities, open alternatives and propose new perspectives
from which to observe the world. By dismantling the realist position, according
to which reality is definite they give novel opportunities for our sociologically
imaginative analysis of reality.
Converting Literary Data into Sociological Discourses
Regardless of the similarities between sociology and narration, both everyday
narratives and literary narratives assume sociological relevance only when
converted into the language of the social sciences. This does not diminish their
relevance as sources of data, yet it prevents any unrealistic dilution of sociology
into narratives or vice versa. To state, with Nisbet, that sociology is an art form,
does not mean to lose sight of the specific features of sociological discourse.
This awareness implies that when adopting literature as a source, sociologists
must negate the complexity of meaning in the selected literary texts, choose an
interpretative strategy and make it plausible by translating the narrative into the
terminology and logic of the discipline. Once assumed as sociological material, a
literary narrative has, as it were, to be subordinated to sociological interpretation,
the direct consequence of this operation being the reduction of the multi-layered
character of a literary text to the more limited scope of univocal sociological
discourse (Craib, 1974, p. 326).

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


Indeed, sociology and literature are two distinct cultures, characterized by

different cognitive approaches to social reality. The question, therefore, is not one
of equating literature and sociology, but of identifying possible cross-fertilizations,
plausible uses of sociological knowledge by artists as well as conversions of
literary insights into sociological knowledge, and this in a manner that is respectful
of the substantial differences between literature and sociology. But what are the
relevant differences? An easy answer would state that, whereas literature aims at
the particular, social sciences aim at the general (ibid., p. 325). So formulated,
the distinction is nave: social scientists may refer to individual aspects of social
phenomena, for example, in the so-called intrinsic case study, where the research
setting is interesting in itself and no attempt is made to generalize (Stake, 1994).
In his turn, the novelist may generalize, when resorting to the comment as a form
of interference in the action on the part the narrator (Berger, 1977). According to
Craig, the distinction has to do with a different use of language: whereas the social
scientist tends to refer to words as signs endowed with specific meanings, literature
uses words as symbols, an oblique, indirect way to refer to the external word (Craib,
1974, p. 326). This accounts for the multiple layers of meaning of a literary text as
compared to social science. Literature, by using an evocative, symbolic language,
is able to introduce the reader into the complex, contradictory aspects of the lived
experience of characters. By contrast, the use of a univocal language prevents
social scientists from portraying life and its vividness. This implies a disjunction
between science and life, regardless of the fact that, at least in principle, even
the most unambiguous sociological jargon and the most neutral technique must
have, as their ultimate reference, the lived experience of individuals (ibid., p. 332).
What is at stake is a distinction between sociology and literature on the basis of
the polysemic capacity of literature to portray life and its contradictions, and the
basically monosemic sociological portrayal of social reality.
The logic of sociology and the tropes and rhetoric that it adopts are the results of
a historical process of selection, converging in what has been called the sociological
canon. The term canon designates the entirety of texts acknowledged as relevant
within a given disciplinary field, (for an overview of the discussion about the
sociological canon, see Carrera da Silva and Brito Vieira, 2011, p. 358 ff.) and is the
result of a cumulative and selective process. A selection is made among authors and
their works on the basis of their contribution to relevant topics and an appropriate
argumentative style. Authors and works eventually converge so as to construct a
tradition and hence a disciplinary identity. The process is always open as it constantly
generates memory and oblivion, by singling out what is to be reputed as classical
and what has to be expunged as inappropriate, what is central to the debate and what
is to be marginalized, what is foundational and what can be considered, at most, to
be an old fashioned intellectual curiosity. Obviously, the selection process cannot be
attributed purely to the quality of what has been selected, but also to a series of factors
connected to the geographical distribution of power and research centres, funding,
control of international reviews and the like (Connell, 2007, p. 4). The selection
process is concealed so that what has been included in the canon is legitimized


