Sibling presence – A phenomenological study of separated young siblings’ everyday life focusing on technology, materialities and bodily experience
Dissertation by Mads M. Rehder, Educational Anthropology, Aarhus University
This dissertation explores how young separated siblings, in spite of physical absence, experience each other as present in their everyday lives. The research, represented in the form of a written dissertation and a short movie (28 minutes), is focused on 8 young people, 16-21 years of age. The empirical material encompasses filmed fieldwork with participant observation, semi-structured interviews and informal conversations, video recordings by the participants and online fieldwork on Facebook. Associated with the research project ‘Bevægelige Søskendeskaber’, the Ph.D. project builds on empirical material involving almost 100 children and young people, and the analyses of the larger research project constitute the backdrop of the themes of the dissertation.
In Denmark, one third of all children and young people below 18 years of age are separated from one or more of their siblings in their everyday lives, a tendency which has been rising during the past 35 years. While some of these separations are created by siblings reaching adulthood and leaving home, an increasing number of divorces have generated more complex sibling relations, and the number of children having other siblings than the biological ones has been tripled in this period. In order to understand the nuances of the experiences of presence with physically absent siblings in the everyday lives of young separated siblings, the approach of the dissertation builds on everyday life studies as well as on a phenomenological perspective which supports a study of the research interest from a first person perspective. With inspiration from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body and the post-phenomenology of Don Ihde, the dissertation explores how presence is experienced through materialities and technologies on the background of embodied experience.
The analytical chapters of the dissertation unfold this argument. In chapter 3, Offline, the analytical focus is on the material, embodied and emplaced aspects and experiences of the everyday life of young separated siblings. The chapter sheds light on sibling relationships unfolding in the present and experienced in embodied ways by the participants. Exploring experiences of presence linked to rooms, walls and decorations, the analysis suggests that presence is experienced as quasi-presence through materialities. The ambivalence of being alone and together is explored through a discussion of conflictual closeness, linked to the concept of siblingness which provides a first person perspective of the experience of siblings, encompassing friction as well as closeness. Finally, the chapter discusses how sibling relations change when moved out of the parents’ homes.
Chapter 4, Online, explores the technologically mediated aspects of sibling interactions with an emphasis on the ways in which social media and mobile technologies create opportunities for quasi- presence in the everyday lives of young separated siblings. Quasi-presence is here discussed in an extended form, as a reciprocal quasi-presence. Furthermore, a distinction between intensive and extensive quasi-presence is suggested, discerning between the experience of presence as either shorter, focused experiences or extensive experiences of presence providing a horizon in the everyday life of young, separated siblings. The discussion of the phenomenology of the body, presented in the offline analysis, is extended in the online analysis with inspiration from post- phenomenological perspectives. The wall, considered as a physical separation in the offline analysis, is in the online analysis discussed as a virtual boundary dividing the visible and non- visible, shaping various social interactions on different sides of the facebook wall. With point of departure in rhythm analysis, various dynamics and interaction forms are explored, pointing to the ways in which the rhythms of parents and self-initiated horizontal rhythms of young siblings form a complex harmony. Within these frames the siblingness appears as a changeable, subjective experience which in specific periods may either move to the background or emerge intensively. Hence, in the analysis presented in the chapter, themes and relations introduced in the previous chapter are further discussed, drawing on new mediation perspectives.
Chapter 5, Sibling Presence – Concluding Perspectives, discusses how online and offline interaction interweave in young people’s everyday lives. The exploration of relations between face-to-face presence and quasi-presence sheds light on the appearance of sibling interactions in the eyes of the parents. This discussion is linked to the concepts of main and side involvement and the notion of co-involvement developed in the thesis as a contribution to discussions of how siblings are present face-to-face in their physical surroundings, while being quasi present in their mediated interactions. In the chapter, an additional perspective is added to siblingness as it is proposed that the experience of siblings is influenced by the ways in which sibling relations are understood by others, at the same time it is also highlighted how the siblings visible quasi-presence on facebook walls influence their surroundings’ understandings of the sibling relation. Furthermore, this final chapter elaborates on the differences between quasi-presence mediated through materialities and quasi-presence mediated through technologies, a discussion which connects to the experience of the quasi-presence of separated siblings by their surroundings.
With the experiences of individual participants as a starting point, the dissertation shows that sibling relations and presence are experienced and shaped in different ways, linked to embodied experiences, materialities and technologies. Through the use of social media and mobile technologies, which offer experiences of quasi-presence, separated siblings are able to be part of each other’s everyday lifes, thereby sustaining and supporting their experiences of siblingness. Similarly, experiences of quasi-presence emerge in embodied experiences linked to materialities, even though this form of quasi-presence does not include updates and information from the physically absent siblings. It is suggested that siblingness is an experience which does not depend on whether siblings are biologically or socially related, linked to closeness and conflictuality which connect to a common history. The common history may be sedimented in the materialities of common homes, or it may be created technologically as a visible history of relatedness constituted by the mediated actions of siblings on social medias such as facebook. The dissertation proposes that quasi-presence is a fundamental building block in the experience of siblingness, constituting a main aspect in the experience of being part of each other’s everyday life as separated siblings.