by Anna-Maija Castrén and Kaisa Ketokivi
University of Eastern Finland; University of Helsinki
Sociological Research Online, 20 (1), 3
Received: 26 Jun 2014 | Accepted: 18 Nov 2014 | Published: 28 Feb 2015
In this paper, we present a figurational approach to studying family relationships drawing from Norbert Elias's notion of figuration that combines insider and outsider perspectives to complex relational dynamics. In recent discussions on intimacy and personal lives, the family has been viewed as a subset of any personal relationships despite the structural dynamics of, for example, gender and generation that are at play within families. On the other hand, it has been claimed that a family has a special dynamic of its own that requires a 'language of family'. In this paper, we present a figurational approach for studying family relationships both as personally lived and as embedded in wider webs of relationships. The proposed approach combines qualitative insight drawn from interviews and a systematic mapping of significant webs of relationships that both constrain and enable people. Combining these two aspects highlights the complex family dynamics and lived ambivalences between personal affinities and relational expectations. The paper draws from empirical studies in which significant life events, including marriage and biographical disruptions, such as loss, divorce and illness, reconfigure people's lives and selves, highlighting the contemporary complexity of families and personal relationships. The article develops relational methodology, addressing the 'middle ground' of relations to bring together the personal and the more structural aspects of family dynamics that phases of biographical change make visible.
1.1 There has been a recent and vibrant debate in British sociology on how to study families and relationships. It has highlighted the personally significant side of relationships (e.g. Morgan 1996; Roseneil & Budgeon 2004; Jamieson 2005; Smart 2007), but also the ways in which families may have a particular dynamic that is different from other personal relationships (e.g. Finch and Mason 1993; Finch 2007; Ribbens McCarthy 2012; Edwards and Gillies 2012). This paper seeks ways to methodologically bridge both concerns through Norbert Elias's notion of figuration (1978) and its systematic use in collecting and analysing relationship data. The article aims at making a methodological contribution to understanding the ways in which personally significant relationships are lived and negotiated, but also to the continued significance of interdependency and collective (or in our terms structural) dynamics (see also Moore 2010; Kehily and Thomson 2011). Our argument is that to understand the ways in which contemporary family relationships encompass both personally significant and negotiated aspects as well as more structurally organised expectations requires mixed relational methodologies. In a similar vein, Ribbens McCarthy (2012) has called for the combining of an emic and etic analysis for understanding the circumstances of personal meanings and their consequences for social life. Combining qualitative interviews with the systematic mapping of wider webs of relations, we propose, finds a theoretically sound understanding in Elias's notion of figuration that is concrete and flexible enough to be 'translated' into a methodology.
1.2 Gabb and Silva (2011) have outlined three main strands of thinking which have been particularly influential in shaping family and relationship studies during recent decades. The first of these was coined by Morgan (1996; 2011) in the phrase 'family practices', referring to various everyday practices that deal with parenthood, partnership and kinship and the expectations and obligations associated with these practices. The second strand forms around the concept of intimacy, as analysed and discussed by Jamieson (1998), and referring to familiarity acquired by close association and sharing of detailed knowledge. The third and the most recent strand is encapsulated in the notion of 'personal life' that incorporates all kinds of relationships and intimacies but also their interconnections with changing notions of time and politics, for example (Smart 2007; May 2011).
1.3 All these strands distance themselves from the idea of 'the family', highlight close relationships, the relational character of family phenomena and the ways in which relationships are lived and seen instead of institutions or cultural systems as defining features. More recently, the term and the concept of family has been said to have become decentred, especially in research that draws from broader notions of intimacy and personal life (Gillies 2011; Edwards and Gillies 2012; Edwards et al. 2012). These notions have highlighted reflexive selves, which might lose sight of more structural aspects of gendered and generational hierarchies associated with family (Edwards and Gillies 2012). Instead, Ribbens McCarthy (2012: 70) has stressed researchers' sensitivity for people's everyday discourses of family, the 'language of family' that provides insights into social relationships. Moreover, it acts as 'a repository and expression for deep but ambivalent desire for – and sometimes, fears of – belonging and connection.' A methodological focus on personal narratives and life histories rooted in the idea of the self might, without intending to, reproduce the notion of individual self (Ribbens McCarthy 2012: 82) that has been widely, and rightly in our view, criticised in recent decades (e.g. Jamieson 1998; Smart and Shipman 2004; Duncan and Smith 2006; Smart 2007; Duncan 2011).
1.4 We consider both viewpoints as important. Understanding personal feelings about relationships gives us indispensable understanding of the uniqueness of lived relationships (Elias 1978: 137). On the other hand, even the most personal bonds are embedded in webs of relations that form units of belonging with dynamics of their own. When such units are formed or dissolved, inclusion and exclusion become problematised. In our view, the extent to which interconnected personal relationships involve inclusive or exclusive logic that draws from a particular sentiment of 'being family' or belonging is an empirical question. In this paper, we develop a figurational approach drawing on Elias's relational thinking to grasp the changing formations and re-formations of family relationships. The idea of figurations highlights interdependence in a way that does not neglect people's own understandings of lived relations, yet it enables us as researchers to study the ways in which families may have consequential logic that should be highlighted in its own right.
