How viable is Gidden's concept of the 'pure relationship'. Evaluate his view of intimacy

Sociology is a child of modernity. It tries to understand the processes that lead to social and cultural change in society. Not that change only occurred in modern times yet with the ascendancy of industrialisation change acquired a new dynamism that exceeded any previous transformations in pre-modern societies. Sociologists are notoriously disagreed as to what initiated the various processes of change and as to how to describe them accurately.

Anthony Giddens’s notion of the pure relationship added a new dimension to the debates amongst sociologists about the catalysts and phenomena of social transformations. His concept of the pure relationship tries to capture the development of novel foundations for personal relationships, while applying it by no means only to sexual interaction. In fact, Giddens is at pains to point out that the private and the public stand in a relation of mutual influence (Giddens 1992, p.195). The pure relationship thus can be usefully employed in conceptualisations of the public as well as the personal space in modern society. The essay will look at the way in which Giddens conceives of the interaction between trust, modernity and intimacy and why he believes this may lend particular credence to his notion of the pure relationship. His thesis, in a nutshell, is that trust in modern societies requires a new basis which can be adequately described as a process of mutual disclosure. The second part of the essay will try to articulate some criticism of Giddens’s ideas. It will be argued that Giddens formulation of the pure relationship feeds upon a particular perspective of the therapeutic practice, one that often has effects contrary to those Giddens ascribes to the concept of the pure relationship.

Giddens work has been a poignant formulation of the disastrous effects of modernity on social relationships. He focuses in his work on the idea of trust and how trust is created between individuals. With the onslaught of the forces of rationalisation and industrialisation (Giddens broadly concurs here with Marxist and Weberian portrayals of the origins of modern capitalist societies), personal relationships undergo a radical transformation. While they used to be based on a face-to-face interaction in which trust was created by direct communication and institutionalised connections such as family, kinship, or wider networks of friendship or community, modern relationships are distinctly impersonal. They are characterised by the absence of direct interaction between the individuals. In fact, so Giddens writes, people have to rely increasingly on abstract systems in which personalised types of trust are impossible to build up. The various mechanisms to engender trust between individuals are profoundly altered. Face-to-face interaction is replaced by ideational connections between individuals and abstract systems. Trust now relies on the plausible conveyance of expertise. This new form of trust building mechanism however is very fragile and often breaks down. Giddens cites various examples for such a breakdown. One useful illustration is lack of trust in the reliability of planes to fly. People who experience something like fear of flying say that it is brought about by an absence of faith in planes to defy the laws of gravity. Although there may be a whole range of factors that contribute to this fear, many who suffer from this fear often indicate that their fear subsides to a certain degree once they hear the pilot’s voice. Within Giddens sociological framework to explore the notion of trust, this is a classic example when faith in abstract systems (in this instance modern technology represented by the plane) is supplanted by the creation of a more or less ‘personal’ relationship with a particular individual who appears trustworthy in virtue of his expertise. Giddens thinks that the fragility of trust in modern society often requires this additional process to complement impersonal trust relationships with personal ones, in a way signalling a residue of pre-modern societies.

This, however, is only part of the story of modernity. Modern times are also marked by a noticeable presence of democratic ideas. Democracy, epitomised by principles of equality and participation in public affairs, determines social and personal aspects of citizen’s lives. We will return to the issue of democracy at a later stage. For the time being it is important to note that Giddens believes that the processes generating modern society are intricately linked to the ideas of democracy and a new foundation of mutual trust. In fact, so Giddens argues, both issues are two sides of the same coin, ideas that condition each other.
With the fundamental changes brought about by modernity, Giddens suggests that personal relationships are de-institutionalised, borrowing this notion from Peter Berger (Berger 1980). While trust was previously embedded firmly in communities that prescribed and sanctioned certain traditions and practices, with the dissolution of these communities and their co-operative framework, personal relationships acquire an unprecedented freedom. But this freedom is of a duplicate nature. The formation of identity that was previously predetermined by communal forces largely outside of the individual’s control, is now replaced with an area of self-exploration.

‘Where large areas of a person’s life are no longer set by pre-existing patterns and habits, the individual is continually obliged to negotiate life-style options. Moreover - and this is crucial- such choices are not just ‘external’ or marginal aspects of the individual’s attitudes, but define who the individual ‘is’. In other words, life-style choices are constitutive of the reflexive narrative of self.’ (Giddens, 1992, p.75)

This new gained freedom however also demands additional efforts of orientation and commitment from individuals, something that, for many, diminishes the advantages of liberation from parochialism. In a time of increased existential risks, human beings try to enhance the sources of mutual trust and this process runs parallel to and is influenced by the process of self-formation. Giddens writes:

‘The establishing of basic trust is the condition of the elaboration of self-identity just as much as it is of the identity of other persons and of objects.’ (Giddens 1991, p.41-42)

