For years I have been writing fiction in order to communicate social science research and ideas to both student and public audiences. There are many benefits to doing so. People tend to enjoy reading fiction (there’s a reason most folks elect to bring novels, not textbooks, on vacation). When we’re reading a novel we enjoy, we become immersed in the story. There’s neuroscience that supports what many of us intuitively know, fiction, and art more generally, are highly engaging. In fact, fiction engages more parts of the brain and has a longer-lasting effect than nonfiction, the focus of the field “literary neuroscience.” The pedagogical possibilities are abundant. Add to this that fiction is uniquely effective at promoting empathy, self and social reflection, unsettling stereotypes, presenting alternative understandings, and making micro-macro connections. Moreover, it’s widely accessible with the potential to contribute significantly to public sociology. These are all topics I have written about in the past. In this essay I briefly discuss three explicit sociological lessons interwoven into my new novel, Blue as a means of demonstrating “what is possible” by merging sociology and fiction.
I begin with a brief synopsis of Blue, followed by a discussion of three sociological lessons: 1. Cooley’s “looking-glass self” 2. Goffman’s dramaturgy, and 3. socialization and popular culture. Please note that Blue is intentionally centered around characters college students are likely to relate to (a tip for those writing sociological fiction, always consider your audience when you select a genre, style and develop characters).
Synopsis of Blue
Blue follows three roommates as they navigate life and love in their post-college years. Tash Daniels, the former party girl, falls for deejay Aidan. Always attracted to the wrong guy, what happens when the right one comes along? Jason Woo, a lighthearted model on the rise, uses the club scene as his personal playground. While he’s adept at helping Tash with her personal life, how does he deal with his own when he meets a man that defies his expectations? Penelope, a reserved and earnest graduate student slips under the radar, but she has a secret no one suspects. As the characters’ stories unfold, each is forced to confront their life choices or complacency and choose which version of themselves they want to be. Blue is a novel about identity, friendship, and figuring out who we are during the “in-between” phases of life. The book shines a spotlight on the friends and lovers who become our families in the fullest sense of the word, and the search for people who “get us.” The characters in Blue show how our interactions with people often bump up against backstage struggles we know nothing of. Visual art, television, and film appear as signposts throughout the narrative, providing a context for how we each come to build our sense of self in the world. With a tribute to 1980s pop culture, set against the backdrop of contemporary New York, Blue both celebrates and questions the ever-changing cultural landscape against which we live our stories, frame by frame.
Charles Horton Cooley “Looking-Glass Self”
There are many different theories in sociology and social psychology about how when we’re labeled by others we can internalize those labels. In the mainstream, people often talk about “self-fulfilling prophecy.” My favorite theory when I was in college, which I was so captivated by that I changed by major from theatre to sociology, was Charles Horton Cooley’s “looking-glass self.” As you may know, it essentially posits that our self-concept develops as we engage in interaction with others. We imagine how we appear to them and how they’re judging us, and that shapes how we feel about ourselves. This happens throughout our lives, in one form or another, moment to moment. Based on my personal and professional experiences I believe there’s a danger that we start to see ourselves one way or another because of something we did, something that was done to us, or how others see us and treat us. We can get stuck with an idea of one version of who we are, based on an overarching sense of how others perceive and judge us. But I also believe that we always have a choice. Not who we were yesterday or who we thought we were, but who we are right now, in this moment, and each one that follows. In Blue I used the relationships between characters, such as the dialogue between Tash and Aidan, paired with internal dialogue (revealing interiority—a character’s thoughts) to bring some of this out. My goal was to sensitize readers to how we judge ourselves based on our assumptions of how others see us. I then went on to suggest that in fact, we are possibilities and have a choice in each moment of who we are and who we want to become.
Erving Goffman “Dramaturgy”
Like many in our field, I first learned the basics of Goffman’s work in my early sociological theories courses. His theories of “back stage” and “front stage” have served me well not only as a sociologist, but in my own life. I often think about how we’re confronted with people’s behind-the-scenes stuff that we can’t see during our interactions with others. In other words, people have things going on that we’re not aware of and when we interact with someone and get a reaction we may not expect, it could be that we’re bumping up against a backstage we can’t see. For example, if your romantic partner is short with you in response to something you tell them and you take it personally, feeling hurt or offended. Their reaction to you may be based on a phone call they just had with their boss who piled unexpected work on them or a call with a parent that pushed one of their buttons. Their reaction may also be based on something much deeper, and less immediate, such as experiences being bullied as a kid or any number of things that you unwittingly bumped up against. You don’t know. Teaching this fundamental idea from sociology not only develops one’s sociological perspective, but has the potential to foster self-awareness and empathy in our interactions with others. I decided fiction was a good vehicle for demonstrating this. The protagonist in Blue, Tash, experienced a possible assault years earlier (when she awoke in her boyfriend’s bed after a New Year’s Eve party, naked between him and his roommate with no memory of what happened). In Blue I explored where we’d find this character years later, and how any trauma she may have experienced is impacting her in the present; impacting how she sees herself and how she responds to others. This is one example of how a dramaturgical lens was written into the narrative so that readers can see the theory in action.
Socialization and Popular Culture
One of concepts taught in sociology from introductory levels onward is socialization, the lifelong process by which we learn the norms and values of our culture. One of the primary agents of socialization is the media, or popular culture. As a self-proclaimed pop culture junkie, I’ve always been interested in how individuals select what pop culture to consume and how they internalize its messages. For 12 years I taught a course called Images & Power which investigated and critiqued popular culture. I continued to do so in my first novel. But while sociologists often critique pop culture, it has positive roles in people’s lives too. In Blue I wanted to show how we use pop culture and art to help us understand and get through our own lives. The pop culture we choose to consume may become a part of our identity and active in co-creating our experiences. I think at times we can understand our lives, things we can’t yet even name, through art. This helps explain why some people become emotionally invested in their favorite television shows, movies or music, watching or listening to them repeatedly. In order to unearth these issues in Blue characters are shown talking or thinking about the pop culture they consume, the themes there within often mirroring the character’s present-day struggle. The characters are often imaged in the “glow” of light from television or movie screens, their own stories illuminated by the stories of popular culture.
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and author (formerly associate professor of sociology, founding director of gender studies, and chairperson of sociology & criminology at Stonehill College). She has published nineteen books including Method Meets Art 2nd edition, Fiction as Research Practice, The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research, and the best-selling novels, Low-Fat Love, American Circumstance, and Blue. She is the creator and editor for five book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers and a blogger for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post. She has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association Qualitative Special Interest Group, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. Follow Patricia on Facebook, Twitter, and check out her personal website, www.patricialeavy.com