Conference Agenda

RS12_06: Social Spheres and Its Boundaries: From the Secrecy to the Public
Thursday, 22/Aug/2019:
2:00pm - 3:30pm

Session Chair: José Manuel Resende, Évora University
Location: GM.334
Manchester Metropolitan University Building: Geoffrey Manton, Third Floor 4 Rosamond Street West Off Oxford Road


Family Secrecy in the Information Age: A Re-Examination of Simmel’s ‘The Sociology of Secrecy and Secret Societies’

Katy Barbier-Greenland1, Deborah Dempsey2

1Swinburne University, Netherlands; 2Swinburne University, Australia

Discovering an unexpected major family secret typically has significant, ongoing personal and psychological consequences for those involved. Reproductive family secrets, such as those associated with conception and birth, are arguably more difficult to keep in an information age. People are now able to access their family history and biogenetic information in unprecedented ways due to factors including more open policy and legislative trends regarding donors and donation in reproduction, and enhanced opportunities to identify and connect with family members online. Further, sales of DNA home testing kits are expected to reach 100 million by 2021, and family history searches are the second most popular use of the Internet

This talk is based on stories from an empirical research project entitled 'Family Secrets, Secret Families'. Secrets discovered by participants included adoption, donor conception, hidden or secret children, and mis-assigned parentage. In the talk, we reflect on Simmel’s essay 'The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies' and assess its contemporary relevance for how knowledge, power, truth, silence, disclosure, and trust play out in families with reproductive secrets. We argue that Simmels’ insights continue to offer a valuable framework for understanding the power and function of knowledge and information management in family life in the era of the Internet and home DNA testing.

Simmel’s Formal Sociology and the Analysis of Mass Society

Martti Siisiäinen

University of Jyväskylä, Finland

Simmel’s formal sociology understands the social actor as a crossroads of her/his various membership circles. And accordingly, the society can be perceived as a structural configuration of these social circles. Because personal combinations of social circles are unique, all actors in a way have a society of their own. The subject of formal sociology, social forms can be divided to two subtypes: 1. social circles (such as class, institutions, parties, associations, media) and 2. social processes which determine the nature of these circles (e.g. solidarization, (dis)trust, exclusion/inclusion, deprivation, (dis)empowerment).

In this paper I will adapt Simmel’s theoretical ideas to the analysis of ongoing massification of Western democracies. The main argument of the presentation is that the pluralist political governance, based on citizens’ more or less frequent, cross-cutting memberships, transcending class boundaries is transforming towards societies dominated by old and new kinds of overlapping, class-based memberships. The weakening role of voluntary associations and other intermediating instances between the ruling elite (“the centre”) and the “ordinary citizens” (“the periphery”) opens a fertile soil for populist mass-movements, the polarization of society and political fluctuations. Simmel’s discussion of the importance of cross-cutting voluntary associations and their driving force, middle classes enabling – in ideal case – the inter-class communication and the re-coding of the communication between the “centre” and “the “periphery” is still adequate and of topical interest at the present political situation. These theorizations are backed up by empirical studies on civil society transformations.

The Fruitfulness of Simmel’s Legacy in the Analysis of Contemporary Conflicts

Michael Nollert

University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Besides Karl Marx and Max Weber, Georg Simmel belongs to the classics of sociology of conflict (Turner 1975). Moreover, he is often praised as the father of sociological network theory (Emirbayer 1997). For the analysis of social conflicts, two of his writings are of particular importance.

In “Der Streit” (Conflict) (1908a), which can be seen as the counter-thesis to Durkheim's—and later, structural-functionalists'—focus on social harmony (Coser 1956), Simmel argues that conflicts do not have a priori a disintegrative or even a destructive impact on society, as external enemies often promote internal cohesion of communities.

In “Die Kreuzung sozialer Kreise” (The intersection of social circles) (1908b; cf. Nollert 2010), he offers an individualization theory of modernity, according to which individuals in modern societies act as bridges between social networks. Inspired by this thesis, some scholars have argued that role conflicts caused by cross-cutting social networks foster social cohesion, as members of such networks develop rather multiple—and, hence, tolerance-promoting—identities than solitary ones (Nollert and Sheikhzadegan 2016; see also Sen 2006).

Applying Simmel's theses to current conflicts, the second part of the paper shows, firstly, that conflicts with out-groups (be they real or imagined) lead to in-group cohesion. Therefore, ruling elites often use the rally-round-the-flag effect to divert from domestic troubles. Secondly, it shows how emerging nationalist and religious movements transform liberal societies by replacing universalistic values with particularistic ones. Thirdly and finally, the author’s own research on religious (re-)converts suggests that members of close-minded communities tend to evolve solitary identities.

The Politics Of Everyday Life: Simmel And The Public

Jean-Stéphane Borja

Aix-Marseille Université, France

My purpose is to focus on the citizenship and the democratic issue from the perspective of the stranger’s experience, and to explore how this ordinary experience can refine the conception of the public. In particular, I would like to consider the creative tension that caracterizes the simmelian approach, this movement that carries and creates new forms; and to apprehend it in terms of a daily political and democratic spring.

For doing this, I will discuss the concept of public, as it is ideally conceived by J. Dewey : as a set of stranger people, who don’t know each other ; but also as a "ferment" of citizenship through the process of social inquiry it carries in order to define public problems.

Here, I will insist on the fact that any inquiry conveys two kinds of knowledge : concerning a problematic situation ("facts"...); but also in terms of encounters and relationship (to meet/know each other, to talk with/about, to take news...).

I will indeed consider an encounter as a promise rooted in public spaces and moments, where people used to stay in a relative strangeness. And, on this basis, I will underline : 1/ the political potential carried by the interrelations and interactions; and 2/ that this potential is as much conveyed by encounters, as by what rejects and problematizes the relationship, re-injects reserve, distance and ignorance (to avoid a known person, to become a stranger...).

In the end, I will show how this reserved and wandering public paradoxically ensures an ideal of publicity, reinforces and "re-potentiates" itself, and expresses a power, i.e. a possible, or what comes to reopen the possibilities.