sociology, science fiction, and superheroes

The following guest post by Michael Kennedy is the first of a series on sociology and science fiction.

It’s good to travel in company that does not keep the boundaries between sociology and other knowledge cultures too high, especially when it comes science fiction!

For someone like me who has worked on utopia, dystopia, and eutopia for some time, science fiction is an essential part of the trade, especially in east central Europe and Eurasia. During my last trip to Europe’s last university in exile, European Humanities University, I joined a workshop on creating curricula for a second year seminar in the social sciences. Without batting an eye participants suggested pairing Arendt’s reflections on judgement with Zamyatin’s We, on whose backcover Ursula Le Guin declared “the best single work of science fiction yet written”. Were this discussion in Vilnius, then, we might not consider it exceptional. But it is in America.

I haven’t taken science fiction as far as I might, but I have been revising a book manuscript on superhero sociology for some time. I also contributed to a recent volume on female superheroes, in which I developed an idea of how Elektra, of Marvel Comics and associated films, could be helpful in cultivating critical capacities.[1] But superheroes are different from science fiction.

In science fiction, the entire world is fantastic, even as the engaged science fiction public is invited to draw lessons for their own time based on what their interpretation of such a world is.[2] Superheroes are more immediate. The characters may be fantastic, but their settings are typically familiar.[3] They are super in our society, demanding, therefore a far more limited “translation” of meaning than what science fiction demands.

Of course the boundary between genres is not hard and fast. DC Comics cast their Legion of Superheroes in the 30th century. The superhero world, and their creators, also traveled between universes. Jack Kirby, who conceived the Black Panther, Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four, among others in 1960s, and Captain America in the 1940s, nonetheless created the science fiction comic, Challengers of the Unknown, in the late 1950s. And if you have ever gone to a comicon, you know that cosplay might trigger awareness of the science fiction/superhero distinction, but they do mingle.


If, then, we can consider the superhero genre as part of science fiction, let me introduce you to superhero sociology as I have conceived it for this book in preparation, and begin with the superhero’s definition.[4]

Peter Coogan is the point of reference here, using a triplet of mission (e.g. save the city), powers (e.g. flying, invisibility), and identity (a costume to distinguish the superhero from the civilian).[5] He uses that system to help us distinguish the superhero from the detective, the pulp hero, or even the monster killer; it also helps us recognize the power of the genre’s cores and boundaries to appreciate the form’s distinction.

His examples are terrific. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no superhero not only because her slayer identity is not so distinct from her ‘secret’ identity. It’s also because she does not identify as such with the genre. The Hulk has no mission, but is part of the superhero universe and can be convinced, even in rage, to support a superhero team. Shortly after he was introduced in the Marvel Universe, Luke Cage realizes he is losing legitimacy in a world of superheroes, and ultimately creates an identity, Power Man, so that he could cash in.

In this sense, superhero identification is not just an analyst’s assignment of category, but a point of reference for the reader, and the characters themselves. To be a superhero is an identification the fictional character makes together with the reading public. And that is the start for how superheroes become important for sociology. Superheroes, creators and consumers work together to realize a different kind of citizen.

By the way: not all superheroes have real superpowers. Batman and Captain America, for example, have no powers that are much beyond what a perfectly honed human might be able to do. Indeed, Mark D. White notes that those two might be appealing for that very reason: they provide more realistic exemplars for those who see in superheroes something to emulate.[6] And with that point, we take the second step toward figuring superhero sociology. It’s not only partnership; it’s a mirror enabling identification.

In one of the earliest expressions of modern sociology, Charles Horton Cooley identified the “looking glass self”.[7] The superhero reflection is something more than what Cooley proposed, however. It is a vehicle for personal transformation. By identifying with Black Widow or Thor, the couch potato, the screen slouch, can become something more. Of course that can happen when, during increasingly popular “cosplay”, she can dress up as Black Widow, or he can dress as the Mighty Thor.  Or she might carry that uru hammer given Thor’s female incarnation.


In short, superhero sociology is an analysis of the process by which the superhero helps the consumer become a better citizen, and together become partners in social analysis and transformation.

Superheroes are also more than a more believable fictional character. Their real, and not just fictional, superpower comes from the contradiction they express.[8] Ramzi Fawaz elaborates on this moment in discussing their renewed power in the early 1970s:

At the heart of this newfound admiration for comics lay a glaring yet largely unremarked contradiction: the cultural regeneration of the comic-book medium was made possible by the revamping of a key American fantasy figure, the superhero, even as that figure was being lauded for its “realism” and “social relevance.” [9]

Superhero powers are therefore not only in the comic book pages, but to be found in their complex location in our own cultural systems, practices, and formations. And as they become more central to those cultural expressions, they become more consequential, at least potentially. But this consequence is polyvalent.

