The Detraditionalization of Intimacy Reconsidered


  • *I thank Jeffrey Alexander, Dennis Altman, Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Charles Camic, Michèle Lamont, and Josh Whitford for their comments on earlier drafts. Address correspondence to: Neil Gross, Department of Sociology, Harvard University, William James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge MA 02138. E-mail:


This essay challenges those strains of contemporary social theory that regard romantic/sexual intimacy as a premier site of detraditionalization in the late modern era. Striking changes have occurred in intimacy and family life over the last half-century, but the notion of detraditionalization as currently formulated does not capture them very well. With the goal of achieving a more refined understanding, the article proposes a distinction between “regulative” and “meaning-constitutive” traditions. The former involve threats of exclusion from various moral communities; the latter involve linguistic and cultural frameworks within which sense is made of the world. Focusing on the U.S. case and marshaling various kinds of empirical evidence, the article argues that while the regulative tradition of what it terms lifelong, internally stratified marriage has declined in strength in recent years, the image of the form of couplehood inscribed in this regulative tradition continues to function as a hegemonic ideal in many American intimate relationships. Intimacy in the United States also remains beholden to the tradition of romantic love. That these meaning-constitutive traditions continue to play a central role in structuring contemporary intimacy suggests that detraditionalization involves the relative decline only of certain regulative traditions, a point that calls into question some of the normative assessments that often accompany the detraditionalization thesis.