Extended Families

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Author: Yvette Taylor
Editor: Jodi O'Brien
Date: 2009
Encyclopedia of Gender and Society
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Extended Families

The shape, purpose, and form of the family continues to be documented and debated, informing social policy, whether that be in policies that legitimize “new” family formations through, for example, the rights of lesbians and gay men to marry, adopt, and access new reproductive technologies, or in measures that supposedly alleviate the dual and gendered burden of combining employment and care. The family is variously represented as a state in crisis, a pessimistic portrayal that often points to the decline of somewhat mythical and romanticized familial ties, duties and obligations, as against the rise of individualism, single-hood, and childless, career-oriented women. In contrast, others view familial changes more optimistically, contesting notions of crisis, replacing such with a sense of positive agency, choice, and transformation as family formations disrupt traditional and endorsed nuclear family ideals. Many researchers have charted the changes to seemingly coherent and completed family Page 268  |  Top of Articleunits: members can enter and exit post-divorce and individuals may get a sense of who counts as family by combining and explaining across households, time and place, and their own life courses.

The term extended families highlights the changes and challenges to the often still promoted nuclear family ideal, as a difference between rhetoric and reality. Feminist theorists have long problematized the family as a site of gender inequality and exploitation, rather than as a site of social transformation. However, changes in family compositions and practices have resulted in some commentators viewing the extended, indeed ever-extending, family as a potential site of equality and change. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the historically and culturally specific nature of the family compared with supposedly new alterations; the nuclear family unit was created and consolidated via industrialization, as a site of securing labor. Actually, the idealized nuclear family has had a relatively short history.

Demographic figures collected by official bodies such as governments provide an administrative gauge on what families are and the ways that they are changing. Data often reflect, for example, the number of dependent children as well as other dependents, such as grandparents who increasingly and enduringly feature in everyday conceptualizations, even residences, of immediate family as a result of increased life expectancy. Parental separation and repartnering may mean that siblings do not live with their full, biological siblings and may instead co-reside with, for example, step-siblings and stepparents. Such technical facts and demographic possibilities, however, do not in themselves answer the social issues of family formation, the socially constructed nature of families beyond biological facts. The traditional view that blood is thicker than water, that family ties are obvious, inherent, genetic, and more binding than friendship ties is contested by many studies that highlight social bases underpinning relationships. Rosalind Edwards's account explores family transformations and reconstitutions through the eyes of children, revealing the ways in which understandings of the reality, worth, and validity of their family relations differed by degrees of certainty and uncertainty, as informed by social affirmation and denigration of specific family types. Specifically, children still referenced “proper” families—compared with seemingly depleted single-parent families, or excessive, disproportionate extended families, which were both classed and radicalized. An increasingly common phrase that points to more fluid family compositions is that of “families of choice,” used by Kath Weston and Jeffrey Weeks, Brian Heaphy, and Catherine Donovan.

Sociological depictions of lives filled with choices, of actors choosing to live the way they want to live outside of traditional nuclear family units, choosing to create autonomous, equal, “pure relationships,” are widespread. Studies document the changing expectations of personal and family life, across generations, relationships, households, and the life course. Anthony Giddens's “pure relationship” conveys an optimistic portrayal of family reconstitutions, viewing changes as indicative of the ways that relationships are entered into and exited from for their own sake, free of the constraint of obligation and traditional ties. The pure relationship can be terminated at will, by any participant at any point, and in such circumstances family may be seen to mirror friendship, blurring the lines between the two. Various studies of lesbian relationships have suggested that this group most typically achieves the pure relationship exemplifying new forms of intimacy whereby intimacy is not sought through couple relationships alone but rather through their “family of friends.” There may be painful as well as creative reasons why this is so, with familial rejection necessitating the formation of alternative support structures. Replacing biological family with chosen friends may be seen as an extension or an erasure of the family.

Weeks and colleagues explored narratives and experiences of alternative families, using in-depth interviews with 96 self-identified nonheterosexuals in the United Kingdom and suggested that a transformation is underway signified by new families of choice based on democratic, egalitarian relationships. The argument of multiplicity and fluidity in intimate and familial relationships put forward by Giddens and Weeks takes as evidence liberal discourses of greater tolerance and recognition for lesbians and gay men. Many have documented a reorientation of lesbian and gay politics away from issues of sexual liberation and community building toward creating and protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) families, which arguably reinvokes borders and boundaries; a protective, even if extended, “privatized” sphere. Much feminist research contends that intimate relationships still do not transcend structural inequalities and, as such, cannot be thought of as undergoing radical alterations. In reviewing academic research on Page 269  |  Top of Articlepersonal relationships across Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, Lynn Jamieson's account suggests a more complex and contradictory tale of transformations in intimacy. A major criticism of Giddens's work is that much feminist scholarship on gender inequalities within intimate relations and family structures, as relating to wider societal inequalities, is sidelined. Although Giddens talks about sharing thoughts and feelings, a “mutual disclosure” of talking and listening within intimate relationships, Jamieson contends that intimacy can only take on this character if participants can remove social barriers and transcend structural inequalities. Though noting that stories of equality and “disclosing intimacy” may be popular, Jamieson suggests that these are matched by more conventional tales based on gender inequality and conventional heterosexual practices. Thus, reports of transformations in intimacy and increasing queer tendencies may be contrasted with the perpetual dominance of heterosexuality as a disguised and neutral identity and practice, yet one that potentially consolidates gender inequalities and structures other outsider sexualities by their distance from its normative position.

