Uncertainty, Sociology and Fiction

In the tenth part of our special section on Sociology and Fiction, Miranda Iossifidis considers what we inevitably leave out of sociological accounts and how fiction might help us to recover it. 

I wouldn’t have finished my PhD if it weren’t for fiction. I had to finish in time for my scholarship’s deadline, and I wrote the thesis anew several times in a fury. Towards the end I imagined myself as a bionic woman, each wrist supported by blue foam. The pain was relieved only by a frozen cold compress that I carried with me to the library, and slowly cooled over the course of the day and piled on-top of notebooks. Every night I would read fiction before I tried to sleep, to remind myself of the joys of the world and of words. I am worried when people who are writing tell me that they don’t have time to read ‘un-related things’. What is not related? I would return often to Deborah Levy’s book, ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’ (2013) – a small book, published twice – a response to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’. I have two copies, one is with my best friend, and the one I have here has lilac letters embossed onto the blue fabric cover:

To become a


I had to learn to


to speak up, to speak

a little louder, and then


and then to just speak in

my own voice which is


Which reminds me of one of my favourite moments in the essay, where she describes Zofia Kalinska giving advice to a young actress:

To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish. We always hesitate when we wish for something. In my theatre, I like to show the hesitation and not to conceal it. A hesitation is not the same as a pause. It is an attempt to defeat the wish. But when you are ready to catch this wish and put it in to language, then you can whisper but the audience will always hear you’ (2013: 10). 

I think this appealed to me so much, because I was – and am – very ambivalent about the role of certainty in written accounts of social research, and I was trying to find ways to voice hesitancy. I wonder how much this pull to fiction was to do with the task of writing about people, or the fragile theoretical construction I’d woven, or the acutely uncertain and precarious temporalities of the contracting present. In January, Sara Ahmed gave a talk about fragility and feminism at the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, and in her introduction she quoted Yasmin Gunaratnam, who asks: ‘what might be happening in the apparent feminist reluctance, or at least ambivalence, in engaging with frailty and its associations with bodily weakness, susceptibility and a wearing away?’ In her talk, which is also a chapter, Ahmed expands on fragility as a having a ‘certain kind of resonance because it tends to be used to indicate a quality: of a feeling (feeling fragile) or of an object or person (being fragile). So today I explore how fragility itself is a thread, a connection, a fragile connection, between those things deemed breakable.’ She describes objects breaking in George Eliot novels, and the story of what happens, or what was behind it. You have to read it. All the different kinds of breakages that Ahmed explores revolve around these ‘fictional’ moments.

A break can be how a body comes up against an expectation; how a body can fall, trip, stumble, how a pot can shatter against a hard stone. I want to think here of how what we come up against can also have a history, a history that has become concrete; a history can become hard as stone; when stones are piled together they form walls … 

She not only causes her own breakage she breaks the thread of a connection. (Ahmed, 2016). 

Here I want to connect a thread to the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels that sustained me while I was writing my dull PhD prose. It’s become a cliché to have read them and discuss them (have you read them?) but I don’t care. When a friend lent me a copy of the fourth book a month before it was published and just before my thesis submission deadline, my housemate hid it in his room and only let me read it for thirty minutes every night. Once I tried to look for it and couldn’t find it, I am ashamed to admit. I also consumed with a fever all that has been written about her books. Dayna Tortorici writes:

In the middle The Lost Daughter, Ferrante’s third novel, a young mother asks a middle-aged woman, without inflection, “So it passes.” “The turmoil,” she adds. They’re talking about young children, raising them and the desire to leave them. “My mother used another word,” says the other, “she called it a shattering.” The Italian word is frantumaglia?—?“fragmentation,” literally?—?and Ferrante returns to it again and again.

The importance of this fragmentation – shattering – fragility – uncertainty – hesitation, and the intensity in which Lenu and Lila’s friendship and lives are narrated has spurred me to want to do a project about peoples’ experiences of reading Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels. Not only the reading, but how readers share their reading experiences with others, and how intimate, inter-generational and critical affinities are established through reading these books – self-organised spaces of transmission. What are the productive complexities of ‘reading’ as a political act, and why is the will to share these intimate experiences so forceful?

To come back to the relationship between sociology and fiction, I wonder how these different kinds of stories and storytelling are not sociological, how can they not enrich sociological accounts … and what is the wall that is being held up here? In a rare interview, Elena Ferrante has talked about how she reflects on the use of literature.

I grew up with the idea that if I didn’t let myself be absorbed as much as possible into the world of eminently capable men, if I did not learn from their cultural excellence, if I did not pass brilliantly all the exams that world required of me, it would have been tantamount to not existing at all. Then I read books that exalted the female difference and my thinking was turned upside down. I realized that I had to do exactly the opposite: I had to start with myself and with my relationships with other women—this is another essential formula—if I really wanted to give myself a shape. Today I read everything that emerges out of so-called postfeminist thought. It helps me look critically at the world, at us, our bodies, our subjectivity. But it also fires my imagination, it pushes me to reflect on the use of literature. I’ll name some women to whom I owe a great deal: Firestone, Lonzi, Irigaray, Muraro, Caverero, Gagliasso, Haraway, Butler, Braidotti (Ferrante, 2015).

In trying to write a sociological account, in order to pass the exam that was required of me, I was trying to inhabit other voices:  

Our heads are crowded with a very heterogeneous mix of material, fragments of time periods, conflicting intentions that cohabit, endlessly clashing with one another. As a writer I would rather confront that overabundance, even if it is risky and confused, than feel that I’m staying safely within a scheme that, precisely because it is a scheme, always ends up leaving out lots of real stuff because it is disturbing (Ferrante, 2015)    

I am still wondering how to do research and ‘write it up’ (what a phrase) in a way that resembles the world that is full fragmentation – shattering – fragility – hesitation – uncertainty – of objects and bodies. What gets left out of sociological accounts? How can we ‘confront that overabundance’?