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Distant Yet Existent: Networked-Dependence Theory and the Communicative Constitution of Functionally Estranged Family Relationships

Jordan Allen, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


While the theories and methods used to investigate estranged family relationships vary, most frame estranged family relationships as negative, inherently conflictual, and the result of dysfunction. The pilot study and present dissertation question the negative frame of estranged family relationships, focusing on family members who perceived their own family estranged relationships as functional familial relationships in a culture that privileges intimate family relationships. Centralizing critical questions of power, my overarching purpose was to understand how functionally estranged family relationships were communicatively and materially constituted and challenged. I developed and employed networked-dependence theory, putting Galvin’s concept of discourse dependence into conversation with Latour’s actor-network theory. This theory integrates a posthuman approach to critical interpersonal and family communication by investigating how standardized network formations, comprised of human and non-human actants, perpetuate unjust operations of power that marginalize non-normative family experiences such as functionally estranged family relationships. I undertook 36 in-depth interviews with persons who self-identified as having a functionally estranged relationship with one or more family member(s). I employed Tracy’s iterative qualitative analysis to identify, critique, and disrupt human and non-human interactions that marginalize estranged family relationships. From the analysis, I first developed a flexible typology of functionally estranged relationships based on the degree participants valued intimate family relationships and how positively participants framed their estranged relationships. Second, I analyzed participants’ experiences about their functionally estranged relationship for human and non-human interactions, identifying challenges to participants’ functionally estranged family relationships Third, I investigated participants’ marginalized experiences finding that participants felt distressed and isolated due to the dysfunctional construction of estranged relationships. Fourth, I examined how participants resisted negative characterizations of their family relationships by establishing alternative network formations that deconstructed the intimate familial ideal and normalized their estranged family relationships. Contributions of networked-dependence theory are offered, along with implications for interpersonal and family communication and practitioners working with estranged families. I draw conclusions integrating posthuman and new materialist theories with the study of non-normative relationships that can help scholars identify, critique, and disrupt unjust operations of power.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Allen, Jordan, "Distant Yet Existent: Networked-Dependence Theory and the Communicative Constitution of Functionally Estranged Family Relationships" (2018). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI10793805.