Susanne Kink-Hampersberger1, Lisa Scheer1, Anita Thaler2
1 University of Graz
2 Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Technology, Work and Culture
Instead of asking what family is, we find it more intriguing to ask how family, intimacy and kinship are done, how they are being established and maintained through everyday practices. The nuclear family, consisting of caregivers and children sharing the same household, has been the main focus of family sociology and family studies for a long time. Finally, other forms such as multi-local families or families not representing a heteronormative norm are becoming the focus of research as well (e.g. Nave-Herz, 2010, Skolnick & Skolnick, 2014). The following paper takes up on these conceptional shifts, on entanglements between family studies, queer studies and Science, Technology and Society Studies (STS) and explores the question of how doing family takes place in queer contexts, thereby asking how ICT (information and communication technology) shapes queer families and how queer families use ICTs. Especially during the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic in 2020 and the resulting precautions, like keeping physical distance, ICT has gained importance to maintain emotional closeness and social relations. Although the following contribution was mainly written in pre-pandemic times and refers primarily to queer families, it is certainly possible to draw parallels to the current Covid-19 situation and recognize the increasing importance of using ICTs for doing family and doing intimacy while being apart.
With our notion of queer families, we refer to a queer-feminist discussion, including critical kinship studies, which are challenging biologically determined definitions of kinship and hetero-normative family ideals. Speaking with Maggie Nelson (2015, p. 90), „genderqueer family making … is the revelation of caretaking as detachable from – and detachable to – any gender, any sentient being“. In our paper we therefore discuss two case studies of women currently living in homosexual partnerships. As in both cases doing family not only takes place by sharing the same household, our examples illustrate convincingly the importance of ICT for the diverse range of family practices.
Starting with the theoretical and empirical frame, we present concepts, theories and studies relevant for looking at doing family in queer contexts and the usage of ICT for family practices. This is followed by the exposition of our two case studies, two women who were interviewed and in addition illustrated their interpersonal relationships in a sociogram. Different ways of creating shared experiences despite being apart and a variety of family practices by using technology are found and described by our two interviewees. On this basis, we conclude that ICT plays a crucial role in maintaining queer family relations and intimacy across country borders and even across continents.
Theoretical and empirical perspectives on doing (queer) family and intimacy
The theoretical basis of our empirical examples comprises a mapping of entanglements of technological practices and practices of doing (queer) family and intimacy. First, we elaborate on our main theoretical concepts: (1) doing family, (2) doing intimacy, and (3) queering families. After that, we bring information and communication technologies into the picture by outlining recent empirical research on ICT and practices of doing (queer) family/intimacy. This helps in emphasising the processual character of doing (queer) family.
To speak of family as something that is being done and to focus on everyday practices and the active doing of people in order to create families shows that the social constructivist perspective has reached family studies. Doing family has been adopted from the concept of doing gender and refers to “the interactional work and activities through which connection is created and rehearsed in the private domain” (Nelson, 2006, p. 782). Rather than absolutize or idealize a certain family type, as did Emile Durkheim, Wilhelm Riehl, and Frédéric Le Play, the so-called founding fathers of the sociology of the family, (Nave-Herz, 2018, p. 120), the constructivist conception of family broadens the view on everyday family life practices. It facilitates to look at constellations apart from the traditional nuclear family that has been the centre of scientific attention for too long.
The concept of doing family encourages shedding light on the black box of familial everyday life and signals a change in perspective from family as form to family as practice (Jurczyk 2014, p. 51). This understanding of family as something that must be established, carried out, and adjusted constantly and throughout the life span draws on praxeology (e. g. Schatzki et al., 2001; Reckwitz, 2003; Hörning & Reuter, 2004) as well as the concept of lifestyle (in German Lebensführungskonzept) (e. g. Voß, 1991; Jurczyk & Rerrich, 1993; Projektgruppe Alltägliche Lebensführung, 1995). Since there is no generally approved definition of the family in the sociology of the family and definitions in use range from very broad to very narrow (Nave-Herz, 2018, p. 123), the concept of doing family seems to be a possibility to handle this challenging situation. It provides a foundation to becoming aware and studying the varieties and pluralities in family life which are, with exception of the multi-local multi-generation family, not new phenomena but simply manifestations of a shift that took place in Western Europe after the golden age of marriages in the 1960s (Nave-Herz, 2018, pp. 132-133). In addition, it offers a perspective to investigate how broader societal developments challenge family practices, e.g. decreasing financial resources and securities for families (which come with the depletion of the social state in many European countries), increasing demands regarding educating oneself in general and educational efforts by the family, increasing flexibility in the labour market/work environment and neoliberal tendencies (Jurczyk, 2014, pp. 52-53).
Also, the concept of doing family helps in showing the variety and plurality of family realities which have been overlooked for a long time in family research because of strong family ideals and norms that were (and still partly are) present in research and theory. Multi-local multi-generation families are characterized by care and solidarity among generations across different households (Bertram, 2002). Looking at (the practices of) this type of family is useful because it indicates how families are care networks that are not restricted to one household. Multi-locality – due to employment-related mobility, split-ups, divorces, re-marriages, migration, conflicts and wars etc. – is part of reality of family life which is also reflected in our two cases.
