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No 34 - 2019

New Frontiers in Conjugal and Family Intimacy
Directed by Chiara Piazzesi, Martin Blais, Hélène Belleau

Boundaries of Marital and Family Intimacy: From Theory to Empirical Approaches
Chiara Piazzesi, Martin Blais, Hélène Belleau

Research Framework: This article discusses the symbolic, discursive and practical boundaries of intimate relationships. Our approach is inspired by Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory. The « boundary » is conceived as an operation of a relationship in relation to itself: the relationship defines itself through its communicative operations and thus defines the legitimate expectations of its members. The relation thus exists as a boundary through its communicative operations, which directly or indirectly determine what it is and what it is not. Symbols, rules of meaning and semantic references are tools used in boundary work. However, the symbols do not define the ways in which these tools may be employed in this work.

Objectives: The article has two main objectives. First, by utilizing and defining the concepts of « boundaries » and « boundary work, » the paper offers innovative theoretical tools for intimacy research. Second, it demonstrates the empirical utility of these concepts by discussing examples of their application to the study of forms and processes of intimacy in the social sciences.

Methodology: Primarily theoretical in focus, the paper begins by conceptually clarifying and defining the concepts of « boundaries » and « boundary work » in the social sciences, and then discusses their applications to intimate, marital and family relationships.

Results: The boundaries of relationships emerge from the operationalization of symbols, semantic references or rules of meaning in communication between partners or members of relationships. The symbols used do not determine the methods of their operationalization, which makes it necessary to observe the operations of the boundary work directly in order to describe and understand them.

Conclusions: Having explored the theoretical and empirical foundations of the concept of boundaries in the sociology of intimate relations, this paper documents the centrality of semantics and discourse in the boundary work that defines intimate relations. It also shows how the concept captures the operations of self-definition that the relationships themselves need in order to continue to exist. 

Contribution: This article summarizes what is known about the concept of boundaries and shows its heuristic potential for addressing intimate, marital or family relationships. The articles collected in this issue also contribute by demonstrating its relevance in analyzing a diversity of intimate relationships, regardless of their composition, duration, or degrees of stability or institutionalization.


Construction, Protection and Reinforcement of Intimacy Frontiers in Foster Care in Russia
Ekaterina Pereprosova

Research Framework: The article questions the construction, protection and reinforcement of intimacy frontiers in Russian foster families according to the type of placement.

Objectives: It aims at analysing these processes as resulting from communication between three functional systems: foster family, institutional actors and biological family. In the heart of this communication lies the meaning given to fostering by different actors as well as recent injunctions of the child welfare social policies promoting professionalization of family placement and a bigger responsabilisation of the biological family.

Methodology: The analysis is based on the stories told by four foster mothers which were collected during the fieldwork conducted during the first year of the author’s PhD.

Results: The article demonstrates that the tendencies to protect, reinforce and outline the intimacy frontiers vary in accordance with the type of placement which, in its turn, tend to depend on the foster parents’ socialisation milieu, their expectations about this activity as well as the profiles of available/desirable children.

Conclusions: The studied cases give us an insight into the analysis of electivity of kinship ties and illustrate the concept of the relational family by de Singly as chosen and not statutory defined ties.

Contribution: The article contributes to the childhood and kinship studies.


The shifting territories of privacy : between spatial and temporal inequalities. A case study of contemporary single-parent families.
Alexandra Piesen

Research Framework : For quite some years we have witnessed raising number of divorces and separations in France (Buisson et al., 2015). The  » family  » became « families » with the emergence of new structures such as solo parenthood, mixed families, same-sex families… Those new familial structures make specific questions emerge on how to be a parent (Martial, 2016), but also how to deal with intimacy and personal spaces (Martin, 2001).

Objectives : The goal of the article is to understand how becoming a solo parent redefines intimacy by studying how solo parents deal with time and space since the separation. 

Methodology : To answer these questions, we based our research on a qualitative study’s lead in France with 54 solo parents (18 fathers and 36 mothers). Those solo parents have the day-to-day residency of their children under 18 years and live without spouses.

Results : The results of this study show that becoming a solo parent forces them to implement a lot of changes. They must establish new boundaries, temporal as well as spatial, sometimes changing during the day, in order to preserve the intimacy of each member of the family. If fathers and mothers are different regarding how they became solo parents, they are also different regarding how they deal with these new boundaries. As a matter of fact, some inequalities, linked to how you become a solo parent, are found again in how to deal with these boundaries. 

Conclusions : Although parents have different lives and strategies regarding maintaining or redefining the boundaries of both familial and conjugal intimacy, they all chose familial boundaries to be more important than their personal needs of conjugal boundaries. They all put the interest of the child above personal considerations.

