Sociability, sexuality, self: relationality and individualization
Birkbeck Institute for Social Research Birkbeck, University of London London, UK
This paper proposes a new way of understanding recent social change in intimacy and personal life, focusing on three dimensions of personal life - sociability, sexuality and self - the relationship between them, and transformations in their social organization. Its central argument is two-fold: ontological and socio-historical. Firstly, I suggest that an adequate understanding of intimacy and personal life must be psycho-social, not just sociological or psychological, as most work on the subject has been. Drawing on psychoanalysis and feminist philosophy, I propose a model of subjectivity as both fundamentally relational and individually unique and particular. Secondly, I argue that a set of counter-heteronormative relationship practices are emerging amongst those at the cutting edge of social change: the prioritization of friendship, the de-centring of sexual/ love relationships and the forming of non-conventional sexual partnerships. I call this process queer individualization. Significantly revising existing theories of social change, I counter the triptych of "patriarchal pessimists" - Zygmunt Bauman, Richard Sennett and Robert Putnam - whose versions of the contemporary condition of individualization currently dominate public discourse and the social sciences. Far from being the isolated, solitary individuals depicted by Bauman, Sennett and Putnam, those who are "most individualized" are largely embedded in networks of intimacy and sociability which provide friendship, love, care and support. The queer qualification of my use of the concept of individualization is bivalent. It suggests that the relationship practices of this group can be understood as queer, in that they destabilize the modern sexual and gender order (with its distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual, and male and female, subjectivities and ways of life), and it proposes a queer (in the sense of contrary to the norm, odd, peculiar) re-theorizing of individualization, which disrupts the binary categories of individual/ society on which individualization theory rests, and which holds the relational nature of human life as central. The paper therefore explores the potential of two relatively undeveloped analytical approaches within sociology - psychoanalytical psycho-social research and queer studies - for understandings of contemporary formations of intimacy and care.