Sociology and Fiction
Howard S. Becker
Sociology and fiction cover some of the same ground, or can if their practitioners want to venture into that same ground. Which is, roughly speaking, what people do as they live their lives. Not a lot of help, to say that, right? But it points us sociologists toward the work others have done on both sides of that line, the novels of practitioners we would be glad to claim as ours (though it’s not at all clear that any of them would take such a statement as a compliment).
I have never tried to write fiction so, while I admire the courage of those who do and who appear in this journal, I have no experience of doing it, and thus no wise old Dutch uncle advice to give.
The best I can do is mention some writers of fiction I admire and tell you why I admire them, what I think we learn from them. To begin with, my fellow citizen of the big, flawed democracy of the United States. In an era when sociologists seem determined to make sure that, whatever else their work does and is, it comes down on the right side of all the moral struggles that are going on. My taste has always run ahead of my brain, and so when I was quite young I recognized Mark Twain as admirable writer. Most obviously for the great moment in Huckleberry Finn when, believing that he is committing a terrible sin, he helps Jim, a black slave, escape into freedom, thereby depriving a woman he admires of her property. The moment embodies one of the moral dilemmas of slavery. In a lighter but still serious, vein, long passages in Life on the Mississippi consist of a sociological analysis of the profession of the steamboat pilot Everett Hughes would have admired if he had thought about (and maybe he did, we didn’t discuss it). Any sociologist could learn a lot reading this book carefully.
On another continent, I quickly saw, as soon as I became aware of his existence, that the French writer Georges Perec was as good a sociologist as anyone could ask for. Two examples: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is an exhaustive listing of everything he saw and heard at he sat at a table on the outdoor terrasse of the Café de la Mairie in Paris” Fifth arrondisement. It’s a model for anyone doing field work of what field notes, done seriously and conscientiously could look like.
Perec’s short novel Things: A Story of the Sixties tells the story of a young couple and the places they lived, the things they bought, and all the nuances of their daily life in a way that is far more compelling than the descriptions sociologists were producing at the same time about the same kinds of people. Perec makes clear that you needn’t be abstract and sententious to do the job and that you gain important things from avoiding those qualities.
I could go on, and have gone on at great length elsewhere, about these matters, but the short version is: find good writers of fiction wherever they are, writers whose work speaks to you and see what they have to teach you about the common subject natter of daily life we all study and write about.
Howard S. Becker lives and works in San Francisco and occasionally in Paris. He is the author of numerous works, including Telling About Society (2007) and What About Mozart? What About Murder? (2015).