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Introduction

Why Revisit Intimacy?

Sertaç Sehlikoglu and Aslı Zengin

Intimacy is tightly bound up with notions of privacy, sexuality, proximity and secrecy, and with dynamics of sensual and affective attachments and forms of desire. It is therefore integral to the formation of human selves and subjectivities, as well as communities, publics, collectives and socialities. The articles in this Special Section all offer an anthropological inquiry into intimacy, seeking a conceptual formulation that might capture its actual operations, the ways intimacy is done in talk and action. They thus contribute ethnographically to ongoing anthropological debates about intimacy, and explore how multiple domains and forms of intimacies are defined, shaped, constructed and transformed across different social worlds.

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Commentary

Intimacy through the Ethnographic Lens

Niko Besnier

The multiplicity of meanings that have been attributed to intimacy are both a weakness and a strength: a weakness because of the indeterminacy with which the category is used; a strength because it allows us to explore the relationship between its various meanings, and through this exploration address theoretically important questions. While it is commonly conflated with sexuality, intimacy concerns a considerably broader range of aspects of human life, which only an ethnographically founded approach can help us understand. Because of its indexical qualities, intimacy cannot be understood devoid of the context that gives it meaning.

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Valerio Simoni

Building on current anthropological literature on intimacy, this article focuses on the way intimate relations mediate different narratives and experiences of belonging. It explores conflicting interpretations of intimacy as they emerge in Cuban tourism and migration and enable or obstruct different allegiances. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among Cubans and tourists in Cuba, and among Cuban migrants in the city of Barcelona (Spain), the article examines the role of intimate relationships in reasserting or transforming lines of commonality and separation between and among Cubans and non-Cubans. Globalized ideals of 'true' intimacy, and their 'fake' or instrumental counterparts, appear as the two main frames of legibility that people deployed to evaluate relationships with friends, lovers and family. We see the competing demands and possibilities to which these interpretative frames responded, and their implications.

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Intimate Publics, Public Intimacies

Natural Limits, Creation and the Culture of Mahremiyet in Turkey

Sertaç Sehlikoglu

This article offers an ethnographic account of the culture of mahremiyet [intimacy and privacy] in Turkey, not only as an institution of intimacy regulating everyday sexual relationships between individuals in public, but also as a system enabling the operation of social normalcies through the creation of boundaries and privileges. By probing the concepts of mahremiyet and fıtrat [creation or natural disposition], the article investigates how intimacy operates in religious, mundane and political registers, and delves into the intricate relationship between the intimate and the shared. It suggests that the culture of mahremiyet is deeply rooted in the ways individuals construct their sense of selves in relation to others, and imagine mahrem boundaries as natural, God-given, or fıtrî laws in their entanglement with gender. The use of the language of mahremiyet in contemporary politics not only enables what can seem to be a meta-cultural intelligibility that guarantees popular support, but also distances any critique as strange or foreign.

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Negotiating Intimacy in the Shadow of War (France, 1914-1920s)

New Perspectives in the Cultural History of World War I

Bruno Cabanes

Over the past twenty years, the cultural and social history of the Great War has undergone a profound revitalization and given rise to new areas of research, such as the history of the body and of violence, the relationships between the front lines and the home front, the “cultures of war,“ and religious feeling. At the heart of this approach is an interest in intimacy, or the private life of soldiers and their relationships with their loved ones, an area that has been explored thanks to a new focus on personal archives: letters, diaries, photographs. Taking wartime France as its example, this article analyzes the contributions of this new history of World War I and assesses its methodological issues. The Great War can thus be seen in its full measure, not only as the first conflict conducted on a global scale, but also as a true anthropological turning point, one that caused tremendous upheaval for those who lived through it: new kinds of violence on the battlefields, new mourning rituals, unfamiliar difficulties in reconnecting with private life in the aftermath of the war.

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Fictitious Kinship

Intimacy, Relatedness and Boundaries in the Life of Hanoi's Migrant Domestic Workers

Minh T. N. Nguyen

This article argues that migrant domestic workers in Hanoi practise a form of fictitious kinship to carve out personal spaces away from their rural home. Biographical narratives of domestic workers who are unusually devoted to forging emotional ties with their employers indicate that they tend to have problematic private lives. Beyond emotional labour, the performance of fictitious kinship entails significant personal investment on the part of women, at times generating mutual feelings and relationships between them and certain members of the employers' household. These relationships are crucial to their personal transformations, helping them construct new identities and opening up possibilities for challenging the power hierarchy in their home. Yet such constructed kinship is treacherous and uncertain, not just because of its foundation is their commodified labour, subject to the rules of the market, but also due to the dangers of intimate encounters in the private sphere.

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Ethnography's Blind Spot

Intimacy, Violence, and Fieldwork Relations in South Africa

Erik Bähre

It is conventional to point out the disintegrative and dysfunctional effects of violence and relegate it to processes outside the social realm. Yet this study argues that a reflexive approach to ethnography can reveal the integrative potential of violence. It examines the theoretical importance of the ethnographer's anxieties about (a) violence, (b) the precarious dependencies during fieldwork in a violent setting, and (c) concerns about representing violence in academic work. Such a reflexive approach shows why these anxieties can both conceal and reveal the sociality of violence. The study draws on personal fieldwork experiences to show how violence became central to the relationships the author developed with his assistants during research in South Africa.

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Bordering Intimacy

The Fight against Marriages of Convenience in Brussels

Maïté Maskens

Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between January 2012 and June 2013 in eight civil registry offices in Brussels, this article explores how assumptions about intimacy intersect with the moral standards of bureaucrats evaluating the authenticity of conjugal life in order to prevent 'marriages of convenience'. From the 'intimate conviction' of the agents of the state to the co-production of intimate narratives, this article tries to understand the intrusion of states in contemporary intimacies. I look at how the bureaucratic application of a civilizational ideology affects the subjectivities of those engaging in partnerships across two different nationalities (bi-national couples) – and blurs an historic distinction between what is public and what is private.

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Intimate Events

The Correctness of Affective Transactions in Northeast Brazil

Matan Shapiro

Drawing on ethnographic research in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, this article proposes the concept of the 'intimate event' as a heuristic device in the cross-cultural study of kinship and relatedness. This theoretical construct refers to the retrospective recognition of affective transactions as meaningfully intimate, that recognition being an event which in Maranhão compels ethical reflection. Intimacy can be imagined as an aesthetic of practice that indicates when something simply feels right, and which then frames the correctness of both moral conformity and transgression in affective terms.

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Between Us Girls

On Girls' Interpretations of Sexuality

Elena Omelchenko

In this article I deal with interpretations of sexuality that are typical of Russian girls who are learning to become blue-collar or pink-collar professionals such as, for example, public health nurses, social workers, tourism and hospitality industry workers, fashion designers, and those training for employment in services like cooking, hairdressing, and tailoring. The empirical base of this article is a set of in-depth semi-structured interviews with young women and men concerning their individual sexual experiences. I examine scenarios of feminine subjectivity within the context of discussing a first sexual experience. I look, too, at how girls exercise girl-power within the framework of communication and intimacy with a partner.