Rita Felski: My Sociology Envy


Rita Felski
University of Virginia; University of Southern Denmark


I sometimes wish I’d become a sociologist. Not any kind of sociologist, mind you: not a structuralist functionalist or a rational choice theorist, but perhaps a cultural sociologist or a sociologist of intellectuals. In his Introduction to Sociology–surely the only one of his books that could be called a gripping read— Adorno reflects on the proliferation of hyphen sociologies and the very diverse nature of the field. Rather than being a self-contained intellectual whole, he remarks, sociology is an agglomerate of disparate disciplines, thanks to its divided origins: in the philosophical ambitions of August Comte and other nineteenth-century thinkers on the one hand, and in modern empirical methods of planning and administration on the other. Is there anything, he wonders, that holds together this “whole commotion”? (Adorno, 2002: 54).

Among literary scholars, especially in the US where I currently teach, this diversity is rarely registered. [1] When sociology is not being ignored or dismissed—I’ve lost count of how often I’ve heard the phrase “merely sociological”– it is usually portrayed in one of two ways. Either as being synonymous with quantitative and statistical methods, as when James English (2010) argues that the indifference toward sociology among literary scholars stems from their allergy toward numbers. (That U.S sociology departments are so heavily slanted toward quantitative research plays its part in promoting this perception.) Or else as associated with broad synoptic theories of modern or postmodern society; here European social theorists are often invoked, such as Zygmunt Bauman on liquid modernity or Ulrich Beck on risk society.

            Yet neither of these perceptions does full justice to sociology’s distinctive features. Looking back over my own writing, for example, I’m struck by how often I’ve been helped out of intellectual jams and dead-ends by sociological thought. My first book drew extensively on Anthony Giddens and Jürgen Habermas. The Gender of Modernity had a pivotal chapter on Simmel and Tönnies. Reading C. Wright Mills was indispensable when I wrote an essay about shame and the lower middle class. The work of the phenomenologist-sociologist Alfred Schutz helped me to defend the value of habit, routine, and taken-for-grantedness in everyday life. George Herbert Mead’s idea of the generalized other and Weber on disenchantment crop up in Uses of Literature. When I was drafting The Limits of Critique, the arguments of Luc Boltanski were useful in clarifying the relations between academic critique and vernacular forms of dissent.  And Hooked: Art and Attachment has close affinities to the work of cultural sociologists such as Antoine Hennion.

            None of this work drew on quantitative methods; nor did it turn to sociology to bolster broad claims about the nature of modern or postmodern society. What I found instructive in sociology, rather, was its sharply honed attentiveness to the many kinds of phenomena that make up social existence.  While sociologists continue to assume a concept of society—a concept that Bruno Latour, for example, would question—they cannot help being conscious that this society is highly variegated and differentiated: made up of many kinds of institutions, communities, norms, and behaviors. Such knowledge is built into the DNA of the discipline, given its multiple foci and subfields: the sociology of intellectuals, the sociology of the family, the sociology of law, and the sociology of religion are all quite different areas of inquiry. Bureaucracies, social movements, and soap opera audiences are all part of “society”—but they are shaped by very different motives, actions, conventions, and vocabularies. [2] Acknowledging this differentiation does not mean ignoring larger patterns, including systemic inequalities: but it does demand attention to divergence, unpredictability, and the ever-present possibility of being surprised. One of the main tasks of sociology, writes Luc Boltanski, is to “demonstrate the importance of uncertainty in social life” (2014: 594).

            Literary critics, meanwhile, are acutely conscious of the differences in and among literary works, but are far less attuned, as Caroline Levine remarks, to the “many different and often disconnected arrangements that govern social experience” (2015: 18). The hashtag notallcritics must be inserted here; some literary and cultural historians have crafted accounts of the social shaping of literature and reading that are backed up by extensive empirical work. Sharon Marcus’s Between Women, Leah Price’s How To Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, or Nicholas Dames’ The Physiology of the Novel could serve as exemplary instances in Victorian Studies.  And there are also scholars of the contemporary scene–think John Guillory, Mark McGurl, James English, Pascale Casanova, Ato Quayson, and others—who have combined literary and sociological thinking in productive ways.  Yet imputing homogeneity to the social world has long been a defining move of literary studies.  Whether one thinks of Leavisites portraying literature as a bulwark against soulless materialism, deconstructive critics tracing out its subversion of Western metaphysics, or Marxists hailing its capacity for negativity and critique—society’s sameness is the necessary foil for accentuating literature’s difference. To assume the oppressive uniformity of the social is also to bolster claims for the dissident force of the aesthetic and the critics who study it. Close reading, we might say, is selectively close; critics zoom in in order to zoom out; literary or cultural works are read with meticulous care and attention, while the social world is deciphered—and often denounced–from a distance.

