Beyond the Nuclear Family – jenseits der Kernfamilie

Dr. Nina Jakoby
Jakoby Nina

Kinship research rarely goes beyond the study of parent-child relations. This sociological neglect of kin relationships is unjustified. From a sociological point of view, personal choices – in contrast to biologic and juristic conceptions of kinship – determine kinship bonds, especially relationships to secondary and tertiary kin. They are often labelled as voluntary kin. A review of kinship studies (Germany, United States) on the factors underlying kinship diversity identifies the correlates of variation in kinship ties.


1. Introduction

2. A New Conception of Family and Kinship

3. The Selection of Kin

4. Review of Literature: How distant are our distant kin?

5. Explaining Kinship Behavior

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

„Relations with other kin – aunts, uncles, cousins – have seldom been felt important in this society to spend research time and effort studying them” (Adams 1970: 583).

Relationships with so-called “distant kin”– secondary and tertiary kin, such as aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews or cousins – are neglected by family sociology. Extended family relationships have received very limited research attention. In Germany and the United States kinship studies rarely go beyond the study of parent-child-relationships. As a result, other relationships are subordinated and compared to these primary relationships. Themes such as divorce, marriage, fertility or generational relationships dominate the research: „The roles of siblings and secondary relatives, such as (…) cousins, nieces, nephews, are barely of passing interest to most family researchers” (Johnson 2000a: 143). In looking only at these collateral relatives, I focus on social relationships that are ignored: “I address a subject that is more noted for its neglect by family researchers than for being on the cutting edge of family studies” (Johnson 2000b: 623). By shifting away from parents and children, we are able to explore family relationships (see Matthews 2005).

Generally, it is argued that extended family relationships are unimportant in modern societies. This conception can be traced back to Durkheim (1921) and Parsons (1943) and their thesis about the isolation of the nuclear family: Because of modernization processes, kin relationships became unimportant for the ongoing of urban-industrial societies and were subordinated to the parent-child-relationship. For many sociologists (e.g., Rosenbaum 1998, Wagner 2002), Parsons is made responsible for the sociological disregard of kin relationships. According to Parsons (1943: 30), industrialization and modernization have lead to emancipation from the larger kin group.

„(…) it applies to both sexes about equally, and includes emancipation about all members of the family of orientation about equally, so that there is relatively little continuity with any kinship ties established by birth for anyone” (Parsons 1943: 32; original emphasis).

In contrast, alternative concepts, such as Litwaks “modified extended family”, and kinship studies in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrate the importance of kin relationships for the nuclear family (e.g., Litwak 1960a,b, Litwak/Szelenyi 1969, Reiss 1962, Adams 1968, Bott 1971) – but without any impact on future kinship research and the hierarchy of interest in family sociology.

As a consequence, family sociology focuses on the parent-child relationship or the couple. Why is this so? Generally, it is argued that extended family relationships are unimportant and circumstantial in modern society (Adams 1999). Moreover, a “decline of kinship” is predicted:

„The falling out of fashion and out of practice of orthodox affinity cannot but rebound on the plight of kinship. Lacking stable bridges for inflowing traffic, kinship networks feel frail and threatened. The boundaries are blurred and disputed, they dissolve in a terrain with no clear-cut property titles and hereditary tenures – a frontier-land; sometimes a battlefield, (…). Kinship networks cannot be sure of their chances of survival, (…)” (Bauman 2003: 31).

Compared to Germany, themes, such as kinship and gender (Johnson 2000a), families of gays and lesbians (Demo/Allan 1996, Weston 1991) and a cross-cultural comparison of kin relationships (e.g., Stack 1974, Hays/Mindel 1973, Johnson 1982, Roschelle 1997) indicate a broader discussion about kinship in the United States. Nevertheless, current publications still point out the sociological neglect of the extended family (Walker et al. 2005, Johnson 2000a,b). In a literature research for the Journal of Marriage and the Family (USA) and the Journal of Family Research (Germany), I only found three articles on the broader kin network for the last twenty years (Johnson 2000b, Milardo 2005, Jakoby 2008b).[1] You hardly find any theoretical or empirical articles on family relationships outside the nuclear family. Because the recent literature is so sparse, we need to know more about kin interactions, kin support, and changes in ideology and norms among kin (see also Johnson 2000b).

