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Vol. 16, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676


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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

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review. For more information, click here.



Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Contemporary Family Communication: Starting Dialogues that Inform our Scholarship


Rebecca J. Dumlao, Guest Editor

Family communication in the information age. Sound like a complex topic? It is.

Family communication in the information age, the subject matter for this special issue, holds important implications for leaders in the Family Sciences. Both interpersonal communication and mass media communication are changing rapidly in our world and are impacting the lives of the families we study and serve.

The impact of that communication is continual and significant. Families are affected both in the home and out by communication about health, about politics and law, about different cultures, about conflicts, and about other subjects as well. Messages from print, computer, television, and still developing communication technology are very much a part of modern family life.

My own interest in family communication started long before my academic training. I have lived in nuclear families (as a child and as a parent), single parent families (both as a child and as a parent), a stepfamily (as a parent), and extended families. I have been intrigued with and informed by different family communication practices as I’ve lived or worked in close proximity with people from varied cultural backgrounds both in the United States and abroad (especially in Trinidad, West Indies).

My academic training started in Home Economics Education (B.S., Penn State, 1977). I completed a second degree in Scientific and Technical Communication (with a focus on families as a “technical specialty area,” (M.S., Oregon State, 1992). My Ph.D. was completed in Mass Communication (with focus on families, their media use, and the effects of media on family life at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1997). I currently work as an Associate Professor in the School of Communication at East Carolina University, increasingly collaborating with scholars in the College of Human Ecology.

Reviewers for this issue have backgrounds in the Family Sciences, Interpersonal Communication, and Family Communication. All of us are excited about the potential for interdisciplinary collaborations on the topic of family communication. Together, we bring a broad base of experience and scholarship to this special issue.

Know that we intentionally cast the net broadly when sending out the call for papers. The intent was to create a “forum” to nurture interdisciplinary collaboration and build common scholarly understandings about family communication practices and processes—and how those may be impacted by mass media. We hope that new understandings and dialogue about family communication will be sparked by this special issue and will make us better able serve contemporary families.

As you read the articles in this special issue I challenge you to keep an open mind about what is meant by communication in each article and to think about ways that particular view of communication could help us understand today’s families and work on their behalf. To offer a framework for your thinking, I’ll use the rest of this introduction as an overview of some key ideas held about communication scholarship today. I’ll also point out some of the differences and similarities in the way the term “communication” is being used by scholars for the articles included in this issue.

Defining Communication

We often talk about “communication” as if we know precisely what we mean, but back in 1970, Frank Dance, a communication scholar, counted over 100 definitions of communication proposed by experts in the field! Since then even more definitions have developed (cited in Wood, 2000).

Popular use of the word communication is roughly analogous to messages or information sent and received, a conception that tends to minimize the challenges associated with communication processes. “The assumption that getting a message from one person to another is sufficient to promote effective change—is overly optimistic. Communication is not, in fact, a neutral act of moving content from one person to another, but a complex transaction influenced by numerous factors” (Poole and Walther, 2002, 4).

Scholars tend to define communication as a process. For instance, Verderber and Verderber (2004) define communication as a process that people use to create and manage relationships, exercising mutual responsibility in creating meaning. O’Hair, Friedrich, and Dixon Shaver (1998) write, “The essence of communication in all contexts is that people exchange messages to accomplish goals and objectives. Because people bring different goals, backgrounds, styles, habits, and preferences to the process, truly effective communication is interactive: each person taking part in the communication listens and responds to the others” (p. 6). Thus, there isn’t any unitary formula for good communication; there isn’t any one right way to communicate for family life to function well! Still, because researchers study multiple factors related to meaning-making across a wide variety of circumstances, communication scholarship does have a vital role to play in societal challenges we face, including those with families.

Consider this: Not long ago, a cross-section of highly regarded communication scholars collaborated on a document which summarizes the relevance of communication to four major challenges in U.S. society: revitalizing our political system, promoting physical and mental health, fostering emerging global organizations, and understanding basic human relationships (See Poole & Walther, 2002). The writers of the document chose three words to describe contemporary communication research: Ubiquitous. Complex. Consequential. It’s easy to look at family communication research, more specifically, using those same three terms.

Ubiquitous. Verbal or nonverbal communication involving family members covers every conceivable topic across a wide variety of settings. As one axiom of modern communication asserts: “You can’t not communicate” (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1976). That is, even when verbal communication is missing, unintentional messages still constitute communication. For example, often nonverbal communications—touch, body positions and motions, gestures, time conceptions, use of space, choice of symbols, etc.—happen without a word being spoken but they still contribute to meaning-making. Communication is very much a ubiquitous part of family life!