            And here the language of structure is endowed with a great deal of explanatory force—frequently presented as the only alternative to thinking in terms of individuals or “subjects.”  And yet, how structure is to be defined; what kind of analytical work it does, what conceptual or methodological difficulties it might pose—such issues are less frequently addressed in literary studies. When writing the dissertation that became my first book, I found myself at odds with the determinism of the Althusserian and Lacanian theories that were in vogue among literary scholars in the 1980s. It came as something of a revelation to learn that sociologists had been grappling with the problem of structure for decades; worrying about its tendency to promote the picture of a metaphysical puppet master that precedes, stands over, and manipulates human practices rather than being constituted through those same practices. It was sociology that taught me to think of structures as multiple and often in conflict; as not just coercive but also enabling, not a barrier to action but involved in its production.

 “Functionalist” is not a word you hear much in literary studies, though it’s often wielded in the social sciences to criticize arguments that strive to reduce many-sided phenomena to a single purpose. And yet, while literary scholars like to pride themselves on their attention to nuance, they are no less prone to functionalist thinking than social scientists when making claims about the social world. Indeed, they are arguably more so, thanks to the prevalence of a style of thinking –often referred to as “textual politics”—that imputes a necessary politics to artistic forms. Feminist literary critics were being functionalist, for example, when they argued that certain forms or genres—such as the Bildungsroman– were inherently tied to, and complicit with, patriarchal structures. From a sociological perspective, meanwhile, they fell into the opposite trap of idealism or voluntarism in arguing that experimental styles of writing would subvert these same structures, without factoring in the many mediations—of class, education, and institution—that affect how literature circulates through the world. There is a recurring tendency in literary studies, as Timothy Aubry (2018) has recently reminded us, to drastically overestimate the transformative effects of literary form.

Here again, sociology turned out to be something of a godsend; instead of using the feminist literary theories of the time, I drew on Habermas and on Negt and Kluge to develop the idea of a feminist counter-public sphere: the creation of new public spaces for the articulation of feminist critiques and counter-imaginaries. Such an idea could account, in more empirically sensitive ways, for the impact of women’s writing; for feminism’s influence and its limits, and for its existence inside as well as outside institutions (Felski, 1989). This argument had implications not just for feminism, but also for those strands of melancholic Marxism that saw the life world and cultural institutions as entirely colonized by economic interests, including Habermas’ thesis that the critical potential of the public sphere had been snuffed out at the end of the eighteenth century. Feminist analysis was not just a matter of offering more differentiated accounts of the interplay between cultural, political, and economic forces in the present, but also of questioning the nostalgic narrative on which Habermas’s account of publics was premised.

Empirical has often been a dirty word in literary studies, but it does not have to mean a naïve belief in accessing things “as they really are” that overlooks the shaping of experience by interpretation and cultural schema.  It is, however, premised on the conviction that we can learn from experience, observation, and investigation; that details matter; and that in engaging with the world we can find our beliefs rattled and our schemes altered. In her forthcoming book Underdogs, Heather Love challenges the view—not uncommon in both queer theory and literary studies—that empirical methods are not only theoretically unsophisticated but complicit with techniques of objectification and social control, making a powerful case for the merits of documentation and description. Cultural studies had drawn on similar ideas in taking issue with the armchair theorizing about audiences by Adorno or Mulvey– think of the marvelous ethnographic work on film and television reception by scholars such as Ien Ang and Jackie Stacey, among others. As cultural studies moved across the Atlantic, however, these sociological aspects of cultural studies gradually withered away and were replaced, in literature departments, by forms of historical thinking that had much stronger ties to the discipline. In much of the US, cultural studies, to all intents and purposes, is now synonymous with cultural history.

            None of this is to deny the limits of some of the work that goes under the banner of sociology. Such work, write Jeffrey Alexander and Philip Smith (2003) in their well-known manifesto for cultural sociology, is often afflicted by numbness toward meaning. What they call “culturally unmusical scholars” parse human action in instrumental terms; often lack hermeneutic subtlety; and embrace mechanical accounts of how society works that are echoed in the rhythms of their own prose. And yet sociologists themselves have long criticized such tendencies: see, for example, C. Wright Mills’s complaints about “turgid and polysyllabic prose” and his call for creative forms of sociological writing that can enchant as well as analyze by attuning themselves to the rich puzzles of reality (Gane and Back 2012).  More recent examples would include Andrew Abbott’s call for a lyrical sociology; Ann Game and Andrew Metcalfe’s account of passionate sociology, John Law’s advocacy for messy sociology, or David Beer’s riff on a punk sociology that is willing to experiment and take risks with its arguments. While they may constitute a minority, there are still quite a few dissidents within the city walls.

