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An introduction to the theme of the family studies

Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice. It is through communication that families are defined and members learn how to organize meanings. When individuals come together to form family relationships, they create a system that is larger and more complex than the sum of its individual members.

It is within this system that families communicatively navigate cohesion and adaptability; create family images, themes, stories, rituals, rules, and roles; manage power, intimacy, and boundaries; and participate in an interactive process of meaning-making, producing mental models of family life that endure over time and across generations.

The family had been emotionally close and spent all holidays with extended family from both sides, including grandparents, siblings, and cousins. Ron, on the other hand, moved to Hollywood and spends his days pursuing his dream of becoming an actor, posting messages on Facebook about his freedom and happiness at being able to pursue his passions.

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He communicates infrequently with his parents, but when they do talk, they try to support him and his dreams as best they can. Families, as communication systems, repeat themselves within and across generations through their interactions with one another.

Within each system, a family develops its own communication codes based on the experiences of individual members, as well as the collective family experience. Processes central to system maintenance are discussed, such as maintaining connectedness, developing family themes and images, managing boundaries, telling family stories, maintaining rules and roles, communicating intimacy, and communicating power and control.

A brief history of the field of family communication is then provided, followed by suggested readings. This entry is not a comprehensive listing of all approaches to understanding family communication, but it does provide an introduction to several of the salient concepts.

Communication can be defined as a symbolic, transactional process of creating and coordinating meanings, involving verbal and nonverbal codes within a context. The transactional process of coordinating meanings is central to family life. One of the primary tasks of family involves meaning-making and ongoing coordination of meanings as the family changes across time.

Family communication is the mechanism for most early childhood socialization experiences. It is by observing and interacting with family members in childhood that most people learn to communicate and construct personal and relational identities as communicators. Early models of interaction become the basis for learned communication skills and lay the groundwork for future interpersonal interactions.

Infants and young children quickly learn through the messages that they exchange with caregivers what they should and should not expect from others, how to constitute relationships, and ultimately how to act within those relationships. It is through the process of communicating that children learn the rules of social interaction and how to coordinate meanings with others. These views are affected by factors such as sex, race, religion, and family history and traditions across generations, and these factors combine to influence how a person perceives and interacts with relational partners and family members.

Families are formed, maintained, and dissolved through the use of communication. This constitutive view of communication places communicative interaction at the core of familial experience. This view of family communication assumes that people socially construct their relationships and interactions through their communication and that communication is a situated, multiparty accomplishment. Family communication is not solely the domain of family communication researchers.

The study of family communication is often undertaken by those in psychology, sociology, and family studies, to name a few fields. Yet, as notable family communication scholar Leslie Baxter argues, it is the focus on this interactive process of meaning-making that makes family communication scholarship unique.

In the field of family communication, communication is not typically conceptualized in terms of stand-alone messages from one sender to one receiver; rather, it is conceptualized in terms of the dynamic interdependence of messages shared among family members.

The emphasis in this approach is on the shared nature of meaning-making within the family system—meaning-making that occurs, not in a vacuum, but within broader intergenerational and societal dialogue. Within this stew of messages, family members create cognitive models of family life, and it is through communication that those models endure over time and across generations.

Within the field of family communication, families are considered to be complex, interdependent, meaning-making systems, where the whole system i. Families as Systems When individuals come together to form relationships, what is created a system is larger and more complex than the sum of the individuals within it.

Viewing the family as a system is derived from general systems theory, which argues that human organizations such as families are living systems, highly interdependent, and complex. Viewing the family as a system also suggests that individuals cannot be understood an introduction to the theme of the family studies isolation from one another; rather, they must be viewed as integral parts of a whole family unit.

A system is defined as a whole made up of interacting parts, and because these parts are interdependent, if one part of the system changes, the other parts change in response, affecting the entire system. In the case example, when Ron called his family and announced that he was not returning home, this action touched every family member, from extended family members to his children, in meaningful ways.

A change in one part of the system will affect the whole. This concept of wholeness emphasizes that the system as a whole is more than the sum of its parts, and to understand the family, it is necessary to look at it in its entirety—not just at one of its parts. A family system also has smaller units within it, which share similar characteristics and can be looked at in relation to their effects on the system as a whole.

Examples of these subsystems include the marital dyad and sibling, parent-child, and grandparent-grandchild relationships.

In addition to the interdependence and wholeness of family systems, these systems coordinate their actions to create routines and patterns to maintain a level of constancy in and stability of the system.

Humans continually monitor and self-correct or calibrate the family to maintain this stability. The analogy of a thermostat is often used to explain the concept of calibration to monitor and make corrections in a system.

Similarly, a family will calibrate—will make corrections—in family patterns to adjust to change. One way that a family might calibrate family interaction through communication is coordinating new family rules.

Family rules are agreements among members that prescribe and limit their behavior and regulate family interactions. In the case example, new communication rules emerged regulating conversations among Ron, Jeff, and Jacqueline. Therefore, a new family rule was developed to regulate the conditions under which these conversations could occur. These conversations were subsequently scheduled and monitored by a third party. This new rule, of course, affected the meanings assigned to conversations between parent and children, and those meanings needed to be renegotiated and coordinated among all the family members.