Giddens now uses the concept of intimacy to describe the processes that allow people to produce a stability in their interpersonal relationships. Intimacy, as Giddens understands it, extends way beyond the realm of sexual interaction. It encompasses the spheres of family, kinship and mutual friendship. All three fields were intensely affected by the rise of modernity and the concomitant transformation of trust. Intimacy thus is a conceptual tool for Giddens to explore the foundations of social stability that he believes have been put in place following the disintegration of the personal, face-to-face connections amongst individuals. In a passage clarifying the methodological approach he favours, Giddens writes:

‘The transformation of intimacy can be analysed in terms of the building of trust mechanisms; and ... personal trust relations...are closely bound up with a situation in which the construction of the self becomes a reflexive project.’ (Giddens 1990, p.114)

With some verve he declares that intimacy is the ‘promise of democracy’ (Giddens 1992, p.188) in the personal sphere. But why does intimacy feature this close link to democracy? What is democratic in the nature of intimacy? We have already seen that Giddens attaches much significance to the fact that modernity is tied up with the various ideas and maxims of democracy. Modernity, so Giddens argues, has often come to be synonymous with the development of individual freedom and equality. These ideas however are central to the institutional framework of democracy and a democratic society cannot exist without individual autonomy. He elaborates extensively on this idea of autonomy simply because it is the missing link that indicates that processes of modernisation are of similar character and structure in the public and the private sphere. While the call for political participation leads to empowerment of individuals in the political sphere, growing autonomy in the private realm echoes these developments. Giddens even argues that the increasing degree of autonomy is heavily reliant on the advancement of reasoning in shaping the basic institutions of society (Giddens 1992, p.186 and p.200). As people find traditional forms of social organisations less legitimised, they turn to forms of public deliberation, a process that accelerates the dependence on reason. A similar process is under way in the personal sphere. Status, position and distribution of resources within the family increasingly require justification beyond the legitimation through traditions and customs. This gives rise to two elements of modernity that shape the structure and character of intimacy. Giddens argues that democracy in the public and private sphere in essence is a framework of rules (1) and the reliance on dialogue (2) as a procedure for building consensus. This consensus has certain important features. It is non-coerced, rests on the voluntary consent of those affected by the rules and outcomes of the deliberation process, and it is negotiated fairly. This dualistic pair of rules and dialogue makes up the foundation of what he calls the pure relationship. In the public sphere just as in the private sphere, rights and duties are accorded to fair rules and the distribution of resources and tasks is negotiated in a spirit of justice and mutual respect. This accurately describes the notion of the pure relationship. Intimacy is thus the conceptual means to explain the way in which people ensure social stability in modern societies. Giddens’s notion of intimacy extends to the public and private realm and generates a pattern of human interaction which conforms to the most fundamental principles of democracy: equality and justice.
Let us now look at the particular aspects of the pure relationship that inform Giddens’ theory of intimacy. Having explained how the foundations of trust are being transformed and how it acquires new forms, the notion of the pure relationship becomes transparent. The pure relationship is in fact the ‘ethical framework for democracy in the personal order’ (Giddens 1992, p.188), something that Giddens previously declared as the conceptual purpose of intimacy.

‘A pure relationship is one in which external criteria have become dissolved: the relationship exists solely for whatever rewards that relationship can deliver. In the context of the pure relationship, trust can be mobilised only by a process of mutual disclosure.’ (Giddens 1991, p.6)

Given the similar characterisation of intimacy and the pure relationship the latter can at best be seen as the mirror image of intimacy in personal relationships. At worst it is a conceptual duplication that adds little to his notion of intimacy. Be this as it may, as the maxim of autonomy is the ‘guiding thread’ for intimacy so it is for the pure relationship (Giddens 1992, p.189). It is the outcome of the ‘reflexive project of self-formation, realised by relating yourself to others in an egalitarian way’ (Giddens1992, p.189). The ground rules are laid down by individuals negotiating in an environment which is characterised by mutual respect. In fact autonomy sustains the principle of respect that should regulate the interactions between individuals and marks the boundaries of individual space. As such then autonomy exemplifies the ideals of the pure relationship. But how does the pure relationship come about? How do people enter into it and why may they be inclined to endorse or reject it?
Giddens is conspicuously vague on these questions. He seems to assume that individuals somehow recognise the urgency and particular usefulness of the pure relationship in building their partnerships. Central to this argument is the process of mutual disclosure. Since the relationship is entered into ‘for its own sake’ any pure relationship possesses a tension to reconcile mutual trust and commitment with the knowledge that the relationship is voluntary’ and can be terminated at any time (Jamieson 1999, p.479). Giddens argues that revealing to the partner the whole range of sentiments, emotional inclinations and practical commitments in our life, is tantamount to a voluntary expression of endorsement of the democratic principles. Mutual disclosure is, as it were, a way of acknowledging equality and respect as the fundamentals of the prospective relationship. He thereby rejects strongly those sociologists who argue that the secret of a successful personal relationship is to retain a rest of mystique, something that remains inevitably unknown to the partner. Giddens contends that mutual disclosure must comprise the entirety of personal lives. The act of revelation is a way of expressing ‘binding aspiration of democratically ordered interaction.’ (Giddens 1992, p.190). Mutual disclosure thus encapsulates the principles of democracy and the opportunities of building trust in relationships through new forms of intimacy.
But is this a viable picture of modern relationships? Does the practice of mutual disclosure that is critical to the notion of the pure relationship allow individuals to access a new type of mutual trust? What motivates Giddens to place so much confidence in human beings that they will not exploit the additional information about their partners in order to create new inequalities and dependencies within the relationship?

