If we want to do sociology of literature, let’s get away from texts for a bit.
One of the most promising things about the current interest in quantitative methods for literary study is that it offers us some alternatives to reading as a method. There are important questions about literature—above all, about literature as a social and historical system—that cannot be answered with the tools of the expert textual interpreter. Such questions are better answered, I believe, in closer collaboration with our disciplinary kindred in the social sciences.
Thanks to a new special issue of Cultural Sociology focused on literature, we have a chance to look at some concerete examples of what sociological approaches to literary problems currently look like. In this post I’ll discuss the excellent essay there by Gisèle Sapiro, Translation and Symbolic Capital in the Era of Globalization: French Literature in the United States. Sapiro, whose work I have been following for a while, works in the tradition of the sociology of fields, and has written on both twentieth-century literary history and contemporary world literature. This latest essay is particularly fun to think with, because I have my greedy paws on some of the same data Sapiro uses, so it will be possible to look in some detail at the sort of evidence and the sort of analysis her approach entails—and, perhaps, to think how to extend it.