Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

Who matters, for better and for worse? Personal networks in an international perspective

by Jacques-Antoine Gauthier


Jacques-Antoine Gauthier, currently visiting CRFR from the University of Lausanne, summarises the research he presented at a recent CRFR Informal Seminar.


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What do we know about the conditions that favour or hamper the ways in which individuals get connected to each other in a significant way? Are personal networks influenced by life course transitions such as marriage and parenthood (or their absence)? Do they change from one country to another?

A recently published book (Wall, Widmer, Gauthier, Česnuitytė, & Gouveia, 2018) based on a study carried out in Lithuania, Portugal and Switzerland offers some new insights on these issues by asking the question Who are the individuals who, over the past year, have been very important to you, even if you do not get along well with them? First, despite variations over time and place, the research underlines that close relationships continue to form the base of personal networks, challenging the idea of a global decline of the family through the process of individualisation.

This study shows that the closeness between individuals is the result of multiple influences. It is often built over time through co-residence, couple and intergenerational relationships. It also depends on the way cohabitation, birth outside wedlock, childlessness or same sex-marriage are socially perceived and by the place given to friendship and colleagueship. More generally, gender, generation and social class remain influential regarding how close one feels to somebody else. An additional effect may be also attributable to welfare states when considering how their singular historical, social, and normative contexts influence the construction of their citizens’ personal networks.

In Switzerland, long-term stable and wealthy living conditions are associated with liberal policies and ideologies supporting individualised behaviours. At the same time, enduring conservative forces support a rather traditional dynamic of family life and gendered division of labour. Hence, high importance is attributed to friendship and colleagueship within more traditional interdependencies associated with marriage and parenthood.

In Portugal, a long period of low welfare provision associated with a right-wing dictatorship favoured strong intergenerational solidarities and patriarchal models of the family, later thoroughly transformed by the emergence of new family forms and more gender-equal representations. As a result, personal networks are now more adaptable and differentiated. While open to friends, kin and non-kin relationships are combined in a much less exclusive way compared to the other two countries.

In Lithuania, personal networks reflect the hardship and uncertainties associated with the former Soviet occupation and its aftermath. Political instability and economic unrest lead to mass migration and day-to-day struggles, favouring new normative frames focused on pro-traditional family values and policies. Compared with Switzerland and Portugal, personal networks in Lithuania are smaller and less open to non-kin relationships. Despite their smaller size and strong kin orientation, they provide weaker emotional support, which makes them also less cohesive.

The book sheds new light on the complexity of the contexts and conditions potentially influencing the ways in which personal networks are constructed. In particular it shows that their diversity is predominantly shaped by historical and social factors on which private individuals have only a limited influence.


Wall, K., Widmer, E. D., Gauthier, J.-A., Česnuitytė, V., & Gouveia, R. (Éd.). (2018). Families and Personal Networks An International Comparative Perspective. Palgrave McMillan.

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