Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Solidarity, Conflict, and Ambivalence: Complementary or Competing Perspectives on Intergenerational Relationships?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Solidarity, Conflict, and Ambivalence: Complementary or Competing Perspectives on Intergenerational Relationships?

Article excerpt

Key Words: affect, ambivalence, conflict, intergenerational relations, solidarity, theory.

Ambivalence is an apt term to describe the contradictions we experience in our intimate social relationships. We can feel it: the paradox between closeness and distance, the push and pull between intimacy and setting boundaries. Ambivalence is a phenomenological reality, a universal human experience, a reflection of the dilemmas we face in close relationships.

That ambivalent feelings characterize family interactions will be no surprise to family therapists and psychotherapists because much of their practice involves helping people disentangle difficulties in close-but-distant intimate relationships. Nor should the notion of ambivalence be a surprise to family researchers because they examine often conflicting data concerning the antecedents and consequences of family processes on some outcome. But does the concept of intergenerational ambivalence, proposed initially by Luscher and Pillemer (1998) and now expanded by Connidis and McMullin, provide something significantly new-- a more useful way to conceptualize and theorize family relationships than previous conceptualizations have achieved? If so, how should the concept of ambivalence be refined and operationalized in order to provide a better understanding of family relationships? How does it relate to other, more established, concepts such as what has become known as the intergenerational solidarity paradigm (Lowenstein, Katz, Prilutzky, & Hassoen, 2001)?

These are some of the questions raised by Connidis and McMullin in their examination of "Sociological ambivalence and family ties." These are theoretical issues important to examine. We congratulate Journal of Marriage and Family in highlighting this theoretical discussion for public debate. We congratulate Connidis and McMullin for their efforts to address the ambiguities of the intergenerational ambivalence concept and to strengthen its utility. Such explication moves the debate forward and will advance the building of theory in family research.


What is ambivalence in intergenerational relationships? Luscher and Pillemer (1998) delineate two types: (a) sociological or structural ambivalence, which stems from an individual's location in the social structure, and (b) psychological or individual ambivalence, which refers to the feelings or sentiments experienced by individuals when faced with structural ambivalence. Their general definition of ambivalence, ". . . contradictions in relationships between parents and adult offspring that cannot be reconciled" (LOscher & Pillemer, p. 416), incorporates both types.

Connidis and McMullin applaud Lischer and Pillemer for going beyond previous conceptualizations of intergenerational relations that have been typified as wholly harmonious or wholly conflictual. However, they suggest that Luscher and Pillemer do not go far enough. Drawing on themes from critical theory (a rubric incorporating themes from Marxism, feminism, and the Frankfurt school), Connidis and McMullin argue that ambivalence must be reconceptualized as "socially structured contradictions made manifest in interaction" (p. 565). They assert that their concept of structured ambivalence is distinct from Uscher and Pillemer's structural or sociological ambivalence. The Connidis and McMullin reconceptualization of ambivalence as socially structured emphasizes that: (a) ambivalence is a feature of structured sets of social relationships within which certain groups are privileged, (b) individuals exercise agency (to the extent possible) when dealing with ambivalence, (c) the negotiation of ambivalence takes place through social interaction, and (d) conflict is an inevitable feature of interpersonal relationships, including intergenerational relationships.

Connidis and McMullin's construct of structured ambivalence adds to our understanding of family relationships. …

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