Sociability Research Paper

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Sociability is a notion used by historians to apprehend different forms of social relationships, in particular interpersonal bonds that are initiated either consciously or unconsciously in a given context. General distinctions are made, according to their social character, between bourgeois sociability and popular sociability, and, according to the shape it assumes, between formal sociability and informal sociability.

1. Sociological Background

Before historians adopted the term sociability, sociologists had used it in various ways. The first to cite is Georg Simmel, who made the notion of Geselligkeit (sociability) a key concept of his formal sociology. In his Grundfragen der Soziologie (1917), Chapter III is entitled Die Geselligkeit. Beispiel der Reinen oder formalen Soziologie. According to Simmel, sociability is a form of socialization, engendered by interactions exercised among individuals on the basis of reciprocity and equality. This new sociological approach made it possible to shift the emphasis of the axis of a social analysis from the content to the form of the social games.

Another sociologist for whom the notion of sociability was fundamental was Georges Gurvitch. For him, sociability comes under what he calls microsociology. In La vocation actuelle de la sociologie (1950), a chapter is devoted to the microsociological scale where different forms of sociability are dealt with. One significant point is his distinction between organized sociability and spontaneous sociability. This corresponds by and large with the historians’ distinction between formal sociability and informal sociability.

2. Adoption By Historians Of The Notion Of Sociability

Agulhon was the first to use this notion as a key concept in his historical analysis of Provencal society. Agulhon was not inspired directly by the sociological theories mentioned above; their interpenetration came about later little by little. The starting point was his dissertation of 1966, La sociabilite meridionale: Confreries et associations en Provence orientale dans la deuxieme moitie du XVIIIe siecle. In this work, Agulhon threw into relief an extremely dense network of social bonds, given concrete expression at the popular level in the shape of confraternities of penitents, and at the higher level, masonic lodges. He recognized in these phenomena certain characteristics of Provencal society, and called them sociabilite meridionale, or southern sociability. He later extended his research beyond the French Revolution to the midnineteenth century, and discerned at the base of republican movements developing in the villages a strong tradition of southern sociability. In the first half of the nineteenth century it is to be seen at the popular level in the increasing number of associations known as chambrees, and at the higher level in the proliferation of cercles (Agulhon 1970).

These pioneering works by Agulhon reverberated widely among social historians and opened up a new direction in the field of social history. The two following points represent the especial novelty of the notion. (a) Until then, the fundamental categories that constituted the very basis of social history had been the notions of social class and nation. Agulhon introduced a new dimension by adopting an ethnological perspective aimed at penetrating the intimacy of everyday life and discerning there the original social bonds that govern the society in question. (b) Social history in France came into being through criticizing traditional political history—so much so that there was a certain tendency to separate politics from social history. That was also the case with the Annales school until the 1970s. Agulhon, on the other hand, succeeded in reintegrating politics and combining it closely with social studies. In this way, his work inaugurated a new political history, closely linked with political anthropology.

The role played by Agulhon is, therefore, very important, but that does not mean that previous or parallel research in the same field had been lacking, even though they did not make use of the notion of sociability. To begin with, the very early case of Georges Lefebvre must be cited. In his 1932 presentation on the revolutionary crowd to the Semaine de Synthese presided over by Henri Berr (Foules rEvolutionnaires in the Proceedings of the colloquium, 1932), he identified three levels of social grouping: (a) simple (involuntary) crowd; (b) semivoluntary gathering; and (c) (voluntary) assembly.

While the first level corresponds to an amorphous, involuntary crowd, and the third to a body that acts collectively with a common objective and a precise consciousness, like the Revolutionary sans-culottes, the second intermediate level represents people who form a certain community in their everyday lives through activities such as communal work in the fields, Sunday mass, evening meetings, markets or fairs, local festivals, or drinking in taverns, and who are thus imbued with their own collective mentality. By identifying these three levels, Georges Lefebre especially underlined the importance of this second level for correctly apprehending the popular movements of the Revolutionary period. It must be noted that what he here calls ‘semi-voluntary gathering’ is no other than informal sociability.

A similar preoccupation is also to be found among historians contemporary with Agulhon. Yves Castan, for example, succeeded in discerning the social bonds that affect ordinary people in southwest France, by discovering the systems of codes that determine their behavior (Honnetete et relations sociales en Languedoc au XVIIIe siecle, 1974). Without actually using the word sociability, and without any prior contact with the work of Agulhon, this study by Castan was inspired by the same concerns and remains a classic of the history of popular sociability.

For sociability in the upper levels of society, one of the best examples is presented by Roche. In his doctoral dissertation, he studied some 2,500 provincial academics who constituted a cultural network of their own. Here is another instance of a classic study of sociability without actually using the term (Roche 1978).

