Between Impressions and Data: Negotiating Literary Value at the Humanities/Social Sciences Frontier


The fifty years spanning the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the first quarter of the twentieth century saw literary studies established as an academic discipline within humanities divisions. These commonly also housed history, philosophy, classical and modern languages, and linguistics. The new discipline of English certainly engaged in fractious turf wars with each of these adjacent departments, but the idea of the humanities as literary studies’ natural home was rarely questioned.

This paper ponders what insights and intellectual dispositions literary studies missed by being placed at institutional remove from the social sciences, also coalescing intellectually during this period. Literary studies’ humanities base predisposed it to valorise specific texts over their common print medium; to focus on rarefied aesthetic evaluation rather than consider the economics of book production, distribution, and consumption; and to construct retrospective canons of emblematic works rather than to attend to contemporary literary developments. In foregrounding these in-built assumptions long naturalized by literary studies’ academic environment, this paper engages in speculative thinking, imagining disciplinary 'roads not taken'.

Granted, literary sociology has long existed as a marginal activity within English departments, imported from French social history, spurred by Marxist literary criticism and, in particular, prompted by book history’s reconceptualisation of bibliography as ‘the sociology of texts’ (McKenzie). Yet there are still other models for blending humanities and social science approaches, specifically the disciplines of media, communication, and cultural studies. This newer, hybrid discipline has thrived for some decades at the borderlands of humanities and social sciences but literary studies has had surprisingly fitful and uneven traffic with it. The present era of digital humanities, in which traditionally humanistic disciplines are reconsidering their relationship to print culture and to each other, presents an optimal time to reassess how past institutional structures formed the mental horizon of English and – equally – how alternative settings might facilitate new intellectual schemas.

Literary studies’ chief intellectual challenge at the present moment is that its object of study, governing theories and analytic methods are premised on the printed book, yet the discipline manifestly exists in a world where the publishing, promotion, discussion, reviewing and documenting of reading occur via digital platforms. In short, under-acknowledged print-culture assumptions underpin literary studies’ academic project. In the late twentieth-century context, where emergent digital technologies were frequently pitted against literary (read: print) culture, it was difficult to remain open to rethinking literary studies’ operating norms without risking total capitulation. But now that existential threats to the book have subsided, while the pace of digital technology continues to accelerate, it is both timely and urgent to consider how literary studies can help the public make sense of literary culture in the digital era, and in doing so ensure its continued existence as a scholarly endeavour. With the humanities generally, and literary studies specifically, under constant political, economic and often institutional threat, we need to maximise every opportunity to demonstrate the discipline’s socio-cultural relevance in the contemporary world.

The aim of this article is to trace the roots of literary studies’ ontological, epistemological and pedagogical norms to the discipline’s institutional origins in the humanities. My purpose is to foreground the specific modes of thought incubated by this institutional setting and – as importantly – the kinds of social science insights it precluded, and which now offer better ways to engage with contemporary media developments. It thus models a two-step process: firstly, becoming aware of our disciplinary ambits and, secondly, of looking beyond habitual boundaries in a spirit of intellectual curiosity. This need not constitute surrender to social-science-style orthodoxies, or an uncritical acceptance of positivist truth claims, but rather a selective grafting of useful approaches from neighbouring disciplines which have made the study of digital media their core business. Fortunately, a beachhead of exactly this kind of research already exists as a subsector of literary studies; it has enormous potential to revitalise the discipline’s mainstream if its objects and methods are adopted more widely.

The New Institutionalism in Literary Studies

Since around the turn of the millennium, the discipline of literary studies has seen a decisive pivot towards analysing the social and economic conditions in which literature is produced, circulated and consumed. Commentators have recently dubbed this trend ‘the new institutionalism in literary studies’ (Higney; McGurl 39, 87; Sinykin). The phrase borrows from the new institutionalism movement which emerged in the discipline of sociology during the early 1990s (Powell and DiMaggio; Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury). New institutionalists sought to illuminate the mid-level organisations and cultural intermediaries that operate between, on one hand, the micro scale of innumerable everyday instances of a phenomenon and, on the other, grand, totalising abstractions such as ‘society’ or ‘the market’. New institutionalists seek to elucidate the mechanisms through which the two levels interact and, specifically, to describe how particular mid-level social institutions (schools, businesses, hospitals, public broadcasters etc.) actually function. Such social institutions exert their own conditioning force through their assumed norms, in-house policies and operating procedures. They thus constitute influential portals regulating traffic between the most particular and abstract poles. The approach attempts to reconcile the foundational sociological concepts of structure and agency, encouraging a pluralising worldview ‘less monolithic, more striated and fractured’, with ‘more possibilities for emancipation or constraint’ (Clune 1195).