Contribution : Very few studies are about solo parents taking into account the gendered experiences. The goal of this contribution was to bring some elements of information concerning the day-to-day life of those solo parents. 


Boundaries of intimacy for women artists in France (2006-2016)
Anaïs Chevillot

Research Framework: This article is based on a doctoral research in sociology conducted with contemporary French women artists.

Objectives: The goal is to demonstrate how the boundaries of intimacy are difficult to draw for these women whose profession is considered very « engaging » and that contradicts certain stereotypes related to the role of women in our contemporary western societies.

Methodology: I conducted a qualitative analysis of semi-structured interviews with women artists between the ages of 18 and 75. I noted the discourses emerging from these life stories and identified the main salient features.

Results: We will retain as a result that three main reasons explain why the boundaries of the intimate are unclear for women artists. The times and places where they work are often private, maternity and couple issues often take a professional dimension and careers seem closely linked to their personal trajectories.

Conclusions: In conclusion we will highlight how, on the one hand, the profession of an artist is still marked by a romantic image inducing a total consecration to art and, on the other hand, how much this cliche is difficult to reconcile with the stereotypes that still weigh today on women and their domestic and family role.

Contribution: This work brings a sociological perspective on the professional situation of women artists, not very well-known in France today, and a reflection on their relative absence of instances of recognition in the worlds of art.


Sexting in adolescence: from the boundaries of couple intimacy to at risk “extimity”
Fabienne Glowacz, Margot Goblet

Research Framework: In adolescence, romantic relationships play a significant role and provide a space where adolescents deepen the development of their emotional, social and cognitive skills, which they had already developed with their family and their friends. In the digital age, intimacy in teenagers’ relationships is tested, built and questioned in a social space that is part of both the real world and the virtual space. Sexting, a new modality for regulating intimacy under the prism of “extimity” in an environment dominated by digital technologies, raises questions about the real and perceived risks faced by young people and about the boundaries of intimacy.

Objectives: Our studies aim to better define the contexts and motivations for sexting practices, abusive uses related to cyber violence as well as the representations and risks perceived by adolescents and the prospects and needs for prevention according to young people.

Methodology: Two studies were conducted in Belgium among adolescents (study 1: N= 1321 – 45% male—middle age: 15.1 years [SD =2.1] and study 2: N= 340 – 65% male—middle age: 15.6 years [SD =1.7]). Questionnaires were collectively administered to participants met within schools.

Results: 18.7% in study 1 and 26% in study 2 report that they have already sent or posted sexy messages, photos or videos of themselves. Boys are more likely than girls to have practised sexting at least once and more specifically to have posted this type of content online. More than 60% of adolescent boys and girls intended this content for a love partner. 17.1% of participants reported that they had already been victims of at least one form of sexual and/or sexist cyber violence, namely the unwanted dissemination of sexual messages or images or threats to do so and insulting messages or rumours of a sexual nature.

Conclusions: As part of an exploration of adolescent sexuality, sexting serves “extimity” in the pursuit of developmental tasks. However, it is likely to give rise to major abuses and allow the virtual reproduction of sexist and dehumanizing attitudes and violence. The prevention needs suggested by both girls and boys reflect, among other things, the need for a framework containing these practices.

Contribution: Prevention in the field of sexual and emotional life, including sexting, remains the way to educate and secure adolescents in healthy sexual and emotional life practises from childhood onwards in school settings.


Ambiguities of sexuality in emerging relationships. The case of young female students in France
Christophe Giraud

Research Framework: In conjugal relationships, sexuality expresses the partners’ attraction and feelings for each other. In modern societies, it is also at the heart of encounters where two adults want to share a good time together without a marital perspective. Sexuality has become ambiguous.

Objectives: The objective of this article is to understand the uses of sexuality at the beginning of intimate history, at a time when it is sometimes difficult to “define the situation”. Today, a new way of getting in touch seems to be taking shape in France as elsewhere in the western world: more progressive, more uncertain, a sexualized but not only sexualized relationship, a “serious” but not immediately conjugal relationship. In these fragile and uncertain beginnings, what place and form does sexuality take?

Methodology: Our work is based on interviews with female students in the Paris region from 2005 to 2013. Twenty-six young women at the beginning of an intimate history – from one to three months ago – were interviewed at various points in their relationship.

Results: In these nascent relationships, it seems central for a woman to be able to orient herself with current cultural scenarios, as her feelings for the partner will take longer to settle down than they would have in a person of another generation. Here we will try to show how sexuality occupies an indispensable place in expressing attractiveness to the partner, and how it must both be euphemized and take specific forms so as not to steer the story towards the model of the ephemeral relationship.

