9.2 Family Theories: A New Direction for Research with Resettled Populations

The discourse about immigrant experiences has shifted over time from an emphasis on fairly simple group processes, such as a unidimensional model of assimilation from one culture to another, to complex individual processes, such as intersectionality. Processes that occur at the family level have been largely absent from this discussion.

As we have identified in this textbook, families play a key role in the goals, resources, coping processes, and choices of the resettlement process. Falicov (2005) described how family relationships and ethnic identity during resettlement are “not separate experiences, but they interact with and influence each other in adaptive or reactive ways” (p. 402). Parents, grandparents, siblings, and children all influence one another in their choices about what to retain from their original culture in individual and family life, as well as what to learn and adapt from the new culture. There are many theories within the family and social science fields that can address the complexities of immigrant families through the resettlement process. In this section, we identify several family theories and their application to immigrant families.

System Theory

General systems theory (Von Bertalanffy, 1950) assumes that a family must be understood as a whole. Each family is more than the sum of its parts; the family has characteristics, behavior patterns, and cycles beyond how individual family members might act on their own. Individual members and family subsystems are interdependent and have mutual influence. This theory assumes that studying one member is insufficient to understand the family system. In order to assess patterns of adjustment in immigrant families, we must look both at the structure of the family unit and the processes that occur within that family system. For example, one study collected data from both parents and children in Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrant families in order to assess the role of family processes in clashes over cultural values. The researchers found that cultural clashes were linked to parent-child conflict, which in turn was linked to reduced parent-child bonding, both of which increase adolescent behavioral problems (Choi, He, & Harachi, 2008). This demonstrates one family pattern related to resettlement that can only be understood at the family system level.

Previous frameworks (e.g., structural functionalism) assumed that families always sought to maintain homeostasis (or “stick to the status quo”). General systems theory was the first to address how change occurs within families by acknowledging that although families often seek to maintain homeostasis, they will also promote change away from homeostasis. Systems such as families also have tendencies towards change (morphogenesis) or stability (morphostasis) and for families resettling in a new country and making decisions on what to preserve and how to adapt, there is a balance of the two. Families are able to examine their own processes and to set deliberate goals. Change occurs as the family system acknowledges that a particular family pattern is dysfunctional and identifies new processes that support their goals. Resettlement is one example of a large change that a family system could choose or be forced to make.

Human Ecology Framework

The human ecology framework (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) assumes that families interact within multiple environments that mutually influence each other. These environments include the biophysical (personal variables), the microsystem (the systems in immediate surroundings, such as family, neighborhood, church, work, or school), the mesosystem (the ways these immediate systems connect, such as the relationships between family and work), the exosystem (the larger social system, such as the stress of another family member’s job), and the macrosystem (the cultural values and the larger social system, such as immigrant and immigration policy that influences admission and social system access). In the context of a refugee family, a family might be influenced by the biophysical (e.g., whether or not members were injured as they fled the persecution), their microsystem (e.g., parental conflict while fleeing), their mesosystem (e.g., teachers and school personnel who are struggling with their own trauma from fleeing conflict and thus their ability to provide robust services is impaired), the exosystem (e.g., local leaders who do not consult with women living in shelters regarding their resources needs and don’t provide feminine hygiene products or children’s toys), and countless other environments (examples adapted from Hoffman & Kruczek, 2011). The family may have access to and be able to directly influence the mesosystem and at the same time feel powerless to make changes in the exosystem. Each of these environments will contribute to their coping.

With its focus on interaction with multiple environments, s the human ecology framework is an incredibly useful lens to employ cross-cultural contexts such as when considering immigrant families. For example, a researcher could ask, “How do Hmong immigrant families manage financial resources in their new environment in the United States?” and “How did Hmong families manage their financial resources while still living in Laos?” The assumptions and central concepts of human ecology theory would apply equally in either culture. The needs, values, and environment would be sensitively identified within each culture (See Solheim & Yang, 2010).

Additionally, human ecology theory assumes that families are intentional in their decision-making, and that they work towards biological sustenance, economic maintenance, and psychosocial function. As patterns in the social environment are more and more threatening to the family’s quality of life in these three areas, the system will be more and more likely to seek change, possibly by a move to a new country. The family system has certain needs, including physical needs for resources and interpersonal needs for relationships. If their current situation is not meeting these needs, the family system will engage in management to meet these needs within their value system.

Double ABC-X Stress Model

The double ABC-X model (McCubbin & Patterson, 1983) describes the impact of crises on a family. It states that the combination of stressors (A), the family’s resources (B), and the family’s definition of the event (C) will produce the family’s experience of a crisis (X). The family’s multiple environments inform each component of the model, consistent with the human ecology framework. The double ABC-X suggests that there are multiple paths of recovery following a crisis, and these paths will be determined by the family’s resources and coping processes, both personal and external.

This model is relevant to immigrant and refugee families, as all of these families go through a significant transition in the process of resettlement. Whether or not this transition, or the events that precipitate it, are interpreted as crises will depend on the family’s other stressors (such as employment, housing, and healthcare availability and family conflict), resources (such as socioeconomic resources, family support, and access to community resources), and family meaning making (such as cultural and family values surrounding the decision).

Resilience Framework

The family resilience framework (Walsh, 2003) highlights the ways families withstand and rebound from adversity. Families cope together through their shared belief systems (such as making meaning of their situation, promoting hope, and finding spiritual strength) and family organization (flexible structure, cohesion, and social and economic resources). This framework also draws from the Carter and McGoldrick (1999) family lifecycle model to describe how families transition through stages and major life events, with specific vulnerabilities and resilience factors at each stage. Research that uses the resilience framework with immigrant and refugee families can highlight families’ strengths and identify the ways they thrive through challenges. Chapter 8 is an excellent example of how this framework applies to immigrant and refugee families.

Ambiguous Loss Theory

The family theories listed above can apply broadly to immigrant and refugee families of all backgrounds. Many immigrant and refugee families have a shared background of loss and trauma, and there are family theories that specifically can address these contexts. Ambiguous loss theory (Boss, 2006) describes the ambiguity that immigrant families can feel when they are separated, when family members are physically absent but psychologically very present. This ambiguity and separation can lead to great distress (See Solheim, Zaid, & Ballard, 2015). For a greater description of this theory in immigrant and refugee families, please see Chapter 2 and Chapter 5.


Sunny Chanthanouvong, Executive Director, Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, discusses cultural differences and perspectives between Lao children and parents (0:00-2:28).


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Immigrant and Refugee Families, 2nd Ed. Copyright © 2019 by Jaime Ballard, Elizabeth Wieling, Catherine Solheim, and Lekie Dwanyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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