From the many family types that are a focus in sociology, the extended family is perhaps one of the more common types. Extended families can sometimes be described as ‘horizontally’ extended and sometimes as ‘vertically’ extended or ‘beanpole’ family. Here, I look at the extended family as it might appear sociologically.
What Do We Mean By Extended Family
In general, the term ‘extended family’ refers to the core nuclear family plus additional blood-relatives. For example, the ‘ideal’ extended family might be two parents, two children, an aunt and uncle, and perhaps two grandparents. This does not mean that this is set in stone. An extended family unit can be comprised of different sets of relatives, non-blood relations, adopted children, or even a friend close enough to be considered family. Extended families can either be in the same household or geographically dispersed. It always helps to delineate between them and make it clear what is being referred to. The term ‘extended family household’ is perhaps most relevant to describe an extended family that lives under the same roof.
What are Horizontally Extended Families
The term ‘horizontally extended’ refers to an extended family which consists of members of similar generation. Think of it as a kind of line of latitude or latitudinally extended where the family unit is extended sideways to aunts, uncles, cousins etc. Glick et al. (1997) trace the increase of horizontally extended families in the US from Mexican and Central American immigrants. Patterns of migration from these countries and the environment in which they find themselves in the US has meant that poverty is prevalent and, as such, these families become much more reliant on the extended family network for support. They also tend to be of similar age thus the tendency towards being horizontally extended.
What are Vertically Extended or Beanpole Families
The term ‘vertically extended’ refers to the multi-generational aspect of an extended family. Like latitudinally extended, we could perhaps view vertically extended families as being lines of longitude or longitudinally extended families where the family household is extended upwards and downwards. Thus, children, parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents live within the same unit. Hegestad (2008: 23 cited in Vogt, 2020: 1235-1236) argues that vertically extended families are trending towards being ‘top heavy’. As people live longer, and in combination with an aging society and reduction in birth rates globally, the vertically extended family will begin to be characterised by a greater number of older family members. The term ‘beanpole’ family is the same principle except there are less children so the vertical family is ‘thinner’ so to speak and does not have much in the way of horizontal extension.
Characterising the Extended Family
Yorburg (1975: 6) characterises the extended family by attributing the following features:
- Complete economic interdependence of kin network
- Common ownership of economic resources
- occupational cooperation
- daily exchange of goods and services
- Psychological interdependence
- Emotional support
- Protection through confinement to kin network
- Daily contact
- Geographic proximity
In this characterisation, we see that the extended family is interlinking at all levels. We can also view them as the function and role of extended families. This characterisation begins to make the nuclear family look rather isolated and vulnerable in comparison. Perhaps there is indication here that ideologically the nuclear family is idealised for that very purpose, to promote the isolation of family members and reduce the power of the family in face of capitalist exploitation.
Economics of the Extended family
When we think about the cost of running a household, it doesn’t always make sense when you think about the nuclear family relative to extended families. In westernised society, the isolation of the nuclear family means that nuclear families have a somewhat heavier financial burden. Although it is arguable that, for capitalism, this is a preferable arrangement, for families it is not. When nuclear families, or single parent families etc., have bills to pay, those bills often have a small-household disadvantage. For example, energy bills have a ‘standing charge’, a daily amount paid to the energy company as a cost of supplying you with energy. This means that having two households would mean two standing charges and two households of energy usage. The extended family goes someway to offsetting this issue by only paying one round of standing charge. There is a similar principle with TV licences, council tax, and water bills. Additionally, having multiple incomes coming into the same household not only means the possibility of averting poverty, but could go someway to paying mortgages or facilitating the acquisition of larger properties.
Reyes (2017: 123-124) divides the economic organisation of different extended family households into three categories:
Mutual Financial Support
In these extended families, the ‘auxiliary’ family contribute financially to the household in some form. By ‘auxiliary’, it means members of the family outside of the nuclear core. It does not necessarily have to be equal contributions but they do, in some way, financially contribute nonetheless giving a somewhat collective interest and involvement in running the family and the household.
Family Safety Net
Family safety net households are extended families where the nuclear core or primary family pay for all the costs associated with the household. The ‘auxiliary’ members of the extended family, if living in their own household, would be considered as living in poverty. The extended family then, provides a safety net for those extended members.
Unneeded Family Safety Net
Similar to the family safety net household, the unneeded family safety net household is one where the ‘auxiliary’ members of the family are not, and would not, be living in poverty if in their own household, yet do not contribute to the financial situation of the household. This implies that an extended family of this nature would be reasonably comfortable financially.
Stability of the Extended Family
Given the economic logic of the extended family, it seems to imply the potential for a more stable environment in other areas. Indeed, this has been shown to be the case. For example, Hwang & St. James-Roberts (1998) found that children had fewer emotional and behavioural problems over a given time frame than children from nuclear families. In legal cases, it has been argued that the extended family can be a source of stability and an aid for keeping children out of foster care and with members of their own extended family (Frankel, 2006: 326). This is also reflected in Taylor et al. (2017: 526) who highlight how the extended family can function as a fostering mechanism for families throughout the Caribbean.
Perhaps a criticism that is worth noting here is that the way in which extended families are referred to seems to consistently imply that the nuclear family is the standard family unit, the unit against which all others are compared. It seems to be something that we do unconsciously insofar as having a conditioned bias to see nuclear families as normal and extended families as that same nuclear family being extended outwards, with some kind of additional attachment to it; modular in a way. Perhaps if we viewed the nuclear family as abnormal and the extended family as normal, it might go some way to restoring some power to the family and away from capitalism. I am sure many feminists would disagree with this but that too is something to be considered. Either way, it is important to stay critical towards any kind of presupposed ‘normal’ particularly when it comes to family structures.
Glick, J. E., Bean, F. D. & Van Hook, J. V. (1997). Immigration and changing patterns of extended family household structure in the United States: 1970-1990. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 177–191. JSTOR.
Frankel, K. B. (2006). The Fourteenth Amendment due process right to family integrity applied to custody cases involving extended family members. Colum. JL & Soc. Probs., 40, 301. HeinOnline.
Hagestad, G.O. (2008). The Book-Ends: Emerging Perspectives on Children and old People. In: Families, Ageing and Social Policy: Intergenerational Solidarity in European Welfare States. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Hwang, H. J. & St. James-Roberts, I. (1998). Emotional and behavioural problems in primary school children from nuclear and extended families in Korea. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 39(7), 973–979. Cambridge University Press.
Reyes, A.M. (2017). The Economic Organization of Extended Family Households by Race or Ethnicity and Socioeconomic Status. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(1), pp.119–133.
Taylor, R. J., Forsythe-Brown, I., Lincoln, K. D. & Chatters, L. M. (2017). Extended family support networks of Caribbean Black adults in the United States. Journal of Family Issues, 38(4), 522–546. Sage Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA.
Vogt, K. C. (2020). The extended family in transitions to adulthood: a dynamic approach. Journal of Youth Studies, 23(9), 1234–1248. Taylor & Francis.
Yorburg, B. (1975). The Nuclear and the Extended Family: An Area of Conceptual Confusion. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 6(1), pp.5–14.