1.5 As outlined in Widmer et al. (2008), to approach family relationships from a figurational perspective highlights a number of aspects as important. Firstly, it focuses on actualised relationships rather than their institutional formations. Secondly, it takes into consideration the wider web of relations in which particular bonds are embedded. Thirdly, it involves the understanding of both personal viewpoints and group formations as mutually constituted. A figurational approach cannot ignore the ways in which family figurations structure selves, nor the impact that personal choices, motives and identities have on families. Finally, understanding families as figurations emphasises the temporal evolvement of relationships over time and space: relational interdependencies change biographically, but also as a result of societal, cultural and economic changes. (Widmer et al. 2008: 6.)
1.6 In the following, we introduce and develop the idea of figuration. As the body of literature on qualitative, narrative work on family and other personal relationships is rich and effectively articulated (see e.g. Lawler 2002; Roseneil 2006; Thomson et al. 2011; Brannen 2013), in this paper we will focus on the ways in which figurational thinking can accompany qualitative interviewing, enabling a systematic analysis of structural dynamics present in even the most intimate of relations. Drawing from three empirical studies, we then show the ways in which we have used this approach in studying families and other personal relationships. Towards the end of the article, we explicate in more practical terms what is required to adopt a figurational approach as a heuristic lens to study family relationships.
2.1 Norbert Elias, who is perhaps best known for his historical work in sociology, outlined a highly relational and process-oriented approach for sociological research (Elias 1978; see also Baur and Ernst 2011). Elias's notion of figuration (1978: 154; 2009: 1-3) highlights webs of interdependence in which people live, many of which are opaque to people themselves. However, he also emphasised that especially in the case of small figurations, that is smaller webs of significant relations, it is essential to understand how they appear from a person's own viewpoint, how they are unique and how they feel from the insider's perspective (1978: 136-137). Only when examined both from the outsider's and the insider's perspective can the whole range of widely spreading interdependencies between people be understood.
2.2 Elias's best known examples of figurations tend to highlight large-scale figurations and power relations (e.g. Elias 1994). However, he also considered micro-level relationships and the emotional significance of social bonds insightfully. For this purpose Elias used concrete concepts such as valency; originally a chemical metaphor referring to the number of bonds an atom can be attached to. In figurational thinking it means deep emotional bonds and interdependence between persons. Elias offers the death of a loved one as an example: when a loved one dies, the emotional valency attached to that person is torn out. This is not an event happening outside the self or an external occurrence that has an internal impact. Rather, the self loses a part of her or his self with the I-we -images integral to the self. The event crosses the psychosocial divide and occurs both inside and outside the self. (Elias 1978: 134-138.)
2.3 Elias's process-oriented 'figurational sociology' was originally explicated as a criticism of abstract sociological categories, such as 'the individual' and 'the society'. Instead, Elias proposed, sociology should view the social world in empirical terms as 'chains of interdependency'. (1978: 129; see also Mennell 1992.) The notion of figuration is a conceptual tool that is used to look beyond abstract categories. Elias used games as examples of figurations: football players or people sat around a table playing cards form changing constellations in which another person's action affect subsequent moves. These constellations are visible to the spectators but not to the participant, and this is why the outsider's perspective is important. Social relations have no objectified existence independent of the people involved. Any course taken will be 'the outcome of the actions of a group of interdependent individuals' (Elias 1978: 130). A figuration – whether small like a family or a football match or large like a society – is not more abstract than the particular people involved in it. People do not act as individuals in a vacuum, but always come in figurations of other people (Elias and Dunning 1966: 396-397).
2.4 The figurational approach takes the fundamental interconnectedness of people as its starting point (Elias 1978; 2001). Figurations are not merely about relationships that link individuals but about bonds that are intertwined with personhood; a figuration is 'the changing pattern' created by the interconnected people 'as a whole' – not only by their intellects but by their whole selves. Such figurations constrain us by defining us. They personify our expectations and commitments, our feelings of belonging and our need for reassurance, our pursuit of personal gain, as well as disappointments in life. We live our lives in widely spreading chains of interdependency, some of which are dense and formed by strong and personal bonds, while others are sparse and looser. It is through our relations with others that we learn what is expected of us in society, and in relations we conform to these expectations, form alternative relations or act differently as agents of our lives. The interdependence is a prerequisite of a figuration, but it may be of any quality – of allies or opponents, or anything in between (Elias 1978: 130).
