Intergenerational Ambivalence: A New Approach to the Study of Parent-Child Relations in Later Life

By Luescher, Kurt; Pillemer, Karl | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Intergenerational Ambivalence: A New Approach to the Study of Parent-Child Relations in Later Life


Luescher, Kurt, Pillemer, Karl, Journal of Marriage and Family


KURT LUESCHER University of Konstanz

KARL PILLEMER Cornell University*

Social scientific interest in intergenerational relationships between adults has increased in recent years. However, there is a lack of theoretical work that allows for the integration of research findings. Further, there has been a tendency to interpret intergenerational relationships within limited frameworks that emphasize either intergenerational solidarity or conflict. In contrast, we propose that ambivalence is a more useful organizing concept for understanding inter-generational relations. In this article, we argue that relationships between the generations in families are structured such that they generate various types of ambivalence. We then discuss three aspects of intergenerational relationships that are likely to be ambivalent and propose an agenda for future research.

Key Words: aging and family, ambivalence, intergenerational relations, kinship, theory.

Interest in intergenerational relations among adults within the family has grown dramatically over the past three decades, as demonstrated by research reviews and edited volumes from both sides of the Atlantic, all of which contain extensive bibliographies of recent publications (AttiasDonfut, 1995a; Finch & Mason, 1993; Hareven, 1996; Lye, 1996; Luscher & Schultheis, 1993; Suitor, Pillemer, Bohannon, & Robison, 1995). Indeed, the amount of empirical work on this topic has made it one of the more vigorous research areas in contemporary sociology and psychology. The development of theory to integrate the host of findings, however, has not kept up with empirical productivity. Research on aging and the family has tended to respond to obvious social problems (such as caregiving for impaired relatives, housing, grandparents raising grandchildren), rather than consider theoretical issues (Lye, 1996).

Perhaps the most popular organizing framework for understanding family relationships in later life is that which highlights intergenerational solidarity. A number of prominent researchers responded to Talcott Parsons's (1942, 1944) concern about the isolation of the nuclear family by proposing that extensive family solidarity actually existed (Litwak, 1965; Shanas et al., 1968; Sussman, 1959). Since the early 1970s, Bengtson and colleagues have continued and expanded this tradition in an influential series of articles and books (cf. Bengtson & Harootyan, 1994; Roberts, Richards, & Bengtson, 1991; Silverstein & Bengtson, 1997; Treas & Bengtson, 1988). The solidarity perspective has been taken up by other researchers in the United States (Rein, 1994; Rossi & Rossi, 1990) and is also a reference point for European authors, although not without critical overtones (Attias-Donfut, 1995b; Bawin-Legros, Gauthier, & Strassen, 1995; Coenen-Huther, Kellerhals, & von Allmen, 1994; Donati, 1995; Finch & Mason, 1993).

Some scholars have criticized the overly positive and consensual bias of the solidarity perspective. Research within the solidarity framework typically assumes that individuals' personal feelings-such as affection, attraction, and warmthserve to maintain cohesion in the family system (Sprey, 1991). Marshall, Matthews, and Rosenthal (1993) state that even the term "solidarity" indicates an emphasis on consensus. European writers have pointed out the value-laden origins of the term in proletarian movements and in religious social doctrine (Kleine, 1992; Luescher, 1997). As Roberts et al. (1991) themselves note, solidarity "has been treated as the engine driving the pursuit of the common good within families" (p. 12). Negative aspects of family life typically are interpreted in this view as an absence of solidarity. Research in this tradition has tended to emphasize shared values across generations, normative obligations to provide help, and enduring ties between parents and children.

However, at the same time that scholars in the solidarity tradition have emphasized mutual support and value consensus, another line of research has focused on isolation, caregiver stress, family problems, conflict, and abuse (Marshall et al. …

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