In addition to looking for symbols, patterns, and references, you might also focus your analytical reading by using a sociocultural critical lens. Because your attention is necessarily selective, a limited resource, these lenses give you a suggestion for where you might direct that attention. While it is beyond the scope of this book to give in-depth history and reading practices for different schools of literary criticism or cultural studies, the following are common lenses applied during textual analysis. (The Purdue OWL provides some free resources here to introduce students to some of these schools of criticism.)
As you engage with a text, you should look for touchstones, tropes, or symbols that relate to one or more of the following critical perspectives.
- Gender and Sexuality: How does the text portray the creation and performance of gender? How many people of different genders are included in the story? Do the characters in the text express gender according to traditional standards? How do characters resist the confines of gender? How much attention, agency, and voice are allowed to women, men, and non-binary or genderqueer characters
- Relationships and family: What sorts of relationships—familial, friendly, romantic, etc.—are portrayed in the text? How do these relationships compare to the relationships of the dominant culture? How much attention, agency, and voice are allowed in parent-child, sibling, romantic, and other relationships in the essay?
- Disability: How does the text represent people with disabilities? Does the text reveal damaging stereotypes or misconceptions about people with disabilities or their life experiences? Does the text illuminate the social/environmental construction of disabilities? How does the text construct or assume the normative body?
- Race, ethnicity, and nationality: How does the text represent people of color, of minority status, and/or of different nationalities? What does it suggest about institutionalized racism and discrimination? How does the text examine or portray cultural and individual identities? How do the characters resist racism, xenophobia, and oppression? How do they reproduce, practice, or contribute to racism, xenophobia, or oppression?
- Social class and economy: How does the text represent differences in wealth, access, and resources? Do people cross the divisions between socioeconomic statuses? Are characters of greater status afforded more power, agency, or freedom—in the plot events or in the text more generally? How do exploited people resist or reproduce exploitation?
- Ecologies and the environment: Does the setting of the text represent a ‘natural’ world? How does the text represent nature, ecosystems, non-human animals and other living organisms? Does the text, its narrative, or its characters advocate for environmental protection? Does the text speak to the human impact on global ecological health?
Some texts will lend themselves to a certain lens (or combination of lenses) based on content or the rhetorical situation of the author or reader. Bring to mind a recent movie you watched, book you read, or other text you’ve encountered; by asking the italicized questions above, determine whether that text seems to be asking for a certain sociocultural perspective.