2.5 Mustafa Emirbayer's (1997) thinking provides further clues as to how to study the relational formation of family relationships. Emirbayer suggests that in order to understand the social world relationally we should give up sociological dualisms that propose pre-given social entities, and pay close attention to dynamic, unfolding relations. Drawing on the classic pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey and Arthur Bentley (1949), he proposes that the focus of sociological analysis could, instead of individual or social entities, such as families, be the 'trans-actions', that is the processes, actions and interactions in which the studied phenomenon is constantly formed. (Dewey and Bentley 1949; Emirbayer 1997.)
2.6 Drawing on this idea means studying relationships, not from any given categorical order (such as predefining them as family), but as processes in which relationships are formed and organised into certain kinds of figurations. Following their organisation to the endpoint, we suggest, will give us an empirical way to study the extent to which 'family' for example organises relationships in a different way to some other personal relationships. Trans-actions can be seen as anything that happens in relations (Fuhse 2009; Ketokivi 2010). Something like this has been done by Finch and Mason (1993) in understanding family responsibilities as unfolding over time in interactions that solidify into expectations and then responsibilities. Adding a figurational element to a process-oriented viewpoint means, however, a systematic mapping of all relationships that are directly or indirectly involved in the process, both from the person's own viewpoint and as a part of the wider web of relations.
2.7 Much like figurational thinking, narrativity gives significance to certain experiences without making assumptions about their categorical order (Somers 1994). Narratives are 'interpersonal' in the sense that they always contain significant actors other than the narrator. They therefore challenge 'the myth of the atomized individual' (Lawler 2002: 244). Figurational sensitivity means asking questions about particular people and their trans-actions. In this paper, we refer to 'figuration' when we talk about the web of human relations that are significant to the question at hand. This figuration is seen to form a relational setting for the personal narratives people tell about their lives.
3.1 A figurational interest calls for bridging some aspects of qualitative interviewing, or a narrative approach, and a systematic mapping of wider webs of relationships (or networks). Narratives provide us with what Elias called the 'I' perspective of people's families (Elias 1978:137), while a systematic mapping of the relational setting of a person allows us to examine their figurations much like an outsider could. Methodological versatility can help us to avoid narrow analytic perspectives that might overly emphasise either the narrated side of relationships, or in contrast, neglect them altogether when studying relationships, as social network analysts sometimes do. In studying family relationships that form small, emotionally-laden, but also structurally organised webs of relations, both the personally lived aspects and those emerging from the wider social or structural expectations are relevant. In Finland for example, where we have collected most of our research material, the cultural hegemony concerning the primacy of ties with one's partner and children effectively organises other personal and kin relationships outside the immediate family circle (Castrén and Lonkila 2004; Ketokivi 2012). While qualitative interviews and a narrative approach highlight the depth of lived experiences in particular relationships, some basic ideas of qualitatively-oriented social network analysis provide the means to systematically map the wider webs of relations that are significant in organising those very relations.
3.2 Narratives provide an access to the ways in which people make sense of and interpret their lives (Lawler 2002; Josselson 1993; Smith et al. 2009: 197). It gives us nuanced understanding of lived experiences, practices and relationships. Margaret Somers (1994: 613-614) has suggested that narratives are not just 'stories', but 'an ontological condition of social life'. 'Experience' is not just represented, but constituted through narratives. A chief characteristic of narrative is that it 'renders understanding only by connecting (however unstably) parts to a constructed configuration or a social network of relationships (however incoherent or unrealizable) composed of symbolic, institutional, and material practices' (Somers 1994: 614). This is how narratives give us cues about which relations to examine more closely.
3.3 In qualitatively-oriented network analysis, qualitative methods are applied in concert with more standardised methods for describing network structures (Hollstein 2011; Bellotti 2014). Complex webs of relations are not reduced to abstract networks, or qualitatively significant bonds to mere ties, while for example the size and composition of the web of relationships are important aspects to understand. Moreover, webs of relationships are seen as processes, evolving over time. A qualitatively-oriented network approach can be used as a resource, directing our gaze to less obvious and often indirect relational dynamics that subtly organise relationships. Network analysis takes relations as the fundamental units of analysis (Wellman 1988). We see it as a method which can be tailored to help in understanding various aspects of relations and in our study cases network thinking is applied in a figurational sense. This means that relationships are always seen as qualitatively significant, interconnected relationships. This is why qualitative insight – the insider perspective – to relationships as personally lived is indispensable.
