Eric D. Widmer

Family and Personal Configurations

Family research often predefine what families are and focus on a small number of family dyads (mostly husbands and wives, sometimes parents and their biological children or siblings). Because of the complexity of contemporary family contexts, researchers need to go beyond those dyads and see how a large and non deterministic set of family relationships are intertwined.

The configurational perspective on families provides a new way of studying family relationships based on social network methods. I believe that it helps to the understanding of a variety of family experiences. THIS BOOK presents the fundamentals of the configurational perspective on families, as well as a variety of case studies on families based on that perspective

From the 1930s through the 1990s, German sociologist Norbert Elias’s theory of social groups as configurations contributed greatly to various fields of sociology. We note here a few of his most pertinent arguments for family research. Elias defined configurations as “structures of mutually oriented and dependent people”. Individuals, Elias proposed, are interdependent in a configuration because each one fulfills some of the others' needs for social recognition, power, emotional proximity, financial and practical resources, or other socially defined needs. As such, configurations have to deal with power issues: resources are scarce and individuals, while cooperating, also compete for them within groups. This competition creates tensions and conflicts, which are beyond individual control. The patterns of interdependencies that characterize any configuration, therefore, are largely unintended (Newton, 1999). They, in turn, shape the cooperation strategies and the conflicts that occur in each dyad belonging to it (Elias, 1983).

The configurational perspective on families is based on four assumptions:

First, families should not be defined mainly by institutional criteria such as “belonging to a household” or “being part of a socially recognized partnership.” Although these criteria are important in their own right, they are not central in the configurational approach. The actualized relationships should instead be the point of departure.

Second, instead of focusing on specific dyads (e.g., the conjugal relationship or the tie between a parent and a child) as independent and separate entities, the configurational perspective takes into consideration the larger network of relationships in which the dyads are embedded. In order to understand the functioning of any dyad, we need to analyze also its relational context: the pattern of family relationships affecting the conjugal tie, for example.

Third, individuals and group structures are twofold. On one hand, understanding choices, commitments, and negotiations that individuals make in their lives requires a clear understanding of the family interdependencies in which they are embedded, and on the other hand, understanding the interdependencies linking individuals requires insights about identity, choices, and commitments that individuals make regarding their family members. A configurational approach cannot ignore the structural dimensions of family configurations or the impact that individuals’ identity, perceptions, and projects have on him or her.

Finally, a configuration perspective on the family emphasizes its historical and spatial nature. All human configurations evolve through time and place: chains of interdependencies among individuals change because of societal, social, cultural, and economic changes. A configurational approach of the family should include information about time and place and should measure change and stability across historical periods and individual life courses.

The configurational perspective on families is associated with the Family Network Method (FNM), an instrument that I have been developing and testing for more than a decade.

Key references

Girardin, M., Widmer, E. D., Connidis, I. A., Castrén, A. M., Gouveia, R., & Masotti, B. (2018). Ambivalence in Later?Life Family Networks: Beyond Intergenerational Dyads. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(3), 768-784.

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Widmer, E.D., Girardin, M., Ludwig, C. (2017). Conflict structures in family networks of older adults and their Relationship with health-related qualiy of life. Journal of Family Issues. pp. 1-25. description | Full text

Widmer, E.D., Viry, G. (2017). Family inclusiveness and spatial dispersion: The spatial consequences of having large and diversified family configurations. Open Journal of Social Sciences. Vol. 5, pp. 350-367.

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Widmer, E.D. (2016). Family configurations. A Structural Approach to Family Diversity. London, Routledge (reedition). description | Full text

Widmer, E.D., Ganjour, O. (2016). Patterns of family salience and welfare state regimes: sociability practices and support norms in a comparative perspective. European Societies. Vol. 18, n°3, pp. 201-220. description |

Widmer, E.D., Girardin, M. (2016). Actively generating one's family: How elders shape their family configurations. In : Scabini, E., Rossi, G. (eds). L'allungamento della vita. Una risorsa per la famiglia, un'opportunità per la società. Vita E Pensiero, Milano. pp. 85-104.

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Widmer, E.D., Aeby, G. et Sapin, M. (2013). Collecting Family Network Data. International Review of Sociology . Vol. 23, n° 1, pp. 27-46. description | Full text

Widmer, E.D. (1999). Family contexts as cognitive networks: A structural approach of family relationships. Personal Relationships, vol. 6, n°4, pp. 487-503.

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