November 16, 2015

Fiction with a Sociological Attitude

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Sociology is everywhere, right? Certainly we can find great examples of sociological concept in fiction.

I intended to do a top 5 list but that expanded to this top 10 and, as you may notice, it crept up to 15 (or more, depending on how you count). So many other books can and should be included, such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. But these are a good start. Some are not always referenced in lists for sociological reading, while a few are classics. Many are from science fiction, a tradition full of alternate realities and worlds that reflect or mimic our own. Some are easy to read, others are, well, not so much. Some can be used for class assignments or enrichment, while others are suggestions for further reading and practice in applying sociological theories and concepts. I’ve included the main sociological concepts each book addresses within my descriptions too.

1. Isaac AsimovFoundation (series) Scientists analyze an entire galaxy and they predict the future dynamics of behaviors over thousands of years. The series takes you through different planets, times, and individuals who are involved in shaping the power structure throughout time-but the predictions of the original mathematical psychologist  hold steady. Research, prediction, societal change, power, macro perspective.

2. Margaret AtwoodHandmaid’s Tale A handmaid is what we now call a surrogate and in a position of servitude in a society where women are not educated. Gender, education, inequality. (Atwood’s Oryx & Crake series is also excellent for social change.)

3. Junot DíazThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Biography and history of Oscar, his family, and the Dominican Republic and the intertwining events. C. Wright Mills would love this book as it demonstrates the application of a sociological imagination. Culture, power, politics, socialization, family, gender, nationality, immigration.

4. Charlotte Perkins GilmanHerland In this utopian novel, three men (one of whom is a sociologist) encounter a society with all women (and no men). Societal structure, culture, gender.

5.William GoldingLord of the Flies Creating society in a vacuum. Gender, groups, inequality, social change.

6. George OrwellAnimal Farm Marxian theory with farm animals – good stuff!

7. Joseph HellerCatch-22 The main character faces a “catch-22” as he wants out of war but can’t because the paperwork to get out won’t let you get out if you do the paperwork. Bureaucracy, war, gender.

8. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn –The First Circle  A dense read but worth the effort, we learn about Gleb Nerzhin, a prisoner, and the intertwined lives of many others in a Russian prison (WWII era). Politics, war, crime, imprisonment, work, gender, social class.

9. Robert HeinleinStranger in a Strange Land A look into our society from an outsider’s perspective, including norms, mores, culture, prejudice, social order. (A potentially good partner with Horace Miner’s Body Ritual of the Nacirema.)

10. Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451; George Orwell1984; Aldous Huxley;Brave New World  All deal with authoritarian futures and include so many things we discuss in sociology classes, e.g., bureaucracy, media, political power, censorship.

Runners Up:

11.   Barbara Kingsolver The Bean Trees  This novel takes you into the world of a young woman set in the southwest U.S. and in a rich Native American cultural milieu. Themes involve social class (poverty), family, young motherhood, culture, race and ethnicity, gender. (Any of Kingsolver’s books could be read and enjoyed with a sociological eye.)

12. Alan LightmanEinstein’s Dreams A similar story repeated in the same town but in a totally different society where time works differently than our own linear timeframe. Each chapter could be analyzed and critiqued using a sociological perspective – would the society described with that time structure really look that way? Societal structures and institutions, culture, interaction, conflict.

13. Greg BearDarwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children Bear writes “hard science fiction” (it is based on scientifically accurate information) and the Darwin series illustrates evolution in an accelerated form. It offers a society in which bodies are evolving at a quick pace and how the society reacts and deals with those changes. Evolutionary change, culture, gender, social control.

14. Frank HerbertDune   Another classic science fiction read, the events in this world mirror realistic societal dynamics and offers much to analyze sociologically. Social structure, institutions, culture, power use and abuse, deviance, gender, social class, ethnicity.

15. Milton Murayama - All I Asking For is My Body   Step into the coming-of-age story of a young man in Hawaii. Much of it is written in Hawaiian Pidgin English thus I recommend those sections be read aloud. Race and ethnicity, social class, culture, hierarchy, gender, power, agency.

If I haven’t mentioned your favorites, what are they? Post in the comments section below.



Psst, it's Junot. ;)

Oscar Wao is one of the first books that came to mind when I saw the title of the article. Angry Black White Boy is another book that comes to mind. It's by Adam Mansbach, the Go the F*ck to Sleep guy, as he shall forever be known.

A great list, and there are so many others that could be included! I'm very happy to see Margaret Attwood on there and would highly recommend her MaddAddam series (especially book #1, Oryx & Crake). I also found it very interesting to read Cat's Eye and the Robber Bride with interactionism in the back of my mind.

Just a correction - you have Aldous Huxley listed incorrectly as the author of Animal Farm

In my opinion, Lord of the Flies is the best example of Sociology in fictional books. Golding, the author, makes everyone of his characters to represent a part of human nature such as innocence and evil. And how a figure like God and Religion keep humanity from releasing the evil inside us.

In my opinion, Lord of the Flies is the best example of Sociology in fictional books. Golding, the author, makes everyone of his characters to represent a part of human nature such as innocence and evil. And how a figure like God and Religion keep humanity from releasing the evil inside us.

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