An Uncommon Sociology of the Commonplace: Elucidation, Review & Agenda for Research

by Louis Volont 
Vol.1, No.2, Autumn 2012

Maffesoli’s theory of neo-tribalisation has its roots in the ‘classics’ of sociology, but loses no relevance for those who seek to analyse the social world of today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Maffesoli has honed his theory over a period of 35 years, resulting in an oeuvre that now consists of more than 28 works. In this essay I will first sketch out the basic premises of Maffesoli’s thinking, starting with a discussion of ‘the social’ as a synthesis of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’, moving on to consider the notions of ‘sociality’ and ‘the neo-tribe’. This theoretical basis will be necessary to demonstrate two critiques on Maffesoli’s neo-tribal theory, critiques I call ‘the fallacy of postmodernity’ and the ‘fallacy of the everyday’.

The theory of neo-tribalisation, in short, transposes the durkheimian study of tribes – engaged in a collective sentiment – to a neo-tribal society, existing of neo-tribes, centred around postmodern ‘gods’, such as pop idols, football teams, or alternative philosophies such as the New Age movement. So Maffesoli sketches out a society that – drastically separated from modernity, with its ‘Progress’, its Individual, its Church – can be called postmodern; a society that, viewed from Durkheim’s religious perspective and Mauss’s logic of gifts, from Durand’s study of the imaginary and Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective, becomes neo-tribal. Simmel’s (1906) discussion of the ‘secret society’ and of everyday life, and even Turner’s discussion of the ‘rites of passage’, can be seen as some of the socio-theoretical foundations of Maffesoli’s diagnosis. Maffesoli seeks to map out ‘the everyday’; to survey ‘the swarming’ that makes up our society. The socio-philosophical question about the true motor of sociation, the debate about modernity/postmodernity, the study of the everyday and the non-everyday (see for example Bey 1991, 1994): Maffesoli’s work influences and is influenced by all of these schools of thought.

Puissance and pouvoir

When sociologists attempt to answer the old question of ‘what is the social?’, they usually frame the question in the perspective of what I call the ‘causality-versus-empathy-axis’. This is an axis around which statisticians and ethnographers centre most of their debates. However, Maffesoli’s work and thinking, and his answer to this question, seems to take an independent position vis-à-vis this sociological dichotomy; because, writes Laermans (1993a, 20), “meanwhile ‘the social’ – which is society and ‘the-being-together’ in actu – continues its ways, while Einzelgängers as Michel de Certeau, Pierre Sansot or Michel Maffesoli write books, books that can hardly be located within the matrices about which most introductions to sociology are so centred”. The ‘maffesolian’ who wants to grasp the ‘être-ensemble’/‘the being together’ does this by means of ‘une sociologie vagabonde qui en meme temps ne soit pas son objet’/‘a sociology that doesn’t seem to know her object’; those who want to grasp the ‘social’, according to Maffesoli, will have to hit the streets and experience our cities, they will have to observe the Café du Commerce, and understand that ‘the social’ is a synthesis of two antagonistic forces: ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’.

These two terms can both be located under the denominator of ‘power’. When one seeks synonyms of ‘power’, the nuance between ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’ becomes clear: ‘pouvoir’ as control, domination, command, authority; ‘puissance’ as strength, force, energy. Essentially: ‘puissance’ is ‘strength from beneath’, ‘pouvoir’ is ‘authority from above’. Such an ‘authority from above’, moreover, implies a devoir-être/a ‘should be’: it implies a set of norms, or a morality, imposed by the institutions of modernity: the process of rationalisation; the ‘disciplining’ of the social.

Clearly elaborating on Weber’s diagnosis of modernity and Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir, Maffesoli connects ‘pouvoir’ with finality: the modern institutions that are occupied with the conduct/control of life function towards a certain finality, i.e. the project of modernity (pro-jectum = ‘the thrown ahead’). This ‘modern finality’ concerns the modern credo of ‘one individual, one nation, one ratio’. Maffesoli characterises modernity as an obsession with the number ‘1’; modernity as a reductio ad unum.

