Family Talk: Discourse and Identity in Four American Families

By Lawrence, Lucie P.; Suter, Elizabeth A. | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Family Talk: Discourse and Identity in Four American Families


Lawrence, Lucie P., Suter, Elizabeth A., Journal of Marriage and Family


Family Talk: Discourse and Identity in Four American Families. Deborah Tannen, Shari Kendall, and Cynthia Gordon (Eds.). New York: Oxford University Press. 2007. 329 pp. ISBN 0195313887. $99.99 (cloth). ISBN 0195313895. $19.95 (paper).

Family Talk offers an intimate glimpse into the private lives of four American families. Based on more than 450 hours of recorded conversations, this unique book provides a groundbreaking view of how four dual-income, American families conduct their everyday lives behind closed doors. Deborah Tannen, Shari Kendall, and Cynthia Gordon draw on personal conversations pertaining to the daily management of household and work, the negotiation of values and beliefs, and relationship maintenance to examine how these families use language to constitute their identities as parents at home and professionals at work. Family Talk adds to existing research on family communication and provides a comprehensive assessment of family discourse. The book identifies new ways in which family members, through their moment by moment discourse, "construct, negotiate, and enact the individual and collective identities that constitute a family" (p. 4).

Data are taken from a 3-year sociolinguistic project carried out at Georgetown University in which four White, highly educated, middle-class families living in or around Washington, D.C., tape their naturally occurring, face-to-face interactions for 1 to 2 weeks. Unlike previous family discourse research based on interactions recorded in the presence of researchers, this discourse analysis is unique in that it is based on relatively uncensored exchanges occurring in a wide range of settings, over an extended period of time, and without the presence of a researcher. The book offers a variety of linguistic studies based on a single set of data in which the same four families are analyzed from multiple perspectives by different authors in the volume.

The authors begin with an overview of themes and chapters, project origin, methodology, and family profiles. Family Talk is divided into three parts based on the broad themes that emerged from the study. Part 1 (Chapters 2 through 5) focuses on interactional dynamics of power and solidarity in the family context and the interactional framing of individual and shared family identities, Part Ð (Chapters 6 through 8) considers the negotiation of gendered identities in relation to the links between family and dual-income work, and Part II (Chapters 9 through 11) highlights the linguistic negotiation of family values, beliefs, and identities.

Although weaknesses in this book were difficult to find, the authors could have expanded the size of their sample and added families with more racial and cultural diversity. All study participants were White, educated, middle-class, and from the same city and, therefore, lacked a diverse mixture of backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs. In addition, a few of the book's chapters were not especially pertinent to family discourse and the current issues facing today's families. For example, in Chapter 3, Tannen explains the discursive strategy of "ventriloquizing" to demonstrate how family members use their pets as resources by which to manage and enact interaction among human family members. Here, the author uses several cases from the transcribed exchanges to illustrate the ways in which dogs become resources in interactions among family members. Although the chapter is an interesting study on how pets are framed through talk as members of the family, this space could have been used to examine a more central dimension of family discourse. …

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