Family is a basic social unit that involves people at multiple levels. After leaving their family of origin most people start a new family of orientation. Family communication is a field of study aimed at finding out what functional and dysfunctional family interaction is. According to Chris Segrin and Jeanne Flora in Family Communication(2005), "communication constitutes family and is situated at the heart of family processes." Family problems such as divorce, child abuse and domestic violence are in fact communication problems that can be better understood and maybe even prevented by studying the forms, functions and processes of family communication.
In order to be able to study family communication one should have definitions of both family and communication. Apart from the scientific reasons to define what a family is, there are also political and legal reasons. In addition, people also have clear social and practical needs to explain to others who is in their family. There are several ways to define family - by form (structural definitions), by function (task-orientation definitions) and by interaction (transactional definitions).
One classical structural definition was given by pioneering US marriage counselor Paul Popenoe (1888 to 1979) as cited in Family Communication - family is "a relatively small domestic group of kin (or people in a kin-like relationship) consisting of at least one adult and one dependent person." Thus a married or cohabitating couple is not considered family. There are also wider structural definitions according to which a family is a group of at least two people related by blood or law and living together. Structural definitions are very clear and usually assume a hierarchy of family members. However, they are not always suitable for the purposes of family communication research as they use external, objective criteria and are sometimes too narrow.
While task-orientation definitions may also comment on form, they define family primarily by function. The main functions of a family are socialization, nurturing, development and financial and emotional support. According to one classic task-orientation definition, given by Richard Lerner and Graham Spanier, family is a social unit that takes responsibility for the socialization and nurturing of children. Thus there are no structural limitations in order for a social unit to be viewed as a family. This classic definition has been expanded to acknowledge the need to nurture and socialize family members in general.
Transactional definitions extend the task-orientation definitions, saying that a family is a unit of interacting personalities rather than just a group of people performing certain tasks for one another. As transactional definitions emphasize the importance of communication among the individuals in a family, they are preferred by many family communication scholars. Task-orientation and transactional definitions are generally considered to be more fluid and broad than structural definitions, which is an advantage from a scholar's point of view.
Communication is also a term that has various definitions reflecting different perspectives. "Communication is a transactional process in which individuals create, share and regulate meaning," as defined in Family Communication. According to one main communication concept, people communicate using both digital and analogic codes. Digital codes, for example words and numbers, are symbols, which means that they are not necessarily related to the things or ideas they represent. In family communication research each family is viewed as a mini-culture and as such it develops its own symbols like nicknames or family jokes.
Analogic codes are, in contrast, directly related to the meaning expressed. Most nonverbal types of communication (facial movements or expressions) are analogic codes and they are an integral part of family communication. For example, a no smoking sign showing a picture of a cigarette crossed by a diagonal line uses an analogic code, while a sign reading "no smoking" uses a digital code.
Communication is a mutual process that relies on intersubjectivity, or shared meaning. The level of intersubjectivity in families is high as family members share history and common experience. Giving and receiving feedback is an important part of the communication process that makes it clear whether the message was interpreted by the receiver as it was intended by the sender.
Many family communication scholars focus on communication in various family dyads (marital communication, parent-child communication, sibling communication) as they have their background in interpersonal communication studies. However, family communication always takes place in a whole family system, even if just between a dyad, so there are an increasing number of scholars who focus on whole family interactions.