Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sibling Relationships in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sibling Relationships in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Article excerpt

As we prepare to enter the 21st century, the understanding of cross-cultural differences in family life is assuming increased importance. The emergence of a global economy will make it necessary for people of many nations to become increasingly interdependent within the same large community. If such a world community life is to function effectively, then the peoples and nations composing such a community must understand one another's cultures in order to make the appropriate accommodations to differing values, beliefs, and practices.

An important part of each nation's society is the family, including sibling relationships. Such relationships have been recognized as not only having an important role in overall family life but as also influencing the way that the family functions in the larger society.

This article explores sibling relationships in a variety of different cultures from a cross-cultural perspective, examining older siblings' caretaking and socialization of younger siblings, normative sibling behaviors among adults, and the quality of sibling relationships over the life span, considering the effects of sibling structure variables such as gender and birth order. No attempt will be made to present an exhaustive review of existing literature. Instead, existing literature will be used to illustrate main themes in sibling relationships across various cultures. Where possible, implications for family and community functioning will be drawn from observed similarities and differences in sibling relationships between major types of cultures.

For purposes of making comparisons, two broad categories of societies can be identified. The first consists of the modern urban industrialized, technologically advanced societies of such "western" nations as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and so on. The second consists of nonindustrialized technologically backward agrarian or pastoral societies found in more remote rural areas or villages of Asia, Oceania, Africa, and Central and South America. For brevity, these two types will be referred to simply as industrialized and nonindustrialized throughout this article. Although it is recognized that there are variations in sibling relationships within each of the two broad types of cultures (Weisner, 1982, 1989a), details of these variations will not be emphasized here. Rather, we will attempt to make contrasts between modal industrialized and nonindustrialized societies.


An obvious limitation of any cross-cultural work is whether a sufficient number of studies exists for making a comparison or drawing a conclusion regarding a particular topic, such as sibling relationships. A very large literature exists concerning siblings in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and various Western European countries. (No attempt will be made to review this literature here; rather, specific studies will be cited as warranted.) The largest number of studies of siblings in other cultures considered here, some 20 in all, deals with the island societies of Oceania, a loose designation for the islands of the south Pacific stretching from just off the Asian mainland to Hawaii. (Of these, studies not cited elsewhere in this article are Gallimore, Tharp, & Speidel, 1978; Howell, 1990; McKinley, 1983; Peterson, 1990; D. R. Smith, 1983; Weisner, Gallimore, & Tharp, 1982.) An additional 14 studies focus on cultures of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore, China, and Japan (not cited elsewhere is Chao, 1983). Some 12 papers deal with the lowland Indians of South America and the Indians of central Mexico. Finally, three papers are concerned with sibling caretaking and sibling socialization in African cultures. In addition, several review chapters offer additional sources of information about siblings (not cited elsewhere are Weisner, 1987; Zukow, 1989a). In all, these studies cover a large portion of the globe, although obviously not all cultures are represented, with the Arab cultures of the Middle East being a notable omission. …

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