Fiction and Social Reality

as the natural product of the evolution of a specific field of investigation. What

has been assumed within the canon is what had to be assumed within it, and what
has been excluded up until now can be included only after undergoing complex
appropriation procedures.
Paradoxically, the idea of a sociological canon (originally derived from literary
criticism) reinforces and weakens the analogy between sociology and literature.
It strengthens it in so far as the construction of a sociological field seems subject
to similar rules to those affecting literary texts. It weakens the similarities since,
in order to be adopted as part of the canon, a text has to respect the linguistic,
methodological and theoretical standards acknowledged within the discipline.
The literary text is excluded from the sociological canon unless it is assumed as an
alternative or integrative form of sociological analysis (Toscano, 2011). Toscano
(ibid., p. 9) has shown that including non-sociological works (even literary ones)
in the textual corpus of sociology is possible provided that the process of inclusion
is sociologically argued. This entails an evident difficulty: a literary work can
hardly comply with the rhetorical rules of the discipline, since it needs to follow
other rules and tropes. Therefore, every reference to literature as sociology or
the novelist as a sociologist (Craib, 1974; McHoul, 1988; Brinkmann, 2009) is
metaphorical, in the sense that it is up to the sociologist alone to discover the
sociological dimension of literary texts or the sociological qualities of a novelist.
Regardless of all similarities, the two discourses (sociology and literature) never
converge, which implies that every attempt to use a work of narrative as a source
of data or as social theory necessarily produces a sociological reduction of the
complexity of the literary text: the text is reconverted, through a selective process,
into the language (and logic) of sociology. In Schutzian terms (Schutz, 1962b),
they are two distinct, finite provinces of meaning, which means that no simple
transfer of content from one province to the other is possible, since any content
has to be translated into terms which are compatible with the receiving province.
The differences between literary fiction and sociology are apparently selfevident: whereas a novel usually tells an imagined story, sociology aspires to
be a genuine science , as it tries to set forth a series of related propositions, with
the evidence for them, about what it regards as the real world (Berger, 1977,
p. 215). Yet, the trained eye may detect not only differences but also analogies
between the two fields. The main similarity is to be found in the common interest
for social life explained on the basis of institutions created by men and women
rather than by appealing to immutable absolutes or divine powers (ibid., p. 216).
The novelist includes in his work all sorts and conditions of men (notably All
Sorts and Conditions of Men is the title of a well-known novel by Walter Besant,
published in 1882). On its turn, the sociologist proposes a scientific scrutiny
of aspects of social reality traditionally disregarded as irrelevant or scandalous
by philosophical or ethical speculation (ibid.). Monroe Berger shows even
methodological similarities between the novel and the social sciences, which allow
him to conceive the novel as a sort of systematic inquiry into human vicissitudes
(ibid., p. 214 ff.). Abstraction, hypotheses, evidence and experiments, cumulative

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


coverage and prediction characterize both the method of fiction and of social
inquiry, although the novelist and the sociologist make reference to them from
their peculiar standpoint. Indeed, even if both the novelist and the sociologist
create artificial worlds which are not the mere reflex of the external reality (ibid.,
220), [the] two types of world are based on different criteria and are subject to
different canons of judgment (ibid.). Thus the peculiar type of knowledge which
a novel conveys (its insights on human nature, social relations and institutions),
has to undergo a process of conversion in order to become meaningful within the
constructed world of the social sciences: literary materials are to be reformulated
within sociological hypotheses and investigated according to the best methods
that the scholars have been able to devise (ibid., p. 161).
Every time sociology adopts a literary text, a selective and reductive process
is at work. The selection process is twofold and consists of asking which works
are to be selected in order to exemplify specific sociological concepts or specific
aspects of social reality, and which passages, characters or events as reported
in the fictional narrative are to be singled out as relevant for the specific topic.
The selection is not arbitrary and has to be connected with the specific features
of literary sources. When a sociologist uses literature to exemplify topics or
processes, he has to adopt ad hoc justifications which, by making reference to
sociological concepts and tropes, render a non-sociological text sociologically
relevant (Carlin, 2010, p. 213). Once a sociologist has identified an exogenous
text as sociologically relevant, he has to propose reading strategies; that is a set of
advice which is indispensable to adapting the text to the objectives of the researcher
(ibid., p. 219). This selective and interpretative process is necessarily parasitic: a
sociologist selects, from the infinite number of possible interpretations, one which
is compatible with his cognitive tasks as well as with sociological concepts and
categories. A new sociological meaning is given to the text which, by reducing the
complexity of the literary narrative, converts artistic relevances into sociological
ones. The literary material is, for the most part, treated as collateral support for the
sociological reasoning. Thus, assuming the fictionality of the fictional narrative
to be irrelevant, and taking seriously the idea that it effectively portrays aspects
of reality, it is adopted as an exemplification of sociological concepts (such as
subculture, the human condition, the individual and modernity, and so on)
(ibid.). What is now visible in the text is only what the sociological interpretation
makes visible.
There remain two questions to deal with: why a literary work should be selected
as sociologically relevant, and what the processes involved in the sociological
reduction of a fictional narrative consist of. If we distinguish everyday narratives
from literary narratives, we may notice that, in the case of everyday narratives, the
discussion of the selection of the sources and their analysis is a relevant aspect of the
research design. The methodological reflection on qualitative techniques (Mason,
2002; Cardano, 2011; Silverman and Marvasti, 2008) has thematized the question
of the selection of cases (qualitative sampling), as well as the most appropriate


