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  • On Midlevel Concepts
  • John Frow (bio)


There is much to be rejected in the tradition of the sociology of literature: its postulation of dichotomized and homogeneous poles of “literature” and “society” in a relation of mutual exteriority; the expressive relation it posits between social groups and formations of cultural practice; the uncontrolled and invisible perspective of an omniscient disciplinary knowledge; and the failure to link methodological procedures to the objects of knowledge they construct. In this essay I briefly describe the tradition and briefly criticize my own role in it, before asking whether and under what conditions it might yet be possible to cross the boundary between literary studies and the social sciences—a crossing that I take to be a prerequisite for any viable account of the literary field.

The concept of a sociology of literature implies some form of relation between knowledge of a domain formally constituted as “the social” and another domain formally constituted as “the literary” or as “writing” in the most general sense. The preposition posits the latter as the object of the former: sociology works upon the material of written texts in accordance with protocols that are specific to the social sciences—that is, the qualitative or quantitative analysis of an independent variable (literature or writing) in relation to the set of dependent variables that make up the domain of the social (or into which that domain is subdivided), typically those of class, gender, age, race and ethnicity, religion, and so on. But the places of dependent and independent variables are always reversible: the sociological method of variation of certain analytic elements against an element which is held constant allows in principle for any and all of these elements to be varied.

Depending on the level of detail at which analysis takes place, the object of the sociology of literature may take the gross form of a totality (all the writings of a period, or the canonical texts of a culture), or it may exist in more fine-grained forms: the work of a particular writer, a text taken to be representative of a set, or some distributed subset such as thematic clusters or literary forms. Let me briefly identify four main [End Page 237] strands along which the articulation of the literary field with the field of the social took place, in a “moment” of the sociology of literature—predominantly that of the 1970s and 1980s—which now seems more than a little remote. The first, and the one most closely associated with Marxist sociologies of literature, works with an ontology of literary forms, particularly the literary genres, understood either in a relation of expressive homology with the forms of knowledge or conduct associated with social groups (Georg Lukács, Lucien Goldmann, Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, Nancy Armstrong, Franco Moretti)1 or as actively and reflexively transforming preliterary materials, framed as ideologies within an Althusserian problematic of the ascending generalities of knowledge production (Pierre Macherey, Terry Eagleton) or, in a Bakhtinian version, as the intertextual elaboration of the heterogeneous raw materials of discourse. A second strand seeks to understand the literary as a system or an institution: versions of systems theory include the work of Jurij Lotman and Niklas Luhmann and have affinities with theories of the art system (Peter Bürger), of “regimes of intelligibility” (Jacques Rancière), and of art worlds (Arthur Danto, Howard Becker) and the art/culture system (James Clifford); institutional theories include work on the grounding of literary expertise in the pedagogic strategies of different levels of the schooling system (Renée Balibar), theories of literature as an economic institution (Bernard Miège, Nicholas Garnham), and analyses of the formation of the literary canon (Richard Ohmann, John Guillory) and of modes of literary authority (the Foucauldian tradition of theorization of authorship).2 A third strand understands the literary as a form of technosociality in which the medium itself carries the burden of social meaning (Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Kittler).3 And for a fourth, exemplified in Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural sociology, the literary is a specific and “restricted” field constituted by the play of positions, interests, legitimacy, and prestige and by its opposition to and inversion of the...


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