Kinship Exchange Networks and Family Consumption

ABSTRACT - The effect of kinship exchange behavior upon household consumption is examined through a consideration of the family as a social unit embedded within the extended family network. A series of propositions are offered to explicate: 1) the influence of kinship structure and socioeconomic conditions on the extent to which families rely upon each other, 2) the relationship between kinship exchange behavior and family consumption, and 3) the conditions under which the kinship network may be the appropriate unit of analysis for the study of family consumption behavior. Specific examples are presented to illustrate the various aspects of kinship exchange during periods of crisis and life transition. Fundamental questions are raised concerning the generalizability of the nuclear family model in consumer research.


Ritha Fellerman and Kathleen Debevec (1993) ,"Kinship Exchange Networks and Family Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 458-462.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 458-462


Ritha Fellerman, University of Massachusetts

Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts


The effect of kinship exchange behavior upon household consumption is examined through a consideration of the family as a social unit embedded within the extended family network. A series of propositions are offered to explicate: 1) the influence of kinship structure and socioeconomic conditions on the extent to which families rely upon each other, 2) the relationship between kinship exchange behavior and family consumption, and 3) the conditions under which the kinship network may be the appropriate unit of analysis for the study of family consumption behavior. Specific examples are presented to illustrate the various aspects of kinship exchange during periods of crisis and life transition. Fundamental questions are raised concerning the generalizability of the nuclear family model in consumer research.


The majority of research on consumer households has been based on the assumption that the most relevant unit of analysis is the nuclear family. While this approach may apply to some upper- and middle-class Caucasian families, the relevant unit of analysis for a number of subgroups, including the rural poor, urban Blacks, and ethnic families, may be the extended family network. Regardless of socioeconomic status, nuclear family structures may quickly become extended when families turn to their kin for help during periods of crisis, such as divorce, unemployment, and illness. Even when conditions are not difficult, it would be unwise to dismiss the influence of deep emotional bonds between extended family members as a powerful force affecting consumer behavior.


A kinship network is like a spider webCa family transition in one part of the network can affect family members throughout the network. By providing resources and constraints which influence the behavior of individual family units, extended family ties can lead to consumption interdependence, or a situation in which families are linked by the communal distribution of resources within a kinship network. The effect of exchanges between kin upon household consumption behavior may be direct, such as when one family decreases consumption in order to assist another within the network, or indirect, such as when a family changes consumption behavior in order to cope with role overload.

Hirschman (1985) maintains that an important outcome of exchange networks may be that "the group, rather than the self, comes to be viewed as the provider of food, apparel, and other of life's necessities." Family networks may operate as forces unto themselves, with distinct patterns of reciprocal exchange which aggregate to form "underground" economies, and thereby mitigate the extent to which consumers rely upon the formal market for their needs. For example, cohesive family networks and the collective distribution of resources are characteristics of the Amish, Mennonites, and Mormons, whose self-sufficient consumption behaviors have remained relatively unaffected by many marketing trends (e.g. Schaefer 1984, pp. 157-163).

Exchanges between households within a kinship network can be characterized by two distinct and independent forms of utility: an instrumental utility and a utility derived from the social capital built up between the exchange partners (e.g. Frensen and Davis 1990). Determining the value of the social capital in exchanges, such as emotional support and the confidence associated with "belonging," is difficult. For example an elderly parent may value their childrens' assistance with household tasks, such as home repairs or lawnwork, because it is difficult for them to do it on their own (instrumental utility), or because of the emotional security of being loved and cared for (social capital utility). Gouldner (1960, pp. 174-175) maintains that individuals in a social dyad may never be certain that they have fully repaid what they owe, and thus may make multiple repayments on their perceived obligations; consequently, the process of reciprocity may be partially driven by the difficulty in placing a value on social capital.

Research which takes as its base the kinship network may provide important insights into the relationship between family consumption behavior and variables such as the duration, frequency, and stability of interactions between family members as the family structure evolves and children grow up and establish families of their own. Interhousehold influence may be affected by variables such as changes in family structures (i.e. birth, divorce, illness, aging, death) or changes in the environment (i.e. economic fluctuations, migration, technological developments). These variables can change the relative access of kin to resources in the formal economy, foster dependence upon other households in the kinship network for consumption needs, and thus affect the direction of exchange flows between households.