3.4 We exemplify the figurational approach drawing from three empirical studies we have conducted. They all are about consequential life events and biographical change analysed in relation to the particular web of relations under reconfiguration. Phases of change highlight the lived relational tensions, which direct attention to why and how family relationships are often complicated and strained. Marriage, separation or divorce and other biographical disruptions reorganise family relationships, but also wider webs of friend and kin relations. From a figurational viewpoint all relations in which reconfigurations take place are significant, as they directly or indirectly affect the ways in which family relationships are lived and organised (Widmer et al. 2008). In each of the three studies the mapping of the webs of relationships included identifying who belongs to the significant web of relations, asking how, where and when these relations have been formed and maintained, and how they are interconnected. Such questions are about relationships, but also about the concrete relational settings in people's lives – past and present. Although we draw from some basic principles of network analysis, relationships are more than anything understood qualitatively as embodying multifaceted dynamics. The idea is to stay close to the lived relationships. Systematic analysis of specific relational settings is valuable, as it allows us to see the personally lived in light of the consequential micro-structures, which both enable and constrain people (cf. Emirbayer and Goodwin 1994).
3.5 Our empirical study examples are cross-paradigmatic, using 'two or more methods that draw on different meta-theoretical assumptions' (Moran-Ellis et al. 2006: 46). The strategy has been to integrate methodologies not only in setting them in a dialogue at the end of the research process, but cross-fertilising them in a mutually constitutive way in each phase of data collection, analysis and interpretation (ibid.). We have retained the modalities of qualitative interviewing and a systematic mapping of relationships (which we have also called configurational analysis; Castrén 2008; Widmer et al. 2008), and given them equal weight. In this effort, the analytical focus is on relational dynamics, actions and events, which are consequential in the sense that they reconfigure subsequent relations and actions (cf. Mische 2011; Tilly 2004).
3.6 The figurational approach is one way of doing multi-method research. There is a similarity to what Brannen (2013) has noted about the importance of filling in 'the wider context' in narrative analysis. Figurations of relationships can be seen as such contexts from various relational perspectives (e.g. biographical, geographical and emotional). Mixing narrative analysis to a systematic analysis of wider figurations is valuable 'precisely because it evinces the emotional messiness, uncertainties and fluidity that constitute relational experience' (cf. Gabb 2009: 49). The key is to methodologically find ways to grasp the complex interplay between social or structural expectations and personal affinities that are focal in the realm of both family and intimacy.
4.1 Our study examples are from our published research projects on marriage, divorce or separation and other disruptive life events (see Castrén 2008; Castrén and Maillochon 2009; Maillochon and Castrén 2011; Ketokivi 2008; 2009; 2010; 2012). We present the studies focusing on the methodological aspects to illustrate how the proposed approach can be used in studying family relationships and what figurational sensitivity means in practice.
4.2 The first example is from a study on young heterosexual couples getting married for the first time and on the interplay between individual preferences and social constraints in family formation and in its inaugural performance, the wedding (seeCastrén and Maillochon 2009; Maillochon and Castrén 2011). Weddings make an excellent setting for analysis as they mark the significant moment of the merging of two individual webs of relations into a shared family figuration. This change is anticipated and seen as a part of the significant life project of becoming married and starting a family. Contemporary weddings are characteristically happy, effervescent, carefully planned and even lavish celebrations of romantic love based on the partners' free choice: instead of just living together, the couple has decided to commit to each other in front of their loved ones and society (see e.g. Ingraham 1999; Otnes and Pleck 2003; Maillochon 2011). The merging of two individual figurations is put on display at the wedding for the first time (cf. Finch 2007). The setting, however, is filled with tensions and constraints that exist beyond the couple.
4.3 The analysis focused on the people with whom the couple wanted to share their special day, as wedding guests compose a highly relevant web of relations: they form a carefully selected group of people who are chosen to witness the first display of the couple as husband and wife. The research participants were 12 white, heterosexual couples (six French, six Finnish) between 23 and 36 years of age. The data consists of couple interviews and questionnaires filled by both bride and groom separately on all people invited to each couple's wedding. Interviews focused on the organising process of the wedding, particularly the selection of guests. How were they chosen and, subsequently, whose wedding is it?
4.4 The first line of analysis focused on the insider perspective and on the couples' narratives on their wedding. The couples were very clear in stating that they sought to organise a wedding that 'looked like them' and nobody else (cf. Maillochon 2011; Otnes and Pleck 2003). Couples claimed the ownership of the occasion; it is their wedding and not their mothers' or anybody else's. Regarding family and relatives, couples' views were highly ambiguous. On the one hand, family members, especially couples' parents, grandparents and siblings, were presented as willing, devoted and taken-for-granted participants and assistants in the wedding preparations. On the other hand, they and their opinions were considered as a threat to the event that was not to be primarily a family celebration, but a careful performance of the couple's individuality. In particular, many couples expressed reservations about inviting relatives outside the immediate family.
4.5 The second line of analysis concentrated on the questionnaires and the selection of wedding guests from an 'outsider perspective': who were selected as guests, who had initiated the invitation, what was the guest's relationship to the couple and how emotionally close or distant did the bride and groom consider each guest? The results challenged and even contradicted the idea of the wedding as the couple's own. The questionnaires revealed that more relatives and, for the couples personally, rather distant friends of their parents were invited than was implied in the interviews.