After introducing new conceptions of family and kinship and the discourse of “chosen kin”, I will present a theoretical framework to explain the selection of kin. Moreover, the brief review of kinship studies will give some insight into the selective nature of extended family relationships.

2. A New Conception of Family and Kinship

There are differences between the American and German conceptions of family research and definition of “the family” and kin relationships. Ideas of complexity, choice, flexibility mark a “cultural turn” in American and British literature (see also Smart 2001). The following new models of family and kinship mark the cultural turn in Anglophone family studies:

  • Families by choice (Weston 1991)
  • New kinship (Carsten 2000, 2004)
  • Personal life (Smart 2001)
  • Postmodern family condition (Stacey 1991)
  • Families we live with vs. families we live by (Gillis 1996)

Within these alternative conceptions, the ideas of friends as family, the importance extended family and reconfigured kin networks or the mixture of biological and social kin are emphasized. Moreover, the diversity of family is discussed (social class, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexuality). The white, heterosexual middle-class family is no reference for what is considered to be “the family” (Stacey 1996).

In contrast, German sociology can be characterized by a narrow perspective of family relationships. It reduces family to filiation, heterosexuality and a common household. The concept of “solidarity” is also restricted to lineal generational bonds (e.g., Rossi/Rossi 1990, Roberts et al. 1991, Szydlik 2000, Bengtson 2001). We do know a lot about the stability and instability of the nuclear family, childlessness, solidarity between adult children and their (aged) parents. But we hardly study the broader kin network.

3. The Selection of Kin

„Kinship began to seem more like an effort and a choice than a permanent, unshakable bond or a birthright. The mute substance of genes, blood, and bone had to be transformed into something more” (Weston 1991: XV).

 According to Lee (1985: 29), „kin are not subject to choice.” And Rubin (1985: 24) notes: „‚You can pick your friends but not your relatives we sigh with resignation, reminding ourselves that we have little choice in kin relationships, (…).” Relatives are to a great extent “given” to an individual. We cannot choose our kin; we just have them (see Adams 1968: 17).

On the contrary, we do not have close relationships with all our biological kin. Kin relationships are not voluntary, but how one relates to kin certainly has an element of choice in it (see Adams 1999: 89). For Adams (1999), openness and flexibility are characteristics of the modern kinship system. The modern kinship system is based on bilineal descent[2] and ego-centered kindreds. For example, Firth (1956) distinguishes between “non-effective kin” and “effective kin”, i.e., kin with whom we have contact. From a sociological point of view, personal choices – in contrast to biologic and juristic conceptions of kinship – determine kinship bonds, especially relationships to secondary and tertiary kin. A unique characteristic of the extended family is its voluntary nature. The element of choice or selectivity operates to a much greater extent in the case of siblings and more distant kin (Klatzky 1971).[3] This suggests that, of all family ties, sibling relationships and other collateral relationships parallel the characteristic of friendship (e.g., König 1974, 1976). Relatives are assimilated to the status of ascriptive friends (Goode 1963: 76). They are bound together by affection and personal preferences, rather than by institutionalized rights and obligations (Johnson 2000a).

The importance of personal choice was first recognized by Raymond Firth (1956). In Germany, the choice of kin was also emphasized by Renate Mayntz (1955) and René König (1974, 1976).

„(…) the prime characteristic of the South Borough kinship system lies in the aspect of selectivity on a basis of personal attachment rather than on a basis of formalized ties. (…) To be able to treat kinship as an instrument of social expression is personally important (…)“ (Firth/Djamour 1956: 44; author´s emphasis).

Extended family relationships consist of voluntary and selective bonds (Fischer 1982) and a weak level of normative obligations or norms of responsibility (Rossi/Rossi 1990). Johnson (2000b) labelled this type of relationship as “opportune extended family”. Riley (1983) terms kinship as a “matrix of latent relationships“. Kin constitute a latent web of shifting linkages that provide a potential for activating and intensifying close family relationships in times of need. Generally, kin relationships are matters of personal choice, rather than obligation (see Riley 1993: 167). This new family structure places a greater emphasis on voluntary relationships (Connidis 2001).