In order to elucidate further on the “construction and achievement rather than the enactment of a ʻnaturallyʼ existing set of interpersonal arrangements” (Nelson, 2008, p. 782), Karin Jurczyk (2014, pp. 61-62) defines three basic forms of practices by family members in order to do family:
· balance management: organisational and logistic reconcilement, timely and spatial coordination as well as mental and emotional balancing of family members’ needs and interests;
· construction of commonality: processes that aim at creating family as a meaningful shared entity, mainly through joint activities, co-referencing, exclusion and inclusion, construction of intimacy, and creating a we-feeling;
· symbolic displays as family which are even more important to families outside the dominating family norm.
Additionally, it is useful to look at
– the modes of activities: intentional, habitual/preconscious doing, routines, rituals;
– the variety among actors and recipients;
– the content of activities: constructions of a joint life context including living arrangements, constructions of joint time-space, and construction of possibilities to do care (Jurczyk, 2014, pp. 62-66).
Jurczyk’s elaboration on practice forms and dimensions related to doing family is very fruitful for the analysis of empirical data and we use it to summarize our findings later. With our focus on practices as aspects of the doing, Morgan’s concept of family practices (1996) represents another important theoretical framework. Among the key features of his approach are “an emphasis on the active or ‘doing’”, “a sense of the everyday”, “a sense of the regular”, and “a sense of fluidity or fuzziness” (Morgan, 2011, par. 1.4). Following his characterization, one should pay special attention to the regular everyday happenings that at the same time take very routinized forms but are also very fluid and fuzzy. Even more importantly, “Morgan’s use of the concept ‘practices’ acknowledges an articulation between ideals and practices. He suggests that the routine ways in which people’s actions create some activities, spaces and times as ‘family’ are the stuff of this articulation.” (Jamieson et al., 2006, 3.6) We find that especially (family) ideals as an important reference point in any family practices signal a necessity for broadening the theoretical discussion because family ideals are strongly linked to heteronormativity (e.g. Nelson, 2006; Roseneil & Budgeon, 2004; Acosta, 2018).
Heteronormative ideals within the concept of doing family
“The concept of ‘family practices’ was developed to avoid preconceived definitions of ‘family’ and instead focus on the culturally and historically variable practices people use to ‘do’ family, to create an experience of particular places, relationships and events as meaning and expressing family.” (Jamieson, 2011, par. 1.2) Nevertheless, we believe – in line with others – that a critical examination of the term family is necessary anyways. Despite the possibility for people to define themselves what family is to them and what they count as family, common norms on the family as well as family ideals always build a reference. Sometimes, these norms and ideals all the more pose a restricting frame around how people live as families. Even when lived and experienced family forms do not match the nuclear family, “the two-parent heterosexual family remains the yardstick against which [for example] single mothers measure their own families” (Hertz, 2006, p. 796). Referring to single mothers, her study subjects, Margaret Nelson (2006, p. 794) explains that “[t]he ideal of the ʻtraditionalʼ family is a powerful one for these women, even though that family form has failed them (and sometimes disastrously so) in the past”. This holds true for other living constellations as well: Children and parents who experienced divorce and new family constellations describe the nuclear family as the norm and associate it with stability and complementarity (Zartler, 2012, p. 75), therefore reproducing it as ideological code (Smith, 1993).
Just as “family and gender are inseparably connected to each other” (Possinger & Müller, 2018, p. 513), “the reference to family practices … reproduces heteronormative models of human relationships and fails to do justice to the range of ways that individual live their lives” (Roseneil, 2005, cited in Morgan 2011, par. 3.5). But it is not only members of society who reproduce these ideals by putting themselves and their ways of living in constant reference to it. Scholars within family studies and the sociology of family also “leave unchanged the heteronormativity of the sociological imaginary” by marginalizing “the study of love, intimacy, care and sociality beyond the ʻfamilyʼ” and producing “analyses which are overwhelmingly focused on monogamous, dyadic, co-residential (and primarily hetero) sexual relationships, particularly those which have produced children” (Roseneil & Budgeon, 2004, pp. 136-137).
Practices of intimacy and the concept of doing intimacy, in our point of view, widen the researcher’s view and lay focus on exploring “how people ‘do’ other kinds of intimate relationships” (Jamieson et al., 2006, 3.6) outside the family.
In the past two decades, the relationships between siblings, between humans and animals and between humans and objects have been studied further and also discussed under the concept of doing kinship (e. g. Haraways, 2007; Levy, 2007; Macon & Tipper, 2008; Punch, 2008; Tipper, 2011; Gabb, 2011; Charles, 2014; Sparrow, 2017; May & Lahad, 2018). One could derive this development and increased research interest from the observation that “[t]he nuclear family does not exist isolated but is shaped by an interdependent web of relationships containing friendships, kinships and the family of origin” (Nave-Herz, 2018, p. 140). Besides using the concept of doing kinship, this expansion was also conceptualized as doing intimacy. To concentrate on practices of intimacy instead of family practices means to explore “networks and flows of intimacy and care, the extent and pattern of such networks, the viscosity and velocity of such flows, and the implications of their absence” which proves to be more fruitful “than attempts to interpret contemporary personal lives through redefinitions of the concept of ‘family’” (Roseneil & Budgeon, 2004, pp. 153-154).
