Description in Literature and the Human Sciences

stacked books




Associate Professor

Project Summary

This summer, I had the great fortune to be a part of the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program. Through this program, I had the opportunity to work with Professor Heather Love of the English Department on the intersection between post-war microsociology and literature and its implication on identity and representation. Although a renowned professor in the English Department, Professor Love specifically draws influences from post-war sociologists such as Michel de Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, and Margaret Mead in her current book project, which I find especially interesting. Furthermore, she is also interested in the field of “microsociology” and kinesics, founded by sociologist Ray L Birdwhistell, who at one point was part of the Penn folklore faculty. By focusing on detailed, “thin” description of human gesture in literature, and observing human behavior on a truly microscopic level, Professor Love believes that post-war literature and sociology has much more to offer about identity politics than what originally meets the eye. As an aspiring English major with great interest in queer politics and the issue of representation in narratives, I was thrilled to be part of Professor Love’s book project, and it was a great honor to do research alongside her.

During the first few weeks, my primary goal was to familiarize myself with many of the scholars Professor Love cites in her book. After gaining a considerable level of knowledge about Professor Love’s book, her influences, and her main objective in this project, I was able to conduct research on my own, specifically on literature written about microsociology and visual anthropology in the past 2-3 years. One aspect of my internship that I particularly enjoyed was the role of documentary films in this project. Post-war sociologists such as Birdwhistell were one of the first people to experiment with video cameras and capturing human behavior and interaction in real time. These videotapes became one of the primary sources for sociologists to analyze and dissect how gesture reveals one’s background, upbringing, and personal values in day-to-day interaction – a predecessor to modern day observational documentary films, which I was exposed to considerably during the time of my internship. Furthermore, Professor Love and I would also go down to the Penn Museum archives, which hold much of Birdwhistell’s personal files and archival material. I was extremely grateful to have the hands-on experience of archival research, and found it very interesting to explore deeper into Birdwhistell’s personal and academic life by going through the archives. It was not only a new experience for me as a person, but an educational one for me as an aspiring scholar. By applying to PURM, my primary objective was to gain first-hand experience of scholarly research and more in-depth knowledge about how to approach academic projects, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to explore all of the above in a thorough and structured fashion.