Eric D. Widmer

Widmer,E. (2004).Couples and their networks In: Richards M., Scott J., Treas J.(Eds). Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Families. Blackwell publisher, London, pp. 356-373.

Conjugal dyads in the Western world, as the anthropologist Hsu pointed out, present an interesting paradox: They are at the same time prominent over all other interpersonal relationships and extremely unstable, as shown by the high divorce rates currently characterizing contemporary Western societies (Hsu, 1971). What then are the joint effects of the inherent centrality and fragility of conjugal dyads on the relational contexts in which those dyads are embedded ? If couples are so central, their fragility is likely to have profound consequences beyond nuclear families. Likewise, the centrality and fragility of conjugal dyads means that network members may have strong concerns about what happens to them. Social networks may in various ways influence the trajectories of couples, while couples’ trajectories may strongly affect social networks. Thus, we hypothesize that there is a duality between couples and their networks, which has profound consequences for the understanding of both relational realities. This chapter focuses on the interconnections between couples and their networks, firstly in paying attention to conjugal network features, secondly in showing how they are linked with conjugal functioning. Two major types of variables have been considered by research dealing with the interdependence between couples and their networks. Some scholars have been mostly interested in exchanges taking place in conjugal networks. Supports and transactions of various forms--financial, material, psychological--characterize the embeddedness of couples in networks. This first set of variables is mostly quantitative and dynamic in nature, as they deal with the quantity of resources provided by networks to couples. They have a functional orientation, as they focus on how services provided by networks may or may not foster the adaptation of nuclear units. Other scholars, however, have emphasized structural dimensions of conjugal networks, that may be associated with conjugal functioning. Composition, connectivity, boundedness and overlap of conjugal networks are structural features that were taken into consideration when asserting the interrelations between networks and conjugal functioning. This contribution underscores the interconnections existing between functional and structural features of conjugal networks and conjugal functioning. One difficulty is the fact that for a long time empirical research specialized in either kinship or friendship relationships. This separation of empirical kinship and friendship studies was detrimental to the understanding of the interrelations between networks and couples, as it is very difficult to grasp the functional and structural features of one set of relationships without information on the other. Hopefully, more recent research have focused on conjugal networks as a whole. This chapter will show how various aspects of conjugal functioning are affected by conjugal networks formed by relatives and friends; it also shows how conjugal functioning affects various dimensions of friendship and kinship ties beyond nuclear units. The next pages do not constitute a full literature review on dimensions of conjugal networks, but rather extract some of their most central features for the understanding of couples.
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