The importation of this sociological framework into the hitherto largely parallel field of literary studies can be dated from the publication of Lawrence Rainey’s influential monograph Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (1998) which examined the little magazines, publishing houses and radical bookshops that incubated European Modernism during the early decades of the twentieth century. While Rainey’s work was historically focused, during the quarter century since his book’s appearance new institutionalist energies have increasingly examined the contemporary book world, as evidenced by monographs such as James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (2005), Sarah Brouillette’s Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace (2007) and her subsequent UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary (2019), Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) and also his Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (2021), Jim Collins’s Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture (2010), Danielle Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo’s Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture (2013), Abram Foley’s The Editor Function: Literary Publishing in Postwar America (2021) and – more mid-century than twenty-first-century in its focus but nevertheless profoundly institutional-minded – Merve Emre’s Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (2017). Viewed in such a new institutionalist light, literature represents not a hallowed succession of authorial geniuses nor semi-autonomous textual artefacts, but a profoundly social and economic constellation of institutional actors exerting significant gravitation force over the creation, distribution and consumption of literary works. The approach moves beyond atomised particulars to provide much needed insight into a complexly interlocking but inherently dynamic literary system.

Part of the excitement generated by new institutionalist developments derives from how the meso-level frame offers a way out of literary studies’ previous critical dead ends. These include both the over-determinism of ‘great tradition’ views of literary heritage which pay scant attention to contemporary developments or individual interventions, as well as postmodernism’s countervailing over-investment in the idea of the autonomous text which exists detached from both author and reader and can be made to mean whatever one likes. Such a perspective dismisses at a sweep the innumerable industry gatekeepers, evaluating institutions and educational protocols deeply invested in shaping what is recognised as ‘Literature’. Instead, the new institutionalism can explain in contextual fashion how a specific author’s career has evolved, which genres and formats come to dominate literary discussion at a given time, and why readers’ modes of performative consumption take the styles they do. In contrast to the dominant strands of literary studies over the last century, the new institutionalism’s orientation is not primarily aesthetic, nor ideological, but rather contextual – less explicitly evaluative or suspiciously hermeneutic than richly descriptive. Especially appealing is that the new institutionalism recognises a plurality of midlevel literary institutions linked in an intricate network which displays both cooperative and rivalrous tendencies. The fluid and contestatory nature of the new institutionalist champ (or field, to borrow from the conceptual vocabulary of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, as many of its practitioners do) provides insight into an unfolding literary system which academics can both comment upon and intervene in (The Rules of Art).

After a century of textually-dominated approaches in literary studies – first the formalism of the Leavisites and new critics, and latterly the ideology critique ushered in by poststructuralism and its inheritors – our discipline appears to be revitalising its long suppressed sociological energies. Understanding why this sociological strain of research became so emphatically marginalised within literary studies requires revisiting the foundations of the discipline to overcome what literary theorist Stein Olsen terms its habitual ‘institutional blindness’ (56). Questions of institutionalisation matter because intellectual traditions coalesce, are naturalised and reproduced within specific institutional contexts which facilitate or inhibit certain intellectual habits, methodological orientations and interdisciplinary exchanges (Widdowson 4). To that end, the following section briefly examines the institutional origins of the particular strain of literary formalism imported into Australian English departments from the Cambridge critics of the interwar period. Of course, such ‘story of English’ narratives have been told before (in the UK: Widdowson, Baldick, Eagleton, Atherton; the US: Graff, Scholes, Guillory; and Australia: Dale). Yet no prior study has focused specifically on how the institutional siting of embryonic English courses within the humanities rather than the social sciences inhibited sociological understandings of literary culture. In pursuing such a line of analysis, this article ponders the ‘road not taken’ by literary studies and how housing English adjacent to languages, history and philosophy effectively closed off certain lines of analysis more habitual in the social sciences; namely, the nature of the printed medium and its relationship to the emerging broadcast media, the economics of the book world, and the consecrating institutions of literary esteem. Such media-specific, economically alert and organisationally grounded explanations are especially urgent now as literary studies comes under unstinting rhetorical and funding pressure from governments, undergraduate students and their parents to demonstrate its real-world impact and social relevance. New institutionalist insights can help us respond to such imperatives with compelling contextualisation, emphasising continuities with prior literary formations as well as disjunctures. Specifically, new institutionalist frameworks and methods can illuminate how contemporary literary culture functions within the digital world, and contribute to public debate about what is at stake when literary culture is mediated by powerful, data-harvesting media corporations. It thus helps us craft compelling rationales for the future of our discipline in an era when ‘literature’ and ‘print’ are no longer synonymous.

