Contemporary kinship arrangements

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Contemporary kinship arrangements

Thirty five years ago, there was an almost tribal community in East London. Most married people had parents and parents-in-law living near to them. The common pattern was a localised extended family, usually built around the close ties of mothers and daughters.

Bethnal Green was not unique. Other studies at about the same time revealed similar patterns in Wolverhampton, the docks area of Liverpool, in Acton (London) and Swansea.

The new stereotype of family relationships holds that the research of the 1950s chartered the high point of urban kinship, and that since then social and economic changes have destroyed this particular form of family arrangement.

However, if one looks at the 1980s, it is not the proximity of relatives, but contact between them that seems important. Evidence seems to indicate that relatives continue to be the main source of informal support, and this holds good across class locations. Kinship remains important in most peoples' lives.

Recent research suggests that there are now three broad kinship arrangements in Britain.

The local extended family: Typically, two or perhaps three nuclear families in separate households live close to each other. They see each other every day, or nearly every day and provide mutual aid on a continuing basis. This sort of arrangement applies to about 1/8th of the population.

The dispersed extended family: This type is becoming more dominant. It is like the above, except that meetings are less frequent and may depend on cars or good public transport. This pattern is probably more common among the middle class. This model matches with perhaps ½ the population.

The attenuated extended family: This covers less than half of the population. It includes students and young couples before they have children. At this stage they are breaking away from their family of origin and kinship matters less. Others are separated by the needs of their job, or the working of the housing market.

The most striking feature of British kinship, now and in the past, is its resilience.