A Third Culture: The Empirical Study of Literature, Culture, and the Arts

Frank Hakemulder, PhD State University of Utrecht, The Netherlands
April 11, 2011


Charles Percy Snow (1905-1980), an influential novelist and former scientist at Cambridge University highlighted the contrast between the Sciences and the Humanities in his The Two Cultures (1959), not in a normative way as the German philosopher Dilthey had done before him, but in a descriptive way. He showed how the working cultures of these two groups of disciplines gradually grew apart over the past hundred years. (“Culture” is here to be understood as the ways, habits, customs, etc. of people acting.) At first sight, his description seems to underpin the view propounded by Dilthey and his followers in the Humanities. Snow seems to agree with them that there are two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. A Diltheyan view implies that the methods of “understanding” and “explaining” are incompatible with each other, and that one has to choose between the two and also that adherents of either view cannot meaningfully communicate with each other. Snow maintained that one does not have to choose: the two methods can be combined and communication between them is a real possibility. In a kind of postscript to the second edition of his book he added that there may be a way out of this double-tracked view, in that an alternative way may exist. This is what he calls a “Third Culture”:

It is probably too early to speak of a third culture already in existence. But I am now convinced that this is coming. When it comes, some of the difficulties of communication will at last be softened: for such a culture has, just to do its job, to be on speaking terms with the scientific one (…) [(1959) 1993:71]

In 1959, when Snow proposed this way out of the problem of a dualistic world view, it was not altogether clear what he meant by it, nor what the implications could be. The present paper looks at developments that could be interpreted as indications of an emerging “Third Culture.” Since the 1970s, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of the reader, the spectator, the audience, in short, of the specific person to whom novels, theatre plays, movies or paintings are directed. Much has been said and thought about the processes of comprehension, interpretation and evaluation that play a role in this context. By and large, a concrete body of research on such processes and their outcomes has grown over the years, so that nowadays the empirical study of such processes is widely accepted. Indeed there are several international journals that publish work in this area, such as: PoeticsEmpirical Studies of the ArtsLanguage and Literature, and SPIEL, to name only the most important ones. And at least three international associations cater for this need: IAEA (International Association of Empirical Aesthetics), IGEL (International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and the Media), and PALA (Poetics and Linguistics Association). Thus, there is now a considerable (and expanding) field of empirical studies of cultural artifacts.

My presentation will focus on the challenges for organization of research and education in traditional universities. Some liberties will have to be taken with curricula of Humanities to further advance a Third Culture, in coexistence with the two other, much older ones. Also, I will plead for a different way to organize academic research.

The purpose of this paper is to provide some background to my presentation on the possible merits of the third culture. And these are not modest, nor purely academic. Potentially they are of great importance to society at large. I will try to argue how the third culture would enhance our understanding of processes in giving meaning to artifacts; how art and literature enter people’s lives – a better understanding of communication. To illustrate my point I will by focus on my own domain of expertise, the empirical study of literature (ESL).

2. Empirical studies of literature

Before exploring some of the possibilities of this field, I would like to describe its origins. Besides the growing awareness among literary scholars of the inherently empirical nature of some of the problems in literary studies, there are a number of other developments that have led to ESL (Andringa 1998), it is the rise of Reception Aesthetics in Germany. One can distinguish two basic ideas in this movement. Both are relevant to ESL. First, in Wolfgang Iser’s hermeneutic approach, literary texts are interpreted from the perspective of the reader. It is important to note that “the reader” here is a mere construct in the mind of the interpreter, and does not necessarily have anything to do with the empirical reader. A second idea in Reception Aesthetics concerns research in the history of literature, which, as Hans-Robert Jauss proposed, should focus more on readers’ responses. Developments in literary history are best understood, he claimed, by investigating audiences” “horizon of expectation” (their aesthetic and other norms) and the degree to which a given text meets (or does not meet) these expectations.

It is a small step from there to doing actual empirical research. It was not taken by Reception Aesthetics, however. A call for moving from readers-as-construct to empirical readers was made by the German psychologist Groeben (1977) who pointed out that many of the concepts in literary studies could easily be made operational. In addition, he argued, this would make literary studies much more relevant to society at large. Only years later, Schmidt (1982) provided a theoretical basis for ESL, describing the literary system in contrast to other systems in society. He pointed out the differences in terms of communication conventions: the aesthetic (or non-referential) convention in contrast to the fact convention used in other discourses; the polyvalence convention, the unwritten agreement between authors and readers that the text may well have more than one interpretation, as opposed to the monovalence convention used in other systems.

