Extended families, more so than nuclear families, are characterized by great variation in type and form. The term extended family is usually applied to family systems where the ideal is for multiple generations to live together, so that a man and his wife live with the families of their married sons (or daughters in a matrilocal society) and all other unmarried children. This may be accomplished by adding rooms or ells to houses or by clustering huts or tents into a compound or in close proximity. When the married sons stay with their parents, it is known as a patrilocal residence pattern and when married daughters remain and the sons move to their wives’ families’ home, that is referred to as matrilocal residence.
Sometimes included as a type of extended family are stem families, which require one family member, usually the oldest son, to inherit all the family property while remaining responsible for unmarried sisters and underage brothers, and joint families, where property is held in common by all direct male descendants, who jointly benefit from the family property.
While the extended-family form is the ideal in many societies, it is rarely fully expressed. Wealthier and higher-status families are more likely to be able to attain the ideal because of greater resources, especially larger land holdings, which can use the labor of the family members. Another factor influencing the prevalence of extended-family households is the mortality rate; sons frequently want to break away from the family compound and start their own household upon the death of the father. Last, the life cycle of the family combined with the ideal of the extended family suggests that many individuals in a society probably spent at least a small portion of their lives in an extended family, but that at any one time most families were not extended.
A major difference between nuclear and extended-family households is in the strength and direction of the emotional bonds formed within the family. In extended families, the emotional bond between the child and parent remains strong, and the bond between spouses may be comparatively weak or characterized by jealousy of the mother-in-law by the daughter-in-law. Daughters-in-law may spend much of their time with their mothers-in-law, more time than they spend with their husbands. Marriages are more likely to be arranged, with bride and groom not knowing each other before the wedding.
Another feature of interpersonal relations in extended-family households has to do with decision making and the handling of conflict. Decisions about many aspects of the family and household are made by an older individual, the head of the extended family. Men who are the fathers of their own nuclear family within the extended family but are not the head themselves are unlikely to exercise much decision-making power, even in areas such as child rearing and the education of their own children. Members of extended families typically rely on cultural norms of behavior that allow them to avoid conflict, including an emphasis on the welfare of the group over the individual and techniques for neutralizing conflict in close quarters.
Extended families are more commonly found in medium-sized societies that are primarily agricultural. Extended-family households are able to marshal a large labor force to perform seasonal agricultural work, which makes them advantageous in agricultural societies. In large-scale societies with more social and spatial mobility, extended families can be a hindrance to mobility and they tend to decline in frequency in more complex societies.
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