How do I deal with rude nephews

Distant relatives? The importance of nieces, nephews, uncles and aunts - an overview of the state of research

1 Introduction

Family relationships only play a subordinate role in family research. One can rightly call kinship a “neglected topic” in family sociology (Wagner / Schütze 1998, Jakoby 2008). The parent-child relationship is the dominant topic - with serious consequences for other family relationships. Because this fact leads to a fading out of the extended family circle and to a neglect of nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts as well as cousins. It is therefore time to establish relationships in family research that extend beyond the nuclear family and to counter the “abbreviated conception of family” (Kaiser 1993: 143) with a more complex family picture. The previous narrow, traditional focus on the nuclear family does not do justice to the kinship relationships that have been lived. Family does not end with the grandparents, but this is the impression given by the current research landscape. It seems as if Parson's thesis of the “isolation of the nuclear family” continues to have an effect today and thus obscures the sociological view of the actual family relationships.

What do we know about family relationships with nieces, nephews, uncles, and aunts? Which relationship characteristics, support services, contact frequencies or emotional ties characterize these social relationships? And which factors have an influence on the design of the relationships? Cantor (1979: 441) introduces the concept of functional relatives with whom frequent contacts are maintained. In this section, the role and importance of nieces, nephews, uncles and aunts as functional relatives is presented and key research results are outlined. The contribution closes with a summarizing evaluation.

2. State of research

The state of research proves to be very heterogeneous. In the context of gerontological research, information is primarily collected about the exchange of support services from nieces and nephews for their older family members. In addition, the quality of the relationship or emotional bond and the frequency of contacts are analyzed. The vast majority of the studies come from the Anglo-American region; German-language publications are not yet available.

The focus of the gerontological studies is also the analysis of support services between parents or grandparents and their children or grandchildren (e.g. Szydlik 2000, Bengtson 2001). Extended family relationships of older people are discussed to a lesser extent. In addition to the siblings (e.g. Lee 1990, Connidis / Davies 1992), however, special importance is attached to relationships with nieces and nephews. Various studies show that nieces and nephews are substitutes for a lack of core family relationships. This corresponds to the thesis of hierarchical compensation (Cantor 1979). This thesis is based on the assumption that relationships with the extended family circle only become effective or intensified when members of the nuclear family experience loss (Lang / Schütze 1998). For example, childless adults are more closely connected with nieces and nephews or cousins ​​(and siblings) and maintain frequent contact with them. This applies in particular to older women and their nieces (see for example Troll 1971, Shanas 1973/1979, Johnson / Catalano 1981, Wenger / Burholt 2001, Wenger et al. 2000).

Findings of the age survey (1996) and the Berlin age study (BASE) support these assumptions and generally show a greater importance of the extended family circle (category: “other relatives” (1)) for emotional and instrumental support for older childless people. Age-specific losses (widowhood) also go hand in hand with an increased demand for support services from the extended family circle (cf. Künemund / Hollstein 2000, Hollstein 2002, Lang / Schütze 1998). In addition, nieces and nephews are used significantly more often as beneficiaries of the will of childless women (Rossi / Rossi 1990).

The qualitative study by Johnson and Catalano (1981) provides more information about the relationships between childless older people and their nieces and nephews. In their analysis, they focus in particular on the type of help provided and their motivation to act. The findings show that the main caregivers of the childless, besides their siblings, are primarily nieces and nephews. (2) They take on the role of managers and act as mediators between relatives and formal care institutions. Their motivation to support lies primarily in fulfilling obligations towards their own (deceased) parents (cf. Johnson / Catalano 1981: 613). Accordingly, the specific tasks taken on are not characterized by intimate personal care (e.g. preparing food, taking on housework, help with physical hygiene), but rather nieces and nephews take on occasional support services, such as "arranging for hired help, offering legal and financial advice, or giving occasional transportation ”(Johnson / Catalano 1981: 613f.).

The relationships between older people and their nieces and nephews are also in the foreground of the study by Wenger and Burholt (2001). The following determinants of emotional closeness and frequency of contact can be recorded: Influences appear

  • the geographical distance,
  • the affective closeness between the siblings,
  • the size and intensity of the familial interactions ("family overflow effect"),
  • the role of surrogate parents as well
  • Substitution effects in childlessness.

