Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Adult Sibling and Sibling-in-Law Relationships in South Korea: Continuity and Change of Confucian Family Norms

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Adult Sibling and Sibling-in-Law Relationships in South Korea: Continuity and Change of Confucian Family Norms

Article excerpt


Sibling relationships are a growing area of family research given their unique lifelong, horizontal ties through shared life histories (Connidis, 2001). Three key characteristics that scholars have noted are that sibling relationships are relatively egalitarian in the power structure regardless of age and gender, wax and wane over time, and vary by gender and culture (Cicirelli, 1995; Walker, Allen, & Connidis, 2005; Whiteman, McHale, & Soli, 2011). However, sibling and sibling-in-law relationships in adulthood have received limited attention as the central topic of research in family studies (Spitze & Trent, 2006; Walker et al.,). More commonly, adult sibling relationships have been discussed merely as a part of social networks or as the source of care for older parents (Connidis, 2007).

The limited attention to sibling and sibling-in-law relationships is a serious challenge in the literature on Asian families because of the uniqueness of these Asian relationships. Unlike western sibling relationships, Asian sibling ties are traditionally hierarchical based on age (or ordinal rank) and gender (Chang, 1979; Fricke, Chang, & Yang, 1994; Lazar, 1979; Smith, 1979). In Confucian cultures, family norms clearly establish power differentials between the older and the younger siblings and between genders. In the caregiving literature, for example, researchers have found that ordinal ranks and genders (e.g., being the eldest son) are important factors in determining who has more responsibility for older parents' care among Asian or Asian-American families (Chang; Weinstein, Sun, Chang, & Freedman, 1994). In addition, relationships among brothers' wives are as meaningful as other sibling relationships in Asian families because brothers' wives have shared kin-keeping and caregiving responsibility for older parents, which are often sisters' roles in western families. Thus, it is crucial to consider both sibling and sibling-in-law relationships when attempting to understand the complexities of Asian families.

The purpose of this study is to investigate sibling and sibling-in-law relationships in South Korea (Korea hereafter), a Northeast Asian country where Confucianism has regulated family norms since the mid-17th century; however, egalitarian family norms have become increasingly influential in the process of modernization. Family law amendments over the past two decades are good examples of these egalitarian changes (Sung, 2009). Korean scholars have agreed that both Confucian and egalitarian norms compete in the modem Korean families (Chang, 2009) and the level of support for these norms depend upon individual characteristics (Sung, 2006). Yet, there is limited knowledge as to what roles Confucian and egalitarian family norms play in the sibling and sibling-in-law relationships in Korea. In this study, we explore the characteristics of sibling and sibling-in-law relationships among married Koreans bom in the 1960s, a cohort that has experienced substantial societal changes. Our main research question is: What are the characteristics of the sibling and sibling-in-law relationships in contemporary Korea from the lived experiences of married Koreans bom in the 1960s? Two specific research questions guide our investigation: (a) How do Confucian family norms related to age and gender shape the dynamics of Korean sibling and sibling-in-law relationships?; and, (b) Have these Confucian norms remained the same or have they changed?


The Past: Confucian Family Norms

Sibling relationships in traditional Korea were hierarchical based on Confucian norms that determined roles, behaviors, and attitudes in the family from the mid-17th century (Kim, Park, & Hong, 2005). Jang-yoo-yoo-seo, chool-ga-we-in, and jang-ja-woo-dae are three Confucian family norms that played important roles in Korean sibling interaction.

First, jang-yoo-yoo-seo is a Confucian age norm that shaped relationships between older siblings and younger siblings. …

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