August 13, 2014

Siblings and Sociology

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

If you have siblings, you might feel like you have little in common with them despite growing up in the same family. I have certainly known families where siblings couldn’t have been more different, with diverging value systems, political beliefs, and aspirations.

Then again, some siblings share many similar attributes, educational strengths and even career aspirations. I’ve known brothers who joined the same fraternity during their college years, and siblings who chose to attend the same out-of-state university years apart. I remember years ago my mother and her sister unintentionally bought the same dress to wear to a family event despite living in different cities and shopping at different stores.

What makes siblings different or similar?

While we might be tempted to think similarities or differences among siblings are the result of inborn personality traits or birth order, Dalton Conley’s book The Pecking Order reminds us that families are affected by social forces just like individuals are, and these forces in turn shape children’s identities and opportunities. In other words, even though we grow up in the same families, events like economic changes, illness, and death affect us differently based on our age and gender.

Conley examines census data, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the General Social Survey, and also conducted in-depth interviews with siblings to arrive at his findings that birth order, family size, and life events are all mediated by the amount of financial resources families have. The wealthier a family is, the better able they are to cushion themselves and their children during difficult times.

All children suffer if a parent loses a job, becomes ill or dies, but those with larger financial savings have more resources to cope the loss. Children might attend therapy, or those that develop behavioral problems can be sent to special schools. Lower income families might need children to pitch in with household chores or jobs instead of pursuing extracurricular interests or higher education. A child in pain who acts out might find themselves in trouble with the law instead of in therapy. Remarriage after the death or divorce might benefit children in some circumstances, particularly if the step-parent is kind and brings resources (be they financial or social) to the family. And the older children are when a crisis occurs, the better equipped they are to deal with the disruption in most cases.

This might not be surprising, but some of his findings are. We have all probably heard that middle children are long suffering—often from middle children themselves—but Conley’s research findings teach us that this is usually only the case in large families with fewer resources to go around. In low income families, when one sibling goes to college there is usually a larger income gap between that sibling and the others, because a family’s resources might have gone mainly to the college-attending sibling and little may have been left over for the others.

Siblings can also react to the same family dynamics differently: a critical parent might inspire one student to achieve more, while another sibling’s self-esteem might be irrevocably damaged by the same kind of criticism. Conley observes that gender dynamics might intensify the impact parents have on children, particularly in families that have higher expectations of sons than daughters. That same critical parent might be grooming a son to take over a family business, who depending on individual differences, may or may not benefit from the expectation.

Yes, Conley acknowledges that some sibling differences are the result of our different personality traits, although it is impossible to completely tease out how much of these we are born with and how much these traits are shaped by reactions to our circumstances. “We cannot think about sibling pecking orders as distinct from the societal forces swirling around the family,” Conley argues (p. 50), and “we cannot predict the emergence of sibling differences solely on personality, gender, or birth order grounds—they are contingent on the position of the entire family in the economic hierarchy” (p. 88).

In a sense, we might grow up in the same families as our siblings, but often in very different circumstances that affect us differently. What social forces have impacted your family? How have they shaped you and your siblings?


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Although I am a sociologist, I appreciate that you have adopted a simple easy to comprehend style of writing, making this piece, as much social commentary as an academic one. In my personal opinion, it is only when this is achieved that sociology's 'revelations' may open more eyes and be more appreciated by students and others. What you've highlighted is pertinent and in my limited and personal, research on this topic very true.

Nice post...Very interesting post..Your line about Your mother and her sister that bought same dress staying at different cities and from different stores caught my attention to my friend's siblings...My friend and their sibling faces the same issue almost.When they are planning dresses for some events or parties,they always hide about their dresses so that their siblings don't look same kind at parties...Even their cousin stay in another city.So both the sister buy dress from different store and different cities but when at the end they both learn that their dresses are same.The funniest thing is this had happened 5 times.

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