Institutional Perspectives on the Rise of Literary Studies

The prehistory of English as an academic discipline is a complicated, multi-strand tangle, lacking a definitive ‘big bang’ moment. Rather, it presents a confusing mishmash of different programs at different institutions offering differing curricula and pursuing diffuse aims (Doyle 26; Atherton, Defining Literary Criticism 14, 22; Baldick, ‘Literature and the Academy’ 87). The earliest English literature programs emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, often in constituent parts of the British empire (for example India), in proximate lands long colonised but with resilient nationalist tendencies (Scotland), or beyond the empire’s formal reach but susceptible to its commercial power (Continental Europe). The quest to establish English programs at Britain’s elite universities was a decades-long campaign, fought in the face of adamantine hostility from the discipline of Classics and working adjacent to, but not always supported by, moves to establish contemporary Continental European languages as fit for academic study. Where English programs did gain a toehold in academic institutions during the late decades of the nineteenth century through to World War I, they assumed a variety of formations which we would struggle today to recognise as ‘literary studies’ proper. The first Oxbridge Chairs in English were in philology – a primarily linguistic study of English’s diachronic development, phonetics and grammar with the majority of the curriculum given over to study of Old Norse, Old English and Middle English (Leavis 33, 40; Lightman and Zon 15). An alternative formation placed English programs under the aegis of History departments, where literary texts were chiefly mined for evidence of their circumstances of composition or reflections on socio-political concerns of that era. The aesthetic or affective properties of the text itself were emphatically subordinated to History’s epistemological frames. A third, still more marginalised, site for English programs was the disciplinary formation of bibliography, which had the virtue of paying attention to the book as material object, but chiefly in the interests of textual scholarship – determining authoritative editions of canonical texts, adjudicating matters of author attribution, and compiling concordances of textual variations (Baldick, Literary Theory and Criticism 94). Intellectual turf-wars between each of these disciplinary factions were intense and ongoing, but the housing of English programs within the humanities was never in question. Whatever else the neophyte discipline of English might be, it was emphatically not a social science.

Historians of English’s institutionalisation rightly maintain that it is misleading to generalise about the discipline’s development, given its wide variety of manifestations across national jurisdictions, university settings and individual departments (Court 4; Atherton, Defining Literary Criticism 14). Nevertheless, such a conscientiously pluralistic perspective tends to downplay the fact that universities have always existed in hierarchical relations and certain institutions have wielded disproportionate sway, being able to propagate and export their disciplinary conception to regional and imperial peripheries. The chief influence on the development of literary studies in Australia has undoubtedly been the specific cluster of ontologies and epistemologies incubated at the University of Cambridge during the 1920s and early 1930s. This deserves specific analysis because its disciplinary model of English was so successful that for much of the mid twentieth century it foreclosed debates about alternative approaches for analysing literary texts (Waugh 26; Baldick, ‘Literature and the Academy’ 94; 2013 [1996], 13).

In his memoir, Basil Willey, Professor of English at Cambridge, looked back with some wonder at the anarchic state of the discipline at the University prior to the First World War. There was then no English Faculty and no salaried lecturers but merely a kind of ‘free-for-all’ in which anyone remotely qualified could offer a lecture course and collect fees from students on a user-pays basis (Willey 24; Eagleton, Critical Revolutionaries 81–82). This admittedly non-professional, even shambolic arrangement shifted dramatically in 1919 with the appointment of I. A. Richards, previously a scholar of psychology, to a Cambridge lectureship in criticism and the modern novel. Five years later, Richards published his breakthrough work Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), based on the wildly popular lectures he had delivered at the university. With this text, Richards sought to set literary criticism on a firm intellectual basis: expunging impressionism, authorial biography, and historical superfluities and instead attending to the text itself as the sole locus of meaning (Willey 21; Atherton, ‘The Organisation of Literary Knowledge’ 233). His follow-up work, the textbook Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (1929), was based on an experiment conducted on his undergraduate classes in which de-identified poems were presented to students for close reading, the results of which Richards proceeded to castigate for their unwarranted assumptions and ‘stock responses’. Central to Richards’s intertwined theoretical and methodological programs was decontextualisation of the literary work. In this sense, Richards propounded a profoundly anti-sociological conception of literature’s role. It was also immediately and enduringly successful – establishing the postulates that would later be taken up by F.R. Leavis, his younger Cambridge contemporary, as well as exported to the US to develop into the more applied new criticism of the later 1930s and 1940s.

