Researcher studies friends who become like family
W hen a mother lost her adult son to cancer, she turned to her son’s best friend, Mike, for solace. He was already close to the family, sharing Sunday meals and appreciating having a substitute mother in his life, because his own had died when he was a boy. Shortly before her son died, the mother sent this e-mail to Mike:
“Are we going to lose you too when this is all over, because I don’t think I could stand to lose you, too?”
“Mom, I would never let you lose two sons that way – I am your son forever,” he replied.
That story falls within one of 110 interviews delving into the significance of the people in our lives who are not family but serve that role. When is a close friend like a sister or a brother? Who would you call in the middle of the night in an emergency?
Professor Betsy Wackernagel Bach, chair of UM’s Department of Communication Studies, teamed up with two other scholars to identify and define “voluntary kin” – the people in our lives who feel like family but who aren’t related by blood or law. Their results will be published in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships this summer.
“In a practical sense, identification of voluntary kin allows people to understand and name the kind of relationship they are in for their edification and self-awareness,” Bach says. “Once you understand the kind of relationship you are in, you can talk about it in a more coherent fashion.”
Bach’s own experiences sparked her interest in the subject. While toasting longtime friendships around a bountiful Thanksgiving table, she felt something else in addition to well-being – an investigative curiosity.
It’s easy to imagine spilling your personal stories effortlessly to Bach in an interview about friends who are like family. She’s humorous, unpretentious and sets people at ease, despite her high-powered leadership roles at the University and nationally. Bach served as the 2009 president of the National Communication Association, with its more than 8,000 educators, practitioners and students representing every state and more than 20 countries. She has helped guide this group in a variety of different roles for almost a decade.
Throughout her career, Bach has focused on communication as a practical tool for navigating complex relations, whether around a dinner table, in a corporate boardroom or even at a crime scene. In fact, Bach’s first job out of college took her to the streets of Holland, Mich., working for the police department. Hired to mediate neighborhood and domestic disputes, she soon trained as a police officer so she could pack a gun and more safely apply her negotiation skills in tense settings.
Back at that contrastingly warm Thanksgiving gathering in Missoula, Bach wondered how her group differed from an immediate family. Does it take another set of communication skills? What happens when a couple divorces? Who stays and who goes from the table? At a fundamental level, what do you call this assembly of close friends without confusing people, since family still denotes the traditional definition?
To explore how people define and navigate chosen relationships that are more amorphous than blood and legal kinship, Bach and researchers from both the University of Nebraska and the University of Iowa surveyed participants ranging in ages from 19 to 76 in their three states. This first phase of voluntary kin research, conducted on a shoestring budget, generated 1,500 single-spaced pages of recorded interviews.
Sifting through the data, four kinds of voluntary kin relationships emerged that the researchers called substitute, supplemental, convenience and extended family.
“Substitute families are usually formed after the death of a family member,” Bach says. The mother who lost her son illustrates this type of voluntary kin relationship. In rare instances, a substitute family results from estrangement. A gay man in the study reported a close friend who became like a brother to him after his own family cut him off.
By far the most common kind of voluntary kin falls under the supplemental family category, often the result of living far away from blood relatives. That’s where the Thanksgiving table comes in.
“This is particularly true of the boomer generation,” Bach says. “I’m fascinated by the generational difference. In 10 years, supplemental families may not be as widespread.”
She explains that since Sept. 11, 2001, more students have attended colleges closer to home than in previous years, so families may not be as dispersed as they once were. With the advent of cell phones and social media, college students now keep in closer contact with their families, which may lessen their desire to stray too far from home.
The generational difference also shows up in the third type of voluntary kin – a family of convenience that tends to be limited to a life stage, such as college or just after high school, when friends share rental homes to save on expenses.
The first three categories – substitute, supplemental and convenience – fall within what Bach calls a deficit model, where kinship comes from an unmet need. In contrast, the fourth, extended (voluntary) family aligns closely with the African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Think of that favorite next-door neighbor or the adult friends of the family who became Aunt Julie or Uncle Bob.
Ultimately, why does it matter that we name and define voluntary kin? Bach points out that chosen family relationships date back to the first century, yet to be relevant to our lives, we need to clarify what family means today. Once we recognize and identify voluntary kin, we’re ready to give more thought to our communication with them.
UM’s Department of Communication Studies focuses on all forms of discourse, which is vital to people’s everyday interactions, whether at home or at work. Students also study rhetoric that emphasizes social movements and environmental controversy. The roots of the discipline extend as far back as Aristotle, while the leaves touch every aspect of modern life.
Communication is the focus of the second phase of voluntary kin research under way. The 50 participants were asked how they converse with their blood-related family compared to voluntary kin, whether in person, by phone, e-mail, text or old-fashioned letters. Bach is analyzing the recent surveys and interviews while on sabbatical this semester.
She also will start examining whether chosen kin influences organizational communication. “I want to find out how voluntary kin relationships form on the job,” she says. “If so, what is the impact on work life?”
Applying academic theory to practical, real-life situations is important to Bach, who has helped higher education, health care, corporate and nonprofit organizations improve communication
in complex settings.
Bach often demonstrates her facilitative skills in the positions she has held at UM, where she served as assistant provost for enrollment management and retention and for two years as the interim dean of the Davidson Honors College. She also founded and directed UM’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Her teaching prowess earned UM’s Distinguished Teacher Award in 1991.
In one of her many academic endeavors, Bach is co-author of a case study about, naturally, a Thanksgiving dinner. The fictitious characters and plot center on a divorce that has rocked the annual ritual of close friends. The underlying purpose of the story is to illustrate many of the findings from voluntary kin research. The result? Bach and her fellow authors have ladled up a feast of palatable data. Here’s a sample that sums up a common denominator among the people interviewed about voluntary kin, an intuitive feeling of connection:
Franco rose from his chair and held his wine glass high. He looked around the table at these people he loved. “What is it about holidays that bring out all these strong feelings? Well, all I know is that we are family. A changed one, but family nonetheless.”
— By Deborah Richie Oberbillig
|(Above) Professor Betsy Bach examines “chosen”