Another ESL strand comes from France where mainly sociologically orientated researchers investigated the influence of extra-literary factors such as economy, politics, geography, and religion. Of central importance to the sociology of literature in France and elsewhere is the work of Bourdieu (1984). His concept of the literary field describes how literary evaluation is determined by sociological factors rather than properties of the aesthetic objects. All agents (artists, critics, art consumers) strive for symbolic value (social approval, status) to obtain, in the end, economic power. Life-style (which includes reading behavior) is conceived here as a means for social groups to distinguish themselves from others, and to ascertain group membership.

Yet another origin of ESL can be found in psycholinguistic studies, mostly conducted in North America. A number of researchers focused on the processing of narratives, some of them looking back at the work of Bartlett. Of importance to this field of research is schema theory, schemas being memory structures abstracted from idiosyncratic experiences. A large body of research concentrates on how readers build situation models, that is, cognitive representations of the events, actions, characters, themes, and authorial intentions (Van Dijk & Kintsch 1983).

Another root of ESL can be found in America’s reader response movement. As a result of democratization in education (and elsewhere in society), educationalists shifted their attention from a top-down approach of teaching of how to arrive at correct interpretations of literary texts, to an interest in what literature meant to students personally. Important in this movement is the work by Rosenblatt (1938) who focused on the influence of literary socialization on reading. Some of the research in this field is of a psychoanalytic nature, and looks at how readers search for identity themes in the literary texts they read (Holland 1975).

These different origins have lead to different groups or rather camps in the research, as will become clear in the next section.

3. Mapping the field

Now that I have exposed the origins of the third culture as far as ESL is concerned, I would like to come back to the purpose of my presentation, and explore the potential merits of this line of research. The origin of the research methods applied in ESL may lead one to distinguish two general directions: the psychology and sociology of literature. However, such labels do not adequately represent recent developments in ESL, nor those of the research objects themselves. As to the latter, the various agents and processes in literary communication are affected by both psychological and sociological factors. Reception research focuses on the readers’ aesthetic evaluation, reading motivation, and the effect reading has on them. Although this field is dominated by psychological approaches, the processes involved are clearly also influenced by sociological factors (e.g., the institutional context in which readers read, and readers’ literary socialization). In the sociology of literature researchers seek to explain differences in reading behaviors of social groups, and how institutions such as literary criticism are governed by social factors (e.g., a desire for status or social approval). However, exclusively relying on sociological models to explain, for example, aesthetic preferences, ignores too much research showing the effect of text properties.

Hence the call of some researchers for an integrated approach – which already seems to be reflected in recent developments in ESL (Andringa 1998). With overlapping interests, different methodologies and disciplines, differences in the precise definition of the research object, the field has become too complex for a clear-cut distinction between the psychology and sociology of literature. Therefore the present overview attempts an alternative categorization. First research pertaining to production and distribution will be introduced (section 3.1). This work is mainly sociological, focusing, for instance, on economic conditions for literary production, and the influence publishers have on literary communication. Here I will briefly introduce studies exploring the market for literature: why do some people buy literary books why do others not? Second, research pertaining to reception or processing will be presented: section 3.2 describes cognitive studies of narrative processing in general, as well as research specifically pertaining to literary narratives and other literary genres. Section 3.3 gives an impression of post-processing research: studies of reader behavior after reading the text. Here one finds research pertaining to canonization, reception in literary criticism, and the effects of reading literature on readers’ behavior, attitudes, norms, and values.

3.1 Production and mediation

Strong evidence shows that socio-economic factors influence developments in literature. Janssen (2001) reviews the research concerning the social-economic conditions for authors to do their work. Central to many of these studies is the term gatekeepers: agents in the literary field who are involved in selection (e.g. of which texts are actually going to be published). Examples of research subjects are: the effect of censorship on the creative process; the effect mediators have on literary production, for instance, when looking at translations of Third World literature into modern Western languages; factors influencing authors’ careers. These are important efforts that could help to understand processes studied by literary historians (e.g., canonization). One example is presented in Peterson (1985). He shows how factors like copyright, technology, industry structure, and market affected the rise and decline of one particular genre, the short story in the United States.

