Although there are strong two-way links between it and my teaching, my research has developed without much regard for disciplinary boundaries. It has been defined in the first place by the topics I’ve wanted to find out about, in the second place by the methods I’ve developed for finding out about them, and in the third place by the many other scholars that I’ve learnt from and whose work has inspired me. The latter are too numerous to mention, but five names stand out above the rest: Michael Billig, Jonathan Culler, Jerome McGann, Elizabeth Long, and Pierre Bourdieu.
Everything I’ve written depends to some extent on the work of those five. From Culler (1975) I learnt to expect from theory not interpretations of specific texts but explanations of literary phenomena; from McGann (1988) I learnt to seek a grounding for those explanations not in abstract laws but in the history of literary institutions. From Billig (1996 ), I learnt to see thought (including the kinds of thought involved in cultural activities such as literary reading) as carried out in (and not merely in context of) social interaction. And from Bourdieu (1993 ) and Long (1986), I learnt to recognise cultural questions as essentially sociological, and to study all forms of culture (including language use) through the methods of sociology.
My research career began with an interest in reading; specifically the reading of fiction. As an MA student of literature and of linguistics, I encountered critical and theoretical writings which made or relied upon essentially unsubstantiated claims about how people interpret sentences and whole texts. I wanted to know which claims about readers could best be supported by empirical investigation of real-world acts of reading – which caused endless problems for me as an MA student but ultimately got me a PhD (Allington, 2008a). In disciplinary terms, this explains my perhaps greater attachment to applied linguistics than to literary studies (in which one is generally supposed to take a theory – any theory! – and run with it), but as noted above, I now tend to regard both language and literature as aspects of culture to be studied through sociological means.
I’ve published two papers on academic critics as readers of literature (Allington, 2005; 2006); one on Lord of the Rings fans as ‘readers’ of film (Allington, 2007); two on journalists and other pundits as readers and non-readers of The Satanic Verses (Allington, 2008b; 2012b); one on autobiographical accounts of reading in the ‘long’ 19th century (Allington, 2010); one on undergraduate students as readers of The Importance of Being Earnest (Allington, 2012a); and several more that follow Elizabeth Long in studying contemporary reading groups or book clubs as social phenomena. Two of these papers looked at multiple groups in relation to their perception of language and description in novels (Swann and Allington, 2009; Allington, 2011a), while three more focused on the social dynamics and practices of individual groups (Allington, 2011b; Allington and Swann, 2011; Allington and Benwell, 2012). These papers all work with data collected in the course of one of two AHRC-funded research projects that I’ve worked on: The Discourse of Reading Groups and Devolving Diasporas. With Joan Swann, the principal investigator of the former of these two projects, I also guest-edited a special issue of Language and Literature that collected together cutting-edge examples of reader study from a range of disciplinary backgrounds (Allington and Swann, 2009a). More recently, I’ve been focusing on authors as well as readers (Allington, 2011a) and empirically studying authors as readers of one another’s work, moving from James Hogg as a reader of Robert Burns (Allington, 2010) to a large-scale study of 21st century authors of interactive fiction (Allington, 2012e; forthcoming; under review). At the same time, I’ve increasingly tended to frame my publications as investigations into historical and contemporary phenomena, in contrast with my earlier writings, most of which (esp. Allington, 2005; 2006; 2007; 2008a; 2008b) were framed as engagements with literary theory. Many themes remain constant in my work, however, for example an interest in sexuality and attitudes to sexuality (e.g. Allington, 2007; 2012a) and a concern with colonialism and its aftermath (e.g. Allington 2006; 2012d).
