Familiarity Bonds

By | October 19, 2015

A few years back, in 2012, I published a paper (in ‘Medical Sociology Online’, Vol 6 Issue 3) with an old mate, Aksel Tjora, on what we called ‘familiarity bonds’. I liked it perhaps more than I should. But then I still like it!

Our central hypothesis was that associations of the familiar have more salience for health, even longevity, than has been acknowledged. This is so, we argued, most especially when people’s more documented asset flows for health are constricted. In other words, when push comes to shove the familiar comes into its own.

The nitty-gritty, everyday to-ing and fro-ing of routines constitutes ‘life’ day-to-day. This suggests an affinity with the notion of social capital. Our notion of familiarity bonds is however neither subsumed by nor adequately reflected in the well-rehearsed idea of social capital. Nor it is confined to human relations. It denotes ‘no only the often-rich variety of dyadic and group dynamics, but relations with non-humans, from dogs to goldfish, extending to ‘things’ and a multiplicity of representations of the routine and predictable.’ The return on familiarity bonds, we suggested, likely includes benefits for health and longevity.

Putnam’s pioneering studies gave a rationale for and impetus to the notion that absorption into a community – and a sense of belonging – is protective of health. Less positively, there rapidly evolved a series of psychosocial models purporting to displace more materialist explanations for widening health inequalities. Revealingly, such models were illustrated by middle-class pursuits like church or youth club membership rather than postcode youth gangs. Nevertheless social capital, or what I term a strong flow of social assets, clearly fuels better health.

Familiarity bonds are not equivalent to the possession of social capital, although they can be co-present and co-active. They have at least six core properties: (1) they can be readily accessed; (2) they can be actual, virtual or even imaginary; (3) they are predictable and therefore reliable, affording a sense of permanence; (4) they constitute a bulwark against ‘ontological insecurity’; (5) they are a by-products of people’s ‘projects’; and (6) they are most salient for health and longevity at times of cultural relativity. A paragraph on each of these is in order.

Ready accessibility: familiarity is a necessary constituent of social living, a precondition of our being in the world. This is not just a matter of Wittgensteinian logic or of trains arriving on schedule. Familiarity underwrites our getting by day-to-day and belonging per se. It provides for social order and offers a benchmark and reference group for self- and other-orientation. It is ubiquitous: it comes not only with a smile of acknowledgement from a local barista, an example of what we have elsewhere named a ‘subtle tie’, but with feeding the cat or glimpsing a van Gogh print on the wall, the shoes by the kitchen door, the herb garden, or anticipating a spell on Facebook or an evening TV programme. As David Miller shows in his ‘The Comfort of Things’, the familiar comprises non-living as well as living objects.

Actual, virtual or imaginary: the familiar need not have an actual presence. It can be caught in the very act of communicating, the charging of an iPhone, let alone the checking for new texts. Our occupancy of cyber-realms is well documented, less so our fantasy worlds. There is calm and refuge in day-dreams, replete with actors, ego-centred relations and plots. Acquaintances or significant others need not be actual to appear on our stages. Health-bestowing potential might rest with such fictitious familiarity bonds, even if this potential fails to compensate for, is ultimately undone by, an actual world of disappointment, rejection or isolation.

‘Ontological insecurity’: for Giddens the post-welfare state culture is characterized by the threat or displacement of the grand narratives that formerly lent meaning, order and security to people’s lives and fuelled their projects. Identity-formation has seemingly become a matter of consumer ‘choice’, at root between a plentiful rivalry of petit narratives in a thoroughly relativised culture. If Marx’s alienation and Durkheim’s anomie intrude into the 21st century, neither quite captures the causal power or novelty of what Aksel and I called ephemoralisation. A Heraclitan state of permanent cultural flux prevails, tacitly encouraging fundamentalisms and nihilisms alike. Familiarity bonds stand in contradistinction to Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’.

Ongoing projects: Archer grounds people’s projects in those conversations we have with ourselves that are informed but never determined by structure and culture. Agency never entirely loses its causal efficacy even as it never entirely escapes its structural and cultural contexts of influence. Familiarity bonds comprise items scattered in landscapes typically experienced – if not explained sociologically – in terms of ‘chosen’ paths through everyday life. They are solid representations of past, present and future in the life-course and, as such, give tangibility to possible future directions of travel.

Enduring markers: The predictability and reliability implicit in familiarity bonds has special resonance in a present culture characterized by ‘relativity’. Cultural relativity is a cultural by-product of post-1970s financial capitalism. What counts as enduring depends on the background noise of the culture of the day. Complementing the emphasis on ontology or ‘being’ (see paragraph on ontological insecurity), bonds of familiarity lend anchorage also to an otherwise volatile array of (epistemological) ‘beliefs’ and moral and political stances. This is ephemoralisation again. It is not just that ‘all that is solid melts into air’, for Marx an intrinsic property of capitalism, but that present class ideology has become anti- rather than post-Enlightenment, giving birth to a culture of consumerist pick-and-mix as open to fundamentalisms as to ‘difference’.

Health bestowing: Crucial to Granovetter’s commendation of a distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ ties was his assertion that the latter had been neglected and under-valued. He maintained that weak ties possessed ‘coercive power’. In short, it is insufficient to timidly intimate the significance of a notion of familiarity bonds. Hence an hypothesis: familiarity bonds are causally efficacious for health and longevity in inverse relation to the aggregate strength of flow of other assets (or forms of capital) already known for their positive impact on health and longevity (namely, biological, psychological, social, cultural, spatial, symbolic and – above all – material asset flows). When ‘all else is failing’, familiarity bonds kick in for health and longevity!


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