Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Post-Disciplinary Reading and Literary Sociology

Bill Gates's favorite business book, on loan to him from Warren Buffet.
Fig. 1. Bill Gates's favorite business book, on loan to him from Warren Buffet.

Sociology and Scale 

What sociological knowledge do we possess of contemporary literary culture? Very little, as Amy Hungerford points out, for the basic reason that the objects of sociological study are “virtually unreachable by the ordinary means of scholarly inquiry.”[1] The fine-grained interactions of living, breathing social actors—writers and editors, publishers and booksellers, students and teachers, all going about their business as you read this sentence—cannot be recovered from historical archives or extrapolated from literary texts. Partially, the methodological problem is one of contemporaneity. We cannot arrest the flow of the present to study it any more than we can raise the dead from their graves and order them to speak. But in the ever-expanding field of contemporary literary activity, the problem is also one of number and scale: more people are reading and writing than ever before in more socio-institutional settings and in more disparate ways. Given the massive profusion and diffusion of literary culture, how does a literary scholar select the texts and readers she will study from among the many that are available to her in any given social context: a publishing house, an MFA program, a literature classroom, a book club, an online forum? How can the analysis of a single text or reader or institution, marked by the innumerable and ephemeral contingencies of time and space, scale up into a general theory of contemporary literary production or reception?

These are fundamentally sociological questions, and to ask them is to recall James English’s still unanswered lament that literary critics tend to “draw on the most innovative sociological work . . . for its conclusions rather than its methods.”[2] The central question this essay poses is this:  what objects of study might literary scholarship have to gain, and what objects might it have to sacrifice, if it borrowed from sociology’s methods rather than its conclusions? These methods include surveys, questionnaires, case studies, participant observations, and open-ended interviews—a mixture of qualitative and quantitative techniques designed to toggle between the particularities of individual reading/writing experiences and the way these experiences are aggregated by and into larger socio-institutional contexts. When confronted with the expanding scale of the contemporary literary field, sociological methods allow us to make claims about production and reception without reinforcing existing hierarchies of cultural value—that is, choosing texts or readers because of their already apparent centrality to the literary field. At the same time, these methods allow us to expand our number of literary objects—both texts and readers—without succumbing to abstract patterns or impersonal structures. The impetus to expand the number of literary objects is not necessarily an impetus to abstraction, as many humanists claim (and often fear). Rather, it is an opportunity to particularize and historicize acts of reading and writing.

Let me make this claim more concrete by turning to a socio-institutional space with which many, if not all readers of this essay are intimately familiar—the classroom. Over the past two decades, the classroom study of English literature has emerged as an important, if not the most important, site of inquiry for literary sociologists and historians of the discipline operating in a Bourdieusian vein.[3] We think we have a good sense for what the English literature classroom’s scenes of instruction are like, both somatically and ideologically. Pens and pencils in hand, scribbling diligently between the lines and in the margins of their books, students attend to the forms and styles of literary texts to produce interpretations of their aesthetic designs, collectively through their classroom conversations and individually through their written assignments. In doing so, they not only cultivate the professionalized habits and dispositions of close, critical readers, but they also reproduce these practices of reading and writing as the cultural markers of a privileged class—a sociological demographic that, as Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan point out, distinguishes itself through its apparent opposition to the “undisciplinary and undisciplined” reading practices of the “common reader.”[4]

Yet, as Buurma and Heffernan further observe, anyone who has spent any time in a college classroom knows that there exists a significant gap between sociological theory as it is applied to the institutional structure of the classroom and on-the-ground pedagogical practices. Many of my students, for instance, do not bring their books to class or, when they do, confess that they are afraid to debase them by writing in them. Some download digital versions or illegal PDFs that they swipe through on their phones, highlighting entire pages with their fingers or leaving themselves virtual “sticky notes.” When I ask them questions about form or style, they speak rapturously of “relatability” and “readability”—of loving certain characters and hating others and believing that, in real life, some might be “pretty hot.” They preface their comments with personal anecdotes about their friends, their parents, or their favorite pop cultural artifacts. They confess, sometimes sheepishly, sometimes proudly, to reenacting the way a favorite character walks or talks or consumes. They skip; they skim; they read the SparkNotes. While the very fact of their access to higher education may inaugurate them into a privileged class, it is less clear that this privilege can be mapped onto the practice of reading I—and perhaps you—teach in any straightforward way.

