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Secrecy is the practice of hiding information from certain individuals or groups, who do not have the "need to know" perhaps while sharing it with other individuals. That which is kept hidden is known as the secret.

Secrecy is often controversial, depending on the content or nature of the secret, the group or people keeping the secret, and the motivation for secrecy.

Excessive secrecy is often cited as a source of much human conflict. One may have to lie in order to hold a secret, which might lead to psychological repercussions. The alternative, declining to answer when asked something, may suggest the answer and may therefore not always be suitable for keeping a secret. Also, the other may insist that one answer the question. Nearly 2500 years ago, Sophocles wrote, "Do nothing secretly; for Time sees and hears all things, and discloses all." And Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, once said "Three things cannot long stay hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth".

Humans attempt to consciously conceal aspects of themselves from others due to shame, or from fear of violence, rejection, harassment, loss of acceptance, or loss of employment. Humans may also attempt to conceal aspects of their own self which they are not capable of incorporating psychologically into their conscious being. Families sometimes maintain "family secrets", obliging family members never to discuss disagreeable issues concerning the family with outsiders or sometimes even within the family. Many "family secrets" are maintained by using a mutually agreed-upon construct (an official family story) when speaking with outside members. Agreement to maintain the secret is often coerced through "shaming" and reference to family honor. The information may even be something as trivial as a recipe.

The sociological aspects of secrecy

These were first studied by Dr. Georg Simmel in the early-1900s. Simmel describes secrecy as the ability or habit of keeping secrets. He defines the secret as the ultimate sociological form for the regulation of the flow and distribution of information. Simmel put it best by saying if human interaction is "conditioned by the capacity to speak, it is shaped by the capacity to be silent." It also can control the very essence of social relations though manipulations of the ratio of "knowledge" to "ignorance".

The secrecy "concept"

Simmel defines the secret society as an interactional unit characterized in its total by the fact that reciprocal relations among its members are governed by the protective function of secrecy. This central feature is established on a dual contingency:

  1. Members of the interactonal unit are concerned with the protection of ideas, objects, activities, and/or sentiments to which they attach positive value (i.e, which are rewarding them)
  2. The members seek this protection by controlling the distribution of information about the valued elements (i.e., by creating and maintaining relevant conditions of ignorance in the external environment) depending upon the extensiveness of secrecy, the organization takes one of two forms; those in which the secret incorporates information about all aspects of the interactional unit, including its very existence; and those in which only some aspects, such as membership, regulations, or goals, remain secret.

Simmel's Propositions

Georg Simmel came up with some unifying threads that he summed up and called the "Propositions". What these propositions function as is that they work together and apply primarily to the genetic and developmental conditions of the secret society. Here are a few of them.

Proposition 1

The more value of an idea, object, activity, or sentiment is predicated on the restricted distribution of information about that idea, object, activity or sentiment, the more likely those persons who so define the value will organize as a secret society.

Proposition 2

The more valued ideas, objects, activities, or sentiments of the members of a social unit are perceived as disproportionately threatened by those of nonmembers, the more likely the members will organize as a secret society.

Proposition 3

The greater the tendency toward political oppression and totalitarian regimentation in the larger society, the greater the tendency toward development of secret societies within the larger society.

Proposition 4

The greater the value of the ideas, objects, activities, or sentiments that constitute the focus of secrecy, the greater the tendency of the secret society toward total inclusion of its members' activities, sentiments, ideas and objects, and the greater the members' isolation from other interactional units.

Proposition 5

The greater the tendency toward total inclusion, the more the organization adopts characteristics of the larger society.

Proposition 6

The greater the tendency toward the total inclusion, the more likely the members possess aristocratic self-conceptions.

Proposition 7

The more extensive the secrecy of the secret society, the greater the tendency toward centralization of authority.


  • Georg Simmel. "The Sociology of Secrecy and of the Secret Societies" American Journal of Sociology 11(1906): 441-498
  • Hazelrigg, Lawrence E (1969) "Social Forces"*
  • Hazelrigg, Lawrence E (1969 "A Re-examination of Simmel's 'The secret and the secret society': Nine Propositions'"
  • Hornstein, Frederick "The Sociology of Secret Societies" - Psychological Bulletin Vol 3(12) [Dec 1906]
  • Lowry, Richie P. (Spring 1972) JSTOR "Social Problems Vol 19, No 4."

Additional resources (online)