Category Archives: Methodologies


A central output of my research thus far has been the development of a sociological methodology able to address the material and embodied dimensions constitutive to culture. Joining cultural analysts who observe processes of aestheticisation, meaning processes within which people increasingly search for meaning in surrounding themselves with things and settings that first and foremost appeal to their senses, I have questioned the central role symbolic representations and narrative resources still have in mainstream sociological analyses of culture today.

With that I do not want to deny that social life is organised through symbolic interactions. However, there is increasingly, as I and other scholars observe, an element missing or hidden when we talk about what constitutes meaningful human experiences today. Affect-Mood-Meaning is therefor an attempt of extending in a social scientific process the analytical task of ‘reading’ culture towards that of ‘feeling’ its materiality. It seeks to promote ‘arts of noticing’ or an analytical attentiveness towards all those moments and gestures within which things and people resonate with one another.

Charting this endeavour, the central aim of this methodology is outlining moods. They are, to put it simply, reoccurring patterns of affects. They are culturally and historically specific feelings of being that rely on certain spatio-temporal arrangements to emerge and certain deictic gestures direct towards these sites and felt resonances with the world to be organised socially. Doing so moods are, I argue, of similar structural quality as are for instance narratives. Moods provide, so to say, a footing and guiding line in life’s continuity not so much in aligning past and future actions through a certain historization (be that individually in one’s biography or more communal in historical narratives). Much rather do moods provide stability and orientation for people in that they are sensibilities of the now one remembers and thus feels attached and belonging to.

The crucial nuance, however, is that moods do neither really belong to ‘the world’ nor to ‘the social’. Much rather are they the edge through which these two resonate with one another (pulling these distinctions further apart is thus the key difference with similar intellectual projects of Bruno Latour, Karin Knorr-Cetina, or Antoine Hennion who rather opt towards amalgamating them). In order to arrive at and outline this structural dimension, I henceforth sharpen the analytical distinctions between experiential, organisational, and structural spheres. I pull apart the experiential dimension of worldly resonances (affect) and the organisational dimension of gestures and discourses directed towards these felt sensibilities (meaning). Between them I locate moods as structural dimension which is the result of the culturally and historically specific oscillation between experiencing affects and trying to organise and make sense of them.

Doing so culture is now understood as meaning-structure constituted in a historically specific mood or feeling of being – neither unitarily situated in the world’s materiality nor in social subjects, their practices, actions, and knowledge. Herein we are to outline more sharply that culture or meaningfulness is neither part of ‘the world’ nor part of ‘the social’ but only emerges from their interaction. Confronted with this new constitution of culture, we are then able to rethink ideas (such as love, friendship, family, or the home) used to organise life’s meaningfulness more efficiently. To put it differently, we do not have to give up all the resources that organise social life to arrive at a point within which we can emphasise that a meaningful life does not rely on one’s capacity master the world in reading and transcending it historically. Much rather is meaningfulness now framed through as those intimate engagements with socio-material surroundings that offer a sensibility for one’s place in the world.

Specters of immediacy

“Specters of immediacy” aims at highlighting situations, moments, and conditions in which we experience the world immediately. Leaning on the works of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2003), I am concerned with the dimension associated to lived experiences (Erleben). Analytically speaking, lived experiences can be understood as the present experiences of the world after it has been physically perceived through our senses, but before it has been culturally structured and interpreted. These experiences form a kind of closure, a finite and immediate experience of being in the world. Concerning the concept of identity, the sense of one’s place, we could thus understand them as temporarily stable footings (White 2008) in a complex world that heavily relies on mechanisms of stabilization. They form stable footings in which we experience contingency becoming order (Luhmann 2008), in which we are not concerned with reflecting on being somewhere or becoming someone else.

“There is nothing edifying in such moments, no message, nothing that we could really learn from them – and this is why I like to refer to them as ‘moments of intensity.’ For what we feel is probably not more than a specifically high level in the functioning of some of our general cognitive, emotional, and perhaps even physical faculties.” (Gumbrecht 2003: 98).

