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.