On February 15 2018 I gave a paper titled Fiction as Method at ‘Modern Methodologies: Developments in Doing Sociological Research’, an event I ran that was co-hosted by The Australian Sociological Association and Western Sydney University Institute for Culture and Society, School of Social Sciences and Psychology, and Graduate Research School.
In this paper I outlined the methodological approach I use in my PhD, a mixed-methods project involving the creation of a sociological fiction novel. In this workshop setting I used my own experience to raise broader questions about art in sociology including: What value can creative methods add to our research, beyond being ‘interesting’? In creative projects, how do we balance the need for functionality without creating art that is overwhelmingly didactic? And how can we better talk about the contribution that arts-based research makes to our disciplinary knowledge, so this value is clear for institutions, participants, publics, and other researchers?
This workshop brought together select postgraduates and ECRs to discuss and develop their methodological approaches. Over the two days we saw paper presentations and participant-led panel discussions on topics ranging from critical ethnography and working with vulnerable populations, to creative approaches for interviewing and representing field work. Overall, we focused on issues of reflexivity, positionality, cultivating good intellectual practices, collaboration with other researchers and participants, and ways of communicating the work we do as social researchers.
On November 30 2017 I gave a paper titled Braiding a ‘Society Ethic’ with Spinoza and Sociological Fiction (or What is the point of sociological fiction???) at The Australian Sociological Association’s annual conference, Belonging in a Mobile World, held at the University of Western Australia, Perth.
This paper focused on what novels and fiction can bring to the project of public sociology, and summarised the key argument of my PhD project.
From a public sociology perspective, I see that the point or value of sociological fiction lies in its potential to progress a society ethic. In sum, the project of public sociology works against the individualising framework of neoliberalism – the effectiveness of our public sociology is inhibited by the competitively-constituted ontological individualism which gives and is given strength through neoliberalisation. To be more effective, public sociology must combat this by affirming that society (which I use as a verb) is vital, and make the idea of society meaningful – as neoliberal logics make competitive individualism meaningful. That society is vital is not just a semantic argument; it’s an ontological argument, which I’ve found Benedict Spinoza’s relational monism incredibly valuable for. Making this argument culturally meaningful requires not only effectively communicated sociological reason but an affective rationale – which I call a society ethic. Sociological fiction can do this effective and affective public sociological imagination work, and I see the value of sociological fiction lying in its ability to affirm society as vital to our lives – I see that the ‘point’ of sociological fiction is to progress this society ethic.
On June 9 2017 I gave a paper titled Social Science and Fiction: fiction writing as a method and analytical tool at Birmingham City University as part of their Experimental approaches to writing research event.
The event was an opportunity for doctoral students in ADM and beyond to expand their horizons in terms of writing style and postgraduate publications, benefitting from the expertise of internal and external speakers from a range of backgrounds applicable to Arts, Design and Media, in addition to Sociology and English.
It was a great creative event involving lots of practical sessions – we cut and coloured and pasted and wrote and wrote and wrote about our research. I really enjoyed being challenged to visualise elements of my work, doing various kinds of poetic free-writing, and also the genius crazily fast writing challenge: to handwrite for a minute non-stop following the prompt It was a dark and stormy night, ten times over, to engage a completely different writing practice and see how many words we can manage a minute. The top score from the group was 75! Apparently if you wrote at this pace you’d hit your PhD word requirement in just twenty hours…
My paper covered two reasons and three ways for using fiction in social research. These were:
- writing can help us see (ie writing is a way of seeing, a way for knowing, a constructive and not just representative endeavour) and fiction specifically can be a useful creative endeavour for exploring, embodying and flexing academic concepts
- writing can help us show (ie writing is how we communicate ideas) and fiction writing can help us illustrate core themes of sociological analysis – class, race, age, gender, identity, inequality – in intersectional, big-picture and everyday ways
- keep a journal where you don’t just jot down what you did but try a writing practice where you give narrative structure and cohesion to your research practice – the point is that the practice takes the styles and approaches of fiction writing and treats whatever content you end up writing about as fiction
- use fiction writing as a research method to generate participatory research data (I don’t do this but there are great resources from people who do)
- write fiction that intentionally draws on the academic concepts your research employs and aim to enliven these concepts in short stories, to help understand the ideas you’re working with. Play with perspective, metaphor, pacing, framing, plot, characters, meaning and affect. Try to understand academic theory in context. Write it out to see if it makes sense. Write it out to make sense. I find fiction is a brilliant method for understanding how academic concepts and categories intersect in everyday life