But ‘pouvoir’ makes up only half the story. Inside of this regulation/control/finality/authority from above unfolds something that is more social, more human. Namely, against the modern reductionism stands a postmodern vitalism: ‘puissance’. “Thus, at a time when it has become fashionable to lament […] the end of the social, we must, with common sense and lucidity, remember that the end of a certain form of the social order, and the obvious saturation of the political order, can more than anything leave an opening for the emergence of a vital instinct, which is itself far from exhausted” (Maffesoli 1996, 33). In short: the social cannot be ‘domesticated’ so long as the ‘strength from beneath’ conquers the ‘authority from above’.

With his notion of ‘puissance’, Maffesoli goes back to Pareto’s (1976) notion of the ‘residu’, being ‘everything which is left’ when one eliminates the rational stylisation of the social, or when one eliminates ‘pouvoir’. ‘Puissance’, by contrast, can be detected in the vital energy of the social actor, in ‘the ability of the masses to resist’ (Maffesoli 1996, 34). Inside of this social regulation from above one finds a cunning, a shrewdness, a vitality, a reticence and an indifference, which Maffesoli characterises as the underground centrality. “There is always”, Maffesoli argues, “to borrow an expression from Simmel, a secret behaviour of the group hidden from the outside” (Maffesoli 1996, 37). This ‘outside’ is nothing else than ‘pouvoir’; this ‘behaviour of the group’ is nothing else than Maffesoli’s ‘neo-tribes’ (cfr. infra): revolutions, festivals, sects, the New-Age Movement, or coffee breaks that are taken too long, phone calls paid for by your employer…one feels how a centripetal strength penetrates in a centrifugal authority. Simmel, likewise, in his time, explained the social as a permanent ‘happening’, an ever unfolding ‘event’, that centres around that which is contradictory: “purposes of defence, attack, play, gain, aid, or instruction – these and countless others cause man to live with other men, to act for them, with them, against them, and thus to correlate his condition with theirs”. In a simmelian manner, Maffesoli explains the social as a conflictual harmony of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’.


So far, so good, but we still haven’t answered the sociological ‘why-question’: ‘how can we detect the sociating mechanism that brings the social actors towards each other?’. What is, in short, the motor, or the essence, of sociation? To address this question we need to take into consideration Maffesoli’s notion of ‘sociality’.

“In this regard, the process of a ‘magic participation in a larger entity, this immanent transcendence favouring union with the other, the communion in otherness, the integration of the self and the other, the incorporation of alterity culminating in the realisation of a collective self” (Maffesoli 2006a, 7).

Sociality, then, as a rather unexplainable vital urge, the will of the social actor to relate with the other, the urge to vaporise in a ‘Soi Collectif’. Contrasting to a sociology that focuses on social interactions that are regulated/controlled/determined by instrumental rationalitythe ‘need for social fusion is also taken under consideration in maffesolian theory. Thus: sociality as ‘affective-sensory social fusion’. Here we come close to Freud’s Eros; and when such an ecstatic social fusion becomes the motor of sociation, the discipline of sociology becomes, in essence, the study of sexuality, being the most extreme form of affective-sensory social fusion (Maffesoli 1985, 106).

This ‘magic participation’ with the other is articulated by Maffesoli as ‘the ethic of aesthetics’. ‘Ethics’, or ‘the study of that which is morally acceptable’, can be approached in two ways. On the one hand, this idea finds expression in an act towards the collective, an act that brings about collective productivity and progress. It should be clear that we are, here, in the sphere of modern ‘pouvoir’. On the other hand, the idea of ethics finds expression in an act from below, an act with and for the other, at the micro-level of society, a rule of conduct consisting of collective emotion and communication. This second idea is Maffesoli’s interpretation of ‘ethics’, it is ‘an ethos which comes from below’ (Maffesoli 1991, 7). Furthermore, this ‘ethos from below’ only becomes reality when the true meaning of aesthetics/aesthesis is taken into consideration: sensory experience, or the fusion of the individual with that which is external to him or her. In other words: ‘the ethics of aesthetics’ are based on an experience of the other which comes from below, and which is not orientated towards a certain finality.