            Meanwhile, the field of cultural sociology has long moved beyond accounts of aesthetic questions as nothing more than a smoke screen for status distinctions and power struggles.  We might think of Claudio Benzecry on the passionate affiliations of Argentine opera fans; Tia DeNora’s analysis of the many different uses of music in everyday life; Cath Lambert’s bringing together of live art with feminist and queer methodologies, or Eduardo de la Fuente’s interest in the agency of art works. And there is, of course, Antoine Hennion’s path-breaking work on amateurs—on how the love of art and music is made by many different actors and factors coming together. Hennion argues not for a sociology of music, but a sociology from music—in which musical experience assumes a central place. How could the “appeal of the artwork,” he writes, “not concern the sociology of art?”  (2018: 42). This body of work is highly relevant to humanists, enriching our understanding of the many uses of art and literature—as shaped by the affordances and complexities of specific works, but also the varying attachments of audiences. And here—to give one final example–I’ve also benefited from Maria Olave’s (2018) ethnographic work on female readers. Arguing that sociology has often paid little attention to the specifics of why reading matters, while cultural studies is too quick to impose pre-fabricated categories of complicity or resistance onto audience response, Olave offers a subtle analysis of readers’ testimonies to the experience and value of reading.

A much-noted editorial essay in the New York-based journal n plus one (2013) complained that cultural analysis was suffering from too much sociology.  “Few things are less contested today,” the authors write, “than the idea that art mostly expresses class and status hierarchies, and only secondarily might have snippets of aesthetic value.” I’d be the last to disagree with this observation, and the problems of reducing aesthetic preferences to nothing more than power moves in a struggle for distinction. But this line of argument is unfair to sociology, which includes far more than ritual gestures of critical demystification.  In an email that he sent me several years ago, Howard Becker, one of the founding figures of U.S cultural sociology, remarked: “It’s been kind of a scandal to me for years that people in the humanities and arts have taken Bourdieu to be the whole story about sociology, and  have proceeded to use him either to bash sociology or adopt some version of what they think he was up to.”  

In the current moment of stock-taking in literary studies, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in aesthetic questions. I share this interest but fail to see why it conflicts with sociological thinking. Aesthetic experience is mediated, aesthetic experience can feel intensely immediate; both propositions hold true and neither cancels out the other. Over the last few decades, the rhetoric of “social construction” has been weaponized to weaken the status of art works, as being overwritten by a more decisive and determining reality. And yet the social fabrication of things does not have to be played out against them but can also be played out with them, as Antoine Hennion points out (2016: 297). That ties to art works must be made does not diminish their value; that we help create the work does not mean it cannot surprise us or move us.  The task is to account for the complexity of this co-making. What can’t talk of artistic form or aesthetic pleasure co-exist with fine-grained and differentiated accounts of social ties?

It would be a great pity if the recent surge of interest in aesthetics among literary scholars were to result in a disciplinary retrenchment, a retreat into academic silos, an insistence that close reading is the primary or only thing that scholars in literature departments should do. To be sure, many literary critics have no interest in sociology—and nothing I’ve argued implies it must take precedence over other disciplinary or interdisciplinary approaches. And yet, to those of us interested in rethinking questions of how literature and art hook up to the world—who want to explore alternatives to critical distancing or poetic waxing, to a focus on overarching “structures” or the individual work –sociology offers some vital, and largely neglected, resources.  


[1] Of course, indifference to and misperceptions of literary studies by social scientists are also widespread, but not my topic here.

[2] Mills (1959) famously extolled perspective-shifting—the ability to move from poetry to the oil industry, from theology to state budgets—as a defining aspect of the sociological imagination. As sociology has become ever more specialized, however, scholars are increasingly likely to remain within a single subfield rather than roam across many.


The writing of this essay was supported by the Danish National Research Foundation, grant no. DNRF 127



Adorno, T.W. (2002). Introduction to Sociology. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Alexander, J.C. and P. Smith. (2003) “The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology: Elements of a Structural Hermeneutics,” in The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 11-26. https://ccs.yale.edu/strong-program

Aubry, T. (2018). Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Boltanski, L.  (2014) “The Fragility of Reality: Luc Boltanski in Conversation with Juliette Renne and Simon Susen,” in The Spirit of Luc Boltanski. Essays on “The Pragmatic Sociology of Critique.” London: Anthem,          591-610.   

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Felski, Rita (1989) Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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 Hennion, A. (2016) “From ANT to Pragmatism: A Journey with Bruno Latour at the CSI,” New Literary History,  47, 2-3: 289-308.

Hennion, A (2018) “Objects, Belief, and the Sociologist: The Sociology of Art as a Work-to-Be-Done,” in Alfred Smuditz (ed), Roads to Music Sociology. Heidelberg: Springer.

Levine, C. (2015) Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton. N. J.; Princeton University Press.

Love, H. (Forthcoming) Underdogs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mills, C. W.  (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Harmondworth: Penguin.

N Plus One editors (2013). “Too Much Sociology.” N Plus One, 16. https://nplusonemag.com/issue-16/the-intellectual-situation/too-much-sociology/

Olave. M. A. T. (2018) “Reading Matters: Towards a Cultural Sociology of Reading.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 6, 3: 417-454.


Rita Felski is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia and Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Southern Denmark. She is the author of Beyond Feminist Aesthetics, The Gender of Modernity, Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture, Literature After Feminism, The Uses of Literature, and The Limits of Critique as well as four edited or co-edited volumes. Her new book Hooked: Art and Attachment will be published in 2019.

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