Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with J. Scott Kenney

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J. Scott Kenney

Freemasonry has played a significant role in as a social history, but few non-members know much about the organization's history and operations, often lumping it into the media-hyped category of "secret societies".

J. Scott Kenney's Brought to Light: Contemporary Freemasonry, Meaning, and Society (Wilfrid Laurier University Press) explores the organization's contemporary significance in a sociological context. Through interviews with freemasons, documentary footage, and his own experiences as a freemason, Kenney has created a unique text that moves beyond the
history of the Masons to delve into how an ancient society remains relevant today.

We speak to Scott today about what first drew him to Freemasonry, misconceptions about the organization, and the Masons' role in Canadian society today.

Open Book:

What led you to write this book now? How did you become interested in Freemasonry, both as a member and a scholar?

J. Scott Kenney:

Actually, I've been working on this book since late 2006, but its roots reach back before my initiation in 1999. I was first drawn to Freemasonry in grad school when I would walk by the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Hamilton and wonder what went on there. Then there is family history, being a third generation Mason. You could add my interest in philosophy and esoteric spiritual traditions like neoplatonism, hermeticism, and kabbalah. Finally, there is my background in sociology, more specifically symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, and classical theory. Upon initiation, I was struck by something obvious. I saw unfolding before my eyes an organization stressing carefully coordinated ritual actions, combined with complex, multilayered symbolism, to socially construct meaning for members. The desire to conduct a study was born. After all, how could I resist utilizing a sociological approach, which emphasizes the pragmatic construction of meaning through symbolic actions, as a way of studying an organization that utilizes symbolic, ritualized actions to construct meaning?

I soon discovered that prior sociological work on Freemasonry was problematic in two ways: (1) it emphasized macro-level structural dynamics filtered through today’s preoccupations with race, class and gender. While important, too little stress was placed on the likely more diverse, pragmatic constructions of meaning engaged in by members; (2) it focused on the past. Little had been done on the meanings that Freemasons construct today, despite vast social changes throughout the twentieth century — particularly since the 1960s. Such major theoretical and empirical gaps suggested a crying sociological need to investigate the world of contemporary Freemasons.

OB:

Are there misconceptions about Freemasonry that you would want to correct? How have outside perceptions of the organization changed over time?

JSK:

Misconceptions? Freemasonry is not a secret society. Its buildings are clearly marked, many members wear identifying symbols, and you can buy the ritual in bookstores. Secret societies don't do that as they usually don't want others to know what they are up to. We are open about our charitable work and so on. The only things we personally swear not to reveal are our signs of recognition — and even these can be found online.

Another misconception is the idea that we are about engaging in nepotism. First, that is frowned upon in the order (e.g. I know people who joined for that reason and left disappointed). Second, while nepotism may occur at times, it happens in many other organizations as well without so much fuss. Finally, involvement takes time, involves initiation fees, dues, and learning the ritual. As one respondent put it: “There's no insurance salesman in the world who would think it was a good investment of time to join Masonry for that.”

Then there are all the lurid tales about us being a pagan cult, part of the "New World Order," an "old man's club," anti-woman, etc. The fact is, Freemasonry accepts people of all faiths. It just avoids specific theologies. Second, if you think Masons control the world, I'd worry as I've witnessed meetings with lengthy arguments over what to serve for dinner at a function. Third, the Craft has seen something of an influx of younger, more diverse members, especially in urban areas. As for gender, in many countries there are female only orders, mixed orders, and male orders. The emphasis is on involving one's family in events, and I have seen much charitable work directed at raising money for things like shelters, single mothers, etc.

Sadly, perceptions haven't changed. Thus, documentary film footage discussed in my book involved random people on the street being asked about Freemasonry. With few exceptions, there was either complete ignorance or a lot of these old stereotypes.

OB:

Do you think people are becoming disillusioned with these types organizations now? If so, why?

JSK:

I talk about this in my book. On the outside, research on civic participation in community organizations shows not so much the decline claimed by Robert Putnam as a changing form of civil involvement. Many large, formal organizations are declining, particularly those with a religious focus. On the other hand, more short term, expressive, identity based movements are quite active.

As for members, I spend three whole chapters plus my conclusion talking about factors respondents feel either encourage or disillusion Masonic involvement. This was a much bigger issue for respondents than I expected.

OB:

Media depictions of "secret societies" tend to be fairly negative and highly dramatic. Why do you think this is so often the case?

JSK:

Because it sells books, magazines, movies, and provides the raison d'etre for websites that feed conspiracy theories and promote simple answers to our complex, incohesive, conflicted world today.

OB:

How would you describe the role of Freemasons in Canadian culture and history?

JSK:

This is a huge topic. The founder of my home town was a Mason. Six Canadian Prime Ministers between MacDonald and Diefenbaker were Masons. Members have made great (often uncredited) contributions to industry, philanthropy, education, charity, the cultural community, and so on — in virtually any community in Canada. Yet, as I note in my book, there has been a relative democratization of the Craft in the past half century or so, and it is now much less an elite thing compared to the past. Nevertheless, Freemasonry's contributions continue.

OB:

Do you feel that the Freemasons continue to provide social utility, and if so, how?

JSK:

In Chapter 7 I outline in detail how respondents report: (1) expanded social contacts and (2) a multifaceted, meaningful experience of a brotherhood that provides a sense of connection and community in our increasingly anomic, atomized society. I then turn to outline typical positive impacts on their character and abilities claimed by respondents, specifically those relating to: (1) morality; (2) tolerance; (3) altruism (4) confidence; (5) memory; and (6) inquisitiveness.

OB:

What will you be working on next?

JSK:

I'm just figuring that out now. Being an academic is much like being an actor: the danger is being typecast. I get bored easily. Thus I tend to go deep into an issue and then finish my statement on it. Thus, I consider my first book, Canadian Victims of Crime, my personal take on that issue, and I feel the same about this.

Currently, I'm considering building on my concept of "illegitimate pain," which emerged out of the sociologies of deviance, emotion, and health. However, I would like to turn it in a more political direction, moving into looking at contemporary processes and consequences of "silencing" or "closeting" those with unpopular views. I suspect this will work into another long term project, another book in the future.


J. Scott Kenney is an associate professor of sociology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He completed his B.A. (1984) and LL.B. (1987) at Dalhousie University. After practising law, he earned his M.A. (1993) and Ph.D. (1999) at McMaster University. He conducted SSHRC Postdoctoral research at Dalhousie (1999–2000) and taught at St. Mary’s University (2001–2004) before taking up his current appointment.

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