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Intergenerational Transmission

Cultural Transmission: Values, Norms, And Beliefs, Social Support, Intergenerational Solidarity, Limitations


Intergenerational transmission is one dimension of the larger concept of intergenerational relations. The term intergenerational relations describes a wide range of patterns of interaction among individuals in different generations of a family: for example, between those in older generations, such as parents and grandparents, aunt, uncles, and those in younger generations, such as children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The term is also frequently used to describe behaviors involving older and younger people in society at large, even if they are unrelated to one another. For example, media accounts describe potential issues between the attitudes and behaviors of older members of the baby boom generation and younger generation Xers.


In the context of family lives, intergenerational transmission refers to the movement, passage, or exchange of some good or service between one generation and another. What is transmitted may be intangible and include beliefs, norms, values, attitudes, and behaviors specific to that family, or that reflect sociocultural, religious, and ethnically relevant practices and beliefs. Intergenerational transmission can, however, also include the provision of resources and services or assistance by one generation to another. One example of this, illustrated by Barry McPherson (1998) is the issue of transferring the ownership and operation of the family farm from one generation to the next.

Family roles may also be transmitted from generation to generation. For example, Carolyn Rosenthal (1985) describes the roles of headship, kin keeper, confidante, and financial adviser as roles within families. This work documents how not only are these roles in themselves mechanisms for the transmission of information, advice, beliefs, values, and resources between generations, but that the roles are passed through the generations, in a form of generational succession. Rosenthal and Victor Marshall (1988) also examine the intergenerational transmission of ritual in families in a study across three generations of Canadian families.

The concept of intergenerational transmission is also used by social scientists who conduct research on family violence. For example, Ann Duffy and Julianne Momirov (2000) utilize the concept of intergenerational transmission to explain the social learning of violence within families. In this context, intergenerational transmission refers to the socialization and social learning that helps to explain the ways in which children growing up in a violent family learn violent roles and, subsequently, may play out the roles of victim or victimizer in their own adult families.

Family researchers have also studied the intergenerational transmission of difficult life course transitions like marital dissolution or divorce. In particular, studies in the United States have found that parental divorce increases the likelihood that adult children will experience separation or divorce (Glenn and Kramer 1987; Keith and Finlay 1988; Amato 1996). Even when factors such as the socioeconomic status of both parents and children are controlled for, Nicholas Wolfinger (2000) concludes that the children of parents who have had more than one marriage tend to replicate these patterns of marital instability. Multiple family structure transitions have a negative effect on children; that is, the experience of numerous parental relationship transitions is likely to result in the reproduction of these behaviors by adult children.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended Family