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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Indian family, Nepal

As a kid, growing up in the mountains of Montana, I loved to read novels set in India. India remained a faraway realm of fiction though, until my older sister joined the Peace Corps in Nepal. Through the stories in her letters, South Asia became a real place I would go to when I was old enough.

In college, I followed in my sister’s footsteps and studied abroad in Nepal. The highlight was a month shadowing Nirmala Pokhrel, whom I think of as Didi.  Didi was and is my sister’s good friend who led a women’s group devoted to using legal training to assist local women. One of my clearest memories is being awed by Didi’s commanding tone and ramrod posture as she helped a woman file a first information report at the police station. The woman, who was reporting her husband for bigamy, sat quietly in the corner with her head bent down.

The picture shows a woman in a sari looking over her shoulder at the camera
Nirmala Pokhrel – Didi – (image courtesy: Keera Allendorf)

Indian family, Chennai

I finally went to India for the first time in 2001.  As a research assistant at the Washington DC-based International Center for Research on Women, I traveled to Chennai to attend a meeting with our partner organizations working on a study of domestic violence.  The study included one of the first population-based surveys to measure domestic violence in India – finding that a third of married Indian women had experienced physical violence. 

In Nepal, I had seen how violence and abandonment ravaged the lives of women and their children but also saw the joys and benefits of love and companionship that are also part of family life. Yet, social science about South Asia seemed to only examine violence and other negative aspects. 

So, for my Ph.D. in sociology, I set out to bring in the positive side of Indian family life, investigating how high-quality relationships with husbands and mothers-in-law benefit young women’s health.

Indian family, Darjeeling

For that research, I found my Indian home in the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal. I spent nine months living in a village outside Kalimpong in 2007-08, following 22 families in which a young woman had a birth in the last year.  I spent my time walking up and down the hillside to interview young mothers, as well as their husbands and mothers-in-law. The families generously welcomed me into their homes and told me the stories of marriages, births, and family life as I drank countless cups of tea.

During my time in the Darjeeling Hills, casual conversations often turned to changes in family life. While older generations had largely married people their parents chose, many young people were eloping. And, while older generations had three or four children, young couples were having only one or two.

  • The picture shows hills in Darjeeling, India
  • The picture shows crops on a hill
  • The picture shows people standing under a wooden structure

Indian family, Marriage

In 2010, I returned to interview people more formally about these changes, asking them what was good and bad about them and why they were happening.

Over a decade later, my research on family life in South Asia is still inspired by my time in the Darjeeling Hills. Much of my work examines change and variation in marriage, examining when and how people marry. 

For instance, using nationally representative data, I examined how marriage changed across India from the 1970s to the 2000s. Over time, brides increasingly worked with their parents to choose husbands and couples knew each other a bit longer before marrying. At the same time, inter-caste and entirely self-choice marriages remained rare – at less than a tenth of marriages.

Indian family, Daughters-only

Another theme in my current research is investigating the rise of sonless families and how they may be a force of change. As families become smaller – with only one or two children – many will have children of only one sex. I found that in India the share of families with only sons rose from 13% in 1992 to 22% in 2015. Daughters-only families increased modestly from 8% to 10% but rose to a fifth of families in South Indian states.

The growth of these families may shift inheritance, living arrangements, and other family practices. Daughters without brothers may inherit family wealth or care for parents in old age, while sons without sisters may do more housework. For example, in one of the families in the village I stayed in, an elderly woman moved into her son-in-law’s home after her husband died. She was in poor health and did not have a son, so she moved in with her daughter.  

Indian family, USA

With the new Indian American Family Study, I am following Indian families back to the United States. At nearly 5 million people and 1.5% of the US population, the Indian American population is a growing and increasingly important part of American and global landscapes. To understand what American family life is like, social scientists must understand the family life of Indian Americans. Yet, there is very little research on Indian Americans; existing studies focus on the broader category of Asians and East Asians.

The study investigates Indian Americans’ views and experiences of family life with a focus on marriage, childbearing, and intergenerational relationships. It currently features interviews with first- and second-generation Indian Americans of all ages. Our team, which includes 14 graduate students at Indiana University, has completed 62 interviews so far.  We are hoping to conduct over 100 more this May and June.

If you are Indian American and willing to share your experiences and views of family life, please get in touch!  The interviews are done online with Zoom so participants can live anywhere in the United States.  You can call or email our team at or (812) 855-6661.  You can also contact us by completing the online form on our website at

I’m excited about the unique insights into family life that a study with Indian Americans will bring!

Find out more about the Indian American Family Survey here.

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Keera Allendorf

Keera Allendorf is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University. She received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan. Dr. Allendorf's...