Residential Patterns Research Paper Starter

Residential Patterns

(Research Starters)

Modernization has had a strong impact on ethnic and racial residential patterns, both in the United States and around the world. Traditional norms, such as patrilocality, or the recently married residing in the husband's parents’ home in a three-generational family, are discussed in this article. Changes to these norms also are discussed, including the movement of ethnic/racial minorities to the suburbs and the greater representation of individuals living alone, in part due to social welfare policies. Finally, Robert Putnam's breakdown of American society is presented, along with the concepts of social capital and civic virtue and how residential patterns impact the welfare of individuals as well as groups.

Keywords 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act; China's One Child Policy; Competence; Constraint; Environmental Press; Filial piety; Matrilocality; Noelocality; Norms; Patrilocality; Social Capital



Modern life has introduced numerous innovations, such as improved transportation to faraway places, telephones, and the Internet. These innovations bridge great distances, increase exposure to different cultures and ways of life, encourage changing gender roles, and offer employment out of the home for most adults. These factors, and many others, have also affected residential patterns in most countries. "Residential patterns" refers to where people live, especially in relation to other members of their family. Traditional or normative cultural residential patterns are being changed. This article explores some of those changes, and why it matters to individuals and to the public at large.


According to Louise Grogan (2007), estimates suggest that "70 percent of human societies are patrilocal, meaning that adult sons reside with their parents, and that wives go to live with their husbands' families upon marriage" (p. 685). These cultures are "rooted in filial piety wherein the care for the elderly from the family has traditionally been given and accepted as a customary and normative duty" (Seong Ho Yoo, Sung, 1997, p. 225). "Normative" means that it is a standard model or pattern within a given society to adhere to the practice or custom. One obvious example of a patrilocal culture is China. Because newly married children go and reside with the husband's family, the paternal parents receive lifelong financial and personal support and care in their old age, as well as the enjoyment of their child and his family. In return, the elderly parents provide child care and engage in some of the household chores. Since daughters go and live with their husband's parents, those couples who have a daughter do not enjoy her or her children's companionship or care. Much of rural China still lacks a convenient travel infrastructure, so even if one's daughter moved only twenty miles away, the travel burden can be significant and prohibitive. Visits are rare, and support during old age or illness is nearly nonexistent. Since China lacks solid social services, including health and elder care services, parents of daughters could be plunged into financial and personal distress.

The cultural practice of female child abandonment or murder has been exacerbated by China's one-child policy. In 1979, to control population growth in China, the government ordered that ethnic Han families living in urban areas could have only one child. This was intended to be a temporary measure, but it remains in effect. "Fines, pressure to abort a pregnancy, and even forced sterilization accompany second or subsequent pregnancies," so parents go to extreme measures to make sure that their one child is male (Rosenberg, 2008). Estimates cite that China has experienced a three hundred million reduction in total population because of this policy (Rosenberg, 2008). Since this policy has altered the gender balance in China's birth rate and reduced its birth rate overall, restrictions have been lifted for certain couples when both individuals have no siblings. In these instances, they are allowed to have two children.


Theoretical Analysis of Residential Patterns

Environmental Press

In his theoretical analysis of residential patterns, Lawton argues that an individual's choice of living arrangements depends upon his or her "environmental press" and "competence." By "environmental press," Lawton means the particular content or stimulus that has some demand upon the individual. "Competence" refers to the individual's mental, physical, and emotional capacity (1982). Under Lawton's analysis, then, the determination of living arrangements is not merely an individual decision, but an interplay between the individual and factors outside that individual, such as the availability of social security benefits, public housing, or one's number of children.

Constraint, Resources

In their study of non-nuclear, or independent adults, Frances Kobrin and Calvin Goldscheider (1982) argued that residential factors were based upon three influences: constraint, resources, and family norms and preferences (105).

  • Constraint refers to the number of immediate relatives a person has in one community. This means that an individual with numerous relatives has a greater opportunity to live with them than those individuals who are isolated from other family members.
  • Resources refer to the level of financial assets that the individual has access to; a person with significant assets can afford the option of living alone.
  • Family norms and preferences not only include cultural traditions like patrilocality, but other practices as well. In New England, for example, many households of certain ethnic backgrounds are comprised of unmarried siblings who share a collective home for their entire life. In fact, studies have shown that never-married individuals are more likely to live with other relatives than widowed or divorced adults (Kobrin, 1981), but that widowed individuals are more likely to reside with relatives than white, married couples (Tsuya & Martin, 1992).


One important factor in any analysis of residential patterns is the age of an individual. "Pampel (1983) reported that the propensity toward living alone increased continuously until age 75 and after that it went down" (Seong Ho Yoo & Sung, 1997, p. 228). One major reason that independent living decreased after age seventy-five had to do with the greater likelihood of disability. Elderly women were more likely to live alone, but this may be related to their longer life span than men (Kobrin, 1976). On the other hand, in their study of Canadian women, Kausar Thomas and Andrew Wister (1984) suggested that age, income, and education level were minor factors in explaining living arrangements while the number of children and ethnic background proved to be major influences. Having several children increases the likelihood that an individual will reside with one or more of those children. Although not a dominant factor, one’s level of education does prove to be a consistent influence in residential patterns, with more educated individuals preferring independent living (Kobrin, 1976).


While there may seem to be some contradictory findings noted above, there does seem to be support for the argument that both internal and external factors shape the outcome of individual residential choices. The influence of ethnicity and number of children serves as a dominant factor in three-generation residences. E. Mutran (1985), for example, argues that "Black and Hispanic-Americans tend to have a greater extended family structure and more mutual helping patterns among family members because of cultural traditions and limited economic resources than their white counterparts" (Seong Ho Yoo & Sung, P. 229). It is certainly the case, however, that contemporary social welfare programs, such as Social Security, public housing, and Medicare, have significantly increased the ability for elderly individuals in particular to live independently (Minkler & Stone, 1985). In fact, Meredith Minkler and R. Stone discuss the feminization of poverty given the large number of elderly women living alone in public housing with minimal Social Security benefits as their only means of financial support.


Since patrilocality is such a dominant practice throughout much of the world and individuals from many cultures have immigrated to the United States, it is important to consider the question of whether the cultural norm of patrilocality is withstanding American cultural pressures. Neolocality, in which the newlyweds create a home independent of both partners’ parents is most common in the United States. In their survey of the 1980 US Census data, Seong Ho Yoo and Kyu-Taik Sung determined that 75 percent of Koreans aged sixty-five or older lived with their children (1997). This finding would suggest that immigrants to our country continue to practice patrilocality despite alternative cultural pressures. Part of the explanation for this situation, in addition to traditional norms, is that these elderly Korean parents were sponsored by the adult child during the more open immigration policies of the 1965...

(The entire section is 4074 words.)