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Danish Center for Welfare Studies

The role of literary fiction in facilitating social science research

Authors: Bryan Yazell, Klaus Petersen, Paul Marx and Patrick Fessenbecker
Published: Humanities and Social Science Communications, 2021, 8(1)

Scholars in literature departments and the social sciences share a broadly similar interest in understanding human development, societal norms, and political institutions. However, although literature scholars are likely to reference sources or concepts from the social sciences in their published work, the line of influence is much less likely to appear the other way around. This unequal engagement provides the occasion for this paper, which seeks to clarify the ways social scientists might draw influence from literary fiction in the development of their own work as academics: selecting research topics, teaching, and drawing inspiration for projects. A qualitative survey sent to 13,784 social science researchers at 25 different universities asked participants to describe the influence, if any, reading works of literary fiction plays in their academic work or development. The 875 responses to this survey provide numerous insights into the nature of interdisciplinary engagement between these disciplines. First, the survey reveals a skepticism among early-career researchers regarding literature’s social insights compared to their more senior colleagues. Second, a significant number of respondents recognized literary fiction as playing some part in shaping their research interests and expanding their comprehension of subjects relevant to their academic scholarship. Finally, the survey generated a list of literary fiction authors and texts that respondents acknowledged as especially useful for understanding topics relevant to the study of the social sciences. Taken together, the results of the survey provide a fuller account of how researchers engage with literary fiction than can be found in the pages of academic journals, where strict disciplinary conventions might discourage out-of-the-field engagement.

Find the article here (open access)