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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Vol. 16, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member,
Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2005. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Family Communication Scholarship: Current Work and Developing Research Frontiers


Rebecca J. Dumlao

Our world is changing rapidly, impacting family life in ways no one could have expected. In the information age, family members must sort through an increasing volume of messages—from media and from other individuals—and decide what to do with them. Family members must learn how to use innovations like email and the Internet at home and in other places. New media technologies, in development, promise to bring even more changes in how families live and work. Thus, media-related challenges for families are likely to continue in the years to come.

Interestingly though, face-to-face family communication may be one of the most important ways that family members deal with mass media. For instance, parents and adult family members can exert considerable influence in monitoring children’s media use, in watching and discussing media portrayals, and in increasing media literacy skills so all family members develop more control over the media messages they receive (Buerkel-Rothfuss & Buerkel, 2001; Potter, 2004; Zillman, Bryant, & Huston, 1994).

Importantly, real-time family communication continues to serve a variety of vital functions for today’s families, many of those functions not related to mass media. Turner and West (2002) contend that communication shapes family life, reflects family relations, is instrumental in family functioning, and is vital in establishing relational cultures. Handel and Whitchurch (1994) point out that family conversations serve to inform others about relationships within the family, to explain how the family fits within the larger culture, and to define relationships among family members. Koerner and Fitzpatrick (2002) state that families survive and accommodate changes from outside social environments based in part by how family members communicate. Olson and De Frain (2003) argue that “communication is at the heart of intimate human relationships—it is literally the foundation on which all else is built” (p. 106).

This article offers an overview of contemporary family communication scholarship. First, I highlight common assumptions about communication processes to provide a base for scholars from different disciplines to increase shared understandings about today’s family communication research. Next, I identify key constructs and vital areas of this research as determined by leading scholars. Finally, I pose some frontiers for interdisciplinary scholarship about family communication in the information age.

Assumptions about Communication in Close Relationships

At its very essence, communication is about meaning-making . Wood (2000) defines communication as a “systematic process in which individuals interact with and through symbols to create and interpret meanings” (p. 10). Communication is a process where each person exerts mutual influence acting simultaneously as sender and as receiver (Turner & West, 2002).

Communication is especially important in families. Family relationships take work to develop as the individuals involved face changes and challenges. Often verbal communication will be used to solve problems, to negotiate roles and rules, and to go about the business of daily life. Nonverbal communication like eye contact, use of gestures, touch, space, time, and facial expressions also help family members get information from one another. Thus, both verbal and nonverbal communication help family members develop shared or co-constructed meanings concerning their lives and their relationships.

Importantly, communication messages can happen on more than one level at the same time. Turner and West (2002) assert that all verbal messages have a content level, literal meaning, and a relational level meaning. For instance, while the content of a verbal message may lead the receiver to draw one meaning, the nonverbal message (e.g., facial expressions or tone of voice) may lead toward a different interpretation.

Moreover, even when one is not communicating verbally, some sort of nonverbal information is likely to be communicated. Although the term “miscommunication” is commonly used when family members don’t understand each other well, communication scholars consider the process as a whole and ask questions about communication factors and contextual features that might have contributed to the divergence of meanings.

Even though scholars from different perspectives may recognize that communication is important to family relationships, they don’t always note that good communication choices aren’t formulaic. There is no one right way to communicate in any particular situation! Indeed, determining what makes “good” communication is complicated and debatable because communicative behaviors are embedded in various assumptions about how the world works and what is most important. For example, Coontz (2001) points out that even though some American teachers promote “open” expression of feelings in their classrooms, this cultural construction about communication doesn’t necessarily fit with regional, class, and ethnic variations in what communication is considered desirable and healthy. Increasingly, family communication scholars must consider how diverse ethnicities, different cultures, and non-western perspectives influence communication conceptions as well as communication practices (Gudykunst & Lee, 2001; Kim, 2002; McAdoo, 2001; Socha & Diggs, 1999.)

So what does communication scholarship offer to families in practical terms? Many communication scholars build upon assumptions about communication competence developed over the past eighteen years of programmatic research by Brian Spitzberg and his colleagues (Spitzberg & Cupach, 1989). Spitzberg says that interpersonal communication competence is a perception that individuals have about themselves or another person based upon how each of them acts when they talk to one another. He argues that judgments about competence come from perceptions about whether communication behaviors are appropriate and effective in a given relational context, rather than from traits or states of individual communicators (Spitzberg, 2000).

Appropriate communication refers to verbal and nonverbal communication perceived to meet expectations of the other(s) involved and to be well suited to the situation. Effective communication, on the other hand, is communication perceived to accomplish the communicator’s goals. Knowledge, motivation, and skill can all influence the relative balance of effectiveness and appropriateness. Finding a kind of balance between effectiveness and appropriateness, in turn, leads toward perceptions of an individual’s communication competence. A rich body of research supports basic ideas of communication competence and its impact in varied communicative situations to include conflicts (Cupach & Canary, 1997), different cultural interactions (Wiseman, 2002), among others. Various conceptualizations of competence also exist within the communication literature.