Perhaps via direct sensory sociation (love and sexuality), perhaps via sociation from a distance (cyberspace, communication technology), perhaps via different forms of sociation that take on a position on this continuum (discothèques, techno-raves); all these forms of sociation are essentially ‘aesthetic’, i.e. they are a continuous engagement with the imaginary and the transcendent, they result in ‘a fellow-feeling’, a ‘cum sensualis’. Thus Maffesoli contrasts social relations on the basis of a shared class or gender related similarity (sociability) with an organic ‘being together for the sake of being together’. So we have modern, rational sociation versus postmodern, quasi irrational (‘for the sake of being together’) sociality; or: the modern individual versus the postmodern supra-individual.

“Sporting events, musical or political gatherings, the sounds and hubbub of the streets of our towns, and festive occasions of all kinds forcefully underline the pre-eminence of the whole. What is more, its pre-eminence increasingly tends to result in a fusional reality, or in what is termed ‘the return of Dionysiac values’, with individual characteristics being replaced by organicity or what Fourier called the ‘architectonic’ of the whole” (Maffesoli 1995, 72).

The Time of the Tribes

This ‘supra-individual’ has a contenant, i.e. the ‘neo-tribe’. While classical anthropological theory regards ‘the tribe’ as a solid entity, limited in time and in space, the neo-tribe should be thought of in terms of fluidity; the social actor moves between mass and tribe. This means, therefore, that the imaginary plays a very important role. Postmodern social formations centre on TV-shows, on pop and rock idols, on football teams, on alternative philosophies, and so on; such formations need not necessarily be limited in time and in space. This results in temporary networks of affinity, of shared imagination, of shared rules of conduct. Maffesoli considers these neo-tribes as postmodern ‘totems’: “it is this process of constant reversibility which seems to me to constitute what Durand calls the ‘anthropological course’; in essence, the close connection that exists between the great works of culture and this ‘culture’ experienced on an everyday level constitutes the critical bond in any society’s life”. For example, the jubilant mass of the rock concert or a group of ravers recognises itself de facto via the collective utterance of shared emotion; think of the analogy with the breaking of the bread, in which the collective of Christians recognises itself as being a true collective. Thus, Maffesoli extrapolates Durkheim’s analysis of the ‘idolisation of the social’ – being the most primitive form of religiosity – to postmodern, social networks. “The gods, their myths and rituals have changed their names, but they are still hard at work in both sociality and the environment” (Maffesoli 1996, 139).

Maffesoli’s thesis that neo-tribes are disindividuating social entities is essential; in other words: the project (pro-jectum) of modernity – with the tripartite Histoire, Raison and Individu, as described in the work of Louis Dumont – is contested by postmodern tribalism. Maffesoli doesn’t deny the existence of the modern individual, but an entirely new, postmodern logic seems to nag the project of modernity: the famous principium disindividuationis, being the contemporary ‘self identification’ via sensory engagement with the other, i.e. the extra-individual (again: see the true meaning of aesthesis, cfr. supra).  “This theory of identification and the ecstatic flight from the self is in perfect harmony with the evolution of the image and the spectacle […] and of course with that of sporting crowds, tour groups or quite simply passers-by. All of these instances go beyond the principium individuationis which used to be the touchstone of any social organisation and theory” (Maffesoli 1996, 75).

Without wishing to criticise the adequacy of individualisation theory, we put forward the thesis that the intuitive perception of individualisation theory is undeniable;’ it is just too logical’, one could say. Maffesoli’s perspective of the principium disindividuationis, however, can be positioned vis-à-vis the rather ‘popular’ individualisation theses. For example: should the increasing number of divorces be interpreted as a decreasing influence of the institution of marriage (individualisation), or does it imply the emergence of a neo-tribal sociality, an ‘ecstatic flight from the self’ (disindividualisation)? Should the stranger on the street, enjoying music through his or her headphones from the latest electronic device, be interpreted as an antisocial loner (individualisation), or is he or she daydreaming about and engaging in the neo-tribe that, not limited in space and time, centres around/on the artist/the idol? (disindividualisation)?