Examining practices of intimacy indicates studying practices “which cumulatively and in combination enable, create and sustain a sense of a close and special quality of a relationship between people” (Jamieson, 2011, par. 2.1). It follows that these people do not have to be related in any way, be it by blood or marriage. Considering the growing research on relationships between humans and non-humans that was mentioned before, even the term people could be reassessed at this point. This reconsideration is supported by how Lynn Jamieson further explains what she means by intimate practices, e. g. “giving to, sharing with, spending time with, knowing, practically caring for, feeling attachment to, [and] expressing affection for”. As one can see, these aspects “are not exclusively about intimacy. That is, each practice tends to produce intimacy but is not a sufficient condition” (Jamieson 2011, par. 2.2). And these aspects do not necessarily indicate the co-presence of humans as time can for example be also spent with robots and pets to which humans can develop strong feelings of attachment. Therefore, neither technologies nor animals should be left out when investigating practices of intimacy.
Besides reconsiderations on the term family and very fruitful alternatives or broader conceptualizations such as doing intimacy, queer studies have also made important contributions by moving family studies and family sociology “beyond reifying heteronormativity” and considering “the infinite possibilities for family structures, including (but not limited to) those consisting of same-sex, transgender, or polyamorous families” (Acosta, 208, p. 409).
“To understand the family, it is essential to understand gender” (Hofmeister 2009, p. 222). As had been postulated before, family and family studies are strongly linked to gender and heteronormativity. Yet, in the past decade in Western society, despite the strong ideal of the nuclear heterosexual family, the variety in the forms of (romantic) relationships – from LGBTQIA relationships/families to polyamory and friendship networks – have become more visible, in media just as much as in research. This can be part-way attributed to active LGBTQIA communities, more online presence and a slowly developing legal equality, e.g. through rulings on same-sex marriage or on a third identity option for intersex people in official documents. This, in turn, makes it also inevitable to weave queer studies into the discussion of family practise as “the term ‘queer’ relates to issues of non-heterosexuality and in a more general meaning expresses deviation from norms or the expected” (Hofstätter, 2012, p. 3). Queer Studies are concerned with analysing and questioning normalities and categories that create reality (Degele, 2008, p. 11) which makes them a perfect tool to counter heteronormative family ideals and norms strongly present in family studies/sociology. “… to queer is to disrupt taken-for-granted and ‘common sense’ presumptions about cultural lives and beings.” (Berry, 2014, p. 92) Just as intimacy widens the perspective, applying a queer lens helps in deconstructing heteronormative conceptions about the family. This is long overdue because in the past a lot of research has left out relationships and intimacies outside of the heterosexual norm (e.g. Bermea et al., 2019). Mainstream family studies remain somewhat ignorant to including important contributions from queer studies, leaving it to their members to study non-heteronormative families and intimacies. This practice of “limiting thinking about what and who constitutes family/home/love/loss continues to privilege those people and experiences that are believed to be ‘normal,’ and to dismiss or exclude those that people may not understand” (Berry, 2014, p. 91).
Coming from a queer-feminist background, we find it important to base our research on a definition of queer families influenced by (queer-)feminist Science, Technology and Society Studies and critical kinship studies. Both strands of theory challenge biologically determined definitions of kinship and heteronormative nuclear family ideals. Thus, queer families are social constructions of a fluid consistency and can be seen as reimagined kinship, through “reassembling relations, bodies, identities, histories and materialities” (Kroløkke et al., 2015, p. 10). “Studying these family forms offers a vehicle for scholars to assess how those outside of a heteronormative structure queer the institution of family and challenge the monolithic and conventional ideas of familial configurations” (Acosta, 2018, p. 409).
Following the concepts of doing queer family and intimacy, we decided to explore two examples – two married lesbian couples – and ask how they reproduce and contest the heteronormative family. Because using ICTs plays a crucial part in their daily family practices, we now take a closer look at research on ICT in doing family before presenting our own research.