Verderber and Verderber (2004) identify five categories of communication that contribute to a communicator’s repertoire of expertise and skills, so he/she is likely to be perceived as more competent. These five categories include: (a) message-formation skills that increase the accuracy and clarity of the messages sent, (b) conversational-climate skills that increase the likelihood that the individuals involved will develop a supportive relationship built upon mutual trust, (c) listening-for-understanding skills that work by checking meaning of a received message, (d) empathic-response skills that increase the likelihood that one understands and is responsive to the emotional experiences of the other, and (e) disclosure skills that involve sharing ideas and feelings not obvious to the other in a way that will be honest and sensitive.

Communication scholars back each of these categories of communication behaviors with research; each topic is taught in college courses like gender and communication, intercultural communication, conflict and communication, and interpersonal communication.

Key Constructs and Areas of Family Communication Research

Family communication research, according to Kathleen Galvin and colleagues (2004), started more than two decades ago. At that time few communication scholars researched family issues; instead, family therapists and sociologists conducted research. But that has changed. “Current thinking places strong emphasis on theories and perspectives that reflect multiple research methods and celebrate the diversity of family experiences in terms of structure and culture” (p. ix). In fact, theories and methods used in studying family communication come from both inside and outside the discipline. (See Socha, 2004, for recent developments in family communication theory and methods).

Anita Vangelisti (2004) states, “Multidisciplinary research—from fields including communication, social psychology, clinical psychology, sociology, and family studies—is essential to understanding family communication because families operate as systems” (p. xv).

To help family science scholars increase their awareness of the depth and breadth of contemporary family communication research, four different sources of information were used for this article: (a) a handbook which compiles diverse family communication research; (b) an article which reports a computer-assisted analysis of 33,000 articles over a 28-year period for concepts of family communication; (c) a preliminary survey by the National Communication Association to form a “concept map” of the communication field; and (d) an in-depth interview with the founding editor of the Journal of Family Communication, an academic journal now in it’s fifth year of publication. The result is an informed sampling of family communication research.

Anita Vangelisti, the editor of the first-of-its-kind Handbook of Family Communication, (2004) writes, “a clear understanding of families demands awareness of several dimensions: 1) various developmental stages of the family life course, 2) different forms or structures of families, 3) individuals that comprise families, 4) communication processes that take place among family members, and 5) contemporary issues and concerns that affect family relationships” (p. xv).

All of these dimensions are included in the 767-page handbook that includes articles by internationally known scholars across disciplines. Vangelisti says that contributors “approach family interaction from a number of different perspectives and focus on topics ranging from the influence of structural characteristics on family relationships to the importance of specific communication processes” (p. x). Rather, than review this book in detail here, I encourage family scientists to secure a copy and read the articles for themselves.

Interestingly, as another source shows, Stephen (2001) assessed 33,600 articles in 74 communication serials between 1962 and 1998 to identify important concepts of family communication scholarship and interconnections between those concepts. Using a computer-assisted textual analysis, he identified two large, complex clusters of concepts. Cluster one shows strong links between family and patterns of media use, especially television. This cluster appears to reflect the robust research results gained using McLeod and Chaffee’s (1972) family communication patterns instrument to understand socialization of children about media use. Coincidentally, this family communication pattern’s instrument has been refined to align with family science research (Ritchie, 1991) and continues to be widely used to look at interpersonal interactions between family members (Ritchie & Fitzpatrick, 1990) concerning topics like political socialization (Meadowcroft, 1986), conflict communication concerning television (Dumlao, 1997), family member’s science literacy (Pingree, Hawkins, & Botta, 2000), eating disordered behavior (Botta & Dumlao, 2002), and more.

The second portion of Stephen’s cluster one thematically links issues in mother-child talk related to attachment. He asserts that this cluster appears to form around the concept of attachment as introduced by Bowlby (1969). Research in this area continues (Guerrero & Burgoon, 1994; Bippus & Rollin, 2003). Marriage was a central term for cluster two and linked to that term were ideas of relationship formation and interpersonal attraction. A second cluster related to marriage concerned control and support. Another large part of cluster two addressed issues of intimacy in premarital and other intimate but non-marital heterosexual dyadic relationships. Other topics noted in this research included talk between young adults and parents as well as communication concerns related to self disclosure, divorce, friendship, roles, transitions, stress, and gays/lesbians.