Not only are plots, characters, and art becoming more sophisticated, but they cross media much more substantially.  Batman and Captain America not only live on comic book pages, but their heroics are developed on television and film.  Their images are not just on lunchboxes for schoolchildren, as they were when I went to grammar school.  They are for the big boys and big girls too.

Sometime in the summer of 2015, my son Lucas asked me if I had heard about the new Amazon product Echo. Nope. He played the promo. And what caught my attention? The commercial declared that it was something you could imagine in Tony Stark’s house.

Who is Tony Stark? If you need to ask that question, you are unlikely to be reading this essay.  But here’s a refresher: he is the billionaire inventor whose alter ego is Iron Man.  Those who read comics have known that since they started, that is if they started after the character was introduced in 1964.  A more popular culture knew it only since 2008 when the first Iron Man film came out.  And while I can’t claim I have driven Audis because Tony Stark endorsed the brand, Audi did become just a little bit cooler for me with the mutual promotion.[10]


I’m not happy to be so manipulated, but superheroes are all about manipulation: sometimes to buy a product, sometimes to escape reality, sometimes to affirm one’s identity, and sometimes, frankly, to be a bit more virtuous. And because they have become a central part of popular culture, they ought to become more centrally featured in our culture of critical discourse.[11]

Superheroes are distinctive agents in our culture, in our politics, and in our forces of inequality and change. And they can become even more powerful if we understand how they work. They might even function differently in our world if we make them work differently than Audi has contracted Iron Man to serve.

Still, I am a little defensive. As are other academics who write in this genre. I recognize the challenge of making this work respectable, especially to those who have read my previous work. I am not the only person, of course, who recognizes this Rodney Dangerfield kind of problem.[12]

Even if superhero studies get no respect, there are many more of us in the academic world who love comics and even superheroes than you might imagine.[13] The scholarly field specifically dedicated to comics has itself grown dramatically.[14] But that is not enough. I think superheroes deserve more than the academic following they now enjoy and the fanboys and fangirls that proliferate and who know comics and superheroes so much better than I.

Superheroes can make the world better, and not only in the fictional worlds they inhabit.

Superheroes help us extend critical thinking and its accompanying practice. The number of philosophers and literary scholars using superheroes to extend that liberal arts vision is certainly testimony to the possibility. Scholars working in critical race, feminist and queer studies are especially prominent, helping us appreciate the ways in which inequalities in representation are connected to inequalities in cultural production. I admire how Julian Chambliss is working to connect real and imagined cities through his work in urban history and planning and superhero studies.[15] I appreciate how Jason Dittmer has gotten into the mix, bringing his critical perspectives in geography into the articulation of the nationalist superhero.[16]

As a field, superhero studies has grown dramatically, and has a particular form: it draws on particular theoretical traditions, finds the right appropriate texts in superhero productions, and uses that dialogue to show the value of a particularly super cultural account. That field has grown large enough to allow me to do something different, not only in the articulation of its sociology. I can draw on this exceptional scholarly field more than the original comics per se in order to build superhero sociology on interdisciplinary intellectual foundations. But what could sociology bring?

Beyond thinking about what superheroes do for the abstract individual, we can think about how engaging superheroes enables us to think differently about social groups and social relations, how power works, and even consider how individuals and groups might struggle to organize society differently. Although some cultural studies connect questions of difference and injustice to real historical transformations, and geography certainly enables us to think about the ways in which time, space, and power are connected, sociology is ultimately concerned not only for questions of cultural representation. It cares about the conditions of social change.

Superheroes can help.

We can think about what kinds of superheroes become exemplary, and how their cultural formations and social associations make them variously generative. What, for instance, makes Captain America, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Black Panther, and Wolverine so meaningful? And how do their meanings, and potentials, vary not only with the creators that make them, but within the structures of continuity their very characters come to develop relatively autonomous of any conscious cultural agent? What enables their replications and extensions? What crushes their development? When do these heroes extend our public reflexivity and capacity for action, and when do they diminish our public responsibility and drive us to think only about how we can afford that next Audi?