3. Acceptance Of The Notion Of Sociability In French Historiography

The term sociability proposed by Agulhon in his first book was favorably accepted by historians such as Philippe Aries, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and Daniel Roche, exceeding even the writer’s expectations. Vovelle, who compiled in 1980 a survey of the previous ten years’ research on southern sociability, concluded: ‘Sociability, a notion contrived or rediscovered over ten years ago, has entered the ranks of those supporting concepts needed by the history of mentalities in any attempt to define the collective realities on which it faces’ (Vovelle 1982). Agulhon himself revised and refined this theme on various occasions. Other historians also undertook parallel studies, first within the framework of the Mediterranean, and later crossing those frontiers that had initially been assumed. Witness is borne by Guitton, whose book extended the horizons of investigation to villages throughout France, and discovered in northern France, too, intensely real-life social bonds that would constitute a village sociability (Guitton 1979).

As fast as research proceeded, discussion arose around Agulhon’s initial hypothesis. Above all, criticism concerned the following two points. (a) While Agulhon considered the density and vivacity of associative life as one of the special features of Provencal life or at most the regions of the south, other researchers such as Guitton, Michel Bozon, or JeanLuc Marais demonstrated that the phenomenon exceeded the boundaries of Provence, and that the notion of sociability was also applicable to other regions. (b) While distinguishing between the two levels of sociability, namely informal (spontaneous) sociability and formal (organized) sociability, Agulhon attached importance to the evolution from the former to the latter, this latter being the very basis of associative life. Vovelle, however, believes that informal sociability retains a vague but persistent existence, without necessarily taking on any institutional form. Agulhon himself, in his later articles, revised his initial position. He admitted in part that the notion of sociability was operative on a general plan beyond regional temperament. He also acknowledged that informal sociability had a being of its own and played an important role, especially at the popular level (Agulhon 1976, 1986).

Thus, since the 1970s, sociability has been an honored bastion of social history, alongside the history of mentalities or the history of everyday life (see the excellent survey in Francois and Reichardt 1987). Increasing numbers of monographs have appeared on a wide variety of themes. At the level of informal sociability, different social activities have been studied, both for villages and for urban environments, for example, collective work in the fields, community’s assembly, taverns, evening meetings (veillees), rough music (charivari), carnivals or feasts, youth groups, markets and fairs, pilgrimages, games, and divertissements. All of these activities are supposed to favor a spontaneous sociability, not organized but having organic life (J-P. Guitton, R. Muchembled, N. Pellegrin, M. Bozon). In the urban framework, neighborhoods and the social life in a street or a city quarter have been brought into relief, rather than the municipal institutions that used to be studied by classical urban historians (see Farge 1979). Confraternities and chambrees, which Agulhon showed to be so important, now constitute a major theme of research in popular sociability.

As far as formal sociability itself is concerned, what counts above all is the sociability of the bourgeois middle classes or of the intellectual elite. Apart from freemasonry and the provincial academies mentioned earlier, objects of study include local activities of literary or other erudite people, societies of all kinds, as well as less closed locations frequented by less elevated social strata: cafes or reading clubs (Roche, Jean-Pierre Chaline, Eric Saunier, D. Goodman).

For research as a whole, the Association for Research in Sociability (ARS) at the University of Rouen has made a valuable contribution in its wide perspective of current research. The themes chosen for colloquia that have been organized there display a wide variety of work in progress (ARS 1987, 1989, 1992, 1997).

4. Beyond French Historiography: Influence Or Coincidence

For Germany and Switzerland, it is a case more of coincidence than of influence. In 1983, Francois organized an important Franco–German colloquium on sociability. According to him, ‘The study of the facts of sociability and of associative life has become one of the most fertile fields for study in the new history,’ but ‘this parallel discovery—or re-discovery—of sociability as an object of historical research and the resulting profusion of studies have come about in France, as in Germany, in almost complete ignorance of inquiries being carried out at the same instant by historians in the neighboring country’ (Francois 1986). A stinging comment. He also points out that German historians were concentrating on institutionalized associations (Vereinswesen), while their French counterparts were interested rather in all forms of sociability (Geselligkeit), in particular the informal sociability. This contrast between two neighboring cultural zones is also confirmed by Otto Dann in his presentation to the Franco–German colloquium. He attributes the contrast not to national temperaments, but to the difference in historical conditions experienced by the two countries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In any case he insists that henceforth for both Germany and France there is a primordial necessity to carry out parallel and joint research on these two complementary dimensions of sociability (Francois 1986).

In Germany in the eighteenth century, a process of transition in upper-class sociability took place from the aristocracy or the court to the rising middle classes. There was a clear increase in numbers of associations such as academies, scientific societies, musical or literary societies, reading circles, masonic lodges, student associations. Also in the nineteenth century a transference is to be observed from bourgeois sociability to the working-class sociability. Workers’ educational associations were set up on the initiative of middle-class leaders, and working-class movements for political mobilization came into being. The end of the nineteenth century, with the rise in the consciousness of Germany as a single nation, saw the formation on a national scale of new organizations for sport, for soldiers, and so on. One feature of these associations is that women were excluded. As a result, from 1848 onward, women began setting up their own associations to campaign for their rights to education, and indeed the right to vote.

