UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Still single : an ethnography of having-never-married Lovell, Verna Louise


Singleness most commonly refers to a stage of early-adult life which is temporary and which precedes marriage. Individuals who do not marry at the customary age are referred to as "still single". It is said that they have never married, which implies that their single status appears to be permanent. In North America, marriage is a dominant and favored reality. The majority of men and women marry, produce children, and establish a lifestyle generated out of beliefs, values, and norms about family roles, responsibilities, and activities. That reality is assigned a definition by virtue of its institutional status and is further reinforced by the process of reification. Marriage and family life are considered representative of the natural and biological world. Singleness is known and understood as the antithesis of marriage. As such, it is commonly thought of as an unnatural status and as a manifestation of cultural incompetence. Traditionally, sociologists and lay members alike have considered singleness to be a form of deviance and have sought to identify its significance in determining other social phenomena . Since the 1960's, the trend has been to regard singleness not as a variable but as a phenomenon in its own right. What has been emphasized particularly is the image of the young adult who is unattached, free, relatively affluent, and highly sociable - the "single swinger". In the last five years, emphasis has also been placed on singleness as a sound alternative to marriage, as a choice, and not as the result of some unfortunate act of Fate. To this end, the current academic and popular literature focuses particularly on the divorced, separated, and widowed. Essentially, its concern is with the loss of married life and the return to single life. The focus of this thesis is on singleness as experienced by those who have never married. It regards having-never-married as a distinct social phenomenon and seeks to present the essential commonsense features by which that status is known and experienced by representatives of its membership. The data from which those characteristic features have been explicated are ethnographic. They were collected through the method of participant-observation in the social setting of discussions among never-married individuals arranged specifically for this study and to a lesser extent on a variety of occasions encountered in the course of carrying out the routine events of everyday life. It is the social organization of and commonsense knowledge about the family that provide the interpretive schema whereby virtually all characteristic features of having-never-married exist, are made visible, and are assigned a rationality First, that interpretive schema renders singleness an ill-defined and somewhat elusive phenomenon. This means that single people must establish their own definition of their status. And, even that is done by using criteria provided by the institutional definitions of marriage and the family. Second, that interpretive schema questions the cultural competence of those who never marry. It demands that single people provide an account for having never married, and it defines the criteria by which that account is assessed. Thus, it judges the cultural competence of the never-married. Third, that interpretive schema forces those who have never married to the periphery of a "couples world" and requires that certain activities be enacted in a way that is exclusive to the single status, given that the majority of men and women perform those same activities with members of the nuclear family.

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