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Why Do We Need A Sociology Of Personal Life?

by Vanessa May & Petra Nordqvist 16th July 2019

A sociology of personal life can help us gain new insights into people's relationships

Those who have studied sociology will know that the discipline consists of sub-disciplinary areas including the sociology of families. The causes and consequences of changes in family life, most notably concerning marriage, parenting and divorce, have been keenly debated in the field. Family sociologists have for long circled around the same debates, and in doing so, they have overlooked important dimensions of people’s lives, and the ways in which these are interconnected. A sociology of personal life aims to question taken-for-granted assumptions about what matters to people, what the personal consists of and where it takes place.
A sociology of personal life aims to question taken-for-granted assumptions about what matters to people, what the personal consists of and where it takes place.
A key aim of a sociology of personal life is to broaden the scope beyond family relationships to include other relationships of importance, like those with friends and pets. These are dimensions that tend to pass under the radar of family sociologists, but are nevertheless important for how people experience family life. In other words, a personal life approach aims to understand family relationships in the broader context of a person’s life. By raising our sociological gaze beyond ‘the nuclear family’ and its structure, we gain new insights into how people’s significant relationships intertwine with other dimensions of everyday life.

One important dimension is the material world. Much of our personal lives involve materials in one way or another. For example, our relationships with architecture and home design, clothes, and personal belongings intimately shape our personal lives. Cities and homes, for instance, are often designed with the nuclear family in mind. Think of the archetypical suburb that has become closely aligned with idealised images of the nuclear family. Suburbs tend to be filled with single-family homes that an extended family comprising several generations might find difficult to adapt to their needs. The design of suburbs and the homes in them also encourages the consumption of mass-produced goods, including private cars and white goods such as fridges and washing machines.

The material things that we own can also be used to signify who we are as a person. The clothes we wear can symbolise our personality and tastes, and with every new generation we see the emergence of new youth cultures, each with their own identifiable style of clothing. How a person dresses can in this way signal a sense of belonging to a group. People can also communicate their social status through the things that they own. Owning an expensive car indicates wealth, while the particular make of the car might provide clues as to whether a person comes from ‘old’ or ‘new’ money, an important distinction in a society such as the UK where social class remains salient.

As sociologists, we can also learn a lot about the quality and significance of relationships by looking at how people treat the material objects they own. For example, you might have inherited a keepsake from a deceased relative or friend, such as a piece of jewellery or furniture. The personal value of this object is not necessarily determined by how much it is worth in monetary terms, but by the quality of the relationship that it symbolises. A chipped piece of crockery can be considered invaluable if it was gifted by a beloved grandmother. People can also display their relationships through material objects, such as the photographs of family and friends that you can find in many homes. Furthermore, how people decide what to keep and what to throw away, and whom they involve in this process, can provide important information about the relationships that matter to them.

The above examples underline how material objects shape our personal lives and offer insights into who people are and the quality of their relationships. They demonstrate the interconnected nature of personal life. We are the person we are because of our relationships with other people, places and things. Connectedness is furthermore evident in the way different dimensions of our lives are intertwined. It is this interconnectedness that a sociology of personal life is interested in exploring. In so doing, it offers the opportunity to understand the significance of family life and relationships from new angles.
Featured image credit: Photo by Michael Fousert. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.