Communication in Family Contexts
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Communication in Family Contexts

Theories and Processes

Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, Kristina M. Scharp

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eBook - ePub

Communication in Family Contexts

Theories and Processes

Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, Kristina M. Scharp

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An innovative, student-friendly textbook covering the major elements of the field of Family Communication

Family Communication, a rapidly growing sub-discipline within Communication Studies, explores the processes and factors involved in family interactions and relationships. Communication in Family Contexts is a clear and accessible survey of the essential principles, theories, and concepts of the field. Unlike textbooks that present a vast amount of material across only a few chapters—this innovative textbook features brief, easily-understood chapters ideally-suited for undergraduate courses on the subject.

The text provides concise yet comprehensive coverage of a diverse range of topics, from fundamental aspects of caretaking and sibling communication, to topics not covered in other textbooks such as estrangement and marginalization. 33 chapters cover theories of family communication, family communication processes, and communicating in family relationships. The authors, noted researchers and educators in the field, complement discussions of standard topics with those of growing contemporary interest, such as LGBTQ family communication, step-family and half-sibling relationships, and the influence of technology on family. This textbook:

  • Provides a well-rounded examination of the major elements of Family Communication studies
  • Explains the foundational theories of the field, including Family Communication Patterns Theory and Relational Dialectics Theory
  • Features numerous practical application exercises to enable students apply theory to practice
  • Includes a complete set pedagogical features, such as case studies, visualizations and models of theories, illustrations, and discussion questions
  • Offers a flexible organizational structure that allows instructors to pick and choose chapters to meet the needs of their courses

Communication in Family Contexts: Theories and Processes is an important resource for instructors and students in the field of family communication, the wider discipline of Communication Studies, and related areas such as social psychology and sociology.

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Chapter 1
An Introduction to Communication in Family Contexts

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.”


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.


Defining Family Communication

Family communication has been defined in many ways. To accomplish the task of defining family communication, we should first define communication. Communication is a process, based in interaction with others, where people create, share, and regulate meaning (Segrin & Flora, 2011). Defining communication as a process means that it is ongoing and always changing. It has no beginning or end and is influenced by its surroundings. For example, how you communicate with your sister in a restaurant will be influenced by your past conversations, what your relationship is like, how your family as a whole communicates, and quite literally, the restaurant itself (Is it noisy? Is it formal? Are you there for a specific event?). Family communication, then, is communicating to construct and regulate shared meaning with people who are considered family. As you read above, we take a broad definition of who “counts” as family.
Families are constituted in communication. This means that communication creates families. Without communication, we would not be able to socially group people by their relationships. The way I talk about and talk to my brother, in part, makes him my brother. It is also true, then, that families that do not fit a traditional narrative, such as families who are not related by blood or law, must communicate more to explain to others (and themselves) that they are a family (see Chapter 14). Many of those types of families are covered in this book including adoptive families (Chapter 23), LGBTQ families (Chapter 26), and voluntary kin (Chapter 30), among others. With this being said, we still consider all families to be discourse dependent. In other words, all families rely on communication to construct their identity to both themselves and the outside world.
This book is primarily focused on communication within the family, but we also cover communication about the family.

Intersections of Family Identity

Throughout the textbook we will present distinct family roles and relationships such as parent, child, and sibling. Yet, people perform multiple roles with multiple identities that can overlap and/or sit at the intersection of different locations in the family and contexts. For example, yo...