Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor



This study is an exploration into the meaning of the concept of "family", as it is understood by people in everyday life. In contrast to previous research in fields such as family communication and family studies, which have relied on formal, operational definitions of "family" in order to derive generalizations and test hypotheses, this study has focused on family members' accounts of what "family" means to them. Based on conversational interviews with twenty newly married couples, representing a range of different cultural and educational backgrounds, the study has examined the ways in which couples describe themselves as families. Several investigatory procedures were utilized, including questions about who comprises the family group, and what criteria are used to make such judgements; what linguistic terms of address and reference are used by informants toward their parents-in-law, and what are the factors that condition the choice of terms; what conceptual distinctions are revealed in visual maps of the family; and how are informants' accounts characterized in their use of descriptive language. Analysis revealed that for most informants, the definition of "family" entails a set of options based on criteria of personal social contact and intimacy. Very often informants indicated there was some culturally standard meaning of the term, "family", which they recognized, and yet rejected because it was inconsistent with their own experience. Those informants who expressed greater selectivity in their definitions, stressing the importance of personal rather than genealogical relationships tended to use address forms which, for them, were less formal and obligatory. In developing their accounts, informants used a range of different descriptive devices, including spatial images and gradients defined by the dimensions of "closeness" and "distance". It was typical for informants to emphasize the similarities between nuclear family relationships and other kinds of social relationships and experiences, as reflected in comments such as "She was like a sister to me"; "They are like my own family". Taken together, these verbal features indicate a range of multiple, overlapping meanings of the term, "family", in ordinary discourse.