Thursday, December 29, 2005

Strange Bedfellows: The Terms "Sociology" & "Poetry"

“In a nutshell, sociology is the scientific study of the human being as he/she relates with other human beings. Recognizing that humans are social beings who never naturally live in isolation, sociologists analyze them not as individuals but in their natural habitat – groups of various kinds. Thus sociology is the study of humans in groups. Other definitions, shorter and at a higher level of abstraction…For instance sociology is often defined as the science of human interaction, the study of human relationships, or the science of social action systems. But all definitions revolve around the goals of sociology: the discovery of facts, their explanation, and their role in predicting human behavior as it occurs among humans in association with other humans.” (Perry & Perry: “The Social Web”, Harper and Row, 1973)

Sociology is a relatively young discipline, although it has a long tradition behind it. It didn’t even acquire a name until the latter part of the nineteenth century. (Compare that to philosophy for example.) Furthermore it has only been in the last four or five decades that many universities have even established separate sociology departments. Many of its critics in the past have maintained that sociology is an impossible endeavor because it attempts to conduct scientific studies of human interaction in an uncontrollable environment and thus not all variables can be identified or accounted for in the formulation of any theories forwarded to explain any social phenomena.

Sociology is definitely not exotic, distant or even abstract and sociologists contend that it is not necessary to put social phenomena under a microscope to observe, dissect or to better understand them. The problem is that it does not usually occur to people that everyday social behavior even need be scrutinized. But thankfully it does to sociologists.

However, poetry is not by definition, necessarily a social endeavor. That is to say poetry, as a creative process, need not take place within the confines of a social milieu. (I.e. workshop/ classroom/ social gathering… etcetera). Even the etiology of the word poetry (ancient Greek: ποιεω (poieo) = I create) intimates that it is intended as a solitary human behavior. Albeit its social manifestations, poetry ( in and of itself) cannot with all honesty be bandied about as social phenomenon. (Although, possibily as a product of social activity.)

The poet and his or her social interactions and affiliations etc.... are another case in point. The latter are indeed fodder for sociological research. Furthermore, a study of how poets interact within or beyond the confines of a poetic community has not to my knowledge been exhausted. Another possibility might involve the social study of (would-be) poets in an institutional setting in contrast to poets who have not subscribed to the same or any educational socialization might also prove to be an insightful approach and/or analogy to undertake.

There might even be a cross-cultural quantitative study of the social characteristics of the poets published in “respected” poetry publications. The results of this test might be cross-referenced with the social makeup of the respective editorial staff of these said publications. How are the two correlated? The possible subject matter pertaining to the “poet’s” social milieu, that might be explored via sociological theory and investigation is limited only by the sociologist’s cognitive mindset ( and knowledge of the poetic social milieu).

However, to simply state that the poetic world is chaotic (even if accurate) does not take us any closer to the true nature of the beast. But even if this assertion is valid, we cannot with any certainty conclude that it is poetry - per se - that is chaotic. It is more likely that it is the world that the poet navigates and negotiates that is chaos. This world is not solely inhabited by poets at all.

1. (The Greek verb ποιέω [poiéō (= I make or create)], gave rise to three words: ποιητής [poiētḗs (= the one who creates)], ποίησις [poíēsis (= the act of creation)] and ποίημα [poíēma (= the thing created)]. From these we get three English words: poet (the creator), poesy (the creation) and poem (the created).)


afp763389 said...


the language as the social barrier

Nick said...

Yes, language in the form of lexicon or jargon is often employed as a social barrier. Yecch indeed!

Amy said...

Regarding the next to the last paragraph of your post: as with every business, there are tiers, even in the poetry world. Once you mingle enough, this fact is quite evident. At least, so says the sociologist within this poet.

I enjoyed your post, Nick. A thought-provoking start to this year's beginning -- Happy New Year!



Nick said...


This post came about as a sort of response to the whole "Sociology of Poetry" discussion between Seth Abramson, Ron Silliman, Joshua Corey & Scoplaw. The term "Sociology" was being bandied about, without so much as a half-hearted attempt at its definition. I'm not sure if I added anything to the discourse. But I am glad that you found it thought-provoking!

A Happy New Year to you and yours!