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Community Genograms: Using Individual, Family, and Cultural Narratives with Clients

reviewed by Jeanne M. Slattery - 2006

coverTitle: Community Genograms: Using Individual, Family, and Cultural Narratives with Clients
Author(s): Sandra A. Rigazio-DiGilio, Allen E. Ivey, Kara P. Kunkler-Peck, and Lois T. Grady
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745537, Pages: 158, Year: 2005
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I am a huge fan of books written by Allen Ivey and his colleagues. They describe counseling in a straightforward, contextually-based, respectful manner. Their frameworks provide a strong, overarching view of counseling, their abstract viewpoint balanced by concrete examples demonstrating the significant empathy and thoughtful listening characteristic of this group.

I was not disappointed. Rigazio-DiGilio, Ivey, Kunkler-Peck, and Grady’s book, Community Genograms: Using Individual, Family, and Cultural Narratives with Clients, describes the star diagram, a form of community genogram. My clients, students, and I have found its ancestors interesting and thought-provoking. Like their other books, this was respectful, creative, and demonstrates a significant empathy and a clear understanding of culture and oppression. Unlike versions I have seen earlier, the star diagram both shows social supports, as well as major influences on the client’s life.


Rigazio-DiGilio and her colleagues clearly argue that the community genogram can be an important assessment tool, as client and therapist together can identify current social supports (i.e., family, friends, co-workers, and church), as well as ongoing influences (i.e., a history of physical abuse, high expectations for achievement, or feeling marginalized in the majority culture). They repeatedly argue that the community genogram should be flexible to meet a client’s needs. As a result, it is more a way of organizing and communicating one’s assessment, rather than really an assessment itself. Strategies for assessing social supports, major influences, and positive assets are found throughout the text.

The community genogram is more useful as a therapy instrument. Unrecognized supports can be accessed and cultivated. Limited supports can be developed to support clients in transition. Relevant strengths can be reframed or retrieved to help clients through difficult periods. It is difficult to get the completeness that I would want for an assessment from a star diagram, however, its focus on a smaller part of a client’s life can be very effective in motivating therapeutic change.

One of the things that I like about the books from this group is the creativity bubbling close to the surface. They think divergently about the phenomena they study, and their thinking is dynamic, changing with time and new information. This creativity and excitement is also present in this book. However, it may be this very creativity that undermines the book’s ultimate success. Before they have even fully developed their central thesis, Rigazio-DiGilio and her colleagues are off chasing additional applications of their community genogram (and there are many). However, a new user of this tool will probably be confused, wondering how a community genogram should be gathered and drawn and, especially, exactly what ideas and major life events should be placed in the embayments, as their examples sometimes looked very similar to items they had placed in the branches of the star.

The community genograms for Kathy and Tina (Chapter 6) are a case in point of both the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Through a series of short dialogues and case material, Rigazio-DiGilio and her colleagues highlight the difficulties Kathy and Tina are facing. Rigazio-DiGilio and her colleagues use four community genograms to look at the couple’s lives and identify strengths they can use to prepare for and work through the transition after Kathy’s children come to live with them. These genograms move the couple back and forth in time, sometimes focusing closely, sometimes pulling the big picture. But, while it is clear that Kathy’s mother’s death, Tina’s mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer, being lesbians in the south, and Tina’s mother’s overinvolvement in Tina’s first marriage are all influences on their relationship, why are Kathy’s in-laws an influence rather than a support (either positive or negative)? What gets included and what omitted?

Community genograms are a visual depiction of the extra-individual part of a psychosocial history, although intrapersonal influences are also included. As they are visual depictions, they can be both flexible and uniquely tailored to the individual and situation. They can be tremendously influential and serve as a touchstone throughout the course of therapy. However, what makes them especially useful for clients, may also limit their ability to succinctly summarize a client’s context. As Rigazio-DiGilio and her colleagues are clearly aware, people are four-dimensional beings, influenced by a range of factors and people, rather than only three sets of significant others and influences (as with Evelyn, a Mexican-American sixth grader living in the Northeaster US, in Chapter 3). In addition to her mother, sister, and church elders, Evelyn also has teachers, schoolmates, neighbors, and caseworkers who are social supports (either positively or negatively).

When the nature of significant influences was described more carefully, the genograms were clearer to the reader. The two community genograms drawn for Maya Angelou had much better descriptors. Perhaps Evelyn’s community genogram was useful for her, but it was less so for new readers.

The most difficult part of this book is that it was idiosyncratically organized. It read like chapters had been written by different authors, but that the editors had failed to organize these into a consistent “story” that built across the course of the book. In Chapter 1 Rigazio-DiGilio and her colleagues presented a useful theoretical rationale for paying attention to issues of context. The first community genogram presented, Elizabeth’s, is also probably the most formal and complex. Because of its complexity, it was difficult to differentiate between the essential and nonessential parts of the community genogram. The exercises in Chapter 2 were very useful in formulating a broader systemic perspective, however, the writers immediately began presenting variations, which were useful, before the broader pattern was clearly defined. Furthermore, the written description of this process (p. 39), does not match any of the figures. The section on the multicultural cube is in the chapter on lifespan development (Chapter 4), while readers are encouraged to examine second time-slices of their lives in the chapter exploring liberating qualities (Chapter 3), where racial identity theory is introduced. While the material was uniformly interesting, the organization was confusing.

Perhaps part of the problem with this book is the title. The subtitle, Using individual, family, and cultural narratives, probably better describes the book’s focus, while the main title, Community genograms, is misleading. It functions best as a description of the use of narrative in therapy.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 12-14
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12014, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 3:15:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Jeanne Slattery
    Clarion University
    E-mail Author
    JEANNE M. SLATTERY, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She has recently published Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and articles on the ethics of community-based work in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training and Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. She is currently working on Listening with all five senses: Using words, behavior and context to build empathy. She is clinical supervisor of an in-home family therapy program.
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