Elsewhere, I have argued that scholars and teachers have too quickly discarded such readerly habits as part of an undifferentiated mass of “bad reading” that properly literary reading needs to secure its elevated cultural status.[5] To objectify and taxonomize these debased forms of reading as distinct practices—as routing, repetitive, imitable, and institutionally contingent acts that cultivate specific subjective orientations to literature and literary culture—is to generate new theories about reading and the social logics it reproduces. But it is one thing to theorize reading as a historical phenomenon, armed with archives and artifacts that always already limit the number of readers and texts one can consider. It is another to understand its techniques, habits, and dispositions as they are articulated and altered by multiple readers, across multiple institutions, and in real time. For the task of studying reading in the present, sociological methods are not just one overlooked option among many for expanding the scale and number of literary objects we can study—they are the only option for producing an account of disciplinary and extradisciplinary literary culture today.

Post-Disciplinary Reading: Leadership Through Fiction

The best way to gain a starkly comparative vantage point on the scale and scope of reading in the present is to step outside the English classroom and into adjacent institutional spaces of literary study that are, relatively speaking, quite new. Since the 1970s, institutions of professional education have witnessed an explosion in what I have called “post-disciplinary” programs of study, often billed as “Literature and ______” courses: “Literature and Leadership,” “Literature and Medicine,” “Literature and Law.”[6] The syllabi, curricula, instructors, and administrators of these courses have little historical or theoretical allegiance to literary-critical practices of appreciation or interpretation. Rather, they posit that reading literature will serve overtly professionalizing ends: the cultivation of leadership ethics for business majors and business school students; the development of empathic human connections for medical students; the expansion of judiciousness for aspiring lawyers. The very existence of these courses, as well as the astonishing rate at which they have proliferated over the past thirty years, challenges John Guillory’s observation in Cultural Capital (1993) that the “fully emergent professional-managerial class . . . no longer requires the cultural capital of the old bourgeoisie” (43). Indeed, something closer to the opposite might be true: the same liberal humanist values that English departments largely abandoned in the 1970s, once the performance of theoretical rigor became entrenched as the “technobureaucratic labor” of intellectual work, have become became central to the professionalizing missions of post-disciplinary literary pedagogy (181). If, as Mario Biagioli has claimed in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry, “the humanities look less sexy in their posttheory phase,” then the attempt to bring sexy back after the heyday of high theory is routed through these post-disciplinary liaisons.[7] They seek to reconcile literary pedagogy to the professional-managerial class in a period when the autonomy of literary study—not just the material conditions for its flourishing, but also its idealization as a non-instrumental form of analysis—is increasingly under attack.

Equally as important as the professed ends of these post-disciplinary initiatives are their implicit theorizations of how their students must read—the books they must use, the exercises they must perform, the conversations they must engage in—to cultivate qualities of leadership, empathy, and judiciousness. While historical syllabi, classroom notes, and pedagogy primers offer some insights into the reading practices of “Literature and ______” courses, they often only capture the perspective of the instructor, course director, administrator, or the single, idealized “reader,” and not the rhythms of the classroom itself or the cacophony of readerly voices that inhabit it. To study the classroom as a social space requires that one visit it, observe its participants, ask questions about their behavior and their beliefs; it requires that one stop projecting the figure of “the reader”—the English PhD who has read, say, 500 novels—and turn instead to the plural form of “readers,” whose practices differ from one another and whose responses do not track any ideology of reading valorized by literary critics. The purpose is to produce what sociologist Wendy Griswold has called a cultural “brief”: a socially embedded account of reading that grounds a formal and stylistic account of what is read—the parts of novels, poems, and plays that are invoked in pedagogical exercises—in observed modes of reception, comprehension, and explanation.[8] Only then can we begin to suture the actions and interactions of many readers/texts into a broader account of how and why the professional classes read literature today.

