“Sociology is alien to literature”

One reviewer of a new book suggests the retelling of personal experiences cannot be equated with sociology:

Ben Simon writes in the introduction, “I am not sure that my immigration experience is representative of the immigrants from Morocco.” But elsewhere he also writes: “To date, no attempt has been made to decipher the sociology of the Moroccan immigration. This book is a modest step in that direction.”

I object to Ben Simon’s sociological aspirations in this book. In his work as a journalist, he aimed his efforts in this direction, always doing so in an interesting and profound manner. But that is not the story here, because this is a different sort of literary undertaking. Someone who seeks to tell about himself has to first employ tools of emotion, sharing experiences and memories, allowing the reader to learn the process involved in consciousness-in-the-making: a private and personal consciousness, not a “sociology,” not the diagnosis of a society, not a creation of a portrait of something – but rather literature.

By its nature, an autobiography is first and foremost a literary text. And it is enough to think of Sartre’s “The Words” to understand this. Sociology, by virtue of the alienation that underlies its definition, in its critical sense of observation from the outside – is alien to literature. Being Moroccan is, in any event, much more complex, and so too are its immigrant experiences. It is enough for me to think about my “Moroccan” family, about its consciousness, about how it coped, about its relationship to religion and its immigration experiences.

Ben Simon sets out on a journey that traces the impressive path he has forged, the consolidation of his own perspective on reality, his emotions. But in “The Moroccans,” he feels a need to package this in “sociology.” Clearly there is a context, a “period,” a reflection of reality, but it is marginal; it is not the main thing.

Without reading the book, it is hard to know exactly what is going on here. It sounds like the author wants to extrapolate a bit from his own experiences to those of all Moroccan immigrants and the reviewer suggests he can’t speak for such a large group. This kerfuffle may also be about style; autobiographies and sociological works are often written differently with the emphasis of the first more on experiences and emotions and the second on larger generalizations, data, and theory.

This does hint at a larger issue in sociology and related disciplines where some research methods – particularly ethnography – allow for the mixing of researcher experience while still attempting to remain objective and connect the research to bigger issues in the field. This line can be quite blurry; see earlier issues raised about the work of Venkatesh or Goffman. Yet, it is an issue that is not going to go away as (1) insider information continues to be valuable and (2) some look to connect with different (i.e., non-academic) audiences with more literary styles.

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