[Bella’s intro: Writings on single people focus overwhelmingly on singles in the U.S. and a few other countries. I’m always hungry for more. I am so grateful to the Romanian scholar Adriana Savu for writing this important article about single people in her country – and why so they have so often been ignored.]
Notes on an Uncertain Field
Guest Post by Adriana Savu
Imagine you open the door of a thick-walled building, where you live as a semi-recluse, to a noisy square of a global downtown. That’s how I felt when I started doing research on middle-aged never married people in Romania.
A few years ago, I suddenly became aware of the fact that many of my friends and acquaintances of “a certain age”, mostly women but also a few men, shared the same marital and relationship status. They were legally and socially single, as in never married and not in a relationship, and they didn’t have children. They had different upbringings, career paths, previous romantic experiences and personalities. It was enough for me to be intrigued. I was myself a single woman who (might have) held a self-image as an odd duck, but at that point it was like strange birds were flocking and few people really seemed to take notice.
I live in the capital city, Bucharest, the biggest economic and university center in the country. Some even say it’s like a small different country within the country. The delaying of marriage and increase in cohabitation are certainly more evident in urban settings, even in Romania, but those people I knew were the uncoupled and life-long singles. Because I am a person who gets enthralled by the rush of information digging, I started to look for more data, went to the worldwide digital space and found myself in… the all-time square of “strange birds” and “ornithologists”. I was surprised to find out that what I had noticed was actually just a small part of a bigger global trend and that a huge body of work on single and solo living people was available in English and other languages. That’s how my doctoral endeavor started.
My Approach to the Study of Single People
My eclectic educational background and work experience prevented me from developing deep loyalties toward any field I specialized or worked in. It became a habit for me to approach everything I was interested in from a holistic perspective, most probably, a legacy of my anthropology studies. When I designed my research plan, I placed C. Wright Mills’ idea of sociological imagination at the base of my theoretical framework. I firmly believe that we need that particular brand of vision to equally grasp individual biographies, history and whatever lies in the space in between. Mills advocated the need to shift from one perspective to another, from political to psychological, from studying a single family to cross-national analyses, from economy to poetry, in this way linking the impersonal to the most intimate.
Psychologists such as Urie Bronfenbrenner and sociologists like Glen Elder Jr. or the French and Italian supporters of biographical approaches in sociology emphasized that human development, socialization and individuation of human beings are socially and historically conditioned and that individuals choose between the opportunities offered to them within the society they live in. My intention has been to analyze the Romanian social realities of never married people in both “folded” and “unfolded” states (corresponding roughly to individual and collective perspectives). As envisaged by Bernard Lahire, these are states that are complementary and irreducible one to the other. This theoretical framework and the lack of studies on single and never married people in Romania led me to start by looking firstly at the global picture. This, hopefully, helped me become more sensitive to language-related issues and differences related to social and historical developments in various parts of the world.
What Happened When I Tried to Interview Single People in Romania
The plan has been to explore the life stories of the capital’s residents older than 35 years, never married, without a partner and children, identify the circumstances that led them to that point in life and look for gender differences and any particularities of the Romanian cultural space with regard to singlehood and never marriedness. When I started to roll the snowball in recruiting eligible subjects I faced what I called a “resistance to rolling”. That included several rather unexpected rejections from some of my acquaintances who otherwise shared a lot of personal information with me. I remembered Margaret Adams’s account in the beginning of her book about a discussion with a bus driver who could not imagine why anyone would want to talk with a never married man over 40 and who had no intention to introduce such “strange species of male” to Adams.
Unexpectedly, the recruitment of participants became itself highly charged with relevant information. Some of the people I asked whether they knew any person that fit the criteria for my study answered affirmatively, but they added that those individuals would never agree to participate in a study because they were a little (or more) weird or crazy. The word “crazy” appeared in more than one conversation. Several others gave me the contact data of eligible persons they knew, but upon finding out that the latter refused my invitation, they attributed those refusals to the individuals’ quirkiness and not to their right to choose whether they want to participate in a study or not. A few people promised me they would think of eligible subjects within their social circles, but they held back the fact that one of their siblings or even themselves were eligible. Two people I interviewed had another sibling or a former partner who fit the criteria for my study, but they didn’t want to refer them to me. A couple of women who agreed to participate in the study subsequently repeatedly postponed the interview meetings on the grounds of being too busy, until I stopped calling. I received all sorts of reasons for why some of my direct acquaintances did not consider themselves eligible for my study: they had a partner (even though they rarely saw each other or the partner was actually married), they changed their residence outside the city or they just knew they were not good subjects because they had nothing interesting to tell, and so on.
I could take the above responses at their face value or put them down on my shortcomings as an interviewer, but it is probably more than that. The works of Bella Depaulo and Anne Byrne, for example, on social prejudice and stigmatization of single people, especially women, helped me to gain a better understanding of what was happening. I realized that the people I chose to study represented the most stigmatized segment of single people, almost everywhere in the world. At least some of the individuals who avoided participation in my study were probably trying to control the information about a socially discreditable part of their identity. Their marital and relationship status is not something they advertise or want to be known for. Most of my interviewees and those who refused my invitation were not actively looking for a partner. In everyday life in a big city, within the work environment and circles of professionals, or even friends, in the case of middle-aged and older adults, the relationship status is rather less visible or talked about. Never married people have learned how to avoid situations that put them on display.
The stigma attached to never married people, especially women, is however chronic and pretty much internalized by those affected by it. Thanks to the authors who wrote about stereotyping and stigmatization, I was also able to replay in my mind many of my previous interactions and recognize the signs of it, statements and behaviors sometimes as inconspicuous as some feathers flying around. I even found myself engaged in stereotypical thinking about my subjects, which was a big wake-up call.