Psychological studies of production processes seem somewhat underrepresented. Much work, it seems, still needs to be done to examine processes of literary creativity (Simonton 1984). Research often involves self-reports of writers. Other research compares creative and less-creative persons to determine the factors that vary with creativity, both in personality (e.g., willingness to delay a decision, tolerance for uncertainty), and in biology. Under this subheading one could also place quantitative (rather than psycho-analytic) studies concerning the relation between, on the one hand, authors’ personality and events in their lives, and, on the other hand, the stylistic aspects of their texts.

Distribution research concerns the factors that determine what books people buy or borrow from the library. Most studies focus on social-economic factors in reading behavior, the lion-share being inspired by Bourdieu’s (1984) theoretical framework. In his view aesthetic preferences have a social function. Like other life-style components, they are ways to affirm group membership. In understanding the dynamics of the literary field researchers look at status: the more status agents accumulated, the more their evaluation will be considered legitimate and the more influence they will have on canonization. Also, in striving to obtain status, agents deny their interest in economic capital. Only this will result in symbolic capital, which will, in turn, lead to economic capital. These ideas have had a strong impact on what is called the institutional approach in ESL, which looks at the role of publishers, literary criticism, and literary education on aspects of literary communication (Griswold, Jansen & Van Rees 1999).

Recent studies present a more complex picture of reading audiences than Bourdieu’s distinction theory predicts. Peterson’s (1992) account of cultural stratification reveals there is no empirical evidence for a clear distinction between elite and non-elite culture consumption patterns. Instead, we see an “omnivore” audience that is involved in a wide range of cultural activities (including the elite arts), while a mainly low-educational “univore” audience appreciates only a few non-elitist cultural activities. Other research shows that reading behavior can indeed be predicted by readers’ social networks, but also their cultural competence, personality, behavioral beliefs about the rewards of reading literature, norms related to literary reading, and the promotion of reading by parents, schools etc. (Griswold, Jansen & Van Rees 1999).

An important subcategory of production and distribution research concerns the behavior of historical readers. These studies allow us to put current changes in reading audiences into perspective. Moreover, the history of reading may contribute to the contextualization of literary history. Literary history seems incomplete without knowledge of who the readers of the literary texts were, for whom the texts were written, what their expectations were, how through time aesthetic norms changed and how this affected reception. Research in this field is sometimes based on systematic content analysis of newspaper or magazine reviews. Some studies are based on sales records. One has to be careful interpreting these often incomplete data. Also, the data do not show whether the books were actually read or not. Taking these drawbacks into account, some interesting studies have been carried out about production and distribution in the past. For example, Kloek and Mijnhardt (1993) show that the so-called reading revolution in the 18th Century is probably nothing more than a myth.

3.2 Reception

Under the heading of reception I will briefly review research on the processing of narratives in general and literary texts in particular, focusing on studies pertaining to processes that occur during and directly after reading.

An impressive body of cognitive research on discourse processing contributes to our understanding of how narratives are processed (e.g. Emmott 1997). Of course, not all narratives belong to the group of texts referred to as literature and not all literature is written in the form of narratives. Nevertheless, research results have been successfully applied in literary studies (for instance in Cognitive Stylistics, Semino & Culpeper 2002). Central in many studies is the schema theory that proposes that schemata are essential to narrative comprehension processes and recall. These insights have proven to be useful in understanding, for instance, the role of genres in literary processing.

Other relevant examples of research issues are: the processing and accessibility in memory of information about characters; how readers keep track of speakers, of who said what, and who knows what; research concerning the causal inferences that readers make during reading; the conditions under which predictive inferences are made; inferences concerning the “aboutness” or the theme of the text; the gender of the author; his or her intentions (e.g., Magliano, Baggett & Graesser 1996; Louwerse & Van Peer 2002). Cognitive psychology dominates this line of research. However, increasing numbers of studies investigate therole of affect (e.g., the effect of empathy on narrative comprehension; factors generating participatory responses (e.g., Gerrig 1993).

Important for ESL is to relate findings in narrative processing research to the processing of literary texts. Many of the studies mentioned above focus on factors that facilitate comprehension, causal sequence reconstruction, understanding character goals etc. Van den Broek, Rohleder, Narváez (1996), for example, proposed a model for “successful reading of literary texts” that suggests that much depends on the construction of a “coherent” mental representation. This emphasis may lead researchers to ignore what is possibly typical for processing literature, namely those aspects that obstruct readers’ understanding. Neither, of course, do the narrative models take response to poetry into account. Nevertheless, as Van den Broek et al. suggest, the research does seem a useful starting point to examine deviations of literary narratives from more accommodating ones, thus discovering where literary processing differs from processing of other discourses.

