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Boundary Ambiguity

Cultural Differences In The Experience Of Boundary Ambiguity

Although all families face the challenge of boundary maintenance, cultural value orientations affect how they perceive and respond to ambiguity and even how they may practice denial. First, families from different cultures hold different values about exits and entries themselves. In some cultures, for example, parents see themselves as failures if their children do not move away and become independent; in others, parents consider themselves failures if their children do. In some cultures, family interaction is relatively democratic; in other, hierarchy and parent-child distance are valued more highly than is open intergenerational communication. Exits and entries thus are assigned different meanings from one culture to another, and what may be considered ambiguous in one may not be in another.

Cultures also hold differing values about time, relationships, and nature (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck 1961), and these values will affect a family's response to ambiguity. For example, in cultures oriented toward submission to or harmony with nature more than mastery over nature, a socially appropriate response to incomplete information may be resignation. In a culture that more highly values mastery over nature, an aggressive search for the missing facts may be expected by both the family and others around them.

Another example may be found in cultures that value the past more highly than the future. In such cultures, members who have died or disappeared are often kept psychologically present. In China, Africa, and India, for example, ancestor worship is one means of the ongoing integration and unity of the family. Departed members have an ongoing role in family decisions and behavior, and living members can, in some cases, influence the peace of their ancestors by their own present behavior (Augsburger 1986). In such families, maintaining psychological presence of an absent member may be much more functional than it would in a culture more oriented to the future.

Even denial may be influenced by cultural values. Our cultural context teaches us what we should and should not notice and how to interpret what we do see. Families do not respond to ambiguity in a vacuum. Perhaps families who are able to incorporate elements of other value orientations do best. Boss found, in her research with families coping with dementia, that "both mastery and a spiritual acceptance of the situation are highly functional for caregiving families as they live with the ambiguous loss of Alzheimer's disease. Indeed, those who use only mastery manifest the most anxiety and depression" (Boss 1999, p. 116; see also Kaplan and Boss 1999).

A special case of boundary ambiguity related to cultural value orientations is that of immigrant families. When a family must flee a dangerous situation in their home country, they may come to a new country with few economic and sociocultural resources. Family members may be left behind, and the new context may hold no familiar traditions or rituals. Parents may be homesick and emotionally preoccupied with the well-being of loved ones far away and therefore be psychologically absent for their children.

Monica McGoldrick and Joe Giordano note that "migration is so disruptive that it seems to add an entire extra stage to the life cycle for those who must negotiate it. Adjusting to a new culture is not a single event, but a prolonged developmental process that affects family members differently, depending on their life cycle phase" (1996, pp. 17–18). The normative boundary ambiguity that all families face is exacerbated by the additional stressors of immigration and adaptation to a new culture. Families who migrate with adolescents may face some of the most daunting challenges: They will soon be launching children, with the attending ambiguity of that exit, and they may not be able to honor the family obligations expected of them by absent members still in the home country. Thus, immigration creates a kind of boundary ambiguity in which the family may wonder whether they themselves are in or out: in or out of their extended family, in or out of their home culture, in or out of the new culture.


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsBoundary Ambiguity - Coping With Boundary Ambiguity: Two Approaches, Cultural Differences In The Experience Of Boundary Ambiguity, Helping Families Manage Boundary Ambiguity