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Family Matters No. 32 - August 1992

Keeping in touch

Extended family networks
Christine Millward


Data from interviews in Berwick, Victoria carried out as part of the Australian Living Standards Study being conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 14 localities around Australia are analysed to see: where extended kin live relative to the nuclear family; what contact there is between them; how likely they are to seek help from each other. The author reports that there is a direct relationship between proximity, contact and the likelihood of seeking help from extended family, and that the telephone is the preferred method of regular contact between kin near and far.

'The nuclear family is a state of mind rather than a particular kind of structure or set of household arrangements,' says Edward Shorter (1979) when investigating the origins of the modern Western family. He adds that the nuclear family is distinguished by a 'special sense of solidarity that separates the domestic unit from the surrounding community'.

Nevertheless, there is an enduring perception of the nuclear family as a self-sufficient but psychologically and sometimes geographically isolated entity. Recent thinking, however, is that the pressures of industrialisation actually brought families together and led to the growth of complex kinship networks. Some British research has shown the widespread membership of extended families, where several households, based on kin relationships, are connected by patterns of help and support (McGlone 1992). So the existence of the nuclear family may not have the isolating effect that some social theory has suggested, and family members need not suffer a lack of practical, financial and emotional support from various extended kin.

In the Institute's report on social support networks in four Australian communities, d'Abbs (1991) found that people turned to their extended families in times of need such as illness, for child care and when emotionally distressed. Unemployed people could sometimes find jobs through friends and relatives rather than formal channels, and female relatives were the main providers of household help during illness.

The availability of extended kin is greatly enhanced these days by modern transport and telecommunications. In Moyal's (1989) research into the 'feminine culture of the telephone', a large proportion of her respondents used the telephone for familial and social organisation and for reciprocal emotional support. From in- depth interviews with 200 women across Australia, she found that the telephone was 'one of the basic agencies for holding people together, as a bonding instrument', especially for the 'gendered work' of women in caregiving, and family/friendship nurture (p.92).

In other research on the domestic telephone, Noble (1987) terms the use of a telephone network as 'maintaining a psychological neighbourhood', which reduces anxiety and loneliness while bolstering a sense of security and bonding. Such a 'neighbourhood' could be important in keeping circles of family and friends together (p.37).

Just what is the 'psychological neighbourhood' of the extended family in Australia? This discussion looks at where extended kin live relative to the nuclear family, what contact there is between them, and how likely they are to seek help from each other.


Some of the answers to these questions come from preliminary analysis of data from parents interviewed in Berwick, on the south- east outskirts of Melbourne, for the Institute's Australian Living Standards study, now being conducted in 14 localities around Australia. The data come from a large random sample of households with children.

The study focuses on a particular form of nuclear family, comprising a mother and/or father plus any children under the age of 20, whether living at home or not. The study takes a 'quality of life' approach which includes the potential for family and social supports to enhance a family's life.

To assess the kinship networks available to and used by respondents, we asked them about the help they receive from various sources, including their extended family, and how often they contacted their various relatives, taking into account the distance between them.

The findings are based upon answers from 714 personal self- administered questionnaires, completed by the parent(s) in the household. Respondents' ages ranged from 19 to 60 years; 52 per cent were women and 48 per cent men.

Thirty-four per cent of the respondents had no living father and 18 per cent had no living mother. However, only 5 per cent indicated having no brothers or sisters and about a third said they had no 'important' relatives other than their immediate family. Thirteen per cent had adult children living away from home.

Respondents were asked where their relatives lived and the findings are presented in Table 1. This shows that in each category of relatives, about 70 per cent of respondents had such kin living in the same house, street or suburb/town as themselves, or within a two-hour drive. With brothers/sisters, children who have left home and other important relatives, only the nearest such person was taken into account, although respondents might also have additional siblings and so forth living further away. This close proximity of kin was also found by Glezer (1991) in the Institute's Australian Family Formation Study where 70 per cent of couples had a parent or parent-in-law living in the same city.


