This essay will most importantly focus on kinship relations and how they are maintained across the globe. In addition, this essay will touch upon issues concerning families and the functions of a family. In order to answer the question accurately, it will also draw attention to the history of kin relations and the philosophy behind it. This essay will then expand the argument with an examination on the ways in which an individual might be constrained by distance in maintaining kinship relations. Furthermore, it will assess the extent in which individuals try and overcome distance to reproduce kinship ties specifically concentrating on the capacity of technologies such as use of ICTs such as telephones, letters and the internet service and how they help in regulating proximity regardless of time, distance or location. It will also highlight how the significance of the visit is a way of mediating distance.
Furthermore, the essay will also use various concepts, evidence and strategies and also progress by concluding the argument on whether the strength of kin relations depends upon proximity.
In order to consider the extent to which kin relations depend on proximity, it will first be necessary to define kinship, family and proximity. Sociologists, for years have attempted in giving a unique explanation for kinship. For some, Kinship is about the ways in which people assemble and categorise themselves as compared with the existent, accurate, natural facts of consanguinity and affinity (Schneider, 2004:258). Kinship ties in Giddens terms are links between individuals, acknowledged during marriage or through the lines of descent that connect blood relations such as mother, father and grandparents (Giddens, 1997:140). For many of us an identification with a kin group is a major aspect of identity from birth, and for many it is also the most enduring and permanent social group. Relations between relatives do have a unique element, which to some extent is not accounted for simply by economic or influential considerations. It has been maintained by some that kinship is essentially a biological unit, centred on the function of common residence, cooperation and reproduction (Finch, 1989).
In recent years, sociologists have argued that the family has undergone significant changes in contemporary western society. Allan (1996) looks at the work of Morgan (2002) who argues families can only be understood by exploring family practises and finding out how people perform family. However, some may argue that kinship and family relations are no longer relevant in the twenty-first century and are not worth studying about (Allan, 1996:26). Today, people have the freedom to choose who their kin is despite the fact of not being related. When looking at family’s involvement in maintaining kin ties In Fletcher’s words “the family is, and has always been, the most intimate and one of the most important of human groups” (Fletcher, 1966:19).
Arguably, kin is accepted as a key component of the functioning of family systems. As suggested by Finch (1989) who argues “demographic structures, the economic climate, the law and public policy all shape the need for kin support and the capacity to provide it” (Finch, 1989:236). It is also supported by Cameron and Clegg (2010) in their government report in which they insist “the Government believes that strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of a strong and stable society” (Cameron and Clegg, 2010:19). Theorists such as Berman (1985) pointed out that groups such as kin succeed in reducing mortality and morbidity (cited in Litwak & Kulis, 1987:649). When defining proximity and strength of kin relations it is important to note, as suggested by Finch (1989) “the historical evidence does not support the view that kin groups were much more stable in the past than in the present” (Finch, 1989:61).
It is argued that the traditional kinship system required kin to stay in proximity and share the same interest in occupation which would lead to a similar class system in which the poor were kept enduringly insolvent (Litwak & Kulis, 1987). Today, kin structure plays a fairer role in society in which proximity is not the main concern. Interestingly, Kinship ties continue to be important today. In modern societies people telephone their relatives regularly and provide them with a wide variety of services (Cheal, 2008:118). Similarly, Allan (1979) states “quite simply relatives are people whom you treat differently” (cited in Finch, 1989:233).
Yet it is important to note that, despite the movement of most families living away from kin, they maintain “close ties at a distance” and are increasingly able to do so because of technological advance (Mason, 1999; cited in McRae, 1999). Mason argues in her earlier studies “scholars of kinship have long known that geographical proximity or distance does not correlate straightforwardly with how emotionally close relatives feel to one another” (Mason,2004:421). In addition, Litwak suggested, “distance does not necessarily limit or determine total contact, due to the availability of the telephone and postal service. Nor does distance prevent the exchange of tangible aid, emotional involvement or primary relations between kin” (Adams, 1968:132). On the opposite, sociologists like Rossi and Rossi (1990) do not agree with the assertion and believe that geographic distance reduces occurrence of social communication between people and therefore the chance to enlighten or discover about desires and problems of the kin relation. Consequently, geographic distance reduces the genuine incidence of all kinds of help flows involving the generations (Rossi and Rossi, 1990:422).
On the other hand, some sociologists share a different view in which they believe kin relations have somewhat been rejected. As McGlone et al (1999) suggested that there is evidence to prove that factors such as increased divorce rates and women’s increased participation in paid work over the last three decades has contributed to rejection in kin contact. They argue kin contact will continue to decline if more women took up full time work (cited in Nolan ; Scott, 2006:175). The authors stress that according to Bell (1968), increased geographical distances meant people made less daily contact but close relationships were maintained by longer visits and telephone calls to preserve the exchanging of useful and emotional support (p. 176). While Nolan and Scott (2006) believe it would be incorrect to argue that kinship systems have been resistant to changes in social trends. Their research shows that telephone communication is very much gendered means of keeping in touch with kin relations. They discovered that 34% of women are in daily contact with their mothers compared to just 12% men. They agree that geographical distance is not a major obstruction to kin contact (Nolan ; Scott, 2006:183).
Mok et al (2007) discuss the work of Axhausen ; Garling (1992) who argue that since the 1960s, advances in transportation and telecommunication technologies such as phones, cars and aeroplanes have made it cheaper and easier for people to maintain ties over longer distances. As Cairncross (1997) agrees with them and argues that the advances are so effective that some sociologists devotedly proclaimed “the death of distance” (cited in Mok et al, 2007:431).
