Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci describes what makes a sociological story different than a psychological one:
In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil character and good people, where you just identify with the good ones – which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one – it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.
The second sign of a sociological story, for me, is when nobody has plot armor because it’s the setting that’s carrying the story, with lots of people, but it doesn’t rely on one person dying or not dying. For six seasons, you have a very institution sociology, very interesting. It’s like The Wire. People can die, but the story is still gripping because it’s sociological…
They took a great story that was going to be how power corrupts, which clearly was the story, and in the end, they made the dragon lady snap just because she heard the church bells or something. [laughs] That’s not a good sociological story.
The key to the explanation above seems to be that a institution or a social group or a particular moment is the focus of the story, not a particular character or two. By shifting the narrative away from the actions and/or thoughts of a certain person, the story can be about the social setting.
Since it is hard to imagine compelling stories without any focus on individual characters, perhaps this dichotomy between a psychological and sociological story is more like a continuum. On the psychological side, I could think of stories like Crime and Punishment where so much is about what is going on in one person’s head. On the sociological side is The Wire or War and Peace where the focus is more on the setting and the larger social and historical factors at play.
With this said, I would love to have a list of sociological stories in various genres and mediums. This could be useful to share with students and to explore on my own.