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



The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have brought the question of the complex relationship between representation and reality back to the center of public debate. Literature is a cultural form that can either convey existing representations, including racist, classist, sexist, and transphobic ones—and those peddling the hierarchization of legitimate identities and all other forms of social disqualification—or else subvert them. Literature is in this sense a site for the reproduction or subversion of symbolic violence, understood as a form of violence that is masked because euphemized, and which thus contributes to reproducing forms of domination by inculcating them as natural, and therefore legitimate, among the dominated (Bourdieu 2002b). This power proper to literature, as to other cultural forms, makes it not only an object of worship and a source for exegesis, but also the object of symbolic struggles, censorship, lawsuits, boycotts, and cancellations. Yet traditional literary studies, especially in the wake of New Criticism and structuralism, have tended to focus on the text and its specific forms. The sociology of literature does not reduce literature to representations of the social world, but instead apprehends literature in its different modes of social existence, from its most materialized forms (the book as object) to its cognitive dimensions, and through its development into literary genres, its classification in aesthetic currents, its appropriations by political movements, and so on.

It is surprising that in the United States, where consciousness of the power of cultural forms has been sharpened by feminist, queer, and antiracist movements, the sociology of literature remains so marginal. This is no doubt due to disciplinary compartmentalization, exacerbated by the separation of the humanities from the social sciences, as well as to the lack of interest in literature among sociologists, and in sociology among literary scholars. There are certainly deeper reasons why this state of affairs is not specific to the English-speaking world, like the fact that literary scholars fear a sacrilegious sociological reductionism, which reminds them of Marxism, and that literature can be seen as a futile or elitist object in the eyes of sociologists. (I myself was trained in literary theory and philosophy, but I discovered sociology, then a somewhat scorned discipline, only belatedly through Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of literature, and subsequently became a sociologist.) These reasons have very old origins, outlined in the first chapter of this book. The purpose of the book, however, is to illustrate all the benefits that both disciplines stand to gain from the intermingling of their approaches and lines of questioning.

Published in 2014 as part of La Découverte’s “Repères” collection, the remit of which is to take stock of a research domain and propose new directions for it (the collection is aimed primarily at students, but also at researchers engaging in the discipline), this book was initially intended for a French-speaking audience, and was based on a predominantly French-language corpus and on examples of research conducted for the most part in the French-speaking world (including work by researchers from other countries). Although the format of the collection severely limited the breadth of references I could cite, this did not amount to a major distortion of the subject matter, because it is mainly in the French linguistic space that the sociology of literature has, since its latest upsurge in the 1970s, evolved. Moreover, the examples aim above all to open up avenues of research that can be transposed to other sociocultural contexts, laying the foundations for a comparative approach that, as Bourdieu says, can only be carried out “from system to system” (Bourdieu 1991a: 630–31). This book has so far been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Turkish, and Bulgarian, and it serves—in South America in particular, but also elsewhere (in Germany, for instance)—as a reference, along with Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art and Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters, for the development of research in this domain.

In the English-speaking world, where work has long been done on the history of censorship and the social construction of authorship in the wake of Foucault (1999), and where queer theory and feminist and postcolonial studies have drawn attention to the gendered and racialized aspects of cultural works, there has recently been a growing interest in other objects of study in the sociology of literature, such as creative writing programs, literary agents, the editorial process, translation, reading clubs, and literary festivals. This is why the English-language edition of this book is an expanded edition, taking into account as much as possible these recent developments, with an updated bibliography, mainly in English and French, in the hope that it can contribute to the flourishing of the field.

I concluded my last book, Peut-on dissocier l’œuvre de l’auteur? (Can We Separate the Work from the Author? [Sapiro 2020b]), by writing that while boycotting is a right, analysis is nevertheless preferable to erasure, because the erasure of a work, especially in the case of the classics, risks wiping out the traces of symbolic violence along with it, and so generating a collective amnesia. By contrast, the sociology of literature can be a tool for anamnesis of this symbolic violence and the role that literary works may have had in its reproduction or subversion.

Gisèle Sapiro


February 6, 2023

This preface was written by the author specially for the English-language edition.