7Final Observations

The preceding chapters focused on selected research dimensions that were explored in the workshop presentations and deliberations. Following these sessions, the planning committee met to highlight particular themes that emerged in the workshop and that deserve further consideration in developing research priorities and the infrastructure for studies of family structure, processes, and relationships. The seven themes that emerged from this discussion fall into two categories, with the first three themes derived from prior studies and the following four themes looking toward the future.


Theme 1: The need for interdisciplinary and problem-oriented research on families creates challenges for theory and measurement that can help to integrate diverse areas of inquiry.

Many of the participants in the workshop were not aware of each other's research because they work from diverse disciplinary perspectives and publish in separate journals. Yet the convergence of interest around fundamental concepts related to structure, processes, and relationships yielded productive discussions about novel and complementary ways to define, measure, and analyze these constructs. For example, the convergence of attention to causal inference and measurement of family processes in policy-relevant research on families was discussed at several points during the workshop. Similarly, the integration of biomarkers into family intervention research was another example of a multimethod, multidisciplinary challenge in the science of research on families.

Theme 2: The increasing variety and complexity of family structure, couples' living arrangements, and life experiences require new measurement tools and terminology that can capture the richness of important variations across multiple racial and ethnic groups.

With the changing demography of American families, new measurement tools and terminology will become increasingly important in both quantitative surveys (such as those resulting in census data) as well as qualitative studies that strive to categorize family relationships and partnerships into functional units for analysis. Measuring change in families over time was a challenge at both the within-family (micro) level and at the demographic and population (macro) levels. Self-report information by family members can also be useful in mapping relationships that have meaning and significance in understanding the roles and influences of diverse members of a household or family unit. Efforts to develop appropriate terminology for family structure and networks will need to adapt to these insights.

Theme 3: Qualitative and quantitative studies offer different approaches and different strengths in understanding family characteristics and dynamics. Mixed-methods research studies are sometimes able to blend these distinct approaches, but innovative approaches are necessary to support these efforts in small-scale as well as multi-institutional projects.

More attention is needed to analyze and understand the data from existing large-scale studies. Participants indicated that intensive qualitative studies embedded in large-scale survey or experimental studies, such as the New Hope demonstration or the Fragile Families study were one of the major advances of the last decade in family research. For example, qualitative findings from the Fragile Families study resulted in a change in survey items to examine how many nights per week or month the father was actually sleeping over at the mother's home. In other cases, findings from qualitative research will need to be confirmed by quantitative research (i.e., unwed mothers' desires for marriage). Small-scale team efforts are also necessary to focus on specific areas of interest and to identify new dimensions of family life that would be appropriate for national surveys or large-scale studies. Journals and research sponsors need encouragement and incentives to provide opportunities for papers and activities that will advance understanding of the methods and processes of mixed-methods research studies as well as the findings of the studies themselves. The challenge of publishing multimethod studies in the space allotted for traditional journal articles and grant proposals was brought up by multiple participants in the workshop.


Theme 4: Multiple opportunities are emerging to study family effects on emotional and physical health. Current studies have identified multiple ways in which interactions among family processes and experiences affect health outcomes. These diverse modes of transmission and interactions raise awareness about the importance of integrating studies of fundamental genetic, immunological, and metabolic processes (among others) with problem-oriented work focused on such issues as violence, trauma, substance abuse, mental health, obesity, and other health disorders.

Emerging studies offer exciting and compelling insights, but they often lack a coherent engagement with understanding the family-focused mechanisms that may enhance or impede biological and behavioral processes. Several participants observed that the integration of biomarker, epigenetic, and neurological approaches in family research was a new frontier in both basic and intervention studies. At present, these studies are scattered across multiple research programs that are frequently focused on specific health problems or disorders. The intensive training required for biobehavioral integration in research approaches was another challenge raised by participants in the workshop. These frontier areas of family research offer new opportunities for integrating biological, behavioral, and social context research findings.

Theme 5: Advances in the field of family research will require approaches that can move beyond problem-oriented studies to identify positive family strengths and functioning that contribute to the well-being of family members, especially during times of social disruption and adversity.

Much of the current knowledge of family structure, processes, and relationships is tightly linked to studies of adversity, risk, and psychopathology or disease, but existing studies often focus on these experiences in specific racial or ethnic groups during particular historical periods. The workshop highlighted future directions in the clinical and prevention sciences that will enrich identification of family risk and protective processes that are common to multiple groups as well as productive targets for prevention and promotion. Although some studies are beginning to advance understanding of the ways in which families contribute to the resilience, well-being, school readiness, and healthy development of children, more effort needs to be devoted to clarifying the structures, processes, and relationships involved in these interactions in order to inform the next generation of programs and policies to support America's children and families.

Theme 6: Strategies to combine disciplinary approaches and diverse methods in the field of family research studies involve a sustained commitment to collaboration and rigorous training efforts, as well as institutional and funding support.

Multimethod, transdisciplinary training approaches require sustained and intensive learning in small team contexts. The exemplary multi-method studies presented at the workshop typically involved collaboration among junior and senior scientists in family research. In addition, joint research activities occurred across periods of multiple years, in the service of explicit, problem-oriented research goals. Cowritten grant proposals and journal articles similarly required long-term collaborations among scientists from multiple perspectives. Training programs in multi-method approaches, collaborative team-building research, and careful consultation with review boards and other oversight bodies are important building blocks in strengthening the foundation for future studies.

Theme 7: Recent advances in visual and digital technologies provide new opportunities to advance the use of observational studies in studying family processes and relationships in their natural settings.

These newer technologies, combined with traditional quantitative and qualitative studies and research on fundamental biological and behavioral processes, can contribute to a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics associated with family influences and family environments.


The rapidly changing demographics of American families are currently accompanied by an explosion of new methods, technologies, and understandings in the science of family research. This science is on the brink of a new integration in which the next generation of scientists will combine epistemological and methodological approaches with unprecedented flexibility. The potential for the ability of science to illuminate basic developmental processes in families, as well as productive directions for programs, practice, and policy, is vast. Institutional mechanisms to support this science will need to adapt to the rapid pace of change in the field.