October 22, 2014

Strength of extended family ties by region

Rootedness in a place has both a vertical dimension stretching back through time, as well as a lateral one linking a person to others in that place during a given period of time. Let's start with the state of affairs today, and compare levels of rootedness across some of the major geographic-cultural regions of America.

The strongest form of investment in a place, as opposed to feeling like nothing is holding you back from picking up and heading off for greener pastures, is extended family ties. Community ties with non-kin are worth examining, too, but blood is thicker than water.

The General Social Survey asked a series of questions about how much you keep in contact with three groups of extended family -- cousins, uncles and aunts, and nieces and nephews. It didn't specify whether "contact" was in-person or mediated. It was asked in 2002, so most respondents probably assumed it meant in-person or talking over the phone.

I excluded respondents who said they had no living relatives of that type, and lumped the two affirmative responses together (some having a little more contact over the past four weeks, and some a little less), against those who said they had no contact. The ranking was so similar for each of the three family groups that I averaged them into a single index.

Non-whites have much more contact with their extended family than whites do, and regions vary a lot in how non-white they are. However, looking at whites only vs. everyone did not change the ranking in this case, so I left all races in.

The chart below ranks the regions by how likely their residents are to have had any contact with their extended family during the past four weeks. The states which make up each region are listed below, in descending order by population size within each region, to give a feel for which states are more influential on the region's score. The GSS uses Census regions, and some of them have confusing names, which I've tried to re-name more helpfully (if changed, the original names are in parentheses below).

South Atlantic - Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, West Virginia, Delaware, District of Columbia

Southern Appalachia (E.S. Central) - Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi

Eastern Midwest (E.N. Central) - Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin

New England - Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont

Lower Mississippi (W.S. Central) - Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas

Middle Atlantic - New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey

Pacific - California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska

Mountain - Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming

Western Midwest (W.N. Central) - Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota

About 20 percentage points between high and low -- we're not talking minor differences around the country.

The main divide is between the eastern vs. western half of the country. All these years later, the Mississippi River continues to be a major cultural barrier. As Americans have moved farther out west, they have left behind their extended family, only some of whom would have also been heading out west. That certainly makes it impossible to stay in face-to-face contact, but I'll bet that it cuts down on mediated contact as well -- out of sight, out of mind.

Among western regions, why do the furthest west have higher family contact? Because the coast was settled earlier. The Plains and Mountain states may have been reached first, but folks tended not to put down roots there for very long. It's the most desolate real estate in the country, so that over history there has been a lot more coming-and-going there compared to the desirable West coast, where people come more than they go.

Also, by the 21st century, a good deal of those living in the Mountain states are first or second-generation transplants from all over, and refugees from the over-saturated West coast, who won't have family nearby. The Plains states show the opposite problem -- the locals abandoning ship.

After the east-west divide, there's also a secondary cline from more familial southerners to less familial northerners. I doubt it's due to more favorable weather conditions that allow folks to get out of their homes comfortably. The GSS is administered during the summer, and more of less all of the eastern US is a humid hellhole then, and if anything, worse in the South.

My only hunch is historical ethnic conflict serving to strengthen clan ties. All else equal, larger groups defeat smaller ones, so ethnic conflict pressures folks into joining larger groups -- in the context of kin, extended vs. nuclear families. Blacks vs. whites in the Southeast compared to the Northeast, Mexicans and Indians vs. whites in Texas compared to Minnesota. Hence also why religious membership is more important in southern regions, it being the main way that we cement bonds with non-kin.

Since the major split is between earlier and later settled regions, we'll need to look into how rootedness has changed over time in these regions. Once started, do roots continue to grow, or are they uprooted every generation? Then the link between rootlessness and status-striving will become clearer.

GSS variables: uncaunts, cousins, niecenep, region

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