Ambivalence and the Study of Intergenerational Relations

By Pillemer, Karl; Suitor, J. Jill | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Ambivalence and the Study of Intergenerational Relations


Pillemer, Karl, Suitor, J. Jill, Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


A decade ago, Marshall, Matthews, and Rosenthal (1993) offered in this Annual Review an insightful and provocative analysis of the sociology of later-life families. They characterized the field as focusing on a small set of issues in an often abstract and "lifeless" way. They further identified a key problem in this approach: It seemed divorced from the complex reality of family life as individuals actually experience it. As they eloquently put it, "Family life is for many at the core or heart of their identity, conflictual or smooth, but rarely irrelevant. Yet this protean nature of living in a family, this heart and soul of existence, is not captured in the research literature" (p. 39).

This statement is nearly as apt today as it was 10 years ago. However, Marshall and his colleagues' call for greater attention to the complexity of late-life families-to multiple perspectives, to the roles of family conflict and negotiation, and to an acknowledgement that intergenerational relations involve an interplay of the positive and the negative-has received only limited response. Despite the proliferation of empirical studies, the development of new conceptual approaches that capture the complexity of relationships between older parents and adult children has lagged behind (Connidis & McMullen, 2002; Fingerman, 2001; Luscher, 2002; Lye, 1996). Thus, a need exists for sensitizing concepts or organizing frameworks that encompass the range of support, attachment, tension, and upset that characterizes daily experience of parent-adult child relations, as well as changes that occur in these relations over time.

It is in this spirit that we propose ambivalence as a fruitful organizing concept for the study of intergenerational relationships across time and place. During certain periods in the history of the social sciences, a particular concept or topic appears to catch the interest of scholars in a variety of disciplines almost simultaneously. Working parallel to one another, and sometimes across disciplines, the new perspective leads to a host of theoretical insights and new empirical work. Such is the case with the concept of ambivalence; researchers in sociology, psychology, history, anthropology, political science, and women's studies, among other areas, are producing a burgeoning literature on this topic.

Thus, sociologists have rediscovered the usefulness of ambivalence to analyze contemporary social structures (Smelser, 1998); political scientists have examined ambivalence in public opinions toward controversial issues (Craig, Kane, & Martinez, 2002); anthropologists have in recent years focused studies of kinship around contradiction and ambivalence (Peletz, 1995); management researchers have explored ambivalence toward organizational change (Piderit, 2000) and in role conflict among high-level women managers (Pong & Tiedens, 2002); and psychologists have examined the role of ambivalence in the experience of spouses who are providing care to rheumatoid arthritis patients (Tucker, Winkelman, Kaz, & Bermas, 1999) and who are recently bereaved (Bonanno, Notarius, Gunzerath, Keltner, & Horowitz, 1998).

Most notably, something akin to a paradigm shift is taking place in the social psychological study of attitudes, with a remarkably growing body of work devoted to understanding attitudinal ambivalence (Bell, Esses, & Maio, 1996; Priester & Petty, 1996; Thompson, Zanna, & Griffin, 1995). A movement has occurred from a traditional view that attitudes are unidimensional and bipolar, to a bidimensional model in which people can hold positive and negative attitudes simultaneously (Armitage, 2003). Therefore, it becomes a key scientific task to separate the positive and negative aspects of attitudes and to explore the circumstances in which such positive and negative evaluations are positively related to one another.

It is an interesting paradox that the scientific study of ambivalence has been slow to permeate the one area in which it is most popularly-and proverbially-assumed to exist: intergenerational relations among adults.

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