Extended Families

Extended Families


All societies have a concept of extended family. Its relative importance, structure, and functions, however, vary according to the particular culture. Traditionally, the term extended family has been applied to the kinship network of social and economic ties composed of the nuclear family (parents and children) plus other, less immediate, relatives. Study of the extended family unites two independent concepts: the household and kinship ties. The former refers to co-residence, whereas the latter implies relationship. When extended families share a common household, those most likely to be residents are the household heads' brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren, and depending on the society, aunts and uncles. The social and economic importance of extended family can most readily be seen when family members are living together; however, this does not discount the importance of kinship ties. Even in societies where extended families do not reside together and nuclear family households predominate, the nuclear family may rely on extended kin to assist with basic day-to-day activities such as child or elder care and may be emotionally and economically codependent on family members outside the household.

Extended Family Kinship

Although the extended family household as a cultural idea has been characterized in the majority of documented human history, it would be a mistake to believe that extended family households were characteristic of all historical societies or that all contemporary societies are dominated by the nuclear family. In truth, extended family households, even in societies where they were the ideal, may still have actually constituted only a minority of households; furthermore, the average amount of time the extended family spends under one roof is highly variable and often depends on factors such as economic need and the age of family members. Household formation is a cycle in which both nuclear and extended family households may appear and that these forms are not mutually exclusive. Contemporary Western models that herald the nuclear family household as ideal and minimize the importance of the extended family are relatively recent and have resulted from a number of factors, including: the Industrial Revolution, the associated rise of class influences in social networks, the increasing importance of individualism brought about by Western political change and education, the decline of kinship in defining social networks, and the replacement of government services for those traditionally associated with the family. Yet in the face of otherwise pervasive economic and social change toward Western cultural models, extended family households in non-Western societies have proved remarkably resilient.

Descent systems. Extended family ties that reach across households provide important social and economic advantages in terms of shared labor, socialization of children, and support for the elderly. In preindustrial societies, labor cooperation is often essential, and kinship is the primary means of defining the composition of groups. Extended family ties spread both risks and benefits— important especially in settings with scarce resources. In societies emphasizing descent as an organizing principle, extended family groups often form corporations of individuals who function in concert as a single social and economic unit. One traditional example is in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, where resources are often uncertain, and individuals have minimal success in obtaining these resources. In these settings, highly elaborate rules, based on concepts of extended family, often govern the distribution of food and other resources. In this way, the success of an individual benefits the group.

Societies in which the extended family network is defined primarily through relationships between males are patrilineal. This type of descent system, where membership is passed from father to son, is most common cross-culturally. The Tiv of Nigeria, for example, live in extended polygynous family compounds consisting of the household head, several wives, and perhaps the household head's married brother, wives, and children. However, several such compounds linked by blood ties between males occupy a common contiguous territory and form a corporate economic unit more important than the household (Bohannan and Bohannan 1968). Patrilineal descent systems have dominated European and Chinese societies. Additional examples of these systems include the Juang of central India and Bedouin in Egypt (Stone 2001).

In matrilineal systems, membership in an extended family group is defined through women, and it is usually the son who moves to his wife's household. Matrilineal descent systems are most often found in sedentary agricultural societies where women perform the majority of agricultural tasks. Both the Hopi Indians of North America and the Trobriand Islanders off eastern New Guinea are prominent examples of cultures with matrilineal systems. Matrilineal societies also occur in small pockets in lacustrine central Africa, parts of northeast and southeast India, and south-central Vietnam (Parkin 1997). Matrilineal systems, not usually definable as matriarchies, nonetheless provide women with a degree of control over property and politics that is not found elsewhere.

In cognatic, or bilateral, descent systems, any combination of male and female kin may be used to define who constitutes the extended family network. This type of descent system is the most flexible in allowing individuals to define their own universe of extended family members. One example of this system is the Maori of New Zealand. Still other systems exist that do not consider blood relations as the basis of decent such as the Zumbagua of Ecuador, who believe kinship is established through food.

If the extended family network relationships can all be traced through a common known ancestor, this network may be said to constitute a lineage, particularly if the members function together as a single corporate unit. For example, all the members of a Tiv patrilineage can trace their relationship to a single known ancestor. If such links are not exactly known, or if they are based less in fact than in myth, the extended family network constitutes a clan.

Household composition. The importance of extended family ties is most easily seen in settings where family members share a common residence. Extended family households may be constituted by affinals, collaterals, or people of common descent. Extended family households based on common descent continue to exist in Western culture and remain prevalent throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Descent-based households may be extended in several ways. The stem household form, made up of at least two generations of related nuclear families, is sometimes considered a class by itself. Stem family households are common in agricultural societies in which the elderly control the resources, and inheritance is based on primogeniture, meaning that all land is passed from father to first-born son. One popular theory, although widely contested, is that stem family households resulted from land scarcity and were an adaptation for keeping landholdings intact (Verdon 1979). An alternative view is that stem family households provide secure retirement environments for the elderly. In much of Asia, the stem family household still represents an important cultural norm (De Vos and Lee 1993: Foster 1978; Tsui 1989).

Households may also be extended either lineally (e.g., containing grandparents or grandchildren), collaterally (e.g., aunts or uncles, nephews, and nieces), or affinially (e.g., marriage). Collaterals are people of the same generation tied by kinship, such as joint families of India in which all brothers along with their wives and children share a common household. Affinial relationships are premised on marriage or cohabitation; examples include polygynous households and group marriages. Despite lack of acceptance in the Western world, such households are extremely common elsewhere, particularly in Africa and India.

Although there is no steadfast rule, contemporary extended family households based on common descent tend to show more lineal than collateral extension. Research indicates that African and Asian Americans are more likely to participate in lineally extended family households, with the former emphasizing the inclusion of children and the latter emphasizing inclusion of the elderly.

Study of the Extended Family

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).


See also:Asian-American Families; Caribbean Families; Family, Definition of; Fictive Kinship; Godparents; Grandparenthood; Hutterite Families; Intergenerational Relations; Kenya; Kinship; Latin America; New Zealand; Nuclear Family; South Africa; United States


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amy e. wagner

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