Living resemblances

The project was part of the National Centre for Research Methods, funded by the ESRC, 2005-08.

About the project

Living Resemblances investigated the social significance of family resemblances or likenesses. The project explored how people make sense of, live with and theorise about family resemblances – be they physical, or resemblances in temperament, character, emotion, behaviour, health and so on.

We were interested in the societal fascination with family resemblance. Our research explored how this is played out and what it says about contemporary understandings of kinship, genetic inheritance, and identity. We wanted to find out why ideas and assumptions about resemblances seem to matter so much, and what role they play in family life and outside it.

View project leaflet PDF (849KB), the file opens in a new window.

Research methods

We took an interdisciplinary approach to the research, using small linked 'facets' which each allowed us to explore different aspects of living resemblances. Our methods included:

  1. A ‘creative interview’ study of resemblances in everyday family life, using ethnographic interviewing, biographical narratives, and visual methods including photo-elicitation, video and photography
  2. Website analysis of resemblances on the internet
  3. Metaphor-led discourse analysis of resemblance metaphors in talk
  4. A psychoanalytically informed interview study
  5. A ‘Qualitative Experiment’, using standardised visual, audio and textual stimuli to explore how resemblances are perceived and reacted to
  6. An ‘Expert Study’ to explore resemblance discourses.

Note: we have since developed this approach in other projects. See our Facet Methodology page for more information.

Conclusions/insights gained

  • Resemblances matter quite profoundly in personal life, but in different ways. For example, they can help people feel as though they are ‘kindred spirits’ or that they have an ongoing connection with someone who has died. A lack of resemblance can make people feel excluded.
  • People have different levels of ‘investment’ in spotting resemblances, especially at different stages of life but also as a result of their personal history and experience of family and kin relationships.
  • Family politics and disagreements are often connected with whether and how someone resembles or ‘takes after’ someone else. Resemblances are not just ‘given’ facts. They are often contested and sometimes cultivated or coveted. There is a politics of who is ‘good at’ seeing resemblances and who isn’t, as well as a cultural assumption that women are the best resemblance spotters.
  • There is a high level of consensus that family resemblances cannot simply be explained by genetics, nor by nature/nurture distinction.
  • To explain how family resemblances ‘work’ we need to understand that they transcend the social, biological, sensory and spiritual or magical domains. This provides a significant challenge to conventional social science wisdom

Selected publications and outputs

Davies, K (2011) ‘Making Sense of Family Resemblance: the Politics of Visual Perception’ in Jamieson, L, Simpson, R and Lewis, R (eds) Researching Families and Relationships: Reflections on Process Palgrave Studies in Family & Intimate Life, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Davies, K (2011) ‘Knocking on Doors: Recruitment and Enrichment in a Qualitative interview-based Study’ International Journal of Social Research Methodology 14 (4) pp 289-300 

Davies, K (2010) 'Creative Approaches to Public Engagement in Qualitative Research' Video. University of Manchester

Mason, J and Davies, K (2010) ‘Experimenting with Qualitative Methods: Researching Family Resemblances’ in Mason, J and Dale, A Understanding Social Research: Thinking Creatively about Method London: Sage

Mason, J and Davies, K (2009) ‘Coming to our Senses? A Critical Approach to Sensory Methodology’ Qualitative Research 9 (5)

Wiles, R, Prosser, J, Bagnoli, A, Clark, A, Davies, K, Holland, S and Renold, E (2008) ‘Visual Ethics: Ethical Issues in Visual Research’ ESRC National Centre for Research Methods Review Paper No. 11.

Davies, K (2008) ‘Informed Consent in Visual Research’ Real Life Methods Toolkit #01 Manchester: University of Manchester.

Mason, J (2008) 'Tangible Affinities and the Real-Life Fascination of Kinship' Sociology 42 (1) (2008)

Research team

Prof Jennifer Mason (project leader), Katherine Davies (researcher).

Prof Carol Smart, Prof Lynne Cameron, Dr Brendan Gough, Prof Josephine Green, Dr Jon Prosser.


1 October 2005 to 30 September 2008. Part of Real Life Methods, a node of the National Centre for Research Methods.


We are grateful for the support of the Economic and Social Research Council in funding this project.