Looking Backward, Moving Forward: Reuben Hill and Future Research on Military Families

by Jay A. Mancini, Ph.D., Department of Human Development and Family Science, University of Georgia; Gary L. Bowen, Ph.D., Department of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
NCFR Report
Content Area
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts

In 1949, Reuben Hill published Families Under Stress: Adjustment to the Crises of War Separation and Reunion. Some 66 years later, we suspect Hill would be surprised to see the enduring influence of his book for understanding the many dimensions involved in military families doing well or having difficulty. For example, a recent introduction to a major handbook on family resilience began with a review of Hill's 1940's framework, as well as the many adaptations of that theory that are accessed today (Nichols, 2013). A recent discussion in a new family theory text explored resilience among military families and invokes Hill's perspective as still relevant, heuristically and addressed the role it still has for promoting newer theorizing and with regard to planning research (Bowen, Martin, & Mancini, 2013). Though Hill's 1949 book did not invoke the labels of ABC-X theory, a reading of the book's content indicates that is precisely what he was presenting in this study of the aftermath of war. We begin our discussion on the state of the science of research on military families by invoking a few conclusions and insights from Hill's classic work on families under stress.

Looking backward: insights from Hill (1949)

Hill's study of the aftermath of war included the following dimensions, in addition to what may be considered "usual" family science variables of interest: financial security, balance of power and social roles of husband and wife, hardships during separation, experiences during separation more generally, modes of communication during periods of separation; hardships of reunion; and overall effects of military service. Among the more specific findings are that

  • serving in the military does not produce a family crisis in every case (for some families, separation was a crisis from which they never recovered, whereas for others it was a sorrowful event from which they quickly recovered, and for others there was indifference or happiness associated with the husband/father leaving and going to war);
  • when families knew one of their members was to be drafted, reactions varied widely (some worried about induction without doing anything to actually prepare for that inevitability, others looked forward to the psychological break that absence represented, other families had spouses who supported a member joining the military and others were clearly against it and unsupportive, and other families dealt with the emotional challenges of the separation well before the actual induction);
  • because men's roles in the family varied, the nature of the family's loss also varied (e.g., roles related to companionship, breadwinning, protector, handyman, and father);
  • financial hardships as a result of the separation were a broad-based challenge to most families, with those families who faced depression-related financial hardships better prepared for the economic consequences of separation (the Great Depression lasted from about 1929 to the World War II period);
  • the disciplining of children in a father's absence was common, yet for many families child discipline was the mother's responsibility to begin with;
  • children were largely undisturbed by the departure of their fathers for military service; and
  • a change in residence of the nuclear family, such as living with grandparents or having grandparents coming to live with the soldier's family once he left, was common.

By and large, what Hill reported is not substantially different from the research focus on contemporary military families, and one potential issue this raises is whether we should be asking the same questions or whether by now a substantially different inquiry should be the case. This is a matter for discussion and debate, but we are not alone in asking this question (Ross, 2014). We are struck by how relevant Hill's findings from the 1940s are for military families today but we are also aware of the significant advances in our understanding of families in the broader field of family science.

Critiques of current research

There has been an exponential increase in the research on military families in recent years, likely driven by post–9/11 wars. Blaisure et al.'s (2012) book is based on hundreds of articles, book chapters, and government accounts that intersect with one or more dimensions of military family life. Calls exist to (a) examine postdeployment family reintegration, (b) delve deeper into how physical injuries recalibrates family life, (c) determine which prevention and intervention programs work, (d) conduct more in-depth examinations of family dynamics across the deployment cycle, (e) account for the special circumstances of dual-military and single-parent military families, (f) study multiple family members' experiences of military life, and (g) study military families in the larger community context (Alfano et al., 2013; Bowen et al., 2013; Marek, 2013; Segal et al., 2015)

