A Memorial sociologist plans to shine light on an organization that he believes has been misrepresented as secretive, even shadowy. This fall, Dr. Scott Kenney begins a research project to examine how individual Freemasons use Masonic symbolism, and what they derive from their affinity with the organization.
“I’m interested in how people in small groups use symbols to draw out meaning and significance,” he said. That aligns perfectly, he noted, with Freemasonry, which uses the metaphor of a stone mason and a complex set of symbols to explore big questions about life and the universe. “The symbols are, by design, multifaceted with a number of interpretations, so one can construct various moral or personal meanings.”
Dr. Kenney, who became a Freemason himself in 1999, says studying the modern state of the centuries-old fraternal organization will take him into uncharted territory. While some sociological studies were done in relation to the 18th and 19th centuries, virtually nothing more current exists. “What there is tends to be over-generalized, and all of it is very dated,” he said.
Worse, he said, a lot of what’s been written outside academia about the Freemasons is misleading, even crazy. “There are so many myths and misperceptions. So many things are said about Freemasons. I’m interested in hearing what they have to say about what it means to them,” Dr. Kenney explained. He noted that no one person speaks for the Freemasons. “It’s a group in which there is really no ‘official line.’”
Dr. Kenney, whose previous research has focused on deviant behaviour and victims of crime, has secured funding of over $33,000 for two years from the Research Development Initiative of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and additional funds from Memorial. He will use the funds to convene discussion groups of Freemasons in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, where there are about 6,000 and 2,000 members respectively.
He hopes his project, Ritual Construction of Symbolism in Meaning – Freemasons in a Post-Modern World, will dispel misconceptions about what has been called a secret society. “Freemasons say ‘It’s not a secret society – it’s a society with secrets,” he said. Most of the secrecy has to do with ways of recognizing one another, and much of that results from past persecution by dominant religious and political elites.
Dr. Kenney also stressed that Freemasonry is not a religion – nor is it opposed to any religion – though it does include spiritual elements. In fact, believing in some supreme being is one of the requirements to join.
He believes there are diverse reasons for becoming a Freemason. Some members seek an opportunity to examine their lives on a moral and spiritual plane, while others want to socialize or fulfill their charitable goals. However, despite a common assumption, he said joining to leverage business or social connections is not regarded favourably among the fraternity.
Out of his research, Dr. Kenney hopes to write a book. He’s not alone in pursuing the subject matter: DaVinci Code author Dan Brown has recently penned a novel about the Freemasons.
Whether Mr. Brown’s book will be accurate or lead to greater misunderstandings, Dr. Kenney thinks it could lead to resurgence in the Freemasons, an organization that once attracted wide spectrum of free-thinkers, from Voltaire to Benjamin Franklin, but which has seen membership decline since the 1960s.