Families, Relationships, and Interpersonal Networks

How do we define a family?  Are families created by marriage licenses and birth certificates, by genetic markers and generational lineage, or by the strength of interpersonal relationships?  How do families shape their members’ health, wealth, and happiness in both the present and the future?  

Recent decades have witnessed dramatic social and demographic changes in families and households.  Using longitudinal and family-based data sets, we are learning more about the important implications families have for the health and well-being of family members. Even as families are experiencing profound transformations, the way societies group people into immediate and extended families remains a central feature of social organization. Not only does family membership carry certain rights and obligations, but it also defines key aspects of the social, psychological, and economic context crucial to human development.

Penn State has a long tradition of excellence in family research.  Our department offers the largest and most comprehensive family sociology program in the country, with specialized training available in demography, child and adolescent development, social inequality, and social network analysis.

As the site of the National Symposium on Family Issues, a landmark event for family researchers, we annually welcome about 200 top scholars and policy experts for a two-day, multidisciplinary discussion organized around a significant family issue. Students’ educational experiences are enhanced by listening to various perspectives on some of the most important social issues in the field.

Faculty Research

How is the growing racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in the U.S. impacting families? 

  • How do long run changes in marriage, fertility, mortality, and migration affect patterns of exchange within families? [Verdery]
  • Do new communication tools allow immigrants to retain transnational social network to family and friends and how does participation in these networks influence processes of immigrant incorporation? [Verdery]
  • How do children from diverse racial, ethnic and nativity backgrounds fare in the key socializing institutions in the United States? [Glick]
  • How do immigration and the process of immigrant adaptation influence the family experiences?   [Landale; Martin]
  • How does family's socioeconomic status influence the relationship quality and stability among romantic partners and spouses, parenting practices, and parent-child relationships? [Martin]


     How do people choose friends, partners, and mates?

  • Do people choose friends on the basis of their health behaviors? [Verdery]
  • How do people use online dating platforms to find partners; how do contacts differ by race, education, or age? [Felmlee; Kreager]
  • How are adolescent friendship networks associated with romantic relationship formation? [Kreager; Martin]
  • How do young Indian women choose their husbands?  Do parents arrange marriages or do women have a say in whom and when they marry? [Luke]
  • Does immigration alter the likelihood a person born in the United States forms a partnership with someone of a different race/ethnicity? [Martin]


    How do social relationships affect health and well-being?

  • What promotes a sense of “family belonging” among adolescents living in different types of families, and what are the consequences of a lack of family belonging for youth development and well-being? [King]
  • How do friends and schoolmates influence each other’s substance use behaviors; is genetic variation reflected in these relationships? [Daw]
  • How is gender related to deviant modeling and subsequent deviant behavior?  [Nguyen]
  • What role does family inequality play in racial disparities in receiving life-extending medical treatments, such as organ exchange; how do people use networks to search for potential donors? [Daw; Verdery]
  • How do inmate visitations and prison friendships relate to health in and out of prison? [Kreager]
  • In rural Mozambique, how does male labor migration affect the health and well-being of left-behind family members in the domains of women’s autonomy and child mortality? [Yabiku]


     What are the causes and consequences of family and relationship conflict, abuse, bullying, and neglect?

  •  How is well-being influenced by childhood exposure to substandard parenting or maltreatment; or by childhood experiences in foster care influence well-being over time? Do family and community socioeconomic disadvantage increase children’s risk of maltreatment? [Font]
  • In what ways do the bonds of friendship and romance influence aggression and bullying among youth in schools and online, and what are the consequences for the victims and aggressors? [Felmlee]
  • How does women’s work affect gender relations in the household?  Why does women’s work—and empowerment more broadly—provoke a male backlash of intimate partner violence in India? [Luke]
  • Is intimate partner violence caused by factors similar to those causing other types of violence? [Felson]
  • What are the risk factors for and responses to childhood sexual abuse and? [Felson]


     How do families shape child and adolescent well-being and development?

  • How do families transmit advantages of disadvantages across multiple generations? How does kin mortality affect children’s educational attainment [Daw; Hardy]
  • To what degree does mortality risk run in extended families, how does this vary by cause of death, and how much of this can be explained by genetic relationships and geographic proximity? [Daw]
  • How does migration shape the socioemotional development, educational trajectories and life transitions in adolescence among children in sending communities? [Glick]
  • How does the legal status of family members shape Mexican-origin children’s health and development? Are the children of undocumented parents uniquely disadvantaged with respect to resources that contribute to health?  [Landale]
  • To what extent do parents—and fathers in particular—discriminate against daughters in India?  Are parental investments in girls vs. boys driven by social norms, economic circumstances, or both? [Luke]
  • How do intergenerational processes link parental conflict during childhood to the union dissolution of adult children in their own relationships? [Yabiku]
  • How does parents' employment, education, and income influence children's health behaviors and health risks?  [Martin]
  • How does the entrance of a stepfather influence a mother’s parenting and her relationships with her children? [King]
  • What promotes the development of strong ties between children and their stepfathers, and how do stepfathers influence children’s well-being? [King]
  • How do relationships between stepfamily members unfold and change, especially as adolescent stepchildren transition into adulthood? [King]