A large number of relationships remain superficial, symbolic and irregular, unless uncle and aunt have taken on the role of parents (cf. also Ellingson / Sotirin 2006, Milardo 2005). Geographical proximity correlates positively with the level of instrumental assistance provided by nieces and nephews (cf. Wenger / Burholt 2001: 584). It is also assumed that unmarried (childless) uncles and aunts exchange more intensive contacts and support services with their nieces and nephews (Wenger et al. 2000, Langer / Ribarich 2007). Rossi and Rossi (1990) confirm in their study that the strongest normative obligations exist, especially towards unmarried aunts.

The qualitative studies by Milardo (2005) and Ellingson and Sotirin (2006) are two of the few current studies that explicitly define relationships with nieces and nephews as a research topic. The aim of the study by Milardo (2005) is an in-depth analysis of the characteristics and functions of the family relationship between uncle and nephew (uncling (3)). There are various characteristics of the relationship: uncles can be mentors to their nephews or take on the role of family historian within the family. As an “intergenerational buffer”, they act as a mediator in family conflicts between parents and sons. In addition, there are friendly relationships. However, the uncle can also be a substitute father and the nephew can be a substitute son. Less close relationships are attributed to a lack of common interests, geographical distance, “family and career commitment” and the quality of the sibling relationship. Further influencing factors are childlessness, ethnic origin and social class (cf. Milardo 2005: 1230ff.).

The study by Ellingson and Sotirin (2006) examines the social relationships between nieces and nephews and their aunts. (4) Aunts in particular prove to be important caregivers (Rossi / Rossi 1990, Mayr-Kleffel 1991, Ellingson / Sotirin 2006). The focus is on the analysis of the various relationship characteristics, which are characterized by flexibility and complexity, but also voluntariness (cf. Ellingson / Sotirin 2006: 487f.). Aunts turn out to be "teachers" who impart a variety of skills and knowledge to their nieces and nephews. They call nieces and nephews role models for attitudes, behavior and identity, as they experience their aunts as working women, mothers or wives. As a "comrade and advisor", they provide support through discussions and understanding. It is characterized by the “third-party perspective”, which distinguishes them from the role of parents (cf. also Milardo 2005). The term “savvy peer” is specially chosen for aunts of the same age. In the foreground of family relationships are common interests that have parallels to friendship and are based on age homogamy. In addition, aunts also prove to be a substitute for missing parental ties and are characterized as “second mothers”. This can be a permanent role or a temporary phenomenon, e.g. in times of parental conflicts (cf. Ellingson / Sotirin 2006: 489f.). In addition, aunts are referred to as kinkeepers, i.e. as familial integration figures who initiate and maintain family contacts. Determinants of a less close bond between aunts and their nieces and nephews are geographical distance, which leads to a reduced frequency of contact, but also personality traits and idiosyncratic experiences or family matters (cf. Ellingson / Sotirin 2006: 495).

In my own study (Jakoby 2008) I examined the frequency of contact with different members of the extended family. As far as I know, this is the only German study so far that examines the extended family network in its focus. The empirical analyzes are based on the International Social Survey Program (ISSP 2001, "Social Networks II: Social Relations and Support Systems"). The family relationships are analyzed on the level of social contacts within the specified reference period of four weeks. There is no differentiation between the various forms of interaction, so that face-to-face, telephone, postal contacts and contacts via e-mail are summarized (see Tab. 1).

Tab. 1: Contacts with nieces and nephews in the last four weeks differentiated according to the survey area (figures in percent)

Frequency of contacts with nieces and nephews in the last four weeks



more than twice



once or twice



not at all



have none of these relatives (anymore)






Database: ISSP 2001, own calculations

When interpreting the data, it should be noted that the statement “not at all” only refers to the specified reference period of four weeks. However, it does not mean that there are generally no family contacts. With regard to the frequency of contact with nieces and nephews, there are larger percentage differences between the survey areas, because 18% of the West German respondents had contact with them more than twice in the last four weeks compared to 14.3% of the East German respondents (see Table 1). .