„I have to come to think of todays large and complex kinship structure as a matrix of latent relationships – father with son, child with great-grandparent, sister with sister in law, ex-husband with ex-wife, and so on – relationships that are latent because they might or might not become close and significant during lifetime” (Riley 1983: 441).

Figure 1 demonstrates the relation between biological and social kin.


Biological kin provide an “opportunity structure” and a “chance” for social contacts, for interaction and communication (Jakoby/Kopp 2006, Jakoby 2008a). They represent a “focus” (Feld 1981, 1984) or a “predisposition” (Firth 1956). Social relationships are chosen from a structured social context, such as families or kinship (see Feld 1984: 640). Only the social kin form a network of concrete relationships.

Although the idea of “chosen kin” is stated in various publications (e.g., Firth 1956, Bott 1971, Hoyt/Babchuk 1983), the concept is not deepened.

4. Review of Literature: How distant are our distant kin?

Only a limited number of family studies examine the broader kin network (aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews, cousins). Yet, the studies show a high degree of selectivity. This phenomenon is labelled kinship diversity (Johnson 2000b). The voluntary nature of these relationships makes them more variable (Connidis 2001). Reviews of literature on the factors underlying diversity in kinship interaction report mixed findings (Johnson 2000b). The majority of kinship studies are descriptive and the frequency of interaction with kin, emotional bonds and normative obligations vary with socio-structural determinants: gender, social status, ethnicity, and geographic proximity (Adams 1970, Lee 1980, Johnson 2000b). A consistent finding in the literature is that women are more involved with kin than men. They are known as “kinkeepers” (e.g., di Leonardo 1992, Gerstel/Gallagher 1993, Johnson 2000a). Further, concrete kin relationships are determined by the line of descent. Studies identify a matrilineal bias and asymmetry with a greater emphasis on maternal kin (Sweetser 1963, Gaulin et al. 1997, Hoier et al. 2001, Neyer/Lang 2003). Second, geographic mobility correlates with limited contact opportunities (Klatzky 1971, van der Poel 1993). Third, differences in kinship interaction are associated with social class. The first kinship studies uniformly found that working class tend to have closer kin relationships than middle and upper class (Firth 1956, Adams 1968, Bott 1971). The personal networks of people with lower socioeconomic status also consist of a higher proportion of kin (Marsden 1987, Moore 1990, van der Poel 1993).

Fourth, ethnicity is an important variable. In the United States, Black and immigrant families have closer kinship ties (e.g. Hays/Mindel 1973, Stack 1974, Johnson 1982, Roschelle 1997). A collateral principle of kinship organization characterizes the relationship to extended family members. It stresses horizontal ties of the same generation (siblings, cousins) (Johnson 2000a). Only a limited number of cross-cultural kinship studies analyze kin networks in a European comparison (Georgas et al. 1997, 2001, 2006, Nauck/Kohlmann 1998, Höllinger/ Haller 1990). Interestingly, with regard to the nuclear family, no systematic differences were found in emotional closeness and frequency of contacts across cultures. Moreover, Georgas et al. (2001) show that Greek and Cypriot respondents have closer relationships to their cousins, aunts and uncles than Dutch, British and German respondents. Geographic proximity and frequent contact mark their kinship ties. This fact is due to an extended family structure in collectivistic Mediterranean countries.

Moreover, biographical variables and idiosyncratic factors are discussed, such as:

  • childlessness (Johnson/Catalano 1981, Rossi/Rossi 1990, Lang/Schütze 1998, Künemund/Hollstein 2000, Wenger/Burholt 2001, Milardo 2005)
  • widowhood (Lopata 1978, Hollstein 2002)[4],
  • marital status (Langer/Ribach 2007)
  • quality of the sibling relationship (Wenger/Burholt 2001, Milardo 2005, Jakoby 2008a)
  • childhood experiences (Adams 1968, Bott 1971, Rossi/Rossi 1990)
  • a “family reunion-effect” (Waite/Harrison 1992)
  • value consensus and “personality fit” (Adams 1968, Bott 1971)

In addition, Ellingson and Sotirin (2006) and Milardo (2005) emphasize the complexity of aunting and uncling roles: They can be friends, kinkeeper, substitutes for parents, intergenerational buffers, mediators or mentors. There are also distant relationships between aunts and uncles and their nieces and nephews.

