How Social Scientists Can Use Fiction—“Social Fiction”—in Their Research: An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Over 15 years ago, Dr. Patricia Leavy first published Method Meets Art, the groundbreaking text that propelled arts-based research into legitimacy around the world. She followed up in 2010 by coining the term “social fiction” to denote fiction that is grounded in scholarly research. The term, and practice, has since been widely taken up and served as the basis for journal special issues, conference panels, a zine, a book series, and countless theses and published books. During this time, Dr. Leavy has been writing her own fiction as a means of addressing and teaching sociological subject matter both within and outside of the academy. She’s published over a dozen works of fiction and received a slew of awards in the process. She’s just released Re/Invention: Methods of Social Fiction, the first textbook to explain what social fiction is and how to do it. We’ve spoken with Dr. Leavy many times over the years and recently had a chance to chat about her new book, which some are calling an instant classic. 

How Social Scientists Can Use Fiction—“Social Fiction”—in Their Research: An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy

Please explain what you mean by the term “social fiction.”
Fiction that’s grounded in scholarly research or concerns. It’s that simple. I distinguish social fiction from straight-up fiction simply by the intent and expertise of the author. Bear in mind it should stand solidly as a quality work of literary art. Attention to craft matters. 

What made you turn to fiction in your own sociological practice?
I was frustrated with the traditional ways of doing and representing research. You can’t always get at the complexity of human experience or translate that for readers. Peer-reviewed journal articles are completely inaccessible to the public. They are read only by academic peers, and shockingly few of them. The reality is that most academic writing is scarcely read by anyone. It’s a highly insular system. So, I decided to try something more creative. I wrote my first novel, Low-Fat Love, which was grounded in cumulative insights from a decade of interview research and autoethnographic observations. The novel explores the social construction of femininity, toxic relationships and some women’s attraction to men who withhold their support, and self-concept. Writing the book and seeing the response both by public and academic audiences forever changed me. I’ve written a dozen novels since, as well as a collection of short stories, and I don’t plan to stop. 

Has writing fiction changed the way you think about sociology? 
Yes, deeply. Writing fiction sensitizes you to the world in new ways. That permeates everything. I think it’s made me a much stronger sociologist. I’m able to see more connections, micro-macro links and their nuances. I think both more broadly and with far more specificity. I use language more precisely which not only changes the way I write, but also the way I read and the way I hear. Fiction is a process of discovery. There are unexpected insights. It’s an incredible teacher and a different lens onto the world. 

Please tell us about your new book, Re/Invention: Methods of Social Fiction. 
It’s a comprehensive introduction to social fiction as a method of inquiry. There are chapters on writing as inquiry, the historical and contemporary context for social fiction, how to write social fiction, and evaluation criteria and publishing advice.

There are also chapters on the different narrative structures used to write fiction, for example, the traditional three-act structure. In each of those chapters the basics of the structure are reviewed followed by an excerpt from one of my published works of fiction that uses that specific structure. Each excerpt is followed by an original reflection in which I discuss my intention and the writing process, pointing out literary features that were covered earlier.

There’s also an appendix of suggested readings as well as references and an index. My hope is that it’s everything a reader needs to understand and write social fiction. At the end of each chapter there are two sets of exercises: “skill-building” which are designed for students and “rethink your research” which are designed for researchers to reimagine their existing research as fiction. If readers complete either set of exercises in the book, they’ll write a work of social fiction. 

Who is the audience for Re/Invention?
It can be read by individual researchers and students, such as those working on a thesis or dissertation. It was also designed for course adoption and there are many pedagogical features throughout. While it may appeal most to researchers and students interested in writing fiction, the truth is, all qualitative researchers can benefit enormously from understanding how to construct compelling narratives. Sometimes this is missing from our methods training, which puts people at a disadvantage when it comes to writing up their research, even in traditional forms. Learning to think and write creatively benefits all researchers and writers. For example, understanding metaphor and the like more deeply can strengthen any kind of write-up. So, I really think this book could be useful to a broad range of researchers and students, and anyone interested in creative writing. 

