From George Orwell’s 1984 to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, literature has always been an effective way to portray the inner workings of society’s social structures. Literature is a reflection of culture, the study of which sociology as a discipline is very interested in. Indeed, although literature often operates on the level of the individual, its lessons can be extracted and applied to larger phenomena. The power of this analytical move is only increased when social phenomena are studied across texts, implementing the use of intertextuality to study the intricacies of similar social structures in different contexts. True, literature is an accessible tool through which to enter what canonical sociologist C. Wright Mills terms the “sociological imagination” in that it allows readers to enter perspectives other than their own and witness firsthand the impact of social forces on the public and private lives of others. In this way literature and sociological analysis go hand in hand, as they are different lenses through which we can study the human experience.
With this in mind, Professor Hernández-Medina’s seminar, “Sociology through Literature” has encouraged us as students to deepen our understanding of sociological concepts dealing with race, gender, sexuality, interaction, globalization, the body, and politics through the use of literature. As interdisciplinarily-minded liberal arts students, this is a compelling pedagogy that we hope to continue engaging in beyond this class. Though our final papers widely vary in topic, with discussions around revolutionary consciousness, trans youth of color, mass incarceration, and bodily objectification, they share a unique style of analysis that, in the spirit of Professor Hernández-Medina’s seminar, treats literature as evidence for broad social phenomena. Each of us in our specific topics tackles inequality or hierarchy in some form, searching for its origins and strategies to address it. In this practice we have been able to hone our own sociological imaginations, as well as deepen our relationships with literature, which we now have the ability to engage with as both a form of entertainment and an educational tool for a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Considering the continuous struggle for many groups to have their rights recognized and others are victims of different forms of oppression, it is important to be conscious of the power dynamics that exist in our day-to-day interactions. In engagement with existing literature on the circumstances that contribute to injustice, we may better be informed on how to challenge the structures that allow these hierarchies to prosper. The discussions of revolutionary consciousness, trans youth of color, mass incarceration, and bodily objectification all require the dismantling of our own preconceptions and biases and demand doubt of our current systems.
As mentioned, our papers were done with the desire to be educated on our topics and, in conversation with our literary sources, find ways to address them. However, we cannot limit our understanding to the presented literature. Instead, it should be used as a starting point to sustain dialogue of the pervasiveness of power structures. In a climate where social norms are trivialized, it is also important to discuss how the societal norms came to be and reflect on who these norms harm. In observance of each of our topics, the mistreatment, prejudice, or objectification present was normalized in their respective time period and even to this day. Our current political climate continues to let people benefitting from the hierarchy gain comfort at the expense of the livability of the oppressed individual. The racializing, gendering, and objectification of the body remains a possibility as people continue to conform to the Eurocentric, cisnormative, and heteropatric standard condemned in our writing. However, deconstruction of these hierarchical standards is also possible when we unlearn the rhetoric that has led us to believe that doing so to begin with is acceptable.