Communicating Within the Family System Communication functions to maintain constancy and an introduction to the theme of the family studies of family systems in a number of ways, as identified by Hess and Handel: Moreover, a variety of other family communication practices function to enhance meaning-making within the family system, such as telling stories, creating family rituals, communicating rules and roles, communicating intimacy, and communicating control. What follows is a brief discussion of each function.

Managing Separateness and Connectedness Communication serves to facilitate the emotional connection or cohesion of families and balance the emotional distances among members. There are four levels of family cohesion.

Disengaged family members maintain extreme separateness and independence, experiencing little belonging or loyalty.

  • Families low on conversation and conformity orientation are labeled laissez-faire;
  • Through communicative narrative sense-making, families can organize, make sense of, come to terms with, and potentially resolve challenges faced over the life course;
  • Communication privacy management CPM theory explains how family members negotiate and regulate private information through privacy boundaries;
  • Family rules are agreements among members that prescribe and limit their behavior and regulate family interactions;
  • Viewing the family as a system also suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another; rather, they must be viewed as integral parts of a whole family unit.

Connected family members experience emotional independence but share a sense of involvement and belonging. Cohesive family members have a shared family identity with emotional closeness and loyalty, yet they also respect individuality of members.

Family Communication

Finally, enmeshed family members experience extreme closeness and demanded loyalty, with low levels of respect and tolerance for individuality. In many enmeshed family systems, members cannot become properly differentiated that is, become individuals with a strong sense of self and personal identity separate from others in their family.

Research in this area suggests that people with a poorly differentiated self depend heavily on the acceptance and approval of others to whom they are so integrally connected, to the extent that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform.

Convergence communication has been linked to a variety of negative health outcomes, such as eating disorders. This research finds that interpersonal interactions with parents that are intrusive, rejecting, or both are likely to be internalized, result in self-attacks, and can increase the risk of suicide in later life. Family Images or Metaphors Relationship patterns in family systems are often viewed in terms of metaphors or images, allowing people to understand the family in terms of another idea.

  • There was no formal acknowledgment of the study of family communication in the United States until the 1970s;
  • Communicating Power and Control In addition to negotiating closeness, another primary task of the family is negotiating power and control.

A family metaphor is a linguistic comparison that the family makes between themselves and some other idea or image. A family makes these comparisons because it helps their members construct and maintain their collective identity. For example, a person might describe his or her family image as a tree, depicting strong roots, a solid base, and branches with a lot of people connected, but still going in different directions.

A family image may change if, for example, a parent leaves, as in our case. Family Themes In addition to images, a family theme establishes what is important to a family and offers behavioral prescriptions for how family members should interact with one another and with others outside the family. Like images, family themes may not be explicitly stated by family members, but they may be implicitly communicated through interaction.

Boundaries Family boundaries mark limits within and outside the family. These lines of demarcation indicate who is in and who is out of a system. Internal boundaries govern the way that members communicate within the family, such as who can talk with whom about what, and external boundaries convey family membership, as well as what information is permissible to share outside the family system.

Younger family members learn about what information they can share with others through directions from parents and older members and, often, by making mistakes and being sanctioned. Members expect a certain amount of secrecy in their family, and setting boundaries in family relationships may be viewed as healthy family functioning.

Boundaries are characterized by permeability and the degree to which the system is open to influence. Permeability refers to boundary flexibility, or the ability for people and information to move easily across boundaries.

Open boundaries support the flow of people, as well as information among family members. Closed boundaries restrict the flow of information among people. The flow of information in systems must be adapted to any system change. When closed boundaries impede system adaptation, boundary ambiguity and family stress may occur. Boundary ambiguity may occur when family members are uncertain about who is in and who is out of the system and what information is permissible to share with those individuals.

Michelle Miller-Day

In the case illustrated at the beginning of this entry, Heather, Ron, and the entire extended family in this scenario will likely need to negotiate new family boundaries.

For example, who is in and out of the family system, new boundaries around who can and cannot share certain information, and with whom information can be shared. Communication privacy management CPM theory explains how family members negotiate and regulate private information through privacy boundaries.

Privacy boundaries can range from thin and porous filters to thick, impermeable barriers that shield deep, dark secrets. But whenever we share a portion of that information with someone, we are reshaping a privacy boundary. Boundaries change over time, and boundary rules may be altered. For example, a common boundary exists around the topic of sex. Information about sex and sexuality is typically restricted to the marital couple when children are young, but once a child hits adulthood, the boundaries between parents and children and the topic may become more flexible and permeable.

In addition, the topic of death may be rigidly ignored in a family, with the topic being kept out of any dialogue; but when a grandparent becomes terminally ill, the family may adapt, change boundary rules, and increase the permeability of the boundary around the topic, thus allowing a more open flow of information around the topic within and outside the family system.

Once private information is shared with another, it is coowned. Those who share the information communicatively coordinate the rules of coownership. This is referred to as boundary rule coordination. Sometimes privacy boundaries are not coordinated effectively and this may result in boundary turbulence, and possibly a privacy dilemma.

CPM is a very useful theory in the field of family communication because family members are often faced with making decisions about revealing and concealing information both within and outside the family system.

One particular way of sharing family information within and outside the family system is through telling family stories. Telling Stories Families tell stories.

They tell stories about critical events in family life and mundane occurrences that have meaning.