4.6 The narratives and questionnaires produced two different stories about weddings, and it was clear that organising principles (cf. Fuhse 2009) other than the one highlighted by couples were also at play. This discrepancy was further investigated by focusing on the role of other people taking part in the wedding preparations: those discussed by couples in the interview or figuring in the questionnaires as mediators of couples' relations. Not surprisingly, the parents of the couple, and especially mothers, turned out as highly significant in the organising of the relational setting of the wedding. Parents played a much greater role in planning the guest list and mediating relations than what was apparent from the narratives. The couples were clearly constrained by their families. The tension between parents' expectations and the couple's preferences was toned down in the interviews in favour of the narrative of 'our wedding', although the parents' wishes were in fact quite binding.
4.7 The two lines of analysis – of the narratives and of the guest lists, insider and outsider perspectives – bring to light the social constraints delimiting couples' agency. As a particular phase of change, marriage implies relational changes that can be manoeuvred to a much larger extent than some other life events, and weddings show how figurations of significant people are at times actively and consciously constructed. Yet, couples have to balance their own preferences and familial constraints in order to have a 'proper' audience for displaying their reconfigured relationship as a new social unit, the couple as 'us' (cf. Finch 2007). Weddings turned out to be more about family than what was expected based on one line of analysis only. And, as a figuration of important relationships, 'family' covers not exclusively intimate relationships or the personally significant, but also familial loyalties and relational structures that influenced couples' choices and decisions. In figurational thinking the case highlights the relational interdependencies and power balances (Elias 1978) that structure family relationships: individuals do not act in a vacuum but come in figurations, bound together by their mutual loyalties and commitments.
4.8 The second example draws on three kinds of data. The example is from a Finnish study on reconfigurations of family and kin relationships after separation or divorce (seeCastrén 2008; 2009). Family dissolution generates change and tension in a large number of relations, and the study focused on the kin group composition after separation and especially on in-law relationships. Repartnering generates yet more turmoil, as questions arise concerning who will be included and excluded from the stepfamily's circle of significant relatives.
4.9 In this study, figurations consisted of all people the research participants – 19 mothers and 15 fathers (all separated from a heterosexual partnership at some point in their life) –considered as close or otherwise important and present in their everyday life. These webs of relations were relevant as they illuminated new affiliations evolving after the dissolution of a culturally hegemonic structure, the nuclear family. Data on relationships was collected through in-depth interviews with name generator questions (cf. Marsden 2011) about confidentiality, support (given and received), everyday practices, and family and holiday celebrations. The interviewer listed all the names mentioned during an interview in a questionnaire which was later completed by research participants. Respondents also completed a 'who-knows-whom' matrix, allowing for the structural analysis of the figuration.
4.10 The analysis proceeded as a dialogical process between interviews on the significant relationships, questionnaire data on these same relations and information on the figuration structure. In the narratives children were often mentioned as the reason to continue the relationship with former in-laws, and although other motives were brought up, the role of former in-laws in the current family situation was mostly downplayed and they were seldom narrated as personally significant people for the interviewees. However, the other forms of data challenged this. The majority of participants not only had former in-laws in their figurations, typically children's biological relatives, but the analysis of the trans-actions between research participants and former in-laws (based on the reported frequency of contact, last contact, freeform description of the relationship and degree of felt closeness) pointed to a stable 'enclave' in which former in-law relations were maintained: the relationships were activated during holidays, on family rituals and celebrations and especially on children's birthdays. Moreover, the questionnaires showed how the former in-laws were sometimes considered emotionally closer than the present in-laws. This aspect was not displayed in the interviews at all.
4.11 Next, the interconnections between people were analysed from an 'outsider's perspective' from who-knows-whom matrices using Ucinet network analysis software (Borgatti et al. 2002). Structural analysis indicated how people and relationships in a figuration were clustered (e.g. Scott and Carrington 2011). The structural position of the former in-laws turned out to be surprisingly central, indicating that the figurations had not gone through a pervasive transformation, but had remained rather similar. The position of former in-laws in the kin group appeared to be quite stable, in spite of the separation. In light of the narratives that focused on the present rather than the past, this was an unexpected finding. In all, the analysis illuminated multifaceted and even conflicting dynamics: there is structural and also emotional stability (a particular 'enclave' for socialising with former in-laws, who, in the questionnaires, were reported as being relatively close) and relational pressure ('for the children's sake') towards maintaining the contact, but also a tendency to downplay the role of former in-laws as personally significant.
4.12 In taking a further look at the kin group composition, two ways of dealing with these conflicting tendencies emerged, highlighting different views about how family and kin membership is determined. The predominant way, the extended reconstituted family model, included both former and current in-laws as kin group members (present in 28 figurations, women's and men's). The other way, the serial nuclear families-based kin model, on the other hand, included no former in-laws and was exclusively found in men's figurations (six cases). The two models highlighted different bonds as primary: the bond between the parent and the child (in the extended family model) or the one between the couple (in the serial nuclear family model). These primary bonds organised figurations and lay at the core of the recurrent tensions in webs of relationships as they pulled towards opposing kin models.
