Against ‘Representativity’

Joep Leerssen

As a cultural historian studying stereotyped representations of national characters (‘imagology’) I am often asked by my social-scientific or social-historical colleagues how I can determine the representativity of the literary material I study. If, in studying the English image of Italy, I draw on George Eliot and E.M. Foster, is that not a very restricted and rarefied data sample, almost a random stab in the dark? What wider conclusions could possibly be drawn from such a minute sample regarding ‘the’ image of Italy in England, or attitudes generally vis-à-vis Italy as current in England?

That ‘representativity’ challenge mistakes the cultural and social meanings of the word. A representation in the cultural sense is a symbolical construct (usually verbal or visual) aiming to give a mimetic simulacrum of the real world; a social representation is a certain actor or portion of society acting on behalf of others. To justify the word in its former meaning in terms of its latter meaning is misleading and irrelevant.

The ‘representativity’ question is also pernicious, and should be rejected out of hand. It imposes on the humanities an entire set of assumptions and working methods that are alien and uncongenial to it, beginning with the idea  (too ingrained to be consciously reflected upon, let alone queried) that what we study are selected samples as proxy data for a larger whole – that larger whole being, ideally, society as such.

But what may well be a self-evident working method for a sociologist is not necessarily the universal, exclusive path to knowledge for all other disciplines. Imagologists do not study ‘society’, and what they choose to analyse does not have to be quantitatively or statistically representative of larger, socially defined patterns. What imagologists study is a mode of discursive rhetoric, a repertoire of thematic and stylistic gestures and mimetic strategies. In choosing such authors (like Eliot, Foster) as come to our notice from the secondary literature, we rely upon the fact that their notability, their non-obscurity, correlates with a certain status and influence in the literary system and its conventions, and that this non-obscurity is therefore a reliable prima facie indicator of their qualitative representativity: their impact and operative presence beyond the ephemeral or trivial). ‘Society’, like Planet Earth, is only the wider biotope in which the literary system functions, including its processes of articulating Self/Others. And these processes, as imagologists realize more keenly than sociologists, are highly variable over time, and with multiscalar varieties from local to regional to ‘national’ or macroregional framings. A certain passage in A Room With a View about tourists in Florence may at the same time bespeak an English-Italian opposition as a North/South-European one or even a European-American one. And Foster’s readership – of the audience viewing the film adaptation – is not encompassed within a single ‘society’. Hence imagologists ought to reject, and reject firmly, the ‘representativity’ trap.

[cross-posted, with slight modifications, from my imagology blog]

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