Eric D. Widmer

Widmer, E.D. and Castren, A.-M. and Jallinoja R. and Ketovici,K. (2008).Afterthoughts In: Widmer E. D. and Jallinoja R.(Eds). Beyond the Nuclear Family. Families in a Configurational Perspective. Peter Lang, Berne, pp. 379-401.
The configurational approach to studying families is led by several key ideas underlined in the introduction to this book. How were they served in this volume? This conclusion stresses some results that appear to be especially significant for the configurational approach of families. We do not intend to give full justice to all chapters in detailed assessments of their respective contributions. We wish, rather, to pinpoint some examples that may help research to go further in the study of family configurations. A first assumption of the configurational approach of families underlines the notion that significant family ties exist beyond the household and the nuclear family. This book provides ample evidence that this is indeed the case. Parents and children stay connected in adulthood. Emotional closeness and practical support between them are often significant. Care is based on love, but love has a strong statuary component and is not the result of free choice. Siblings often keep emotional connections and stay interdependent throughout their lives due to their parents and their common history. Caring for older parents creates complex sets of interdependencies among parents and children and among siblings. The configurational approach shows that the diversification of family forms since the sixties has not ceased people’s commitments to each other, even though these commitments express themselves concretely in many ways. Family relationships are still laden with different expectations of loyalty, and a collectively shared understanding of the hierarchical order of many family relationships remains. Not all family members have equal functional importance and structural centrality. An implicit hierarchical ordering of dyads exists. The fundamentals of the nuclear family, husband–wife, parents and children, and siblings remain the backbone of post-nuclear families. Beyond strong ties such as parent–child and conjugal ties, family configurations include many weaker ties that have an importance of their own. Cousins, uncles, and aunts in general do not hold the first functional roles in one’s life. But they may be crucial at one point or another in life. In case of divorce, aunts and uncles may play a role of parent surrogates for some time. In other cases, their significance represents a weaker kind of bonding, providing a sense of family membership associated with narratives about the family or personal history. In other words, they may not be directly influential, but their inclusion in the family configuration helps to maintain it. They may hold some symbolic primacy in the family history or they may be caring for one family member strongly connected to ego without necessarily being directly linked to him or her. Distant relatives, in a word, require little from us while providing a sense of identity and belonging, which is important. Those weak ties are the turf on which strong family ties can emerge. This is also true of individuals—such as acquaintances—beyond family configurations, who are part of their interactional environment.

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