Social categories establish group boundaries, and also may become obstacles to social interaction and contact between groups. In intimate relationships such as marriage and family, taboos may arise upon historically and socially constituted categories.
Intermarriage confronts these taboos: how individuals transcend social boundaries and create another 'us' through their strong relationships and strategies to deal with social oppression and prejudice. Intermarriage also has the potential to enhance social contacts between different groups, to solve group discontents, to question identity, group boundaries, prejudices and stereotypes, and to lead to more integrated societies.
In the Turkish context, Alevi and Sunni intermarriages are a good example of how group boundaries can be blurred, and how categories intersect with different political standings and worldviews, gendered systems and subjective positions.
From 2014 to 2017, I led a research project to investigate intermarriage between people from the Alevi and Sunni communities in the city of Izmir on the western coast of Turkey. The project aimed to investigate, using qualitative research, how contact between different communities can be built and sustained through the marriage of two individuals. However, I found that even the definitions of groups, social categories and people’s understandings of their identifications were contestable. Therefore, it is crucial to examine how self and group identifications are constructed, negotiated or transformed in marriages in relation to their broader contexts. There were four key questions in our research: How do the partners in intermarriages define their family background categories (in this example, Sunniness and Aleviness)? How do they identify in relation to these categories? How do they perceive differences between these categories, themselves and their spouses? How do they construct a ‘we’ within and/or beyond these categories?
My Identities article, 'Creating a ‘we’ between categories: social categories and Alevi-Sunni intermarriages', presents my findings on Alevi-Sunni intermarriages in the city of Izmir, Turkey. The article describes how Alevi and Sunni partners identify their Aleviness and Sunniness in relation to historical backgrounds of these categories in Turkey and current political discourses, as well as their own subjective positions. Their identifications and perceptions of differences reveal blurred group boundaries, processes of transcending the categories in their very particular experience of 'us', and traces of local and global reflections on these identity categories. I explain how partners in Alevi-Sunni intermarriages recognise differences between Sunniness and Aleviness, how they define these categories and identify themselves in relation to them, and how their marriage influences their identifications.
Spouses’ shared experiences of their relationship with each other and their corresponding communities can make both themselves and their social environment think more deeply about pre-defined identities and categories. This can also cause dissonances with former categorisations and create either modified or totally novel identifications. Whether of Sunni or Alevi backgrounds, spouses redefine categories and situate themselves and their partners as a 'we' within their re-identifications along with their sociopolitical, local and global representations.
Blog post by Gül Özateşler-Ülkücan, Dokuz Eylül University, Turkey
Read the full article: Özateşler-Ülkücan, Gül. Creating a ‘we’ between categories: social categories and Alevi-Sunni intermarriages. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1627069
When people hear that my research topic is international marriages, a spark lights up their eyes, quickly followed by the comment, ‘Oh, living with a foreigner must be difficult...’ When I ask, ‘Why do you think so?’, people quickly answer with ‘cultural differences’, but pushing further, language differences is also mentioned as one of the biggest issues that concern people. So, what is it about language and culture that make it difficult for people to understand each other? Don’t we all have different cultures? Will knowing a spouse’s language help? Is there anything else that makes it difficult for people to connect and understand each other?
Having those and many other questions in mind, I conducted my research on marriages of Russian-speaking women from former Soviet Union countries, who live in Japan and are married to Japanese men. I did not intentionally ask participants to talk about differences in customs or ways of living, but no matter what we discussed, the conversation would eventually reveal how spouses experienced and compared each other’s languages and cultures.
My Identities article, ‘International marriage in Japan: reconstructing cultural toolkits in marriages between Japanese men and women from the former Soviet Union’, introduces the voices of Russian-speaking wives and Japanese husbands, and explores their thoughts about marriages and culture. I analyse some of my participants’ remarks about their communication with spouses, such as Lyubov, who described the way she talked with her husband:
Well, now [we speak] in Japanese, but it happens on very rare occasions, because we are ‘ideal Japanese family’, where everybody lives in their own space. We barely talk, only about children and whether there is enough money for living. That is more or less it.
I was wondering how this is an ‘ideal Japanese family’, when in another interview, another participant, Alexandra, said:
I don’t bother him [her Japanese husband] with every little thing anymore: when he forgets to turn off the light, or doesn’t clean the sink after shaving… I do it ‘like a Japanese woman’, [silently] clean it after him. He must have felt horrible in the first year of our marriage…
Why does doing things silently or not talking to a husband seem to be interpreted as an ‘ideal Japanese family’ or ‘ideal Japanese wife’? How did they come up with these images? How is an ‘ideal family’ different from the ‘ideal Japanese family’? And, what do Japanese husbands think about their marriages with these women?
I respond to these questions by analysing how women from former Soviet Union countries and their Japanese husbands think of and use culture in their everyday lives. In my analysis, I utilise Ann Swidler’s (1986) concept of culture shaping, a repertoire or ‘toolkit’ from which people construct ‘strategies of action’. Women in international marriages faced the burden of recognising their original cultural repertoire and the need to reshape it to create new strategies of action to fit into the life in Japan. On the other hand, their husbands lived in familiar environments outside the family, but had to deal with different ideals and customs inside their international marriages.
Thus, the correctness of husbands’ cultural strategies was reinforced by the Japanese society, while they had to negotiate cultural differences inside the international family. Having different social and cultural backgrounds, Japanese husbands and Russian-speaking wives had difficulties performing roles as their spouses expected. Their perceptions of marriage and customs differed, and therefore the rules they followed in the relationships were different and could lead to conflict. For this reason, it was important to analyse how international couples navigated and restructured their toolkits, and what values shaped their new strategies of action.
I hope my research sheds light not only on the many facets of such seemingly simple notions as ‘family’ and ‘marriage’, but also provides readers with an insight into how spouses in international marriages rationalise these differences; the way in which they change or persist in their habits; and how their ideas evolve and grow with new understanding.
Swidler, A. 1986. Culture in action: symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review 51: 273–286.
Blog post by Viktoriya Kim, Osaka University, Japan
Read the full article: Kim, Viktoriya. International marriage in Japan: reconstructing cultural toolkits in marriages between Japanese men and women from the former Soviet Union. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1677325