3a. Reading science novels: collective reception and impact in reading groups

Research team: Uwe Schimank, Sonja Fücker

In this project, we examine the reception of science novels in communities of readers, asking if and how readers' perceptions and understandings of science might be affected. Empirical sociological studies of culture, including literature (Köck 2010), typically employ one of two approaches: either they analyze cultural objects directly, from an “objective” or “neutral” perspective (Kron and Schimank 2004; Schimank 2004), or, as in this project, they analyze the subjective reception of the objects by individual members of society. A novel, with which readers are typically engaged over a period of days or weeks, may elicit deep levels of emotional and intellectual involvement, response, and discovery. This is not a simple transfer of messages from text to reader but rather depends on the interplay between the reader’s mind-set and the novel’s content, such that two readers may have completely different understandings of the same novel. Existing studies of cultural reception indicate that an individual's understanding of a literary text is strongly dependent on four factors (Fish 1982; Griswold 1987; 1993; DeVault 1990; Childress and Friedkin 2012): the author's intentions and skill (Gibbs 2001); the reader's gender (Tepper 2000), socio-economic background, education, and motivations for reading the text; the reader’s personal ability to form an interpretation, including emotional involvement (Oatley 1994, 1999; Smagorinsky 2001); and communication about the text, such as exposure to reviews or conversations with friends.

The most common type of reception study relies on interviews wherein readers are asked why they chose to read a particular novel, what they saw as its important messages, whether they agreed or disagreed, what they learned, and so forth (e.g. Geimer 2011). This approach would be sufficient if readers were isolated and never discussed the books they read with others, visited cultural websites, read the culture sections of newspapers, or listened to the radio. But as soon as an individual's subjective reading experience becomes the topic of communication, new, collective inter-subjective understandings begin to form. It is not just the subjective but also the inter-subjective understandings of science—provoked by reading science novels—that we wish to study in this project. To do so, we go beyond the typical reception study questionnaire or interview and combine it with an empirical study of the responses to science novels within discussion groups of adult readers. Here we take advantage of the natural setting for discussing books to be found in established "book clubs" and reading groups. A popular phenomenon in the Anglo-Saxon world, these are generally small groups (5-10 individuals) that choose books to read in common and meet regularly to discuss them. Members may be old friends or strangers with common interests, and they may meet in a home, a pub, or a public venue such as a library (Hartley 2001; Long 2003; Griswold et al. 2005: 134-135; Lewkowich 2009; Robertson et al. 2010; Peplow 2011; Allington 2011).

Because individuals in a group communicate their personal interpretations and impressions of a discussed novel to each other, the interplay of contributions produces new meanings and understandings, in a process that Baker-Sperry (2007) calls “the production of meaning through peer interaction.” The process of reflection and understanding that began as an interaction between text and reader thus continues within the group with a wide range of potential results—members may clarify and develop their initial understandings or they may change them completely; the group may come to a consensus or its members may maintain different interpretations of the novel's content or disagree on the "truth" or significance of its meanings; they may have formed new ideas about science or changed their perceptions of its institutions and practitioners or their preconceived notions may be unaffected.

Research methods and questions

The most reliable way to collect data on the inter-subjective production of understanding is for a researcher to observe the communication dynamics directly. We will choose four long-standing book clubs in the U.S., the U.K., and Germany, whose members have mixed professional and educational backgrounds and agree to include a selection of three or four science novels in their book choices, welcome a researcher at their meetings, and allow transcriptions, respond to questionnaires, and participate in interviews. Additional data will come from the Royal Institution of Great Britain's "Fiction Lab," a public readers' group hosted by FMS partner Jennifer Rohn and dedicated to reading science novels. Data collection will entail the following steps for each reading group and book:

  • Qualitative Content Analysis of the novels read, conducted in collaboration with projects 4b and c.

  • Standard questionnaires on reading habits, education, socio-economic background, and perceptions of science from all group members.

  • Standardized and narrative interviews with selected group members about their perceptions of science in society, as well as reading habits and motives and perceptions of the reading group, conducted before reading the first science novel, followed by qualitative content analysis of the interview transcripts.

  • Researchers’ observations of group discussions and qualitative content analysis of the discussion transcripts.

  • Narrative interviews with the same selected group members after reading the novels and participating in the discussions, followed by qualitative content analysis of the interview transcripts.

The qualitative content analysis method we have adapted for FMS employs a set of short phrases, or "content descriptors," that serve as codes to represent complex phenomena and concepts to be found in science novels. For example, in the category of science as work, the social atmosphere could be described with content descriptors such as "cooperative," "competitive," or "individual," or in asking how scientific knowledge is portrayed, we find descriptors like "dangerous," "socially beneficial," "trustworthy," and so forth. The descriptors can be used to provide a systematic description of the content of novel being read, the interview responses, and the discussions. The amount of attention an issue receives and the statements made about it are noted. For example, we might note how frequently ethical conflicts are addressed compared to the pressures of work or the causal factors of scientific success—where is the emphasis?—and we might note what particular perspective a novel gives of a particular ethical conflict. We will also categorize readers’ aesthetic judgments and assessments of the plausibility of the science in the novel and consider the ways in which these factors influence the novel's overall impact. Using these methods, we can systematically track and compare readers' mindsets in several dimensions: In what respects do individual readers' views of particular aspects of science differ before and after reading one, or several, science novels, and in what respects do they remain the same? How do readers understand or interpret the novels' content, which aspects do they pay attention to, and which do they ignore or miss? How much variation in perspectives and interpretation is there within the group before discussion, to what degree and in what respects do inter-subjectively shared views arise, and what are the zones of disagreement? How do the various reading groups' different socio-demographic, educational, and professional characteristics shape the reception of the novels?