The more attention I have paid to real readers, the more I have found myself faced with the implications of an opposition between something that might be called ‘serious literature’ and something that might be called ‘popular fiction’. There’s some discussion of this in my PhD thesis (Allington, 2008a), but a lot more of it in my more recent work: in one paper, I argue that readers and authors recognise heavily ‘descriptive’ writing as characteristic of literary rather than popular fiction (Allington, 2011a), and in another, I look at how members of a gay reading group argue over which books are ‘serious’ enough to be worth discussing and which are simply fun to read (Allington, 2011b). My current book historical work emphasises the ideological importance of such distinctions for 20th century British publishers such as Allen Lane. This follows my first genuinely historical study, which focused on how autobiographical writings reflect ideas of ‘great literature’ (Allington, 2010). Using a range of evidence, I argue in that work both that autobiographers display their reading matter selectively in order to present a particular identity (for example, by emphasising their reading of prestigious texts) and that narratives wherein the autobiographer is transformed by his or her reading of a great literary work reflect the secularisation of an older tradition of writing in which the Bible plays an equivalent transformative role.
After years of trying to study ‘readers’ or ‘reading’, I eventually came to understand that these things can only be understood in the context of the publishing industry. I started on the theoretical level, by considering how writing, publishing, and reading together produce literary traditions in relation to which individual works can be structured as ‘creative’ (Allington, 2011c). This led to a deeper engagement with the history of the book, and to a drive to understand the role of printing and publishing in the historical development of the English language (Allington, 2012b). Putting these things together has given me a greater appreciation of the incredible complexity and importance of the phenomenon that we call ‘literacy’ (Allington and Hewings, 2012; Allington et al, 2012). And it’s also led to my involvement in two major publication projects that are now very close to completion. One is a history of the book in Britain, written in collaboration with some amazing scholars and forthcoming from Blackwell. The other is a sole-authored study of how the writing, reading, and publishing of fiction are being transformed through the adoption of digital technologies; it’s forthcoming from Palgrave.
Just as I’ve come to understand that ‘reading’ makes sense only in relation to the publishing industry, I’ve also come to understand that publishing now makes sense only in relation to other ‘cultural industries’. This has so far been reflected only in one of my publications – a history of the English-language media industries and their role in colonialism and globalisation (Allington, 2012d) – but more work is on the go. I’ve been researching two particular sub-fields of the indie games scene for several years (see Allington, 2012e), and I’m currently in receipt of a grant from the ESRC Centre for Research in Socio-Cultural Change enabling me to interview visual artists, studying their relationships, aspirations, and economic struggles.
Most of my work has used qualitative methods: recording conversations, collecting documents, interviewing, observing, and then trying to make careful sense of the results. In terms of how I interpret this sort of data, I have tended to employ ‘discourse analysis’, which in my case means very fine-grained analysis of ‘naturally occurring’ data drawn from informal reading group (i.e. book club) discussions (Allington, 2008a, 2011a, 2011b; Allington and Benwell, 2012; Allington and Swann, 2011; Swann and Allington, 2009), classroom interaction (Allington, 2008a, 2012a), internet discussion (Allington 2007, 2008a), historical documents (2008a, 2008b, 2010), and published literary criticism (Allington 2005, 2006). In the earlier of these works, my main concern was to explore the implications of Michael Billig’s (1996 ) social psychology of thinking for the study of the thinking that goes on in literary interpretation (Allington 2005; 2006; 2007). Among the later papers, some build closely on work done in the discipline of conversation analysis to understand the precise twists and turns of ‘booktalk’ in situations formal (2012a) and informal (Allington and Benwell, 2012), while others argue for the integration of discourse analysis with ethnographic observation and interviewing (Allington 2011a; 2011b; Allington and Swann, 2011); one paper attempts both courses simultaneously (Allington, 2012a). With Joan Swann, I published an extensive review of approaches to the study of literary reading (Allington and Swann, 2009b).
Perhaps heretically, I also make some use of quantitative methods. These have included thematic analysis (Swann and Allington, 2009) and corpus analysis (Allington, 2011), and in the last couple of years, I’ve also begun working with social network analysis (Allington, 2012e; forthcoming; under review), especially with automatically-collected online data. Quite unexpectedly, this has made me into a fledgling computer programmer, requiring me to learn and make intensive use of Python, regular expressions, and SQL; I guess that, as a general rule, I’d usually rather spend a year acquiring knowledge than apply for funding with which to buy it in twelve months down the line. This is an extension of the attitude I take to everything that gets drawn into my research: if I’m going to refer to a psychological theory, I feel I should do some wider reading in psychology to give myself a chance of not misrepresenting it; I’m going to use a statistical test, I feel I should at least try to understand its mathematical basis. Coming face to face with one’s own ignorance is an experience much to be valued.