Fiction and Social Reality

means of analysing narrative data. The same attention to methodological questions

must also be activated in case of literary narratives.
Adopting a concept elaborated by Harvey Sacks, Carlin underlines that
resorting to literary material may be necessary every time direct observation is
precluded. Once selected, the literary material, chosen in relation to research
strategies and research topics, undergoes a process of sociological reconstruction.
According to Sacks, only by directly observing a social context can a sociologist
produce sociological descriptions. In this case, the sociologist describes reality
starting from the data he has directly gathered during the observation process.
When, for whatever reason, the researcher may not directly observe social
phenomena, he may resort to indirect sources (including literary narratives). A
complex process of sociological reconstruction of the chosen sources is triggered,
which entails a necessary translation of the text into sociological terms. In order
to explain the process, Sacks makes reference to the way Max Weber uses biblical
sources to describe ancient Judaism. Circumstances dictated that Weber could
not directly observe the Judaic world, which implies that his analysis had to be
approached as a reconstruction. Thus, he resorted to exogenous sources (in this
case the Bible) adapting them to his sociological objectives. The reconstruction
is based on familiarizing techniques, by means of which the selected material
is presented in such a way that a sociologist may recognize it (Carlin, 2010, p.
222). Following selection, the non-sociological source undergoes a process of
translation, carried out by the reader who, by adopting the jargon of his academic
community, converts it into a language that will be acknowledged as plausible
within his specific disciplinary field.
In Schutzian terms, literature and sociology are two distinguished finite provinces
of meaning and, since they are endowed with their specific cognitive style, in order
to use literary sources sociologically, one has to cross the border which separates
them, eventually making fictional texts compatible with sociological arguments
(Sebald, 2001). The active role of the sociologist as a competent reader is implied
here. The ordinary reader interprets the literary text by making reference to shared
social knowledge, what Eco defines as an encyclopaedia (Eco, 1979; Desogus,
2012). The reference to a shared encyclopaedia excludes a set of interpretations
that do not conform with what is generally accepted about the topic. Nevertheless,
the sociologist makes reference to a specific set of disciplinary knowledge as well
(a sort of sociological sub-encyclopaedia), which allows him to interpret the text
from his peculiar disciplinary point of view. On the one hand, the fictional text may
not be interpreted with complete disregard for the shared encyclopaedia, which
prevents extravagant readings; on the other, the social scientist has to balance his
analysis between commonsensical interpretations and the specific interpretations
allowed by his disciplinary knowledge.
A similar process is at work even when the sociologist operates with qualitative
data deriving from everyday narratives, in which case the commonsensical
typifications of the social actors are reinterpreted with reference to the disciplinary
stock of knowledge. Regardless of the postulate of adequacy, sociology is at its best

