Family relationships are some of the most important and long‐lasting ones we will have in our entire lives. Although many other disciplines study family relationships, we focus on the power of communication in family contexts. Indeed, how we create a family, maintain family relationships, and even distance ourselves from family members requires communication. In this chapter, we answer three questions to orient you, the reader, to this book and to the study of family communication. First, we answer “what is a family” followed by “what is family communication.” Last, we describe “how to use this book.”
WHAT IS A FAMILY?
Traditionally, family communication scholars define the family in one of three ways: (1) structurally
based on form, (2) functionally
based on task, or (3) transactionally
based on interaction. Structural definitions rely on specific criteria (e.g., blood ties, law) to determine family membership. For example, the U.S. Census (2010
) claims a family “consists of two or more people [one of whom is the householder] related by birth, marriage, or adoption, residing in the same housing unit,” and scholars argue that the dominant North American ideology identifies a “real” family as the nuclear family, comprised of a heterosexual couple and their
biological children. If you think of the show Modern Family
, the family that most clearly fits the structural definition of family consists of Phil, Claire, Haley, Alex, and Luke. Phil and Claire are a mixed‐sex couple with three biological children. Communication researchers have found that many people privilege blood ties when thinking about family, especially those that unite parents and children (Baxter et al., 2009
Although structural definitions of family dominate research literature and policy, functional and transactional definitions are sometimes used to illuminate different facets of familial relationships. For example, functional definitions rely heavily on the tasks members perform. Segrin and Flora (2011
) contend that functional definitions “view family as at least one adult and one or more other persons who perform certain tasks of the family life such as socialization, nurturance, development, and financial and emotional support” (p. 6). Leslie Baxter and her colleagues (2009) suggest that functional definitions afford more flexibility than structural definitions but still tend to highlight reproduction and child‐rearing: what others have called a biological or genetic focus. On Modern Family
, Cameron, Mitchell, and Lily represent a family based on function since Cameron and Mitchell, a same‐sex couple, provide support for one another and are actively helping Lily, their adopted daughter, develop through socializing and nurturing her.
In addition to structure and function, family communication scholars use the criteria of “transaction” to define what it means to be a family. A transactional definition emphasizes the communication among family members and the subjective feelings, typically positive, generated by interaction. Baxter et al. (2009
) argue that transactional definitions emphasize the role communication plays in constituting what it means to be a family. They explain, “Relationships are familial, according to this approach, to the extent that members feel and act like a family” (p. 172). Thus, biology and law hold little relevance when thinking about a family using a transactional definition. The whole extended family on the show Modern Family
can be seen through a transactional lens if we examine how they feel about each other and how they communicate about being a family. The characters clearly feel and act like a family, and this alone makes them a family, no matter how they are connected through law or blood.
In brief: there are three ways to answer the question “what is a family” and each definition draws different lines around who is “in” and who is “out” with structural definitions of family being the most black and white and also limited. The transactional definition is the most flexible of the three ways.
Although many researchers have privileged structural definitions and view family as a nonvoluntary relationship, some scholars across multiple disciplines are beginning to question and challenge the structural definition of family. For example, Judith Stacey (1996
) argues that “No longer is there a single culturally dominant family pattern, like the ‘modern’ one, to which a majority of citizens conform and most of the rest aspire” (p. 7). Instead, Stacey contends that the postmodern family, or today’s family, is characterized by a variety of arrangements, which are constantly changing across the lifespan. Thus, a postmodern family is one that exemplifies the contentious, ambivalent, fluid nature of contemporary family culture and invites the possibility of different family formations. Throughout this textbook we invite you to learn about many different types of families and family relationships.