Prisons, Old Cars, and Christmas Trees: A Metaphoric Analysis of Familial Communication

By Pawlowski, Donna R.; Thilborger, Chad et al. | Communication Studies, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Prisons, Old Cars, and Christmas Trees: A Metaphoric Analysis of Familial Communication


Pawlowski, Donna R., Thilborger, Chad, Cieloha-Meekins, Jode, Communication Studies


Though we may not realize it, we find ourselves describing our feelings, expressing our emotions, and analyzing personal relationships in metaphoric language. Individuals may not be able to communicate their true feelings, but may be able to describe how they feel through the use of metaphors (Burrell, 1995). The family relationship is often one where communicating feelings is difficult and therefore metaphors may be an effective way for us to express our feelings. According to Kelley and Sequeira (1997), the ability to communicate well within the family is still a major interest to communication scholars. Research argues, however, that most work on family functioning has been from an outsider perspective, and that the perspective of the family members themselves is limited (Kelley & Sequeira, 1997).

The purpose of this qualitative study is to analyze individuals' perceptions of their family of origin, concept of family, and familial communication through the use of metaphors, particularly during the launching stage of the family where adult children are leaving home and separating from their families. In order to accomplish this, research in the area of metaphors and familial functioning, and how the launching stage may affect familial communication and satisfaction will be addressed.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Metaphors and Familial Functioning

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) define metaphors as "understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another" (p. 5). Metaphors can help individuals to explain their reality through language without literally having to define the experience, thus, making it easier for individuals to address thoughts and feelings that are difficult for them to discuss (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Norton, 1989; Yerby, 1989).

Metaphors can be used to represent individuals' understanding of reality, which shapes perceptions of their family and family functioning (Burrell, 1995; Turner & West, 1998). Family members describe interactions through metaphors because they symbolize and create meaning for such experiences. For example, saying "our communication is like stale coffee" may convey a message of concern about communication within the family by using metaphorical imagery rather than literal descriptions.

According to Lakoff and Johnson (1987), the power of metaphor research is one of the principal means by which we understand our experience and reason on the basis of that understanding. Researching metaphors should not just be used for surface meanings, but taken a step further to evaluate and analyze values, worldviews and behaviors of relationships (Burrell, Buzzanell, & McMillan, 1992). By examining how individuals view the family, we can observe and identify the nature of the family functioning through members' language choices. Burrell (1995) argues that "metaphoric analysis enables researchers to uncover perceptions of how individuals approach and manage family life" (p. 294). Spangle (1991) indicates that metaphors are advantageous in family research because they can convey aspects of attitude, meaning, and emotional perceptions of the family experience.

Family metaphors take on various forms. First, metaphors can be representational acts, which "function as symbols for other messages, values, or concerns in the family" (Yerby, Buerkel-Roethfuss & Bochner, 1998, p. 6). For example, a father giving a child money may represent his love for the child. If the father never verbalizes his love, money is the metaphor for love in that particular family. Galvin and Brommel (2000) argue that if you think about metaphors within interactive systems, individual behaviors and relationships may be seen as metaphors. Thus, communicative behaviors, verbally or nonverbally, represent more than just an act; they symbolize family relationships.

Family metaphors can also act as specific images or paradigms that represent some aspect of the family's collective experience, ideology, or worldview (Galvin & Brommel, 2000; Spangle, 1991; Yerby, 1989), which are important in building a family's view of reality (Yerby et al. …

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