23 Jan

Affinities

Posted By Polity_Admin_User

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Why does a woman who discovers relatives she never knew she had, feel so moved when she recognises a family resemblance with them, and how is it that family resemblances can feel uncanny, or spooky, or even magical? What is happening when someone feels an affinity with a place, or with the weather, or the environment, or with things and objects? What is going on when a person is almost literally transported to a different time and place by a chance encounter with a smell or texture or a song? What is the role of sensations in how we know and relate to others and the world around us? How should we understand it when someone feels moved or even overwhelmed by an atmosphere that they would be hard put to explain because it seems to be at the same time palpable yet intangible, manifest yet enigmatic?

In each of these examples, and others like them, there is something powerful going on that is not easily explained by conventional sociological or social scientific approaches. Potent connections are being made that are sometimes hard to describe but are powerfully experienced, viscerally and personally. In the book I argue that these are affinities. Affinities are connections that are searing and affecting, and that means they can be toxic and fearful just as much as they can be enchanting and joyous. Although affinities are by no means all about kinship, they are charges of connection that move us personally and feel kindred to us in some way. Most importantly, affinities are living and sometimes capricious energies rather than static qualities or forms of association. Sometimes they arise in our everyday active processes of wondering, of being mystified and of not knowing the answers. They can take shape as a ‘frisson’ – an exciting or tantalising breach in our routine ways of understanding, and I argue that such wonderings and frissons can be appealing and beguiling, or indeed troubling and disconcerting. Whatever, they are always potent.

Getting attuned to affinities means being willing to perceive these lively energies without reifying or categorising them into something that is easier to sociologise, and in writing the book I felt I needed to use an unconventional style and structure to help this process along. So the book does not contain formal chapters but instead is an interplay between a selection of different ‘facets’ of affinities, and a cumulatively layered argument around the themes of: ‘sensations of living’, ‘ineffable kinship’, ‘ecologies and socio-atmospherics’, and ‘affinities in time’.

I created the particular facets and layers of argument used in the book to give insights into the possibilities and potencies of affinities – even to tantalise the reader – but I wasn’t trying to document everything there is to say about them or to have the last word. I included a range of sources – from arts and literature, current affairs, broadcast media, poetry, music, academic research and creative and autobiographical writing – because I think these express or illustrate something important or resonant about the energies and character of affinities. I argue for example that sometimes a poetic or lyrical register is needed if we are to attune to affinities, not simply because these best represent or illustrate affinities, but because the very character of the energies that are affinities is poetic or atmospheric. In truth, some affinities seem to insist on a poetic appreciation.

I wrote the book because it seemed to me that although affinities clearly matter, they somehow slip through the fingers of conventional sociological ways of seeing and understanding, partly because they are somewhat ineffable, intangible and atmospheric. I felt that if we could become sociologically attuned to affinities, this might even be enlightening and potentially liberating in unexpected ways. I was hopeful, in writing the book, that readers would see Affinities as an invitation to be curious and to see and think differently. In focussing on the living energies and enigmas of connective forces I wanted affinities to act as a beckoning, a suggestion or an orientation, but not a categorical insistence or a dogma or a treatise. Of course I would be delighted if readers felt inspired, or tantalised or intrigued enough to try turning an affinities approach or orientation onto their own fields (and their own personal lives for that matter), to see where it took them and what new questions and ideas might emerge.


Jennifer Mason
is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. Her book, Affinities: Potent Connections in Personal Life, is now available from Polity.