Respondents were asked how often and by what means they kept in touch with their extended family, including (where applicable) their partner's parents. Table 2 shows how often various relatives were contacted in person, by telephone or via letters. It was found that the more immediate the relationship, the more frequent was personal or telephone contact, but that this did not apply for letter-writing.

The most frequent personal and telephone contact was between parents and their children living away from home: 54 per cent saw their adult children daily to weekly and 63 per cent phoned them as often.

This was closely followed by contact with their own mother and thirdly their own father. Brothers and sisters were also contacted often, with a third seeing or telephoning their siblings at least weekly and fewer than 20 per cent having little or no such contact. Other important relatives were also seen or telephoned fairly regularly, as were their partner's parents.

Overall, only 10 per cent or fewer respondents said they never saw or telephoned their various relatives. The only exception was the partner's father who was contacted much less often by both men and women than was the partner's mother. This was probably due to her greater involvement with the grandchildren.

Female respondents saw, telephoned and wrote to various kin members slightly more often than their male counterparts. This was so for their mother, father, siblings, partner's parents and other relatives, but not for children living away from home, where men and women reported almost identical levels of contact.

Women may be more in contact with relatives because they are often more involved in child-related matters such as health or child care and in arranging family activities, birthdays and other special occasions. As shown in other Institute studies, women are more likely than men to care for grandchildren or arrange child care (Ochiltree 1991) and they more often care for elderly and sick relatives (Glezer 1991); their caring role entails the exchange of goods, services and information across their family's households.

Furthermore, Moyal (1989) and Noble (1987) found that women's use of the telephone reflected more so than men certain 'intrinsic' factors regarding relationships - that is, women exhcanged emotional support with other family members and friends, while men tended to use the telephone more for 'instrumental' or largely practical calls.


How does proximity shape levels of contact? Do the people who never see or telephone relatives just live too far away? Figures 1 and 2 show graphically where parents and siblings live and how often they are contacted.

Figure 1 shows that distance affects personal contact quite strongly. In fact, there is a statistically significant positive relationship between proximity and contact with mother, father, siblings (and, although not presented here, other relatives). This did not hold for adult children who had left home, where distance did not seem such an obstacle to frequent visits, perhaps due to the strength of parent-child bonds.

Figure 2 reveals a significant relationship between distance and telephone contact, although the association is much weaker (again, it is not significant in regard to adult children). Also, it is evident from these graphs that people telephone relatives more often than they see them except when relatives live very close by; the telephone was, overall, the preferred method of staying in touch.

That there was still a relationship between distance and how often respondents rang relatives is probably due in part to the cost of STD and ISD calls. But this cost is obviously not a barrier to keeping in touch as illustrated by the answers from a question in the general (not individual) household questionnaire for the Institute's Australian Living Standards study. Householders were asked how frequently they or their family made STD or ISD calls to various people - relatives, friends, for business and for other purposes.

The longer distance telephone calls were more often to keep in touch with family than to talk to friends or deal with business or other matters; 25 per cent of respondents called relatives at least once a week compared with 13 per cent calling friends and less than 7 per cent making STD or ISD business or other calls.

Letter-writing as a means of keeping in touch is not presented in graphic form here, but, not surprisingly, it was found that the further away the relative lives, the more likely people are to write letters, especially to their mother, but also to their father, siblings and other 'important' kin.

Where a relative lives reasonably close by but is rarely or never contacted, the personal reasons are not within the scope of this discussion. However, since more than two- thirds of the respondents had various family members living within a two-hour drive, the figures show that most of them also have an ongoing relationship with their non-resident kin and therefore a pool of people to draw upon in bad times and good.


Although not presented in tabular or graphic form here, the relationship between level of contact and distance was examined according to the gender of the respondent. It was found to be generally stronger for women, whose tendency toward more contact than men with various kin members was found to be more pronounced the closer the kin member lived.

For example, where siblings live near by, in the same property, street or suburb/town, 50 per cent of the men said they saw them between daily and weekly, compared with 78 per cent of female respondents. This difference held for telephoning too.