In Maffesoli’s later works, this latter diagnostic perspective seems to have become definitive: neo-tribalism is a postmodern trend; it is postmodernity. Think about the modern individual versus the postmodern masses and neo-tribes, modern contractual groups versus affectual social networks, ‘the social’ versus ‘sociality’, ‘pouvoir’ versus ‘puissance’, and individualism versus postmodern neo-tribalism. Later we will advance critical perspectives on Maffesoli’s inspiring theory, but one cannot deny that Maffesoli’s theory advances some of the most interesting ideas and thoughts of contemporary. In the next sections we will advance criticisms and sketch out some answers and agendas for research, at the same time acknowledging the sociological potential of the  ideas discussed so far. “It is undoubtedly worthwhile fashioning a new interpretation of these everyday dreams. Dream on, sociology!” (Maffesoli 1996, 8).

The fallacy of postmodernity

The starting point for my argument is Maffesoli’s view of the social as constituted from the crossing of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’. This ‘entrecroisement’ results in the countless microsocial events of the everyday. The customers of the Café du Commerce may discuss the inadequate functioning of the government (in maffesolian parlance this is a sign of ‘puissance’), but they cannot do this without the existence in se of politics and its institutions (‘pouvoir’). Moreover: the dancers at the techno-rave engage in the ecstatic fusion of the temporary neo-tribe (‘puissance’), even though they are engaged in a micro-economic system whereby the game of supply and demand is still central ( ‘pouvoir’). In other words: strength and authority, respectively sociality from below and social regulation from above, cannot exist without each other; they are simultaneously each other’s subject and object.

In my view, Maffesoli has not been able to withstand the pressures of our intellectual present. To be more specific, he has not been able to withstand the temptation of the ‘discourse about postmodernity’. Indeed, as I already stated, the crossing/interweaving of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’ evolves towards a rather paradoxical perspective. The liaison of strength/puissance and authority/pouvoir, as we find in Maffesoli’s works prior to 1988 (when The Time of the Tribes was first published), is now clearly detached on the basis of a sociohistoric distinction: the postmodern constellation of the imaginary and of neo-tribes now seems to dominate the modern past. The interrelation of modernity, individualism and detraditionalisation seems to be an ‘obligatory rite of passage’ for time diagnostics. However, Maffesoli claims to detect a new socio-historic construct, postmodernity, with its “changes in values, the failure of the myth of progress, the resurgence of the qualitative, the increased devotion to hedonism”, and “its continued preoccupation with the religious”. But, the question remains: is ‘puissance’ the victor of today and ‘pouvoir’ the loser of yesterday?

Even when the thesis concerning the true interweaving of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’ would seem to be correct, it will be sociologically useful to ask how we can put this relation into a socio-historic perspective. To my mind, the following question is essential: are we, on the one hand, experiencing postmodern times in which some leftovers of modernity are still traceable (that is, are we experiencing the interweaving of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’ as a freestanding historical period?) or, on the other hand, is the interweaving of both not postmodern, not modern, but something of all times, and so transhistoric?

A fortiori one must ask whether the notion of ‘puissance’ is something that exists, seen from one point of view, potentially or, seen from the other point of view, in actu. Indeed, ‘puissance’ seems to be an everlasting potential for social action, while at the same time, it is actually detectable ‘in the smallest details of everyday life’. Under the heading of “Beyond the fallacy of postmodernity: the interweaving of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’” we will elaborate on the aforementioned dichotomies of historicity/transhistoricity and potentiality/actuality, thereby suggesting that Maffesoli’s paradoxical perspective should be replaced by new internal relations within the dichotomies.

