Gaps, blanks, distances and secrets: A conversation on connectedness

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The aim of this seminar is to discuss that which is missing or absent; issues that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront ...

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Feelings of connectedness and experiences of connecting have been at the heart of much recent work in the sociology of personal life. Usually discussions centre on connections with something present in life: another person, an animal, an object, or a place. Adding to these discussions, and looking at that which is distant rather than proximate and close, the aim of this afternoon seminar is to discuss that which is missing or absent; issues that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront in many ways. The aim of this event is to focus on questions such as: What is the role of gaps, blanks and distances in shaping experiences of connectedness? What might emerge and be created in and through a sense of space and void, not-knowings and ‘known unknowns’ or ‘half- knowns’? Might various kinds of absences, blanks and losses provide their own shape and importance to connectedness, and if so, what sense of affinity (Mason 2018) might they give rise to? The seminar will focus on a range of different kinds of perceived gaps (including temporal, spatial and geographical ones) to people, things, and places in personal lives, including those that might emerge as a consequence of information management, secrecy and things left unsaid.

Mason, J (2018) Affinities: Potent connections in personal life. Polity Press.

Four short papers followed by a longer keynote paper by Professor Vanessa May

Speakers:

• Helen Holmes: ‘Lost property karma’: exploring material absence and loss

• Sophie Woodward: Material presence and absent people: how things evoke lost relationships and people.

• Leah Gilman: Deferred Connection: The Meaning of Temporary Anonymity in the Context of Donor Conception

• Owen Abbott: Between Embodied Comportment and Reflexivity: Tactful secrecy and the role of mundane reflexivity in moral practice

• Vanessa May: Contours of family life as created by the boundaries of sociological attention

Helen Holmes

‘Lost property karma’: exploring material absence and loss

Abstract notions of absence, nothing and loss are becoming increasingly intriguing phenomena for sociologists interested in the everyday (Scott, 2018). However, whilst their theoretical connotations are being progressively discussed, empirical investigation into these phenomena remains somewhat (ironically) absent. This paper draws on a recent project exploring lost property, including qualitative interviews with lost property offices, households and museums. Building on previous work on material affinities and material culture (Holmes, 2019), I argue that lost property reveals the enduring connections we have to objects which are no longer in our possession, and how loss is crucial to understanding people’s everyday relationships to the material world. I illustrate the serendipitous nature of loss and argue for what participants have termed a ‘lost property karma’ whereby certain objects are supposed to circulate and be shared. In turn, I contend that the transformative potential of material loss and absence offers a way of thinking about alternative, non-material practices of accumulation and different ways of connecting with things.

Sophie Woodward

Material presence and absent people: how things evoke lost relationships and people.

This paper explores absence through what is present; it takes the analytical approach of how people, things and relationships are entangled and co-constituted to explore how everyday objects in the home evoke lost relationships and people. I draw from previous work on how objects can materialise aspects of the self, of relationships and mediate relations to others as well as recent empirical work into dormant things (things people keep but are no longer using) in homes in Manchester. Examples of objects in the home open up the relations between material presence (how long things last), and the relationships objects may evoke. I explore how domestic objects can be powerful in how they evoke relationships that are finished or people who have died – these may be cherished objects or stashed away in a cellar as they are too painful to encounter. In other examples where objects last longer than some relationships to people, conversely, the object may be just an object ‘matter that no longer matters’ (Cwerner and Metcalf, 2003: 237). Taken together, the examples show that the lives of people and things may be entwined but they are not the same, and in taking different routes this opens up disconnections and unwanted as well as desired evocations of lost relationships.

Leah Gilman

Deferred Connection: The Meaning of Temporary Anonymity in the Context of Donor Conception

In the UK, ‘openness’ is increasingly understood to be ‘best practice’ in the context of donor conception. Whilst in past decades, secrecy was the norm, parents through donor conception are now strongly encouraged to tell children about their conception at an early age. In addition, since 2005, all donors in UK clinics must consent to their identity being released to a person conceived from their donation, if requested once they reach the age of eighteen. Contemporary donors therefore understand that they may be traced and contacted in the future; most expect that, if this does happen in the future, they will be contacted by someone who is legally an adult.

In this presentation, I draw on qualitative interview data from the ‘Curious Connections’ study to discuss the ways in which UK egg and sperm donors experience and imagine the possibility of such a deferred connection. For donors, the timing of a face-to-face connection with a donor conceived person was important in shaping and limiting relational possibilities. For many donors, their absence during the donor conceived person’s childhood was an important strategy in managing the social relationships at stake here. In sharing these stories, I hope to provoke a conversation about the relationship between our conceptions of time and the life-course (particularly understandings of childhood) and cultures of kinship. How does the timing of connection shape relational possibilities?

Owen Abbott

Between Embodied Comportment and Reflexivity: Tactful secrecy and the role of mundane reflexivity in moral practice

Drawing on Goffman’s notion of ‘tact’ and ‘teamwork’, this talk builds on arguments that family secrets can be maintained for moral reasons, and will argue that the tactful maintaining of family secrets in interaction is illustrative of a pragmatist-based relational view of how morality is done in practice. This is because the maintenance of family secrets in interaction requires not just embodied comportment to habituated expectations, but also requires a degree of ‘mundane’ and interactively affective reflexivity. Because the tactful sustainment of family secrets occurs in relation to emergent and indeterminate social situations, potentially alongside ‘disruptive’, ‘unfaithful’, or unknowledgeable co-actors, such tactful maintenance often demands the intersubjective alignment and coordination of action through checking, policing, gesturing, and the guiding of conversation. This highlights the limits of approaches that overemphasise pre-reflexive comportment for explaining how morality is engaged with in the flow of interactional practice, and illustrates the requisite role played by mundane reflexivity in such practice.

Vanessa May

Contours of family life as created by the boundaries of sociological attention

This paper is concerned with the conceptual attention that sociologists direct towards family life, and the dimensions of family life that this conceptual framing leaves unattended. In other words, I am interested in what the boundaries of sociological attention are and the gaps in knowledge that these boundaries might create. I focus in particular on the conceptual boundary between public and private and explore the consequences of this for how sociologists conceptualise and empirically study families. To reflect on these questions, I draw from observations of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected family life, drawn mostly from reports in Western media. I propose that this crisis has brought to light the importance of what happens outside the home and of non-familial relationships to the experience of family life, in ways that could help inform future approaches to the study of families.

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Organiser Morgan Centre, Department of Sociology, The University of Manchester

Organiser of Gaps, blanks, distances and secrets: A conversation on connectedness

Since our launch in 2005, the Morgan Centre has established itself internationally as a centre of excellence for research in the fields of personal life, relationships, and everyday life.

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