Why the title Re/Invention?
To signify that the practice of social fiction is not new, despite what some may think. Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Zora Neale Hurston wrote many novels, short stories, and plays. W. E. B. Dubois also wrote several novels, one of which was a romance. There are countless others who have long done this work. So, while I coined the term “social fiction” and delineated the method, I don’t see it as a new invention. It is a re/invention. 

Tell us about your latest published fiction, Film Blue: A Novel. Some heavy-hitter scholars gave blurbs, including Sut Jhally, Jean Kilbourne, Norman Denzin, Laurel Richardson, and J. E. Sumerau. 
Originally, it was two novellas following the same protagonist. I rewrote them into a novel. I had wanted to revisit this work, and the timing felt right. Girls and women are under attack in the United States, their rights being stripped away. Film Blue responds to #MeToo and highlights how women build their identities and careers in the context of sexual harassment, assault, and other kinds of abuse and injustice.

In essence, it’s about what the pursuit of happiness looks and feels like for women in the US, especially those pursuing a creative path. It’s about following our passions, the dark side of our dreams, the power of art, what it means to truly live a “big” life, and finding the people to go with us on our journey.

The novel also celebrates how the pop culture and art we experience and make can shape our stories, frame by frame. Really, while it tackles some topics that I’m passionate about, it’s a light, fun read. Anyone can read it for pleasure or in their book club, but I also included further engagement for classroom use. My hope is professors will adopt it for their courses as a springboard for reflection, critical thinking, and discussion. 

If someone is new to your fiction, which book do you suggest they read first?
Any of them really, Film Blue could be a starting point. Fiction is so personal, and people should choose what they’re drawn to, so it depends on their interests and if they’re looking for a short or long read, but I’ll make two suggestions. Someone interested in the academic research process may want to check out my novel, Spark. It’s a quick, adventure story set in Iceland that explores collaboration, critical thinking, and the research process. The protagonist is a sociologist. Professors have even adopted it in their classes, from research methods to various electives.

If someone is open to reading something longer, I suggest Celestial Bodies: The Tess Lee and Jack Miller Novels. Honestly, I’ve never loved anything more. It’s a collection of novels that center on an epic romance between individuals with visible and invisible scars. There’s a saying that “hurt people hurt people” but I wanted to show that sometimes that’s not true and hurt people can love others in extraordinary ways, learning to love themselves in the process. The collection explores how love in all forms can help us heal from past trauma. It’s a journey from darkness to light that really held my hand when I wrote it. I hope it helps to heal and inspire readers. 

What do you hope to achieve with your body of work?
I’d like to contribute to the conversation around knowledge-building—what counts as knowledge, how we construct it, how we share it. I’m advocating for the arts as a legitimate method of inquiry and trying to highlight the importance of the arts in research, education, and all areas of life. There’s a synergy between my nonfiction texts and my fiction. While my novels cross genres and topics, they all have two central things in common. There’s a narrative in each about the arts. Each novel also explores love (including of self). Through my fiction, I’m creating a philosophy of the arts and of love. It’s cumulative. 

Any advice for social science students or researchers who want to try writing fiction?
Go for it. Start from wherever you are. Read a lot. Create a writing discipline and learn the craft. Be rigorous but also have fun. Allow yourself to get immersed, to experiment, to make mistakes, and happy accidents. With practice, magic will come. The only way to write fiction is to just do it. Write.

How Social Scientists Can Use Fiction—“Social Fiction”—in Their Research: An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy

Dr. Patricia Leavy is a bestselling author, independent sociologist, and internationally known arts-based researcher. She has authored, coauthored, and edited over 40 books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction, and her work has been translated into numerous languages. Her work has garnered a slew of book awards including USA Best Book Awards, Independent Press Awards, International Impact Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, International Book Awards, New York City Big Book Awards, and American Fiction Awards. Recently, her novel collection Celestial Bodies: The Tess Lee and Jack Miller Novels won the 2022 Firebird Book Award for Romance. She has also received career awards from the New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, the National Art Education Association, and numerous awards from the American Educational Research Association. In 2018 SUNY-New Paltz established “The Patricia Leavy Award for Art and Social Justice.” 


Re/Invention: Methods of Social Fiction from Guilford Press (free shipping and automatic discount in the US/Canada):

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