Another way to look at current family communication is to consider a preliminary assessment of communication scholarship. Not long ago, the National Communication Association (NCA) started a “concept map,” interviewing leaders in the field about different areas of current communication study. The purpose of that map is to help EBSCO Publishing create key terms for searching and archiving journals. Thus, the work-in-progress document is not intended to be an “official description” of the discipline, to be considered an NCA publication, nor is the content endorsed by NCA. Still, the four-page, single-spaced listing of concepts includes a wide and interesting array of topics. Many terms listed would sound familiar to family studies scholars—such as stress and coping, social support networks, coping with family transitions, the impact of divorce on children, family satisfaction, child abuse, school attendance, privacy issues. However, other subjects like nonverbal communication involvement in adolescence, verbal and nonverbal affection, person-centered communication, information regulation, and disclosures about divorce may not be as well recognized.

This broad listing of different concepts in the family communication literature proves both interesting and informative; a more in-depth look at selected research is, perhaps, more useful for interdisciplinary conversations. Toward that end, I interviewed Thomas Socha, founding editor of Journal of Family Communication. That interview is quoted here at length.

After considering his own research on communication, race, and family (Socha & Diggs, 1999), Socha said, “To better prepare children for their communication futures, parents need to become more aware of their unique role as teachers of communication, especially intercultural communication. Parents need to ask themselves: Is the way that my child and I communicate today best preparing children for interacting with a wide variety of people from many cultures as adults in 15-20 years?”

In addition, he points out that “to improve communication between African Americans and European Americans, there needs to be a climate of trust. Family communication plays a significant role in creating communicative environments that can foster such trust among children and adults. For example, European-American families who desire to learn more about Africa and African-American cultures send a message to Africans and African Americans that (they) care, respect (them), and are seeking trust. African American families recognizing this interest might assist in that effort and confirm the attempt at trust. Many good things can come from a climate of trust and support.”

Socha also thinks family life can be impacted by other kinds of family communication. For instance, as he considers his research with children and humor he notes, ”Married couples and family units who score higher in satisfaction and stability, laugh. But what family members “laugh at” changes developmentally; in particular for young boys (about 4th grade), their humor picks up decidedly antisocial qualities and almost abandons the pro-social side. Humor messages are necessary, but we have to ask a bit more about what/who are we making fun of, and why? Of course any analysis potentially takes the “fun” out of things, but there are ways that we can have fun without harming others especially family members who are on our (research) teams.”

Other scholars are also doing research that promises to impact communication in future families. Socha offers the following insights about work in those areas: “John Gottman’s marital communication work is already having an impact on preventing divorce, and now he is working on parent-child interaction in his ‘Bringing Baby Home’ project which focuses on the stresses of early parenthood/marriage. Brant Burleson’s work on comforting messages reminds us of a highly significant role that family communication, particularly with children, plays in our well-being. Steve Wilson’s work on communication and preventing child abuse, as well as Michelle Miller-Day’s work on communication and teen suicideality call attention to the significant role of family communication in managing the dark side of family life. There are, of course, many more . . . .” See notes below for representative citations of the work of these scholars.

Frontiers for Interdisciplinary Family Communication Scholarship

Family communication is adding to our understanding of how families work and how family members make meaning of different aspects of their lives. As Vangelisti argues, we need to work together to cover the variety of important perspectives that allow us to “clearly understand” today’s families (See also Whitchurch, 2004). In addition, because family systems increasingly must deal with the influx of messages in the information age, we will increasingly need crossovers and collaborations between scholars in the family sciences and in communication. We must work together to more fully understand what is happening to families and to help them address the challenges of the future.

For instance, Socha points out, “Family communication and boundary management (inside/outside, public/private) is a topic looming large when home media is the focus. There are scores of questions and problems to be studied here. Also, given economic class differences in families of the U.S. and the world, the digital divide and family communication also will be a major topic.”

Leaders in the family sciences and communication will need to share what they are learning in research and teaching arenas in order to best meet the needs of families. Socha says, “In the future, there needs to be greater attention and thought given to family communication during teacher education as well as family communication during elementary and secondary education. There is a need and a desire for high quality information at all these levels, but right now we are focusing on university education primarily. We need to think of sharing ‘in time’ family communication research with those who need it.”

He also notes, “Topics that seem to make a difference seem to be located at intersections or crossroads. For example, combining communication and race and family gets us to focus on topics of racism in new and potentially more productive ways. I think that looking at problems from as many vantage points as possible brings greater understanding of the big picture (wide angle lens) as well as smaller ones (zoom).”

For future scholars interested in family communication, Vangelisti’s five dimensions (2004) offer categories to consider when designing new research projects. Also, the conceptualization of a repertoire of communication expertise (Verderber & Verderber, 2004) can offer a large range of family communication topics to explore. Adding various combinations of those two conceptualizations could produce a vast number of research possibilities.