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


when it provides counterintuitive interpretations and explanations of its objects of

analysis, selecting aspects of social reality (such as events, facts or representations)
and linking them within a sociologically meaningful interconnection. When
referring to literary sources, the sociologist confronts much more complex
material, endowed as it is with its implicit social philosophy (Berger, 1977), a
strongly ordered reality and a causal network of related events (Carroll, 2010). So,
regardless of the fact that literary narratives propose stories devoid of any actual
referent, they are nonetheless capable of giving order to the scattered vicissitudes
of the characters involved in the story (Ricoeur, 1985; Mink, 1970). When using
literary narratives as sources, a sociologist is resorting to a highly artificial
reconstruction of human experience, within an ordered and coherent framework
(Fisher, 1987). In contrast to sociological analyses, the literary representation
of the human world is compatible with the meanings shared by social actors in
their everyday life-world (Craib, 1974, p. 311). Moreover, literary narratives are
not only reality-like representations, they are also multi-layered texts open to a
plurality of interpretations, including those of a sociological nature. Thus, two
collateral (never identical) processes of meaning construction in relation to human
actions and social intercourse characterize both sociology and literature. Literature
and sociology are not two solitudes; that is to say, two separate and unconnected
worlds. They are, rather, two complementary forms of reality-understanding
(Phillips, 1995) and at the same time two distinct artificialities, hence two highly
technical ways of representing reality.
By Way of Conclusion
The telos of literary narratives is the tale itself, since only ex post is it possible to detect
ethical meanings or a moral teaching. By making reference once again to Lukcs,
it is possible to state that literature as a form of art builds up a kind of knowledge
grounded in the particular, whereas sciences aim at generalization, at the inductive
passage from details to the universal. Literature is located half way between the
fragmented and scattered typifications of everyday life and the sophisticated yet
abstract picture of scientific generalizations. Literature transcends the meaningless
details of everyday life, proposing meaningful typifications in which characters
and events are reported as unique, yet are able to condense in themselves plausible
representations of aspects of social, political, economic reality (Lukcs, 1971).
Indeed, in contrast with Lukcs optimism, modern methodological reflection has
questioned the idea that universal knowledge is ever achievable in the field of
the social sciences, yet an aspiration to a mild, moderate generalization is always
present in sociological discourse. Even when sociology focuses on case studies,
it does so not because single details are sociologically relevant; rather it does so
within a sociological scheme which allows the social researcher to argue about
the possible causes of social phenomena, detect their functions and single out the
forms and mechanisms of social interaction. The intrinsic case study approach,


Fiction and Social Reality

mentioned earlier as a descriptive modality interested in the mere qualification of

a specific social context, is in the minority in social research and has been heavily
criticized even by qualitative researchers: an idiosyncratic restriction of the analysis
to a single object of study in fact seems useless and inappropriate (Mason, 2002,
p. 8). The interest of the social scientist in reality is mediated by theoretical concepts
and is delimited by research methods which orient the observation towards some
form of generalization (Silverman and Marvasti, 2008, p. 163 ff.). If it makes
sense to speak of a sociological use of narratives, it does so only provided that
the social researcher is fully aware that the use he makes of narrations is always
functional to the achievement of an additional and unavoidable requirement: the
comprehension and explanation of reality. What is observed and described is used
to say something different from what would be given by a straightforward account
or description of what has been observed and described. Even when the sociologist
recounts reality (think of ethnography or the works of Erving Goffman) he does so
always in an attempt to sociologically explain more general aspects of the social,
external to the observed situation (Sparti, 1995; Fornari, 2002).
Historical reconstructions of the relation between sociology and literature
(Lepenies, 1988) show that the present day distinction between the two fields is
the historical product of a process of differentiation: the founding fathers, trying
to distinguish their learning from other contiguous forms of knowledge (including
literature), qualified sociology as a science, which required them to define a
specifically sociological method. The solutions were different, from Durkheims
attempt to apply the logic of the natural sciences to the investigation of society (a
sui generis reality), to Webers more mature attempt to define a specific method
for the related fields of history and the social sciences. Although sociology has
never been capable of defining a unitary methodological and theoretical approach,
it nonetheless describes itself as an empirical science and has by now achieved
a set of acknowledged theories and methods. The reference to this set of shared
knowledge is what makes a discourse properly sociological. When employing
literary sources, the intent is generally not to include them in the textual corpus
of sociology: the distinction between the two fields, once historically defined,
tends in fact to keep sociology and literature separate.2 A novel does not speak
the language of sociology, which implies that in accordance with his horizons
of relevance, it is up to the sociologist to identify within the text the themes,
characters and events which are to be translated for his specific reading public,
and to make clear the sense in which the literary material may be connected
with relevant sociological questions (Carlin, 2010, p. 224). This practical work
of reconstruction makes the rhetorical feature of sociological discourse evident,
as it has to argumentatively justify the use of non-sociological sources, provided
that they are selected as sociologically relevant. As a specific mode of discourse,
sociology may not appropriate literary works (and this holds for other sources as
2Exceptions may be found. See, as examples, the already cited works by Brinkmann
(2009) and McHoul (1988).

