Sibling ties are some of the most widespread and enduring intimate relationships. Located at the border of kinship and friendship, the sociology of siblings largely centers on childhood and old age, rivalry and social support. The role of sib ling ties at other stages of the life course – youth and adulthood – and in relation to other topics such as mental illness, substance abuse, disability, and domestic violence (Sanders 2004) is neglected. Principally explored from an adult carer perspective and a policy and professional agenda rather than through a sociological lens, sibling ties are little understood. Exceptions include schooling, fostering, and adoption decisions, where the importance of sibling ties is recognized. Yet they continue to be viewed in relation to parent–child bonds rather than as relationships in their own right.
Until the 1980s the sociology of siblings was influenced by ideas from developmental psychology. Sibling ties were explored through a behavioral and cognitive lens with incest, eating disorders, aggression, and educational achievement as dominant themes. Other angles that characterized the field were the intensity and effects of sibling ties. Links between these elements and parental neglect and the endurance of sibling ties over time received a lot of attention. As a sphere of social interaction, support, and as a network even, empirical work was in its infancy until sociologists began to explore meanings of different types of adult sibling ties (Allan 1977).
Numerous factors account for sociological neglect of sibling ties until the 1980s. One was the preeminence in family studies of issues connected to marriage, reproduction, and parenting rather than to intimacy more generally, including lesbian/gay ties, friendship, and sibship. A second factor was the pervasive emphasis on the child as individual and on the mother–child bond rather than on the child as a member of a generational sibling group. Third, psychoanalytic notions of envy and the trauma of displacement after the birth of a sibling made it difficult to challenge either the rivalry or the deviance discourses (Coles 2003). Indeed, these continue to influence everyday understandings of hostility and misbehavior as perceived in sibling ties. A fourth factor was the absence of siblings’ own narratives about what it means to be a sister or brother. This invisibility mirrored that of previously marginalized relationships in studies of domestic life among stepfamilies and non-heterosexual households. Fifth, there was a tendency to ignore sibling ties as constitutive of power relations and caring practices and socializing in themselves. In retrospect this silence appears ethnocentric for overlooking kin arrangements based on lateral rather than vertical connections.
Gradually, researchers instigated cross disciplinary dialogues that placed sibling ties in social life firmly on the map (Zukow 1989). Attention shifted to social context, intra house hold links, life events, and concepts such as negotiation and reciprocity. By the 1990s sociologists influenced by social constructionist and feminist perspectives started to investigate sib lings as a social group (Walker et al. 2005). They examined the intrinsic value of their ties across the life course in order to understand patterns of transnational migration, family employment, and gendered identity. Ethnographies of sibling life and a sibling standpoint emerged (Song 1999; Mauthner 2002) as sociologists explored changing forms of intimacy in relation to residency, shared history, and belonging to familial cultures and ethnic communities.
There has been little sociological research on sibling ties, especially across the life course. Sibling ties now form part of sociological inquiry into the social relations of intimacy, care, and identity; no longer are they merely of concern in relation to instances of ‘‘clinical adaptation’’ (Lamb and Sutton Smith 1982). For the topic of sibling sociology to grow, there is a need for a broader range of issues to be addressed and for more diverse theories and methodologies to be used, particularly more qualitative and longitudinal approaches. There is a need to investigate the complexity of the ties, the components of their longevity, and how they shape identity in psychic life. New interdisciplinary work attempts to define multiple meanings of ‘‘sibling,’’ of sameness and difference, agency and interdependence, and of continuity and change by drawing on psychoanalysis, post structuralism, and cultural geography. A priority is to establish how competing dis courses of rivalry, deviance, and care coexist in forming contested meanings of sibling ties.
Other directions and topics ripe for investigation include more work exploring generational and historical dimensions, socio legal aspects of sibling partnership and citizenship rights, sib ling representations in popular culture, sibling experiences of asylum and resettlement, and memories of mental illness, adoption, and fostering. Sibling sociology is likely to encompass work on sibling identities shaped by previously overlooked sociodemographic variables such as ethnicity, class, and dis/ability. Greater methodological diversity will reveal the particularity and cultural specificity of sibling ties rather than their universal attributes. More research employing ethnography, memory work, and biographical methods will be useful. Thus, a new body of work documenting psychosocial elements of sibling ties for understanding identity and intimacy will emerge.
- Allan, G. (1977) Sibling Solidarity. Journal of Marriage and the Family 39: 177-84.
- Coles, P. (2003) The Importance of Sibling Relationships in Psychoanalysis. Karnac Books, London.
- Lamb, M. E. & Sutton-Smith, B. (Eds.) (1982) Sibling Relationships: Their Significance Across the Lifespan. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, London.
- Mauthner, M. (2002) Sistering: Power and Change in Female Relationships. Palgrave, Basingstoke. Sanders, R. (2004) Sibling Relationships: Theory and Issues for Practice. Palgrave, Basingstoke.
- Song, M. (1999) Helping Out: Children’s Labor in Ethnic Businesses. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
- Walker, A. J., Allen, K. R., & Connidis, I. A. (2005) Theorizing and Studying Sibling Ties in Adult- hood. In: Bengston, V. L., Acock, A. C., Allen, K. R., Dilworth-Anderson, P., & Klein, D. (Eds.), Sourcebook of Family Theory and Research. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Zukow, P. G. (Ed.) (1989) Sibling Interaction across Cultures: Theoretical and Methodological Issues, Springer-Verlag, New York.