4.13 The multifaceted dynamics concerning former in-laws could not be grasped through the narrative perspective alone – a systematic analysis of the actualised relations and their interconnectedness was required. Even though the narratives focused on current partnership as the focal constituent of family and kin group, participants' relationships with their children from previous unions, with former partners and in-laws – all interconnected – formed a relational structure that constrained inclusion in or exclusion from the kin group. In addition to actors' motives and personal significance, formation and re-formation of family relationships were influenced by structural dynamics in which gendered and generational hierarchies (cf. Edwards and Gillies 2012) and cultural understandings regarding the primacy of relationships (parent-child relationship or couple relationship) organised the figuration (Castrén 2008).
4.14 The third study was interested in the ways in which people live and build their lives bound to others that are personally significant to them in situations of biographical disruptions (Bury 1982) that highlight dependence and interdependence between people (Ketokivi 2008; 2009; 2010; 2012). As disruptive times often reconfigure people's selves and relationships, the study investigated significant bonds in relation to the dramatic incidents involved in a contentious divorce, the loss of a spouse, the loss of ability to work, depression and infertility. All these events break the foundational aspects of life and force people to live without a family member, health or anticipated future prospects, such as the ability to work and have children. On the one hand, the study aimed at understanding the reconfiguration of selves as 'relational' and in relation to significant relationships and, on the other, at understanding the ways in which a disruption reorganises the whole web of significant relationships.
4.15 The research material was collected from 37 Finnish adults (24 women, 13 men, 30-76 years of age), in 80 interviews in total. All participants were white, lived in urban or suburban localities in Southern Finland and identified themselves as heterosexual, even if their intimates included people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations.
4.16 The first line of analysis was based on personal narratives (cf. Mason 2004). Name generator questions, such as who had been involved in the critical events and afterwards, and on the significance of this involvement (or withdrawal), were asked in order to identify the relevant web of relations and the role of particular others. In the analysis, different dynamics of bonding between the self and others were identified. Narratives showed how the loss of a spouse, for example, broke the self 'into pieces' and how they relied on others' assistance. The closest others were narrated as constitutive to the self, while other intimates gave tangible, including financial, support (or withdrew from assistance), thus maintaining the self and her or his life. Sharing with 'fellow sufferers' outside the immediate family was often experienced as empowering and was sought from both personal networks and support groups. In the isolating effect of disruption, even a sympathetic response from more distant acquaintances became significant. 'People keep their distance', as an acutely depressed man testified, making sense of the reconfiguration of his web of significant relations from an insider perspective. These dynamics were highlighted in the narratives.
4.17 The second line of analysis focused on the systematic mapping and analysis of this figuration as a whole: the first interview ended by interviewees filling out a circles map of all significant people (Ketokivi 2010: 70; cf. Spencer and Pahl 2006) and, in addition, questionnaires (See note 2) on this figuration were completed between the first and second interviews. The subsequent interview(s) inquired further into relational trans-actions (Emirbayer 1997), such as support, advice and emotional sharing, but also into the disappointing trans-actions of withdrawal and rejection. The circles maps pictured the different intensities of closeness and the position of particular relationships both in relation to the interviewee and the figuration as a whole. (Ketokivi 2010).
4.18 This second phase placed the narratives in the context of the wider web of relations under reconfiguration. The circles maps and the questionnaires helped us to grasp how a disruptive incident had transformed the figuration. The analysis showed that even when dependent, people actively manage their close relations. Different kinds of support were sought from different relationships, creating a differentiated relational setting that protects people from full dependence on particular others. This logic, however, did not come up in the interviews and felt unlikely that actors themselves were aware of such differentiation.
4.19 Combining the two lines of analysis highlighted the ways in which both the breakdown and the rebuilding of selves were relational processes in which others played a significant role. Losing a loved one broke the self, much like Elias illuminated in his analysis of emotional valencies as not only relationships between people, but rather something integral to the self. In the process of breaking down, the 'capable individual' (Ketokivi and Meskus, submitted) broke, and the self stagnated and fell on others' assistance. Moreover, the rebuilding process did not only 'restore' the self to what was before, but 'reconfigured' it into partly something new (cf. Sennet 2013). In the biographical disruption that broke some bonds and created some new ones, an unseen dynamic was created. In the most unfortunate cases, where no maintaining support was available and thus no relational basis for reconfiguration existed, accumulated disruptions broke the self to the extent that reclaiming agency over one's life seemed extremely difficult. (Ketokivi 2008).