ICT in doing (queer) families
Not only to communicate, but also to create family, kinship and intimacy, information and communication technologies have been used for decades (see e.g. Valentine, 2006; Lindsay et al., 2007; Christensen, 2009; Nedelcu & Wyss, 2016). The introduction of camcorders and the video home system (VHS) made home movies popular in the second half of the 20th century. Movies of new homes abroad, family holidays and celebrations were made and presented to friends and kin. Especially kin living or working elsewhere or abroad used the emerging technologies to keep in touch and perpetuate intimacy when (regular) personal visits were not possible, e.g. not affordable. With the advent of smartphones, mobile internet and so on, these family practices of exchanging impressions and videos have become even easier and much faster. Today, ICTs “are able to create forms of ordinary co-presence” (Nedelcu & Wyss, 2016, p. 203) which “combines a subtle sense of each other’s everyday life with the capacity and the feeling of ʻbeing and doing things togetherʼ at a distance through multimodal interactions” (ibid., p. 216). Tools such as email, WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime etc. make it possible for people to see each other live while carrying out everyday activities. Certainly not available for everyone because strongly linked to different inequalities (for instance hardware, internet and electricity accessibility inequalities; limitations due to technological interfaces not matching various abled bodies; different levels of technological and media competences) polymedia offer the potential for certain groups in society “to control when and how they care across distance” and allow family members, lovers and kin “to be in touch instantaneously and in real time” (Baldassar, 2016, p. 160). Polymedia has been introduced as a theory for interpersonal communication by Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller (2012). It emphasizes the “new relationship of the social and the technological” (ibid., p. 169) or what STS scholars are referring to as sociotechnical systems: “As a consequence, polymedia in effect helps to re-socialize the technology, since the responsibility of choice shifts from technical and economic, to moral, social and emotional concerns. So the argument will be that polymedia is ultimately about a new set of social relations of technology, rather than merely a technological development of increased convergence” (ibid., p. 171).
Using various media, like the already mentioned tools, for different relations and situations, enables creating a feeling of “continuity and ongoing belonging, which seems to erase geographical and emotional boundaries” (Nedelcu & Wyss, 2016, p. 212). Research such as Mihaela Nedelcu’s and Malika Wyss’ on Romanian transnational families or Loretta Baldassar’s case study on a multi-local family shows how even in a transnational social space family practices can be (re)produced through different types of “virtual togetherness”, along the family members’ needs, their digital literacy, equipment, and family norms and obligations (Nedelcu & Wyss, 2016, p. 203).
Nowadays, ICTs are not only used with friends and kin living geographically apart, but also with people living closer. They are used for different communication and interaction practices and also for various family practices, like celebration rituals or care activities. Ichiyo Habuchi (2005, p. 167) calls this form of connected intimacy “tele-cocooning” and defines it as “a zone of intimacy in which people can continuously maintain their relationship with others who they have already encountered without being restricted by geography and time”. ICTs, especially smartphones with their various audio/video/text transmitting functions, offer family members geographically apart a sense of belonging and of being connected. An important aspect of these transmitting and connectivity functions is mobile internet. Thus, the more geographically and timely disconnected families are, the more they need mobile ICTs to connect. This already points at one great restriction: ICTs are not available to everyone but instead strongly connected to cultural and economic capital, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s (1983) terms. What are other limits of ICTs in family and care practices? “There are of course undoubtedly limits to distant care”, as Baldassar (2016, p. 160) puts it, despite new technologies constantly working on pushing these limits of touch and care further. Kyong Yoon (2015) who researched ICT mediated communication of South Korean transnational families in Canada concludes that “the sense of virtual togetherness was questioned“ and “mediated family interaction occasionally caused miscommunication and created distance between family members“ (ibid., p.8). These few notes already indicate that ICTs hold potentials but are at the same time excluding and limited means of communication that also reproduce inequalities. This is why the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation states in their report (2019, p. 12): “Even where getting online is possible and affordable, extra efforts are needed to empower groups that are discriminated against and excluded. For example, digital technologies are often not easily accessible for elderly people or those with disabilities; indigenous people have little digital content in their native languages; and globally an estimated 12 percent more men use the internet than women.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic it became evident that digital health and care technologies could support people by overcoming physical distances, but only if these technologies are equally accessible (this concerns the technology and their interfaces, as well as infrastructures, economic issues, and digital literacy issues).
Another potential lies within considering technologies themselves as agents. Belk (2014), for example, pointed out that the specific non-human (or to be more accurate non-animate) actors should be taken closer into consideration when analysing the shaping of human behaviour with technology – in our case doing family. This is what Science, Technology and Society studies aimed for with the Actor Network Theory (ANT; see for instance Latour, 1990 and 1996). By including technological artefacts as actors, situations and meanings can be interpreted differently. For instance, Epp and Price (2010) worked out how a family table can moderate family communication, by bringing family members together or keeping them apart, and thus contributes importantly to a family’s identity.
To sum up, looking at ICT when looking at families helps to reveal the processual character of doing (queer) family (e.g. Holloway, 2007; Khvorostianov, 2016). Instead of focusing on the family as something concrete and stable, the understanding of family as actively being done by its members and by/with ICTs is pursued.
Exploring family practices in queer contexts – empirical design
To explore which practices and techniques queer people use to create family, we decided on an exploratory qualitative study. Therefore, we conducted semi-structured interviews (e.g. Bock, 1992; Brinkmann, 2014) between June 2018 and June 2019 with two women who describe themselves as (currently) being lesbian and living in a queer family. Following the approach of theoretical sampling (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) we decided to choose our interview partners on the basis of living in a queer marriage, having family living abroad and using technology to be in contact with them. Differences exist regarding our interviewees’ construction of family and the importance of blood relations for their understanding of family.
Table 1: Interview partners
In case study 1 (Hanna) the first interview was conducted face to face and for the second interview we used video call; both were conducted in summer 2018. In case study 2 (Karen) we used video call for both interviews, after the first interview in summer 2018 we decided to interview Karen in summer 2019 again as her living circumstances had changed.
