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Webs of Meaning

Mary P Corcoran

Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland: Webs of Significance, by Tom Inglis, Palgrave Macmillan, 272 pp, ISBN: 978-1349491711

It was the classical sociologist Max Weber who argued that we should think of humans primarily as interpretive beings. We manage our existence largely by conferring meaning on the world around us. Interpretive frameworks (or world views) play a significant role in motivating humans to engage in purposeful actions. Our beliefs, dispositions and imaginative potential have a shaping role in the constitution of society, broadly defined.

Tom Inglis, in his latest contribution to the Irish sociological canon, sets out very deliberately to capture how Irish people –as interpretive beings ‑ understand and respond to the world around them. This is accomplished through eliciting narrative accounts from the eponymous Irish man and woman, accounts which are expertly woven through the text, providing rich, reflexive and often poignant evidence of the joys and vicissitudes of everyday life. In particular, he sets out to demonstrate how it is through the acts of talking and listening to others, recounting stories and eliciting responses that we produce a “daily interactive communicative process that reaffirms people’s sense of themselves and gives meaning to their lives”. Crucially, Inglis pays attention not just to the manifest and visible rational purposive action of his respondents; he is also deeply attuned to the more visceral, latent and frequently less articulated realm of affective action.

Approaching his subject matter from a dialectical standpoint, Inglis sees culture as simultaneously providing a map for interpretation and navigation of the world, while also acting as a resource which can be used to create and sustain meaning with each other. Culture is the currency used to confront our existential angst, to create meaning, to shape and reshape our identities and to reproduce position, power and influence. By privileging culture as an explanatory variable (perhaps to the point of overdetermination), Meanings of Life provides a welcome counterpoint to the economistic analyses and commentaries which dominated in the wake of the crash.

While the dramatis personae that emerges from the empirical data collection is compelling, the database itself has some structural weaknesses. The purposive (and therefore not representative) sample of 100 people is drawn from an inner-city Dublin neighbourhood, a suburbanising village in Greater Dublin, a small village in the West of Ireland, a large rural town and a third-level college campus. We are not told how many people were interviewed in each location. Those interviewed were 90 per cent Catholic (or raised as Catholic) and 91per cent Irish-born. More than 50 per cent of the sample is drawn from the upper middle and middle class. Whatever about arguments that we are all middle class nowadays, the sample frame does not adequately capture the country’s social and ethnic diversity. Part of the contemporary Irish story is therefore missing.  

We are presented with an indicative portrait of the lived experience of Irish men and women through a conventional lens (family, work, politics, religion, sport). The findings largely confirm what we know already from existing systematic sociological research on, for instance, suburban life and culture, life in social housing complexes, the Irish family, life history and social change, the Growing Up in Ireland study and the Irish Longitudinal study of Ageing. In general, these works are not referenced in the text.

People are deeply attached to the places in which they live (or previously lived) and are embedded in local familial networks. Despite the growing complexity of family life, Inglis finds that family in Ireland is highly stable. Familial stability is repeatedly cited as a key factor in Ireland’s perennially high ranking in international quality of life surveys. The connectedness and empathic cross-generational bonds between Irish family members (even despite dispersion through migration and emigration), were surely major factors in the resounding vote in favour of marriage equality in 2015. Far from undermining family values in Ireland, the outcome of that referendum testified to the enduring strength of the family institution. The themes of family and the importance of family life seep into the chapter on Money and Success, though Inglis found a strong gender divide, with men more likely to relate success to work and money acquisition and women more likely to focus on relationships.

Ireland has been unusual in recent history in that economic crisis has not led to an attendant political upheaval. Inglis draws on his interview data to produce a typology of Irish political positioning which includes: party people (for whom politics is almost entirely instrumental and devoid of ideology); intellectuals and radicals (for whom there is a moral imperative to protest); traditional voters (minimally engaged in politics) and the sceptical and alienated (whose views are fundamentally anti-politics). This typology is compelling and worthy of further investigation. In the chapter on religion we are offered another typology of Catholic religious practice which characterises Irish Catholic orientations as orthodox, cultural, creative or disenchanted. Inglis observes that privatisation and individualisation in everyday life is linked to a fragmentation of Catholic orthodoxy, disillusionment with the Church and, in some instances, active resistance. Much of this we know already from his earlier seminal work. The heavily Catholic profile of the sample results is a lost opportunity to investigate religion among the section of the population which is non-Catholic. If religion and politics are fading as sources of self-identify and belonging, then sport is coming to the fore. Inglis suggests that “sport has become a major ingredient that they use to create and maintain identities, to form bonds of belonging, and to spin webs of meaning in their lives”.

Inglis is drawn to the conclusion that his respondents largely remain suspended in webs of meaning, sustained by the love, care and concerns of others. This finding is not all that remarkable given the wealth of sociological research in Ireland which testifies to high levels of family stability, a powerful sense of place attachment and belonging and enmeshment in networks of social support. Inglis is to be complimented for bringing the reality of those webs of meaning into sharp relief. He captures poignant testimony on how people express love, not through schmaltzy declarations but by quietly and unceremoniously doing for others. The ethic of care is never far from the surface. Inglis also picks up on the significance of pets in everyday lives. Pets are deeply implicated in the activities of households and in the rhythm and flow of household everyday life. They offer companionship and distraction. The significance of animal-social relations is a topic somewhat underdeveloped in the sociological literature and is deserving of more attention.

The strength of this book lies in the individual narrative portraits which are skilfully and sensitively woven through the analysis. Inglis offers a close reading and interpretation of the webs of meaning that infuse everyday life, against the backdrop of the dialectical tension between notions of individual agency and the shaping effects of structural processes. If there is a weakness in the analysis, it lies in the reluctance to link the indicative findings to other published research in Irish sociology which has pointed toward similar conclusions (and is based on more orthodox social science methodologies). Some themes remain tantalisingly below the surface and could have been excavated to greater effect. For example, what spills off these pages is the humour and banter of the respondents. The capacity to make light of things through laughter and to make others laugh is part of the cultural currency used in the accomplishment of everyday life. A chapter on humour as a significant web of meaning would have been intriguing, but perhaps Inglis is saving that for his next book.

01/12/2016

Mary P. Corcoran is Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology Maynooth University.  She holds a doctorate from Columbia University, New York and her research interests are primarily in the fields of Irish migration, urban sociology and public culture.

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