Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Paradigm of Family Transcendence

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Paradigm of Family Transcendence

Article excerpt

A partial reformulation of Beutler, Burr, Bahr, and Herrin's (1989a) "family realm" proposal is offered, building on that essay and critics' responses to it. We introduce the concept of family transcendence as a unifying theme for family realm characteristics, and we identify several general types of transcendence. We suggest that many apparently unrelated attributes of families are expressions of the essential, limit-stretching, threshold-crossing character of human generational groups. The reaching beyond that distinguishes family life applies to physical and psychological limits as well as to metaphysical experience and reflects the meanings family members give to their connections. The transcendence paradigm is positioned within hermeneutic and interpretive family theory and also is relevant to family ecology theory and life course perspectives. Among the methodological implications of the paradigm are the validation of the individual perspective (grounding at the level of individual consciousness), respect for host subcultures manifested in attention to local meanings and values, and recognition of the ubiquity of connection and the often arbitrary nature of limits and boundaries.

Several years ago Beutler, Burr, Bahr, and Herrin (1989a) offered the "family realm" as an alternative paradigm to help illuminate aspects of family life that were neglected in prevailing theories. They said that family contexts differed in important ways from other settings and that the dominant conceptual frameworks, mostly borrowed from other disciplines, might not be as relevant for studying families as theories created specifically with families in mind. They identified seven "differentiating characteristics," some said to be unique to families, that distinguished families from other organizations. Their perspective, they said, was meant to complement existing approaches and to heighten people's sensitivities to unexplored dimensions of family process (Beutler, Burr, Bahr, & Herrin, 1989b, p. 827).

The present article is a reformulation that builds on that essay and its critiques. After discussing certain problems with the original presentation, we introduce the concept of transcendence as a unifying theme for family realm characteristics. We assess its relevance to family contexts and identify several types of transcendence. In the context of current family theory, a paradigm of transcendence is located in the hermeneutic perspective, with special relevance to discourse analysis, life course models, and family ecology. Finally, we consider some of the methodological implications of applying family transcendence as an analytical framework.


Issues of Terminology or Truth in Labeling

The realm terminology is troubling in its political and literary connotations. Citizens of a realm, united by political organization, owe fealty to an authority. The establishment of a realm may provoke battles at contested frontiers, and its very existence requires the demarking of realm from nonrealm. The realm authors also called their set of characteristics a family "sphere," an alternative that avoids the political baggage of realm, yet connotes separateness, division, and distinctive orbit. Spheres are bounded, have an established shape, and are neatly manipulable. Most objectionably, the image of the symmetrical sphere is incongruent with the nongeometical, amorphous character of family process and meaning systems.

Having decided that neither term would do, we examined the realm essay for other possibilities. Beyond (1) the irreducible core-the birth process and generational ties-were six other relatively unique characteristics: (2) relationships as total persons, (3) simultaneous process orientation, (4) emotional intensity, (5) an emphasis on qualitative purposes and processes, (6) altruistic values, and (7) nurturing governance. Beutler and colleagues said that the importance of these elements was in their holistic application, yet there was no clear pattern or unifying theme. …

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