On the Sociological Use of Narratives


well: movies, television shows and the like), unless it re-specifies their meanings,
so adapting them to its arguments.
In spite of their mutual influences and similarities, literary narratives and
sociology continue to be seen as two distinct forms of reality description. The
pact between the novelist and his readers is substantially different from the pact
between the social researcher and his academic community. Literature constructs
stories as if they were true (Turnaturi, 2003, p. 16 ff.), hence stories that, although
realistic, are nonetheless fictive. The sociologist, however, always has the burden
of proof: he has to clarify the identity of his sources, locate his analysis in a welldefined methodological and theoretical context and make his analysis both valid
and reliable (Silverman and Marvasti, 2008, p. 259 ff.). This distinction does not
imply that sociology is better suited to understanding reality. It entails, nonetheless,
that, in order to be effective as a mode of discourse, sociology has to comply with
a set of rules (including giving accounts of theory and methods) which are typical
of the discipline. The logic of literature is of another kind: the reader of a novel
may temporarily accept the implausibility of a story (for example the vicissitudes
of Gregor Samsa in Kafkas Metamorphosis) and, at the same time, perceive the
drama of the exclusion (one of the themes of Kafkas short novel) as plastically
portrayed in the narrative. By contrast, a competent reader of sociology may accept
the reference to Gregor Samsa as the basis for further sociological arguments only
once the extraordinary events of the novel have been translated into the aseptic
language of the discipline. Regardless of this process of reduction, reference
to literature as a source is an important strategy for enriching our capacity to
understand and describe social reality. A thoughtful use of exogenous sources is
to be considered proof of the vitality of sociology: it shows the capacity of social
research to explain and interpret reality by resorting to complex cultural products.
It shows, moreover, the capacity of sociology to integrate into its discourse texts
with a strong symbolic and cultural impact, and yet keep its disciplinary identity.

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action and narrative 3, 7, 11-16, 18-20, 24,

27-9, 31-6, 39, 46-50, 103-6, 132,
134, 141-2
access to subjectivity 7, 21-3, 58
argumentation in narratives 7, 16, 20, 29,
38, 81
art and science 44-6, 59, 73-5, 77-8, 81-3,
97, 99-100
Barthes, R. 18-20
Berger, M. 80-81, 127, 136-7, 143-5
Berger, P.L. 8, 110, 116-21
Blauner, R. 53-4, 102
Brinkmann, S. 123
breach in the ordinary 11-12, 14, 16, 36-7,
50-51, 141
normative function of narratives 1314, 36-7, 47, 136
Brown, R.H. 81-3
Bruner, J. 3, 5, 19, 21, 23, 33, 35-7, 50-51
Burgess, E.W. 6, 55-60, 62, 66-8, 102, 127
Cappetti, C. 59-61
Carr, D. 25, 28-9, 31, 137
Carroll, N. 15, 30-32, 50, 139, 147
Castellano, U. 105-6
causality and narrative 13, 15, 25, 29-32,
48-9, 132-3, 139, 147
Chicago School 53, 59-61, 68-9, 102,
Clark Ibez, M. 105-6
Clifford, J. 96-7
cognitive value of narrative 2, 12, 26-9,
31-8, 48, 138
against the cognitive value of narrative
29-31, 39-40, 82
cognitive value of literary narrative 5-7,
39-51, 66, 80-81, 98-107
comments in literary narratives 22, 80-81,
136-7, 143

