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Sharon O'Dair FREELOADING OFF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES In Profession 89, published by the MLA, Martin Mueller complains that the fashion for interdisciplinary work in literary studies is mostly an intradepartmental affair. In English departments interdisciplinary work results not in cross-fertilization between disciplines but in the establishment ofsubdisciplines within English. To support his assertions, Mueller focuses on the efforts of new historicists, most of which, he claims, would not pass muster in history departments orjournals.1 But literary critics who import from sociology or psychology can be arraigned on the same charge; seldom do they engage sociologists or psychologists in the way envisioned by Mueller, that is, intensely. Ifthey did, the subdisciplines would not be defined as narrowly as they are; Marxism would not dominate our sociology of literature and psychoanalysis would not dominate our psychology of literature. If they did, critics would better understand the norms of science and thus be less likely to appropriate terms and theories for use outside the specialized arenas for which they were designed. And, to anticipate my conclusion, critics might then be less likely to further what psychologist Liam Hudson calls his discipline's "psychic engineering." My concern with how literary critics use social science results from grappling with the problem myself. Like most critics, I used to be rather uncritical in my borrowings from social science, figuring that ifit works, it works, and being, no doubt, somewhat off-put by the notion of "science ." But as I read sociology and psychology on the problem of the self/subject, I became troubled by the way science structures discourse on the problem ofthe selfor subject and its relationship to surrounding environments. What do these discourses include and leave out? What are their boundaries? What is the status of the images of men and Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 260-267 Sharon O'Dair261 women offered by them? These are questions thatought tobe addressed by literary critics, but seldom are. To be more specific: although literary critics borrow heavily from the social sciences, most notably, of course, from those derived from the work of Marx and Freud, we do not often acknowledge the limits of the scientific discourses from which we borrow. Sociological "man" (the alienated role-player)—like psychological "man" (one pushed by drives and molded by stimuli) or economic "man" (the rational optimizer)— is an abstract and artificial description, a construct, useful as a tool in scientific analysis. As such, homo sociologicus or homo psychologicus maintains heuristic strength, but neither is intended to capture the whole of a human being or to account for the entirety of determining and enabling influences on him or her. Neither is a philosophy of human nature, and certainly neither was offered by social scientists to account for the creations of Kafka or Shakespeare. Ralf Dahrendorf has observed that "man in his entirety not only is safely removed from the attack ofany single discipline, but may possibly remain forever a nebulous shape in the background of scientific endeavor ."2 Generalizing that point, Kenneth Burke explains that "insofar as any science has a nomenclature especially adapted to its particular field of study, the extension of its special terms to provide a definition in general would necessarily oversociologize, overbiologize, overpsychologize , or overphysicize, etc., its subject."3 So, in general, the social sciences, like the physical sciences from which they draw methodological inspiration, aim not to describe reality but to construct categories that allow each social science to capture a certain part, and only a certain part, ofreality in analysis. To get on with thejob, the sociologist controls for the fact of individuality—what is personal or unique in human beings—just as to get on with thejob, the psychologist controls for the fact ofsociety—what is social in human beings. Each discipline simplifies its notion of a person to proceed as science. As an object of study in much social science of this century and the last, a person is necessarily quite different from a person one meets on the streets, in a city or town. To the sociologist, then, if I may focus my argument, the person is nothing but his or her social roles. Erving Goffman, therefore...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 260-267
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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