His name, her name, their name? Surnames, family practices, and identity

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Katrine Kehlet Bechsgaard


University of California, Berkeley


DKK 1,040,747




Internationalisation Fellowships


Just four decades ago, Danish women automatically got their husband's surname when getting married. Now, 25% of surname changes are done by men, just like it has become possible for unmarried couples to share a surname, for divorcees to pass on a former spouse's surname to a new partner, etc. So, which functions do surnames serve in family practices and identity formation today? In this project, I will examine the role of surnames as part of family practices, name choices' role in identity formation and the reasons why some surnames are chosen over others. To put the Danish development into perspective, differences in perceptions of surname use between Denmark and the United States (one of the most traditional Western countries regarding surnames) will also be examined.


Family forms and structures, including gender norms, have undergone a massive transformation in Denmark within the past few decades, and so have the ways in which we use surnames. Name choices in families today depend to a large extent on individual preferences and less on tradition as used to be the case. Therefore, it is likely that the choices and narratives of surnames in families contain important information about and reflect family identity formation and family practices. Surname use is an underemphasized topic in Danish research, and combined with the fact that Denmark is a leading country in surname diversity, this project is very timely. My research will provide new insights into linguistic choices, family practices, identity formation, and gender roles.


To gain knowledge about attitudes, experiences, and opinions, I will take a qualitative approach and do semi-structured in-depth interviews with Danish couples/individuals and a smaller number of American couples/individuals. Additionally, I will make use of various historical data sources of surnames and the use thereof. The project will use sociological and sociolinguistic concepts and theories, such as doing family, doing gender, and social positioning. Employing names as a tool for studying family dynamics and identity is an innovative approach, which will allow me to draw new conclusions about today's family life and perceptions and functions of names.

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