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Thinking like a Sociologist: Theories, Methods, and Risks

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Organizer: Bryan Yazell

Co-Organizer: Rita Felski

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This seminar focuses on the growing interest among literary critics in the social sciences. What are the affordances and limits of such cross-disciplinary work? What are its implications at the level of ideas and methods? For example, might recent sociological thought offer new perspectives on social class and institutions? Might it give us new ways of understanding what literature is and does? And how do disciplinary differences of style and sensibility affect the possibilities of such cross-disciplinary scholarship?
In recent years, sociological work by (among others) Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, and Bruno Latour has inspired critics looking to push beyond the hermeneutic models that have traditionally guided literary studies. The “empirical turn,” writes Lee Konstantinou, is guided by the assumption that literary scholars will learn more if they “get empirical” and start thinking “like sociologists.” Scholars including Heather Love, Sharon Marcus, and Stephen Best have, over the past several years, expounded on the benefits that thinking—and reading—like a sociologist bring to literary criticism in general. The embrace of such approaches, however, has also generated controversy. Some scholars see sociological thinking as inimical to aesthetics; as denying or minimizing the distinctiveness of literature and art. Others query the merits of sociological description and the extent to which the empirical can be separated from the interpretative. There are also institutional questions at play; in the context of the contemporary university, is it strategic for humanists to make alliances with social scientists, or should we be accentuating our differences?
We welcome papers that explore the challenges of cross-disciplinary work between literature and the social sciences. What kinds of theories or methodologies are especially helpful in moving between these domains? What are the limitations and challenges for further cross-disciplinary dialogue? What can literature and literary critics offer to social scientist? Is it possible to think like a sociologist, yet without treating literary works as products of a pre-given context? What are the challenges of incorporating empirical data into literary studies? And might social sciences offer perspectives that differ from the standard political categories of literary criticism?

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