Our interview guideline started with the request to explain their own understanding of family, followed by the invitation to map their family and the technology they use to communicate. This approach is based on technique of a sociogram (Moreno, 1996) which refers to the illustration of the interpersonal relationships and social affinities of persons or groups by mapping them. In a first step, we therefore asked our interview partners to map their family by positioning themselves and the members on a piece of paper with distance indicating emotional closeness. After that we offered them our understanding of family: “Families are relationships with subjectively strong emotional connections whose members voluntarily take responsibility for each other.” We asked them to rethink their map and outline the intensity of contact and the tools they use to communicate. The maps follow two purposes in the interviews: First, they help the interviewer to understand the different relationships and the role of ICT in the respective family. Secondly, they also help the interviewees to structure their description of family relations and communication. During the interviews, the maps were repeatedly used as visualisation in some questions of the interviewer as well as in answers of the interviewees. The mapping of the family relations was followed by topics concerning the everyday family life, the actual and historical use of technology as well as changes of family relationships and doing family when using technology. Following the grounded theory methodology (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990) the transcripts of the interviews were coded openly to reconstruct the dominant ideas of doing family and using technology by using Jurczyk’s basic forms of family practices (2014) as sensitizing concept (e.g. Blumer, 1954; Glaser, 1978; Charmaz, 2003).
Doing queer family by using of technology – the case of Hannah and Karen
In the following, the two cases of Hannah and Karen are presented. Both cases point out the importance of ICT for doing (queer) family but differ in the focus: Whereas Hannah’s case is more focused on the importance of ICTs for family practices, Karen’s example also elucidate a component of doing family beside the use of ICTs. However, both cases reveal an understanding of family beyond the heteronormative understanding of family including father, mother and children, even though Karen has a more traditional family image due to her living circumstances.
Case study 1 – Hannah: Doing family by sharing everyday life with ICTs
Hannah, a forty-something academic, lives with her wife Rebecca and their dog in a major city in Europe. Her family map comprises 20 persons plus her dog, six of those 20 are related to her by blood or marriage. However, not only is the majority of her family wilfully chosen, but she left out blood-relatives to whom she did not had contact since her childhood.
“Family is a place where you can let go, where you are loved, where I can be myself with all rough edges and mistakes; where no high expectations are placed. … very close relationships with whom you share your everyday life also across distance and create closeness which you do not share with some parts of blood-relatives or in-laws.” (Hannah)
She agrees with our definition of family, but emphasizes that for her the emotion is key also in the responsibility part: “That my wellbeing is important to them.”
Hannah draws the map of her family rather easily, although it gets increasingly complex. 21 initials indicate herself plus her family members. The distance or rather closeness of the initials to her in the centre of the map indicates the emotional closeness in each relationship.
She uses eight different colours to indicate the various technologies she uses to communicate with her family, plus a ninth colour for face-to-face communication (which she only uses for those family members who she sees at least a couple of times per year). As she uses different technologies with different family members, she indicates each family member with a set of colours for their main communication channels. And so the different family members have each one to five different coloured circles drawn around their initials. Beside phone, video calls and emails all five other indicated technologies are messenger apps or have messenger functionalities (which means that photos, videos, audio messages and texts can be sent to individuals and chat groups). Additionally, she distinguishes the frequency of the respective communication in “very frequent”, “frequent” and “less” by the thickness of the connecting lines between her and each family member.
The recurring themes in Hannah’s interview are “creating closeness” through “sharing”, more specifically sharing pictures from and messages about everyday experiences. This is especially important as she travels often, and many members of her family live in a distance.
By sending selfies and photos during travels, she does not only let her family partake in her experiences abroad, but through their reactions she feels them closer with her. So this is where she says, “Here technology plays a huge role” and tells a story about a car accident she had during a trip she made alone to the US:
“There for instance, it was totally important to me, as soon as I turned from the highway to look where I could stop, where there is Wifi. Because I had the feeling, I wanted to talk about this. To share it and also to hear from people close to me: ‘Oh, thank god you were lucky and everything turned out well. The important thing is you are ok!’ – to get supported in this moment.” (Hannah)
Since 2011, when she got her first smartphone, most of her communication with friends and family takes place with her smartphone. Sharing photos and messages does not only help creating closeness but moreover maintaining it. With emojis also emotional states are easily and quickly communicated.
These messages and photos are conversation topics and can be used like other shared experiences for future communication, Hannah explains. And those shared experiences are so important because there are so many chosen members in her family. Thus, with photos from her everyday life, she connects to others and creates closeness, and has in return the feeling to be with the others too. In this sense, especially the five preferably used messenger technologies (WhatsApp, Threema, iMessage, Facebook and Instagram chats) work like glue in this family, a means to work on the relationship. With messenger technologies chats are always continued, they have no end. Which also means they can serve as an archive of quotes and photos, they can be scrolled through.
However, Hannah also emphasizes that sharing real life experiences during face-to-face meetings intensify the relationships further, especially with family members living abroad: “Through regular visits you create a basis. This is the basis so it works online as well, without huge explanations. If you would always have to write ‘Yes, this is who I met there and there’, this would make it more complicated. So, we have set a frame which makes it easier to have it also more intensively.”