One complaint concerning the studies referred to above is that they often look at seemingly insignificant “miniature” hypotheses. Consequently, the results seem to be irrelevant to the bigger issues that would grant ESL more relevance within Humanities (Ibsch 1996). Zwaan (1993) is arguably an exemplary study for ESL in the sense that he informs debates central to literary studies. His findings point out that readers process literary texts in a different way than other text genres. Thinking that they are presented with a literary text readers read slower and remember more of the surface structure. This complies with what some literary theorists predict (e.g., Shklovsky, Jakobson).

Studies in narrative processing may not always seem of direct relevance to a better understanding of literary communication, but it should be noted that this is often not even the primary interest of the researchers, let alone that they claim to have solved the riddles of literary studies. Cognitive stylistics, however, explicitly aims at examining (literary) style and the effects it has on readers (e.g., Semino & Culpeper 2002). While only a decade ago it may still have been feasible to summarize developments in this field, it is now not even possible to enumerate all the subjects of interest. Here I will therefore only look at a few examples. One is the field of metaphor research, especially those studies that pay attention to the specific role of metaphors in literature (e.g., Steen 1994; Hoorn 1997). A second field pertains to the effect of foregrounding, a term used to describe where literary style deviates from daily language (Van Peer, Hakemulder 2006). A third group of studies examines the effect of sound on reader response. Two approaches can be distinguished here: first those studies that focus directly on readers’ responses to sounds, either relative to context or not; second, studies based on computer-assisted content analysis (see for a discussion, Miall 2001).

A fourth group of studies, the lion share of cognitive stylistics, can be labeled as psychonarratology, a term coined by Bortolussi & Dixon (2003). Methods of cognitive psychology are applied here to test empirical assumptions of narratology, the text-oriented study of narratives. Examples of research subjects are: the effect of narrative structure on feelings of surprise, suspense, and curiosity (Brewer & Lichtenstein 1982; Vorderer 1996); the effect of narrative perspective (Van Peer & Chatman 2001); the processing of information about story characters and how findings of social cognition research apply to perception of characters (Bortolussi & Dixon 2003).

A central question in reception research is (or rather, should be) “How do differences in response to literature come about?” Are there general patterns or regularities in what moves readers, for instance, to feel sympathy for fictional characters? This is mainly the domain of psychology. Miall & Kuiken (1995) produced a Literary Response Questionnaire (LRQ) that was shown to be a useful instrument to differentiate between readers’ attitudes toward literature. Studies under this subheading pertain to developmental differences, gender differences, and differences between expert and novice readers. In this last group, some studies reveal similarity in responses to textual features; others find that aesthetic norms and interpretation strategies depend on the readers’ literary competence. To make research findings in this domain more comparable, future research should more carefully describe “reading experience” or “literary competence” on the one hand, and text features on the other hand. Some research focuses on cross-cultural differences. Generally these studies show mixed results: some do find differences between readers from different cultures, but the majority points to similarities.

An important research tradition that may help understand differences in aesthetic evaluation can be found in experimental aesthetics(Berlyne 1974). Berlyne’s influential theoryabout the processing of aestheticinformation conceptualizes art objects as psychological stimuli, some of them more complex, novel, or ambitious than others. The theory proposes that the more complex the stimulus, the more capacity is required from the perceiver (or reader) to process the stimulus. Exploring the relation between stimuli properties and aesthetic pleasure, the theory suggests an inversed U-curve (and in itself an instantiation of the Wundt-curve): appreciation will increase with increasing complexity, but only up to a certain point; after that optimum, appreciation will decline. Research in this field is often experimental. It sometimes involves physiological measures (of arousal), the interpretation of which is not always unambiguous. However, the results have been replicated under many different circumstances, using a wide variety of measures and stimuli.

3.3. Post-processing

Post-processing research mainly pertains to literary criticism, but also to the effects that reading literature has on the reader. The first category is dominated by the institutional approach. Some researchers look at the social dynamics in literary criticism to examine how consensus is reached over the value of literary texts. Findings suggest that that the relative status of critics affects their power over this evaluation process (Griswold, Jansen, Van Rees 1999).

