The American family is a complicated institution, and it is rapidly becoming more so. Demographic changes, immigration, economic upheavals, and changing societal mores are creating new and altered structures, processes, and relationships in families. As a result, the lives of infants, children, and adolescents differ in fundamental ways from those of past generations.

As families undergo rapid change, family science is at the brink of a new and exciting integration across methods, disciplines, and epistemological perspectives. The methods used to study families are becoming more wide-ranging, and both senior and junior scientists are combining approaches from a variety of disciplines. No single research methodology can master the complexity of the family. Demographic data are invaluable, but they can be limited by a lack of understanding of new family processes. Qualitative data can provide an essential complement to quantitative data, but they can be limited in estimating large-scale patterns. Assessment of physiological, biological, and epigenetic processes are increasingly being integrated into family research, but these multi-disciplinary and multimethod studies require greater emphasis on team-building and long-term approaches. A strong interest in better understanding how scientific research on the family can be used to improve the health and well-being of children has spawned a large and growing body of findings from various disciplines. The science of family research cuts across demography, anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, education, genetics, neuroscience, and developmental biology. Researchers from these fields use case studies, ethnographies, longitudinal studies, diary and time-use records, assessments, administrative records, biological and genetic assessments, and many other methodologies. The results are theories and hypotheses that reflect many different disciplinary perspectives. Sometimes the conclusions from this research mesh, and sometimes they conflict.

The multiplicity of approaches used to study the family offers an opportunity for new scientific breakthroughs. Studies that combine multiple approaches can reveal fundamental relationships or interactions and create opportunities to bridge boundaries between disciplines and methods. But this multiplicity of approaches also creates challenges. Investigators can disagree on definitional issues, the best way to study families, the most productive research topics, or even the language used to discuss families.

The purpose of The Science of Research on Families: A Workshop, held in Washington, DC, on July 13-14, 2010, was to examine the broad array of methodologies used to understand the impact of families on children's health and development. It sought to explore individual disciplinary contributions and the ways in which different methodologies and disciplinary perspectives could be combined in the study of families. Specifically, the workshop was designed to investigate:

  1. Recent research studies that offer significant contributions to understanding the social determinants of child health and developmental outcomes and health disparities.
  2. Illustrations of quantitative and qualitative methods and approaches associated with research on the diverse structure and dynamic qualities of family environments.
  3. The relative contributions of selected study approaches and methodologies, including studies of marriage and family structure; life-course research studies; studies of human development; methodological research involving experimental, quasi-experimental, longitudinal, observational, survey, and time-use studies; and studies of selected cultural, ethnic, or immigrant populations.
  4. Opportunities for collaboration among federal agencies to improve the quality of research and training in this field and the application of this knowledge base to understanding interactions among family environments and children's health outcomes.

The workshop brought together about 70 researchers, funders, and users of research results on families for a day and a half of presentations and intensive discussions. A major subject of the workshop—and the organizing principle behind this summary of the workshop's presentations and discussions—was the integration of content and methods in family research. How do theory, study approach, and methodology matter from behavioral as well as biobehavioral perspectives? How are qualitative and quantitative approaches best combined in the study of the family? What are the challenges and advantages of a more integrated approach to family research for training and funding?

In discussing the presentations, the planning committee identified seven major themes. These themes—three derived from prior studies, four looking to the future—appear in the final chapter of this summary. Together, these themes provide both a milestone and a roadmap for the transdisciplinary field of family research.

The organization of this summary reflects the theme of integration. Chapter 2 sets the context for the study of the American family by summarizing five studies that were presented from the demographic perspective. Both changes within families and broad population-based change are considered in these studies, which track the leading edge of demographic trends in the United States.

The day-to-day struggles of families with poverty and economic stress remain central to the policy, practice, and research domains of American life. Chapter 3 summarizes presentations from four studies on United States families coping with poverty and economic stress as a way of exploring how quantitative and qualitative data can be combined in family research. Each form of research offers different contributions; together they can present a more complete and accurate picture of family processes.

