About the project - the Politics of Family Secrecy in the Danish Welfare State

Human beings are continuously involved in managing information about themselves in the exchanges with their social surroundings, and as Georg Simmel (1906) has famously pointed out, all human relationships entail a degree of secrecy. Yet, some secrets are more fraught and apparently more vital than others.

Secrecy requires more than silence. It involves the invention of alternative stories, erasures, movements of people and artifacts, as well as a host of other cultural practices. Importantly, the concept of secrecy does not in itself define the truth status of what is concealed, nor is that the concern of this project. Instead, we aim to identify the epistemological assumptions embedded in secrecy practices and in the related, but historically equally unstable, notions of privacy, transparency, authenticity, and truth.

Recognizing the contingent nature of the family, we do not determine once and for all what constitutes a family; rather we take seriously the historical actors’ own ideas of belonging. Blood ties were crucial in most contexts, making secrecy surrounding the status of non-biological family members paramount to maintaining notions of relatedness. Yet, people also engaged in practices of relatedness that defied consanguinity as the cardinal aspect of family.

Regardless of where its specific boundaries are drawn, the family tends to be characterized by intimacy and dependence. It is a hierarchical institution whose members exercise economic, physical, sexual, and emotional power over one another. Yet, family members tend to accept each other’s queer and quirky activities, and secrecy is often central to this. Like all forms of knowledge management, secrecy has to do with the social ordering of relationships. It not only plays a vital part in the making and unmaking of families; it is also entangled with the production of wider social norms and with official policies.

The project examines various links between state practices and the management of knowledge in and about families in twentieth century Denmark. During this period, social norms in many arenas were liberalized and family relationships changed markedly. Meanwhile, the welfare state assumed a number of responsibilities that the family had previously carried out and public authorities produced increasingly comprehensive trails of information about individuals and families. The tradition of citizens entrusting the state with intimate information makes the Danish case empirically distinct. Moreover, the liberal access to personal archives makes it methodologically well suited.

The regulation of family life interlaces with nation and empire building and is therefore the business not only of civil society and religious authorities, but also of the state. The state operates through multiple means and levels of governance as well as through diverse institutions and actors vested with its authority. Secrecy offers a fruitful entry to examine how the state operates in many localized encounters with individuals and families. The project will thus enhance our understanding of the mutability of morality as well as the changing official rationales and public institutional practices in the twentieth century.

Analytical design

Studying family secrecy poses a methodological challenge: How do we even find out what people covered up? It is our contention that secrecy requires more than silence, that it involves meticulous practices of erasure, invention, and narration. The answer is, therefore, to follow the fragments and traces that secrecy practices leave in the archives and to complement these findings with oral interviews with other families and individual members [9].

When was family secrecy subversive and when was it repressive? How did state rationalities and public institutions push families toward secrecy or exposure? How did secrecy practices affect social norms, emotional formation, and public policies over time?

 In order to reach our three overall scientific objectives, will conduct in-depth studies of family secrecy related to:

Our research will be further supported by: