Literary Criticism

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What is the sociological approach to literature?

The sociological approach to literature involves locating an author and his or her work in their wider social context. On this reading, a work of literature can only be properly be understood by examining the society in which it was written.

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As mentioned by several other educators, a sociological approach to literature critically analyzes the social, political, and economic contexts in which a work of literature was produced. For instance, a sociological critic might examine the poetry of Romantic poet William Blake and comment on how he draws attention to socioeconomic inequity in his time.

But a sociological approach to literature also often entails analyzing how a work of literature reveals structural inequalities that are still relevant today. For instance, if we were to apply a sociological approach to Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird, we might examine Lee’s presentation of structural racism in the United States’s criminal justice system and make connections to the current state of the system. Such critical analysis would highlight how the criminal justice system has been reproducing legacies of slavery for generations.

Similarly, if we were to use a sociological approach to analyze George Orwell's 1984, we might examine how the Party does things like manipulate the news and remain at war in order to generate fear and, by extension, maintain the public's loyalty. We might draw parallels to today's society and examine how some political leaders make choices that maintain inequities and keep themselves in power. Ultimately, a sociological approach to literature allows us to critically reflect on elements of our social context and how they are connected to the past and might shape the future.

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The sociological approach to literature examines the relationship between a literary work and the society in which it was created and/or read and received. Literature is never produced in a vacuum. Writers live in a particular society, and that society influences them and their works. The sociological approach studies those influences.

The sociological critic might, for instance, look at the influence of culture on a literary work. He or she might think about the effect of the Elizabethan age and its concerns on Shakespeare's plays, for instance, or the depiction of the Germanic warrior culture in Beowulf.

A sociological critic might also examine the economic context of a literary work. This approach would be quite fruitful for a critic studying Dickens's novels, for instance, as the economic situation plays a large role in the action of books like Oliver Twist. Marxist criticism is an important branch of sociological criticism that focuses on economics through the lens of the theories of Karl Marx and his successors.

A sociological critic might even look at the politics surrounding a literary work. Knowing the political context would be extremely helpful in the study of the satires of Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Jonathan Swift, for example.

The major issue for sociological critics, then, is context. Such critics want to know about the time and place in which literary works were created in order to better understand those works.

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All works of literature are, to some extent, the products of the society in which they were written. A specific poem, play, novel, or short story is always written within a social context, and this inevitably influences the content of the work in question.

Even in works of science fiction, in which the action is set in strange, distant worlds far from ours, certain assumptions and ways of thinking derived from contemporary society inevitably creep into the text, whether the author intended it or not.

A sociological approach to literature involves emphasizing the status of a work of literature as a cultural product of its time and place. Although works of literature can of course transcend their time and place and speak to distant generations—such as the plays of Shakespeare, for example—they are primarily understood through the values, mores, and assumptions that existed in the societies in which they were written.

If we were to adopt a sociological approach to the works of Shakespeare, for example, we would examine the role of the theater in Elizabethan society, contemporary attitudes to kingship and religion and how they are reflected on stage, the exclusion of women from the stage, and so on. In adopting such an approach, we would be gain a much better understanding of the work in question as a social and cultural artifact.

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A sociological criticism of literature looks at both the author and the content of a work (see the first source in the links below). It examines the author's connection to their society and their position in society. For example, an author who is from the working class might have a different perspective than an author from the middle class. Additionally, the sociological approach examines the content of a literary work and looks at its views about society. One common sociological approach is the Marxist critique of literature (see the first source below), which looks at the types of class conflicts portrayed in literary works. The sociological approach can involve looking both at history and at the current day (see the second source below). For example, a sociological approach can involve analyzing the society of past literary works (such as the society in Jane Austen's novels) and examining the society of today (by asking what a literary text can tell us about today's world).

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Sociological approaches to literature can be divided into two types with two different purposes:

1. Some sociologists mine literature and other arts to discover the ways people think about society. For example, by reading novels or watching films, one can observe what sort of consumer or other habits are considered markers for prestige within various societies. Such sociologists as Pierre Bourdieu (and earlier, Thorstein Veblen) investigate cultural consumption as a way of understanding various societies.

2. Some literary critics focus on how social factors affect the production and consumption of literature. In other words, unlike the sociologists described in (1) who read literature to understand society, literary critics study society to understand literature better. Thus Marxist and feminist critics will often investigate how class and gender affect writers' lives and reputations as well as the ways that characters in literary works behave and think. 

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