Table 2 shows the distribution of contact frequencies with uncles and aunts.

Tab. 2: Contacts with uncles and aunts in the last four weeks differentiated according to the survey area (figures in percent)

Frequency of contacts with uncles and aunts in the last four weeks



more than twice



once or twice



not at all



have none of these relatives (anymore)






Database: ISSP 2001, own calculations

If the percentages are summarized, it can be seen that almost 40% of the respondents (from East and West Germany) had contact with their uncles and aunts at least once in the last four weeks. 40.2% of the West German and 36.2% of the East German respondents had no contact with their uncles and aunts (cf. Jakoby 2008).

In summary, it can be said that the quality of the sibling relationship and childlessness are positively related to an emotional relationship with nieces and nephews (e.g. Johnson 1982, Wenger / Burholt 2001, Matthews 2005, Jakoby 2008). Geographical distance is a key cost factor for extended family relationships. The negative effect on family contacts has been confirmed in several studies (see for example Milardo 2005). Furthermore, the quality of the parents' sibling relationship is mentioned, which is regarded as the central determinant of a close relationship with uncles and aunts (e.g. Allan 1977). The view of kinship as a social network implies that certain personal relationships can structure and enforce other kinship relationships (cf. Allan 1977). Siblings are indirect links (Matthews 2005: 182), i.e. links between relatives. They fulfill a bridging function as they increase the opportunities for contact with nieces and nephews.

3. Conclusion

Against the background of the current state of research and our own empirical findings, the question by Schütze and Wagner (1998: 13) must: "It is actually the case that from the perspective of the egos relationships with uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces ( ...) are of so little importance that it is justified if the family research does not address the "relatives"? "Are expressly denied. Relationships with nieces, nephews, uncles and aunts prove to be important social relationships that must not be excluded from social science research.

The findings of previous gerontological studies on the connection between childlessness and the support services of nieces and nephews indicate, in view of the demographic development, an increasing importance of the extended family as an emotional and instrumental resource for the future older generation. Even if the state of research still shows gaps, the previous studies make it clear that solidarity can also be seen in the extended family network. The exchange of goods and services is not limited to parents and grandparents. The extended family circle must therefore be assigned a socio-political importance in addition to its individual importance (cf. also Künemund / Hollstein 2000, Lang / Schütze 1998, Langer / Ribarich 2007).

The quantitative decrease in kinship in the course of demographic change is not automatically to be equated with a loss of meaning - as it is largely uncritically assumed in the previous literature (e.g. Johnson 2000: 626). The opposite is conceivable: nieces and nephews, cousins, uncles and aunts are experiencing an increase in importance as “family-sociological rarities” (Lucke 1998: 60), also from the perspective of individuals. In addition, the official statistics show that the one-child family (even with a low fertility rate) is still a myth. If you look at official data on the sibling structure, you can see that for around three quarters of all children, childhood means growing up with siblings (or half-siblings) (cf. Engstler / Menning 2003). This means that the opportunities for extended family relationships will also exist in the future.


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(1) Siblings are not included in this category.

(2) A total of 28 childless people were interviewed, ten of them are married. The average age is 76 years (cf. Johnson / Catalano 1981: 611).

(3) A total of 29 uncles and nephews from New Zealand and 23 uncles and nephews from the USA were interviewed. The nephews are on average 19 years (New Zealand) and 23 years (USA) old (cf. Milardo 2005: 1228).

(4) A total of 70 students from an American university were interviewed, including 52 women and 18 men. The age of the nieces and nephews varies from 18 to 27 years (cf. Ellingson / Sotirin 2006: 488).

Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook


Nina Jakoby, Dr., Dipl.-Soz., Born in 1976, has been senior assistant at the Sociological Institute of the University of Zurich since 2008.

She studied sociology at the University of Trier and did her doctorate at RWTH Aachen University.

Her main research interests are family sociology, methods of empirical social research, sociological theories and the sociology of grief.


Dr. Nina Jakoby
Sociological Institute
University of Zurich
Andreasstrasse 15th
CH-8050 Zurich

Tel .: +41 (0) 44 635 2371



Created on March 30th, 2009, last changed on February 6th, 2014