One of the most intriguing aspects of kinship exchange is the exchange of goods and services between relatives. An important aspect of these exchange networks may be the tendency towards multiple modes of exchange, such as barter, gift-giving, borrowing, recycling, and sharing, which involves the migration of products past the point of purchase. Intangible services play an important role in exchanges based on social affiliations (Williams 1988); the household appears to be the site of production for many of these services (Benson 1990).

A quote by Stack (1974, pp. 33-34) illustrates the extent to which kinship groups can function as lively exchange markets, where the "value" of what is exchanged is determined by its ability to tie the exchange partner into future transactions:

"Those engaged in reciprocal gift giving are recruited primarily from relatives and from those friends who become defined as kin...They trade food stamps, rent money, a TV, hats, dice, a car, a nickel here, a cigarette there, food, milk, grits, and children...When people in The Flats swap goods, a value is placed upon the goods given away, but the value is not determined by the price or market value of the object...The value of an object given away is based upon its retaining power over the receiver; that is, how much and over how long a time the giver can expect returns on the gift."

A striking implication of Stack's research is that the utility of a bundle of goods may be stretched by increasing the exchange velocity of goods within a network. For example, a lawnmower is only "useful" periodically, that is, when the lawn needs mowing; on the other hand, if it is purchased and shared by multiple families, its shared utility may more than offset its decrease in useful life. Similarly, the cost of products whose capacity tends to exceed their period of usefulness, such baby clothing, children's furniture, and maternity clothes, may be reduced by recycling behavior.

This section leads to the following propositions:

P1) Kinship networks structure collective reciprocal exchange behaviors into informal underground economic systems. Reciprocal exchanges of goods and services between kin: 1) decrease the dependence of households upon formal markets by providing access to resources produced outside of the paid economy, and 2) increase consumption interdependences among related households by creating obligations and responsibilities which constrain atomistic market behavior.

P2) Kinship exchange networks are characterized by multiple modes of exchange, such as barter, gift-giving, borrowing, and recycling, which involve the migration of products past the point of purchase. Thus, a given level of resources within a kinship network may be stretched to serve more people by increasing the velocity with which resources circulate within the network.

P3) Kinship exchange is positively associated with the transference of consumption values, attitudes, and behavior among related households. The direction of consumer influence within a kinship network shifts with changes in the relative access of related households to resources in the formal economy and their dependence upon extended family resources for their consumption needs.


An analysis of the structural characteristics of kinship networks is vital to understanding the underlying forces which shape and direct resource flows between families, and thus affect the extent of consumption interdependencies among families within a network. Depth is defined in terms of the number of generations "up" or "down" within a particular relationship in the network. Parents, aunts, and uncles are one generation up, children are one generation down, and siblings are equivalent in depth. The range of a kinship tie refers to the number of links between individuals; near kin are distinguished from distant kin by the number of links which connect them. Network density is the extent to which kin know and interact with each other.

In North America, kinship ties usually become non-salient beyond three of four links in depth and range (Rossi and Rossi 1990); however, research indicates that not only the saliency of ties, but also the extent to which families rely upon each other, may vary substantially. Studies throughout the 1960's and 1970's have found that the working class relies heavily on extended family networks for camaraderie, job opportunities, advice on purchases, and help during crises (e.g. Coleman 1983). Among the poor, research indicates that extended kinship networks may serve two functions: 1) as privatized welfare systems, picking up the slack where welfare fails to provide sufficient resources, or providing sole support for families who do not qualify for public assistance, and 2) as a coping mechanism for the stress associated with persistent poverty (Kelly 1985).

Extended family networks have been documented within most of the major ethnic populations, including Chinese, Southeast Asians, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Afro-Americans (Barrow 1988; Benson 1990; Godsheider and Godsheider 1989; Schaefer 1984; Stack 1974). The importance of the family in preserving the ethnic consumption behaviors among these groups has been noted (Hirschman 1985). In some rural areas, such as Alaskan native communities, intermarriage between relatives results in communities where nearly everyone is related; in Appalachian communities, lineage is an important factor affecting the flow of not only goods and services, but also family land (Bryant 1981). The overlap of these diverse segments of the population into multiple categories (i.e. poor rural Black families) prevents the use of census data to determine the size of each group. However, the number of groups which have been documented to rely upon extended family networks indicates that the focus of consumer research upon the nuclear family may have failed to capture significant variables affecting consumer behavior among a sizable portion of the population.