On the other hand, when the siblings lived 'elsewhere in Australia' men reported actually seeing them a little more often than did women. Fifty-five per cent of men compared with 39 per cent of women said that in this case they saw their siblings between fortnightly and about three-monthly.

Another example of gender differences was that all of the women who had a father and/or mother living in the same house, street or suburb/town said they saw them between daily and weekly, as compared with around 70 per cent of the men. Women also saw their parents more often than did the men if the parents were living elsewhere in Australia, which is probably related to the child-grandmother relationship or the expectation that daughters have responsibilities for care for elderly parents.

Again, this gender difference also holds for telephoning and letter- writing. Finally, there was virtually no difference between men's and women's reported personal or telephone contact with 'other important relatives' but, once again, the women said that they wrote to them more often than did the men, bearing in mind, of course, that more than two-thirds of all repondents never wrote letters to any kin members.

In summary, the main gender differences in contact levels seem to be associated with relatives with whom there is the closest blood or 'family of origin' type bonds. Also, it should be noted that because most of these adults surveyed are married or in defacto relationships, a lot of similarity in answering could be expected, due to their visiting kin 'as a family', especially since all have at least one child under 20 years of age.

Telephoning and letter-writing, however, is more a personal endeavour and differences between women's and men's answers are made clearer by the mix of single-parent and two-parent households in the community and in the sample drawn for the Institute study. That is, the men and women reporting are not all partnered. Indeed, in the current climate of social change, as Moyal (1989) comments: 'With high divorce rates, the increase of single parents, the loss of physical neighbourhoods, heightened social stress and the rising numbers of the aged in Australia, the telephone has assumed high importance as a medium that transcends psychological and physical isolation' (p.92).


Given the proximity and level of contact with a range of extended family members, respondents were then asked about the likelihood of seeking specific types of assistance from their kin. In general, a reasonable level of contact was maintained both between members of the family of origin and with the partner's parents, so perhaps financial, practical and emotional support from such kin members might be anticipated.

Tables 3, 4 and 5 present findings concerning the perceived likelihood of seeking financial assistance of between $200 and $500, of getting help with moving house, and of seeking advice or emotional support from various extended family members.

Table 3 shows that parents were the most likely to be asked for money (up to $500), followed by siblings and then partner's parents; fewer than 20 per cent thought they would ask other relatives; and very few respondents (less than 10 per cent) said they would ask their own adult child for money. Closeness of relationship and financial circumstances of the relative in question may be deciding factors.

Apart from perceived help, some questions regarding actual financial help were analysed from the finance section in the general household questionnaire which forms part of the study. There, it was found that 12 per cent of respondents had already received assistance from family and friends to pay their mortgage or rent, while 17 per cent had received financial help from relatives to pay for day to day needs over the past 12 months.

There was also a question regarding general financial help during the last year. Six per cent of respondents had received between $50 and $25,000 (with a median of about $500) from the male partner's parents and 9 per cent had received between $200 and $30,000 (with a median of about $1000) from the female partner's parents. A degree of reciprocity is also demonstrated by the fact that about 5 per cent of people said they provided financial support of between $50 and $5000 over the past year either to parents (median $600) or to adult children living away from home (median $2500).

Finally, a good deal of money had been provided to a small proportion of respondents through inheritances and gifts from family members over the last twenty-odd years. Up to eight per cent of respondents had received inheritances of up to $100,000 (with a median of about $10,000). Gifts had been received in around five per cent of cases and ranged from $1000 to $25,000 (with a median of about $5000 to the male partner and about $3000 to the female partner).

Recent financial help (apart from inheritances and gifts) was therefore certainly evident, even though the percentages reporting it during a 12-month period were not large. Over a family's lifetime, the percentage could be expected to be much higher. The important point is that up to a third of people felt they could still ask for assistance from their relatives.

Of course, many other forms of practical help are available from the extended family, whether via the exchange of goods or services, sharing of tools or household equipment, shared or subsidised accommodation and so on. Although space prevented comprehensive coverage of such matters, the next question put to respondents asked about the likelihood of their seeking the help of extended family members for moving house.