Technology supports the connections, but it is not everything. With some friends and family members, she shares photos from her travels via social media which also serves as link for conversations, but not all these relationships have intensified necessarily: “You share more, but I think, the relationships have not changed.”
However, she tells about a friend from a group, who meets regulary for brunches face-to-face, but also stays in contact via a messenger app. When this friend deleted her messenger app she was left out of the virtual group conversations until their next face-to-face meeting. This would not happen to Hannah, she says, because she uses all the apps and messengers her friends and family members are using. When some of them changed the messenger app WhatsApp because of data protection reasons and moved on to Threema, but others stayed, she installed the new one additionally. She jokingly says “Maybe I have the fear of missing out!” and “Maybe I should think about my (social media, added by interviewer) consumption!”, but it becomes clear with her map that she just uses all the tools she needs to stay in touch with her close friends and her family. And if that requires to make a telephone call because that is the favourite communication channel of an older family member, then she makes the call, although she does not like it: “Yes, somehow you have to connect yourself!”
Case study 2 – Karen: Doing family while living abroad
Our second interview partner was Karen, a woman in her thirties who has been living in a lesbian partnership for seven years and is married since 2018. Karen left her country of origin after graduating from high school in 2003, since then she lived in four different countries all over the world. Based on her moves and the need to keep building new networks in every country, her expatriate biography is also reflected in her understanding of family:
“I understand it [family] in two different ways: Family, on the one hand, is what I have in Austria, parents, siblings, nuclear family, and extended family. However, family is also friends and people with whom I live together in the country where I currently live, my support network in the country”. (Karen)
These two parts are also reflected in the graphics Karen makes. In contrast to Hannah, she draws it very rudimentary and, with three exceptions, does not name any concrete person but groups them into three big parts. At the interviewers request to map her family, she positions the term family in the middle and draws on the left side of the sheet her Austrian family. This family consists of her blood relatives: parents, sister (to whom she assigns a close relationship), niece, grandparents, aunts and uncles. However, here a dichotomy can be seen between the family that Karen calls her nuclear family and the rest of her blood relatives. By mentioning her nuclear family, Karen refers to her parents, her sister and her niece and defines caretaking as the core of her understanding of it. Taking care over distance especially takes place on an emotional level, as Karen reports. Regarding her niece, for example, in the form that Karen consciously tries to set accents on topics such as LGBTQIA or girls in science. These are topics that are not addressed in her niece’s environment or seem negatively connotated. Regarding her parents, taking care also includes aspects of not telling everything what she is doing, like travelling to cities or countries which seem to be seen as too dangerous by her parents. In this part of the family, doing family is mainly cultivated through ICTs, as Karen rarely sees this part of her family in physical life. About once or twice a year they try to travel together, but e.g. during her time in the Middle East, her family did not visit Karen because they considered it to be too dangerous. In order to participate in the everyday life of the family members anyway, the most important things are messenger services like WhatsApp or Signal. Especially by sending photos, Karen allows her family members to participate in her environment and everyday life. On the opposite, personal video/telephone calls become very rare and are conducted approximately only every three to four weeks.
Additionally to her nuclear family, Karen mentions her Grandparents as well as an uncle and an aunt as part of her Austrian family but not as part of her nuclear family and therefore draws them all the way at the edge of her map. This is also reflected in her reaction to the family concept we have presented during the interview. She says: “Well, I think voluntary is very good, because just because you are blood related you don’t have to be [family].” Accordingly, she describes the contact to this part of her family as only loose or driven by her parents which is particularly cultivated on special occasions such as birthdays, Christmas and so on. Video calls are used to be part of these family celebrations. Karen is passed from family member to family member to talk to everyone and to participate in intimate family moments such as the gift-giving ceremony.
While family relations with the Austrian part of her family are mainly cultivated through messenger technologies, this is in strong contrast to the second part of her family understanding that she calls support family. Here she refers to friends or persons who live with her in the same household, not mentioning any concrete person when mapping her family. The fact that no specific person is mentioned here, but instead a free space is deliberately created, is traced back to her current biographical circumstances. At the time of the first interview Karen has just moved to another country in another continent and therefore did not yet have close contact with her flatmates or did not seem to need them either in that country. Nevertheless, support seems to her to be an important part of her family understanding. This understanding is characterized by considering support as an important part of families and due to her local roots, she feels the need to build one beside her family in Austria as the following quotation illustrates:
“If you live in the Middle East which is dominated by weaponry and violence then this is your network you can and must rely on. … When I’m gone or when this breaks up and I’m gone it changes. So, it’s fluid and the support family turn into a friendship situation”. (Karen)
As can be clearly seen in this quote, Karen emphasizes the fluid aspect of her understanding of family as this part of family is only important when living in countries where caring networks are needed. Thereby she refers to an expanded understanding beyond traditional definitions or the concept of doing intimacy, where friends or people who Karen lives with could be part of family. At the same time, however, this understanding of the family also builds on traditional aspects like the shared household. Geographical closeness thus represents an important part of this family relationships because when it no longer exists family relationship become friendship again.