Close geographic proximity may be the most important factor in explaining the high level of extendedness, interaction, and exchange which takes place among many kinship networks. As access to economic resources declines, the most important function of extended family ties may be the frequent exchange of mutual aid, requiring dense network structures and high levels of physical proximity between kin (Stack 1974). While only a small percentage of the middle and upper class live close to their kin, 45 percent of the working class and 55 percent of the lower-class live within one linear mile (Coleman 1983). However, the poor don't just live near each other, they often live with each other (Angel and Tienda 1982). Furthermore, family constellations tend to be in perpetual transition as members move between households (Beck and Beck 1989), leading some researchers to state that the primary unit of analysis for this group should be the kinship exchange network (Kelly 1985).

There are two approaches to studying exchange networks: one focuses on the dyad and the other on the effect of network structure on social linkages (Uehara 1990). Research in consumer behavior has tended to focus on the variables which affect the former; however, there may be pitfalls in conceptualizing groups as if they were a collection of dyadic relationships. Social exchange networks, such as kinship networks, can involve both generalized and restricted forms of exchange (Ekeh 1974). Restricted exchange is dyadic (A gives to B), while generalized exchange links several network participants (A gives to B who gives to C who gives to A). Consequently, studies which focus on dyadic relationships may only capture a portion of the exchange process, and miss the synergies of group cohesion created by generalized exchange.

This section leads to the following proposition:

P4) Research studying the consumption interdependence among related households should measure and account for: 1) the depth, range, and density of the kinship structure, 2) the geographic proximity of members, and 3) the direction, frequency, and duration of network exchange behaviors. Analysis should not be limited to dyadic exchanges, but should include all network participants who may be involved in more generalized forms of exchange.


The effects of exchange behaviors upon family consumption depends upon the nature and strength of relationships between kin. The intensity of a relationship is measured by the degree of perceived obligations between kin, while encapsulation refers to the extent to which family members are more "intensely" linked to each other than to those outside of the network. High levels of density, intensity, and encapsulation have been associated with generalized exchange behaviors and group cohesion (Uehara 1990), and may account for some of the structural barriers which impede consumer assimilation among ethnic groups.

Within the family network, the highest level of intensity is felt toward spouse and children (Robins and Tomanec 1966). Kinship ties to members of the family of originCparents and siblingsCtend to be stronger than other extended kinship tiesCgrandparents, aunt, uncles, cousins (Sussman and Burchinal 1966). Higher obligations are expressed to descendants than to ascendants, and to females than to males (Rossi and Rossi 1990). Variables such as age, marital status, and financial status can affect perceptions of obligation to kin (Aldous 1987; Stoller 1983). For example, the very young and the very old cannot be expected to participate in reciprocal relationships, implying that the direction of consumer influence between kin may change directions over an individual's life cycle.

Since an individual's role complexity within the kinship network tends to increase with age, the rising longevity of the population has resulted in an increasing number of individuals who are "sandwiched" between generations. Research on role function within kinship networks consistently indicates that the overwhelming majority of kinkeeping activities is carried out by middle-aged women, who do most of the visiting, telephoning, and letter writing, orchestrate family gatherings, and assume primary responsibility for the physical care of kin (e.g. Rosenthal 1985). When multiple family members require simultaneous assistance, the multiple roles held by these women (mother, daughter, wife, sister) increases the number of individuals whose behavior is in turn affected. This indicates that middle-aged women may function as critical links in the path of resource flows between extended family members. Since exchanges often involve services, such as physical care for the very young or the very old, indirect effects upon consumption behavior may be considerable, and include changes in household task allocation, shopping patterns, eating habits, and other activities which reduce the role overload of the caregiver.

The preceding section leads to the following propositions:

P5) The level of perceived obligations between kin positively affect consumption interdependencies among extended family members. Thus, family consumption behavior will be more affected by exchanges with family members from the family of origin than by exchanges with more distant family members.

P6) Resources within a kinship network will tend to flow between links in which at least one female is present and will affect more individuals as role complexity increases; therefore, consumption interdependencies will be greater among households related by a family tie involving at least one mature female linkage.


Two trends in American society illustrate how a crisis in one family can affect the resources and consumption behavior of other families within kinship structure: 1) the increasing number of single parent families and 2) the aging population.

