Information Literacy Librarian, Saint Martin’s University
As librarians, one of our many hats could be expressed as “identity formers.” At first glance, this may seem like a grandiose claim, but if we look at aspects of our profession in light of Georg Simmel’s concept of the web of group-affiliations, we can see that we do play such an important role. Simmel was a late nineteenth-century, early twentieth-century German sociologist and philosopher who wrote on such broad topics as the history of philosophy, philosophy of money, and social structure. One of his influential shorter works, “The Web of Group-Affiliations,” published in 1922, can be used as lens through which we can look at how librarianship affects identity formation.
Simmel points out that an individual’s identity is initially imposed on them through the “web of circumstances” of family and other heterogeneous groups, such as religious and geographical communities (p. 331). The family is the primal group-affiliation, obviously, but as the individual grows, he or she “establishes for himself [or herself] contacts with persons who stand outside this original group-affiliation,” but these first forays into non-familial affiliations tend to be with persons that are still somewhat similar to the individual (p. 331). Affiliations like family, religion, and geography constitute organic affiliations since they arise “naturally” and lay claim on the individual without the individual’s own efforts and consent. These affiliations are, according to Simmel, “sensual” (p. 331), meaning tied to what one experiences with the senses, and are also marked by “self-interest” and emotion, or a “mixture of both” (p. 334).
If we think of information as a kind of basis for community, connecting disparate individuals, we can see that it operates in similar ways to the webs of group-affiliation that Simmel writes about. Patrons have their first information webs imposed on them through family, religion, social class, ethnicity, neighborhood, country, etc. This gives them their initial worldview. The individual experiences this worldview as “natural,” marked by sensuality, emotion, and self-interest. Information, in this state often seems to be judged by how it “feels” or how it supports or contradicts the given worldview.
Group-affiliations, though, grow beyond these initial affiliations when they become defined by “purpose [by] factual considerations, or, if one will, [by] individual interests” (p. 331). At this point, individual interests are those interests the individual gravitates towards by choice, although compulsion from parents, friend, religious leaders, etc. may also play a role. These associations are “formed by objective criteria” and “constitute a superstructure which develops over and above those group-affiliations which are formed according to natural, immediately given criteria” (p. 333). In contrast to the organic affiliations, these affiliations are more rational in nature because the individual can choose to cultivate or ignore them. These wider contexts expand the individual’s world by putting him or her in contact with people and ideas that lie outside the contexts of family, religion, and geography. Simmel observes that these affiliations “[tend] to enlarge the sphere of freedom” because the individual begins to choose “with whom one affiliates and upon whom one is dependent”; these wider contexts allow for and even encourage or demand change and make it “possible for the individual to make his [or her modified] beliefs and desires felt” (p. 3330).
As an example of interest affiliation, Simmel discusses the emergence of Renaissance humanism as a competing form of affiliation to the medieval worldview, which was based primarily on religion and emotion. The emergence of humanism coincided with the development of non-theological “academic” education, and the “independence of the intellect” (p. 333). Humanists’ commitment to the life of the intellect, their “restless” and “adventurous spirit,” made them “indifferent to all other obligations usually incumbent” on individuals in the medieval world and engendered different forms of social interaction, embracing “the poor scholar and the monk, the powerful General and the brilliant Duchess, in a single framework of intellectual interests” (p. 333). Such affiliations would likely not have arisen in the pre-humanist world. He refers to such affiliations as “secondary groups,” and are more “rational” in character since the “substantive purpose of these group [was] the result of conscious reflection and intelligent planning,” rather than the happenstances of birth and geography (p. 334). These broader affiliations of interest contribute to the individual’s sense of identity because they are more elective and each individual’s “pattern of participation is unique; hence the fact of multiple group-participation creates in turn a new subjective element” (p. 334). Thus, the individual creates a sense of separate selfhood through his or her particular web, or combination, of group-affiliations.
An important part of these group-affiliations is the information associated with that affiliation. A person affiliated with golf and the stock market will have a qualitatively different set of knowledge from somebody else who affiliates with quilting and community service, for example. Different worlds require different information and knowledge; thus, in the spirit of Simmel’s analysis, our patrons are, in part, unique because of their unique combinations of knowledge. As librarians, we help facilitate our patrons’ interactions with multiple large information and knowledge domains, thus playing a role in their emerging unique “pattern of participation” in the world. This understanding should cause us to consider how we contribute to the emerging identities of our patrons. Do we encourage their agency, their ability to explore and more deeply engage with their information worlds? Do we consider how the information and knowledge we help our patron’s to discover enmeshes them in oppressive or liberating information worlds or contexts? Once we understand how our work contributes to the development of our patrons’ identities, our reference and instruction activities should take on a new sense of significance. In helping patrons access specific books, articles, DVDs, etc. we are in a material way contributing to their sense(s) of selfhood. How are we doing? Are we reifying systems and structures of oppression? Are we encouraging open inquiry and exploration? Enormous questions, to be sure, but ones we need to ask over and over again, even and especially when the answers may be uncomfortable.
Simmel, G. (1998). ‘The web of group-affiliations’. In M. S. Kimmel & C. Stephen (Eds.), Social and political theory: Classic readings (pp. 331–341). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
2. Simmel’s reading of the medieval and Renaissance worlds is a bit simplistic here, of course, but his point that broader group-affiliations allow for broader social interaction does seem to hold.