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Sociology of loyalty – Connor

May 4, 2013

Introducing his (incredibly interesting-sounding) study of loyalty, James Connor writes:

Why we engage in what we do is a consuming passion of our existence. Motivations are searched for, discussed, lamented and sometimes even wished away. A range of labels, descriptors, markers, terms, signs and symbols are invoked to explicate the why. This is particularly the case with the cluster of emotion terms that are employed to explain our passions. Riven with anger, driven insane by jealousy, wracked with guilt, leaden with sorrow, twitching with anxiety, tormented by angst—these all speak to the way passion and action are linked or, in other words, how our emotions sign post the world. It is intriguing that we have such a range of emotional states, feelings and passions, that have, to a large extent, gone un-theorised. This is especially the case with specific, individual emotions and their role in social life.

“While some of the emotions or passions have been the subject of academic inquiry and debate, such as shame (Braithwaite, 1989), love (Cancian, 1987) or trust (Misztal, 1996), one, in particular, has a curious absence: loyalty.

If, as Barbalet (2002:2) posits, emotions are central to social action, then the emotions offer a window into the why and how of social interaction. Thus, they are not only a useful means of exploring the social world, but an essential avenue of research. Emotions are also part of the explanation that is offered by social actors for their own behaviours, thoughts and feelings. The use of loyalty is one of those explanations that actors offer, and it encompasses a wide variety of situations, relationships and events. Explicating loyalty builds upon the work already done in establishing the emotions as a prima facie site of social research and investigation. Loyalty is a phenomenon that crosses social time and space and it occurs (or is identified by actors) within micro and macro sociological interactions.” (p.1)

“…the idea of loyalty is applied to a myriad of relationships, from the intensely personal and familial, to the nation-state. It is invoked for family, friends, sports, politics, religion, race, ethnicity, class, locality, interest groups and nations to offer a list spanning a wide variety of social interactions. Why is loyalty invoked across such a diverse set of relationships? Is it merely a heuristic that we have been too lazy to delineate across different social organisations? Or does it capture an aspect that is common to all these relationships—the invisible pull of a particular connection? 

Loyalty is invoked consistently and repeatedly in popular discourse, from newspapers to television drama to parliamentary speeches. The concept is employed to denote such a range of diverse connections and relationships that it appears to be almost too broad a term to have a definitive meaning. Perhaps this encompassing aspect of the concept is why there is such a paucity of analysis and discussion of loyalty.” (p.2)

Discussing prior works on ‘loyalty’, Connor notes that: “Several works deal with the negative side of loyalty, or, more specifically, disloyalty and treason; such as Shain’s (1989) The Frontier of Loyalty: Political Exiles in the Age of the Nation-State and Grodzin’s (1956) The Loyal and the Disloyal: Social Boundaries of Patriotism and Treason.” (pp.2-3) “The individual and loyalty has been dealt with in a number of older works. Bloch’s (1934) The Concept of our Changing Loyalties and Royce’s (1908) The Philosophy of Loyalty offer theoretical explanations of loyalty from the perspective of the individual. Wolff’s (1968) The Poverty of Liberalism offers an explanation of loyalty along two axes, the natural and the contractual. Fletcher (1993) offers a thesis that loyalty is a membership—not a relationship—based entity in his Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships. Some work has also been done on how the concept of loyalty can be abused by those in power. In Loyalty in a Democratic State (1952), edited by Wahlk, the contributors discuss how the US government used loyalty oaths to weed out communist and left-leaning academics and public servants as part of the McCarthy era.” (p.3)

Connor also notes: “My research into understandings of loyalty has been, at times, consumed with fruitless articles and books that take the concept at face value, and all of the underlying responsibilities, reciprocities and relationships as a given.” (p.3) “Thus,” he continues, “the central question that has driven my research is: what is loyalty?” (p.3)

Connor begins “with a defence of my view of loyalty against a particular, and oft repeated, question.” He explains: “It is a comment that I have encountered repeatedly at conferences, in discussions with academics, lay people and from journal reviewers. It follows this general pattern: but loyalty is not even an emotion?! To which I respond: then what is it? A few do offer an alternate explanation; that it is merely a contractual relationship, or just a behaviour, or merely a cognition, or that it is an aspect of other emotions like trust or love but that it, in itself, is not an emotion. Another, perhaps more challenging, contention is that loyalty is merely a signifier of specific inter-relationship feelings, obligations and reciprocities, a cognitive shortcut or heuristic that allows the actor to understand a relationship quickly. The increasing use of the term loyalty in marketing [-p.4] contexts further obscures its meaning, as there is an explicit contractual basis to loyalty in this sphere.

