'Mystery in Everyday Life': a School Research Seminar

We are delighted to welcome guest speaker James Hodgson (The University of Manchester) to deliver a School Research Seminar on the topic of 'mystery work' and mystery as a social phenomenon.


Mystery is everywhere in social life. Whether the mundane mysteries of other people – strangers’ names, their lives and relationships – or the great unsolvable questions about life on other planets, life after death, the meaning of life itself. Nevertheless, few studies have considered mystery as a social phenomenon in its own right; this paper aims to sketch out some initial ideas on the subject.

I begin by drawing on a recent project of mine that explored wellbeing retreats. Running alongside the coordinated practices carried out on retreat to achieve self-mastery or self-knowledge (the ‘self work’), I found another set of practices that were directed at the accomplishment of a mysterious felt sense of connectedness. In an initial paper I characterised this second set of practices as a sort of ‘mystery work’.

In this paper, I build on these findings. I want to conceptualise two kinds of mystery work – one kind that accomplishes or creates mystery, and another kind that sets out to repair or solve the problem of mystery. That is, I want to distinguish ‘generative’ mystery work (the sort I found in wellbeing retreats) from a more ‘reparative’ type of mystery work (the sort you might find in a detective novel).

To close the paper I discuss examples of what people find mysterious in everyday life that have been collected from the Mass Observation Project (MOP), and suggest some future directions for the research.

Speaker Bio:

Decorative image: photograph of James Hodgson

James Hodgson is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at The University of Manchester and a member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives. An interdisciplinary sociologist interested in relationships, he has two strands to his research. The first, around sexuality, includes intimacy, marriage and divorce. The second, around a more diffuse sense of social connectedness, has led him to work on things like wellbeing, therapy culture, and everyday mysticism. In both, he is broadly interested in exploring how relationships are situated within everyday life.