The title of Richards’s second book rather disingenuously downplays his methodological innovation, adopting the term ‘practical criticism’ from Coleridge and presenting it as simply the pragmatic, self-evident way to interpret literary texts. There is no explicit acknowledgement in his work that the specific institutional circumstances of post-war Cambridge were themselves formative in establishing English’s academic protocols. The newly expanded undergraduate demographic of middle-class women, demobilised servicemen, working-class scholarship-holders and graduates of adult education programs presented the problem of these cohorts’ wildly varying levels of prior literary and historical knowledge (Eagleton, Critical Revolutionaries 2–3). In such a context, presenting a poem on the page with no supporting information constitutes a handily levelling pedagogical device. The sense that theoretical and methodological concerns were being formulated a priori in the abstract and only then implemented at institutional level is pervasive in the published work of the Cambridge School. It is as though its members were so actively engaged in work at the pedagogical coalface – drafting curricula, delivering lectures, marking exams – that acknowledging the impress of these institutional imperatives would give the game away, revealing how much disciplinary construction work was being done on the fly. (The exception to this general trend is F.R. Leavis’s much later Education and the University: A Sketch for an ‘English School’ (1943), first published some two decades after the battle to establish English had been won and thus broaching discussion of institutionalisation from a position of academic security rather than the precarity characterising the discipline in the early 1920s.) It would thus discredit their attempt to present the fledgling and still controversial academic subject of English as a taken-for-granted intellectual discipline based on texts of long cultural pedigree.

The quest to liberate English from its handmaid role in relation to linguistics, history and bibliography had its equivalent in the field of the emerging social sciences during roughly the same period of the 1880s to the 1920s. Scientific positivism exerted epistemological force across disciplines during this period as a yardstick for intellectual rigour and academic prestige (Guillory, ‘Literary Study’ 36; Professing Criticism 384; Atherton, Defining Literary Criticism 3–4; ‘The Organisation of Literary Knowledge' 221; Waugh 30; Banfield 100; Day 135). Accordingly, the still coalescing social sciences attempted to buttress their intellectual legitimacy by purging themselves of humanities-style impressionism. They instead aped the ‘data’ of the natural sciences as the means to discover allegedly objective rules underpinning surface social phenomena: ‘the multiple measurements which had unlocked the pattern of the natural world offered the same key to the social realm’ (Goldman 99). The emerging discipline of sociology thus aspired to be dispassionately rational rather than subjectively hermeneutic, concerned itself with statistical data examined in aggregate rather than individual, anecdotal impressions, and sought to discern latent structures and uniform ‘laws’ rather than interpreting individual instances (Lepenies 1–15; Goldman 87–114). Sociology was undergoing an ‘inner-disciplinary process of purification’ whereby the anecdotalism of the Victorian man of letters was being replaced by statistical data newly available to industrialised, increasingly urbanised societies with urgent issues of public health, underemployment and mass education in need of evidence-based policy solutions (Lepenies 7). Hence the barrier to establishing a sociologically-inflected variety of literary studies arose not only from fledgling English programs’ privileging of the isolated text, but also from sociology’s purging of its prior literary associations, leaving the approach stranded in an intellectual no-man’s land between increasingly hostile disciplines. Because such distinctions between the humanities and social sciences were hardening during the exact period of English’s academic institutionalisation, social-science-style insights into the printed medium, socio-cultural context and reader anthropology became ever-harder to advocate intellectually or justify institutionally. On one side, emphasising the contextual nature of literary works ran the risk of subsuming an emergent literary studies once again into the institutionally more prominent discipline of history. On the other hand, sociological colleagues were the least likely to be susceptible to overtures from literary studies, as such a liaison would tar their would-be positivism with precisely the impressionist brush they were most intent to avoid.

There is a striking exception, however, to this institutional delegitimating of sociological approaches to literature and it arises from a surprising context: the heart of Cambridge English. Q.D. (Queenie) Leavis, a former PhD student of Richards and wife of F.R. Leavis, published her study Fiction and the Reading Public in 1932. Its title already announces a major departure from the disciplinary norms of Cambridge English in that the book analyses prose fiction, not the lyric poetry which forms the near-exclusive preoccupation of Richards’s work. She thus indirectly highlights that Cambridge English’s methodology was premised on their preferred object of study. Richards’s pedagogical technique of practical criticism can actually only work for the relatively brief lyric poem; attempting to present a poetic epic or anonymised bestselling novel, let alone a Victorian doorstopper like Middlemarch, to a tutorial of undergraduates for a first-encounter close reading is a practical impossibility. Moreover, Q.D. Leavis opted to examine specifically commercial fiction via a ‘questionnaire’ circulated to two dozen contemporary novelists (41). Their written responses, quoted at length in the remarkably sociological study that eventuated, are treated effectively as ‘data’. Leavis couches her self-described ‘anthropological’ research method in the neutral, dispassionate language of the empirical social scientist: ‘examining all the material that seemed to bear on this question in an unbiased but inquisitive frame of mind and … allowing such conclusions as I arrived at to emerge simply by comparison and contrast and analysis’ (14). In practice, her study is an unremitting attack on popular fiction’s allegedly nefarious role in debasing literary culture, leaving literary pursuits the preserve of an enlightened, though embattled, minority. Socio-cultural institutions most of interest to the current discipline of book history – circulating libraries, mass circulation newspapers, periodical reviewers, literary agents, book clubs, advertising, cinema, radio and bestsellers – are disparaged for cultivating a duped, passive reading public unable to differentiate between Literature and meretricious trash – mere vectors of ‘herd prejudice’ (65, 70). This oddly Frankfurt School-sounding strain of cultural pessimism is hardly one I wish to advocate here, but Leavis’s dogmatic conclusions should be separated for a moment from her innovative method. This now most unfashionable of critics was in fact pursuing a brand of literary sociology avant la lettre, even if it was a road that the discipline of literary studies chose largely not to follow. The Preface to her book makes mention of ‘a pendent study in which conflicting culture streams that could only be referred to here will be traced to their sources’, though this appears never to have eventuated (15). Denied a formal academic appointment at Cambridge and her research interrupted by childrearing, she remained an institutionally marginal figure, able to exert influence vicariously via collaboration with her husband or through editorial work on their journal Scrutiny. Literary sociology remained a curious byway off the main path of academic literary studies both in Cambridge and in the Commonwealth institutions which eagerly imported its disciplinary prescriptions.

