Using fiction as a resource for social theorising

I was a bit hesitant when preparing this talk because of the risk that I just end up talking about a couple of novels that I really liked and explaining why I liked them. So I won’t actually say all that much about Super Sad True Love Story: it depicts a dystopian near future in which credit scores from 400 to 1600 are displayed publicly on ‘credit poles’ at shops and on the streets, ‘personality’ and ‘sexiness’ are automatically ranked within any social space and ‘mood + stress indicators’ provide public hierarchical rankings within all work placesAs the legal theorist Frank Pasquale describes it, the book depicts how “[i]n an anomic world where social mores are adrift, the characters in the novel scramble to ‘find their place’ in the social pecking order by desperately comparing themselves with each other”. In other words: what happens if self-quantification and metrics come to define the fabric of everyday life, against the backdrop of a crumbling economy, entrenched inequality and mass unemployment? It’s not a very nice place but it is a plausible place; a near future in which one can so clearly see our present reality extended and intensified.

In recent months, I’ve found myself thinking about quite how helpful I found the book. It may have just been that I happened to read it a time when I was at a place in my work that left me very receptive to the ideas contained within it. Reflecting on the book helped me in beginning to develop my own particular take on what Nick Couldry calls ‘social analytics’: the sociological investigation of how metrics operate in relation to the experience of diversely situated actors across the social world. It fed into a paper I co-wrote with Filip Vostal, in which we took issue with what Deborah Lupton calls the ‘quantified academic’ being reduced to the internalisation of audit culture, instead suggesting we need to turn our focus towards how metrics come to matter to academics and how this shapes their orientation towards the systems within which they work and to each other. It’s also feeding into a book project I’m in the early stages of working on, seeking to develop a sociology of digital distraction which I ironically enough keep finding myself too distracted to work on properly. There’s a very precise question about the causal relation between human reflexivity and metricisation which the book helped me come to a conclusion on.

To be clear: I didn’t read the book to help me do social theory in general or to answer this particular question. I suspect if I had then I wouldn’t have found it so richly generative. But it nonetheless helped me think through this issue in a way that I’d like to understand better than I do. It’s also had a huge impact on the work I’ve been doing over the last year and plan to do over the coming years. It isn’t the only novel that’s had this effect: The Circle by Dave Eggers is another which has left me preoccupied by clear themes which were previously fragmented interests or abstract theoretical questions. The core interests of my post-phd research agenda is something that’s been germinating through the fiction and graphic novels I’ve read over recent years, as well as much I’d read long before: themes like ‘disruptive’ technology, the political agenda emerging from Silicon Valley, the threat of automation, the potentially contracting horizons of progressive politics and the long term possibilities of techno-fascism, post-capitalism or civilisational collapse.

If Super Sad True Love Story was one fiction that had a big influence on how I approached one question, I’d like to understand the relationship between all the fictions I find sociologically interesting (for lack of a better phrase) and all the questions I address as a sociologist. I think there are very interesting conceptual and methodological questions to be asked about the role of particular fictions in relation to particular research projects: drawing on the former as vignettes or exemplars for the latter, the role of fiction as what Ken Plummer calls ‘documents of life’, formulating research questions which have fictional inspirations or maybe the assumptions we might bring to a particular project based on relevant fiction that we’ve read. But the question I’m asking is a biographical one: how do we understand the role of a trajectory of reading in relation to a trajectory of research? Is it just the same question multiplied over the lifecourse? Or are there additional dimensions to the question which open up when we consider this issue biographically?

One way into this questions to consider the organising function of a trajectory of reading in relation to our ideational life. In my own case, a rich thematic of Digital Capitalism is starting to serve, in way that feels extremely organic, to tie together the work I’m currently doing and that which I’m planning. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt like I have a coherent research agenda rather than a omnimaniacal pursuit of a range of disconnected topics. This is a change in how I’m orientated towards my research that I realise now has been deeply shaped by fiction and graphic novels. I’d like to understand this change for its own intrinsic interest (to me at least) but also because it raises important conceptual questions that have practical implications for research.

As an example: through much of the science fiction I’ve read in my life, it’s possible to see a rich vein of technological determinism permeating it: technology might save us or it might doom us, but what the post-scarcity utopia often shares with the techno-fascist dystopia is that its the inexorable unfolding of the inner logic of technology which brings it about. To varying degrees, depending on the sophistication of the text in question, real politics – in the sense of organised struggle over finite resources – gets pushed out of the picture. This is a point which is easy to recognise in relation to particular fictions but I wonder if this influence is more problematic if we think in terms of a trajectory of engagement over time. If a rich vein of fiction that we draw upon shares a common ontological assumption, is it possible this assumption gets ‘baked into’ any use we make of this ideational material? So the problematic assumption gets smuggled into how we think about and frame a particular issue.

I think it’s an interesting exercise in its own right to try and reconstruct the implicit and/or explicit social ontology of a fiction i.e. what does the social world it portrays consist of and how does this fit together? But I’m also suggesting there could be a useful methodological dimension to such an exercise. I find Charles Taylor’s notion of the ‘social imaginary’ useful to think about this: “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows”. Fiction is an important part of the social imaginary and it seems obvious to me that social researchers will inevitably draw upon it at times and that furthermore they’re right to do so. But even though these influences are diffuse and in the background, it’s important that we cultivate reflexivity about the influences that fiction has had on our research and be open to the questions posed by this. How does the fictional social imaginary frustrate and facilitate researchers and the research they do over time? How do we conceive of it in a way that does justice to its potential as both problem and resource?

These questions feel really important to me at the moment because so many of the issues I’m preoccupied by concern a future which is still open. The hyper-capitalist dystopia of vast unemployment predicated upon robotics is something which haunts popular culture and I think indelibly marks any attempt to approach this possibility in a sociological way. I agree with John Lanchester’s call for moving beyond dystopic imagery in order to flesh out our heretofore entirely speculative understanding of what might happen if 47% of jobs are lost in two decades (even if most Americans don’t think this will happen to their jobs). We should also seek to recover the latent promise that robotics and computation might prove emancipatory, creating new possibilities for human flourishing in a world liberated from mental and physical drudgery. This suggests to me a need for sociological thinkers to help ‘join the dots’: linking together what we know across a range of fields into broader synthetic accounts that accurately convey conceptually opaque aspects of our present situation and highlight potential trajectories. The enormous value of fiction to such an endeavor seems self-evident to me: as a resource to think with and against as we try and unpack the constellation of future possibilities latent in present day reality.