As 21st Century children and young people create their own, complex understandings of who and what is a sibling, the important social implications need to be taken on board, says a working paper from a team led by Professor Rosalind Edwards of the London South Bank University.
The study found that, for many, the definition of brothers and sisters has less to do with biology and living arrangements than with their own circumstances and experiences. Professor Edwards said: "The increasing diversity of family structures in most western societies raises a number of issues around the technical fact of who is a sister or brother.
"Rising rates of divorce and separation, re-partnering and step-families, mean that children may now have full siblings (sharing both biological parents), half siblings (sharing one) and step-siblings (who are not related by blood, but each has a biological parent in a relationship)."
But, she added, this diversity is rarely picked up when official statistics are collected on children and families.
The working paper says that the question of who is a brother or a sister may seem to have a simple answer siblings are related by biology, through their parents, or at least one of them.
Professor Edwards said: "This is often an assumption underpinning statistics. However, our research reveals that children's own answers to the question are more complex. "For children, sibling relationships are built through everyday communication such as talking, playing and doing activities together, and sharing experiences or indeed the lack of it."
The paper says that figures collected by official bodies, notably government, about the number of children living in famil
Contact: Becky Gammon
Economic & Social Research Council