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Rethinking Intimacy in a Global World

Intimacy is central to interpersonal and emotional well-being. Ideas and practices associated with intimate experiences, however, go beyond the private sphere to encompass wider political, economic, sociocultural, and legal contexts. Over time, local and global forces – mediated by a plurality of actors, ideals, beliefs, and practices – have defined, shaped, constructed, and transformed perceptions and experiences of intimacy across different social worlds (Hoogenraad & Dundon, 2021). This article delves into affective practices and discourses to reveal how global dynamics and political economy shape what is considered the most intimate sphere of our life. First, the article will explore the concept of intimacy in a globalized context before looking at the entanglement of intimacy and economic exchange. Then, it will examine how intimacy is negotiated in the wider political economy.

How to Conceptualize Intimacy in a Global World?

Intimate relationships can be defined as “being-physically and/or emotionally close, personal, sexually intimate, private, caring or loving” (Constable, 2009, p. 50). Intimacy is an embodied experience that provides “a sense of closeness and a story about a shared experience” (Berlant, 2000, p. 1). It shapes proximities and distances as well as bonds and attachments (Stoler, 2008). In this sense, intimacy is both an intra-psychic and interpersonal process through which individuals make sense of their selves in relation to others (Mendelsohn, 1982). It is therefore integral to the formation of subjectivities and socialities.

Intimacy is both a personal and social experience

In an increasingly globalized world, many societies embrace the companionate model of relationships – characterized by emotional and sexual intimacy – as the most appropriate one. These relationships rely on the “ideology of companionate marriage and three key dimensions of modernity: individualism, commoditized social relations, and narratives of progress” (Hirsch et al., 2009, p. 9). For example, Hirsch (2003) shows that young Mexicans increasingly distance themselves from marriages of respect to embrace intimate romantic love as the condition for marriage and with it, the ability to freely choose one partner. However, an excessively narrow focus on these relationships runs the risk of giving intimacy a false sense of universality. Rather than moving toward a global cultural convergence in the meaning of marriage, intimacy, and sexuality, the specific forms and experiences of intimacy across the world demonstrate a high degree of diversity (Hirsch et al., 2009). Intimate relationships are embedded in historical contexts, cultural practices, and material conditions that enable different forms of feeling and emotion to be expressed (Cole & Thomas, 2009). Love and intimacy are perceived and performed differently across various social and cultural settings (McKenzie, 2015), responding to prescriptions based on kinship, family structures, gender, age, sexuality, and power relations that change over time (see Abu-Lughod, 1986).

Kinship, gender, age, sexuality, and power relations influence how intimacy is experienced and performed

Intimacy and Money

Western ideology often opposes intimate attachments and economic interests. However, several scholars have demonstrated that intimacy and economic exchange are not mutually exclusive but deeply intertwined at the level of practice. Emotion is a “symbolic representation grounded in the basic material conditions” of people’s lives (Scheper-Hughes, 1992, p. 401). In the United States, for example, economic activities are an integral part to a wide range of intimate relations (Zelizer, 2005). From financial exchanges between sexual partners to the monetarization of child and personal care, and household economics, individuals continuously navigate the ever-fraught terrain of intimate relationships and material exchanges (Ibid). Likewise, Illouz (1997) challenges the opposition between economy and emotion by showing how romantic love in the United States is embedded in “the culture and class relationships of late capitalism” (p. 1). The author argues that romantic love, primarily conceived in individualistic and private terms, is increasingly shaped by the practices of consumerism, thus reinforcing class-based distinctions.

Material exchanges and intimate relationships are deeply intertwined

Constable (2009) further refers to the commodification of intimacy to describe the ways in which intimate relationships “have entered the market: are bought or sold; packaged and advertised; fetishized, commercialized, or objectified; consumed or assigned values and prices; and linked in many cases to transnational mobility and migration echoing a global capitalist flow of goods” (p. 50). Studies on the commodification of intimacy, as well as those on transactional sex, point to the centrality of material exchange in intimate relationships (Groes-Green, 2014; Cole, 2004; Cole & Thomas, 2009). For example, Cole (2004), in her study of intimate relationships in Tamatave (Madagascar), explains that the Malagasy word fitiavina – usually translated by love – conceptualized emotional attachment and material exchange as mutually constitutive rather than opposed. In a context of increased inequality and heightened monetization of social relations, the traditional conception of fitiavina as a reciprocal exchange is challenged; many young Malagasy use their relationships to obtain material resources in ways that are no longer reciprocal.

The Political Economy of Intimacy

States have continuously politicized intimate matters, including conjugality, family, domesticity, and sexuality (Stoler, 2002; Berlant, 1997; Povinelli, 2006). Through policies and regulations, states determine moral and sexual boundaries in individual and social lives. For example, Maskens (2015) describes how, in Belgium, the evaluation of bi-national marriages by public authority allows the state to draw boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable forms of shared intimacy. States also define specific forms of intimate relations – heterosexual and monogamous – as more valuable than others (Berlant, 2000; Povinelli, 2006; Stoler, 2006). Berlant (1997) demonstrates that in the United States, the conception of a “good” republican citizen is intimately linked to the ways in which people invest their energies in work and (nuclear) family.

Private life is the basic for political recognition

The concept of intimate citizenship refers to practices and public discourses that make personal and intimate life the basis for political recognition in the late modern and global world (Plummer, 2003). A focus on the interrelation between the individual and political illustrates how intimate and private matters have become a legal, medical or social site for contestation and debate. At a time when a collapse of values is often claimed, intimate citizenship suggests the development of new moralities and ethics characterized by rights, obligations, and recognition in the sphere of the intimate life (Ibid). Despite the growing plethora of choices individuals have in intimate matters, intimacy remains profoundly shaped by national and global inequalities (Plummer, 2005). The individual level of choice does not mitigate the economic, gendered, sexual, ethnic, race, or class-based inequalities that structure intimacy. For example, in Africa, and elsewhere, many political leaders legitimate state authority by reasserting traditional gender roles, heterosexuality, and family values as foundations of national citizenship (Meiu, 2020). Consequently, individuals who do not conform to intimate citizenship increasingly become the targets of insecurity, moral panic, and violent exclusion (Amar, 2013).


Affective practices and discourses are shaped by political, economic, and cultural processes that respond to dynamic and transformative local and global forces. Over time, various ideologies of intimacy have intertwined to negotiate emotional attachment, material support, and political inclusion (and exclusion). Changes in the most intimate sphere of life are far from linear but rather defined by uneven trajectories and changing sociocultural boundaries. Intimacy as an analytical concept illuminates transformative processes in the period of globalization while acknowledging the historical context that has long shaped affective practices and discourses.

Bibliographical References

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Valentine Hallard

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