What do intimate relationships look like under the strain of severe deprivation? Previous research on the social ties of the poor has yielded contradictory findings that have yet to be resolved, with some scholars characterizing these ties as a private safety net providing essential support, and others characterizing them as fragile at best, and as unsupportive and ridden with conflict at worst. Drawing on almost four years of fieldwork in a low-income network, I offer a new framework for conceptualizing social life under chronic scarcity, one in which support, conflict, and fragility are not static characteristics of specific ties, but dynamic tensions running through relationships experienced under conditions of poverty. In the context of a retrenched social safety net, the travails of chronic scarcity work simultaneously as pulls into intense relationships (where people have high hopes for the material and affective security to be found in family’s and friends’ loyalty), as strains on these very same relationships (when people themselves in distress predictably fail to meet each other’s pressing needs), and sometimes as traps that bring people back together under the pressure of necessity. These conflicting tensions make severe ambivalence a core feature of intimate life under socioeconomic duress. The ambivalence framework captures complex relationships that were falling through the cracks of previous models. It also offers a way to integrate rival conceptualizations of social life amid severe deprivation – as either fundamentally supportive or deeply uncooperative – that were previously considered irreconcilable.
Ekédi Mpondo-Dika is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Sociology at Princeton University. She uses ethnography to research how social forces shape the most intimate aspects of our lives — our relationships, our emotions, and our sense of self. She is particularly interested in the intersection of inequality and suffering in U.S. society. She has three ongoing research projects. The first explores the social and institutional management of grief in the U.S. The second examines the affective underside of concentrated disadvantage and its management by the welfare state, in particular how compounded hardship shapes poor people of color’s intimate bonds. The third investigates the mental health services and self-help discourses directed at people along lines of class, gender, and race. Dr. Mpondo-Dika graduated from the Ph.D. program in Sociology at Harvard University in 2019. Before that, she studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where she majored in Economics with a minor in the Social Sciences. She earned a BA in Economics and Econometrics from the University of Paris 1 Sorbonne and an MA in Economic Analysis and Policy from the Paris School of Economics.