Research Report 2007

Studying Freemasons in a post-modern world

After years of researching deviant behaviour and victims of crime, sociologist Dr. Scott Kenney was ready to change direction and after years as a Freemason, he knew just where he wanted to head.

"Research is kind of like acting you can get typecast," he joked. "I wanted to look at something new, something that hadn't been studied before."

Dr. Kenney, who became a Freemason himself in 1999, realized that the centuries-old fraternal organization offered an opportunity to explore virgin terrain. 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."

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."

While the subject matter is a change, Dr. Kenney has long been pursuing studies in "social interactionism."

"I'm interested in how people in small groups use symbols to draw out meaning and significance." 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 conceived a research project that would examine how individual members use the Masonic symbolism, and what they derive from their affinity with the organization.

RDI or Research Development Initiative is a fund established by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to foster the early stages of a project, especially when a researcher wants to move into uncharted territory.

"The RDI occupies an important niche for people beginning to put together a program of research," says Dr. Larry Felt, Sociology, who stepped down from the adjudication committee this year after serving four years. The fund provides up to $40,000 for one or two years, which Dr. Felt calls "seed money to get the ball rolling."

And as Dr. Kenney noted, since RDI uses almost the same application as a Standard Research Grant, it can lay important groundwork for future funding.

Portrait of Dr. Scott Kenney in Mason establishment

Sociologist Dr. Scott Kenney will conduct research to explore how today's Freemasons find meaning through the organization's complex symbolism. Masonic symbols and metaphors are used to examine big questions about life and the universe. (Photo by Leslie Vryenhoek)

Dr. Kenney's application to launch "Ritual Construction of Symbolism in Meaning Freemasons in a Post-Modern World" was successful in securing over $33,000 for two years of research; that RDI grant and has been augmented by a $6000 research grant from the vice-president (academic). Dr. Kenney will use the funds to convene discussion groups of Freemasons in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, where there are about 6000 and 2000 members respectively.

"So many things are said about Freemasons. I'm interested in hearing what they have to say about what it means to them."

He hopes his research 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 added that those have to do primarily with ways of recognizing one another, and that much of that secrecy is the result of 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 a supreme being, any supreme being, is one of the requirements to join. (So, in Canada, is being male. However, Dr. Kenny was happy to learn some orders in other countries now accept women, a trend he hopes will grow.)

He believes there are diverse reasons for becoming a Freemason. Some 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 Brown's book will be accurate or lead to greater misunderstandings, Dr. Kenney thinks all this interest could lead to a 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.

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