common sense and literary narrative 8, 28,

33, 36, 40-41, 44-5, 51, 57, 110,
Coser, L.A. 7-8, 53, 101-7, 110, 128
data in the social sciences 62, 64-5, 68-70,
79-80, 128-31, 135
Davis, F. 79-80
Dawes, R. 29-30, 33
De Angelis, J. 105-6
Denzin, N.K. 99, 107, 122, 127
description in narratives 7, 12, 16, 20-21,
81, 144
Don Quixote 110-16, 118
diorama 95
dual landscape 20-23
Durkheim, . 54, 79, 86-90, 92-3, 148
Embree, M. 108-10
Endress, M. 109-10, 114-15
emplotment 24-6, 34, 46-9, 80, 132
ethnography 79, 91-7, 99-100, 131-2
ethnomethodology 101, 133
everyday life 108, 112-13, 115-19, 127-9,
everyday narratives 2, 4-5, 128, 132, 134,
138-9, 145-6
oral narratives 12-14
turn taking and oral narratives 4, 13
Farrel, J.T. 60-61
fiction and truth 17-18, 39-43, 49-51, 989, 107, 122, 137-8, 142
fictional characters 12, 18-19, 20-23, 38,
fictional worlds 6, 21, 23-6, 40-41, 44,
137, 140
Fisher, W. 1, 6, 37-8, 147


Fiction and Social Reality

Garfinkel, H. 14, 79, 113, 134

generalization in the social sciences 27,
31-2, 35, 45, 50, 59, 62, 66-7,
71-2, 76, 85, 93-4, 125-6, 129,
143, 147-8
generalization in narratives 27, 31-3,
35, 45
generalization in literary narratives
45, 50, 57-8, 66-7, 71-2, 85,
136-7, 143, 147
Gibson, J. 8, 41-3, 51, 137
Giddens, A. 136
homo narrans 38, 129-30
humanistic sociology 6, 68-72, 79, 82-3,
individual, the 77-8, 86-8, 90-94, 116-17,
individualism 86-9
intentionality 12, 14, 28-9, 35-6, 47
Jedlowski, P. 2, 91, 121, 129, 136, 138-9
Kundera, M. 6, 51, 140, 142
Kuzmics, H. 122-3
Labov, W. 11-13, 15, 18, 20, 31
Laslett, P. 122
Lepenies, W. 53-7, 68, 148
Lewis, M. 106-7
literature and reality 4, 6, 8, 21, 23, 40, 42,
51, 102-4, 110, 137-8, 140-41
literature as a source of data 2, 4-9, 26, 51,
57-9, 65-8, 69, 98-9, 101-4, 107-8,
110-11, 116, 121-3, 138-42, 145-9
literary data, specificity of 8-9, 58-9, 65-7,
101-5, 122-3, 137-42, 143
literary narrative 2, 4-9, 16-23, 25-6, 42-3,
50, 107, 136-42, 147
literary narrative and social theory 8,
98-9, 103, 110, 115-16, 116-17,
121-3, 144
literary narrative and the teaching of
sociology 7-8, 102, 104-8,
Livingstone, P. 29
Luhmann, N. 75, 125-6
Lukcs, G. 43-6, 49-50, 66, 85, 137-8, 147

Lyotard, J-F. 94
McHoul, A. 98-9, 123
masterplot 142
meaning and narrative 3, 13, 19-20, 24-9,
31, 32-6, 46-9, 51, 79-80, 132-4,
137-8, 140, 142-3, 147
mechanic and organic solidarity 88
Merton, R.K. 103
meta-narratives 94-5, 100
methodological reflection on narratives 2,
5-9, 58-9, 61, 65-8, 97, 128-9,
130-34, 138-40, 145-7
metropolis 59-60, 90-93, 127
mimesis 11, 19-20, 23-5, 42-9, 121-2
Mink, L. 28, 33, 35, 97, 121-2
modernity 86, 77-9, 86-93, 116-19, 121
modern self 90-91, 117, 119-21
money economy 91-2
multiple realities 111-14, 116-17
Musil, R. 116-21
The Man without Quality 116-21
narrative, definition of 3-4, 11, 13-15, 20,
24, 31-3, 36, 50
artificiality of narrative 5, 16-17, 1920, 25, 133-4
features of narrative 11-16, 18, 27-8,
33, 47, 50-51, 134
features of literary narrative 17-22,
25-6, 50-51, 105, 107
function of narrative 3-4, 12-14, 31,
33-4, 94
function of literary narrative 7-8,
24-5, 48-9, 59-60, 103-4, 111
structure of narrative 12-16
structure of literary narrative 7,
18-20, 24-6, 48-9, 81
narrative explanation, 28-9, 32, 48-9
narrative rationality, 37-8
narrative, ubiquitousness of 1, 3-4, 18
narrative, universality of 3-4, 18, 27-8
Narratology 2-3, 18-21, 25-6
narrator in everyday narrative 4, 12-13,
15, 22, 30, 34, 130, 134
narrator in literary narrative 20-23, 25, 28,
81, 110, 122, 137, 143

