Engaging Public Sociology, Fiction and the Sociological Imagination

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Bennett, James

Baker, Sarah

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Back, Les

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This thesis explores public sociology, fiction writing and sociological imagination, and presents a sociological fiction novel titled Into the Sea. Building from what Mills (1959) calls the promise and cultural meaning of sociology, I address how and why we might engage people in sociological imagination through fiction. I approach this imagination as a lively activity in a creative (Beer, 2014: 12) and arty way (Back, 2012) that builds on contemporary approaches to public sociology (Burawoy, 2005). Bringing together methods of autoethnography, literature analysis and arts-based research fiction writing, using an innovative methodological approach that I term the methods braiding technique, I explore how sociological fiction may contribute to the task of ‘assist[ing] the influence of the sociological imagination in society’ (Furedi, 2009: 17). This involves a consideration of creative adaptations of the craft of sociology (Mills, 1959), as well as broader challenges including the ‘deeply antisociological’ ethos and governance regime of neoliberalism (Burawoy, 2005: 7) which public sociology struggles against. Into the Sea is an experiment in sociological imagination. The novel primarily follows Taylor Brown, a twenty-six year old Australian woman, as she lives through work, parties, her relationship, a funeral, a wedding, shopping, and family issues. The fictional story line of Taylor’s everyday life is interweaved with national and international events and issues from the year 2014. The chapters of the novel are not thematically structured however key sociological concepts do orient and drive the narrative. In the novel I explore various social processes and cultural tensions; rather than present a sociological argument about disciplinary concepts, with the novel I aim to float ideas about society and bring sociological imagination to life. With Taylor Brown’s story I consider the promise and cultural meaning of sociology. Through the novel I explore the everyday processes of relation that link biographies and histories (Mills, 1959), as well as the neoliberal context within which these relations are contemporarily lived through. To think through and challenge the individualistic common sense of the neoliberal imaginary – which is problematic for public sociology, considering that neoliberalism is ‘hostile to the very idea of “society”’ (Burawoy, 2005: 7) – I turn to the relational and affect-centred work of Benedict Spinoza (2005 [1677]). From Spinoza I draw conceptual tools for considering the fundamental and constitutive meaning of ‘social embeddedness’ (Armstrong, 2009: 60), and for exploring the ‘possibilities for autonomy of an individual conceived in a profoundly relational way’ (Armstrong, 2009: 45). I see that these Spinozan concepts may enliven the activity of sociological imagination. To ground and realise the promise of a Spinozist sociology, I consider the temporal and spatial ways that moments and narratives are made meaningful; I focus my attention on forms of Australian cultural meaning, to consider the value of exploring and utilising such cultural meaning for doing affective public sociology that engages people in sociological imagination. This thesis makes two key contributions to sociology. The first is the novel artefact, which operates as an affective form of public sociology that may engage publics, and specifically a student-public, in sociological imagination. The second contribution is the methodological process for doing arts-based public sociology with which I developed and crafted my sociological fiction novel, which I have termed the methods braiding technique. From my analysis I argue that the value of sociological fiction lies in its ability to affectively affirm society. I argue that centring affect in the project of public sociology is important for progressing conceptual and practical approaches to public engagement.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Hum, Lang & Soc Sc

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The author owns the copyright in this thesis, unless stated otherwise.

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Public sociology

Sociological imagination

Fiction writing


Literature analysis

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