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Simpsonology

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Friday, Jul 4, 2008

Mmmm… Sociology…: In one episode of The Simpsons, an establishing shot of the Springfield Public Library reveals a desperate sign reading, “We have books about TV.” If not for the potential for cosmological implosion, many of those books would be about The Simpsons, which, after almost two decades on the air, is such a cultural phenomenon that it now informs our sociological experience as much as the other way around. The funny little badly drawn cartoon show has, in many ways, become a barometer of our collective lives, and cultural observers and academics have built a cottage industry from analyzing the show’s impact and deeper meanings.


The latest entry to plumb the rich history of The Simpsons is Tim Delaney’s Simpsonology: There’s a Little Bit of Springfield in All of Us (Prometheus Books, 2008). Delaney, a sociology professor at SUNY Oswego, is a self-described Simpsons fanatic and draws widely and meticulously from the first 400 (!) episodes of the show to illustrate concepts in sociology, a sort of guide for the uninitiated using the microcosm of Matt Groening’s universe to show how we study and understand the collective behavior of human beings. Using exhaustive examples and snatches of dialogue from the show, Delaney demonstrates how the Simpsons and their neighbors relate to each other in the home, the school, the workplace, and the larger communities of religion, sports, politics, friendship, and romance.


At first glance, the book reads rather simply, and one wonders if Delaney is only in it to wax excitedly about what a fan he is, but as the book delves more deeply into larger sociological spheres, the reader will find himself or herself internalizing the concepts without realizing it, like reading a textbook in cartoon camouflage. Delaney’s mission to achieve crystal clarity often comes across as overly simplistic or condescending—in a book written for Simpsons fans, one needn’t explain the jokes—but neither is it dry or laced with academese like other treatments of the subject have been. Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation (Perseus Books, 2005) and Mark I. Pinsky’s The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) are better, but Delaney’s Simpsonology is a fine volume for anyone intent on an in-depth study of America’s favorite freakish yellow nuclear family.

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