New version of us: the integration of personal communications technology into family network consumption practices
Marchant, Caroline Ann
Previous family studies in consumer research have tended to focus on individual family dyads within an often traditional, nuclear family structure. Furthermore, the third generation is often excluded from family, studied separately, or seen as burdensome. Therefore, there is currently a limited view of inter-generational family network influence on consumption. Another limitation of prior research is that whilst personal communications technology (PCT), such as smartphones, PCs/laptops, tablets, emails and social media, are increasingly prevalent in family life, little is known about their day-to-day role in family consumption practices. This research contributes to knowledge by enhancing understanding of PCT socialization within three generations of family and how this relates to ongoing consumption practices. More broadly, it offers insights into the under-researched phenomenon of consumption practices within inter-generational family networks. This interpretive and exploratory study takes a practice approach in order to consider the role of PCT in facilitating family communications and consumption practices. Using friends as the point of entry, 50 participants took part directly in the study which included 5 families extended across three generations and multiple households. A further 93 family members were discussed in interviews. A four stage data generation process involved group/individual interviews, participant diaries and PCT data records. The findings contribute in key ways to consumer culture theory, first by increasing understanding of family communities in the twenty first century. Families defined themselves usually (but not exclusively) by blood and emotional connection, with functional interactions and/or shared interests determining the closeness of family ties. Secondly, a family network approach identified 'family socialization bundles' influenced by complex and lifelong traditional, reverse, horizontal and reciprocal socialization which has not been fully considered before. PCT practices enabled the flexing of time and space to give a sense of family community via specific 'family network identity bundles' that were created and maintained around shared interests and emotional and practical support. There was the emergence of PCT-related roles with increased involvement from men and the development of individuals as 'technical experts', 'family glue' and 'reluctant socializers'. PCT was important within family networks, facilitating communications in three nested wheels within wheels. The inner wheel turned daily and PCT enabled continuing conversations when family members were physically apart. The middle wheel turned more slowly as communication with these family members tended to occur weekly or monthly for updates and emotional support. The outer wheel included family who communicated once or twice a year for specific reasons such as birthdays or Christmas. If PCT routines were broken within the three wheels, there was often anxiety, tension and even paralysis across the family until contact was re-established. The research suggested that changing performance in practice created new digi-family networks, where PCT and humans combined to connect family and establish communities, creating a ' new version of us' (Miller 2010). There was often a perception-action gap in older generations in that PCT was used more than they initially realised and stereotypes of digital natives/immigrants were sometimes challenged. There was a gap between the haves and have nots - or can and cannots - within families. For whatever reason, those who were remote from PCT-related practices were becoming more isolated from the family community which could create inequality in the new version of us and potentially in society as a whole. Overall, the study challenges the reliance on parentchild studies or households to represent family in research, given the ways that multiple family members, across generations and households, communicate with and influence each other through their use of PCT.
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