Social Science ‘Discovers’ Literature

A recent LSE report holds up literature as an untapped form of sociological or “development knowledge,” one that can succeed at assessing and capturing development issues “better” than policy research. The title makes a claim for the utility of literature in ameliorating the “crisis of representation in development research”: “The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge.” And the authors argue that NGO or World Bank reports on, say, African leadership or development in Egypt, fall short by failing to account for complexities like the legacy of colonialism or cultural conflicts captured with nuance in postcolonial novels by writers like Chinua Achebe or Ahdaf Soueif (whose name is unfortunately spelled incorrectly as “Ahdad” in the report—a telling moment that perhaps signals the limits to the sociological/utilitarian approach to literature, however well-intentioned?).

What’s the significance of one small typo compared with the larger intervention and call for more dialogue between the humanities and social sciences, and for the acknowledgement of different forms of knowledge, voices, and narratives? Curiously, there is virtually no mention of the field of literary studies in all the praise of novels: it is a missing form of expertise in the scenario of an unmediated social scientific ‘discovery’ of literature. And, predictably, the caveat “nor is it that we think novelists should be put in charge of development ministries” reduces the consideration of a diversity of expertise once again to banishing fiction—its writers and scholars—to irrational, second-class intellectual citizens.

In the news coverage of this policy report by The Telegraph on Nov. 6, 2008, we read that policy makers need to emphasize the hard line between emotion and rationality, fiction and fact. Quoting Tom Clougherty, policy director of the Adam Smith Institute:

‘There’s a problem. Fiction works by appealing to people’s emotions, not their intellect or rationality.’

He said issues like poverty and international development were ’emotionally charged’ and consequently solutions often failed to take into account hard, unpalatable facts.

‘Years of aid won’t sort out fundamental problems,’ he said, concluding: ‘Fiction absolutely can’t replace factual, evidence-based analysis.’

Positing such a crisis scenario—‘what if artists were to run the world!’—as a threat to the rationality of hard social science is unnecessary, even gratuitous: and only makes the call for taking literature and interdisciplinarity seriously seem disingenuous.


  1. panik

    It is easy to write papers and reports that pay lip service to nice trendy ideas that one reads about and ‘sensitise’ research designs to emotions, playfulness and so on without really understanding what that means.

    One needs to invest a great deal of time and – even worse – attention to really understand the hard-nosed reasons those who advocate radical approaches to social research do so. Who that is anxious to progress on the traditional academic career conveyor belt truly has time for such luxury or the mental and physical stamina to really do alternative research and then try and get it published in journals or accepted at conferences that ‘count’?

    This kind of material interrogation of such concepts is not only an issue for academics. The speed with which Havel and the other Prague intellectuals capitulated to the US government to not appoint Frank Zappa as a consultant to the post-Soviet Czech government shows the kind of resistances that need to be overcome, even by those in positions of power.

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