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Sibling Relationships - Siblings In Non-western Cultures

family development family parents children brothers

Siblings have important and unique roles and functions to perform within the family. These vary, however, according to the cultural context. In Western societies, the sibling relationship tends to be identified by biological or genealogical criteria and it is typically less important than the spousal or parent-child relationship. In contrast, in some non-Western societies, a sibling may be more important than a spouse; in others, cousins may be considered siblings (Adams 1999). Victor Cicirelli (1994) cautions that it is important to be aware of how sibling is defined in the particular culture that is being discussed. For example, in the Malo culture of New Hebrides in Oceania, all cousins of the same sex, the parent's siblings of the same sex, and grandparents of the same sex are considered to be siblings. In the Marquesas culture of Oceania, however, only full biological siblings are identified as siblings.

Many important family functions, such as taking care of younger children and teaching them basic household and occupational skills, are carried out by siblings in non-Western societies. Childcare is usually a shared activity that takes place in the context of other activities such as doing chores, participating in games or play, or just lounging. Sibling caretaking serves several major functions for a family and community. It supports parents who must spend their time in vital subsistence tasks, serves as a training ground for parenting, provides exposure to important superordinant and subordinate role behavior that will have to be carried out later in adulthood (e.g., male and female roles), and stresses interdependence—an important characteristic of the group in which the children will live (Weisner 1982). Thus, interdependence and mutual support between siblings is highly valued and is learned at very early ages (Nuckolls 1993). A family system that is characterized by a culture of collectivism develops from such interdependence. So strong is this interdependence that in much of the world siblings are a major influence in the life course of their brothers and sisters. As adults, they may help arrange marriages and provide marriage payments for each other. "They share life crisis and rite of passage ceremonies essential to their cultural and social identity; they take on ritual and ceremonial responsibilities for each other essential to community spiritual ideas" (Weisner 1982, p. 305). This culture of collectivism persists even in the face of social change. A study of adolescents found that youth in Asia and Latin America (collectivistic cultures) held stronger family values and higher expectations regarding their obligations to assist, respect, and support their families than did their European counterparts (Fulgini, Tseng, and Lam 2000).

Interdependence does not, however, eliminate conflict and disharmony. In non-Western societies, whether descent is traced through the mother or father's lineage, two distinct dimensions of adult sibling relationships have been identified. One of these is competition for inheritance and property-holding; the other is joint obligation to parents. Within a patrilineal society there are a variety of ways property can be transmitted. Family property may be inherited by the first-born son or the last-born son, or given to all sons partially. Yet another way of property distribution involves giving sons undivided shares so that siblings have to stay and work together for their collective interests and property. In matrilineal societies, family property passes through the female line but males still have rights of inheritance. Tension over the division of family property often occurs between a man and his wife's brothers (Adams 1999).

In Taiwan there is a unique family structure called take-turn stem families where siblings make an arrangement, according to a timeline, in which parents will live with them. Siblings take turns and cooperate to support and take care of their parents. Caring for parents often brings siblings into close and frequent contact with each other.

Age and sex are major determinants of sibling status in most parts of the world. An ancient Confucian code for family socialization in Chinese society was as follows: "Fathers should be kind to their children, and sons should be obedient to their parents, and older brothers should love their younger siblings, and younger brothers should respect their older ones." Following this code, children (especially the first son or daughter) were socialized to provide material and emotional support for one another at an early age. Older brothers replaced parental roles and inherited parental authority in the absence of a father whereas older sisters served as a backup system of caregiving for younger siblings. However, sisters had no control or power over them, especially younger brothers. Younger brothers and sisters were expected to obey and respect their older siblings, particularly the big brother, as if he were in the parental position (Tsai 1998). Modernization and economic development have modified these norms. When the one-child policy was first introduced in China in 1979, its aim was to prevent rapid population growth. In urban areas, particularly, this policy succeeded, with a dramatic decline in the Chinese birth rate. The fertility rate was 5.8 per woman in 1960; 5.3 in 1970; 2.5 in 1980; and 1.82 in 2000 (Census Bureau 2001; World Bank 1984, 1993). However, changing a society's norms about how many children to have when male children are more highly valued than female children is problematic when the odds are high that the one and only child conceived will turn out to be a girl. Increasing rates of infanticide, the crippling of first-born girls in order to get permission to have a second child, among other considerations, brought about a slight relaxation of this policy for parents with special needs: if, for example a child was disabled or the first-born was a girl (Shen 1996). There are profound consequences for a society's families when a large majority of couples have only one child. Over time family structure and relationships are transformed when there are no kin to call brother, sister, uncle, aunt, or cousin.

In the following section the focus is on one Western society, the United States. However, although the details vary, similar interpersonal processes of conflict, competition, cooperation, learning, and teaching take place within the sibling group, just as in non-Western societies.


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