Researching Same-Sex Marriage
This book is based on a research project, ‘Just like Marriage? Young Couples’ Civil Partnerships’, which was carried out in 2009 and 2010. It was funded by the British Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC, reference RES-062-23- 1308). In studying personal accounts of formalised same-sex relationships, and by focusing on younger generations’ experiences, we aimed to provide insights into historical continuities and changes in meanings and practices of commitment, and to link these to broader developments in marriage and same-sex relational cultures. Therefore, we sought to generate data which would allow us to analyse young same-sex couples’ formalised commitments from the perspective of couples and individuals, and to situate couple accounts in terms of partners’ socio-culturally shaped biographies. This, we hoped, would allow us to explore the reconfiguration of same-sex relational life that we believe to be linked to broader reconfigurations of gender, sexual and marriage relations. In this appendix, we outline our approach to the study (but see Heaphy and Einarsdottoir, 2012, for a more detailed discussion of our methodological approach).
The main body of our research was based on joint and individual interviews with 50 couples, 25 female and 25 male, who had formalised their relationships through civil partnership. The interviewees were aged up to 35 when they entered into civil partnership, and were aged between the early 20s and late 30s when we interviewed them. At the point of the interviews, the length of civil partnerships varied from one month to just over 5 years, averaging around 23 months. The length of relationships ranged from less than six months to over ten years. Fifty partners were aged between 25 and 35 when they entered civil partnership, 43 partners were aged between 30 and 35, and seven partners were aged under 25 at the time of the civil partnership.
The geographical scope of the research was mainland Britain. Couples were recruited with the help of registrar officials. We contacted local registrars across the UK to inform them about the study and to ask for their assistance in recruiting. In the main, the local offices were enthusiastic and helpful in offering their support. In practice, this entailed us sending them information sheets about the study that they would then forward to couples who had entered into civil partnership within the previous year (they did not have access to information from previous years). If couples were interested in taking part in the study they would contact a named member of the research team directly. Despite the very specific nature of the sample we sought to build, this strategy was successful in recruiting 38 couples in England (three from the North East, five from the North West, 16 from London and 14 from elsewhere in the South East). We recruited one couple from Wales, and with the help of the General Registry Office for Scotland recruited 11 couples in Scotland.
While the majority of couples lived in cities and large towns, this was not always the case, and some couples lived in rural locations. The vast majority defined their ethnicity as ‘white British’ (70) or ‘white other’ (21). The remaining nine identified as Arabic (1), black (1), mixed black (1), Pakistani (1), mixed Asian (1), Chinese (1) and other mixed (3). In terms of income, about 50 per cent of the interviewees earned below the national average, about 25 per cent earned the national average income or up to £10,000 more than this, and about 25 per cent earned significantly more than the average (see Chapter 5 for more detail and discussion). In short, the study included a wider diversity of economic backgrounds and socio-cultural experience than is often included in research on same-sex relational lives.
As noted in the Preface to this book, our study took relationships as the primary unit of analysis and not sexual identities. In narrating their relationships, participants often made reference to their sexual identity (and in some cases several identities), but it was sometimes the case that a specific sexual identity was not explicitly articulated as such. The study did not seek to impose or fix sexual identities. Nevertheless, we were interested in the ways in which partners discussed and defined their sexualities (or not) in narrating their relationships. Among the men, 44 partners described themselves or their relationships as ‘gay’, while six did not mention any sexual identity as such. Among the women, 28 partners described themselves of their relationships as ‘gay’, 13 used ‘lesbian’, two used ‘bisexual’, and seven did not mention a sexual identity as such. However, the ways in which these terms referred to sexual identity varied enormously. Some used ‘gay’ to refer to all same-sex relationships irrespective of their gender make-up. Others used ‘gay’ in a descriptive way to refer to women and men who were attracted to people of the same sex. Others still, but used ‘gay’ to refer to a fundamental sense of self. ‘Lesbian’ was also be used in a range of ways: to distinguish women’s and men’s same-sex relationships, to descriptively refer to same-sex relationships between women or to refer to women who were attracted to other women and to describe a fundamental self-identity.
From the outset, we were keen to study young couples’ relationships and experiences in ways that assumed as little as possible about their structure, organisation and quality. Thus, we set out to explore how the transition from being single to civil partnership is made and experienced; how formalised same-sex partnerships are defined, experienced and practised; and how same-sex ‘marriages’ are influenced by interlinked socio-cultural and biographical factors. In essence, we sought to explore young couples’ civil partnerships as complexly situated relationships by exploring how they were scripted (see Chapter 2).
