Communication Research Investigates the "Black Sheep" of the Family

Being a “black sheep”* can be a challenge, especially when differences put a strain on family relationships. "Black sheep"*, or marginalized family members, are individuals who are excluded from or disapproved of by their families because they act or hold values outside of the social norm. For some, events like holidays or reunions become a time of contention and anxiety, as values or personality conflicts spark negative conversation or leave them blocked from conversation completely.

Assistant Professor of Communication Elizabeth Dorrance Hall specializes in research about relationships between marginalized individuals and their families. Dorrance Hall has conducted several studies in the hopes that her findings can help marginalized people and their families practice positive communication and rebuild bonds when it is healthy to do so.

“It’s a process that involves everybody,” said Dorrance Hall. “It’s a difficult position to be in in the family, and my studies show the importance of communication in [addressing] this feeling of being marginalized. Communication scholars have a lot to say about this and how [improved communication] could help people.”

Participation in Family Events

In a study with 30 participants who self-identified in online surveys as marginalized family members, Dorrance Hall investigated what she labeled as turning point events. Turning points are important events that make someone feel more or less marginalized, such as weddings, births or funerals. When she began the research, Dorrance Hall believed the type of event would play a primary role in feelings of marginalization. What she found was that the way in which marginalized family members and their families communicated at a given event played a larger part in those family members feeling marginalized than the event itself. 

“The good news here is that communication really mattered,” Dorrance Hall said. “[The event] could be graduating or it could be moving out, but it would be a good or bad experience based on how the people involved handled it.”

An example Dorrance Hall gave was weddings, which was a common turning point event brought up by participants during interviews. A marginalized family member who was invited to attend or participate in the wedding and encountered positive communication with their family felt far less marginalized than one who was invited but then left out of the family group picture.

Dorrance Hall was also surprised to find that some participants whose feelings of marginalization came from leaving their family’s religion talked about later returning home and still having a positive experience in a religious setting. 

“For example, seeing a younger sibling go through a religious ceremony brought them closer together,” said Dorrance Hall. “The participant realized they could leave the religion but still respect what was happening and be part of the sibling’s life.” 

Resilience in the Face of Adversity

Although she began the study by looking at turning point events, Dorrance Hall discovered another component that repeatedly appeared in interviews with participants—resilience. The theme of resilience reoccurred so strongly in the research that she decided to write a second paper with the same group of participants with a focus on coping mechanisms.

“Once I started asking [marginalized family members] about events and who they turned to for support, it became obvious that resilience was going to be part of this study,” said Dorrance Hall. “At the end of the interview, a lot of people would come around to the idea that they weren’t glad marginalization happened to them, but that they are who they are today because of it and it had some positive influence on their life. That kind of positive thinking is part of how they’re resilient and cope with being marginalized.”

The number one coping strategy participants used was seeking support from their social networks. This network might consist of allied relatives such as siblings or friends who function as family, which Dorrance Hall referred to as voluntary kin.

“These are strategies that are already working for people,” said Dorrance Hall. “It’s difficult on all sides, but communication is really powerful in families. I think communication can make that difference in being mindful of what you say and how you say it. A lot of people talked about things getting better over time, so I think there’s a lot of hope there.”

*The term black sheep historically refers to the recessive gene for black wool in sheep. Black wool cannot be dyed and therefore was worth less, making black sheep less desirable to farmers. The term “black sheep” is used in Dr. Dorrance Hall’s research recruitment materials as it is the colloquial phrase known in the U.S. for family member marginalization. Her work recognizes that the term links blackness with undesirability and therefore she uses the more precise conceptual label of “family member marginalization” wherever possible.

By Kristina Pierson