Kinship Practices Among Alternative Family Forms in Western Industrialized Societies

Frank F. Furstenberg, Lauren E. Harris, Luca Maria Pesando, Megan N. Reed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: This article discusses how kinship is construed and enacted in diverse forms of the family that are now part of the culturally pluralistic family system of Western societies. Background: This study is the second in a pair documenting changes over the past century in the meaning and practice of kinship in the family system of Western societies with industrialized economies. While the first paper reviewed the history of kinship studies, this companion piece shifts the focus to research explorations of kinship in alternative family forms, those that depart from the standard nuclear family structure. Method: The review was conducted running multiple searches on Google Scholar and Web of Science directly targeting nonstandard family forms, using search terms such as “cohabitation and kinship,” “same-sex family and kinship,” and “Artificial Reproductive Technology and kinship,” among others. About 70% of studies focused on the United States, while the remaining 30% focused on other industrialized Western societies. Results: We identified three general processes by which alternative family forms are created and discussed how kinship practices work in each of them. The first cluster of alternative family forms comes about through variations of formal marriage or its absence, including sequential marriages, plural marriages, consensual unions, single parenthood, and same-sex marriages and partnerships. The second cluster is formed as a result of alterations in the reproduction process, when a child is not the product of sexual intercourse between two people. The third cluster results from the formation of voluntary bonds that are deemed to be kinship-like, in which affiliation rests on neither biological nor legal bases. Conclusion: Findings from this study point to a broad cultural acceptance of an inclusive approach to incorporating potential kin in “family relationships.” It is largely left to individuals to decide whether they recognize or experience the diffuse sense of emotional connectedness and perceived obligation that characterize the bond of kinship. Also, family scripts and kinship terms often borrow from the vocabulary and parenting practices observed in the standard family form in the West. Concurrently, the cultural importance of biology remains strong. Implications: This study concludes by identifying important gaps in the kinship literature and laying out a research agenda for the future, including building a demography of kinship.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1403-1430
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Marriage and Family
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020


  • cohabitation
  • family processes
  • family structure
  • marriage
  • stepfamilies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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