Our rationale for interviewing partners together and apart was threefold. First, previous studies have suggested heterosexual marriages to be structured in accordance with gender differences and inequalities (for overviews see Duncombe and Marsden, 1993; 1996; Dunne, 1997; Jamieson, 1998). In contrast, studies of same-sex relationships suggest them to be highly negotiated and ‘more egalitarian’ because of the absence of gender differences (Dunne, 1997; Peplau et al., 1996; Weeks et al., 2001; for criticisms see Carrington, 2002; Ryan-Flood, 2009; Taylor, 2009). Unlike previous studies that have tended to rely on couple or individual interviews with one or both partners (for discussion see Carrington, 1999; Gabb, 2008), we were keen to explore how a combined approach might allow for a more nuanced view of relational power. Second, we sought to study how couples intersubjectively constructed their relationships, and couple interviews allowed us to explore couple interactions in scripting and ‘doing’ the relationship in a situated context. Third, we sought to explore how the scripting and doing of relationships were embedded in partners’ (non-)negotiation of biographically rooted personal scripts for relating, and the individual interviews allowed us to explore these scripts. All three interviews were conducted by the same researcher during a single visit. The interview format was quite simple, starting with the joint interview which was split into two parts. The first part of the joint interview focused on the couple’s relationship story. It began with the following prompt:
We are interested in finding out the story of your relationship from the beginning to now, how you met, what attracted you to one another and how the relationship developed.
We would like to know the ins and out of your relationship and for the first part of this interview I would like you to tell us your own story in your own words from the beginning to now.
This task was fairly open-ended and allowed partners to ‘intuitively’ detail their story while the researcher was positioned as an active listener (Anderson and Jack, 1991). While the task was partly designed to minimise our influence on the couples’ stories, it did not, of course, neutralise this. The second part of the joint interview followed up questions that arose from the partners’ relationship story. We then moved on to the individual interviews that focused especially on finances, sexual and emotional commitments and family-making/planning.
The individual interviews began by asking participants about their previous relationship experiences and were then structured around a discussion of the above mentioned areas. For each of these topics, participants were asked to describe and provide examples of their personal approach; how their approach was similar to or different from the people they had grown up with and their partner’s; and how they and their partner’s approach had developed over the duration of the relationship. In analysis, making links between the individual interviews, and between the individual and joint interviews, enabled us to examine the ways in which biographically embedded personal scripts influence the construction of the relationships.
The interviews were recorded and fully transcribed, and we conducted systematic interpretative analysis of the data set in line with our major questions and the themes that emerged (see Introduction). NVivo software was used for data storage, rough coding and retrieval. This enabled us to carry out cross-sectional analysis to draw out commonalities and differences across the sample. This crosssectional analysis was enhanced by analysis through case study. The findings were then compared to existing ones about heterosexual and same-sex patterns of relating and commitment, and the changes and continuities, differences and commonalities were identified and analysed.
Several stories can be told about any one relationship, and joint-couple and individual interviews generate three differently situated narratives: a couple one and two self ones. In terms of the research context, couple and personal stories about relationships are not simply told in interviews: they are activated, shaped and ‘co-produced’ in interaction with the researcher. The questions researchers ask, and the ways and contexts in which they are asked, are powerful in shaping the couple and personal stories that research participants tell. But it is not only the researcher who has the power to shape the narrative. Interviewees actively construct and perform their narratives for multiple audiences. They can be agents, and can be constrained, in telling their stories and in assembling stories to give their relationships meaning. Thus, interview narratives are the product of the situated interactional contexts in which they emerge, and involve the negotiation of agency and constraint: put another way, they involve complex flows of power (cf. Plummer, 1995).
While relationship stories as they are scripted in interviews are shaped by the research context, they do not come from ‘nowhere’. They are linked to relationships as they are lived, and can be analysed for the intersubjective and subjective dynamics that shape the scripting and doing of relationships in practice. As such, interview narratives about relationships can be analysed for the flow of power in relationships themselves and how this is linked to the socio-cultural contexts in which they are lived. By researching couples where both partners were aged under 35 when they entered into civil partnerships in the UK, our research explored relationships that are historically and socio-culturally distinctive. As noted earlier, our research was concerned with the ‘new’ relational possibilities that have opened up for formalised (or ‘married’) same-sex relationships. Established research-based understandings of the differences and/or similarities between marriage and same-sex relationships, and of the power dynamics that shape their scripting, are not straightforwardly applicable to these new relationships. Likewise, established methodologies for exploring power in relationships are unlikely to grasp the complex flows of power that these relationships involve and how they are linked to changing socio-cultural contexts that are reconfiguring contemporary relational possibilities.
Hitherto, by relying mostly on couple or individual interviews, and by focusing on the ‘truths’ they generate, couple studies have contributed to two strong sociological narratives about relationships: that gender power determines how heterosexual relationships are negotiated and scripted in practice, and that the absence of gender in same-sex relationships is linked to ‘freer’ and more equal negotiation and scripting. Our joint approach to interviewing young ‘married’ and same-sex couples, and our narrative approach to analysis, suggest something else: that in light of changing relational possibilities, there is a need to rethink how we conceptualise and study the negotiation and scripting of relationships along with the power dynamics they involve (be they formalised, married, and/or same-sex relationships). Our study, and this book, implicitly argues the value of an interactionist methodology, based on joint and individual interviews and orientated towards narrative analysis, as a strategy for exploring changing relational realities.