What is Social Commentary? - Definition, Books & Examples

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Lesson Transcript
Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

Social commentary is an ancient art form that has been used to critique aspects of different societies for as long as societies have been around. Learn more about these critical assessments in this lesson and find some notable examples of these time-honored works.

Definition of Social Commentary

Have you ever watched a friend be bullied or otherwise mistreated and wanted to do something about it? Maybe you physically stepped in, or perhaps you wrote about the experience on your blog. This particular blog entry could most likely be considered a work of social commentary, or one that critiques one or more aspects of society so as to highlight its flaws and ideally prevent their continuation.

Social commentaries have existed for as long as societies have been around to comment on. Since humans first began interacting in groups, issues surrounding the cultural, political, religious, or other aspects of that interaction in society have attracted the attention of those who feel they need fixing. Many people, particularly writers of social commentaries, feel there's an innate sense of justice and overall humanity that each of us possesses purely by the virtue of being human. These authors, then, might hold themselves as guardians and expressionists of these inborn sentiments.

Many of the most influential thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome were adamant about defending their own humanity and that of others, and so many of the methods that still produce social commentaries today got their start in the ancient Mediterranean.

Types of Social Commentaries with Examples

Let's take a look at a few approaches to assessing society that have developed over the practice's long and storied history. First, let's look at utopian literature.

For millennia, the Garden of Eden and similar locales have been used to symbolize a 'utopia,' which is generally interpreted to mean an ideal place. The works concerned with ideal places and societies belong to a genre known as utopian literature. The oral representation of utopias is quite ancient, and the literary tradition is rather old, as well, owing its origins to Plato's Republic from the 4th century B.C.E. Though the name is Greek, Plato did not call his ideal society a 'utopia.' Rather, the title was derived by Thomas More for his work by that name published in 1516.

What Plato and More both do is present their concepts of what the ideal society would be in order to contrast with how things are going in their present situations. Plato, for instance, envisions a society ruled by philosopher kings who do not engage in the questionable politics so prevalent in the Athens of his day. Perhaps the philosopher was more optimistic than More, who named his work and fictional island-nation Utopia to demonstrate that such ideal places and 'people constituted so well as (the Utopians)' do not and will not exist as long as societies continue to take their present courses of action.

Next, let's look at satire.

If you're like many in America, you might choose to get your news from sources like The Daily Show or from the now-defunct Colbert Report, which present pointed commentary on today's biggest issues while couching their criticism in comedy. In literature, this genre of works dedicated to social criticism through the use of comedic elements is called satire and, like utopian literature, owes its origins to authors of the ancient Mediterranean. The Greek comic playwright Aristophanes was famous for prodding at his Athenian countrymen with his hilarious productions, and the Roman poets Horace and Juvenal brought satire into its own as an art form - one which still classifies works according to their individual styles, Horatian or Juvenalian satire, today.

Though still a product of the 18th century (1729), Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is much more modern an example of satire than those of Classical poets, but still owes much of its stinging wit to Juvenalian influences. This work is certainly one of Swift's most famous - perhaps most notable for the narrator's sarcastic suggestion that Irish children should be bred and eaten like livestock to address the people's problems with poverty and starvation. Of course, Swift would never make such a genuine proposal. Instead, the satirical tone is meant to condemn English treatment of Ireland, as well as Irish complacency in the matter.

Finally, let's take a look at dystopian literature.

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Additional Activities

What is Social Commentary – Writing Activity

Choose a present-day social issue that concerns you. The issue could be any number of things. For example, you might think about concerns such as bullying, gun violence, political strife, social media, or internet privacy issues. Pick a form of social commentary and in 4-5 paragraphs, write a story or article addressing your chosen issue. Perhaps you have a sense of humor and want to employ satire to address your concerns. Or you have a more fantastic view and imagine a dystopian future if your concern is not addressed in the present. Remember to employ the key aspects of whichever form of social commentary you choose.

Group Discussion:

Discuss with your classmates the benefits and drawbacks of each form of social commentary in this lesson. Which do you think is the most useful? Is one, in your opinion, more dangerous or effective than the others? Why or why not? The goal of this discussion is to consider the ways in which we as individuals view and articulate social issues.

Additional Questions to Consider:

  • Contemporary social commentaries can be traced back to which ancient societies?
    • Answer: Greece and Rome.
  • The writings of Plato and Thomas More are connected through which genre of social commentary? (Hint: They both portray ideal societies)
    • Answer: Utopian.
  • What makes Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal a work of satire?
    • Answer: His suggestion that Irish children should be fed to livestock.
  • What is a major difference between utopian and dystopian literatures? (Hint: their views of society's future or possibilities)
    • Answer: Utopian literature tend to be more optimistic and hopeful than dystopian.

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