About two-thirds of all divorces involve children (McLanahan and Garfinkle 1989). The majority of mothers retain custody of their children; however, only 60 percent of divorced mothers receive a child support award (Teachman 1990), while only approximately 44 percent of these receive the agreed-upon amount (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991). Because of the way the welfare system works, some mothers, particularly in black urban areas where male employment opportunities are limited, may avoid marriage all together (Stack 1974). Consequently, 36 percent of households headed by single parents live at or below the poverty level (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991).

Many single mothers turn to their kin, whose consumption is in turn affected in a variety of ways as they rally to help. Crossman and Edmondson (1985) found that 77 percent of divorced respondents reported receiving some form of assistance from parents, siblings, extended kin, and children following marital dissolution. Gerstel (1988) found that approximately two-thirds of divorced respondents reported borrowing money from at least one relative, and that divorced mothers tended to rely upon kin for help with household chores. Divorce has also been linked to the return of young adults, such as single mothers, to the parental home (Clemens and Axelson 1985). These multigenerational households experience blurred stages of the family life cycle which affect consumption behavior, such as when grandparents help with childcare or act as surrogate parents. In families where the grandmothers are still working, research indicates that adults juggle schedules so that both mother and daughter may work (Pressler 1989). In their study, however, Crossman and Edmondson (1985) note thatCin every instanceCdivorced mothers received nothing from the father's kin, implying that one of the effects of divorce is to destabilize and truncate the kinship structure, usually on the father's side.

Another family crisis which activates kinship networks is the long-term care for the elderly. Approximately 80 percent of care for the elderly is provided by relatives (Benjamin 1984). It is well documented that women (wives and daughters) do most of the work (e.g. Finley 1989). In most cases they do so without the benefit of public or private support; Medicare and Medicaid do not pay for most home healthcare services, private services are almost non-existent, and entry into three-quarters of all nursing homes is clogged by long waiting lists (Archbold 1983; Vladeck 1980).

Providing care for an elderly parent can be an enormous psychological and physical burden. Its impact upon family consumption behavior can be substantial, and it can affect multiple families. It usually occurs when the caregiver is in middle age or early old age (Archbold 1983). Unlike childbirth, it cannot be planned for. Unlike childcare, it does not get easier. And it lasts a long timeCa British study cited by Abel (1986) found that about one-half of caregivers had provided care for at least five years, while almost one-quarter had provided care for more than ten years. In addition to the substantial drain on family resources, the duration of care can lead to severe role overload and chronic stress, which may lead to significant changes in family consumption behaviorCor even the breakup of the family.

Kinship assistance to single parents and the aged are merely two examples of why life status changes cannot be studied from the sole perspective of the nuclear family. Critical life status events such as birth, the establishment of an independent household, marriage, unemployment, illness, and death tend to activate kinship exchange behavior among extended family members, affecting both families receiving assistance and families providing it.


Research on kinship family structures offers three important contributions to consumer research which are overlooked by traditional approaches to family consumption behavior. First, the family is viewed as a social unit embedded within the context of the kinship structure rather than as an isolated entity, thus reintegrating the family with its significant social setting. Second, kinship research examines the socioeconomic forces which create the broad demographic categories such as family life cycle or social class, thus decreasing the reliance of consumer research upon static taxonomies. Third, kinship research offers significant implications regarding the direct and indirect effects of kinship exchange behavior upon family consumption. By broadening the perspective of family consumption behavior to include the impact of social exchange networks, kinship research expands the definition of "consumption" to include non-market forms of exchange based upon reciprocity rather than profit relationships. The implementation of such a shift in perspective may increase our understanding of consumption behavior after the point of purchase, such as the "migration" of products through sharing, bartering, and borrowing.

Kinship research illustrates the critical importance of the fundamental structural assumptions which define the family and the unit of analysis used to measure it. Not all family models fit all segments of the population; social and economic factors can radically alter the extent to which families depend upon each other for support. A basic component in understanding many of the conditions which affect family consumption behavior is also the understanding of how conditions in one family affect other families within the network. At some economic levels, the exchange activities of kin may be so interrelated that measurements of consumption behavior must be aggregated. Current social and economic issues such as single parent families (zero-parent families in many inner-city areas), health care for the elderly and chronically ill, and high unemployment rates indicate that kinship support structures may be a particularly timely topic for consumer researchers. Such subgroups represent sizable segments of the population, whose consumption behavior is largely unaccounted for by traditional family consumption models.


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Ritha Fellerman, University of Massachusetts
Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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