Here is an example. In April of 2014, I observed and recorded three four-hour sessions of a Columbia Business School elective called “Leadership Through Fiction.” There were 76 students enrolled, roughly 10% of the graduating cohort of 2015. The school first offered the elective in 2009, when, “we felt the first aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis”—this according to the instructor, a former novelist, screenwriter, and creative writing MFA who had turned to administrative work at the business school when working as a full-time writer proved too precarious.[9] The class enjoyed the full administrative and financial support of the Dean of the Business School, who had launched the school’s Center for Leadership and Ethics in 2003, after “leading a panel evaluating the costs and benefits of the landmark Sarbanes-Oxley Act”: an act passed by Congress in 2002 to expand regulatory oversight for auditors, lawyers, and analysts).[10] I spoke briefly to thirty students in the class to ask them what they understood to be the class’s purpose. Echoing the language of the Dean, almost all of them stressed the importance of literature as “a form of regulation” or “self-regulation,” crucial for a professional domain in which they believed there existed little to no institutional checks on their activities. “Doctors have the Hippocratic Oath and lawyers have the [American] Bar [Association],” one student explained to me. “There really isn’t a professional organization to regulate how we behave.”[11] The majority of students I spoke to expressed their belief that the class would help them “see beyond the bottom line” in future management or investment decisions they anticipated having to make.[12]

Two of the three classes I observed centered on a discussion of Thomas Berger’s satiric Western Little Big Man (1964), which tells the story of a white man named Jack Crabb who is raised in part by the Cheyenne Nation.[13] At the age of 111 and on the verge of death, Crabb narrates his life story to a “man of letters”: a snobbish, effete, and psychoanalytically conversant scholar with enough independent income to pursue his “literary and historical interests with relative indifference to, and immunity from, the workaday world” (Berger, Little Big Man, 2). The man of letters provides the frame narrative for the central plot of the novel, which turns on a series of episodes in which Crabb must assimilate into either white colonialist or Indigenous social contexts as peaceably as possible. Each group questions Crabb’s identity and his claims to belonging, requiring him to perform his in-group knowledge in increasingly dangerous ways, from stealing horses with the Cheyenne to bluffing his way into a meeting with General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. As the man of letters listens to Crabb talk, he gradually uncovers a “moral lesson” in Crabb’s willingness to make and remake his identity according to immediate social pressures. “[E]ach of us, no matter how humble, from day to day finds himself in situations in which he has the choice of acting either heroically or craven,” he writes. “A small elite are picked by fate to crouch on that knoll above the Little Bighorn, and they provide examples for the many commonplace individuals whose challenge is only a flat tire on a deserted road, the insult of a bully at the beach, or a sneezing spell in the absence of one’s nostril spray” (9). (The man of letters has recently undergone surgery on his sensitive sinuses and is constantly misplacing his saline spray.)