Allington, D. (2005) ‘Re-reading the script: a discursive appraisal of the use of the “schema” in cognitive poetics’. Working with English 2: 1-9.
Allington, D. (2006) ‘First steps towards a rhetorical psychology of literary interpretation’. Journal of Literary Semantics 35 (2): 123-144.
Allington, D. (2007) ‘ “How come most people don’t see it?’”: slashing The Lord of the Rings’. Social Semiotics 17 (1): 43-62.
Allington, D. (2008a). Discourse and the reception of literature: problematising ‘reader response’. PhD thesis, University of Stirling.
Allington, D. (2008b) ‘How to do things with literature: blasphemous speech acts, satanic intentions, and the uncommunicativeness of verses’. Poetics Today 29 (3): 473-523.
Allington, D. (2010) ‘On the use of anecdotal evidence in reception study and the history of reading’. In: Gunzenhauser, B. (ed.). Reading in history: new methodologies from the Anglo-American Tradition. London: Pickering & Chatto, pp. 11-28.
Allington, D. (2011a) ‘ “It actually painted a picture of the village and the sea and the bottom of the sea”: reading groups, cultural legitimacy, and description in narrative (with particular reference to John Steinbeck’s The Pearl)’. Language and Literature 20 (4): 317-332.
Allington, D. (2011b) ‘Distinction, intentions, and the consumption of fiction: negotiating cultural legitimacy in a gay reading group’. European Journal of Cultural Studies 14 (3): 129-145.
Allington, D. (2011c) ‘The production of “creativity”’. In: Swann, J., Pope, R., and Carter, R. (eds.). Creativity in language: the state of the art. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 277-289.
Allington, D. (2012a) ‘Private experience, textual analysis, and institutional authority: the discursive practice of critical interpretation and its enactment in literary training’. Language and Literature 21 (2): 211-225.
Allington, D. (2012b) ‘Theorising postcolonial reception: writing, reading, and moral agency in the Satanic Verses affair’. In: Benwell, B., Proctor, J., Robinson, G. (eds.) Postcolonial audiences: readers, viewers, and reception. London: Routledge. pp. 199-210.
Allington, D. (2012c) ‘Material English’. In: Allington, D. and Mayor, B. (eds.) Communicating in English: Talk, Text, Technology. London: Routledge. pp. 267-292.
Allington, D. (2012d) ‘English and global media’. In: Hewings, A. and Tagg, C. (eds.) The politics of English: conflict and coexistence. London: Routledge. pp. 219-245.
Allington, D. (2012e) ‘The field of interactive fiction and the production of belief in the value of digital works’. Paper presented at Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA) Annual Conference, University of Malta, 17 July.
Allington, D. and Benwell, B. (2012). ‘Reading the reading experience: an ethnomethodological approach to “booktalk”’. In: Lang, A. (ed.) From codex to hypertext: reading at the turn of the twenty-first century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. pp. 217-233.
Allington, D., Cremin, T., Messer, D., and Soler, J. (2012). ‘Learning to read in the 21st century’. Audiovisual podcast. Available from: http://www.open.ac.uk/creet/main/projects
Allington, D. and Hewings, A. (2012). ‘Reading and writing in English’. In: Allington, D. and Mayor, B. (eds.) Communicating in English: Talk, Text, Technology. London: Routledge. pp. 47-76.
Allington, D. and Swann, J. (eds.) (2009a) ‘Literary reading as social practice’. Language and Literature 18 (3): 217-344.
Allington, D. and Swann, J. (2009b) ‘Researching literary reading as social practice’. Language and Literature 18 (3): 219-230.
Allington, D. and Swann, J. (2011) ‘The mediation of reading: a critical approach to individual and group reading practices’. In: Crone, R. and Towheed, S. (eds.) The history of reading, vol. 3: methods, strategies, tactics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 80-96.
Swann, J. and Allington, D. (2009) ‘Reading groups and the language of literary texts: a case study in social reading’. Language and Literature 18 (3): 247-264.