The fallacy of the everyday

Two schools of thought are prominent in Michel Maffesoli’s writing and thinking: on the one hand the tradition of philosophy and sociology of everyday life, and on the other hand the tradition of the study of the non-everyday and the ‘liminal’. These two schools of thought are brought together, problematically, under the denominator of ‘puissance’. This ‘investigation of the everyday’ is traceable in Maffesoli’s oft-quoted metaphor about the Parisian Café du Commerce, where guests of the Café discuss the world around them in a succession of everyday signs, expressions and statements. Here Maffesoli clearly stands in Goffman’s (1971) tradition of the dramaturgical perspective on the social. The everyday, for Maffesoli, is ‘vivre l’instant’, the here-and-now functioning of sociality, the hic et nunc. It is a concatenation of what one might call ‘now-moments’ (cf. Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetzt-zeit), thus: pure actuality. One can think of the volatility of a kiss. But it might be the emphasis on this volatility that leads to theoretical inconsistence.

Let me be more clear: alongside those countless ‘everyday experiences’, Maffesoli also links the liminal moments of life – the ‘non-everyday’, the irregular, the abnormal, etc. – with our notion of ‘puissance’. Previously, we argued that ‘puissance’ could be characterised by a critical discussion of the government at the Café, or by a stroll for the sake of meeting other social actors; however, the fans who are worshipping their idol at the rock concert, the dancing crowd at the rave or in the discothèque, the violence on the streets while the revolution happens – all these instances too, apparently, seem to be part of the world of ‘puissance’. I’m talking about the notion of ‘excess’, about paroxysmal temporality. It is not the reproducing but the producing moment of society, or in Viktor Turner’s words, not the a priori assumed structure but the temporal liminalty that shapes this ‘strength from below’ which is, of course, nothing else than ‘puissance’.

So does the sociologist grasp ‘puissance’ via the regular or via the irregular? Via structure or via anti-structure/liminality? Via the everyday or via the non-everyday? Even Maffesoli does not seem to be able to adequately answer this question. “[I]t seems to me” he writes, “that the role of puissance is continually at work. However, its action may be either secret, discreet or displayed. When it is not expressing itself in one of its effervescent forms such as revolts, festivals, uprisings and other heated moments of human history, it is hyperconcentrated in communities, networks and tribes – in short, the smallest details of everyday life which are lives for their own sake and not as a function of any sort of finality”.

Beyond the fallacy of postmodernity

The fallacy of postmodernity as delineated above comes down to this: why does the internal coherence, i.e. the crossing/interweaving of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’ that made up ‘the social’ (as we find in Maffesoli’s works before 1988), need to be replaced by the logic of ‘modern pouvoir’ and ‘postmodern puissance’? Isn’t the interweaving of contradictory powers something of all times? An answer to this question, I would suggest, can be found in the work of Michel de Certeau.

Certeau’s sociology of the everyday seeks to delve into the swarming of our daily lives, to uncover everything that is hidden, everything that escapes the institutionalised ‘pouvoir’, everything that escapes the regulating logic of politics, labour, and economy. But where Maffesoli uses  the terms ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’, Certeau makes his theory work using the notions of ‘tactics’ and ‘strategy’. A ‘Strategy’ is “the calculus of force- relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power can be isolated from an environment”. A ‘tactic’, by contrast, is “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (a spatial or institutional localisation), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other”. A ‘tactic’ is something that is hidden, underground, creative, temporary and mischievous; a ‘strategy’ is something that is steadfast, in control, and permanent. One already detects the analogy with Maffesoli’s ‘puissance-pouvoir-dichotomy’.