(See Riemer for the acrimonious split instigated in the University of Sydney’s English department during the early 1960s by Chair Samuel Goldberg’s importation of Cambridge-style Leavisism via his former post at the University of Melbourne; Hilliard’s more dispassionate account of this institutional history in a closing chapter titled ‘Scrutiny’s Empire’ and Dale’s chapter on ‘Debating Leavis’.)

Implications of the Literary Studies/Sociology Divide

The upshot of the formative institutional processes outlined above was that, by the mid twentieth century, the disciplines of literary studies and sociology occupied opposing academic camps. They regarded each other with, if not outright hostility, then at least with mutual incomprehension bordering on suspicion. This estrangement is understandable given that, on almost every measure of disciplinarity, their paths had decisively diverged. For example, whereas literary studies took as its object of study lyric poetry and, later, literary fiction, sociology confined itself to the non-fiction domain of verifiable facts. Literary studies, channelling Matthew Arnold’s dictum of ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’, concerned itself with exemplary texts worthy of canonisation, whereas sociology favoured typicality, pursuing representative sampling to discern fundamental rules, not their exceptions (17). (This search for underpinning rules is evident in even recent works of cultural sociology, see Thompson.)

In orientation, the two disciplines also operated at radically different scales and timeframes: literary studies valorised the semi-autonomous text, seen as standing at the endpoint of an historical tradition, whereas sociology attended to the encompassing social system, usually viewed in the contemporary frame. For the former, value is held to be intrinsic; for the latter, value is always extrinsically conferred by social processes and institutional agents.

Since the eruption of the ‘theory wars’ in the late 1960s, literary studies has shuffled through an array of ideologically-oriented approaches, whether Marxist, feminist, postcolonial or queer. While each of these movements was intensely invested in questions of subject identity and social positionality, the locus for scrutinising these forces at work remained predominantly confined to the text itself. Sociology, by contrast, resolutely favours the contextual frame. Its preferred theoretical formulations – political economy, social theory, Bourdieusean field theory, for example – insistently point outwards from the individual phenomenon to explain its conditioning by an encompassing social reality. Intertwined with each discipline’s theoretical postulates are methodological procedures which subtly but insistently redirect the novice student’s gaze towards a predetermined object of study and the discipline’s preferred division between the particular and the universal. For example, it is telling that literary studies’ dominant method has remained, through all changes in theoretical fashion, close reading (Richards’s ‘practical criticism’) in which the text itself serves as the research ‘data’ and the interweaving of quotations with the critic’s own opinions equates to the social scientist’s ‘interpretation of results’.

In making this claim, I indicate broad disciplinary tendencies. There are, of course, more heterogenous practices evident among some literary studies subfields. For example, the field of early modern studies during the 1990s heyday of new historicism witnessed intense interest in texts’ relationship to their time and place of origin. Critics such as Stephen Greenblatt insistently, even exhaustively, contextualised Shakespearean plays within the politics of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court. Moreover, early modern literary studies has been an early adopter of digital technology to compile enumerative bibliographies, concordances, digital facsimiles of codices and ephemera, as well as, more recently, databases of lost Elizabethan plays (Steggle). The multimodal and hypertextual affordances of such research databases have tempered an exclusive focus on the written word with reminders of its various material incarnations, thus piquing interest in ‘media consciousness’ – that is, how format may have affected composition (Fulton 223). It remains true, however, that textual analysis is still the dominant methodology even in this subfield.