Moving forward: next steps in theorizing and research

We argue for an intentional moving forward with the theorizing and the research related to military members and their families. A distillation of various discussions of this area of family research yields the following recommendations. A primary desired change is to conduct research that has a clear theoretical basis. Research on military families has been problem driven rather than theory driven; that is, pushed by a set of problems or concerns that need resolution rather than a testing of what goes into understanding why some families fare well and others do not. Relatively recent reports offer theoretical perspectives for moving in that direction and advancing theoretically informed research that incorporate, yet move beyond, Hill's framework. One example is the work by Bowen et al. (2013), who analyzed the resilience of military resilience from the perspectives of life course theory, symbolic interactionism, and family stress theory. On the basis of their review and application of these theories, Bowen et al. proposed a social organizational approach to more intentionally capture the larger community context as a dynamic setting in which families work and live. Building on the recent work of Wilmoth and London (2013), Segal et al. (2015) offered life course theory as an integrative framework for examining variation in the well-being of service members and their families, including implications for future research. In addition, a team of 19 military and civilian health professionals collaborated recently to advance an integrated model of military family fitness that addresses the mediating influence of resources at the individual, the family, and the community levels on family fitness outcomes in the context of family demands (Bowles et al., 2015). Another desired change is to conduct research that seeks to discover the key elements of family success; in effect, intentionally focusing on families who experience the same set of vulnerabilities but who seem to enjoy more positive results. Hill's use of a case study approach to understand sample families who varied from expected patterns recognized the nuances in capturing variations in family adjustment in the context of family stressors. Of application to this question of multiple pathways is evidence from developmental psychology in regard to process and outcome (Cicchetti & Rogosch, 1996), raising the process of equifinality (multiple pathways leading to similar results) and multifinality (similar pathways leading to substantially different results). Invoking family science theory (Point 1) will help support that research. Scholars also should access theories that account for the multiple contexts in which military families live, including those related to the military lifestyle, and those particularly related to informal networks of friends, neighbors, and others (Mancini & Bowen, 2013). We contend that much of family science research is acontextual and unfortunately treats families as if they were closed systems. For example, we are not aware of any studies with military samples that have examined social organizational processes at the community level and how these contextual effect processes mediate and moderate the influence of family-level factors on outcomes experienced by service members and their families.

A recent edited volume on military families (Moelker et al., 2015) includes an extensive discussion of dimensions of the work–family interface, including discussions of both families and work as "greedy" institutions that military members and families must negotiate and navigate; they recommended a closer look at outcomes from potential work–family conflict as military families confront what MacDermid Wadsworth and Southwell (2011) described as "extreme work." In the deployment arena, they recognized that not all deployment effects are negative (recall that Hill reported this in 1949), which is a refreshing "new" perspective given the views of many family scientists and interventionists. Cozza and Lerner (2013) noted that a preponderance of research on children in military families has focused on negative dimensions of military life rather than also speaking to the strengths that children in military families possess. This call for a more balanced approach to understanding vulnerability is consonant with Weins and Boss (2006), who recommended more studies that use the contextual stress framework approach to focus on family strengths and resilience, rather focusing only on difficulty and dysfunction. As examples, our own research on military families examines vulnerability within the context of resilience, and vice versa (Farrell et al., 2014; Lucier-Greer et al., 2015; Mancini et al., 2015).

Overarching cautions and concerns

Although the military family literature has mushroomed in recent years, it is not without its problems, and therefore we have some reservations. Example cautions for moving this area of study forward include the following. First, many studies of military families are focused more on problems families face and less so on family solutions and strengths; consequently, families appear to be far more vulnerable than may actually be the case. Vulnerabilities cannot be fully understood in the absence of studying resilience, and vice versa. We lament what we see as confusion over differentiating the challenges military families face from military families as "challenged," which implies dysfunction. In the face of substantial challenges, the research literature suggests substantial family success. This is not to say that military families are not helped by various types of support systems, especially informal networks, as well as their need for formal services and supports. Second, we caution against confusing difference with deviance, especially for researchers who insist on comparing military families with civilians. This approach assumes civilian families as a normal, doing-well baseline, so that comparisons too easily lead to military families being labeled dysfunctional. We also call for more attention to the fact of substantial diversity among military members and their families; thus far, theorizing and subsequent research have tended to take a homogeneous approach, without fully recognizing substantial within-group variability. Last, we suggest a greater focus on different family structures, including same-sex couples, cohabiting partners, and civilian-husband marriages, as well as more attention to variation in parenting and caregiving responsibilities, such as families with children with special health care needs and those with elder care demands.