Researchers in the clinical and prevention sciences, no less than others who study normative processes, are increasingly relying on multiple methods and disciplines to enrich their work on reducing and preventing psychopathology. Chapter 4 features three presentations that looked at specific clinical or problem areas in family research: trauma in young children and its clinical consequences, trauma and depression in parents, and substance abuse among fathers. The integration of disciplinary and methodological approaches in the study of psychopathology and its prevention has much to offer the clinical sciences. Family research draws from many different disciplines, each with its own conceptual models and methodological approaches, and the combination of disciplines can yield results that could not be achieved within a single disciplinary tradition.

Some single research approaches were presented in depth at the workshop. For example, although the full range of biobehavioral approaches was beyond the scope of a workshop of this length (e.g., recent developments in gene-environment interaction or developmental neuroscience were not represented), one presentation focused in depth on biomarker methods related to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, as this area of work has transformed family research in particular. Chapter 5 thus has a methodological orientation, examining three studies from the workshop with distinct research methodologies, using examples from research on biomarkers, child health, and econometric methods. The presentations delved deeply into the strengths and limitations of particular disciplinary and methodological approaches. These studies share concerns and approaches that can form the basis for valuable multidisciplinary initiatives.

The next generation of scientists in family research will have a wider arsenal of methods to bring to bear on the study of children and families. The greater interest in diverse and integrated research strategies will also require innovation in the funding and training institutions for family science in the United States. Chapter 6 addresses the challenges of integration of funding and training opportunities in the new science of family research. It points to the great potential available to funding and research organizations in supporting and conducting research on how families influence child development.

Family research is both basic and applied. It offers opportunities for learning as well as intervention. As several workshop participants pointed out, it is most successful when organized around particular problems. In that sense, the approach taken in the workshop could be applied to the role of family structures, processes, and relationships in addressing a range of difficult issues, such as obesity or injury prevention. This problem-oriented approach could guide a broad-based research program that extends across funders, institutions, and scientific disciplines.

The workshop and this publication were sponsored by the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Administration for Children and Families. Many of the workshop participants were people with experience combining multiple disciplines to study complex family processes. The workshop thus offered an opportunity for researchers and funders to talk together about the most productive approaches and about needed changes. Although the workshop was a self-contained activity, the hope is that it will lead to further initiatives to improve the infrastructure of family research.

The workshop was organized and hosted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council (NRC) through the Committee on the Science of Research on Families within the IOM-NRC Board on Children, Youth, and Families. The board brings the multidisciplinary knowledge and analytic tools of the behavioral, health, and social sciences to bear on the development of policies, programs, and services for children, youth, and families. It informs deliberations about some of the most critical issues facing communities, states, and the nation, including child health and health care services, family support, child care, and early child development; biological and behavioral changes among children and youth; preschool education, school engagement, and youth development; child abuse, family violence, and child welfare; and the prevention of underage drinking and other risky and dangerous behaviors. Many of these topics arose over the course of the workshop, and workshop speakers and participants commented frequently on the potential of family research to make contributions to many of the topics of interest to the Board.

It is important to be specific about the nature of this report, which documents the information presented in the workshop presentations and discussions. Its purpose is to lay out the key ideas that emerged from the workshop and should be viewed as an initial step in examining the research and applying it in specific policy circumstances. The report is confined to the material presented by the workshop speakers and participants. The presentations and discussions were limited by the time available for the workshop. Neither the workshop nor this summary is intended as a comprehensive review of what is known about the topic, although it is a general reflection of the field. Given the constraints of a two-day meeting, the presentations and discussions of the workshop were illustrative rather than definitive. For example, research on family systems was not explored within the workshop, and most of the presentations focused on dyadic relationships

This report was prepared by a rapporteur and summarizes views expressed by workshop participants. The committee reviewed key highlights from the presentations and synthesized discussions for the summary report but the report does not represent findings or recommendations that can be attributed to the planning committee. Indeed, the committee is responsible only for its overall quality and accuracy as a record of what transpired at the workshop. Also, the workshop was not designed to generate consensus conclusions or recommendations but focused instead on the identification of ideas, themes, and considerations that contribute to understanding the topic. Despite these restrictions, the material summarized here points to productive directions. A more comprehensive review and synthesis of relevant research knowledge will have to await further development.