Wednesday, August 25, 2010

relationships in personal communities

personal community research invokes a certain understanding of ‘community’. instead of regarding communities as bound up with organized institutions such as family, neighborhood, work or voluntary organizations, personal community research treats communities as the network of personal relationships that a given individual belongs to and/or manages. because personal networks on social networking software such as facebook (or of professionally gregarious folks such as politicians or salespeople) can include thousands of weak ties, we make a distinction between ‘personal networks’ and personal communities the latter of which focuses on the relationships that we have with those in our everyday networks, largely consisting of the family and friends that we consider meaningful to us.

when we think of relationships in the everyday sense we initially think about the people in our personal communities that are close to us. those people with whom we are intimate with and share deep affection, those that in the vernacular sense we are in a relationship with, like our boyfriends, spouses, and partners. we recall persons with whom we have a longer history and memory of, like our relations including parents, siblings, and in many societies extended family who may not be blood relatives but who we still call ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ as markers of the role that they play in our family–life. and we may think of some people who have shared specific and significant experiences with us so that we are associated with each other in relation to something, like sorority sisters, hockey team members, or work colleagues.

relationships have always been a manner of expressing to ourselves and to others how we are connected to each other in our personal communities. they are terribly important to us – both in terms of the emotional, financial, and informational resources that are made available to us from the interactions they represent, and in terms of what they portray to others about ourselves. we can all recall an instance of needing to clarify very quickly to someone that a certain lithe, twenty-something is only my niece, or that indeed the attentive lunch-mate is the latest love interest. the people we are connected to visually say a lot about us, or at least they imply a lot about who we may actually be. this is why the paparazzi go to enormous lengths to get that tell-tale photo, and why most persons of elevated status have well paid image consultants coordinating who they may be see with in different circumstances. relationships define who we are as individuals.

of course, like most societal forms relationships are subject to social rules and structures. for example, in contemporary society it is frowned upon and often illegal to marry a first cousin (although in the regal and royal past this was not the case), monogamy is the western explicit ideal, and as children we learn that it is not polite to tell-tales on our friends. legal, moral, and ethical institutions structure how we behave within relationships. in many instances these structures serve to protect the interests of those in relationships where there is an unequal power distribution. teachers should not get too deeply involved in relationships with students, and presidents should maintain some relational distance from interns.

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