Family stories and storytelling: Windows into the family soul

Jody Koenig Kellas, April R. Trees

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

19 Scopus citations


Stories are ubiquitous, taken-for-granted threads in the fabric of our linguistic, cognitive, and relational lives. Humans make sense of life through narrative without even knowing it (Bruner, 1990; Fisher, 1987). Although often everyday, mundane, and repetitive, stories also serve as unique, informative units of discourse and/or modes of thought, sensemaking, identity construction, and constitutive talk. Family stories draw people in, teach them lessons, and stay with them long after they've been told. They are at once entertaining and horrifying, sad and hopeful, everyday and far-reaching. They are passed down from generation to generation and pepper the daily or weekly conversations between family members. Family stories help us make sense of, celebrate, and cope with happy and dificult lived experiences. In short, stories are in many ways at the center of daily, communicated family life. Just as “stories are data with a soul” (Brown, 2010), families are stories with souls. Stories affect and reflect what really matters to a family (Stone, 2004) and telling them constitutes the bright and dark sides of family culture and meaning (Koenig Kellas, 2005; Koenig Kellas, Willer, & Kranstuber, 2010). According to Fiese and Winter (2009), “family stories are verbal accounts of personal experiences that are important to the family, depict rules of interaction, reflect beliefs about the trustworthiness of relationships, and impart values connected to larger social institutions” (p. 626). Family stories provide a window into family culture (e.g., Koenig Kellas, 2005), typically through an analysis of the content, coherence, and communicative processes of the story and storytelling interaction (Fiese & Winter, 2009). The research on family stories is embedded within an extensive body of research on narrative that spans disciplinary and paradigmatic lines. Narrative is at once known as a paradigm (Fisher, 1987), the center of a paradigmatic shift (i.e., the narrative turn, see Bochner, 2002), a method (Riessman, 2008), a genre (Ochs, 1997), and a discourse unit (Labov & Waletsky, 1967). It is also the focus of theoretical insight into the ways in which humans both make sense of, and create, identity (for a review, see Koenig Kellas, 2008). In the current chapter, we offer a glimpse into the family soul by showing what narratives say and do in the realm of family life. We review literature on the functions of family stories in and beyond the family system, including creating, socializing, and coping. In addition, we issue a call for future research on family stories and storytelling that is empirically tested, theoretically driven, applied, and socially significant.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Family Communication
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781136946370
ISBN (Print)9780415881982
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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