Researching Intimacy in Times of Austerity

What does intimacy mean today? How does friendship intersect with other relationships? In this paper for The Sociological Review, Anne M. Cronin, Reader at Lancaster University, draws on an interview-based study of friendship to explore the forms of intimacy that friendships create. The intersection of motherhood and friendship created for the women in her study a specific social bond – ‘domestic friendships’. The social and economic pressures exerted by today’s austerity measures mean that such friendships are a life-line for many women. As well as offering practical support, they shape a very particular experience of inclusive intimacy which threads together mothers, children and their children’s friends, and create an expansive experience of the domestic sphere which extends beyond the home. Although there has been much public debate about the impact of austerity on individuals and families, little attention has been paid to the less visible intimacies of friendship.

Personal relationships such as those of family and sexual partnerships are often used by politicians and social commentators as litmus tests for the health of society. In recent years there has been an intensification of such debates in the media with particular focus on intimacy in its diverse social forms, including gay marriage, lone parenthood, and sex and relationship education classes for children. These media discussions tend to be freighted with varying ideological positions which draw bold links between micro-level individual relationships and the broader socio-economic context. For instance, George Monbiot’s account of ‘the age of loneliness’ links social isolation to what he perceives as the individualism and competition fostered by the capitalist organisation of social and economic relations. Monbiot’s analysis is countered by Peter Franklin, a writer for ConservativeHome, who claims that this ‘breakdown of community’ has in fact been caused by ‘impact of the post-war welfare state, which encouraged people to rely on distant bureaucracies instead of one another’ and by ‘social liberalism’s’ impact on ‘the splintering of the family and the casualisation of sexual relationships’. Alongside the media’s airing of such issues, a range of recent academic and policy reports have highlighted the severe impact of austerity measures on people’s financial security, and have pointed to growing stresses on family and sexual partner relations.

These examples illustrate the intense public interest in personal relationships and, arguably, a growing public reflexivity about how specific socio-economic contexts impact upon relationships. But within this media, and indeed academic, debate there has been far less emphasis on friendships and the forms of intimacy that they enable. Indeed, it was the potential capacity of friendship to create alternative forms of intimacy – and perhaps alternative social values – that first drew me to research the area. I was intrigued by the possibility that friendships might create specific interpersonal spaces of intimacy that were not fully determined, or entirely socially scripted, by normative social institutions such as the family or the commercial values of capitalism. Most of my previous research has analysed the shifting commercial practices of consumer capitalism, particularly in advertising, marketing and public relations. The heavy hand of consumerist hegemony was starting to weigh uncomfortably on me and I was drawn to explore what I felt would be a rather more wholesome and positively-inflected area. This divergence into friendship studies allowed me to pursue my interest in feminist analyses of how the personal is (still) political, and to add to the feminist literature on friendship’s possibilities for women to live otherwise (beyond definitions relating to family and sexual partnerships) (for example, see Roseneil & Budgeonin in 2004).

Of course, what I found was a complex mix of values, practices, bonds and feelings that were enmeshed in various social institutions such as the family, and which are not sealed off from capitalist orderings of value, labour, and investment (financial and emotional). My project uncovered some intriguing intersections between friendship and social relationships such as family and parenthood that offer insights to both friendship studies and to the sociology of the family.

In my recent article in The Sociological Review , I argue that the friendships women develop through their children create a distinctive form of friendship – ‘domestic friendship’ – which straddles and blurs what constitutes ‘the domestic sphere’. The women in my study described how these ‘mum friends’ offered intense forms of friendship intimacy based on sharing feelings and difficulties as well as practical help such as childcare. Such friendships were practiced both outside of and within the home, and contributed greatly to the domestic tasks of emotional and practical intimacy. It is perhaps the dominant focus on family in many sociological accounts of domestic care for children that has made the role of women’s friendships invisible as a form of domestic intimacy. The values and intimacies fostered within these domestic friendships centred on children and prioritised their needs. At the same time, the interpersonal spaces that domestic friendships created were indeed spaces of identity for these women – but unlike most friendships, the biographical identity created between ‘mum friends’ is centred on others’ lives rather than pivoting on the self. The forms of inclusive intimacy fostered in these bonds highlights the relational elements that are present in most friendships, but here take on a distinctive emotional, practical and temporal character that is strongly gendered.

In this project on friendship, I analysed how specific socio-economic contexts and institutions intersect with, and impact upon, friendships. I found that couple relationships (and family), still hold a hegemonic position in people’s lives; despite many respondents affirming the core significance of friendships for their intimate lives, relationships with their partner still take priority. I analysed this as a zero-sum distribution of intimacy, in which the provision of care, love and time to one person was perceived by respondents as requiring a parallel reduction of intimacy available to others. In contrast, domestic friendships had a more open, inclusive framing towards the distribution of intimacy, framing intimacy not as a finite resource which had to be carefully measured and allocated, but as expansive web of emotional connectedness that extended the boundaries of what we should consider the ‘domestic sphere’.

I situated the issue of emotional connectedness within the current economic situation by exploring how austerity measures are exerting pressures on friendships in the workplace. Here, the stresses from increased workload, job loss or threats of redundancy are lived out through workplace friendships. These friendships act as spaces in which intense emotions are ‘made intersubjectively’ and can be experienced safely in work environments which feel anything but safe. These friendships offer points of stability in a precarious economic context within which people increasingly feel they have little control.

Public and academic fascination about ‘the family’ and family bonds in all their shifting forms show no sign of diminishing – but the intersections with other social bonds such as friendship deserve closer attention. My study suggests that people are becoming more reflexively aware of the importance of friendships in their lives (even if they are not always willing or able to follow through and devote more energy to them). This reflexivity, I suggest, is bound up with the changing material conditions of people’s lives, and the current financial context brings the role and values of personal relationships into particularly sharp focus.

I was intrigued by the contrast in people’s framing of intimacy as a finite resource or strictly bounded investment in the case of couple relationships, and their framing of intimacy as an expansive emotional web in the case of ‘domestic friends’. Within an austerity culture, we are told by politicians that national wealth is a finite resource which can only be distributed as a zero sum game. Thus more investment in one area of national need is presented as a requiring a symmetrical reduction in another. Cuts to various welfare budgets are thus presented as ‘hard choices’ – unpalatable but necessary. Similar metaphors of a restricted economy of emotional investment were evident in my respondents’ accounts of their couple relationships and their prioritisation over friendships (although such metaphorical value systems have a far longer historical trajectory). This suggests that analysing personal relationships may indeed illuminate broader social issues – and media pundits have tussled over this issue at length – as it points to how the capitalism’s ideologies of distribution, accumulation and value the run deep and act to frame our emotional lives. But the specific forms of inclusive intimacy evident in women’s ‘domestic friendships’ suggest that there are other far less visible (friendship) intimacies that operate according to alternative values and deserve closer attention.

Anne M. Cronin is a Reader in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. Alongside this project friendship, her core research interest lie in the dynamics of consumer capitalism and commercial culture, particularly the social influence of advertising and marketing practices. Her current research focuses on the shifting role of Public Relations and its impact on social values, the new public sphere, and what come to be understood as legitimate ‘publics’.

Originally posted 24th March 2015.

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