The following text is a shortened version of the keynote speech given by Andreas Henriksson at the launch event for the Research Network of Singlehood Studies that took place on 16-17 December 2019 in Tampere.
Singles inhabit most parts of society, including most organizations. Some organizations are solely for singles, including singles’ associations and dating sites. When I wrote my dissertation about this latter phenomenon (Henriksson, 2014), following singles on cruises and in their associations, I started to consider the organizational life of singles more generally. It is a huge topic, but I think any exploration must begin by asking: is there is anything special about singles that come to characterize their organizational lives?
A Greek word that St Paul uses in the Bible to describe unmarried people is amerimnos (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). It has been translated as “free of concerns”, but can also mean “able to see the whole”. From a religious point of view, it can mean free of worldly concerns and able to devote oneself to God. But I believe that amerimnos is also quite significant in a secular context.
Some relationships take up a lot of our time. Romantic relationships and parenting may be the most demanding types of relationship in contemporary Western societies. The sociologist Georg Simmel wrote that “almost all relations […] quite naturally, as it were, seem to be on an inclined plane: if they were left to themselves, they would extend their claims over the whole of man” (Simmel 1950, 121). While Simmel failed to recognise that this may be even more true for women, his claim is still quite startling. If we do not build barriers around ourselves, he suggests, our relationships will naturally consume us – our time, our identities and our efforts.
Singles are usually not free of all relationships. Family relations, parenting, friendships and other bonds lay some claim on them. Yet they are free from one of the most demanding types of relationships: the romantic variety. Statistics from several countries suggest that singles, particularly the never-married, have more contact with friends and family than coupled individuals, also when taking categories such as age and gender into consideration (for example see Seccombe and Ishii-Kuntz 1994). Singles are on average freer than others to engage in non-romantic relationships. Amerimnos still applies to them, at least on a general level.
Yet, as the example of St Paul demonstrates, to be free from one type of demanding relationships can make you an easy target for other types – like the one with God, or indeed with an organization. I think this double-edged sword of what we could call relational openness is central to understanding the organizational lives of singles. It can be theorized that particularly in present time, when demanding work organizations also offer intimate collegial networks, not having romantic demands on you can more easily lead to strong identification with an organization.
Some researchers have drawn on the Evolutionary Psychological theory of kin-cue manipulation to understand how people get attached to familial-like organizations, particularly medieval monasteries (Qirko 2004). The argument is that biological beings show solidarity with and affection for family members as a way to preserve their genepool. However, discerning who is kin can be difficult. As a consequence, some species have developed ways of falsely signaling kin-cues to others and in that way secure solidarity and affection.
It is not necessary to turn to Evolutionary Psychology to understand how attractive organizations can be to individuals when presenting themselves as family and their members as siblings, and when offering members leisure time and informal sociality. Yet the kin-cue theory clarifies to what extent this attraction may actually precede cognitive thinking and shape the affective responses people have to such suggestions.
My argument is therefore that there is a direct line between ancient organizations like the monastery and modern ones like the “velvet goldmine” of intimate work organizations (Turner 2009, 80). They convert amerimnos into work and ultimately into capital. When considering the organizational lives of singles, I think this historical and current conversion mechanism, possibly underpinned by kin-cue manipulation, is one important starting point.
Henriksson, Andreas. 2014. Organising intimacy. Exploring heterosexual singledoms at Swedish singles activities. urn:nbn:se:kau:diva-33658
Qirko, Hector. 2004. “Altruistic Celibacy, Kin-Cue Manipulation, and the Development of Religious Institutions.” Zygon 39 (3): 681–706.
Seccombe, Karen, and Masako Ishii-Kuntz. 1994. “Gender and Social Relationships among the Never-Married.” Sex Roles 30: 585–603.
Simmel, Georg. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Edited by Kurt H. Wolff. New York: The Free Press.
Turner, Fred. 2009. “Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production.” New Media & Society 11 (1–2): 73–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444808099575.
Andreas Henriksson is a senior lecturer of Sociology at Karlstad University. His dissertation concerned singles’ activities, while his post-doc project focused on familial brothers and masculinity. He is presently involved in a research project on transnational bachelorhood and one on suicide among men in rural Sweden.