The Sociology of Literature
Gisèle Sapiro, Translated by Madeline Bedecarré and Ben Libman



The sociology of literature approaches literature as a social fact. This entails a two-pronged examination: the study of literature as a social phenomenon, in which a great number of institutions and individuals who produce, consume, and judge literary texts participate; and the study of how time periods and social issues are represented in literary texts.

This seemingly simple proposition raises a number of questions. What defines an authoritative text? A work as it was published by its author? But in this case, what to make of Kafka’s works published by Max Brod after his death? or of different versions of a text published by an author? or of variations found in manuscripts? Should we focus on the genesis of a text and understand it, like Sartre, as part of a larger “creative project”? or, otherwise, on its interpretation, which can vary depending on the readers and the time period?

Indeed, the meaning of a literary text or of any cultural production cannot be reduced to the author’s intent. Apart from the fact that authors are not always conscious of what they do, the meaning of the work depends on two factors that elude the creator. First, the meaning of a work resides not merely in its internal construction, as hermeneutic criticism claims, but also in a national or international space of possibles (as defined by Bourdieu),1 the contours of which are traced by the totality of symbolic productions, present and past, among which it is situated at the time of its publication or republication. The singular work thus defines itself through its relationship to other cultural productions in terms of themes, genres, composition, and devices. The literary work is a vehicle for representations of the social world, which can be more or less shared by contemporaries (depending on the social group: class, gender, nation, ethnic group, and so on) and can be found in nonliterary texts. Which leads us to the question that specifically concerns us here: what is the relevant context for understanding a work of literature? Is it the author’s unique biography, which Sartre prioritized in his study of Flaubert, the social group (or class) which the author originally hails from or belongs to, or the social characteristics of the reading public? Is the relevant context to be found in national literature, on which literary history was based, or in world literature (Goethe’s Weltliteratur)? Which is more important: the social conditions of production and circulation of literary works, as contended by the founders of cultural studies? or the categories of understanding of the culture to which the work belongs, following the neo-Kantian tradition from Cassirer to Panofsky?

The second factor concerns the appropriations and uses that are made of a text, the meaning it is given, and the attempts at annexation to which it is subjected. These processes of reception are not external to the history of literary production. First, the reception of a work of literature has effects not only on its social meaning, but also on its position in the hierarchy of symbolic goods, which is assigned by its critical reception, its distribution in bookstores (for instance, placement in displays or position on bestseller lists), and so on. Second, the reception of literary works often has effects on authors themselves, who can be led to change or adjust their “creative project” depending on the reactions and expectations provoked by this reception. Third, the (re)appropriations of literary works from the past, or from other cultures, are at the very heart of the mechanisms of reproduction or renewal of the space of literary possibles: Lautréamont was exhumed by the Surrealists in opposition to writers of their time, Dos Passos and Faulkner were anointed in France by Sartre against the classic novelistic forms from the nineteenth century, and Flaubert was annexed by the Nouveau Roman in a coup against committed literature. This handful of examples alone confirms the role reappropriations play in the history of literature.

Like many areas of specialization (for example, the sociology of law), the sociology of literature is torn between two disciplines. But it also suffers from the long history of tensions and frictions between sociology and literary studies: the former established itself as a discipline by breaking away from the humanist culture that prevailed at the end of the nineteenth century, while the latter remains hostile to any “deterministic” approach to literature.2 Indeed, the sociology of literature had to overcome a resistance, on the part of literary scholars, to objectification stemming from the belief in the indeterminate and unique nature of literary works. Too “sociological” for literary scholars and too “literary” for sociologists, affiliated in some countries with literature, and in others with sociology, this subdiscipline suffers from a lack of institutionalization that contrasts with the richness of the work produced in the field for half a century. The dialogue initiated between literary scholars and sociologists, which strives to rise above disciplinary tensions, opens up promising channels of collaboration that this book hopes to encourage (see Desan et al. 1988; Baudorre, Rabaté, and Viart 2007).

This book aims to provide an overview of the current advancements in this growing field, by placing an emphasis on the sociological angle and on methodology (including quantitative methods, such as multiple correspondence analysis and network analysis), as well as on intersections with the questions posed by the sociology of art, culture, mass media, publishing, translation, professions, social relations (class, gender, and race), globalization, and so forth, into which this approach can offer insight.3 In constant dialogue with historians of literature (Lyon-Caen and Ribard 2010), this overview also points to possibilities for cross-fertilization with gender studies and postcolonial studies.

The first chapter sketches the history of this specialty and the theories that most shaped it, in particular those that attempted to transcend the division between internal and external analyses of texts. To this end, the sociological approach to literature is conceived of as the study of mediations between literary works and the social conditions of their production. These mediations are situated across three axes opening up areas of research that are examined in the following chapters: first, the material conditions of the production of literary works, as well as the mode of operation of the world of letters; second, the sociology of works (sociologie des œuvres), from the representations that they convey to the modalities of their production by their authors; third, the conditions of their reception and appropriation, as well as the uses that are made of them.

Drawing on examples from empirical studies, chapters II through IV will also discuss the methods deployed to address the questions raised. In addition to the qualitative methods traditionally utilized to study the literary fact (documentary analysis, study of the content of literary works and criticism), a sociological approach relies on studies of individual trajectories, which differ from biography, as well as on interviews and ethnographic observation for contemporary objects of study. But it is above all through quantitative methods that the sociology of literature differentiates itself from traditional literary approaches. Despite the common representation of the creative act as unique, there is no dearth of quantifiable or measurable aspects in the processes of the production and reception of literature: the social characteristics of authors and reading publics, types of publications, publishing formats, genres, networks of relationships, and so on. Whether by way of a prosopography (collective biography) of a group of writers, network analysis, lexicometrical analysis (which is now gaining traction in literary studies along with digital text analysis),4 or studies about reading, quantitative approaches shed light on seemingly irreducible facets of literary trajectories, literary texts, or reading experiences in a given social configuration, provided that they draw on more astute qualitative analyses. The book will also examine the perspectives opened up by the denationalization of literary history, such as studies on the transnational circulation of works of literature (especially through translation, but also through imitation) and on migratory trajectories (the effects of exile on artistic creation).


1. The “space of possibles” refers to the cultural forms, embodied in cultural works, that are available in a given social configuration (Bourdieu 1992, 326–32; 1996, 234–39).

2. On the misunderstandings between the two disciplines, see Meizoz (2004, 17).

3. These angles from sociology differentiate the present book from overviews that preceded it (see, for instance, Dirkx 2000; Aron and Viala 2006).

4. Following Moretti’s notion of “distant reading” (Moretti 2013) and his pioneer investigations with the Stanford Lab; see, for instance, Flanders and Jannadis (2018), Underwood (2019), and the work published by the Journal of Cultural Analytics.