That last point demands we attend to the conditions of superheroes’ production and consumption. It matters which genre we speak of when we talk superheroes: Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is different from the one in the comic books. Iron Man is different, too, in different periods of his 50 year plus existence. And of course Marvel is different from DC, and both commercial agents are different from the smaller labels that might be more creator-led if not creator-owned. Those, in turn, differ from various fan-created superheroes and media. In short, there is much variation to keep in mind around the production and consumption of superheroes even as we recognize the variations in superheroes that might empower different cultural politics.

An exercise in superhero sociology is an attempt to address these various issues, but more, to invite others to imagine better questions to engage. My answers and questions revolve around the analysis of cultural systems and symbols, their implication in practice among different kinds of groups – creators and consumers of various identifications with various power loadings. But it also depends on making explicit the powers that exist beyond the superheroes we enjoy and who frustrate us. It also rests in the comics cultural criticism that exists in different kinds of spaces. This knowledge cultural sociology of superheroes and their media not only names those spaces, but works to open them up and to connect them to broader public and scholarly debates about the kinds of societies in which we live, and the kinds of societies we might still create. But to do that, we need a different sociology of knowledge and cultural politics. Superheroes, and science fiction, are part of that.

Michael Kennedy is Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Brown University. He tweets @Prof_Kennedy.

[1] Michael D. Kennedy, “Elektra’s Cultural Power and Contradictions for Our Times” pp. 73-88 in Sandra Eckard (ed.) Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture” Rowman and Littlefield.

[2] An example: Ted Cruz, a candidate in the Republican Primary to run for President of the United States in 2016, declares that Star Trek’s first hero, Captain Kirk, would be a Republican. The actor who first portrayed him, William Shatner, declares Cruz wrong, claiming the show “apolitical”. Public, and twitter, debate ensue, declaring the 1960s show to have been profoundly political in its challenge to injustice and especially racism. And there we have it: science fiction inspires public reflexivity, especially when elevated in more refined discussion as here:

[3] Marco Arnaudo (tr. Jamie Richards), The Myth of the Superhero Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2013 (pp. 102-16) discusses this nicely. However, the comic book superhero genre moves into science fiction nicely by posing “what if” stories, like what if Superman had landed in the middle of Russia, and not the middle of the USA?

[4] This discussion fascinates superhero fans. The announcement in the summer of 2015 of the return of Hercules to the Marvel Universe prompted just that kind of blog post:

[5] Peter Coogan, The Superhero: The Secret Origins of a Genre. Monkeybrain Press, 2006.

[6] Mark D. White, The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero. Oxford: John Wiley and Sons, 2014, p 32. For that reason, virtue is more easily evident in Captain America than in Superman, despite the thoughtful efforts of Ben Saunders Do the Gods Wear Capes? Spirituality, Fantasy and Superheroes. London: Bloomsbury 2011, pp. 16-35.

[7] Cooley, Charles H. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner’s, 1902

[8] That cultural generativity comes from abiding contradictions is evident, too, in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. See Kristin Surak’s Making Tea, Making Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012). I also invoke Surak in my account of Elektra.

[9] p. 356 in Ramzi Fawaz, “Where No X-Man Has Gone Before: Mutant Superheroes and the Of Popular Fantasy in Postwar America” American Literature 83:2(2011):355-88.


[11] Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of America’s leading public intellectuals has himself put that argument out there Abraham Riesman, “Ta-Nehisi Coates Unpacks the Way Comics have Conquered the World” Vulture April 22, 2015

[12] Shawn O’Rourke, “A Brief Historiography of the Age of Marginalization: The Superhero in the American Mind” pp. 241-48 in Julian C. Chambliss, William Svitavsky and Thomas Donaldson (eds.) Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men: Superheroes and the American Experience. Newcastle upon Thyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013

[13] This treatment of University of Oregon professor Ben Saunders in the local paper illustrates the growing public recognition:

[14] For example, the journal Studies in Comics has been published since 2010. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester (eds.) A Comics Study Reader The University Press of Mississippi, 2009 illustrates that measure of accomplishment, and decrees the achievement: “… there is a sufficient accumulation of well-crafted work to inspire a sense of shared purpose and momentum among comics-minded scholars, essayists, and critics. The study of comics has become a lively field of inquiry and s no longer merely a topic area…. (with) core themes: the history and geneaology of comics, the iner workings of comics, the social significance of comics, and the close scrutiny and evaluation of comics” (p.xi from the introduction).

[15] See his homepage:

[16] Jason Dittmer, Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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