Sociology, by contrast, prefers demonstrably empiricist methods that claim to reach beyond the individual researcher’s subjective judgement to give voice to the interpretations of a representative group – via fieldwork, surveys, interviews, focus groups and the like. The two fields even differ in terms of their intellectual goal: literary studies seeks sophisticated textual hermeneutics and, in recent decades, the formulation of compelling identity-politics positions (though the practical and political efficacy of these tends to be more gestured towards than demonstrated). This contrasts dramatically with the social sciences’ founding impulse to couple social-theoretical speculation with practical policy outcomes (a difference which has enabled disciplines like sociology to pivot more adroitly towards neoliberal higher education policy imperatives to demonstrate research outreach and social impact). Finally, most elusive yet decisive, the two disciplines stake different epistemological claims. Literary studies has, over the course of its century-long institutionalisation, shifted from encouraging literary ‘appreciation’ and cultivating a socially cohesive concept of ‘Englishness’ to ideology critique’s claim to equip students with a critically deconstructive mindset alert to how language can be used to naturalise or disclose systems of social inequality. Sociology, on the other hand, apes the natural sciences, trading in statistical evidence and verifiable facts to illuminate the workings of the contemporary social system. Literary studies’ conception of politics may move from the text outwards towards a hazily sketched social reality, but for sociology this encompassing social domain is the default starting position. In the sociological mindset, individual phenomena derive their significance from how they reflect the wider social totality.

Gerald Graff – author of a widely influential ‘institutional history’ of literary studies in US academe – has lamented how institutional taxonomies tend to segment complex cultural phenomena along disciplinary lines: ‘the disconnection between the divisions that organise the literature department and the university tends to efface the larger cultural conversation to which works of literature refer’ (10). Such institutionally normalised effacement is particularly evident in literary studies’ increasing siloing from media and communications programs. This discipline has its own complex and hybridised institutional history though, especially in UK and Australian universities, it often emerged from sociology departments. Even in specific institutional contexts where cultural studies programs developed within English departments, their insistence on examining screen media, popular culture and industry operations set them in direct opposition to Leavisite and new critical orthodoxies. This underlying tension saw media and cultural studies streams more often tolerated for their healthy undergraduate enrolments than embraced for their intellectual innovations. The fact that literature and media programs are still typically housed in different departments (and sometimes also separate schools) means that pertinent questions of textual mediality, reader behaviours and the industrial dimensions of literary culture are frequently bracketed off from a textually dominated and generally retrospectively oriented literary curriculum. In the weary-sounding verdict of electronic literature scholar Jay David Bolter, ‘literary studies is still very text-based. Either you study texts and write about them (as a student or a researcher), or you study other media forms as texts and then produce texts about them’ (Engberg 81). Such institutional bifurcation and its associated mindsets have created especially unfortunate impediments to examining literary culture’s existence within the contemporary digital environment. The new-institutionalist studies of literary culture mentioned at the beginning of this article are noteworthy exceptions for how they reach beyond the disciplinary parameters of traditional literary studies to demonstrate that any adequate understanding of the contemporary literary world must draw from sociologically inflected media studies work about the digital environment. Because the twenty-first-century book circulates in digitally saturated production, dissemination and consumption contexts, scholars must make use of the theoretical and methodological tools to hand, whether they arise from literary studies or media, communication and cultural studies traditions.

The ‘Sociology of Literature’ Moment and Since

Of course, even when the literary studies/sociology divide was at its most rigid, it never managed to prevent dialogue between the two disciplines completely. From the late 1950s to the mid 1980s, a loose ‘sociology of literature’ movement existed, albeit more in spirit than in institutionally consecrated form. Advocates repeatedly acknowledged that the ‘sociology of literature’, even in its 1960s–1970s heyday, was not an academic field in the strict sense so much as a confluence of tendencies and compatible insights: ‘The sociology of literature is like an amoeba: it lacks a firm structure, but has flowed along in certain directions nevertheless’ (Griswold, ‘Recent Moves’ 455). To extend the aqueous and biological metaphors, the tributaries of this always marginal and hybridised undertaking were various. From French social history of the Annales School, it brought a focus on changing media technologies and ‘longue durée’ timescales, mapping how literacy, the printing press and specific publication formats spread unevenly across populations but nevertheless contributed to the gradual shifting of worldviews (Escarpit; Febvre and Martin). From the burgeoning British cultural studies movement, the sociology of literature adopted a more expansively democratic conception of ‘culture’, a comparative openness to popular media formats, and a less prescriptive, more anthropological understanding of readerly behaviours (Hoggart; Williams, Culture and Society, The Long Revolution, Culture). Some of this work cross-blended with explicitly Marxist French critical traditions, subsequently developing into the class-based cultural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (Goldmann, Towards a Sociology, Essays on Method; Bourdieu, Distinction, The Field of Cultural Production, The Rules of Art; Macherey). Still another influence was the decidedly non-Marxist US cultural sociology tradition favouring ethnographic fieldwork, participant-observer embedding and quantitative survey data which produced Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), its many stablemates and inheritors (Griswold, ‘American Character’, ‘Recent Moves’, Bearing Witness, American Guides; Coser, Kadushin, and Powell; Desan, Ferguson and Griswold; Long; Miller; Childress).

