Film Theory: Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism

Raymond Williams was Professor of Drama at Cambridge University and one of the founders of contemporary cultural studies. He described his own distinctive approach as a ‘cultural materialism’, by which he meant a theory of culture ‘as a (social and material) productive process’ and of the arts ‘as social uses of material means of production’. This is a clearly sociological, as distinct from literary-critical, perspective: hence, its most general exposition in the United States as The Sociology of Culture and in Britain as Culture, a 1981 title in Fontana’s New Sociology series. Although Williams’s interests ranged widely across the whole field of literary and cultural studies, his major work was concentrated on literature and drama. He was a sociologist of culture, specializing in the sociology of literature.

In The Long Revolution (1961), Williams developed pioneering accounts of the sociology of the book trade, the sociology of authorship and the sociology of the novel. In The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970), he argued that the modern novel articulated a distinctively modern ‘structure of feeling’, the key problem of which was the ‘knowable community.’

In The Country and the City (1973) he developed a social history of English country-house poetry, aimed at demystifying the idealizations of rural life contained in the literature: ‘It is what the poems are: not country life but social compliment; the familiar hyperboles of the aristocracy and its attendants’.

His Marxism and Literature (1977) – simultaneously a critique of both Marxism and ‘Literature’ – is an extensive formal elaboration of Williams’s own theoretical system.

Alan Sinfield’s Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (1992) and Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain (1997) are indebted to Williams. So is Andrew Milner’s Literature, Culture and Society (2005).

World-Systems Theory

Franco Moretti was Professor of English Literature at the University of Salerno, of Comparative Literature at Verona University and of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. His first book, Signs Taken for Wonders (1983) was subtitled Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms and was qualitative in method. His later work, however, became progressively more quantitative.

Applying Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory to literature, Moretti argued, in Atlas of the European Novel (1998), that the nineteenth-century literary economy had comprised ‘three Europes’, with France and Britain at the core, most countries in the periphery and a variable semiperiphery located in between.

Measured by the volume of translations in national bibliographies, he found that French novelists were more successful in the Catholic South and British in the Protestant North, but that the whole continent nonetheless read the leading figures from both.

London and Paris ‘rule the entire continent for over a century’, he concluded, publishing half or more of all European novels.

Moretti’s theses prompted controversy, collected together in Christopher Prendergast’s edited collection Debating World Literature (2004). Moretti himself expanded on the argument in his Distant Reading (2013).

Recent Developments

Building on earlier work in the production of culture, reception aesthetics and cultural capital, the sociology of literature has recently concentrated on readers’ construction of meaning. New developments include studying the relationship between literature and group identities; concerning institutional and reader-response analysis; reintroducing the role of intentions of the author in literature; reconsidering the role of ethics and morality in literature and developing a clearer understanding of how literature is and is not like other media.

The sociology of literature has recently taken an interest in the global inequality between First-World and Third-World authors, where the latter tend to be strongly dependent on the editorial decisions of publishers in Paris, London or New York and are often excluded from participation in the global literary market.

The journal New Literary History devoted a special issue to new approaches to the sociology of literature in Spring 2010.


Classic texts in Sociology that have influenced my thinking, research, and writing.

Bendix, Reinhard and Seymour Martin Lipset (eds). Class, Status and Power:  Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective. (Second Edition). N.Y. Free Press, 1966 (1953

Coser, Lewis A. (editor). Sociology Through Literature. An Introductory reader. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:  Prentice Hall, 1963.

Coser Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context. N.Y.: Harcourt Brace, 1971.