Quaran-Teens 2020: Familial Belonging in Quarantine: Balancing Personal and Family Identities at Home

Quaran-Teens 2020: Familial Belonging in Quarantine: Balancing Personal and Family Identities at Home

[The following students are high school seniors at “KTH School” taking International Baccalaureate Social and Cultural Anthropology. After their final IB exams were cancelled, they decided they would like to do an auto-ethnography of their life in coronavirus quarantine. They have collected data for three weeks (including photographs, screenshots of social media and virtual school, interviews, and personal reflections) and written anthropological analyses focused on different terms (communication, society, belonging, materiality, classification, the body, health, and conflict).]

By Will Neff, Sophie Jones, and Suneil Patel

Reconstructing Family Belonging

We as students came to a conclusion through observation that the forced physical closeness of quarantine does not necessarily equate to a greater strength of family belonging, or the affinity or human desire to belong to a family. In order to maintain family belonging, we observed the reconstruction and recalibration of personal and group identities and new techniques of family belonging rituals.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Student J and her mom go on walks around the neighborhood and discuss their days. Student J observed shifting gender roles through her father taking on more “motherly activities” such as cooking and cleaning in the absence of his work while her mother is now the one working. On April 8th, Student J’s dad delivered a tray of snacks during what would have been break time at school, this helped her have a better feeling of belonging at home.

Student P made a point during his observation that although physical boundaries such as rooms and walls cannot be resisted during this time, the quarantine can be seen as a social construction and reconstruction of family bonding as new bonding rituals such as daily walks and dinners were present in all three of our households wherein they were not (or not as often) present before.

Student N observed family bonding rituals as affirming both personal and our family identities. On April 9th, he observed a family bonding ritual “cocktail hour”, a time before dinner, where he and his family sat on the front porch of his house and just talked. Despite a family member of his practicing sobriety for years and two others being underaged, cocktail hour was a time for all the members of the family to convene and engage in the lighthearted social conversation that often broke family taboos of what is traditionally appropriate to speak of between family members, strengthening the sense of family belonging by introducing more personal, friend-to-friend topics. His family member said, “We have always done what feels right as a family, you know now that we are all adults in some regard, we have to mature together or we won’t mature at all.”

Identity in the Home Space

Under the boundaries asserted by our kinship, we are alike, but as a response to our individuality, we use boundaries to distinguish ourselves. Here’s a quote from an author to introduce our collective experience with identity in the home space: “My family and I love each other, but we do need our space.” For example, last Friday (4/17/20) my brother got into a foolish fight about who ate the Oreos. Usually, simple and arguably foolish quarrels do not erupt like this, but cabin fever has gotten a hold of us.

The quarantine has forced us to compensate for the many identity affirming stimuli we get from school and other public environments, and we have observed the consequences of failing to compensate lead to a diminishing sense of belonging with the KTH school and even within our own families. On April 14th, Student J participated in online workouts with the KTH girl’s lacrosse team and took banner pictures for virtual celebrations of the team to affirm her identity as a lacrosse player.

In another household, Student P observed a family member integrate his workspace into the home space dining room, something a family member of Student N did as well. More specifically, we observed our family members using decorative artifacts to bring their work identity into the home. On April 13th, Student N walked into the guest room to ask his mother a question and observed hung up paintings and trinkets from museums around the world all over the guest room of the house, reminding him of how he used posters of his favorite artwork, musical artists, and film and some of his own artwork to affirm his place as an identity nurturing space.

He then decided to see if a sibling of his did the same, and observed his brother, who had moved back in from college and was now living in the guest room, transforming his space through college deco and posters into a place that would compensate for losing physical presence in the school and other activities. As a result of ourselves and our family members using place and space and virtual communication to nurture our individual identities, we observed collective ease in the sense of family belonging challenged by forced closeness like never before.

Ethics of a Quaran-Teen Anthropologist

As an anthropologist “working from home”, we functioned as the “family ethnographer” for about a week and a half and collected data both by participant and detached observation and some minimal loosely- structured interviews. we wanted to investigate how family members with distinct identities use boundaries to affirm a sense of belonging within the home space.

We, as a group, all considered the gaining of verbal informed consent sufficient to observe our family members but were especially careful in engaging with topics such as altering gender roles and home space alienation. It was, nonetheless, overwhelming. On April 6th, the first day of his ethnographic observations, Student N realized he had to stress a comprehensive explanation of the project because he understood that his parents wouldn’t say no to a school project, so he had to make sure they understood it enough to be comfortable. The greater ethical consideration of family observation derives from a point made by all three students on the theoretical necessity of self displacement as a family member to collect purely objective anthropological data. We chose not to engage in this displacement as we thought it would have been personally unethical. Staying at home constantly with the family has been no less than an immense psychological and physical strain on every member of the family, and that detaching ourselves as family members for the sake of the ethnography would be harmful to the participants of the studies: both ourselves and our family members. On April 18th, Student N tried to engage in an interview with his brother regarding the struggles of reintegration into the household after a year in college, and his brother was not comfortable speaking with him on the subject, demonstrating an example where even within a family unity open to multiple “taboo” subjects: respecting a family’s disinterest in discussing the hardships of quarantine must be respected. As a result, we practiced participant observation instead of detached observation and did not conduct any overly straining interview.

Boundaries are physical and imagined differences between people and groups but, they are also conceptual distinctions made by groups of people. For example, within our own home we have a physical boundary (the walls of our house) that separates us from the other members of our neighborhood, but we have conceptual boundaries that differentiate us as well. Furthermore, there are physical boundaries such as doors to rooms that separate us as a family, and we have our own conceptual boundaries such as personal space that differentiate us as members of a family. Sometimes even physical boundaries and symbolic, conceptual elements that are also important, and that is what we observe in our houses. One student observed that all of the members of his family employ their own boundaries and connect this employment to our each, unique sense of belonging within the household. One student said, “I would attest to having the greatest boundaries within the house. My room is, almost always, completely off limits. Interestingly, I never really assert that; my family just understands.” Perhaps we all have a mutual understanding of each other’s boundaries without much verbal or physical communication needed. This may be a social response to the great difference in identity we all have: in order to protect the shared desire for peace, we employ spatial boundaries that allow us to invoke a specific sense of belonging in our greater household.

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