Every year on May 15th, we celebrate the International Day of Families to honor the importance of families all around the world. But what does “family” mean? Are there cross-country differences in the understanding of the term? We approach these questions by taking a closer look at the latest wave of the European Values Study.
Jedes Jahr am 15. Mai feiern wir den Internationalen Tag der Familie, um die Bedeutung der Familien auf der ganzen Welt zu würdigen. Aber was bedeutet „Familie“? Gibt es länderspezifische Unterschiede im Verständnis des Begriffs? Diesen Fragen nähern wir uns, indem wir einen genaueren Blick auf die jüngste Welle der European Values Study werfen.
“Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.”Michael J. Fox
Who Is Family?
Has anyone ever asked you how your family was? And have you ever spontaneously responded that they were fine? Who did you think of? Your parents, your siblings, your children, your patch-work family, your grandparents, or maybe even somebody completely different? When people ask us about our family, we intuitively base our responses on our understanding of what the concept family entails for us. Many would probably agree that family connects people, possibly across different generations. They may also agree that it forms our daily life and shapes our norms, values, and behaviors. But do we all consider the same individuals to be part of our families? Probably not. So who do you think of when talking about family?
Some of the big cross-national survey projects, such as the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), the European Social Survey (ESS), and the European Values Study (EVS), include specific modules on family to tap into gender roles, marriage, household management, children, partnership, work-family interrelations, or transmission of values, to name a few. No matter the specific interest, all these surveys live from the prerequisite that people understand and interpret questionnaires—i.e., the questions and the given answer scales—in the same way, irrespective of their language and culture. Only when this is the case, researchers can make meaningful comparisons across countries; an idea subsumed under the term measurement equivalence (see, e.g., Kankaraš & Moors, 2010).
Defining From Discipline to Discipline
How we define family varies drastically from country to country and within society (Trost, 1990). The different research disciplines are no exception, with their various family definitions changing over time. From a medical perspective, for example, it makes sense to talk about biological family members. These are those with whom one is related and with whom one shares some genes, regardless of the social closeness. Knowledge of the medical history of one’s family members (also of those with whom one is not in contact) might prove useful in the early detection of diseases.
In contrast, the sociological literature stresses the social aspect. There, family has been highlighted as a central actor who structures our daily lives and influences the development of society consistently (Mau & Verwiebe, 2009). In particular, in the sociology of the family, the family definition has gone through many changes from more traditional to more modern conceptualizations. Reviewing different definitions throughout the last century, Hill and Kopp (2013) find three recurring elements that make up a family: a long-term relationship between a man and a woman, a shared household, and at least one (adopted) child. These restrictive elements might or might not be appropriate depending on the research question, and can only be seen as forming a nominal definition. Other conceptualizations could include gay couples, couples without children, single parents, and so on, and still refer to the nuclear family (i.e., the “core” family). Nevertheless, this definition would exclude other family members like grandparents, uncles, or aunts, which we find in many cultures to live in the same household as well. Therefore, the concept of the extended family was introduced, which includes all relatives that live in the same household.
The Strength of Family Ties
Besides differing definitions in the disciplines, there is also variation in the strength of family ties between countries (Reher, 1998). Traditionally, we find stronger family ties in Latin and Eastern Europe, whereas Nordic and Germanic Europe show rather weak tie characteristics. Tie strength may refer to different dimensions such as frequency of contact or relationship intensity in terms of emotional involvement (Hanneman & Riddle, 2005). The latter can be operationalized as importance, as was done in the EVS 2017. Although family seems to be very important in all thirty countries (Mvery important = 87.8%), there are still some country differences. Albania shows the highest percentage of respondents thinking that their family is very important in their lives (98.1%), while only 67.9% of the respondents in Lithuania think so (see Figure 1).
Likewise, trust in family is about emotional involvement and, thus, can be seen as another facet of relationship intensity. Data from EVS Wave 5 reveal some country differences. Again, Albania has the highest proportion of respondents trusting their family completely (95.1%), while, in Poland, only 66% do so, with the average across countries being 84.7% (see Figure 2).
Who Do You Live With?
Be the data as they may, did respondents in these countries think of the same type of family when they answered these questions? One could assume that in Italy, for instance, people were thinking of their extended family, including grandparents. In contrast, in German culture, people possibly thought of their closest family members (i.e., their parents, partners, siblings, and children). Hence, the observed patterns might be a result of the specific size and composition of people’s households, which both differ across Europe until today (Iacovou & Skew, 2011). This further supports the idea that individuals might associate different people with the term family.
Making Them Proud
To figure out, whether cross-country differences exist in the understanding of family, researchers could implement probing questions in their surveys (i.e., asking a follow-up question directly after the closed-ended question of interest to elicit what participants thought of exactly; for an example, see Braun et al., 2019). Luckily, the EVS includes another question that focuses on the concept of the nuclear family, specifically the parents. There appears to be more variance across countries in wanting to make one’s parents proud (see Figure 3). Once again, Albanian respondents strongly agree with the statement that making their parents proud is a main goal in life. In contrast, Nordic countries, such as Finland, agree strongly much less frequently (FI: 3.3%). As a general trend, Eastern and Latin European countries tend to agree much more than Germanic and Nordic countries, emphasizing the idea that relationships within families might differ greatly among countries.
These patterns could be due to differences in the general degree of modernization (Mau & Verwiebe, 2009). While, in Germanic and Nordic countries, the transformation to more pluralized and individualized family types has proceeded, in Eastern and Latin Europe, the traditional model of the family with strong influences of religion and cultural norms prevails. This goes hand in hand with the idea of varying tie strength in families across Europe (Reher, 1998).
Overall, family seems to be an easy concept to catch at first glance. Yet, it is full of theoretical and methodological challenges. Simple descriptives of survey data might give us some first insights on cross-country differences; however, statistical testing and other more qualitative approaches are necessary to understand it fully. Whatever or whoever people consider being their family, one thing is for sure: Family is not only very important. It is everything, especially in those times.
Happy International Day of Families!
Braun, M., Behr, D., Meitinger, K., Raiber, K., & Repke, L. (2019). Using Web Probing to Elucidate Respondents’ Understanding of “Minorities” in Cross-Cultural Comparative Research. Ask: Research & Methods, 28(1), 3–20.
Hanneman, R. A., & Riddle, M. (2005). Introduction to Social Network Methods. University of California, Riverside. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socnet.2006.08.002
Hill, P. B., & Kopp, J. (2013). Familiensoziologie: Grundlagen und theoretische Perspektiven (5th ed.). Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-531-94269-8
Iacovou, M., & Skew, A. J. (2011). Household composition across the new Europe: Where do the new Member States fit in? Demographic Research, 25, 465–490. https://doi.org/10.4054/DemRes.2011.25.14
Kankaraš, M., & Moors, G. (2010). Researching measurement equivalence in cross-cultural studies. Psihologija, 43(2), 121–136. https://doi.org/10.2298/PSI1002121K
Mau, S., & Verwiebe, R. (2009). Die Sozialstruktur Europas (1st ed.). UVK. https://www.utb-studi-e-book.de/die-sozialstruktur-europas.html
Reher, D. S. (1998). Family ties in Western Europe: Persistent contrasts. Population and Development Review, 24(2), 203–234. https://doi.org/10.2307/2807972
Trost, J. (1990). Do we mean the same by the concept of family. Communication Research, 17(4), 431–443. https://doi.org/10.1177/009365090017004002