What Kind of System is the Family? Part 2/2

This presentation is intended to point out the way of thinking which organizes the application of Bowen’s family systems theory. These principals are not apparent in mainstream family therapy literature which begins with a priori assumptions organized by therapy as apposed to developing a science of human behavior. If you simply read through the concepts of Bowen theory, they will likely not be understood without the broader assumptions about human behavior which makes clear the presumption that the family is an “emotional unit.”

Part one of this presentation is a broad philosophical departure from the Bowen theory itself in order to understand this way of thinking. Part two of this presentation will cover specific aspects of the theory.

Notes

It is important to note for anyone who knows me personally that amidst the challenges of public speaking I mixed up some of the specific facts of my effort at differentiation in my own family, for example some of the “what” and “when” details. But the details are not important to make my point. The “how” details remain the same.

I also made an error about functional changes in position in a triangle reflecting the life forces of individuality and togetherness. These “functional” shifts represent the togetherness force. A person going against the triangle altogether might be the individuality, or “differentiation” force. The individuality force is one in which an individual specializes in the group.

What Kind of System is the Family? (Slides)

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What Kind of System is the Family? Part 1/2

This presentation is intended to point out the way of thinking which organizes the application of Bowen’s family systems theory. These principals are not apparent in mainstream family therapy literature which begins with a priori assumptions organized by therapy as apposed to developing a science of human behavior. If you simply read through the concepts of Bowen theory, they will likely not be understood without the broader assumptions about human behavior which makes clear the presumption that the family is an “emotional unit.”

Part one of this presentation is a broad philosophical departure from the Bowen theory itself in order to understand this way of thinking. Part two of this presentation will cover specific aspects of the theory.

What Kind of System is the Family? (Slides)

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Psychometric Comparisons of Bowen Theory and Attachment Theory

Bowen theory contains many concepts which overlap with concepts from attachment theory and the question of their relationship is a logical one. For example, Bowen was known to use the term “unresolved symbiotic attachment to the mother” in his writing, which opens questions about whether or not Bowen theory accounts for the phenomenon described by attachment theorists. This section will review a few studies which compare psychometric instruments from both theoretical systems.

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Measuring Differentiation of Self

Bowen theory contains eight interlocking concepts which can be used to predict the ways in which a family will respond to environmental pressure. As one of these eight concepts, differentiation of self pertains to an individual and is the main construct of the theory. As of this writing, it is not possible to measure the other seven concepts but many attempts have been made at measuring differentiation of self. Aside from the clinical evidence from Bowen’s NIMH research project and subsequent anecdotal evidence, these instruments represent the state of the art of Bowen theory as a verifiable science.

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Differentiation as a General Concept

This post is philosophizing in a general way, probably more akin to the thinking of von Bertalanffy than Bowen.

Differentiation is a term which comes from biology and describes the process in which a non-specific cell specializes in relation to its neighbors. Relationship is embedded in this otherwise individual-centric term. Specialization implies a relative position inside a unit. Something that specializes is different from its peers. As it specializes, it differentiates.

If differentiation is a process that pertains to an individual cell, Bowen wrote about differentiation of self as the process that an individual person goes through in relation to their emotional system, particularly their family of origin. It describes the ability for a person to be an individual while remaining a part of the integrated system. I am beginning to see this differentiation concept apply to many other areas, and am beginning to think of this as a property which determines the adaptability of any system. Flexibility may come from a combination of increased complexity and coordination. Evolution implies increase in differentiation so long as the original function is not lost.

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Overview of Bowen Theory

This section is part of a chapter which includes:

In his seminal 1988 publication, Family Evaluation, Michael Kerr described the shortsighted nature of our approach to the most important human problems, “We demonstrate against war as if we understand the causes of war. We could just as easily demonstrate against schizophrenia” (p. 27). This critical view of what is known and what is not known, and how our inability to distinguish between the two impacts our decisions, will be an important emphasis of this section on Bowen’s way of thinking and the theory that is a product of that way of thinking.

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Section on Natural Systems

This section is part of a chapter which includes:

A natural system is quite simply a system which occurs in nature. Hall and Fagen (1956) write that “The description of these is the task of the astronomer, physicist, chemist, biologist, physiologist, etc., and again the amount one can say about a given natural system depends on the number of essential variables involved” (p. 72). Natural system researchers are typically more interested in direct observation with fewer a priori assumptions than Bertalanffy’s pure mathematical ideal for GST or Weiner’s machine-control philosophy for cybernetics. Though they may use mathematical models to describe the behavior of the system, the models are the result of the inductive process; they are derived from the observations as opposed to explaining the observation from the model. One may think about a naturally occurring system using some of the terms from general systems, but it is the intention of discovering the nature of the system that is not pre-supposed in the human mind that distinguishes natural systems research.

