In his lecture “Jane Austen, Sociologist,” Wednesday night James Thompson argued that Jane Austen is the first sociologist because the focus is on human interaction and conversation in her novels.
“As a careful observer and recorder of association of small group interaction and the minutia of conversation, I am going to argue that Austen is less a moralist than the first sociologist,” Thompson, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said…
He said Austen’s work [Pride and Prejudice] had similar observations as Erving Goffman, a 20th century sociologist. Both Austen and Goffman emphasize the importance of first impressions. Thompson said Austen and Goffman both see a first impression as “a crucial test case of social form.” He explained that a first impression is a measure of how well the participants of a conversation understand the “rules” of social interaction.
“Jane Austen and Erving Goffman are simply the most acute observers and analysts of the minutia of conversation so far,” Thompson said.
Interesting to note that this argument comes from an English professor; how many sociologists would agree? I suspect sociologists might argue sociologists aren’t just people who can make astute observations about social life. Rather, sociologists have a particular approach to society that involves theories and a method to collecting and analyzing data. For example, while Austen and Goffman both looked at interactions, Goffman aimed to explain why humans act this way: to make a good first impression and save face.
I’ve wondered why there isn’t more formal overlap between sociologists and those in the field of English. The topics of study are study can be similar though the focus in English is often on the text while sociologists have a wider range of data sources. Sociologists of literature are rare even though texts have had a large influence on American society.