Moral (Dis-)Continuities: Navigating spheres of life

This project takes as its starting point a fresh approach to Max Weber’s notion of spheres of life. While Weber introduced the idea of separate, historically evolving spheres (like the religious, economic, political, and intellectual) as a way to analyse social formations on a societal level, this project develops the idea at the level of actors themselves. It asks what spheres of life actors imagine, how they experience these spheres, how they perceive the spheres’ relations to each other, and how they handle potential tensions between them. Part of this conceptualization is an analytical distinction between different types of spheres, which can be characterized according to their experiential quality and relation to morality. In this way, the project aims to understand the manifold shades of actors’ moral horizons, what they regard as moral and what they see as beyond morality, the different kinds of moral predicaments they face, and how they deal with them.

In line with the common framework of the REALEURASIA project, the empirical focus is on owners of small-sized businesses. The field site is Halle in East Germany. The empirical data consist of qualitative interviews and a questionnaire survey with about 40 self-employed owners of businesses in the retail, skilled trade, and the service sectors. With this empirical focus the project is particularly interested in whether and in what sense these owners imagine specific spheres of life related to their work. These may be spheres like the familial, economic, political, or religious. But the project’s actor-centred approach also allows for the possibility that actors perceive spheres as being inextricably intermingled that were separate in Weber’s original typology, for instance ‘economy’ and ‘politics’ or ‘economy’ and ‘family’; or that they regard other differentiations than the ones mentioned above as important, for instance one that separates a sphere of their own ‘work’ from the wider ‘economy’ or one that discriminates between a ‘public’ and a ‘private’ sphere. The decisive question is whether actors associate specific rules, regularities, and objectives (which may be explicitly formulated and reflected to varying degrees) with particular areas or realms in their lives and hence regard certain ways of acting in these spheres as appropriate.
The project will reconstruct the empirical figurations and experiential qualities of these spheres of life by analysing themes that were a recurrent issue in the interviews: e.g. taxes, time, one’s perceived position in wider ‘society’, relations to employees and customers, legal and local rules for business activities, family and friendships, pensions, health issues. In most interviews these topics were embedded in longer narratives about one’s (occupational) biography, which was characterized in many cases by experiences in what was then the GDR and the transformation years after 1989. The project investigates whether the particular configurations and images about spheres at the time of the interviews can be seen as the product of these past experiences. Furthermore, it explores in what way the practices related to the topics above (e.g. paying or avoiding taxes) can be understood as an expression of a particular configuration of spheres, and at the same time how these practices shape (and potentially change) this configuration. Although the project’s focus is thereby on the micro level, it may also give insights into how (moral) orders on the societal level are shaped, (re)produced, and challenged by practices in everyday life.

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