The involved observer: A Simmelian analysis of the boundary work of aunthood

Vanessa May, Kinneret Lahad

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The aims of this paper are to, first, empirically investigate the experiences of aunts, who to a large extent have been ignored by family sociologists. Second, we aim to add to the existing theorising of everyday family life by bringing Simmel’s work – hitherto under-utilised in the field – into dialogue with the sociological literature on doing and negotiating families (Morgan, 1996; Morgan 2011; Finch, 1989; Finch & Mason, 1993). Based on a textual analysis of online accounts posted on an American advice forum entitled ‘Dear Savvy Auntie’, we argue that Simmel’s (1950[1908]) notion of the stranger allows us to understand the position of some aunts as ‘involved observers’ who are both inside and outside the ‘family unit’ constituted by parents and children. Third, our paper contributes to the above literatures by exploring the boundary work that being an involved observer entails as aunts negotiate simultaneously rigid and permeable boundaries that exist between the family unit and extended kin.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-18
Number of pages16
Issue number1
Early online date23 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • family
  • aunts
  • Simmel
  • the stranger
  • boundary work


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