However, Certeau never split the notions of ‘tactics’ and ‘strategies’; he always considered them as internally connected. Indeed, his theory does not seem to me to permit any other possibility. ‘Tactics’ are ‘ways of doing’, they are ‘microbe-like operations’ (see the French word bricolage) that cannot exist without an a priori existing system of strategies – which results in the fact that both ‘tactics’ and ‘strategies’ are internally connected. One cannot, for example, use creative language or rhetorical figures (tactic) without the pre-existing system of language and its rules (strategy); creative cooking (tactic) is not possible without the use of ingredients that are provided by an economic system (strategy) – see Luce Giards ‘Doing Cooking’ (in de Certeau et al., 1998). As another example, one may saunter peacefully and/or take shortcuts in a big metropolitan city (‘tactic’), designed by town architects (strategy) – see Certeau’s famous chapter ‘Walking in the City’, in ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ (1984). It becomes clear, then, how this ‘swarming’, this underground slyness (Certeau uses the French words ‘la perruque’ and ‘la ruse’) comes into existence, using pre-existing strategies. Certeau does not reason in terms of a ‘tabula rasa’ (like Maffesoli does, separating the notions of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’, and connecting them to respectively postmodernity and modernity); indeed, ‘tactical actors’ creatively re-use the a priori existing, within the proceeding colonisation of everyday life by systems (strategies?) of labour, politics and economy (Certeau doesn’t make the link explicit though, but the analogy with Habermas’s theory of communicative action seems clear).

One could argue that Certeau too, if he were still alive, would have followed the intellectual pressures concerning the discourse about postmodernity. But already in 1980, the year his L’Invention du Quotidien was first published, Certeau detected the process of individualisation (as local frames of reference started to lose their determination for everyday practices); a process that many years later was to be connected thoroughly with the diagnosis of postmodernity. But all that does not imply – and this is important – that the notions of tactics and strategies have to be separated. Quite the opposite, both spheres use each other as an object and as a subject; ‘lifeworld’ and ‘system’ in the vocabulary of Habermas (1981), ‘langue’ and ‘parole’ in the vocabulary of de Saussure (see Harris 1987); ‘tactics’ and ‘strategies’ in the work of de Certeau (1984), and, ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’ in the work of Maffesoli (at least pre-1988). So, we propose to reconnect the notions of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’, after all: the guests of the Café du Commerce do need the political sphere for their critical discussions, and the ‘Indignados’ need the strategies of international politics and international economy to found their protest and indignation. Hetherington (1992) gives an interesting diagnosis about how the ‘free festivals’ of the 70’s and the 80’s could nowadays be considered as commercialised neo-tribes of religiosity, drugs, and counterculture. So, it seems rather rash to consider ‘puissance’ as ‘the winner of postmodernity’, a kind of winner that suppressed the ‘pouvoir, loser of modernity’. In short: the interaction between both powers, not their paradoxical relationship, seems to be a first research agenda for neo-tribalisation theorists.

* * *

Let me briefly consider here the aforementioned historicity/transhistoricity and potentiality/actuality dichotomies. Maffesoli’s book ‘Le Temps Revient’ (2010, loosely translated as ‘The Times Recur’) – a title which seems to indicate a transhistoric perspective on ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’ – has, in my opinion, the mistakenly chosen subtitle ‘Formes Elémentaires de la Postmodernité’ – a subtitle which seems to indicate the historicity of postmodernity. After all, Maffesoli himself assumes a ‘recurring of the archaïc’ (indeed, does contemporary carnival differ essentially from an old-Greek bacchanal? Actually: no); that is why, in my opinion, the pervasive use of the notion of postmodernity as a truly new sociohistorical period seems to be somewhat needless. I advance the thesis that there is an ‘everlasting potentiality of puissance’ through the history of everything that is social. In other words, there will always be a transhistoric potential for ‘puissance’, whether we are talking about postmodernity, modernity, or the many sociohistoric constructs before. Nevertheless, this transhistoric potential has its specific expression, and these are time-bound. So, throughout the transhistoric potential for ‘puissance’, we find its time-bound/historic actualisations. The range of examples can be very broad: prehistoric art, Greek bacchanals, Medieval sects, a club of wine lovers, the Indignados, or the dancers at the rave: all these are examples of the coming together of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’, each with its specific, time-bound utterance. So let us not leave behind the interweaving of ‘puissance’ and ‘pouvoir’.

Beyond the fallacy of the everyday: fracture and impact, liminal and liminoid

It should be clear by now that I consider the fact that Maffesoli theorises ‘puissance’ as a combination of both the everyday and the non-everyday problematic. In drawing this discussion to a conclusion, therefore, I would like to sketch out some kind of a solution for the so-called fallacy of the everyday, drawing on the questions ‘what is the everyday?’ and ‘what is the non-everyday?’