The great achievement of the ‘sociology of literature’ moment was that it both reinscribed literary works in their sociohistorical context and accounted unapologetically for their industrial dimensions (Baldick, ‘Literature and the Academy’ 94). At its worst, the movement could succumb to economic determinism, reading literature reductively as the superstructural working out of society’s economic base and thus underestimating the significance of genre tropes, authorial innovation and reader agency.1 However, cultural studies’ interest in resistant modes of consumption and relative audience autonomy kept this tendency in check via lively internal debates. As Wendy Griswold observed, the sociology of literature approach was at its strongest when offsetting the respective blind spots of both its key contributor disciplines, producing:

excellent iconoclastic studies necessary to counter the emphasis on the text and nothing but the text that used to prevail in traditional literary analysis. Now the time has come for sociologists to consolidate their gains by doing literary research that both takes content into account and considers a variety of causal influences from the social world. (‘American Character’ 741)

For current purposes, the sociology of literature’s greatest shortcoming is – sadly – that it is over, having petered out around the mid-1980s when the rise of neoliberalism and the fall of the Soviet Bloc discredited its often Marxist-inflected sense of inexorable progress towards more socially-democratic and inclusivist cultural formations. James English, editor of a New Literary History special issue on ‘New Sociologies of Literature’ (2010), was right to argue that declarations of its death were premature to the extent that the movement’s energies have dispersed broadly through literary, cultural and media studies via ‘a great many significant and innovative projects that are no less sociological for bearing other labels than “the sociology of literature”’ (xii). But, problematically, such work was mostly either produced prior to the rise of digital culture in the latter half of the 1990s or focuses on earlier eras (Frow; Milner). With the exception of a few highly esteemed scholars currently working at the literature-sociology interface – such as Lisa Gitelman, Matthew Kirschenbaum and Johanna Drucker – the disciplines of literary and media studies still display insufficient curiosity about the other’s ways of operating.

One movement that has boomed since James English’s survey was published and that seems to give the lie to the above statement is the Digital Humanities (DH), which achieved mainstream attention from around 2009. DH is (in)famously diverse in its objects and methods, and encompasses everything from old-school compilation of catalogues, concordances and scholarly editions, to more recently developed applications such as born-digital literary works, textual visualisations and digital mapping. Nevertheless, the literary studies subsection of DH principally focuses on digitally reading large textual corpora to discern trends in language use, shifting classes of authors or the prevalence of particular genres. In several immediately perceptible ways, literary DH appears profoundly sociological, apparently demonstrating that the lingering literary studies/sociology divide has finally been bridged. Most obvious is the movement’s preference for social science terminology such as ‘data’ (Hernstein Smith 69). In addition, DH adherents’ preferred modes for communicating results feature plentiful charts, graphs, formulae and reusable datasets – all strongly reminiscent of social-science practice. More particular claims for literary DH as a sociological undertaking are advanced by scholars such Ted Underwood. This leading DH figure argues provocatively that literary DH employs social-scientific method in that it starts from a preformulated hypothesis, experiments on a chosen sample and concludes with discussion of findings: namely, ‘the practice of framing historical inquiry as an experiment, using hypotheses and samples (of texts or other social evidence) that are defined before the writer settles on a conclusion’ (‘A Genealogy of Distant Reading’).