Given the individuals freedom to define the family as he or she chooses, it becomes necessary to ask: Why? How can we explain the selection of kin? (see also Johnson 2000a: 143).

5. Explaining Kinship Behavior

Theoretical models to explain kinship behavior are non-existent, because kinship behavior is not regarded as a separate sociological phenomenon.[5]

„Only certain kin, from a larger pool of all available kin, are likely to be viewed as close. Even fewer will be identified as confidants. Not much is known about the process by which these choices are made” (Hoyt/Bachuk 1983: 86; author´s emphasis).

Exchange theory (Homans 1968, Thibaut/Kelley 1959, Nye 1979) is a prominent theory for explaining different types of family behavior (e.g., marital stability) or the formation of friendships (e.g., Verbrugge 1979). The concept of intergenerational solidarity (Bengtson 2001, Rossi/Rossi 1990, Szydlik 2000) is also based on the exchange theory. Previous network studies depend on the choice constraint model (Fischer 1977) or rational choice theory (van der Poel 1993). These approaches view the composition of personal networks as choices within limited alternatives and resources. According to exchange theory, geographic distance is seen as a major cost for the formation und maintenance of contacts among extended family members (e.g., Klatzky 1971, van der Poel 1993).

My approach to study kin relationships emphasizes the selective nature of extended family relationships. The general statement of “chosen kin” indicates the need for an explanation for this sociological phenomenon. To account for the selectivity of kin, I will use a model based on the decision theory. On the basis of rational choice theory (Coleman 1991, Esser 1996), I have developed a theoretical framework to explain the selection of kin (with special emphasis on secondary and tertiary kin) (Jakoby 2006, 2008a,b). Individual behavior (the formation and maintenance of social relationships) is viewed as choices made within opportunities and restrictions (see also Fischer 1977, van der Poel 1993). Generally, socio-structural and biographical characteristics determine opportunities, alternatives, restrictions, and normative obligations.


This model and theoretical framework provides a source of hypotheses (see Jakoby 2008a). Socio-structural factors include gender, socioeconomic status, age, marital status, religiousness, ethnicity, residential size, number of friends and geographic proximity. Biographical characteristics are: the quality of the sibling relationship, childhood experiences, the existence of a kinkeeper or “connecting relatives”, and kinship orientation. I also include idiosyncratic variables, such as common interests or value consensus.

6. Conclusion

Extended family relationships are still a fairly uncharted territory in the field of social relationships worthy of closer scrutiny. The extended family has mostly been known to be a neglected area of research and much less a theoretical and empirical object of research in its own right. It is due time, though, to establish family relationships beyond the nuclear family as a topic in family research and to confront the overly narrow conception with a different image of family. The hitherto narrow view fails to do justice to actual family life.

Fact is that the extended family’s loss of significance is claimed time and again, yet sociology of the family has failed to provide convincing empirical evidence for this key assumption. The state of the art in family research is thus at variance with Adams’ assessment (Adams 1999) that extended family relationships play only a minor role characterized by no more than rare or occasional contacts. In light of empirical findings, the answer to the question raised by Schütze and Wagner (1998: 13), whether the relationships to uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces in Ego’s perspective are indeed insignificant to the point that family research is justified in neglecting these relatives, is clearly no. Relationships with uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces turn out to be important social relationships that must not be omitted from sociological consideration. Although further research is still needed, available studies underscore that social solidarity is also exercised in extended family networks. Emotional ties and the social exchange of goods and support are not limited to relationships of filiation. In consequence, extended family relationships must be attributed not only individual, but also socio-political significance (see also Künemund/Hollstein 2000, Lang/Schütze 1998, Langer/Ribarich 2007).