In order to maintain kinship ties the immeasurable use of ICTs to communicate across the globe is very important in assessing the strength of kinship dependent on proximity. It is important to acknowledge that new technologies have certainly altered the customs in which people correspond. As suggested by ABS (2003) the amount of households with internet access in Australia increased from 16% in 1998 to 53% in 2003 (cited in Wilding, 2006:126). This shows that individuals are communicating with kin relations in many more ways and living in proximity is not an issue anymore. Furthermore, it is not to be forgotten that internet is an addition, rather than a replacement in existing ICTs such as telephones and postal service. It is widely recognised now that people now have a wider choice in how to communicate with kin to maintain closeness and it is evident to believe that the traditional living in close proximity is not essential anymore. The internet has a powerful potential role in overcoming distance and keeping kin relations close (Hiller ; Franz, 2004). The authors express the work of Jones (1995) in which he stresses “the desire to give and receive information online is what is considered to be the basis of a virtual community” (p. 738).
On the other hand, some agree with researchers who suggest that people are using ICTs to create a form of practical connectedness that might be an alternative for bodily co-presence. Some sociologists argue that all these forms of communication enforce families to some extent to become “effective” or meet frequently in “cyberspace” (Wilding, 2006). However, Wilding (2006) uses the work of Laurier (2001) and Licoppe (2004) who argue that ICTs are not being used properly to recompense for the absence of our loved ones but rather are oppressed in many ways which eventually blurs the absence and presence of an individual in the relationship (p. 132). In addition, some argue that the imagined closeness produced with the use of ICTs sometimes results in new conflicts. However, unlike telephones, Boneva and Kruat (2002) argued, the use of internet is seen to be used frequently by different genders and different cultural groups (p.137).
The use of ICTs for some families means a decline in their ability to maintain a sense of distance. Families today as suggested by Wilding (2006) “use ICTs to create, support and reproduce social fields that cross geographic, cultural and political borders” (p. 137). In addition, Thompson (2006) found from her survey that 70% of the respondents agreed in technology playing a major part in helping them stay in touch with their families. She argues that with the use of ICTs people have a better chance in staying in closer contact with their families and maintaining family ties tighter (Thompson, 2006). On the other hand, one of the shortcomings of ICTs is its key problem with the desirability of the use of ICTs. It sometime fails to acknowledge the difficulty in which the internet is discarded, adopted, unlimited or mistreated by some individuals and specific social groups (Wilding, 2006:127).
Mason in her earlier studies highlights the importance of new technologies in maintaining kin contact but she pays most attention to actual face to face contacts. It is important to emphasise that relatives stay in contact with each other in various ways, not just through actual face to face visits. However, for Mason (2004) the significance of “the visit” is to some extent very important. She argues the visit has a characteristic importance specifically because it gets done across distance to construct and maintain relations. For some, visiting kin relations enables them to assemble up a record and obtain shared and collective knowledge of each other and the satisfaction of knowing one’s kin (p.424).
For sociologists like Mason and Urry visiting each other’s relation is known to be the best way of mediating distance and sustaining physical proximity and hence maintaining kinship ties. Therefore, constant co-presence comes across compulsory for many individuals in different forms of societal life and Urry (2000) believes it has become “a way of life for many” (Urry, 2000:256). In addition, theorists like Boden and Molotch (1994) agree that “social life requires moments of physical proximity” and virtual presence such as email and telephones cannot drastically replace physical distance (p.258).
In particular, it is discussed that eye contact plays many important functions in maintaining closeness between kin relations. It enables the organisation of closeness and trust, as well as insincerity, fear, power and control. Similarly, Urry discusses the works of Simmel who believes that “the eye is a unique sociological achievement, since looking at one another is what effects the connections and interactions of individuals”. For Simmel, it is the most straight and purest communication of all (Cited in Urry, 2002:259).
On the other hand, as discussed by Wellman et al (1996) who argue that telephone usage appears to be predominantly significant within kin network, where intimacy in hearing the voice is important to ensure wellbeing (cited in Hiller ; Franz, 2004). On the contrary, theorists like Mason state that intimacy lies in face to face contact. She argues, co-presence is important in maintaining kin relations because of the complexities and effort that goes in to the visit in order to keep the relationship alive transnationally (Mason, 2004). As Urry (2002) concludes, “the need for physical co-presence and corporeal travel would appear to be with us for a long time yet” (Urry, 2002:270).
As Wajcman et al (2008) realise from their study that individuals invest in a lot of time and money in encouraging long lasting and deeper contacts with intimates (Wajcman et al, 2008:635). Similarly, Green (2002) suggests that these new technologies affords room for deepening strong ties between kin relations and makes distance irrelevant. She argues that “time spent using communicational devices makes relationships durable and continuing” (cited in Wajcman et al, 2008:636). Consequently, this fresh development strengthens the relational environment of family traditions, de-emphasising domestic co-location and constructing families without boundaries.
By the evidence provided, it is apparent to conclude the argument by stating that today, proximity does not matter for maintaining and strengthening kin relations because of the new technologies been introduced. In 1950’s locality and proximity was important in keeping kin relations alive. Whereas, today we live in a more isolated society where people have become disperse. There has been a change in several social patterns in which kinship has not been declined but transformed for the better which keeps the community strong. On the other hand, some may argue that yes, it is possible to communicate across the world but we are loosing closeness.
Nevertheless, today kinship still plays a vital role in providing emotional, physical and financial support but the ways it provides in has been transformed dramatically. There is also particular attention towards the fact that kinship roles have not disappeared, rather they have been enhanced with increased mobility. As some may say, it is just a change of society. However, kin relations are been maintained despite physical separation. Modern technology has made possible a very different, yet important kinship structure. To conclude, Distance mattered in the 1950’s but it does not today.
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