Family ties: Patterns of connectedness in one American family

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Marjorie DeVault


Connectedness, Family solidarity, Intergenerational bonds, Close-knit families

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


In recent decades, the state of American families has dominated public discourse as a subject of concern and often rancorous debate across academic, political, religious, and social welfare communities. As patriarchal authority, economic production, and the transfer of land and property have waned as material incentives for kinship solidarity, questions arise concerning what emotional and psychological "glue" remains to bind family members to one another across geographic and generational distances in postmodern times. As contemporary patterns of divorce, remarriage, single-parenthood, and cohabitation complicate traditional definitions of "family", people are obliged to fashion new meanings to make sense of the changing familial terrain. As these new meanings begin to shape the choices and life arrangements of new generations of Americans, social scientists concerned with the future of families may be well advised to focus attention on the specific ways in which ethnicity, social class, and rapid social change may interact to maintain, attenuate, or strengthen solidarity among siblings, parents and children, and extended-family relatives.

The present study addressed these issues from within the situated context of a single large, Italian-American family. Employing an ethnographic approach influenced by concepts from grounded theory, social organization, and ethnomethodology, the study investigated the practices, perceptions, and shared meanings that constitute the "family ties" of the DiVoli family and their relatives in a small Northeastern American town. Using a combination of participant-observation and semi-structured interviews, I draw from my unique standpoint as the partner of a DiVoli family member to develop an emergent understanding of what "family ties" mean to the DiVolis and their relatives, how those ties have been maintained over time, and how they shape both the socially organized practices of the family and the individual lives of family members.

"Family ties" emerged from the data as structural and interactional phenomena producing patterns of behavior persisting over time, while continually adapting to environmental contingencies. Three varieties were identified: ties of shared experience, attachment, and obligation, all of which appeared to exert a centripetal attraction, drawing family members into closer relationship, in response to centrifugal social forces such as career mobility and individualistic cultural trends.


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