Nuclear vs. Extended Family: Definitions & Structures

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  • 0:01 Family and Norms
  • 1:28 Nuclear Family
  • 2:28 Extended Family
  • 3:16 Reasons
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the variations in family residence that exist around the globe. In doing so, it will specifically highlight the patterns of nuclear and extended residence, while citing some reasons for both.

Family and Norms

Growing up, I had a friend that lived in a house with both her parents and her grandparents. Coming from a home that consisted of just my mom, my dad and my siblings, this sort of seemed odd to me. Making it more odd to me, my grandparents lived hours away. Yes, I loved them and really enjoyed their holiday visits, but the idea of living with them was not at all within my paradigm. This is true because I grew up under a very different family system model, which just so happens to be the topic of today's lesson, nuclear and extended family households.

Before we get into defining these terms, there's one thing we need to nail down. When we're discussing these two family systems, we'll be generalizing. For instance, when we discuss the nuclear family unit, we'll be discussing it amid the context of being a norm, or an accepted rule of behavior in society. For example, the Western world of the United States has traditionally seen the nuclear family as the norm; however, just like my friend who lived with her grandparents, there are definitely exceptions to these rules.

With this in mind, let's first define what anthropologists mean by family. In the scientific sense, a family is a social or economic unit that consists of at least one parent and their children. Now, notice this definition doesn't make any mention of whether or not the people within a family reside together. For this reason, we have to look at our two terms, nuclear versus extended family households.

Nuclear Family Households

Being very familiar to most of us, a nuclear family household consists of a single parent or a couple residing with their unmarried children. Historically, the nuclear family has been what the modernized world thinks of when we think of family. We see them all over TV, and they fill our movie screens. However, although they seem to be very commonplace to us, nuclear families are rather rare in the non-industrialized world.

To explain, many anthropologists would assert that nuclear families tend to exist in industrialized and commercialized societies where individuals trade money for labor, goods and services. With this transfer of money for labor and such, couples are usually able to be self-sufficient, not typically needing to lean on grandparents or aunts and uncles and such. Even as I say that, please remember we are speaking in generalities, focusing on the traditional cultural norms of the very modernized West. With the idea of a nuclear family being rather familiar to most of us, we'll move on to the extended family households.

Extended Family Households

An extended family household consists of more than one couple and their offspring residing together. It can be a young couple residing with the groom's parents, or it can be the other way around. It can be two brothers living together with their wives, or it can be two married sisters moving their families in with their mom and their dad.

Adding to this, it can also be one man married to different women, all living together under one roof with their many children. Conversely, it can be one woman living with her two husbands and their collective children.

Regardless of the form in which they take, leading anthropologists, Carol and Melvin Ember, assert that extended family households exist in over half of the world's societies. In other words, they're very, very common.

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