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Extended Families - Study Of The Extended Family

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Study of the extended family has been integrated into multiple disciplines; chief among them are anthropology, demography, history, sociology, and social work. Understanding of the extended family and extended family ties has been defined as essential to a wide array of policy concerns, including economic development policies, effective health-care delivery (e.g., Pilisuk and Froland 1978), and assimilation of immigrants (e.g., Benson 1990; Glick 2000). From a historical perspective, extended family households have been studied extensively for their role in shaping the direction of social, economic, and demographic change. From a sociological/anthropological orientation, extended family ties form much of the basis for understanding social networks in both traditional and contemporary societies.

Historical perspective. Critical to understanding the historical study of extended families is the distinction between extended family ties and extended family households. Historical study is almost exclusively limited to examining the form and function of extended family households whose structures can be determined from census records, tax lists, and other widely available written sources. Researching extended families from a social perspective is more difficult because scholars must obtain any surviving family diaries, journals, and letters in attempting to understand how extended family networks functioned across households. Oral traditional societies, nineteenth-century British colonies in Africa for example, often had surviving census and tax documents, but little other written data.

Interest in the history of the extended family households was kindled in the 1940s and 1950s as an aspect of population and development studies. At that time it was believed that the extended family household, prominent in many non-Western societies, stood as a barrier to economic modernization. One popular position suggested that women living in extended families were likely to marry earlier and have more children, the resultant large families being defined as an obstacle to economic and social development (Castillo, Wiesblat, and Villeral 1968). An alternative perspective held that Western industrialization had, in effect, "caused" the emergence of the nuclear family household (Parsons and Bales 1955). Both perspectives made a better understanding of historical family forms important, although it now seems clear that neither position in its extreme adequately reflects the historical record.

Nuclear family households were prevalent prior to industrialization (Laslett and Wall 1972). Even in societies where large extended family households were the ideal, such households may have constituted only a minority or simple majority of households. Household formation is a process. Nuclear family households may mature into extended family households as children grow up and marry. This type of evolution is particularly evident in stem family household cycles. Conversely, an extended family household may disappear with the death of the grandparent. In short, it is rarely accurate to talk about the disappearance of extended family households. Instead, from a historical perspective, the issue is more often one of frequency and transformation of structure.

The Balkan zadruga is one well-documented example that demonstrates the ability of the extended family to transform rather than disappear (Byrnes 1976). The zadruga, or South Slavic rural extended family household, was important in shaping the central Serbian frontier during the nineteenth century. In its classic sense, the zadruga consisted of married brothers and their families living in a single household and functioning as a single agricultural economic unit. After World War II, the zadruga lost much of its historical economic importance with the increasing industrialization of the region. However, with increasing longevity, decreasing fertility, and increased nonagricultural economic opportunities, ties between brothers have been replaced by ties between grandfathers and grandsons, and laterally extended households have been replaced by lineally extended ones. Historical research shows that the number of households containing extended family members has varied little since the mid-nineteenth century, remaining constant at about 70 percent (Halpern and Anderson 1970).

Nevertheless, when researchers discuss the demise or evolution of the extended family, several factors are commonly cited. These include industrialization and the proliferation of Western political and education models over the last century. By removing kinship from the economic arena, industrialization is said to have made the viability of nuclear family households possible. Likewise, Western education and politics are said to have produced value changes in direct opposition to extended family life since they emphasize individualism over collectivity (Parsons and Bales 1955).

Despite these factors, numerous examples remain of the resiliency of extended family networks. Extended family networks and households are still important in Taiwan (Stokes; Leclere; and Yeu 1987), Japan (Morgan and Kiyosi 1983), India (Ram and Wong 1994), and China (Tsui 1989), to cite a few examples. In Africa, researchers have portrayed the persistence of extended family networks as cultural bridges in modernization rather than impediments (Silverstein 1984).

Importantly, not all people considered kin have affinal or blood ties. Fictive kinship often elaborates the body of people considered to be extended family members. In much of Mexico and Latin America, compadrazgo (godparenthood) is as important a relationship as any tie of blood or marriage. Other examples occur in many diverse settings, including a comparable pattern of godfatherhood among Yugoslavs (kumstvo). In the United States, at the turn of the century, it was common for households to contain a lodger or boarder who paid rent for living space and over time came to be regarded as fictive kin.

Contemporary perspective. As noted, extended family ties and households have often proved remarkably adaptable to changing social conditions. It has been observed that the extended family is most likely to emerge in contemporary society when young adults face unemployment or divorce or when older adults become widowed and/or their health declines (Lee 1999). Modern day extended family networks are important in assisting immigrants to assimilate (Glick 2000). For example, support from the extended family has been portrayed as a significant factor in the successful integration of Vietnamese refugees into American life (Benson 1990). The importance of extended family households and networks has also been shown among low-income urban African Americans; considerable research points to the benefits of grandmothers in single-parent households and extra-household extended family networks as important mechanisms for coping with inadequate financial resources (e.g., Ford and Harris 1991; Pearson et al. 1990).

Government services have made extended family life less important for the care of the elderly, yet if programs such as social security and welfare continue to receive less funding, the extended family may become important in compensating for the lack of these services (Glick 2000; Goldstein and Warren 2000). Interestingly, the frequency of extended family households has begun to decline in some Asian societies (Ogawa and Retherford 1993), but has been shown to have increased for the first time in decades in the United States from 10 percent to 12 percent between 1980 and 1990 (Glick 1997).

The outlook for the extended family is unclear. At the same time, it is certain that as socioeconomic conditions, technology, and cultural values continue to change, so will the face of the extended family. New constructions of the extended family are inevitable in contemporary society. Recent family forms that pose a challenge as to who will be considered part of the extended family and the nature of these relationships include: same-sex couples with children living in extended family arrangements (Ainslie and Feltey 1991), the Israeli kibbutz (Talmon 1972), children of open adoption who remain in contact with their biological parent(s) (Silber and Dorner 1989), children conceived with reproductive technologies (e.g., surrogate motherhood) (Stone 2001), and the relationships between stepchildren and their extended stepfamily (Ganong and Coleman 1994).


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Glick, J. E., Bean, F. D., and Van Hook, J. V. W. (1997). "Immigration and Changing Patterns of Extended Household Structure in the United States: 1970-1990." Journal of Marriage and the Family 59:177–191.

Goldstein, J. R., and Warren, J. R. (2000). "Socioeconomic Research and Heterogeneity in the Extended Family: Contours and Consequences." Social Science Research 29:382–404.

Gunda, B. (1982). "The Ethnosociological Structure of the Hungarian Extended Family." Journal of Family History 7:40–51.

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Pearson, J. L.; Hunter, A. G.; Ensminger, M. E.; and Kellam, S. G. (1990). "Black Grandmothers in Multigenerational Households: Diversity in Family Structure and Parenting Involvement in the Woodlawn Community." Child Development 61:434–442.

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Ram, M., and Wong, R. (1994). "Covariates of Household Extension in Rural India: Change Over Time." Journal of Marriage and the Family 56:853–864.

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Silverstein, S. B. (1984). "Igbo Kinship and Modern Entrepreneurial Organization: The Transportation and Spare Parts Business." Studies in Third World Societies 28:191–209.

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Tsui, M. (1989). "Changes in Chinese Urban Family Structure." Journal of Marriage and the Family 51:737–747.

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Wall, R.; Robin, J.; and Laslett, P., eds. (1983). Family Forms in Historic Europe. New York: Social Science Research Council.


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