Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Intergenerational Ambivalence: Further Steps in Theory and Research

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Intergenerational Ambivalence: Further Steps in Theory and Research

Article excerpt

Key Words: ambivalence, family therapy, gender, intergenerational relations, postmodernism.

The article by Ingrid Connidis and Julie McMullin and the initiative of the Journal of Marriage and Family's editor provide an excellent opportunity to continue the discussion on the relevance of the concept of ambivalence for the study of intergenerational relations. Nearly 4 years have passed since Karl Pillemer and I (Luscher & Pillemer, 1998) published our ideas on the topic in this journal. Connidis and McMullin take this article as their starting point and refer to it both approvingly and critically. I cannot always follow their critique, as I will show at appropriate points below. What counts most, however (and this is greatly to be applauded) is that all of us are interested in the further development of the approach.

Interestingly, insights into the ambivalence between parents and adult children can be traced back to the beginnings of human society, although the term itself was apparently first created only in 1910. In Greek mythology, some of the greatest sagas depict what we now refer to as ambivalence. The best known of these is the drama of the fateful relationship between Oedipus and his father. This theme is also found in modern literature. Franz Kafka's story The Metamorphosis or, more recently, Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral, are only two of many examples. Today, the term ambivalence is widely used. For example, we may hear adult children saying that they feel ambivalent about placing their elderly father or mother in a nursing home.

The central question, then, is to determine what can be gained by using the concept in family research. I agree with Connidis and McMullin that the concept of ambivalence enables us to study intergenerational relationships with greater openness and it can help to accentuate the sociological perspective. To this end, the structural conditions of ambivalence should be given adequate attention. The authors mention gender inequality as a particular example, thereby providing a bridge to gender studies. Taking this a step further, I see the concept of ambivalence as well-suited to linking various disciplines that work on the "problem of generations" (Mannheim, 1928).

Ambivalence can be comprehended as a "sensitizing concept," as defined by Blumer (1969), giving "the user a general sense of reference and guidance in approaching empirical instances. Whereas definitive concepts provide prescriptions of what to see, sensitizing concepts merely suggest directions along which to look." (p. 148). I would even maintain that the challenge of ambivalence lies in its ambiguities. I say this drawing on Levine's stimulating book, The Flight from Ambiguity (1986). The author provides a wellgrounded argument that insight into the ambiguity of a concept is a motor for the development of new ideas. But in order for this motor to really function and propel us forward, conceptual determinations are indispensable. They are also the foundation for the formulation of specific hypotheses and for the development of research instruments. In this regard, few concrete suggestions can be found in the article by Connidis and McMullin. Of course they offer numerous examples but for research, systematic conceptual work is indispensable. This is where the scientific approach to intergenerational ambivalence differs from that found in literary works and everyday common sense.


In order to avoid a potential misunderstanding, I would like to make it clear that I do not intend to present an all-purpose or ultimate definition of ambivalence. That would be dogmatic. Because ambivalence is a concept that is discussed in many different contexts-from ordinary language to psychological and sociological research-we must attempt to isolate its major ideas and dimensions. For this purpose, it is most useful to turn to the brief yet many faceted history of the concept's scientific use. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.