Nisbet, R. 56, 70, 73-4, 76-9, 85-6, 93,
93-6, 100-101, 126, 142
paradigmatic vs narrative mode 33, 35-6
particularity 44-6, 50, 85, 135-6, 147
Park, R.E. 6, 55-60, 66-7, 102, 127
Polkinghorne, D. 3, 32-5
postulate of adequacy 8, 134-8, 146
post-modern 6, 50, 68, 79, 82-3, 94-5,
qualitative vs quantitative 27, 36, 69, 79,
82-3, 128-31
qualitative research and narratives 3,
5, 19, 50, 79-80, 129, 131-4, 138-9
qualitative research and literary
narratives 79-80, 99, 101-2,
138-9, 145-7
quantitative research and narratives
100, 131, 139
quantitative research and literary
narratives 122
Redfield, R. 60, 69-73, 75, 82, 95, 97, 101
Ricoeur, P. 6, 22, 24-6, 28, 33-4, 39, 46-9,
51, 97, 137, 147
role of the reader 21-2, 25, 40-41, 46-7,
49, 99, 108-10, 136-8, 140, 146,
Sacks, H. 13, 79, 146
Schutz, A. 8, 36, 31, 108-17, 121-2,
127-31, 135-6, 144, 146
Searle, R.J. 5, 17-18, 23, 39, 113
Simmel, G. 25, 54-5, 86, 89-95, 129-30
social role 87-90, 120-21
social sciences as art 12, 70-74, 76-80,
social sciences as discourse 9, 79, 97-100,
103-4, 107-8, 136-9, 142-4, 147-9
society as an object of investigation 62-4,
69-71, 125-7, 129-30
sociological canon 56, 143-4


sociological relevance of narratives 1-2,

11-12, 14, 19, 26, 33-4, 60, 66-7,
79-80, 100, 102-3, 136-40
sociological translation of literary sources
9, 67-8, 81, 107-8, 128, 135-6,
137-8, 142-7, 149
sociology and literature 2, 4-5, 6-8, 53, 57,
102-3, 123
differences 8-9, 58-61, 66-8, 71, 81,
100, 104, 127, 136-9, 143-4, 148-9
sociology and literature,
differentiation 53-5, 68-9,
74-5, 148
similarities 7, 11-12, 69-72, 79-81,
93-4, 97-9, 122-4, 127, 139, 144
mutual influences 54-5, 59-61
sociology and Romanticism 76-8
sociology and the Enlightenment 76,
sociology as a form of writing 6, 50, 60,
98-100, 123
Sparshott, F.E. 40-41, 49, 140
Sub-universes of meaning 108-9, 111-16,
Sullivan, T.A. 105
technification of the social sciences 69, 71,
73-6, 79, 94, 101-2, 129
Thomas, W.I. 59-61, 132-3
time and narrative 4, 11, 12-13, 15-16, 20,
24-5, 28-9, 31-3, 47-9, 137
Topolski, J. 139-40
Toscano, M.A. 130, 144
Turner, M. 2, 39
Van Dijk, T-A. 7-8, 12-16, 21-2
Vellman, J.D. 30-32
White, H. 27-8, 50
Znaniecki, F. 6, 56, 61-8, 76, 101, 104,
129, 131-3