Gumbrecht calls the dimension associated with such moments presence and contrasts it with the dimension of sense and meaning, which is in dominance in our present media cultures and societies. That it is a dimension in dominance does however not mean that it is an either or between the two. Rather, sense and meaning, engaging the world through interpretation or meta-physically ascribing meaning to objects beyond their physical materiality, form a dimension that historically constituted, and for good reasons, has been centralized in the constitution of our human condition (Gumbrecht 2013). As Helmut Plessner (1981) anthropologically argued, we are today driven by the need of interpretation. Constantly being faced with the question “What is it that’s going on here?” (Goffman 1974), culture emerged as framework providing institutionalized answers to these kinds of questions. In the social constructivist sense, what constitutes us as human beings is therefore rested in the interaction with others (Berger & Luckmann 1966); culture being the shared set of meanings and understandings that emerges from these interactions through the mediation of experiences and negotiation of representations of the world. Being able to differentiate between things being either meaningful or random, giving the world some kind of order and ourselves a place in it, we thus rely not only on the use of culture, but as culture always is a human product, we also rely on the continuous reproduction and reflection of it (Soeffner 2000).

“We can communicate and ‘share experience’ as that which is interpreted and cast into concepts, but lived experience, as that which precedes such interpretation, must remain individual.” (Gumbrecht 2003: 84). If what is immediate to us must remain individual it at the same time must become a potential threat for the stable reproduction of a shared social and cultural order situated in. Not central to our human condition, historically being placed outside, lived experiences only appear ephemerally in form of moments or effects opposed to the dimension of sense and meaning – as sepcters of immediacy coming into the world. Thus inevitably being embedded in continuous processes and situations of meaning making that constitute our life (Abbott 2016, Knorr-Cetina 1988), in their difference they must be either disregarded or appropriated – they have to be dealt with.

There is a broader ongoing debate trying to reintegrate an immediate, a bodily and worldly dimension into the fundamental understanding of our human existence (overviews in Gumbrecht 2003: 54-90 or Reckwitz 2016: 217-230). We can find further attempts in the humanities and social sciences to discuss this dimension in the context of an affective (Halley & Clough 2007), material (Hicks 2010) or practice turn (Schatzki et al. 2001). Scholars like Latour (1993) have not only shown the general potential in overcoming the subject / object paradigm that is underlying our present condition, but also its implications for understanding the social. But still, a material and physical, a bodily and worldly dimension of our existence seems hard to grasp on in the social sciences (Kaldewey 2011).

In trying to contribute to this ongoing debate, “Specters of immediacy” is primarily concerned with looking at the ways lived experiences are dealt with socially and culturally. Instead of using deictic gestures in the way Gumbrecht uses them to outline and make visible the specters of an immediate world, I am concerned with people making sense of these specters. “The first object of social analysis ought, I think, to be ordinary, actual behaviour – its structure and its organization.” (Goffman 1974: 564). What interests me in the first place is thus not the dimension of presence per se, but its appropriation, the organizing principles and structures at work when confronted with specters of immediacy. I am interested in the role of lived experiences in the constitution of our cultures and societies.

To do so, I, at large, follow the stance of ethnographic works. “Whatever else ethnography may be, it is above all a rendering of the actual, a vitality phrased.” (Geertz 1988: 143). In rendering different cultural phenomena, highlighting the situational frames in which moments of lived experiences are situated, I try to grasp onto the organization and structure, the conditions an immediate dimension of reality becomes meaningful in today. Being required to negotiate an analytical position between focusing on individuals and works (Gumbrecht 2006, 2011 or Bachelard 1964), discourses and logics in dominance (Reckwitz 2016), and systemic and structural boundaries at large (Luhmann 2008), ideas of emergence come in useful. Tracing the spectres of immediacy through individual experiences and works, discourses and logics, structures and systems, hence allows us to reconstruct the generative process in upon which things matter to us. Upon which meaningfulness and our culture emerges.

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Gumbrecht, H.U. (2003). Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2013). Historisierung der Beobachtung zweiter Ordnung – eine epistemologische Rahmenerzählung. In P.C. Pawling, A. Mazzucchelli, H.U. Gumbrecht (eds.), Beobachtungen zweiter Ordnung im historischen Kontext. München und Paderborn: Fink, 7-22.
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Reckwitz, A. (2016). Kreativität und soziale Praxis: Studien zur Sozial- und Gesellschaftstheorie. Bielefeld: transcript.
Schatzki, T.R., Knorr-Cetina, K., Savigny, E. (eds.)(2001). The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London: Routledge.
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White, H. (2008). Identity and control. A structural theory of social action. Princeton: Princeton University Press.