Discourses of resistance and self-invention in contemporary stories of intimacy identified by Weeks may be linked with new reproductive technologies as a form of family-making available to lesbians and gay men. Yet the controversies aroused here demonstrate the gap between creating, even extending, families and choices, as against criticisms of “selling out” to nuclear family norms or, conversely, making a mockery of such “proper,” socially legitimated, families. Although such technologies exist on the marketplace, their (unequal) availability raises questions about the commodification of bodies, their component, reproductive parts, and the continued dichotomy between supposedly real, authentic families, heterosexually created, versus “fake” and “bought” families. Practices such as adoption also complicate and clarify the biological and social nature of families and lesbians and gay men's access to such services underscores continued linkages between the family and the marketplace, a relation that exists, but is often disguised and naturalized, in conventional family formations.

Actual family formations may well be changing and extending, encompassing, for example, immediate biological family, grandparents, friends, and step-siblings, diversified by sexuality, class, and “race.” However, extensions in the definitions, practices, and realities of families can still coexist with the promotion of a particular familial ideal. Much research has focused on the demographics and employment patterns of lone mothers. In the United States, there is increasing concern about teen moms, given the country's high standing in Western teenage pregnancy rates: Young women's material and affective locations are often solely examined through this lens. Often the actuality of lone motherhood is seen a problematic one, something to be challenged and added to, whether this be via education, by employment, or in the reinsertion of missing fathers. The absence of gender-binary, supposedly complimentary, role models is often viewed negatively in single-parent and lesbian and gay households, whereby the transmission of resources, responsibilities, and behaviors via the family is viewed as under threat. Families act as important transmitters of resources and values; women in particular are positioned as responsible for caring in as well as providing for the family, given the widespread displacement of the male breadwinner father figure. As families extend across generations, their shifting compositions and memberships may work as an extended burden for women with continued demarcations between good and bad forms of motherhood.

According to Frank Furedi, the current anxieties in child rearing are shaped by changing societal expectations; no longer is a child simply raised, parents are also educators, even chauffeurs, as children are invested in and resourced. Youth is increasingly being extended as young people rely on their families to facilitate transitions to and existence within post-compulsory education. Similarly, dependency may be extended through residing in or purchasing property. Sue Heath and Elizabeth Cleaver explored solo living and social networks among young people, noting eventual long-term desires to settle down and conform to normative expectations of property buying and family building. Alongside developing notions of extended families, families are simultaneously seen as individual autonomous units, which is a major theme of “good parenting”; a form of “individualism-in-action” whereby family responsibilities are prioritized over any public ones. The possibility of being and becoming a “better parent” though seemingly open to all is a classed discourse and strategy. Middle-class parents may give their children as many social and educational experiences as possible for the benefit of later life, framing these as private, family, individual Page 270  |  Top of Articleconcerns. Those dependent on benefits fall under the gaze of the state. Different family formations are not equally validated and the notions of choice and transformation, suggested by Giddens and Weeks perhaps sit uncomfortably with the classing of choice and forms of delegitimation applicable to certain families. The valued model of self-hood in Western societies, as economically and emotionally autonomous, even efficient and self-disciplined, is culturally specific and profoundly classed. Family extensions and even transformations also require considerations of dual and opposing processes of individualization.

Yvette Taylor

Further Readings

Edwards, R. (Ed.). (2008). Researching families and communities: Social and generational change. London: Routledge.

Furedi, F. (2001). Paranoid parenting. London: Allan Lane.

Giddens, A. (1992). The transformation of intimacy: Sexuality, love and eroticism in modern societies. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Heath, S., & Cleaver, E. (2003). Young, free and single: Twenty-somethings and household change. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jamieson, L. (1998). Intimacy: Personal relationships in modern societies. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Weeks, J., Heaphy, B., & Donovan, C. (2001). Same sex intimacies: Families of choice and other life experiments. London: Routledge.

Weston, K. (1997). Families we choose: Lesbians, gays, kinship. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3073900151