I believe the answers to the questions of why Romania is missing from the global conversation on singlehood and why people were so reluctant to participate in a study on middle-aged never married adults are related to the particularities of the Romanian socio-cultural space.
I Looked for Previous Studies of Singles in Romania: Where Were They?
I still find it hard to believe that there are no previous social studies focused exclusively on single and never married people in Romania. I mean real people, not fictional characters which have been the focus of several articles and doctoral dissertations in the last four or five years. The possibility of my missing something because of the previous time spent away from academia still lingers in the back of my mind. When I stated out loud my bemusement, a few university professors tried to help by referring me to the writings of several Romanian authors who had supposedly studied this topic. When I looked them up, I found the same thing every time: studies on family, couples and the current changes in family structures.
I do get excited when I find more than a couple of pages on never married people (celibatari) written by Romanian social scientists. However, these are rare findings and they all have been written from the perspective of couple and marriage as the social norm within a biological and psychological “normalcy”. This normative discourse has remained largely unchallenged and it is highly internalized in Romanian society, social scientists included. The latter would use arguments from the 20th century’s studies. It might be safe to suppose that the more recent findings are largely unknown here or too easily dismissed. With the exception of several translated articles and a few bloggers who write about their lives as single persons, the Romanian digital and social media reflects the prevalent beliefs and attitudes in Romanian society.
Romanian Terms for Single Men
Even the Romanian vocabulary related to single and never married individuals has not evolved much since the end of the 19th century. Generally, the words convey the specific realities of a geo-linguistic space and they carry cultural and ideological characteristics. A Turkish researcher studied the ”bachelor rooms” (lodging houses) phenomenon in Ottoman Istanbul; he argued that the largely negative perceptions of the modern-day Turkish bachelor (bekâr) is the result of a long engraving process on social memory. I like to think of it as the “sillage social” (social wake) of terms. Mona Baker talked about the “personality” of lexical units.
In Romanian, some of the nouns for a never married man are naturalized from the Turkish bekâr, the Russian burlak, and the Polish hultaj (or Russian holostóĭ). Most probably, these terms entered the Romanian language with the negative connotations from the original languages, meaning poor, uprooted, disfranchised or even delinquent individuals. The fact that Romanian language has more monosemic nouns (words with just one meaning) for never married men than for women reflects the demographic reality of Romanian provinces. Until the beginning of the 20th century, there were more men than women overall, and consequently more never married men than women. The last two censuses showed a similar situation with regard to never married adults for all age groups under 65.
Just because there are many pejorative terms for single men, though, does not mean that they are more stigmatized than single women. They are not.
The Rise of Single People in Romania
Rachel Moran said that “America has always been a very married country”. The same could be said about Romania. However, the two countries have followed very different paths to modernization. The collectivist mentality and Romanian nationalist discourses over the last two centuries, as well as the communist regime, left very little room for the freedom of the individual. The single person was invisible, at best, or declared an enemy of the nation, at worst.
I asked a well-known historian, specialized in social and women’s history, what he knew about never married people in Romania and he replied that this subject has always been taboo. Even though, in the last two decades, a fair number of books on social history and women’s history have been written, the accounts on never married adults are very scarce. Another historian who wrote about the social life of Romanian academic intelligentsia at the end of the 19th century dedicated an entire chapter (of 4 pages) to university professors who never married. The author stated that this kind of social behavior was unfathomable even for a historian.
The number of single and never married people in Romania started to rise only after the fall of communism. The percentages of single and never married people for all adult age groups more than doubled between 1992 and 2011 censuses. In 2011, a third of the total number of households in Bucharest were made up of a single person, compared with one fourth at the national level. In 2018, the mean age at first marriage in Romania was 28.7 years for women and 31.9 years for men (in Bucharest, the corresponding mean ages were 33 and 35.6 years). These facts remain largely unacknowledged in the context of other demographic phenomena of greater impact on Romanian society, such as the huge migration, the population ageing and the decrease of birth rates. In 2017, among the EU countries, Romania had the second highest marriage rate, a low divorce rate, and a relatively low percentage of births outside marriage. Even though Romanians marry at a relatively late age, they do marry eventually.
Despite its new demographic trends, including the increase in people living alone and staying single throughout their twenties, Romania continues to be “a very married country” with traditional values, strong attachment to religion and a familist culture. The capital and a few other cities in the country might tell slightly different stories, but it’s not enough to change the overall perceptions. As the new generations grow older, a shift toward more individualist values might be happening. Almost inevitably, the attention of social scientists and policy makers will be finally drawn toward single individuals.
“Singleness Studies” May Be an Uncertain Field, But Its Potential Is Enormous
For me, there are some more pressing matters to be considered. Over the last few months thousands of people have pitched in to help with my PhD coordinator’s fight with an unforgiving illness. We all pray for his recovery and his return to the university. On the other hand, I’m at the end of my doctoral grant and pretty much unemployed. The other day I was ruminating on a little entry in my resume referring to my research interest called “singleness studies”. Although it is a new academic field that is yet to be firmly established in universities around the world, in Romania it would not make very much sense as an academic discipline. I am yet to find a good equivalent in Romanian language for it.
Some people wonder and ask me why did I choose this particular research topic. There are also people who say they can’t wait to read more about my findings. To the first ones, I pretty much answered here. To the latter, I reply: neither can I.
About the Author
Adriana Savu is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at National University for Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, Romania. She has a BA degree in psychology and Master’s degrees in anthropology, gender studies and business. In the last 10 years, she worked in the private sector.