the sociology of science fiction: a brief history

The following guest post by Philip Schwadel is part of a series on sociology and science fiction.

I dreamed of writing science fiction as an adolescent, but became a sociologist (it’s okay, don’t be sad for me). Without exposure to science fiction (SF), however, I may not have become a sociologist. The novels I read as an adolescent and young adult were replete with sociological themes that resonated with my growing understanding of the social world. Asimov’s Foundation series introduced me to the idea that aggregate behavior could be predicted using quantitative techniques, which (on a less grand scale) is what I do for a living these days. I am not a sociologist of SF (though some people may quibble with this statement since I am primarily a sociologist of religion). Nonetheless, I have a long-standing interest in the field. In this blog post, I will discuss what I see as the primary currents in the sociology of SF, and share a few of my own insights on the subject. This post is by no means a thorough review of the entire field, but is instead a selective review focusing on key research strands.

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There is a surprising amount of work on the sociology of SF, particularly if we define the concept broadly and include essays by non-sociologists that address sociological theories and concepts. The fields of literary criticism and film studies regularly address sociological aspects of SF. For instance, Lefanu’s In the Chinks of the World Machine examines feminist themes in SF literature, and Bould’s Science Fiction highlights issues of colonialism, globalism, race, gender, and class in SF literature and film. The journal Science Fiction Studies often includes articles with sociological insights and perspectives. Most notably, a 1977 issue of the journal devoted to the sociology of SF highlights, among other topics, Marxist theories of production and consumption. There is also research conducted by sociologists and other social scientists, a notable number of whom also write fiction. At the core of this crossover between sociology and SF is Brian Stableford, a prolific SF author who was trained as a sociologist. Stableford’s insights are especially relevant, particularly those spelled out in his 1978 dissertation, The Sociology of Science Fiction.

Borrowing from communications and media studies, Stableford discusses three distinct types of communicative functions performed by SF literature. Sociologically, the most important of these three is the directive function. Directive communication conveys information with the goal of affecting attitudes. As Stableford notes, directive communications “command, exhort, instruct, persuade, and urge in the direction of learning and new understanding.” Directive communications challenge the audience. For instance, ideas that question a reader’s worldview or understanding of social arrangements and hierarchies. In contrast, the maintenance function reinforces and legitimates readers’ existing attitudes, and the restorative function serves as a form of escapism (in the fantastical sense, not the pejorative sense). Literature with a capital “L” is often concerned with directive communication (see Suvin’s article in Science Fiction Studies). While many critics see SF and other genre fields as primarily employing maintenance and restorative communication, SF can also be classified as directive communication. Much of Robert Heinlein’s work, for example, seems to have this goal.

Moreover, norms and values vary across subcultures in the U.S. and the SF audience is no longer as homogeneously male as it once was, and perhaps no longer as homogeneously white either. Consequently, even those forms of SF that serve as maintenance communication for some—reinforcing and legitimating already held beliefs and values—may seem directive to others who do not already hold those values. Indeed, such variation in interpretation of the communicative function is currently prevalent in American SF. Consumers can be roughly divided into those interested in contemporary multicultural themes relating to issues such as sexuality, gender identity, and race, and those who prefer “pulp fiction” with less overt social messages or messages supporting the status-quo (and of course those who fail to notice such a debate exists). These two groups have waged opposing public campaigns for specific authors to receive prestigious literary awards, in particular, the Hugo Awards that are awarded based on votes from fans at the annual Worldcon. What may be maintenance communication to one group, is clearly seen (resentfully) as an attempt at directive communication by the other group. In case you’re curious, the multiculturalists have been winning the battle recently. Two novels from Jemisin’s Broken Earth series—which explores themes of race, sexuality, and personhood—won the 2016 and 2017 Hugo Awards for best novel.

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As this discussion suggests, the primary strand of research in the sociology of SF focuses on sociological themes, concepts, and theories in SF literature and film; most often, but not exclusively, those related to inequality and stratification. Perhaps most prominently, there are many books and articles examining gender, feminism, and sexuality in SF, such as Lefanu’s book mentioned above. Marjean Purinton, a Professor of English and Women’s Studies, is another leading researcher in this area. She has written somewhat extensively on the role of gender and feminism, particularly in Mary Shelley’s fiction. Helen Merrick’s work on the topic is both prolific and influential. Interestingly, Merrick’s work not only addresses feminist themes in SF but also explores how the SF community views the role of feminism in the genre. Other relevant contributions include Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and Atterbery’s Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. The prevalence of feminist and gender themes is somewhat surprising given that the SF audience is thought to be male dominated, though, as noted above, this appears to be changing. Such a focus on gender and feminism can be seen as an example of directive communication in SF.