Relying on the original quote from Karen in which she divides family into the two parts of blood relationship and support family, the absence of her wife surprises at a first glance and supports a traditional understanding of family. Only in the course of the request to represent her family graphically her wife becomes visible. She positions her in the middle of her map and describes her as the most important part of her family:
“In the middle, but very close, Ena gets there, because she is not blood-related, but still the closest to me. Not blood related to the Austrian family but because she is my wife she is in the middle, but practically very close to me.” (Karen)
For most of their relationship Karen and Ena had a long-distance relationship in which they did not live in the same place, sometimes even not on the same continent. But even if they had lived in the same city in the Middle East, they could not live in the same household due to the prevalence of conservative and heteronormative family beliefs. For Karen and Ena, therefore, doing family takes place to a large extent in secrecy and in private: “In public, we’ve always been just good friends.” Karen describes that they were mainly at her home because her roommates were European and did not have had problems with same-sex relationships.
Whereas Karen’s family and friends know about their homosexual relationship and their marriage, just some of Ena’s friends know it while her family does not know that they are a couple or married. At the same time, Karen sometimes took part of family celebrations, but in her role as a foreign acquaintance who needs support in a foreign country. Karen describes that it was especially difficult to manage for them when they stayed with a mixed group of people who partly knew about them and partly didn’t.
Because their partnership worked over long distance and could not be lived openly, they communicated all day long via messenger app and telephone at least once a day in order to experience a common everyday life. Often, they had to have their conversations without video so that other people could not see who they were talking to. Since both moved a few months ago to a country where homosexual marriage is legal, Karen mentions a difference in her partnership in the second interview: “The relationship was in a different way much more part of daily life”. By living in the same household and having the possibility of sharing everyday things, such as buying food, watching movies or wash the dishes, the partnership gets closer. Karen tells that her couple relationship especially has turned into an family relationship by taking over the everyday and practical things of a family like getting medicine if someone is feeling sick, planning the future or other things which gave her the feeling that they are one family. With the move into a liberal country and having the change to be out as a family and showing them in public, Karen’s family has grown, as she reported in the second interview. Now cousins of Ena know of their same-sex relationship/marriage and therefore they regularly spend leisure time together with them. “Family now expands through her”, Karen says.
During the interview with Karen, she repeatedly emphasizes the importance of a common or shared everyday life. This is an essential component for doing family or doing intimacy of Karen. Since her biographical circumstances often prevent her from experiencing this everyday life together in real life, she comes up with creative solutions in order to do family. This is closely related to the use of technological aids and technological innovations. At the beginning of her departure from Austria Karen mainly keeps contact with her parents and her sister via email or later via Skype. Thereby, the lack of her parents’ technical affinity and time differences made it difficult to experience everyday family life, as Karen tells:
“And then they [parents] used to skype from time to time, but that was somehow too exhausting for them … that was on the computer, there was no cell phone app and time shifts: “Let’s see when we have time” [her parents said]. That was partly difficult.” (Karen)
This has changed and became considerably easier with the introduction of messenger services and especially with video telephony and the option of sending pictures: „It becomes a lot easier to involve someone else in your life“, Karen says. With these technological innovations, however, she also notices changes in family relationships:
“It is actually better, it became different, yeah, better I don’t know. Because it has become a lot easier to involve someone else in your life and show what you see. … That’s something different than just describing it. On the other hand, now it’s so easy to send a photo, maybe it’s not like you really talk to people anymore … I probably know less about how they are, not how they are, but I just talk less to them.” (Karen)
With something like a pictural turn (Mitchell, 1992) it becomes easier to maintain these relationships, to construct commonality and to create a shared everyday life. At the same time, however, Karen also describes the fact that people now talk to each other less often and thus know less about how the other person is doing.
However, Karen is also repeatedly confronted with problems that make it more difficult to experience everyday family life and require creative solutions, for example concerning time differences or lack of internet access. To be able to handle a time difference of ten hours and still establish a common life Karen and Ena had introduced a rule called “a picture a day”. In order to share the experiences of where one is currently living and how life is going, they had to send one photo each day minimum. By sending photos of everyday things or things not particularly important, they have managed to break up the obvious (Karen: “Oh cool, you have a pool!” Ena: “Everybody is having a pool here.” Karen: “I didn’t know that.”) and participate in each other’s everyday life.
The other thing that made doing family and doing romance difficult was the lack of (good) internet access. This was the case when Ena was living in an African country for a while. Ena had to go to a hotel if they wanted to talk to each other because this was the only place where the internet connection made a conversation possible. Therefore, they shared their thoughts, feelings and experiences mainly via messenger app and only talked once a week per video. To compensate the lack of commonality, they agreed to a common activity every week: “We practically read the same book so that we could talk about it or watched a movie or whatever. Just that she feels like she can talk to me, that we have a conversation.”, Karen says. Although time difference and the lack of constant internet access hindered them from reading or watching at the same time, this created the feeling of doing intimacy: “Then there is something narrower than if it hadn’t been. Feeling togetherness.”, Karen tells.