Because of its importance in the country’s cultural, social, and even political life, this kind of institutionalized sociability (Vereinswesen) has long been a focus of interest for German historians (Dann 1984, Siebert 1993). But recently they have begun to show interest in another kind of sociability, which is rather less formal and less rigidly organized, as in family or neighborhood ties. Family celebrations, dinner parties, balls, coffee house circles, and family concerts are in their turn being studied from the point of view of sociability. Historians are also examining the blurred boundaries between public and private, and including in their work the problems posed by gender history. It is in this direction that the current of the history of everyday life is flowing (see Ludtke 1989). Here this new orientation in German historiography can be seen converging with the preoccupations of the French historical anthropology.

The contribution of Swiss historians is important, too. The work of Im Hof not only for Switzerland but also for Europe in the Enlightenment is well known (Im Hof 1982). In his presentation to the FrancoGerman colloquium mentioned previously, he stresses the liveliness and the density of associative life in Switzerland. During the first half of the nineteenth century there was a blossoming of associations of widely varied types: not only artists, musicians, historians, or students, but also gymnasts, marksmen, and singers banded together in associations. He points out, too, a boom in explicitly democratic sociability, but with a strong patriotic and national inclination—a predominant Swiss characteristic (Francois 1986).

In the Anglo-Saxon world, the term sociability as a historical notion is not very frequent, but there are certain currents in research which have clearly been inspired by the history of sociability. At the level of informal sociability, neighborhood has become an appealing theme for urban historians: the London suburbs of the seventeenth century and the local community in eighteenth-century Paris have been admirably well analyzed (Boulton 1987, Garrioch 1986). The bonds of sociability in taverns are also considered an essential element of popular culture (Brennan 1988). In this way the approaches of English social history concur with those of French historians of sociability. On the other hand, at the level of the history of ideas, a perceptive study by Gordon points up the correlations between egalitarian-minded associations and the formation of the public sphere (Gordon 1994). This important problem of the public sphere should be further examined in close connection with social practices.

In the Mediterranean world, the influence of French historiography is more strongly felt. In Italy, Gemelli and Malatesta compiled a volume of extracts from 10 or so major articles in the history of sociability, with a substantial Introduction which succeeds in locating the ‘adventures’ of sociability in the current of contemporary French historiography (Gemelli and Malatesta 1982). It should be noted that Italian microstoria and the new French history share many of their concerns. The works of Levi (1985) or Cerutti (1990) are good examples of this. Moreover, for analyzing urban societies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Italian historians propose the notions of parenti (family), amici (friends), and vicini (neighbors) as elements of the social network. These are very suggestive of the point of view of sociability.

Similarly, outside the Western world, new currents in historical research are to be seen. In Japan, for example, the immediate postwar years saw the birth of a powerful current of social science history which, strongly influenced by Marxism, tried to analyze Japanese society based almost exclusively on the notions of social class and nation-state. For criticizing the nationalistic historians, who had been dominant during the War, or the traditional pure positivists, these concepts worked well and made it possible to propose a structural vision of the history of Japan. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, this unidimensional viewpoint proved too categorical and not capable of explaining the sociocultural background of Japanese history. And the rapid, unexpected transformation of Japanese society after the War made it necessary to reconsider the framework of social analysis. Therefore, since the 1970s, a new current in historical research is to be observed which, endowed with a multidimensional viewpoint, tries first to define history as lived by the people in their everyday lives and from there to approach economic or political aspects in order to reformulate the mechanisms by which Japanese society functions. It is in these new circumstances that notions of mentalities and of sociability have been integrated into Japanese historical research. A colloquium organized in Tokyo in 1994 by Hiroyuki Ninomiya on ‘Different forms of social ties, or to what extent can the notion of sociability operate’ was one outcome of these efforts (see Ninomiya 1995). In this way the notion of sociability has become operative even in the fields of Japanese history. The same endeavors are being followed up for other Asian regions.

5. Perspectives

The notion of sociability remains ambiguous. But despite its ambiguity, or rather because of its vagueness, it has been able to play a heuristic role, just like the notion of mentalities (see Le Goff 1974). Thus, it has opened up a new perspective in social history. To be sure, there are some important gaps to be filled in actual research.

(a) In general, formal (organized) and informal (spontaneous) sociability are treated separately even now. The connection and the interference between these two aspects of sociability must be elucidated.

(b) There is a certain tendency to consider sociability in isolation. Originally, sociability was about openness, exchange, communication. It would be interesting to look at it from the point of view of network and strategy theory, and to exchange problems.

(c) The relations between sociability and the creation of public sphere should be reconsidered not only at the level of bourgeois sociability and its associations, but also at the level of popular sociability, without detaching the public sphere from everyday life.


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