Crabb’s “moral lesson” served as the starting point for the class’s discussion of Little Big Man. The instructor read it aloud at the beginning of the first class and asked each student to think of himself as always having the “choice” to act “either heroically or cravenly” in difficult situations. Implicit in his encouragement was the assumption that his students would always have the freedom to choose their actions; that, as future managers and entrepreneurs, their behavior would always be determined by internal, not external, constraints. If the rhetoric of freedom, choice, and self-regulation was typical of neoliberal ideology, more unusual was the association between the regulatory function of reading and students’ membership in the “small elite picked by fate” to “provide examples for the many commonplace individuals.” These individuals were either like the man of letters, indifferent and immune to the workday world, or markedly lower class, laborers whose challenges were “only a flat tire on a deserted road” or “the insult of a bully at the beach.” What seemed surprising in the analogy of identification the instructor had set up between the frame narrative and the novel (Jack Crabb: MBA students :: man of letters: all other commonplace readers) was its inversion of literary sociology’s conventional cultural hierarchies. The Bourdieusian professional readers—the literary scholars, buffered by the relative institutional autonomy of the school from crudely economic motivations for reading and writing—were grouped with the lower classes. Rather, the elite readers were the imitative and imitable readers of the business school classroom. Hailing from many different countries, speaking many different languages, they constituted both the economic and the cultural “superclass” that divine forces had selected to lead by example—and, by extension, to rule the world.

With the students’ membership in the elite superclass of business readers explicitly established, the instructor turned to the question of how one might cultivate the disposition of a leader through reading Little Big Man. Using Crabb’s “moral lesson” as an anchor point, the class’s discussion of the novel followed a routine sequence of events. First, the instructor would isolate and read aloud a particular instance of social interaction that he perceived as especially fraught, rife with possibilities for miscommunication between Crabb and whichever group, colonialist or Indigenous, he attempted to infiltrate. “Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you struggled to communicate with others and understand their values?” he asked the class. “What happened? Were problems resolved? What did you learn?” He instructed the students to get into groups and discuss their insights. “Return with a list of two or three key takeaway points to share with the class,” he concluded.[14]

It is tempting to dismiss this classroom activity as an example of the “scourge of relatability”—a common complaint among college English professors and the readers they have trained.[15] Yet the capacity to identify with a character or narrative event rarely involves the same logic of recognition from one context to the next. For the MBA students I observed, the self-reflexivity of the exercise was not an invitation to “improvise” or “choreograph” different versions of the self, as Rita Felski has suggested in her discussion of recognition’s playful, flexible possibilities.[16] Rather, the group exercise and the ensuing classroom discussion stressed the importance of fixing, firming, and toughening up the self that one would have to present in a high-stakes, high-stress social situation like the ones presented in Little Big Man. “These types of situations really make you tough,” one student offered as his group’s key takeaway. “They thicken your skin. So they might be painful but really beneficial.” The instructor nodded his approval and observed, “In the novel, there is a focus on protecting face. What kinds of insights might we draw from that?” Another student replied, “Sometimes conflicts can’t be resolved. Throughout a leader’s journey, it’s important to realize when you shouldn’t compromise.” The instructor re-described the student’s insight as a testament to the “self-imposed honor” that leadership required.

One way to understand the classroom discussion is as a dry run, a stage rehearsal, for what sociologist Erving Goffman calls a “character contest”: an instance of face-to-face communication that is transformed into “a perilous field of fateful interpersonal action.”[17] Here the importance of playing the “tough hero role,” a character type that Goffman and others assign to members of lower class urban culture, becomes crucial to the superclass’s ability to “protect[t] face” in adversarial management situations (Goffman, “Where the Action Is,” 253). Like Little Big Man’s narrative, which presents long periods of dull wandering in between heightened scenes of action, character contests are episodic. They were “traps,” the instructor said, which one walked into, often without warning. The only way to prepare yourself for these traps was to “take the time to imagine your way through them”—to cultivate one’s character as a tough, uncompromising leader and to foreground that character in one’s connections with other people and one’s connections with literature. To emphasize literature’s role in helping to build the character of the people who would have the talents and authority to lead society represented a stunning reassertion of the liberal arts as a privilege and marker of the ruling class—a throwback to prewar structures and ideologies of higher education, only this time the ruling class was not a class of genteel gentlemen-scholars, but a tough managerial superclass.