Yet, under the cover, literary DH remains profoundly un-sociological in prioritising the text itself (albeit typically viewed in aggregate and read by a computer rather than by a human) over any contextual frame. DH projects often dedicate substantial paratextual space to explaining the provenance and validating the accuracy of digitised texts, arguing painstakingly for the editors’ decisions to include specific library collections, formats and genres. Yet such studies typically marginalise broader issues such as where sampled texts originally come from in terms of their production apparatus of publishing houses and printers, what commercial or public sector mechanisms engineer their distribution across societies, and which communities of readers debate, preserve or even attack the resultant literary texts. None of these complex, dynamic and innately social processes can be captured by examining literary texts in isolation from their originating (or subsequently acquired) social domains. Underwood concedes that DH style ‘distant reading’ can be criticised for unduly focusing on textual interpretation – ‘reading’ – as opposed to analysing ‘social structure’ (‘A Genealogy of Distant Reading’). But this hazily defined macro term still glosses over the specific, mid-level institutions which shape literary culture and which I earlier limned as the focus of ‘the new institutionalism’. In the end, DH appears to be still predominantly a matter of texts, whether read up close or at scale. Revealingly, for Underwood, debates over algorithms principally relate to their utility for historical research, not how they customise, for example, one’s Amazon search results, lit.Twitter feed or BookTok visibility. Even DH research that examines contemporary phenomena such as Twitter dust-ups over authorial misdemeanours or the excerpting of textual snippets for social-media circulation must attend to the affordances of individual Web 2.0 platforms and the politico-commercial forces nudging their developers in specific directions. Otherwise, for all its enthusiastic embrace of digital technology and valorising of empirical method, literary DH nevertheless perpetuates the debilitating ‘institutional blindness’ diagnosed by Olsen. It does so by retaining a preference for socially ‘decontaminated’ texts, an overwhelmingly historical bent, and an insufficiently reflexive belief that objects of study can be separated from the epistemological mechanisms of the particular institutional formations through which they are encountered.


Rapprochement between the disciplines of literary studies and sociology seems always imminent but never actually achieved. As far back as 1989, pioneering electronic literature scholar Richard A. Lanham optimistically forecast that, ‘In the digital light of these technologies, the disciplinary boundaries that currently govern academic study of the arts dissolve before our eyes, as do the administrative structures which enshrine them’ (275). Fast forward to 2013, and digital literature scholars N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman were similarly promoting their new approach of ‘comparative textual media’ as synthesising literary studies, art history, media studies and cultural studies, inter alia (xiii, xix). Rousingly, they heralded it as ‘the beginning of a new era in the humanities’ (xxii). Yet not even these eminent scholars could claim to have reoriented the mainstream of their home discipline – English. Granted there are encouraging signs of disciplinary détente – studies that investigate electronic literary formats, that insist on a hyper-contemporary focus, or that employ positivist, social-science-style methodologies. But the two disciplines’ profound ontological and epistemological differences continue to make themselves felt in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways – via conference calls for papers, journal referees’ reports and academic hiring practices. To be a sociologist of literature is always to be something of an institutional misfit, forever reassuring low-level suspicious colleagues of one’s disciplinary bona fides.

Institutional inertia being what it is, such disciplinary divides are unlikely to dissolve any time soon. But individual scholars committed to understanding the contemporary literary world cannot wait for such glacial change and must instead avail themselves of the tools they find to hand. In order to analyse the operation of the contemporary literary system, pervaded as it is by digital media technology, curious literary scholars must make use of cutting-edge research from media, communication and cultural studies. Such work encompasses media platforms and their affordances, modes of networked interactivity, user-generated content practices, the workings of algorithmic culture, social media performativity, and now also generative artificial intelligence’s role in content production. Incorporating such sociologically-derived theoretical and methodological insights into our research allows us to update Griswold’s rallying cry, compensating for the blind spots of both disciplines – literary studies’ myopic obsession with textual particulars, on one hand, and sociology’s bias towards systemic explanations which discount the richness of individual texts on the other. Instead, we can follow the new institutionalist lead in foregrounding mid-level entities within which the countervailing forces of structure and agency play out most conspicuously: author societies; publishing enterprises; book review organs; literary prize committees; creative writing programs; social media corporations; cultural policy lobby groups; mass reading events, celebrity book clubs and ‘organic’ reader subcultures. This methodological precedent is the real richness of the various new institutionalist studies referenced at the start of this article: their constant oscillation between the explanatory frames of text and context, leading to the crucial insight that the two are ultimately indivisible. Indeed, adequately grasping the nature of contemporary digital literary culture requires understanding the interplay and feedback loops between institutional setting and specific instantiation. The tools to facilitate such analysis already exist; it is up to us to appropriate them for literary studies’ purposes, bending them to our ends and modifying as we see fit. If we need to work piecemeal, so be it. There is no time to wait for disciplinary walls to fall when the ceaselessly mutating digital environment is changing contemporary literary culture around us on a daily basis.


  1. For example, Wendy Griswold criticises Robert Escarpit’s work for the sociological assumption that literature unproblematically reproduces reality, arguing for ‘an expanded conception of how literature reflects the social world’ that encompasses multiple, intertwined factors such as genre conventions, copyright laws and authorial intentions (‘American Character’ 758, 761; see also ‘Recent Moves’ 465; Childress 5).

Published 30 October 2023 in Special Issue: Literary Value. Subjects: Literature - Study & teaching.

Cite as: Murray, Simone. ‘Between Impressions and Data: Negotiating Literary Value at the Humanities/Social Sciences Frontier.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.aa3f8c1d48.

  • Simone Murray — Simone Murray is Associate Professor in Literary Studies at Monash University and an elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.