As an anthropologist, I studied the role of extended families cross-culturally and throughout history. Extended families normally include not just parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and siblings, but aunts, uncles, and cousins and, in many cultures, second and third cousins. Without the participation of extended families it is unlikely that modern civilization would have evolved as effectively as it has. But today we have evolved so far that our technology and economic flexibility have made extended families in many parts of the world, and particularly in the United States, relatively unimportant for the majority of people.
Does this matter? I think it does, and in ways that are perhaps more important than we realize. It is not just a matter of support that we receive in terms of babysitting, economic assistance, and psychological comfort in times of need. Extended families remind us of who we are, where we came from and why what we do matters.
One of the reasons I am particularly pleased that my daughter is marrying into a tight-knit family in Barcelona, Spain is that the Catalan culture, like many European cultures, greatly values the extended family. Cataluna is a relatively small region, and the opportunities for families to share major events are relatively easy. In the case of my daughter’s wedding, to some extent extended family members have to be limited as inviting the entire extended family would require a wedding of many hundreds of just Catalan family members. Even with these cuts, extended family will number one hundred or more. (more…)