Moreover, family research must take into account the selective nature of extended family relationships. From a sociological point of view, personal choices determine the formation and maintenance of kin relationships. This general assumption must clearly indicate the application of a theoretical framework based on the rational choice theory. Therefore, Renè König (1976: 20) emphasizes the need of theoretical explanations, especially in family sociology: „Es gibt auch in der Familiensoziologie keine Empirie ohne Theorie.” Furthermore, extended family relationships are best understood in the context of a life-course perspective (Connidis 2001). Future studies would benefit from biographical predictors in understanding these important and understudied family relationships.


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  • Wagner, M. (2002). Familie und soziales Netzwerk, in: Nave-Herz, R. (Ed). Kontinuität und Wandel der Familie in Deutschland. Eine zeitgeschichtliche Analyse: 227-251, Stuttgart: Lucius + Lucius.
  • Wagner, M.; Schütze, Y. (Eds.) (1998). Verwandtschaft. Sozialwissenschaftliche Beiträge zu einem vernachlässigten Thema, Stuttgart: Enke.
  • Waite, L.; Harrison, S. (1992). Keeping in touch: How women in mid-life allocate social contacts among kith and kin, in: Social Forces, 70: 637-655.
  • Walker, A. J.; Allen, K. R.; Connidis, I. A. (2005). Theorizing and studying sibling ties in adulthood, in: Bengtson, V. L.; Acock, A. C.; Allen, K. R.; Dilworth-Anderson, P.; Klein, D. M. (Eds). Sourcebook of family theory and research: 161-181, Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Wenger, G. C.; Scott, A.; Patterson, N. (2000). How important is parenthood? Childlessness and support in old age in England, in: Ageing and Society, 20: 161-182.
  • Wenger, G. C.; Burholt, V. (2001). Differences over time in older people’s relationships with children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews in rural North Wales, in: Ageing and Society, 21: 567-590.
  • Weston, K. (1991). Families we choose. Lesbians, gays, kinship, New York: Columbia University Press.

Explanatory notes

[1] Except for the books of Wagner/Schütze (1998) and Jakoby (2008a).

[2] Descent is traced through both maternal and paternal ancestors.

[3] The concept of “chosen families” can be found in the literature about gay and lesbian families (Weston 1991). In these family forms, kinship is formed through affection and support. They replace a family with obligatory bonds (see Johnson 2000b: 624).

[4] Contrary to existing literature, Lopata (1978) has found no empirical evidence: „There are so few references to grandparents, aunts and uncles in the four support systems of younger widows, to cousins of all widows, and to nieces and nephews in interviews with older widows, that there is no justification for separating them out for analysis“ (Lopata 1978: 361).

[5] Some authors just refer to the complexity of the theme: “Further research into the complex factors which underlie the processes of selection is clearly needed” (Turner 1969: 34).

[6] Mylonas, K.; Bafiti, T.; Poortinga, Y. P.; Christakopolou, S.; Kagitcibasi, C.; Kwak, K.; Ataca, B.; Berry, J.; Orung, S.; Sunar, D.; Charalambous, N.; Goodwin, R.; Wang, W.-Z.; Angleitner, A.; Stepanikova, I.; Pick, S.; Givaudan, M.; Zhuravliova-Gionis, I.; Konantambigi, R.; Gelfand, M. J.; Marinava, V.; McBride-Chang, C.; Kodic, Y.

Weitere Beiträge der Autorin hier in unserem Familienhandbuch


Nina Jakoby, Dr., Dipl.-Soz., geb. 1976, ist seit 2008 Oberassistentin am Soziologischen Institut der Universität Zürich.
Sie studierte Diplom-Soziologie an der Universität Trier und promovierte an der RWTH Aachen.
Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind Familiensoziologie, Methoden der empirischen Sozialforschung, Soziologische Theorien und Soziologie der Trauer.


Dr. Nina Jakoby
Soziologisches Institut
Universität Zürich
Andreasstr. 15
CH-8050 Zürich

Tel.: +41 (0)44 635 2371


Erstellt am 21. Dezember 2009, zuletzt geändert am 6. Februar 2014

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