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For much of the twentieth century debates around kinship in western societies focused largely on the impact of industrialization on family structure. Parsons’s (1949) arguments that industrialization encourages a kinship system with relatively strong boundaries around the nuclear family were particularly influential, though other writers queried how strong these boundaries really were. Certainly, there is now ample evidence that in industrial societies primary kin – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, siblings – generally remain significant throughout a person’s life, and not just when they reside together as a nuclear family. Typically, though not invariably, these kin act as resources for one another, being part of an individual’s personal support network for coping with different contingencies. In particular, a parent’s concern for children does not end when the child becomes adult, and few adult children lack any sense of commitment to their parents.
Within western societies, however, the ”rules” of kinship are not tightly framed; the ordering of these relationships are permissive rather than obligatory. In other words, individuals have relative freedom to work out or ”negotiate” how their kinship relationships should be patterned, though some groups or subcultures (including many migrant and religious minority groups) have stronger social regulation of kinship ties than others. The permissive character of western kinship was highlighted by Finch and Mason (1993) who focused on the negotiation of kinship responsibilities. Their model emphasizes that such negotiations do not occur in isolation, but are framed by the biographical development of the relationships in question. In other words, previous kinship behavior, as well as knowledge of the personalities and commitments of those involved, form part of the context in which the negotiations occur.
The importance of Finch and Mason’s analysis is that it highlights the role of agency as well as structure in kin behavior. While there are clear patterns in the ways kin behave toward one another (e.g., in the greater likelihood of daughters rather than sons providing parents with personal care in later old age) there is also a great deal of variation. This variation has been compounded since the late 1970s by significant changes in patterns of family formation and dissolution. Of themselves, these changes raise questions about the categorization and meaning of kinship. For example, are ex-spouses categorized as kin? When does a step-parent or a cohabitee become kin? Such questions do not have clear-cut answers. Instead, the nature of the relationships which develop and the extent to which they are understood as operating within a kinship framework are emergent, and in this sense ”negotiated”.
Moreover, kinship is not just about individual relationships. Kinship comprises a network of relationships which interact on one another. The effective boundaries of the network vary for different people and change over time. But typically news and gossip flow readily through the network, with some individuals, particularly mothers, acting as ”kin-keepers.” In part it is because kinship operates as a network that a focus on negotiation is so useful for understanding kinship processes. Similarly, the questions raised above about new partners or step-parents coming to be regarded as kin are not solely individual issues. It also matters whether others in the kinship network regard them as ”family” too.
- Allan, G. (1996) Kinship and Friendship in Modern Britain. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Finch, J. & Mason, J. (1993) Negotiating Family Relationships. Routledge, London.
- Parsons, T. (1949) The social structure of the family. In: Ashen, R. (ed.), The Family. Haynor, New York, pp. 241-74.