Family contexts as cognitive networks: A structural approach of family relationships


  • The author was initially supported by grant 8210-4301 from the Swiss National Science Foundation, and later by a Mellon grant in Anthropological Demography. We gratefully thank Linda-Ann La Farga for her help in the stylistic and formal revision of this article. We acknowledge substantive suggestions from Linton Freeman, Frank Furstenberg, Ben Jester, Ruyhei Tsuji, and Douglas White. We also would like to thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers.

Address correspondence to: Eric D. Widmer, CETEL, University of Geneva, 102, Bd. Carl Vogt, 1211 Geneva 4, Switzerland. E-mail:


With the permanence of strong emotional bonds between adults and their siblings and parents, with the rise of divorce, with the extension of remarriage, and with the development of pseudo-kinship ties, complex family groupings have emerged. Orientational family members (Kuhn, 1964) are likely to be perceived as being included in relatively large and unbounded family contexts. To deal with the complexity of those contexts, one needs to develop an approach that makes it possible to analyze many relationships in a single model. Such an approach is presented in this article, which considers family contexts as cognitive networks (Marsden, 1990). To illustrate how statistical and graphical network methods can be applied empirically to those contexts, perceived relationships among orientational family members of 25 female students were analyzed in relation to balance theory (Heider, 1958).