Written by Dr Katherine Davies, The University of Sheffield
Siblings are intriguing
Sibling relationships are full of intrigue, yet tend to be overlooked in sociological thinking.
Siblings are the subject of much media fascination. From the big plot twist in Disney’s Frozen, where the act of ‘true love’ on which the story hinges is one of sisterly rather than romantic love, to the recent media furore surrounding the so-called feud between British royals Princes William and Harry; there is something of a public fascination with sibling relationships which seem somehow to be particularly imbued with, often contradictory and conflicting, emotions.
Siblings also seem to hold some of the mysteries about what it means to be human, helping us to ponder the conundrum of ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’ in shaping how we ‘turn out’ in life. How far is our character, personality, ways of being, health, intelligence or success determined by our genes or our upbringing? Siblings seem to encapsulate some of these mysteries, and we employ or own expertise in kinship (Edwards, 2000) to figure out what it means when siblings look alike (does it follow that they will be alike in other ways too?) or to consider how siblings who share talents or aptitudes come to possess their ‘gifts’. We might ask why siblings who share genetic heritage and who are raised in the same home by the same parents might turn out to be different. This fascination extends to an appetite for seeking formulas to explain how different configurations of sibship might affect the ways we ‘turn out’ in life. Are the youngest siblings more likely to be free thinkers? Are eldest children more likely to be leaders? Does being an only child make someone better at working alone?
Of course the intricacies of family life, diverse forms of sibling relationships and complexities of socio-economic context mean such questions cannot be definitively answered sociologically. However, sociologists should be fascinated by siblings; the fact that siblings have captured the public imagination and raise such questions renders them a useful lens through which to view familiar sociological themes anew.
Why siblings matter
In my recent book Siblings and Sociology published by Manchester University Press earlier this year, I explain why siblings matter sociologically, not just as important and significant relational forms that sociologists should think about but as a sociological tool to think with. In the book I draw upon two datasets: a series of focus groups and qualitative interviews with young people and a collection of archived written responses to a Mass Observation Project directive which asked an established panel of lay writers (mass observers) to respond to a series of prompts about sibling relationships. Using these data the book traces the importance of siblingship through four central tenets of sociological thought: self, relationality, imagination and time, unpacking how siblings can help us to think in new ways about these familiar sociological ideas as well as demonstrating why siblings matter.
Self and identity
The book explains how siblingship can help us to think differently about self and identity, both key anchor points in contemporary sociological theorising. Drawing on the narratives of two sisters and the different ways they speak about their identities at school and home, the book demonstrates how siblings’ sense of self can be constructed in relation to one another. As often generationally proximate relationships, siblings offer a particular sort of social influence which can be explicit as well as implicitly ‘soaked in’ over years of ‘being there’ (Brownlie, 2014). In so doing the book encourages sociologists to look horizontally as well as vertically for sources of influence, moving beyond the preoccupation with the effect of parents to how we ‘turn out’ and to think about the importance of horizontal ties in shaping the self.
The book has also utilised siblings as a way to think about relationality – illuminating connections and opening up ideas about what it means to be related. Sibling relationships are often contradictory and ambivalent, comprising a combination of positive and negative emotions which can shift over time, and can include a background type of care as well as physical conflict. By using siblings to help us to think about relationality, it is possible to notice how care and connection as well as the experiences and feelings of relatedness, can shift in different contexts. The particularly tumultuous nature of many people’s sibling relationships, at least at some points in the life course, can also highlight the ‘stickiness’ (Smart, 2007) of sibling bonds that are so often characterised by a tangling of love, hate, conflict, care and ambivalence. Furthermore, by looking at the relational complexities of siblingship, the sociological gaze is drawn towards an understanding of the intertwining of areas of concern that might not traditionally be seen as belonging to sociological analyses of relationships. These include genetic connectedness (which seems to belong to science), sensorial connections (which seem to belong to the natural world) and ethereal connections (which can seem magical and otherworldly). We see this in 12-year-old Ryan’s description of his baby sister Annabel who he says has ‘robbed’ his ears. Ryan carefully showed me in his interview how Annabel’s ears bend in a certain way to reveal one ‘round’ and one ‘elf’ ear before demonstrating how he himself had ‘two elfs’. This physical resemblance, which can only be seen through careful looking and touching of the ears, requires intimate knowledge and physical contact to detect yet helps Ryan feel connected to his sister, whom he yearned for and now adores. The elf ears are one way that their relationship spans the sensorial, the genetic and also the ethereal in the mysterious and secret nature of the origin of their ‘elf ears’.
Normativity and imagination
I also used sibling relationships to scrutinise ideas about normativity and imagination in sociological thought. By looking at the interaction between normative ideas about how siblingship ought to be done and the complex lived realities of siblingship, the sociological gaze can be focused on the gaps between imagined ideals and everyday relationships. In one focus group discussion of 14 and 15-year-olds, the conversation turned to a debate about which gender and birth order sibship configurations would be preferable. One participant stated he would ‘want a son about three years older than the girl so then the boy can stick up for the girl if anything happens.’ After a fair amount of agreement for this idea in the group one girl commented, ‘But my brother never sticks up for me.’ The gap between the gendered ideal and the lived reality was stark but the other young people in the focus group maintained their view that older brothers ought to ‘protect’ a younger sister. These gaps are where relationships are negotiated and made sense of and where the imaginary is woven together with lived experience in everyday life. Siblings are particularly useful here because these gaps between ‘real life’ and imagined sibling relationships are particularly large. The ups and downs of siblingship and the heightened embodied, spatial and generational proximities that characterise many children’s sibling ties means that the lived experience of siblingship can be particularly messy. This messiness juxtaposes with normative scripts, not just about what an ideal sibling might be or do but also about how sibling relationships might affect how we turn out in life. Thus, looking at siblings encourages us to consider how normative ideas can affect the ways we understand our relationships, our everyday lives and our sense of who we are and who we can become. Thinking with siblings about these issues also points to the role of imagined or yearned-for relationships in how we consider and narrate our lives.
Finally, the book has used siblings as a lens through which to think about time. Drawing on one mass observer’s account of how her relationship with her younger sister has ebbed and flowed through her lifetime, intensifying in key moments and drifting at other times, I show how siblingship can trouble linear ideas of time and the lifecourse. By looking at the different temporalities of siblingship and how they interconnect, the book illuminates the social and relational construction of different facets of seemingly ‘natural’ or ‘calendar’ time. For example, calendar age, as it manifests in birth order or age gap between siblings, can become more or less important at different points in the life course, or siblings can feel as though they share a generation at some points in their life and then find themselves experiencing very different sociocultural or familial ‘eras’ (Mason and Muir, 2013) at other conjunctures. The particular comparability of siblingship, along with the ways many siblings grow up alongside one another also exposes how life course transitions are both imagined and experienced in relation to others. Sibling relationships can encourage a recognition of the social and relational production of time in terms of age, life course transitions and generation, as well as how these temporalities interact with one another.
The book is a call to sociology to pay siblings more attention as a relational form that matters, that can influence us in profound ways as well as firing the sociological imagination and directing the analytical gaze.
Brownlie, J. (2014) Ordinary Relationships: A Sociological Study of Emotions, Reflexivity and Culture, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Edwards, J. (2000) Born and Bred: Idioms of Kinship and New Reproductive Technologies in England Oxford: Oxford University Press
Mason, J. and Muir, S. (2013) ‘Conjuring up Traditions: Atmospheres, Eras and Family Christmases’, The Sociological Review 61: 3: 607-29Smart, C. (2007) Personal Life: New Directions in Sociological Thinking, Cambridge: Polity