4.20 Grasping the web of relationships through the circles maps and questionnaires provided important understanding of the extent to which certain categorical cultural expectations (such as 'families stick together in a crisis') or actual structural dynamics (such as the consistent way in which parents were protected from worrying) were at play. Biographical disruptions personalise all relationships beyond their conventional categorisation as 'family relationships' or 'friends'. The logic regarding the significance of relationships becomes less given and more personal. There was less emphasis put on categorical identities, such as 'after all he is my brother', and more on personally felt ones, such as 'he was really able to be there for me'. (Ketokivi 2008; 2010).
4.21 Importantly, however, close relationships were not made sense of, or negotiated, as dyadic ones, but as embedded in wider webs of relations. This explains the devastating double effect of losing a spouse: becoming a widow or widower does not only mean losing someone particularly close, but often also breaking out of the social world in which couples socialise together, as is common in Finland (e.g. Ketokivi 2012; Castrén and Lonkila 2004). After the breakdown of a couple, individuals faced either a pressure to re-couple, or to change their relational orientation altogether, socialising with others living outside conventional family life (Ketokivi 2012). This meant a deep reconfiguration of the self.
4.22 In all, the figurational approach added sensitivity to structural dynamics of significant relations and showed how being close to someone is not merely 'personal', but importantly also a structural condition related to the idea of family in society. (Ketokivi 2008; 2010, 2012) While relationships were personalised, at the same time family appeared as an order principle (Fuhse 2009) of both selves and wider webs of relations. Being part of a family operates as an organising force that enables certain kinds of sociable relations (couple sociability) and involvement in the wider community. When one steps outside the coupled life, the demands on the self in knitting together an alternative figuration of intimates is different (Ketokivi 2012). In this sense, the relational constitution of the self and family are closely intertwined and interconnected (Widmer et al. 2008: 6).
5.1 The figurational approach highlights the utility of going beyond interviews to collect additional information about the relational context in a structured manner. This is not to say that in-depth interviews focusing on personal narratives are somehow faulty, but that other means of data collection can produce valuable information on the social or relational organisation of relations. Mapping webs of relationships is a rather simple procedure yet it is extremely helpful in grasping the structuring mechanisms present in personal relationships.
5.2 It is important to note that in every research project the relevant web of relationships needs to be defined in terms of the research question. What kinds of relations, people, actors or settings are involved? It is better to be inclusive rather than exclusive in delineating the web of relationships considered relevant. The second task is to determine what kind of information is needed about relations and people involved. Decisions regarding these aspects guide the selection of the most appropriate methods and their combination as figurations can be mapped in different ways by using, for example, name generator questions in interviews, diaries, questionnaires and circles maps (see e.g. Hollstein 2011; Kahn and Antonucci 1980; Marsden 1990).
5.3 The selection of analytical tools after the initial mapping of relations is consequential. The use of circles maps, for example – a technique where the interviewee places people in a map of concentric circles (e.g. Spencer and Pahl 2006) –places emphasis on relationships as subjectively lived and encourages personal reflection on their significance and possible differences. The resulting material is indispensable for research questions formulated from a phenomenological perspective. Alternatively, placing the people in a matrix and asking the research participant to indicate who knows whom in her or his figuration sets the question outside the research participant's subjective experience and focuses on actualised trans-actions between persons. The resulting material is useful, especially when the research is interested in realised interconnections and their clusters.
5.4 Figurational analysis builds on the idea of cross-fertilisation of different kinds of data (Moran-Ellis et al. 2006) sourced from interviews, relationship questionnaires, circles maps or matrices. It is important to be conscious of the different paradigmatic perspectives (ibid.). The narratives highlight personally significant sense-making in a face-to-face interaction with the interviewer, while in completing questionnaires about the people and relationships involved, interviewees act as informants reporting predefined aspects of their relations. The questionnaires map the relevant figuration from a different perspective from narratives. Although people are in any given moment not fully aware of the patterns of all their significant relations, they are capable of reporting concrete trans-actions which enable the researcher to construct a figuration from an outsider's perspective.
5.5 The different kinds of data and lines of analysis are set in a dialogue in which they challenge, accompany, object to and complement one other. It is important to analyse the emerging discrepancies between datasets, for example those between narratives and more structured information, as they reveal multifaceted dynamics. Personal narratives tend to highlight agency and sense-making, whereas the actualised relationship patterns testify to the grip of social expectations. Discrepancies point out tensions in which relationships are actually lived and make visible something that easily remains hidden in narratives (cf. Elias 1978: 153-154; Mennell 1992: 268).
