Social Theory Through Science Fiction

Yesterday, on my sister’s recommendation, I acquired The Dispossessed, a famous novel by Ursula K. LeGuin that tells the story of two worlds, one an egalitarian anarchist collective, the other patriarchal and “propertarian” (i.e. like us), and a physicist who travels from the first to the latter. The book is rooted deeply in social theory, and echoes of Durkheim (or Parsons) and Marx abound – all this language about functions and dysfunctions, critiques of property and fundamental assumptions about human nature (profit-seeking vs. intrinsic desire to be productive and creative), etc. Reading the book, I was struck by the core of a syllabus for a social theory and science fiction course. Here’s a rough sketch of some ideas:

First Chapter: Society and Stuff!
Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society and Rules of the Sociological Method
Marx, Capital (selections obviously, same for the above) and the Manifesto (probably). Oh, and some bits about alienation from the 1844 Manuscripts.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

Second Chapter: The Disenchantment of the World/Industrialization
Weber, The Protestant Ethic, stuff on Bureaucracy maybe, not sure what else.
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

Third Chapter: Sex & Gender
Not sure which bits of theory to put here. I’m tempted to say some of Judith Butler, and maybe Iris Marion Young, and definitely Anne Fausto Sterling (probably Sexing the Body)
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (a book set in the same vague universe as the Dispossessed, which follows an anthropologist visiting a world where humans don’t have a sex, but rather become one sex or the other when they go into a mating period).

Ok, I thought I had more than three stellar examples, but I’m having trouble remembering them. I thought I had something to pair with science studies itself (perhaps Stephenson’s Diamond Age or Snowcrash and Latour’s Reassembling the Social? There’s got to be something better about the interaction and co-construction of the natural and the social, the human and the non-human. I mean, it’s what science fiction is all about!). Do you all have any ideas? Think excellent science-fiction and commonly taught or excellent Social Theory.



  1. Oh, and you could do something with post-modernism and Borges, but that’d be almost cheating.

  2. May not be classified as sci-fi but how about adding Calvino’s Invisible Cities to this list. Every single story in it tells something about the core issues of social theory. There are stories about history and nostalgia (can be read along with Frankfurt School), alienation (more like in Simmel’s terms), space and life-world (here I am thinking about studies of Derek Gregory, Trevor Barnes, etc., along with Berger&Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality). In fact, an entire reading list of a lecture can be based on Invisible Cities.

    Of course we should not skip William Gibson. Everybody has some idea about the influence of Neuromancer on the studies about internet culture and its wider implications. But I am thinking more about the Bridge Trilogy. There are a lot of strange ideas about the functioning of corporate structures, emergence and demise of subcultures, consumption patterns, and new art forms in these books.

    Watching anime in the classroom may also be nice. I’m sure pieces from Ergo Proxy would be an entertaining way to start a conversation about Derrida.

  3. Sci-fi literature and cinema is an eternal resource in teaching social theory. Ursula K Le Guin is definitely a favourite, but that’s not really surprising given that apart from her own brilliant mind, she must have had a good grounding in social theory (albeit from an anthropological perspective) as Arthur Kroeber’s daughter (hence the “K”).

    I have used the books and the TV series of Alien Nation to facilitate sessions on ethnicity and culture and “Forbidden Planet” and Blade Runner to reflect on both technology and on the assumptions of past generations on how societies would and would not change. The hardest thing I am finding is directing people away from the now ubiquitous science fantasy to actual science fiction.

    Great blogg!

  4. sdv

     /  November 28, 2009

    Might I suggest some of the work on estrangement\alienation by Darko Suvin, and perhaps Parrinder’s small book of Science Fiction, Todorov on Phantasy is pretty classic as well. I’d suggest that Jo Russ and Monique Wittig are critical for the gender sections, S Lem (cyberiad) and Chain of Chance for Chapter 2, and perhaps the Strugatski brothers Beetle in and Anthill, or Final circle of paradise for 1 or 2…

  5. China Mieville is a Marxist science fiction writer whose social theory suffuses his stories in interesting ways. He thinks pretty deeply about what kind of social and political institutions would exist in the worlds he creates, and I think it makes his books really fun.

  6. Paul

     /  December 16, 2009

    I’d recommend Octavia Butler for analyses around race and gender. Her book “Parable of the Sower” focuses on community and religion.

  7. yrumpala

     /  January 15, 2010

    In the field of science-fiction, there is also Iain M. Banks’ Culture cycle, in which the Culture can be conceived as a sort of “computer-aided” anarchy. The Culture cycle is a very interesting way to develop philosophical and political reflections on the potential role of “intelligent” machines in an advanced society:

  8. sdv

     /  June 28, 2010

    I’d argue for the inclusion of the Strugatski Brothers whose work in the 1960s and 1970s was suffused with the utopian streams of communism. And Lem whose work from similar perspectives contains brilliant work on cybernetics and systems,…. Calvino … lovely.

  9. Andrew

     /  March 30, 2011

    David Brin’s “Uplift” series (humans learn to “uplift,” or accelerate evolution, for certain species like primates or dolphins so that said animals become sentient) deals with issues of cultural and social change in the context of previously sub-sentient animals becoming fully sentient. humans also deal with the complexities of intergalactic politics and culture, and with the numerous different cultures of different alien civilizations.

    Brin even specifically coins a term, i think it was “intergalactic sociology” or something like that.

    I haven’t read “The Postman,” but it seems like it deals with very sociological issues. Brin is definitely in the SF as social science camp, though probably not consciously

  10. Also, China Mieville’s “The City and the City” and Goffman’s Frame Analysis (or maybe Presentation of Self, snippets of other stuff, or even Garfinkel).

  11. spitzig

     /  May 19, 2012

    I’m a fan of Mieville. His “The City and the City” examined taboos as its sociological thing. I didn’t see much Marxist thought in it. There was a revolution, but it wasn’t the focus. Revolutions are common in his novels. They don’t seem to focus on the ideals of the revolution, as much as the practical part.

  12. spitzig

     /  May 19, 2012

    Sorry, just read the comment about Brin. He’s written futurism type stuff. He’s DEFINITELY consciously putting social science stuff in his SF.

  13. gerry franklin

     /  August 6, 2012

    Some years ago I read a book of short science fiction stories, arranged in chapters with, I think, sociological or social science headings. I think it was called “science fiction as sociology” or something similar.I have Googled it but with no luck.As I remember it it was very like what is proposed by this article

  14. gerry franklin

     /  March 1, 2013

    Regarding my earlier posting I have now found the book I was referring to. It is “Sociology Through Science Fiction” by John W Milstead et al. It was published by St Martin Press NY in 1974. I got it through Abe books on the internet. Other copies are available. As I remembered it is a collection of science fiction short stories arranged under various sociological headings with commenraries by the editors. Very interesting.

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