Let me conclude by returning to the question with which I started this essay: what is gained and what is lost by borrowing from the methods of sociology to study the contemporary literary field? We can produce a detailed descriptive and interpretive account of how a significant cohort of people read to secure their social positions as members of a professional elite, people who fall outside of the idealized and singular category of “the reader” that professional literary critics often invoke in their accounts of a close reader’s response to the text. We can also produce a detailed descriptive and interpretive account of different kinds of literary texts—texts that we, as professional literary critics, would otherwise never read or even know existed. Yet to what extent can we generalize the cultural brief I have sketched here? My example is drawn from only one classroom in a private university, albeit one that educates large numbers of students who subsequently occupy high-ranking positions in finance capitalism. But the specific scenes of instruction might be different at business schools at Harvard, Stanford, Northeastern, Texas, Sussex, or McGill, to name just a few of the other institutions where “Literature and Leadership” courses exist. For some, questions remain: Does my interpretation scale? Does my method? What kinds of resources would it require? Or should we, be content with producing local, partial accounts of contemporary literary culture instead of systemic theories of the field? I do not see these questions as failures or even shortcomings of sociological methods, so much as I see them as an invitation to pursue more comparative work; to collaborate with teams of scholars on the ground at different institutions; to produce a map of contemporary literary culture that may have many jagged edges, rather than one smooth seam.

For others, the greatest sacrifice in shifting from the study of our own reading practices and social connections to the study of elite reading practices and social connections is that it seems to reaffirm literary criticism’s marginalized position in the field of cultural production. When I present my research at conferences, people often laugh at the descriptions I offer of how business students read. Their laughter is tinged with amusement, with apprehension, and occasionally with anger. “What really bothers me,” one audience member said recently, “is that they”—he meant the managerial elite—“rule us.” His implication was that treating the managerial elites’ social connections as legitimate objects of literary-sociological study would only help to consolidate their ruling power, that we would effectively be ceding whatever limited autonomy we had left to analyze the non-instrumental texts, connections, and practices of proper literary scholarship. Yet there is a political and professional value for us in understanding how the managerial elite’s territorializing power works, not in an abstract and structural sense, but how it is routed through specific objects, affects, discourses, and dispositions; how its claims about what literature can do might resemble some of our own even if its method strike us as alien. One must not retreat from the operations of power even if they make new and more troubling forms of inequality visible. Only then can we begin to reassert the specific importance of what we do now and why we do it. Only then can we begin to reclaim autonomy not as a fetish or a fantasy, not as a nostalgic retro-projection, but as a strategy of resistance and resilience.


[1] Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), 4.

[2] James F. English, “Everywhere and Nowhere: The Sociology of Literature After ‘the Sociology of Literature,’” New Literary History 41, no. 2 (2010): v–xxiii, xiii–xiv.

[3] The best example remains John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[4] Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, “The Common Reader and the Archival Classroom: Disciplinary History for the Twenty-First Century,” New Literary History 43, no. 1 (2012): 113–35, 113.

[5] See Merve Emre, Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[6] Merve Emre, “Post-Discipline: Literature, Professional Education, and the Crisis of the Humanities” (forthcoming in PMLA).

[7] Mario Biagioli, “Postdiscipinary Liasons: Science Studies and the Humanities,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 4 (2009): 816-33, 825.

[8] Wendy Griswold, “A Methodological Framework for the Sociology of Culture,” Sociological Methodology 17 (1987): 1–35, 7.

[9] Merve Emre, Interview with Bruce Craven, April 24, 2014.

[10] Glenn Hubbard, “Welcome,” Columbia Business School, Columbia University, November, 2017.

[11] Merve Emre, Interview with Student #3, April 16, 2014; email correspondence with students, April 11, 2014.

[12] Merve Emre, Student Interviews, April 16, 2014.

[13] See Thomas Berger, Little Big Man (New York: Dial Press, 1964).

[14] Merve Emre, Classroom Observations, April 9, 2014.

[15] Rebecca Mead, “The Scourge of ‘Relatability,’” The New Yorker, August 1, 2014.

[16] See Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).

[17] Erving Goffman, “Where the Action is” in Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 149–270, 249.