In summary, Karen’s case study illustrates on the one hand a traditional understanding of family by blood, marriage or sharing a household, even when living in a queer family. On the other hand, Karen’s understanding of a family includes a fluid component as the support family is only necessary when living in crisis regions like the Middle East. Not only do concrete persons within the support family change over time, the need of it is not given when living in other regions and living together with Ena. Thereby, Karen experience family as support, as taking care of each other and as something with which a common everyday life is experienced. To construct this commonality when living abroad and dealing with time differences, it needs a lot of balance management and especially the use of ICT. Sending photos, using messenger apps and video telephony helps Karen to construct commonality and establish a common everyday life over a distance. Thereby, the lack of (good) internet access when using these devices as well the time difference require creative solutions when doing family.
Resumé – Practices of doing queer family with ICTs
How are family practices and ICT interwoven in queer contexts? How do ICTs shape queer families and how do queer families use ICTs? The starting point of our arguments towards answering these research questions was doing famil”, a social constructivist concept within the sociology of the family. Doing family highlights “a shift away from a foundational concept of ‘the family’ where the addition of the definite article ‘the’ creates more of a sense of the family as a discrete social institution with actual boundaries” (Perlesz et al., 2006, p. 176). Following the concept of doing family, thus, means to look at how family is defined and established through negotiations and practices – also including ICT. Because of eligible criticism on the heteronormative character of family we adopted a queer perspective on the family and added the concept of doing intimacy to our theoretical framework. “‘Practices of intimacy’ refer to practices which enable, generate and sustain a subjective sense of closeness and being attuned and special to each other.” (Jamieson, 2011, par. 1.2) To use intimacy instead of family “opens up new empirical terrain in terms of understanding how our intimate relationships (sexual, platonic friendships and familial) ebb and flow over the life course, have different meanings to different generations, and may vary by culture and over time” (Valentine, 2008, p. 2106).
In the empirical case study our two interview partners, married lesbian women, were asked to map their family together with the intensity of contact and communication tools with every person on the map. Then they were asked to position themselves towards our broad understanding that families are relationships with subjectively strong emotional connections whose members voluntarily take responsibility for each other. By this, we offered them a non-heteronormative understanding of doing family as doing intimacy and care. Surprisingly, both interviewees held on to the term family and did not put it into question. Even Karen who brings examples of practices of intimacy keeps the term family to refer to the people that are being part of these practices.
At the center of our empirical findings lies the importance of a shared everyday life which is emphasized by both women. This is an important component for doing family or doing intimacy for both, Karen and Hannah. Moreover, to that purpose both are using similar ICTs (smart phones, various messenger apps). Whereas Karen uses video calls to be part of family celebrations while being abroad, Hannah generally writes more texts and avoids phone calls. Nevertheless, both often referred to sending and receiving pictures in their chats as means to create intimacy especially by sharing the ordinary.
By adapting Jurczyk`s three basic practices of family members to do family (2014, p. 61-62), we can point out to the specific entanglement of ICTs and doing queer families which are in the centre of our deliberations:
Jurczyk extended with ICT
Balance management: using ICTs to bridge space and time differences
Sending photos during travels to share the experience with the family;
communicating via messenger apps to feel connected to the family (while) abroad.
Use messenger apps to bridge time differences and sending one photo a day when having bad internet access.
Construction of commonality:
Creating through sharing everyday life with ICTs
Sharing photos and writing/talking about the little things from everyday life to create closeness to the family.
Sending photos to create a common everyday life und using video telephone to take part in family celebrations.
Symbolic displays as family:
Displaying family with ICTs
Using a photo with a queer symbol from the wedding to display the family status on social media and the home screen of the smartphone.
No symbolic representation/ display as queer family (they both do not wear rings), as most of the family of Karen’s wife do not know them as being a couple or married.
Both case studies show that ICT can support maintaining family relations and intimacy across country borders and even across oceans. Although both Hannah and Karen emphasised the importance of face to face communication and shared experiences – Yoon discussed those limits of “virtual togetherness“ in transnational families (ibid., p.8) – they told us about their ways of creating shared experiences despite being abroad, for instance by sending selfies from travels or by watching the same movie together at the same time but at different locations and talking about it via smartphone. Another shared aspect of their technology use is the access of internet (mobile internet, Wi-Fi, a good internet connection). While being connected is especially important when family members are apart, access and connectivity pose big technological challenges in maintaining a connection. The more geographically and timely disconnected families are, the more important functioning internet connections and ICTs are to share these everyday practices which are an important basis for upholding familial relationships.
As queer-feminist scholars we intended to empower our research subjects and decrease possible hierarchies within the research relationship by taking the power to define family from the researchers and giving it to the research subjects, by “seek[ing] to discover what ‘family’ means to research participants” (Jamieson et al., 2006, 3.6). Despite our endeavor to contribute to queer family studies, we must acknowledge one shortcoming of our case study: The cases come from White middle-class families. Therefore, we are not able to overcome Katie Acosta’s critique that queer family research “has largely relied on the experiences of the White middle class” (Acosta, 2018, p. 410).
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