The second category mainly consists of psychological and educational studies. Researchers concentrated on the effects on norms, values, attitudes, and empathic ability (Hakemulder 2000). Most of these studies show there are effects, but few allow claims about the specific effects of literary communication. Some studies focus on literary education and its effect on literary socialization, on reading behavior at a later age, and attitudinal effects of different educational approaches to literary education.

4. Challenges for the future

A number of barriers have to be overcome to enable further development of the third culture, in the way C.P. Snow had envisaged it. Three will be discussed in my presentation: a lack in intercultural communication; the many fences in the landscape of academic research; and, by the same token, the rigidity of academic curricula, that does not allow students in the Humanities to peak over the fences and enjoy vistas that may enrich their education.

Here I will make some concluding remarks concerning the future of the field, as I see it. One of the important trends in the relatively short history of ESL is a shift from theoretical concerns (e.g., reflection on the epistemological foundations of the new discipline), to a predominantly research-driven approach, a development toward normal science in the Kuhnian sense (Steen 2003). ESL has met with strong criticism from traditional hermeneutics, mainly focused on the superficiality of some of the research questions, the lack of external validity of laboratory experiments, but also fed by an indifference among scholars toward empirical validation and toward (naive) readers’ interpretations of complex literary texts (e.g., Sternberg 2003).

Some of these objections were also raised within ESL itself and some important efforts have been made to remedy these problems. For example, more and more studies work with literary texts rather than experimenter generated ones, which has resulted in an increase in external validity. The resulting loss of control is sometimes compensated by careful manipulation of literary texts. It may be advisable to conduct, in a while, an evaluation of this method, to see whether it is not the manipulated version that has systematically less effect (e.g. on aesthetic pleasure) than the originals.

One problem with much of the available research in ESL is that the population under investigation is rather limited (often undergraduate psychology students at some American university). However, some look at other age groups, and others take a cross-cultural perspective on response to literature. This will eventually result in greater generalizability of the findings.

ESL has seen a shift from radical standpoints (e.g., Schmidt’s radical constructivism) to more integrated models (e.g., Bortolussi & Dixon 2003). One single approach clearly cannot explain all the phenomena in literary communication, and therefore researchers need to take many factors into account to generate more comprehensive models. Institutions, or generally the context in which people read, is essential when explaining literary evaluation. However, psychological research focusing on the effects of text properties leaves no room for one-sided absolutism.

Another development in ESL is a growing attention to the role of emotions in the reception of literary texts (Radway 1984; Nell 1988; Frijda & Schram 1994). This seems to go hand in hand with the use of qualitative research methods. To assess spontaneous imagery and emotional responses, some researchers prefer free response, self-report, and think aloud procedures rather than measures such as response time, and closed questionnaires (e.g., Andringa 2004).

A trend which can be detected in ESL is that more and more researchers do no longer look at literary communication in isolation, but put it in a wider context of media communication. Konijn & Hoorn (in press), for instance, develop a model for perceiving and experiencing fictional characters for both readers and spectators of movies. This is also reflected in the work of researchers like Vorderer (1996) and Schreier (Schreier, Knobloch, & Wieler 1998).

ESL has seen boosts in its development every time researchers of different disciplines are brought together in joint projects, be it for conferences of the International Society for Empirical Studies of Literature and Media (Internationale Gesellschaft für Empirische Literaturwissenschaft, IGEL), or of the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA), book publications, or thematic issues of journals like Poetics and SPIEL. Hopefully the future will see more of these fusions of literary studies and the social sciences.


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Dr. Frank Hakemulder’s background is in literary theory and comparative literature. He conducted his Ph.D.-research (1998) in the Department of Literary Studies at Utrecht University and the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He specialized in the psychology of literature, focusing on the effects of reading literary texts on attitudes. On this subject he published a book and several articles, among which The moral laboratory. Experiments examining the effects of reading literature on social perception and moral self-concept (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2000), and “Foregrounding and its effects on readers’ perception” (Discourse Processes, 38, 2000, 193-218). From 1998 to 2001 he conducted (post-doc) research at the Free University of Amsterdam, looking at aspects of literary communication that may be responsible for the effects of reading on inter-group attitudes. Since 2001 he is Assistant Professor at the Institute for Media and Representation (Utrecht University), where he conducts studies on the reception of film. He trains students in the humanities in methodological aspects of research, especially experimentation.