Jamieson has articulated the most stringent criticism in an article that targets the viability of Giddens’s concept of the pure relationship from the empirical perspective (Jamieson 1999). He argues that two components should caution us to accept Giddens’s conceptual take on modern relationships. First, despite anecdotal evidence, inequalities persist and are hard to eradicate. One of the reasons is that they cloak themselves in new ways that are difficult to detect and grasp with conventional concepts. One may object that Giddens’s concept of the pure relationship addresses exactly this problem since it is certainly a novel formulation of the problem of equality in personal relationships. However, Jamieson warns us that Giddens’s pure relationship is tied into an older discourse that has lost much of its credibility (Jamieson 1999, p.480). Jamieson argues that Giddens’s notion of mutual disclosure feeds upon a therapeutic language which has often worked against empowerment of women rather than in their favour. In fact, it redirects our conceptual efforts into a track that individualises personal problems (similar to the therapeutic effort) and therefore downplays the social dimensions of interpersonal relationships. Giddens in fact sustains his sociological theory with a psychological explanation, thus conceding territory to a questionable strategy of individualised problem solving. Sociological explanations of the difficulties of relationships gain little attention in Giddens’s view of the matter, inadvertently playing into the hands of those who have a vested interest in the continuation of conditions of inequality and unfair distribution of resources between partners. The second reason why Jamieson believes Giddens’s theory of the pure relationship to be flawed has to do with the fact the Giddens fails to recognise the importance of basic sentiments such as love and care that are often catalysts as well as provide channels to problem solution in modern partnerships. Giddens in a way is compelled to disregard these significant aspects of partnerships since they contradict the thrust of the process of mutual disclosure. Love and care often revitalise commitment to partners in spite of remaining secrets or uncertainties about the partner’s trustfulness (Jamieson 1999, p.486).

Jamieson points to the prevalent optimism in Giddens’s work and doubts whether this reflects accurately social reality. Although evidence is often ambiguous and down to interpretation some observations that can claim a high degree of objectivity, point into the opposite direction. Jamieson refers briefly to an illuminating alternative view on the procedure of disclosure. He contrasts Giddens favourable view on therapeutic efforts through disclosure with Foucault’s thesis that disclosure dis-empowers individuals, operating as a subtle form of control and regulation (Jamieson 1999, p.481). Additionally, Giddens disregards in his theory the negative aspects of relying in the expertise of specialists in counselling or psychological environments. He concludes that Giddens’s ‘psychological theory remains unpacked.’ (Jamieson 1999, p.481).
A far more questionable claim, according to Jamieson, is however Giddens attempt to conceptually link the context of ‘ontological security’ in childhood with the process of mutual disclosure amongst partners. Giddens argued that child-parent relations mirror the ideal of pure relationships amongst adults. What he overlooked, so Jamieson suggests, is that parent-child relationships are frequently determined by the particular objective of mothers or fathers to retain control over the children as they approach adolescence. Mutual disclosure thus serves a purpose that contradicts fundamentally the disinterested impetus of the pure relationship (Jamieson 1999, passim).
Overall Giddens’s theory of intimacy and the pure relationship reduces human relationships to a one-dimensional affair and fails to acknowledge the whole range of factors that determine whether or not a partnership becomes a successful one. Additionally, Giddens’s portrayal of modern partnerships as being based on the pure relationship is not borne out by the evidence. Although we have witnessed over the last decades a noticeable shift in taboos and themes in public discourse, the media are rarely a reliable indicator of sexual activity or practices of conflict resolution (Jamieson 1999, p.483). Even less obvious is the interconnection between public and private forms of intimacy. Democracy may inform much of the personal and public forms of negotiating solutions to conflicts, it is less clear however how equal the positions of partners in these negotiations are and how much they would affect wider society. Jamieson argues that, with all likelihood, 

‘the causal arrows point the other way - efforts within personal life are countered elsewhere - there is not a diffusion of change from the personal to other arenas without sociological explanation of intervening mechanisms.’ (Jamieson, p.490)

What makes a good relationship is still less dependent on mutual disclosure, that may ultimately only enhance the weaponry of the partner in conflict situations, but ‘ a shared repertoire of cover stories, taboos, and self-dishonesty.’ (Jamieson, p.487). For Jamieson, Giddens’s optimism is unwarranted.
 

Bibliography

  • Peter Berger and Hans Kellner (1980). Marriage and the Construction of Reality. In Martin Anderson (ed.) (1980). The Sociology of the Family. Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp.302-324.
  • Anthony Giddens (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press
  • Anthony Giddens (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Anthony Giddens (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy. Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Stanford: Stanford UP.
  • Lynn Jamieson (1999). Intimacy transformed? A critical look at the ‘pure relationship’. Sociology, Vol. 33, No.3, August, pp.477-494

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