Empirical study of literature

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The empirical study of literature is an interdisciplinary field of research which includes the psychology, sociology, Philosophy, the contextual study of literature, and the history of reading literary texts.

The International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media (IGEL) is one learned association which brings together experts in this field. Major journals in the field are Poetics: Journal of Empirical Research on Culture, the Media and the Arts,[1] Poetics Today: International Journal for Theory and Analysis of Literature and Communication,[2] and Scientific Study of Literature.[3]

The empirical study of literature attracts scholarship particularly in the areas of reception and audience studies and in cognitive psychology when it is concerned with questions of reading. In these two areas research and studies based on the framework are steadily growing. Further fields where the framework in various revised and expanded versions attracts scholarship is (comparative) cultural studies and pedagogy. One of several dictionary definitions of the field is as follows:

“Movement within the study of literature concerned with the study of literature as a social system of [inter]actions. The main question is what happens to literature: it is written, published, distributed, read, censored, imitated, etc. The empirical study of literature originated as a reaction to, and an attempt at, solving the basic problem of hermeneutics; that is, how the validation of literary interpretation can be demonstrated. From reception theory it had already become clear that interpretations are not only tied to the text, but also, and even to a great extent, to the reader — both in terms of the individual and of social conventions. This led to the theory of radical (cognitive) constructivism, based on the thesis that the subject largely construes its empirical world itself. The logical consequence of all this, to be seen in the work of Siegfried J. Schmidt, is the separation of interpretation and the strictly scientific study of literature based on radical constructivism. The literary system of actions is observed from the outside — not experienced — and roughly characterized as depending on two conventions (hypotheses) that are tested continually. These conventions are the aesthetic convention (as opposed to the convention of facts in the daily language of reference) and the polyvalence convention (as opposed to the monovalency in the daily empirical world). Thus, the object of study of the empirical study of literature is not only the text in itself, but the roles of action within the literary system, namely, production, distribution, reception, and the processing of texts. The methods used are primarily taken from the social sciences, reception theory, cognitive science, psychology, etc. In general the steps to be taken in empirical research are the formation of a hypothesis, putting it into practice, testing, and evaluation. More concretely, for the study of reader response a wide array of techniques are used, ranging from protocol techniques and thinking aloud protocol to pre-structured techniques, such as the semantic seven point scale (C. Osgood) and the classification technique (card sorting), and forms of content analysis, discourse analysis, association techniques, etc. Some objections often raised to the empirical study of literature are the triviality of many of its research results such as confirmation of what was already known or suspected or its reductionism (artificiality of the framework and set-up, and limitation to reader response instead of the study of the text). It is clear, however, that the empirical study of literature by its specific approach of the object and its focus on methodology is an outstanding way to explore the socio-cultural aspects of the literary system. It makes an irreplaceable contribution to the development of a more rational, scientific, and socially relevant study of literature.” [4]


  1. ^ "Poetics". Publisher's Website.
  2. ^ "Poetics Today". Publisher's Website.
  3. ^ "SSOL". Publisher's Website.
  4. ^ Hendrik van Gorp, R. Ghesquiere, D. Delabastita and J. Flamend: „Empirische literatuurwetenschap.“ In: Lexicon van literaire termen: stromingen en genres, theoretische begrippen, retorische procédés en stiljfiguren. By Hendrik van Gorp, R. Ghesquiere, D. Delabastita, and J. Flamend. Leuven: Leuven UP, 1991. 116–117.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. "Questions of Method." Empirical Studies of Literature. Ed. Elrud Ibsch, Dick Schram, and Gerard Steen. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991. 19-36.
  • Schmidt, Siegfried J. Foundation for the Empirical Study of Literature: The Components of a Basic Theory. Trans. R. de Beaugrande. Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1982.
  • Schmidt, Siegfried J. "Literary Studies from Hermeneutics to Media Culture Studies." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 12.1 (2010): https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol12/iss1/1
  • Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. "The Empirical Science of Literature / Constructivist Theory of Literature." Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms. Ed. Irene R. Makaryk. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993. 36-39.


  • Lisiak, Agata Anna, and Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek. "Bibliography of Siegfried J. Schmidt's Publications." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 12.1 (2010)[1]
  • Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. "Bibliography of Contextual (Systemic and Empirical) Approaches in the Study of Literature and Culture (to 1998)." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 3.3 (2001)[2]