Leaders reading FORUM have an important opportunity to converse and collaborate on communication topics of interest to contemporary families. Not only will our research be better informed as we work together, but families will benefit ifwe can offer them more complete pictures about how communication works in their daily lives. Communication matters between family sciences leaders and family communication leaders. Our own conversations and collaborations are critical for addressing the multiple, complex challenges families face in the information age!


Gottman, J. (1982). Emotional responsiveness in marital conversations. Journal of Communication, 32, p. 108-121.

Burleson, B., & Kunkel, A. (2002). Parental and peer contributions to the emotional support skills of the child: From whom do children learn to express support? Journal of Family Communication, 2(2), 81-98.

Wilson, S. R., Morgan, W., Hayes, J., Bylund, C., & Herman, A. (2004). Mothers' child abuse potential as a predictor of maternal and child behaviors during play-time interactions. Communication Monographs, 71(4), 395-422.

Miller (-Day), M., & Edward, L. (2002). Family communication, maternal and paternal expectations, and college students' suicidality. Journal of Family Communication, 2(4), 167-185.


Bippus, A., & Rollin, E. (2003). Attachment style differences in relational maintenance and conflict behaviors: Friend's perceptions. Communication Reports, 16(2), 113-124.

Botta, R., & Dumlao, R. (2002) How do conflict and communication patterns between fathers and daughters contribute to or offset eating disorders? Health Communication, 14(2), 199-219.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss (Vol. 1), New York: Basic Books.

Buerkel-Rothfuss, N., & Buerkel, R. (2002). Family mediation. In J. Bryant & J. A. Bryant (Eds.), Television and the American Family, 2nd Ed. (pp. 355-371). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Coontz, S. (2003). Diversity and communication values in the family. The Journal of Family Communication, 3(4), 187-192.

Cupach, W., & Canary, D. (1997). Competence in Interpersonal Conflict. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Dumlao, R. (Feb. 2003). Tapping into critical thinking: Viewer interpretations of a television conflict. SIMILE. Retrieved from

Dumlao, R. (1997). Adolescents’ cognitive processing and interpreting of father-teen conflicts on television. (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Wisconsin- Madison, 1997.) Dissertation Abstracts International, 59, 9810348.

Galvin, K., Bylund, C., & Brommel, B. (2004). Family Communication: Cohesion and Change, 6th Ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Gudykunst, W., & Lee, C. (2001). An agenda for studying ethnicity and family communication. The Journal of Family Communication, 1(1), 75-85.

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Kim, M. (2002). Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication: Implications for Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Koerner, A., & Fitzpatrick, M. A. (2002). Toward a theory of family communication. Communication Theory, 12(1), 70-91.

Meadowcroft, J. (1986). The impact of family communication patterns on political development. Communication Research, 13, 603-624.

McAdoo, H. (2001). Point of View: Ethnicity and Family Dialogue. The Journal of Family Communication, 1(1), 87-90.

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Pingree, S., Hawkins, R., & Botta, R. (2000). The effect of family communication patterns on young people’s science literacy. Science Communication, 22(2), 115-132.

Potter, W. J. (2001). Media Literacy, 2nd Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Ritchie, D., & Fitzpatrick, M. A. (1990). Family communication patterns: measuring intrapersonal perceptions of interpersonal relationships. Communication Research, 17(4), 523-544.

Socha, T. (2004). Introduction: Advancing Family Communication Theories and Methods. Special Double Issue. Journal of Family Communication 4,(3/4), 151-153.

Socha, T. Personal Interview, March 10, 2004.

Socha, T., & Diggs, R. (1999). Communication, race and family: Exploring communication in black, white and biracial families. Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum.

Spitzberg, B. (2000), A model of intercultural communication competence. In L. A. Samovar & R. E. Porter (Eds.), Intercultural Communication: A Reader (9th ed., pp. 375-387). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Spitzberg, B., & Cupach, W. (1989). Handbook of Interpersonal Competence Research. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Stephen, T. (2001). Concept analysis of the communication literature on marriage and family. The Journal of Family Communication, 1(2), 91-110.

Turner, L., & West, R. (2002). Perspectives on Family Communication. Boston: McGraw Hill.

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Verderber, K., & Verderber, R. (2004). Interact: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts, 10th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wood, J. (2002). Communication Theories in Action: An Introduction, 2nd Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Whitchurch, G. (2004). What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? The life and times of a CFLE in a communication studies department. Family Focus, pp. F13-F14.

Wiseman, R. (2002). Intercultural communication competence. In W. Gudykunst & B. Moody. (Eds.) Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication, 2nd Ed. (pp. 207-224). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Zillman, D., Bryant, J., & Huston, A. (1994). Media, Children and the Family: Social Scientific, Psychodynamic and Clinical Perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


Dr. Rebecca J. Dumlao, Associate Professor, School of Communication, College of Fine Arts and Communication, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC.

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