In neo-tribal vocabulary, ‘the aesthetic’ (aesthesis) means the sensory engagement with the other, or with something other than oneself. But again, the notion of ‘the aesthetic’ takes on a different meaning when we put it in the vocabulary of Michel de Certeau. Namely, the sporadic and momentary understanding of everyday beauty; the brusque interruption of that which is repeatable and heterogeneous. I want to refer to A.-J. Greimas’s (1987) novel De L’Imperfection, in which a character is surprised by the view of a female breast; the everlasting everyday suddenly gets cut off, and makes room for temporary joy. In other words: from time to time, our lives get interrupted by an impact, after which normal life (‘the everyday’) comes back to the fore (an-aesthesis). “There is an aesthetic dimension of ‘everydayness’: our everyday lives are hence revitalized, while they get a new meaning out of the margins of beauty and sublimity” (Parret 1993, 77).

So when we take Certeau’s interpretation of the notion ‘the aesthetic’ at hand, the ‘non-everyday’ does seem to be quite the same as ‘the everyday’. Indeed, is the sudden perception of a female breast really turning someone’s everyday life – or as Hakim Bey would call it, one’s ‘Work/Consume/Die cycle’ – upside down? I would say not. Rather, my suggestion would be that the notion of ‘puissance’ overarches everydayness (‘the smallest details of everyday life’) and its pseudo-interruption, which I have been calling ‘impact’. But,in what follows we will have to distinguish between impact and fracture, which are two totally different things.

Why? When one is blown away by the sudden beauty of something – when ‘everydayness’ is suddenly interrupted – the social structure in which the social actor finds himself stays unchanged. And this is where the work of anthropologist Viktor Turner comes in; according to Turner (1969), one must consider rites of passage (e.g. from boy to man) as ‘liminal zones’ in social life. These liminal zones are fully autonomous social events, whereby the social borderlines (between genders, classes etc.) come to be temporally cancelled. Such a ‘fracture’ of the social is something entirely different as an ‘impact’ in the social. Let us consider the next figure:

Figure 1: ‘puissance’, consisting of fractures and impacts

Indeed, taking the ‘impact’ into consideration, we see that the horizontal line (proceeding social/everyday life) is actually uninterrupted. By contrast, the left hand side of the figure shows a temporally interrupted line. This means that the consolidated linkage between social positions and roles is temporally put on hold. Recurring to our basic problem this means that the notion of ‘puissance’, as it appears in neo-tribal vocabulary, needs more specification. Namely, ‘puissance’ does not only consist of those numerous ‘impacts’ in social life, which interrupted it but certainly do not put the social structure on a hold; ‘puissance’ also consists of the temporary cancellation of social structure: the ‘fracture’ of everydayness.

But this is not the end of our argument, because we still need to take Turner’s ‘liminal-liminoid-distinction’ into consideration. Let us consider the social event of carnival; an event that, until now, should be linked with the left hand side of figure 1 – indeed, social structure is turned upside down when a man dresses like a woman and vice versa, and in the mixing up of social classes during the festivities. But once the festivities come to an end, normal everyday life comes back to the fore. The labourer, the lawyer, the CEO – all of them may have been participating in that liminal zone of carnival, cut off from any restriction provided by their social background, but once the weekend is over, all will act and live as their social position and role determines. So the credo of this ‘puissance-utterance’ of carnival is rather: ‘we are acting as if we find ourselves in an exceptional case, but we all know it is just temporary play’. So is the ‘fracture’ a real fracture? In this context, I’d rather use Elias & Dunnings’s (1986) notion of ‘controlled decontrolling of emotions’; also Williams (1988, 748) seems to understand the problem, writing that “reason and emotion are not in fact antithetical to one another”. In short: sense/ratio and emotion, the everyday and the exception, rationality and irrationality, don’t seem to differ much from each other; especially in our example concerning the controlled decontrolling of society: carnival.

