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"What we regard as immoral behaviour, is not set in stone"

The role of fiction in our society

What does fiction have to do with society? Everything of course! Fiction (imaginary settings in literature, film, theatre) offers more than entertainment. It provides us with an image of society, how it is or could be, it gives us the opportunity to share the minds of characters who are not like us. We can also talk more easily about ethics ​​through books, films or TV series. This allows us to see how our society is structured and how it is constantly changing. Literature sociologist Konstantin Mierau (associate professor at the chair of European Culture and Literature) gives us an interesting tour through his research themes.

Konstantin Mierau
Konstantin Mierau

Fiction opens the dialogue or confirms prejudices

The first gay sex scene in a popular Dutch soap series took place in 2011. Not controversial in a country where gay marriage has been around for 10 years, you would think. Yet many reactions from viewers followed: approving cheers and outrage. Some parents condemned the fact that their children were confronted by kissing men. Apparently homosexuality was less accepted than we thought. In other countries or other periods of history, the scene could even be classified as criminal behaviour. After all, the English author Oscar Wilde spent two years in prison for homosexual acts a century ago. Until 1993, homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland and it remains so in 73 countries.

This example shows that what constitutes immoral, criminal, or just accepted behavior is not set in stone. Societies and individuals can vary enormously, discussions can flare up again and again and ideas about what is “normal” can shift. Fiction plays an important role in shaping the discussion. After all, it is easier to talk about and pass a judgment on fictional characters than on friends or family members. But through fictional characters, you might also be able to develop an understanding of real people who are unlike you or behave differently. Konstantin Mierau is interested in precisely this role of fiction and its effects on society. He conducts research, supervises PhD, Master and Bachelor students and is particularly interested in marginalised groups. Groups that for some reason do not fit the standard and therefore go unnoticed by society or even come into conflict with it.

Protests at Temuco jail in Chile
Protests outside Temuco prison in Chile

Empathy behind bars, even in times of pandemic

Mierau is particularly interested inprisoners. A prison forms a world that is difficult for an outsider to access, especially for research into reading. Mierau invested in contacts and was given the opportunity to find out what was going on. Prison forms a literally and figuratively closed society, of which stereotypes exist outside the prison walls. These stereotypical images usually come from films, series and literature, supplemented with news reports and our own fears. But do they correspond to reality? And how does the difference between this common cultural representation and the experiences of prisoners influence their return into society?

The research that PhD student Gonzalo Albornoz is conducting under Mieraus' and Prof. Pablo Valdivia’s supervision into knowledge of the law among prisoners and guards, also seems to indicate the great influence that fiction has on what people think they know about the law. Together with Gonzalo Albornoz, Mierau also recently investigated the news about prisons in South America during the corona pandemic. Time and again news reports presented the image of dangerous men against whom society had to be protected. The doors therefore had to be kept shut even more tightly during the pandemic. As a result, no attention was paid to the problems the prisoners faced because of the pandemic, how their health was at risk and also how they found creative solutions to the need for extra hygiene themselves. Want to hear more? Listen to the lecture in the Series Cultures of the Crisis Groningen.

Research into the use of fiction in Chilean prisons in the Empathy behind Bars project alligns well with the other projects. It provided the researchers with surprising results from pilot studies in two prisons. There appears to be a lot of fiction in these prisons, but little is known about what inmates read and watch and how it plays a role in their lives. Interviews and questionnaires showed that a fair number of prisoners read, but did not like to read about criminals and crime. Daily soaps are popular, they offer good conversation material in contact with family, whereby difficult circumstances inside and outside the walls can be circumvented.

This offers interesting starting points for the use of fiction with major social consequences. After all, for a succesful return into society it is important that prisoners relate to others in a good way. That they develop or regain empathy for judges, relatives and former victims. This is not easy, but careful research in close collaboration with practice could offer precious insights. And that is exactly what these researchers stand for. Based on their research, they were consulted in the set up of regional and national reading programmes for prisons. Also a book donation programme for prisoners started succesfully. With this solid emperical base a reading programme has a real chance to contribute effectively to resocialisation and social cohesion.

Broader perspective

The research in Latin-American prisons fits into the broader perspective of Converging horizons (subsidized by the Chilean government) that was initiated by the University of Groningen researchers. In this research project, early career and experienced researchers from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Spain and the Netherlands work together on research into the representation of marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA groups or immigrants. Mierau is the academic director of this international research team. Further, Konstantin Mierau also shows his students the link between literature and society in education. In his applied literature sociology course, his students engage in a conversation with, for example, homeless people and teenage mothers, with the help of fiction.

and SDG16
and SDG16
This research contributes to SDG 10
This research contributes to SDG 10
Last modified:15 February 2023 2.52 p.m.
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