Theoretical Perspectives on Family
In this chapter we review a number of influential theories of family communication and relationships. Although not all of the theories discussed in this chapter were explicitly developed as theories of family interaction per se, each has been widely and fruitfully applied in the scientific study of families.
What is a theory, and why do social scientists develop theories? Simply put, a theory is an explanation of a fact pattern. Social scientists generally do not develop theories to explain individual cases or incidents. Rather, theories are developed to explain how and why certain things happen, particularly when those things happen repeatedly. For example, scientists and therapists realized that a lot of couples who get divorced exhibit certain patterns of destructive conflict. For that reason, they attempted to develop a theory that explains how and why conflict can harm a marriage (see chaps. 4 and 11 for further analysis of this issue). If only a handful of divorced couples had problems with conflict, scientists probably would not have been motivated to develop an explanation for why conflict harms marriage. Scientific theories serve a number of useful functions. Perhaps the most basic function of a theory is to explain how and why a phenomenon occurs or operates. A related function of theories is to predict when a phenomenon might or might not happen. For example, in recent years there has been great interest in developing theories of divorce that allow for prediction of who will divorce and who will stay married. In addition, theories sometimes allow scientists and therapists to control a phenomenon. If a valid theory of divorce explains the phenomenon as caused by dysfunctional communication patterns, instituting training seminars or therapy techniques that address those communication problems might be a useful way to lower the divorce rate.
In this chapter, we present an analysis of family systems theory, symbolic interaction theory, social learning theory, attachment theory, and the dialectic perspective. Notice how each theory offers different explanations of how and why family interactions function as they do. It is important to keep in mind that no theory offers the one and only explanation for a fact pattern. There are often multiple explanations for why family interactions function as they do. The utility of a theory is therefore determined, at least in part, by how well it holds up under empirical scrutiny. In other words, are the available data consistent with the propositions of the theory? All of the theories discussed in this chapter have been associated with numerous studies that support the essential components and elements of the theory.