Conclusions: Through its singular forms and content, sexuality today must contribute to what is at the heart of nascent relationships: the mutual knowledge of two singular individuals.

Contribution: This article offers a reflection on the meaning and place of sexual practices in young women’s nascent relationships. We insist on the “expressive” dimension of sexuality in a context where it has become difficult to orient oneself during intimate encounters and where stable relationships are being established more gradually. It provides a counterpoint to sociological interpretations that reduce young people’s intimate relationships to sexual consumption driven by self-interest.


Narratives of intimate relationship breakdowns: “creating meaning” by negotiating network boundaries
Gaëlle Aeby

Research Framework: In a context characterized both by an increase in the number of separations and by the persistence of the model of coupledom, an intimate relationship breakdown is an event that is experienced as a personal and painful ordeal by the individuals concerned. It is particularly the case since it does not only mean the end of a relationship, but also goes hand in hand with a transformation of their personal network.

Objectives: We study how individuals reform the boundaries of their personal network around the people who have provided them with support and recognition. We also look at the negotiations aiming toward a fair distribution – among ex-partners – of these formerly common relationships and at the feelings, notably of injustice, generated by this sharing process.

Methodology: This article is based on a detailed analysis of qualitative interviews conducted with young adults in Switzerland and England who separated from a partner with whom they used to live and had formed a common life project.

Results: We show that there are both gains and losses and that five types of network can be distinguished: friendly expansionfriendly retreatin negotiationparental refuge and new union. This reconfiguration is also accompanied by a narrative that is centred on a concept of justice based on three principles: ownership, equal sharing and degree of guilt.

Conclusions: We reveal that this work on boundaries is both concrete (loss and addition of relationships and reassessment of the degree of investment) and semantic (through the narrative developed). There is both a process of closing boundaries around people who have been supportive and a process of opening up to go beyond the couple relationship.

Contribution: This article is an invitation to reflect on the reconfiguration of the boundaries of intimacy and a new understanding of conjugality, since an intimate relationship breakdown for young adults is often accompanied by hopes for the formation of a new couple.


The Implications of Immigration System: Practices of Public and Private Definition and Redefinition of Binational Intimacy in France and in Belgium
Laura Odasso

Research Framework: In France and Belgium, since mid-1990, legislative provisions have tightened the conditions for concluding unions between a citizen and a non-European national and permitting the latter of stay. The suspicion of the immigration system, delineating a selective access to the nation by the construction of eminently normative forms of “making family”, impact couples’ intimacy.

Objectives: This article examines the changes in binational couples’ intimacy in the light of their encounters with the immigration system.

Methodology: The empirical material comes from a multi-site ethnography conducted by collecting the life histories of the partners (foreign and national) of about one hundred couples—analyzed with the method of “biographical policies’ evaluation”—and by participant observations within associative structures in French and Belgian cities.

Results: Over the course of administrative formalities, the couples’ privacy becomes “public” as they are invited to perform the “lovers” as the immigration system wishes. The resulting effect on the boundaries of their intimacy differs according to the permeability of the relationship to state interference. Different types of intimacy in adherence or in contrast with the state logic stands out, they are defined as “two-speed”, “resilient”, “in exchange” and “in splinters”.

Conclusions: The intimacies identified are the results of a “pact” between partners and the work that they have performed at the borders of the state encounters. In the wake of “intimate citizenship”, such work articulates private decisions and public practices, and moral dilemma relating to “family life”.

Contributions: The article shows the interweaving of institutional boundaries, worked by public policies, and conjugal, worked by emotions, expectations and exchanges, thanks to the sociology of preformative and intimate practices.


Transnational family, virtual copresence and re-construction of familyhood
Monica Schlobach

Research Framework: Many argue that the development of new information and communication technologies (ICT) would have given rise to a new way of retaining the emotional bond among transnational families. It would thus abolish the distance by establishing a virtual co-presence.

Objectives: The objective is to understand, through the study of the use of ICT, how transnational families manage to keep strong their familyhood. It also intends to discuss the limits of these practices on their ability to continue to « make family transnationally. »

Methodology: The analysis is based on data collected through in-depth interviews with Montreal-based migrants and their family members in Brazil.

Results: ICT has become a familiar tool in transnational family exchanges. They provide access both to ordinary and to special moments of family life. They give rise to new practices of family interactions. Nevertheless, they also imply constraints in the exchanges, as they appear to be an unsatisfactory solution to solve the problem of physical distance and separation.