There are of course other prominent themes in SF that are relevant to sociology and the social sciences more broadly. Considerable work has been devoted to discussing the role of race in SF literature and film. For instance, in Black Space, Adilifu Nama, a professor of African-American Studies, explores how concepts such as tokenism and racial contamination are portrayed in SF movies. The novelist Anne Leonard has also written extensively on the topic of race in SF (e.g. Into Darkness Peering). Deviance is another commonly explored theme in scholarly work on the topic. For instance, “Into Darkness: A Study of Deviance in Star Trek” by Furneaux and Furneaux (in volume 11 of Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations). Sociologists appear particularly interested in the portrayal of epistemology, science, and scientists. One of the earliest sociological analyses is Walter Hirsch’s 1958 AJS article, “The Image of the Scientist in Science Fiction: A Content Analysis.” Interestingly, Hirsch concludes that the image of the scientist became more problematic after World War II. In general, much of this research dissects themes in existing works and discusses how those themes map onto the social world of the author and audience, but some of this research also examines science fiction as a venue for cultural critique (again, the directive form of communication).

Related to the focus on sociologically-relevant themes, there is considerable work exclaiming the usefulness of SF for communicating sociological concepts. These include articles in journals such as Teaching Sociology (e.g. Lackey 1994; Laz 1996), teaching materials (e.g. in-class activities and assignments) in TRAILS, and edited volumes of SF stories with essays on the sociological significance of the stories (e.g. Sociology through Science Fiction, edited by Milsted and Greenberg). Given the prevalence of themes related to gender and sexuality, it is not surprising that this is seen as a primary topic that may be conveyed through SF. It would be remiss to discuss gender and sexuality in SF without acknowledging the tremendous contributions of the recently deceased Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s focus on gender and sexuality is most evident in Left Hand of Darkness, one of her best known novels. The plot of the book is ostensibly something familiar to anyone who has watched Star Trek: the representative of a federation of planets is sent to a planet to convince the population to join the federation. The twist, however, is that the population of the planet in question has no fixed sex, which is a nearly insurmountable cultural barrier for the visiting representative (perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist). As Lefanu and others have suggested, Le Guin’s fiction is a useful tool for conveying social scientific concepts related to gender and sexuality.

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Another prominent strand of research examines the population of consumers of SF. Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal, for example, explores feminism among SF fans. Berger’s “Science-Fiction Fans in Socio-Economic Perspective” (1977) may be the first quantitative analysis of SF fans. Berger administered a survey to almost 300 respondents at the annual Worldcon and found that they were disproportionately middle to upper class (importantly, however, the economic barriers to attending such a convention may explain some of his findings). There are several such empirical analyses of science fiction fandom by social scientists, such as a series of articles by the community psychologists Obst, Zinkiewicz, and Smith. These articles, published in 2002, focus on the “Sense of Community in Science Fiction Fandom.” Perhaps the most notable contribution in this area is The Dimensions of Science Fiction by the sociologist William Sims Bainbridge. Bainbridge surveys fans, authors, and other professionals in the genre, including critics. Some of his findings include the overrepresentation of Jews and the nonreligious among SF fans, and the underrepresentation of Republicans. Bainbridge presents factor analyses of fans’ favorite authors and SF subgenres to assess SF subcultures, and he examines fans’ views of different aspects of SF and how those views vary by characteristics such as gender. Perhaps not surprising given my background as a quantitative sociologist, Bainbridge’s book is my favorite example of the sociology of SF.

Related areas of research focuses on fringe groups of fans and the population of authors, editors, and publishers. For instance, Flemming’s article in Science Fiction Studies examines interconnections among SF authors. In regards to fringe or radical fans, other research looks at how SF can influence deviance among some fans. For instance, in Deviance and Moral Boundaries, Ben-Yehuda discusses the Church of All Worlds, a New Religious Movement inspired by Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and the relationship between L. Ron Hubbard’s SF and the Church of Scientology.

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There are of course other areas of research I am not focusing on here. For instance, analyses of the utopian and dystopian aspects of SF and how they relate to the fears and social divisions inherent in modern societies (e.g. Dark Horizons edited by Baccolini and Moylan). Indeed, the sociology of SF is a broad field with opportunities for considerable expansion. I encourage readers to explore those opportunities. For many of us, SF has been pivotal in developing our understanding of the world—how we Grok modern society and our place in it.

Philip Schwadel is Professor of Sociology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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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