We have always viewed the study of military members and families as an excellent "laboratory" for informing family science more generally, and we agree with Ross (2014), who recommended greater integration of military family scholarship into the broader realm of family scholarship. In fact, the case of Reuben Hill's work in the 1940s is an example of this integration; the study of family stress, coping, and resilience for the past 66 years has been informed by theorizing and research on military members and their families. We invite additional dialogue about future research directions that advance our understanding of military families. We extend our thanks and kudos to our colleague, Reuben Hill, for his contribution to military family scholarship.

Selected references

Alfano, C. A., Balderas, J., Bunnell, B. E., & Beidel, D. C. (2013, January 2013). Protecting the home front: The 10-year global war on terror and our military families. CYF News.Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2013/01/global-war.aspx

Blaisure, K. R., Saathoff-Wells, T., Periera, A., MacDermid Wadsworth, S., & Dombro, A. L. (2012). Serving military families in the 21st century. New York, NY: Routledge.

Bowen, G. L., Martin, J. A., & Mancini, J. A. (2013). The resilience of military families: Theoretical perspectives. In M. A. Fine & F. D. Fincham (Eds.), Handbook of family theories: A content-based approach (pp. 417–436). New York, NY: Routledge.

Bowles, S. V., Pollock, L. D., Moore, M., MacDermid Wadsworth, S., Cato, C., Dekle, J. W., Bates, M. J. (2015). Total force fitness: The military family fitness model. Military Medicine, 180, 246–258.

Cicchetti, D., & Rogosch, F. (1996). Equifinality and multifinality in developmental psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 597–600.

Cozza, S. J., & Lerner, R. M. (2013). Military children and families: Introducing the issue. The Future of Children, 23(2), 3–11.

Farrell, A. F., Bowen, G. L., & Swick, D. C. (2014). Network supports and resiliency among U.S. military spouses with children with special health care needs. Family Relations, 63, 55–70.

Hill, R. (1949). Families under stress: Adjustment to the crisis of war separation and reunion. New York, NY: Harper.

Lucier-Greer, M., Arnold, A. L., Mancini, J. A., Ford, J. L., & Bryant, C. M. (2015). Influences of cumulative risk and protective factors on the adjustments of adolescents in military families. Family Relations, 64, 363–377.

MacDermid Wadsworth, S., & Southwell, K. (2011). Military families: Extreme work and extreme "work–family." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 638, 163–183.

Mancini, J. A., Bowen, G. L., O'Neal, C. W., & Arnold, A. L. (2015). Relationship provisions, self-efficacy, and youth well-being in military families. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2015.02.003

Mancini, J. A., & Bowen, G. L. (2013). Families and communities: A social organization theory of action and change. In G. W. Peterson & K. R. Bush (Eds.). Handbook of marriage and the family (pp. 781–813). New York, NY: Springer.

Marek, L. I. (2013). Returning home: What we know about the reintegration of deployed service members into their families and communities. NCFR Report. Retrieved from https://www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/focus/military-families/returning-home

Moelker, R., Andres, M., Bowen, G., & Manigart, P. (2015). Military families and war in the 21st century: Comparative perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nichols, W. C. (2013). Roads to understanding family resilience: 1920's to the twenty-first century. In D. S. Becvar (Ed.), Handbook of family resilience (pp. 3–16). New York, NY: Springer.

Ross, S. M. (2014). 21st century American military families: A review in the context of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sociology Compass, 8, 888–902.

Segal, M. W., Lane, M. D., & Fisher, A. G. (2015). Conceptual model of military career and family life course events, intersections, and effects on well-being. Military Behavioral Health, 3, 95–107.

Weins, T. W., & Boss, P. (2006). Maintaining family resiliency before, during and after military separation. In C. A. Castro, A. B. Adler, & C. A. Britt (Eds.), Military life: The psychology of serving in peace and combat: Vol. 3. The military family (pp. 13–38). Bridgeport, CT: Praeger Security International.

Wilmoth, J. M., & London, A. S. (2013). Life-course perspectives on military service: An introduction. In J. M. Wilmoth & A. S. London (Eds.), Life-course perspectives on military service (pp. 1–18). New York, NY: Routledge.

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