Conclusions: The use of ICT has become an incorporated habit in transnational family life, for its informative power on the daily life of members of the transnational family. Virtual co-presence, however, is limited as far as the expression of emotions and family solidarity are concerned.

Contribution: The results presented allowed to identify the contributions, the ambivalences and the limits of the use of ICT to make family transnationally. They also revealed the formation of family micro-rituals, which act as mechanisms of regulation and expression of familyhood.


Extending One’s Spaces of Action in The Marital Sphere: Migration as a Resource
Nadia Mounchit

Research Framework: As part of a survey investigating the effects of the migratory experience on marital courses, this article discusses the modalities of rearrangements observed. An examination of the existing literature led us to notice the unequal consequences of migration on gender relations (between constraints and spaces of autonomy, especially for women), and yet the question of “how” such shifts are taking place remains to be explored (Catarino and Morokvasic, 2005).

Objectives: By considering the marital sphere as a locus crossed by power relations, what is at stake is to understand how the migratory situation affects the definition of the rules of marital life and in which ways it constitutes a resource available to individuals within the marital balance of powers.

Methodology: This work is based on the results from forty biographical interviews carried out during a doctoral research project with women who have emigrated from western and central Africa and settled in France.

Results: Three types of mobilization of the migratory situation, adopted by the migrant women themselves or by their partners, have been highlighted: migration as a locus of a normative framework providing new “rules” within the couple and its practices; as a locus of an administrative debt enforced on a joining partner; or as an alternative project to an unsatisfying marital situation. These uses of migration are crystallized in autonomy issues.

Conclusions: The migratory resource is used as leverage to concretely alter the forms of marital life.

Contribution: Herein, this article spotlights the effects of the migratory experience on the marital sphere, leading us to count it among the resources available to individuals.


Acquiring a patient status: a necessary redefinition of the boundaries of the intimate during the courses of medically assisted procreation (MPA) in Italy (Lombardy).
Léa Linconstant

Research Framework: Italian laws define assisted reproductive technology (ART) as a treatment to cure a peculiar disease: infertility. The courses of ART are drawing a specific form of connection between a medical context and the constitution of families since the pregnancy haven’t even occurred yet.

Objectives: The purpose of this article is to question the way relationships, which are tied along the procedures, produce new boundaries in conjugal and parental intimacy. Intimacy is define in this article as the exclusive connection between the members of a couple.

Methodology: The analysis is based on an ethnographic study of a public unit of ART in Italy where I was allowed to observe professionals practician (gynecologists, clinical biologists, nurses). A corpus of interviews, fifty of them made with ART professionals, more than thirty with couples or infertile women who had, at least, one experience with in-vitro fertilization, is complementing the observations.

Results: The ART’s courses can’t be taken as standard processes where the relations and status would not be submitted to evolutions. On the contrary, every position and status (patient or practician) are being modified and evolves within the operations on the body and relationships between the all protagonists. The temporality, thus, is an essential parameter that helps to realize what’s at stake during these courses and the diversity in intentions and relations that goes along with it.

Conclusion: Infertility and ART’s treatments have a particular status: the elusive therapeutic definition we can give of them as well as the questionable utilization of the term “patient” to qualify those who start one of these processes is not a simple case. The acquirement of patient status is something that is evolving step by step through a “progressive desingularization” of the couple and its story.

Contribution: This article is a contribution to the reflection on third party’s position in the process of ART. Though, whether in my ethnography there is no recourse to a donor – we’re strictly speaking about intra-conjugal ART – the course of procreation is a collective action where a third party is involved, a necessary character that does not belong to the couple: the medical corps.


Parent-child Contact: Association Between Foster Parent’s Sensitivity and Children’s Reactions to Contact
Lisa Auger, Karine Poitras, George M. Tarabulsy

Research Framework: In Quebec, the Youth Protection Act encourages contact between children and their biological parents following placement in foster care. However, there is no empirical consensus about the impact of these contacts on foster children. 

Objectives: Our study aims to examine the association between the foster parent’s sensitivity and the children’s reactions to contact considering three potentially confounding variables: security of attachment, age at first placement, and frequency of contact.

Methodology: With a quantitative approach, our sample includes 51 foster children aged between 12 and 45 months. Individual interview with the biological parent informed about contact arrangements. Children’s reactions following contact was reported by foster parents. Parental sensitivity and security of attachment were observed through a home visit with the foster parents. 

Results: Most children have at least one negative reaction as a result of contact. These reactions are significantly associated to foster parent’s sensitivity.

Conclusions: Our study suggests the foster parent’s sensitivity parent as a key factor in facilitating better transitions as a result of contacts.

Contribution: This study contributes to the reflection on parent-child contacts and their impacts on foster children.