Sociological thinking is ingrained in various aspects of our lives. The late famous fantasy novel author, Terry Pratchett, used sociology to his advantage and contributed to sociological thinking in his writing. Pratchett was able to (de)construct social reality sociologically. As a genre, fantasy is a great platform for deconstructing reality. It allows for flexibility and distance from the real world and its well-known principles. When we are too close to a concept, it is sometimes difficult to see a complete picture of it, or sometimes anything at all. Therefore, distance is required to question and challenge real-world actions and ideologies. Pratchett was a prolific, gifted, and popular writer who offered that kind of distance to his readers by creating fertile conditions where social processes can be questioned and deconstructed.
How can we deconstruct a social problem that is not within the social context (milieu) of the real world? It involves creating conditions in which it is easier to consider the problem at hand and apply it to the real world. Pratchett did that by creating a series of books taking place in the fictional Discworld, where “the Disk is the Earth, but with an extra dimension of reality”. In this way, Discworld becomes a playground of ideas and a social laboratory where theory could be discussed and challenged.
The imaginary conditions created by Pratchett do not fully correspond to reality. That is not the point. The importance of that fictional space is that it can free a person from most, if not all, social constraints, which hampers creative analysis of social phenomena. The element of familiarity in Discworld is important because it allows one to question something assumed to be well-known in their world but in a distant environment. Thus, Discworld allows the sociological imagination to be entertained and the intellect to engage in questioning.
To a degree, writers discuss and illustrate the world, whereas sociologists are trained in research, description, and explanation. Some tools used by fantasy writers and sociologists are similar. Terry Pratchett was renowned for his humour and ability to remove some of the real-world rules and substitute them with unrelated or contrasting ones. He aimed to allow his readers to gain “a feel for the depth of their society”. In his work, he called into existence matters of sociological importance. Many of Pratchett’s books relate to various social phenomena and institutions, for example, community, social relations, social organisations, death, servitude, urban organisation, religion, beliefs, discrimination, and social organisations, namely, post services, banks, police, military (and warfare), news outlets, cinemas, cities, and educational bodies (the Unseen University).
The composition of the population in Discworld is diverse. It “is populated by men, dwarfs, trolls, dragons, witches, wizards and so on, the way they act and interact can be … curiously familiar to the reader”. Hence, some of Pratchett’s books are dedicated to the discrimination of non-humans in Discworld, that is, goblins or vampires. One of his novels, 2005’s Thud!, is devoted to the subject of ethnic tension between trolls and dwarfs. Whereas in 2004’s Going Postal, Pratchett examines gender identities and self-identification. He did so by introducing Gladys, a golem.
In Discworld, golems are genderless, as they are made of clay and, for centuries, have been treated as useful, robust, and tool-like servants. However, this time, the golem is named Gladys to emphasise a level of femininity, as it was inappropriate for male-presenting golems to perform certain household duties. As a result of this gender transformation, together with her attire, Gladys changed her perceptions of herself and others. This led her to accept, empower, and embrace her new identity as a female golem. Equal Rites, from 2008, explores women’s rights in the context of a first-ever female wizard trying to enter an Unseen University.
Many of Pratchett’s books depict personal journeys and instances of individual progress. Humor plays an important role in these storylines because one of the other distinctive features of Pratchett’s work is the combination of satire and irony. Sociologist Anton C. Zijderveld noted that sociology and humour are linked. Both help us realise that life is multifaceted, and both question what, in our societies, we take for granted. Humour needs to be shared as its bonding function is important, and it is a valuable socialising tool that can be used to perform societal vivisections, if you will, by creating, revisiting, and rebuilding the components of society in some form.
Pratchett recognised the power of humour and its use in critiquing contemporary reality. For example, he used footnotes to entertain and laugh at some contemporary real-world events or objects. Every so often, a reader is surprised by a footnote to a footnote. Frequently, these footnotes are written in a tone that resembled formal academic writing. Therefore, readers may notice that such a format mocks academia by ironically evoking scholarly prominence. Pratchett also mixed humour with some socially sensitive subjects, such as death and dying. Indeed, the embodiment of Death is a recurring figure in his work. A discussion about dying, using humour and satire, normalises death.
That some of his work challenges customs, coupled with his humorous narration, can somewhat explain the popularity of Pratchett’s books. As pointed out by fan and critic D. Buchbinder, most customs depicted in Pratchett’s books are British in nature. Since calls to decolonise curricula and culture are gaining momentum in these times, Pratchett’s work and its deconstructive capacity might act as a useful instrument for that purpose.
Pratchett often mixed science with fiction. He was bending the rules of science; for example, Igors are characters who resemble the well-known Frankenstein’s Monster with body parts stitched together and who act like doctors on Discworld. In comparison, 2001’s Thief of Time touches upon time travel and uses physics humorously. That said, he used the logic of specific matters that are acceptable in the non-fictional world and depicted them in the fictional world to show how illogical these matters, customs, or norms are in our lives. In addition, according to the principles of the science of Discworld, the disc is flat. By reversing the principles of physics and geography of the world, Pratchett taps into the process of mass denialism, as there are groups of characters who believe that the disc is a sphere.
Similarly, social practices and structures frequently appear in Pratchett’s books. Often enough, he placed elements of social life, namely, the role of law, criminal justice organisations, and police, like night watch, as focal points of his storylines. He regularly portrays forms of urban management when discussing how to run the somewhat dysfunctional Ankh-Morpork, a twin city that is one of the most populated areas of Discworld. In so doing, he frequently proposes curious and unachievable solutions to some real-life social problems.
For example, he suggests a response to pickpocketing: all professionals working in Ankh-Morpork must belong to their respective guilds. This also involves thieves who belong to the Thieves’ Guild. That guild normalises theft by bringing monthly subscription fees paid to purse-snatchers to limit their activity to only one robbery each year per subscriber to their service. Yet again, this shows how Pratchett uses irony to ridicule some of the constant elements of our ordinary lives.
Pratchett also used folklore to discuss and challenge what is assumed to be normal on a playground of fantasy. While doing so, he was constructing a familiar reality based on what is around us and mixed it with elements of fantasy and folk stories. He created ideal conditions under which the social reality could be deconstructed. In this way, he placed familiar social features outside of their original parameters, allowing for their vivisection without the constraints of the real world. Some language and rhetorical tools that he used revolved around 1. humour, 2. ridicule, 3. altering realities and principles, 4. mixing science and fiction, 5. substituting real-world rules with magic, and 6. logic.
In short, Terry Pratchett was a prolific fantasy author who was writing sociologically and addressed sociological problems using fantasy. Importantly, in his writing, he often managed to deconstruct reality in a manner that could be attributed to a trained sociologist. This leaves us to imagine honoring him with a post-humous Ph.D. in sociology, at least in the Discworld, if not the real one.
Hübner, Katarzyna. “The Mechanisms of Discrimination in Terry Pratchett’s Novel Snuff (2011).” Unpublished Bachelor’s thesis. Jagiellonian University, Krakow. 2018.
Mills, Charles Wright. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. 1967.
Pratchett, Terry. Various works.
Zijderveld, Anton C. “Introduction: The Sociology of Humour and Laughter — an Outstanding Debt”. Current Sociology. 3 December 1983.