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Overview of Systems Philosophy

This section is part of a chapter which includes:

The purpose of this chapter is to position Bowen theory in relation to mainstream research and applied psychology. An important aspect of describing this position is to distinguish the unique paradigmatic position of the theory, which to the greatest extent is called here natural systems philosophy. Without such a distinction, it is easy to confuse the subtle meanings of biological terms used in Bowen theory such as basic-self, emotion, differentiation, fusion, etc. with general systems or non-systems concepts, and lose sight of the broad reach of Bowen’s contribution to the natural sciences.

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A More Refined Kernel

­­Murray Bowen defined what he saw as a new way of integrating empirical research with clinical practice by rooting a theory of human behavior in the philosophy of natural systems. Bowen’s novel contribution stems from the assumption that all living systems, from the most complex vertebrate to single-celled organisms to protoplasm, arise as a function of mutual-causal, reciprocal relationships which organize an emotive, or emotional character. He used Darwin’s definition of the term emotion to describe the driving forces which pertained to all species, and is “synonymous to instinct” (Papero D. V., 2016, p. 17) “as used in biology and the natural sciences” instead of the “special meaning in psychoanalysis” (Bowen, 1978, p. kpp 446). “The output of the emotional system is emotional reactiveness or reactivity” (Papero D. V., 2016, p. 18). Abandoning essentialist notions, the natural systems paradigm views elements of living systems as a part of their context yet simultaneously defining their context by virtue of symbiotic interdependence (Gilbert, Sapp, & Tauber, 2012; Macy, 1991; Bowen, Family therapy in clinical practice, 1978).

This assumption formed the basis of Bowen’s emotional system concept which defines living systems in terms of the patterns which emerge from reciprocal exchanges of emotional energy between individuals which regulate both individual and collective adaptation to the environment (Papero D. V., 2016). As a result, Bowen’s family systems theory views human behavior more as a function of what humans have in common with other living things than of psychological factors which pertain to humans alone. The universality of the emotional system concept serves as a starting point for organizing knowledge from many species to enrich a science of human behavior (Noone & Papero, 2016). As with natural system theories pertaining to other species, Bowen theory is the product of the direct observation of human behavior as it is in nature as opposed to a superimposing a priori concepts from general systems (Bertalanffy, 2015) or cybernetics (Wiener, 1961) which are generated by the human mind (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

Michael Kerr, a close colleague of Bowen, describes the potential importance of the emotional system concept as “comparable to the significance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. kpp 39). He writes that while “Darwin established this physical link between man and the lower forms, Bowen’s concept of the emotional system has provided a basis for establishing a behavioral link between humans and other animals” (p. kpp 39). The concept is rooted in systems thinking as “the ability to be aware of the process of nature as opposed to simply the content of nature” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. kpp 24). Similarly, the application of Bowen theory involves an individual developing the ability to observe the processes that define one’s most sensitive relationships as opposed to simply the people and issues in those relationships (Papero, 1990). A fixation on issues instead of the processes leading to issues is seen to lead to linear, cause-and-effect thinking which loses the systems view. By studying the movement of processes and relationships, thinking systems aims to overcome polarization generated by essentialist thinking in the natural and human sciences (Laszlo, 1973). Thus, Bowen theory represents a broad paradigmatic departure from mainstream perspectives on human suffering toward the development of a viable science of human behavior.

It is possible that the Buddha may have also defined a theory of human suffering that is better understood through natural systems thinking than through analogical comparison with psychological theory. This theory, known as paṭiccasamuppāda, known in the West as Dependent Origination, the Second Noble Truth, or “the cause of suffering,” defines life as an interaction of universal processes, for example, consciousness, perception, sensation, and reaction (Goenka, 2012). The most important aspect of this theory is the reciprocally interdependent nature of the elements in these processes, which implies a non-essentialist system of mutual-causality (Macy, 1991). Thus, the Buddha saw suffering as a function of a deeper processes that are universal to all of life, one which predates homo sapiens and will exist long after them. Though described as the “truth” of suffering, the theory is taught as a falsifiable hypothesis which stands to be disproven through rigorous experiment (Hart, 1987). The experiment consists of becoming aware of universal laws of nature by observing those laws as they play out in one’s own body and mind (Fleischman P. R., 2016; Young, 1994). This experiment represents the core of the Buddha’s teaching and is called Vipassanā meditation (Goenka, 1998).

This study proposes that the Buddha’s approach to understanding human suffering may share a degree of conceptual and paradigmatic compatibility with the natural systems approach reflected in Bowen theory. Together, these approaches may further support a viable science of human behavior by virtue of their consilience (Wilson E. O., 1999). A natural systems science may lessen the compartmentalization of mainstream psychology, for example between academic and professional psychology. This study examines that potential by asking the question, “To what extent did the Buddha define a natural systems theory?”

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