Table 4 shows that siblings were the most likely to be asked for help moving house, followed by parents, other relatives, partner's parents and then own adult children. This seems, on the whole, to be considered more of a communal effort, perhaps a 'once-off' job not too taxing on extended family members' time. Respondents seemed fairly optimistic regarding this form of assistance.

Finally, aside from practical help, Table 5 shows findings about perceptions of who to ask for advice and emotional support. Mothers and siblings are by far the most popular people. Father and other relatives are the next most likely candidates, with the least likely being partner's parents and the respondent's own adult child. Perhaps many felt themselves unwilling to burden their own children too much with emotional problems or were reluctant for reasons of privacy to seek out their partner's parents, wishing to 'keep it in the family' (of origin).

In all of the three specific areas probed, Tables 3, 4 and 5 also show some uncertainty about seeking help - roughly between 10 and 20 per cent of people were undecided about whether they would ask relatives or not. This could well indicate the importance of the circumstances in which such help was sought.


Contact with extended family members is alive and well in about two-thirds of families, according to this preliminary analysis. Also, up to half of the respondents thought it likely that they would ask certain relatives for money, practical help, or emotional support, with a smaller percentage having already received financial help of some sort over the past 12 months.

In comparison with d'Abbs' research (1991), the availability and types of support considered affirm his findings of people turning to relatives, especially since a considerable level of ongoing contact was found in the Institute's Australian Living Standards data. There is certainly a direct relationship between proximity, contact and likelihood of seeking help from kin. Furthermore, the domestic telephone enhances the family's ability to stay in touch, being the preferred method of regular contact between kin near and far.

Women report higher contact levels than men, whether personal, by telephone or via letters. Indeed the highest level of keeping in touch with the extended family was reported by the female respondents' use of the telephone, where the relatives did not actually live in the same house, street or suburb/town. Moyal's (1989) research supports this finding because, even though she did not survey men, her study emphasised the 'feminine culture' of the telephone and the importance of 'intrinsic' calls in keeping the family together.

Nuclear families (being discrete units of consumption) may well be housed in one dwelling, but their isolation is largely an artificial concept. In reality, they belong to a broader family which is spread across several dwellings and geographic locations.

These findings support McGlone's assertion, mentioned earlier, that 'most people in Britain today belong to some form of extended family'. He points out that modern social pressures are binding together the generations within families to provide mutual aid and support. Further, the emotional and practical links between members are enhanced by modern technology. Certainly, the use of the car and telephone should not be underestimated, nor should the need for a sense of emotional security for families with children.

A 'domestic economy' can be spread over several households too, in areas such as house-maintenance, nursing and child care, interchange of goods and services, loaning equipment, financial and other kinds of practical help. For the families in this preliminary analysis, simply the level of staying in touch would suggest there are kin networks which would be very helpful to 'nuclear' families with children.

This article has been adapted from a chapter in the Institute's forthcoming Australian Living Standards study Berwick report. This and other localities' reports will include further analysis of child care and other aspects of inter- and intra-family relationships.


  • d'Abbs, P. (1991), Who Helps? Support Networks and Social Policy in Australia, Monograph No.12, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Glezer, H. (1991), 'Cycles of care: support and care between generations', Family Matters No.30, December, pp.44-46.
  • McGlone, F. (1992), 'Extending family life?', Family Policy Bulletin, June 1992, p.10.
  • Moyal, A. (1989), Women and the Telephone in Australia: A Study, Prepared for Telecom Australia, Melbourne or Sydney?
  • Noble, G. (1987), 'Individual differences, psychological neighbourhoods and use of the domestic telephone', Media Information Australia, pp.37-41, No.44, May.
  • Ochiltree, G. (1991), 'Mothers in the workforce: coping with young, sick children', Family Matters No.28, April, pp.18- 23.
  • Shorter, E. (1979), The Making of the Modern Family, Fontana/Collins, Great Britain.