Complex. Communication involves different processes concerning the systemic use of symbols that people use to form meaning (Modified from Wood, 2000, 10). Communication scholars look at those processes, systems, symbols, and the meanings people create in a variety of settings—including those settings where family members live and work. Communication researchers also focus on how people use messages to inform, persuade, manage, relate, and influence each other in various cultures, using a variety of channels and media (Poole & Walther, 2002). All of these elements can be considered in light of families and family members. Clearly, communication in family life is complex!

Consequential. Virginia Clark (1995) rightly pointed out that communication is the critical component of change. Others have argued that communication is the foundation of family life (Bochner, 1976), the means for creatively solving problems across cultures (Ting-Toomey & Chung 2005), central to the process of constructing meaningful and fulfilling relational support (Galvin & Wilkinson, 2003), the way families create and maintain themselves (Handel & Whitchurch, 1994). All those things matter greatly in family relationships. Communication is consequential for families!

Family Communication Scholarship in This Issue

When you cast a wide net for articles as we have done, you don’t know exactly what you will get or how the theme will be interpreted. We haven’t been disappointed in the breadth of topics chosen or the diverse disciplinary backgrounds/perspectives of contributing authors. We believe these articles offer important contributions about understudied topics.

Rebecca Dumlao offers an overview article that summarizes key family communication constructs as reflected by select articles, books, interviews, and a preliminary survey of top family communication scholars conducted by the National Communication Association. She explores different assumptions about family communication that are commonly used by family communication scholars. Finally, she poses frontiers for interdisciplinary scholarship about family communication in the information age.

Peggy Meszaros and her colleagues take an intergenerational look at communication between mothers and daughters about their career decisions using qualitative interviews. This article focuses on dyadic communication within a specific subset of family members working toward a specific goal: career decision-making. Importantly, this article considers how communication processes may have systematically changed across generations affecting the “quality and quantity” of mother-daughter conversations. The article, while unique, focuses on the important intersections between work and family life. Like the other articles in the issue, this piece offers some practical suggestions about how to improve the communication processes in family life to foster career success for daughters.

In their groundbreaking work, Ann Marie Cianci and Diane Ferrero-Paluzzi point out that family communication is a missing, but crucial element for counseling hearing aid patients. They argue persuasively that family communication and especially metacommunication (i.e., communication about communication) needs to be an integral part of training for Audiology Ph.D.s. These authors look at communication from multiple vantage points: (a) as sending and receiving messages with special focus on the physical hearing process that is essential to listening; (b) as a system of communication that involves family members making meaning about relationships and interactions; (c) as a location for conversations with an audiologist for ways to use hearing aids to improve the overall family communication system; and (d) as a means for educating audiologists so they can better understand and serve the individuals and their families. Thus, they offer readers important conceptual foundations for better understanding some of the issues that families with a member experiencing hearing loss might face.

Amy Epner and Kevin Gross make an important contribution to the growing, yet still sparse, research on family communication and new technology. Their study zeros in on perceived effects of email on family relationships using data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. They consider how the family system may be impacted by members’ use of email, looking specifically at who uses email and how this email use is perceived to function in family relationships. This article draws on theories of mass communication by considering how email may displace other forms of communication as well as what groups of individuals are more likely to use email, making it useful to family science scholars as well as those in mass communication and family communication.

Taken together, these four articles highlight the far-reaching potential for different disciplines to contribute to family communication. I hope that you will be stimulated to pursue dialogues with other leaders in family sciences and communication about the content found in this special issue. There’s a lot to be done to better promote high quality family communication in the information age!


Bochner, A. (1976). Conceptual frontiers in the study of communication in families: An introduction to the literature. Human Communication Research 2, 381-397.

Clark, V. (Spring 1995).Communication: The critical component of change. Kappa Omicron Nu Forum,8(1), 28-31.

Dance, F. (1970). The concept of communication. Journal of Communication, 20, pp. 201-210.

Galvin, K., & Wilkinson, C. (2003). The communication process: Impersonal and interpersonal. In K. Galvin and P. Cooper (Eds.), Making connections: Readings in relational communication, 3rd Ed, (pp. 4-10). Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.

Handel, G., & Whitchurch, G. (1994).Introduction to the fourth edition. In G. Handel and G. G. Whitchurch (Eds.), The psychosocial interior of the family (pp.xiii-xix). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

O’Hair, D., Friedrich, G., & Dixon Shaver, L. (1998). Strategic communication in business and the professions, 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Poole, M., & Walther, J. (2002). Communication: Ubiquitous, complex, consequential. Available online at:

Ting-Toomey, S., & Chung, L. (2005). Understanding intercultural communication. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.

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

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J., & Jackson, D. (1967). Pragmatics of Human Communication. New York: Norton.

Wood, J. (2000). Communication Theories in Action: An Introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

For further information about manuscripts: 

{short description of image}spaceVia E-Mail
spaceDr. Dorothy I. Mitstifer, Executive Director
     Call for Papers


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