“Thus leads to the key problem of this book: is loyalty an emotion? The initial response is: but it depends upon what you think loyalty is, and then, what an emotion is.” (pp.3-4)

Connor contends “that a sociological view of the emotions appears to be the best theoretical perspective to take in explaining loyalty. In short, this perspective argues that emotions are constructed through and by an actor’s interactions within the social world.” (p.4)

Identifying “an issue that is key to the nature of the evidence that [he] use[s] [- i.e.,] the question of how to find and identify instances of loyalty,” Connor poses the question: “When can a researcher and an actor know that loyalty is involved in a social interaction?” (p.4) “In an attempt to address this difficulty in ‘knowing’,” he continues, “I argue that the behaviours, actions and thoughts that are described as loyalty must fit a certain pattern. This pattern, to summarise, is that the term loyalty must occur and that the occurrence then be tested against the aspects of loyalty that I construct in [Chapter Three].” (p.4)

I hope I’m not over-quoting Connor’s introduction here (may he treat it as advertising!), but he also declares that he will consider the following issues: “what function does loyalty perform? What are the effects of loyalty in relationships and how do we perceive the emotion? The second section of Chapter Three establishes the particular and unusual aspects of loyalty that I will explore with a view to explaining the concept. The first is that loyalty is a layered emotion, by which I mean that it operates at a number of levels within social interaction, from loyalty to family, to friends, church and nation. This peculiar aspect of the emotion makes it quite different from other emotions which have a smaller social footprint. The second is that loyalty is key in furnishing identity, primarily because it denotes membership and belonging. The third is that loyalty motivates action, or to put it into terms in which it can be researched, it is a justification for action, behaviour and cognition. These claims help build an overall picture of what loyalty is and how it functions. I hope that this in depth exploration of loyalty, using an emotions framework informed by popular culture, will further the sociological literature on emotions.” (p.5)  One final issue he addresses is: “is loyalty merely a behaviour? I argue that it is not, particularly in light of the preceding discussions of emotion and loyalty which do indicate the strong likelihood that loyalty can indeed be an emotion.” (p.5)

Giving a brief overview of the case studies he presents in this book, Connor writes: “I start by questioning the common sense notion that family is the prime or original site of loyalty. This leads to the examples and illustrations of family loyalty where I look for evidence of the influence of loyalty and its effects. In one sense family is a strictly defined relationship of blood or marriage (and its equivalents) connection between actors. However, familial nomenclature has also crept into other relationships, including in the military, religion and crime gangs. I explore these relationships for both loyalty and family as a way of exploring if familial loyalty does perform as the prototypical or base form of loyalty. I conclude Chapter Four by discussing the implications of the finding that family loyalty is the quintessential loyalty social site.” (p.6) He then moves to national loyalties, explaining that “This serves as a useful counter-point to familial loyalty as it is at the opposite end of social relationships for scale, yet has remarkable similarities to familial loyalty. The first section looks at the conscription debates in Australia during the World Wars and Vietnam conflict and how loyalty was invoked by both sides of the debate. I then turn to the treatment of migrants in Australia, again to explore how loyalty in this setting is constructed to sometimes exclude the migrant. I then look at how loyalty was used during the McCarthy period in the USA. This allows me to explore how, and for what purpose, national loyalties operate.” (p.6)

Connor also considers sporting loyalty, a study that “furthers [his] analysis of loyalty by showing how loyalty requires an ‘other’ [and] that those within a loyalty relationship will often look to blame those outside the relationship for adverse occurrences.” (p.7)

Finally, Connor considers the loyalties around the long-running TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but acknowledges that: “Astute readers will note the absence of an in depth discussion of employment based loyalty and marketing loyalty. I have consciously decided to exclude these two layers of loyalty as the influence of financial rewards tends to obscure the emotion that can occur. Further, the literature of both fields that purports to deal with loyalty very rarely does. The tendency is to simplistically define loyalty as merely repeat purchase (the marketing literature) or employment longevity (the human resources literature). This explicitly contractual, return based loyalty makes dis-entangling the emotion from the contract exceedingly difficult.” (p.7)

Summing up his stance, Connor writes:

“loyalty is indeed an emotion, and can be classed with other emotions such as shame, trust, pride and love.” (p.8)

“loyalty across the layers of its expression exhibits certain common, fundamental attributes and performs certain tasks within social relationships. These include regulating social intercourse, defining roles, informing identity and giving reason for action.” (p.8)

“when loyalty is invoked, it refers to a specific social interaction that has, at its core, a commonality across social spaces and serves a set of specific purposes.” (p.8)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) James Connor (2007) The sociology of loyalty. New York: Springer Verlag


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