A Lack of Sociological Imagination

Regardless of whether you cared, perhaps still care, about the end of HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s book series, A Song of Fire and Ice, there is a wonderful send-off about why the last season was disappointing to many of us who did regularly tune into Game of Thrones. Sociological storytelling can help us understand not only why a lot of us loathed season eight, but also why over-reliance on psychological storytelling, a mainstay of Hollywood and mainstream news media, makes audiences rebel and, in some instances, start a million-person-plus petition to ask for a re-do.

Zeynep Tufecki, an associate professor of information and library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who often writes about the intersection of technology and society, recently penned a piece for the Scientific American aptly titled, “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.

Without ruining anything for those who are still catching up on GoT, Tufecki explored how the shift from the series’ roots in sociological storytelling–investigating how “broader institutional settings, incentives, and norms” influenced the many characters–to the more traditional Hollywood treatment of seeing characters through a psychological lens ruined the narrative tension and complexity for a lot of us.

The problem with the psychological approach to storytelling, Tufecki wrote, is that when writers fall into that predictable frame, we end up with less nuanced, oversimplified hero/anti-hero narratives that do not consider what forces shaped the characters’ lives, motives, and lived experiences. The hallmark of sociological storytelling, Tufecki observed, asks us “to put ourselves in the place of any character, and not just the main hero/heroine, and to imagine ourselves making similar choices.”

The biggest pitfall with wanting to typecast the “mother of dragons” as her father’s daughter (ugh) or Jon Snow as yet another loveable loner destined for a Bear-Grylls-esque existence up North, is that the complicated and insightful stories of how systems, institutions, and cultures affect a character’s motives, decisions, and actions are lost to reductive root-for-this-relatable-or-nefarious-character storytelling.

Moreover, Tufecki argued, even if the very phrase Game of Thrones makes your eyes glaze over, the importance of sociological storytelling matters very much for where we are today. At this moment in time, we are at a crossroads where “technological challenges, climate change, inequality, and accountability,” to name a few issues, confront us and ask us to consider what we can do to solve problems larger than dragons. 

These very real problems, much like the complex fictional problems our GoT characters faced, require not necessarily a one-person hero to save the day, but a concerted and unified effort by many to unite, revolutionize the status quo, and work toward multifaceted solutions for the betterment of humanity.

In other words, to tell a story about how many characters shaped by many factors somehow fight problems that are entrenched in our society. To tell the story of how we, as a global culture, found the means, societal support, and wherewithal to attempt to solve problems bigger than ourselves for little to no glory.  

Telling sociological stories requires more from everyone–writers, audiences, and stories themselves. This style of storytelling is by no means new–Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Morrison’s Beloved, among many others, look at how class, race, institutions, memory, values, and culture shape characters’ motives and actions beyond the simplistic yet classic hero’s journey.

Esquire just published “The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The 1980s’ Most Decadent College” from the documentary-style collage of writer Lili Anolik, who blended the mostly primary-source “oral history” of numerous Bennington students, including writers Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, Jill Eisenstadt, and many others, to quite literally weave a tale about not just decadence, yes, but privilege, the roles of professors and students, the muses of creative inspiration (sex, drugs, and punk, to name a few), and how one little college campus in Vermont could gestate so many artists at that time. 

The result, in Anolik’s case, is akin to watching the bear fish upriver versus a narrator telling you how to feel or think about the bear fishing upriver. Not quite cinéma vérité, but definitely allowing for the characters and their milieu to speak for themselves and the readers to thereby think for themselves as well. 

Anolik and Tufecki are onto something. Maybe we no longer need heroes or formulaic narratives, but rather communities and characters who complicate our notions of self, possibility, and happy endings.