6.1 In this article we have proposed a figurational approach that bridges two perspectives entailing somewhat contradictory views in family and relationship studies: a methodological focus on personal narratives and sense-making, and perspectives that aim to grasp more structural dynamics of families as units of belonging. Drawing from Elias's notion of figuration that refers to the inescapable interdependencies of individuals and their lives, the figurational approach combines insider and outsider perspectives. It stresses the importance of the 'I-perspective' of qualitative interviews combined with a systematic mapping of webs of relationships carried out with the use of questionnaires or circles maps, for example. It thus involves a multi-method analysis, where different kinds of data are collected and analysed to illuminate the question at hand from different angles. The notion of figuration theoretically bridges these angles and grasps the ambivalences of lived family relationships that can be seen as entanglements of their subjective meanings and various social and structural expectations that arise from their social organisation as widely spreading chains of interdependencies.
6.2 The figurational approach places research participants in two roles: firstly as narrators of their personal relationships and secondly as informants about the people, relationships and relational settings in their lives. The two positions give access to different kinds of material that are seen to provide both insider and more 'factual' or outsider perspectives to family relationships. Yet, when research participants themselves fill in questionnaires about their relationships, how can we claim that this information offers an outsider view and not just another kind of insider perspective? Is it not still, in a sense, their narrative? Certainly, research participants decide what to report. However, as the information requested in the questionnaires, for example, is mostly factual by nature (socio-demographic information, or details related to a person or relationship in question; see notes 1 and 2), the resulting material is to a considerable extent devoid of subjective sense-making. Through the questionnaires, research participants report various – and from their perspective often quite insignificant-looking – details which take a different form to a narrative. They are organised by the researcher that has an outsider's view of the particular web of relationships. As in Elias's example about a football match as a figuration, the actors are aware of – and can name – the others in the field but they are unable to see the changing constellation of players and their subsequent moves as a whole. Similarly, individuals embedded in webs of relationships can act as informants about their relationships while the dynamics of their figuration – things that constrain and enable action – can be put together only by an outsider.
6.3 The proposed approach is characteristically an open-ended effort that can produce unanticipated, even counter-intuitive results. It stresses sensitivity towards ambivalence instead of smooth stories (cf. Gabb 2009). As shown in the cases above, the figurational approach can illuminate contradictory tendencies in lived family relationships. In the wedding case, for example, balancing between individual preferences and the expectations of significant 'family others' appeared as the focal challenge of couples who were getting married and organising a wedding. In our view, studying the multifaceted and sometimes even contradictory dynamics of contemporary family relationships can be grasped only by preserving both the individual's perspective of the personally significant and the idea of the family as a unit of togetherness and belonging that calls for a 'language' of its own (cf. Ribbens McCarthy 2012).
6.4 The figurational approach is a further attempt to develop theoretically sound but sensitive ways of mixing methods in a qualitatively driven way (e.g. Mason 2006). In it, social categorisations are not taken as given, but the evolvement of the relationships and the processes of categorisation are qualitatively examined at the same time as their current patterns are systematically investigated. Elias's ideas of interdependence can be used in developing insightful ways to tease out the personally significant relations that may or may not fall into the conventional category of 'family relationships' and to collect systematic information of formations in which the personal meanings of family are anchored (cf. Ribbens McCarthy 2012).
6.5 Figurational understanding offers a theoretical continuum, a vocabulary of interdependence, through which different methodological viewpoints can be actualised. Interviewing people about their personal lives is in itself showing an interest in lived interdependences at a particular level. A systematic mapping of relationships and their connectedness on the other hand is further shaped by the idea that all personal and familial events and meanings are not isolated but come in figurations that have to be generated in the research process. The proposed viewpoint implies the acknowledgement that lived relationships are often contradictory and ambiguous, and it provides a theoretical insight and specific cues to grasp that very ambiguity. Qualitative analysis that is theoretically elaborate and reflexive has great potential to make a difference in a wide array of sociological discussions, including theory construction (Timmermans and Tavory 2012). It is our belief that theorising about family benefits from thought-through multi-method approaches that point out incongruities in the meanings attached to family. Such approaches help grasp the ways in which people seek to reconcile individual and collective needs and what is expected of them in families and other personally significant relationships.
1 Questionnaires included the following information on every guest: name, age, gender, place of birth and residence, education or occupation, marital status, who invites the particular guest, who met the guest first (bride or groom), when and where, and how often and in what ways the relationship is maintained at present. The bride and groom reported separately on what their relationship with the guest is, when they have been in contact the last time and whether they have visited each other's homes. Lastly they evaluated how emotionally close the relationship with the guest is (on a scale of 1-4). (See also Maillochon 2002).
2 Questionnaires included information about the person mentioned and about interviewee's relationship with him/her: name, age, gender, education/occupation, family situation, place of residence, place of birth, duration of the relationship, the context and the way the relationship was formed, who had introduced this person to the interviewee, the nature of relationship (as an open question), felt closeness (on a scale 1-7), the frequency and the primary means of contact (as an open question), and the description of the context and time of the last encounter (as an open question).
3 The matrix reported whether, according to the research participants, the persons listed knew each other. Respondents were asked to enter 1 if both persons knew each other and 0 if they did not know each other. (See e.g. Scott 1991).
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