But, again, this is where the work of Turner comes in. Taking his ‘liminal-liminoid-distinction’ into consideration, he characterizes the notion of ‘liminoid’ as “voluntary rather than enforced, entertaining rather than purely obligatory”. Carnival, as a consequence, seems to be a rather ‘liminoid’ social entity. By contrast, the event that is truly liminal, is ‘enforced’, ‘purely obligatory’; we talk about ‘liminal social events’, when a society ceases to function regularly, when, in a quasi obligatory manner, underground resistances come to contest the institutionalised order, when one does not know what tomorrow will bring; in other words: when there will be a revolution, a new constitution, a new regime, new institutions, a ‘liminal moment’ must have happened. This is what is happening nowadays in many countries of the Middle-East. So, let us consider figure 2:

Figure 2: ‘the fracture’, consisting of ‘liminoid’ and ‘liminal’

The left hand side of the figure concerns the ‘liminoid’ aspect of everyday life; the horizontal line, ‘the social’, is identical before as well as after the fracture (this means that social roles and positions remain unchanged). The right hand side of the figure, by contrast, concerns the truly liminal, the truly exceptional; the ‘niveau’ of ‘the social’ differs before and after the fracture: think of adulthood after puberty, inauguration after being an outsider, and the new regime after the old regime. This brings us to the following logic:

The social = puissance + pouvoir

Puissance = fracture + impact

Fracture = liminal AND/OR liminoid

The research agenda I would advance in light of this entails an investigation of the sociogenese/social history of the fracture of the everyday (be it in actu, be it potentially, be it historic, be it transhistoric; cfr. supra). One might begin such an endeavour with the work of the forefathers of sociology: I think of Weber’s (1968 [1922]) ‘esoteric communities’, Durkheim’s (1992 [1912]) notion of the ‘collective trance’, and Simmel’s (1906) secret societies. One could revisit the inspiring work of Bataille (2011 [1956]) and his notion of ‘the little death’, Turner’s (1969) liminal moments, and the work of Hakim Bey (1991) and his Temporary Autonomous Zones – in my view an extremely interesting and underrated author. Maffesoli’s ‘puissance’ perhaps takes its place as the most recent extension of the quest in which all of these authors have, in one way or another, been engaged.

Some final words

Make no mistake, I consider Michel Maffesoli’s work extremely valuable. It spans an oeuvre that has enough potential to continue to play a prominent role in contemporary empirical sociology and social theory. Yet the Maffesoli-reader must be aware that neo-tribal theory may be distorted by some theoretical flaws; arguments that don’t necessarily need to be wrong, but may nonetheless need some specification. This was my objective here; to clarify theoretical inconsistencies, to construct answers and agendas for research for those who practice the beautiful tradition of neo-tribal theory in a reflexive and critical way. The question concerning the future of neo-tribal theory of course remains unanswered. In this regard, as Shields (1991)writes  in a discussion of Maffesoli’s work, “it is impossible not to feel ambivalent”. Although one cannot deny that Maffesoli promotes his work as a diagnosis of postmodernity – such titles as Notes sur la Postmodernité (2003) and Après la Modernité (2008) say it all – the true potential of neo-tribal theory lies in its very broad scientific and historical applicability. Anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers and political scientists, as well as scholars in cultural studies and historians, all may use Maffesoli’s theoretical perspective. An ‘uncommon sociology of what is common’ lies ahead of us, via structural considerations and criticisms, and via the completion of agendas for research. Michel Maffesoli, ‘sociologist of postmodernity’ describes it thus:

I asked myself if the problem needed to be reversed. To ask why, despite the alienating mechanisms, there was still life. I developed one of my fundamental ideas, that of duplicity: there are forms of submission, but is a mask which at base allows for resistance. You can’t revolt all the time without being killed.


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Louis Volont is a research fellow at the Centre for Sociological Research, Leuven (Belgium). As a sociologist, he specializes in neo-tribal theory and the history of the anomie concept. In collaboration with prof. Laermans (promoter) and prof. Maffesoli (co-promotor) he is currently working on his Phd ‘The Dionysian Tradition: An Inquiry into Neo-tribalization’.