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The quest for intimate citizenship

People who live outside conventional families and couples are...

People who live outside conventional families and couples are being excluded from the rights of full citizenship, new findings from the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) show.

Non-conformity, either by choice or chance, to a set of social norms that regulate personal relationships can result in a range of sanctions and difficulties, including exclusion from financial benefits, isolation from families and communities and emotional distress, research found.

The study was undertaken as part of the four-year FEMCIT project, a Europe-wide academic initiative funded by the European Commission to explore the relationship between citizenship and gender equality and how women’s movements have challenged inequality.

The BISR researchers analysed government policies and interviewed women and men living outside normative families in the capital cities of the UK, Norway, Portugal and Bulgaria. They focused on the changing nature of ‘intimate citizenship’; the notion that a person should be free to construct an individual identity and develop close relationships according to personal choice, with the respect, recognition and support of the state and civil society.

They studied the ways in which intimate lives are regulated and shaped by both law and policy and by social interactions between individuals and groups – and how this regulation affects people’s sense of belonging and participation in society.

The final report to the European Commission concluded that full intimate citizenship “remains elusive” and “violations” of intimate citizenship were “widespread” across Europe, particularly for women and members of sexual and ethnic minority groups.

Lead researcher Sasha Roseneil, Professor of Sociology and Social Theory and BISR Director, said: “Politicians traditionally appeal to the archetypal family household of a heterosexual married couple with children yet national statistics show only 22 per cent of households in the UK comprise people living in this family structure.

“Political rhetoric across all parties, especially at election time, tends to revolve around the idea of the traditional ‘hard-working family’ but we really need a discursive shift that reflects the reality that attitudes and ways of living are changing. There are many ways of living – that are meaningful and fulfilling - that are not about the nuclear family or the cohabiting couple.

Professor Roseneil believes her research provides evidence that policies such as offering tax breaks to married couples represent a “retrograde move” in terms of equal opportunities and non-discrimination policies.

She said: “To reward marriages - whether strong, loving and supportive, or unhappy and fragile - at the expense of those who do not have such relationships would be a discriminatory move that would penalise single people, the divorced, widowed and those, who for a range of reasons, are in non-marital relationships, both cohabiting and non-cohabiting.

“Our research highlights the need for policymakers and society to recognise the profound psychological and social effects of promoting particular forms of intimate relationship on people who feel excluded by state and society because they are not in a conventional couple or family.”