It occurred to me recently, and this is really just a reformulation of other ideas I've had before, that a lot of work I see by young people in the field takes the following form:
a) A set of political / social / culture issues (colonialism, immigration, racism, queer identity...)
b) A set of theories and subfields about these issues
c) Novels and films, or fictionalized treatments of these issues. Sometimes it's plays or other cultural artifacts, like museum, buildings, whatever. But in a whole lot of cases it's novels and non-documentary films.
The novels are the object of analysis; they exemplify and illustrate the theories and the issues.
Obviously this is not the way I work, but it is interesting that this works so well. Things line up pretty well, don't they? Often close readers of texts, literary and cultural critics, end up having more interesting things to say about the issues and the problems than those working straight in social science disciplines. So fiction, or imaginary narrative about real things, serves to get inside of these problems in a way impossible by other means.
It still seems odd, though, to make the analysis of novels so central to the study of pressing social issues.