Murray Bowen (1913-1990) developed a new theory of human functioning
based upon what was considered scientific in the work of Freud upon
studies in evolution and the natural sciences and upon his own
research. First called "family systems theory", Bowen theory is a
natural systems theory distinct from general systems theory, from the
individual theories of psychiatry, medicine and psychology, and from
group theories in sociology and sociobiology.
During his study of psychiatry at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas
from 1946-1954, Bowen read extensively in biology and the study of
evolution. His changing view of human functioning led to development o
a research project at the National Institute of Mental Health in which
families with a schizophrenic member were studied over a five-year
period. The nuclear family process came alive. From 1954 to 1959, Dr.
Bowen began to define concepts about the family as an emotional system
that governs the biology and behavior of individuals. The first
chapters in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice describe early work in
defining the difference between conventional theory and this new view of
the human as part of a family emotional system.
By the time Bowen came to Georgetown University in 1959, the basic
concepts of theory were organized into eight interconnected variables:
the emotional system with its variation in the counterbalance between
togetherness and individuality; levels of differentiation of self;
mechanisms of reactivity in the nuclear family; triangles;
multigenerational transmission process; sibling position; anxiety,
chronic and acute; and emotional cut off. No one concept could be
explained by another concept. No one concept could be eliminated or
isolated from the theory. Clinical families, Bowen's own family system,
and all of human society were studied within the framework of theory.
Bowen theory is not a theory about pathology, but about the interaction
of variables that produce variation in human functioning. Instead of
reducing the explanation of physical illness, for example, to one cause
and the effect, natural systems theory outlines related variables to
predict individual variation in health. Any symptoms, be they physical,
psychiatric, behavioral, social or societal, are studied within the same
broad theoretical framework. Both biology and behavior are considered
under the influence of the same variables. Symptoms and stability are
the outcome of the same variables.
It became obvious early that theoretical differences afforded new
avenues and approaches in psychotherapy, medicine, and health care. The
theoretical foundation provides the direction for therapy rather than
diagnostic categories, techniques, or emotional reactions of the
therapist. Bowen theory does not focus on the number of family members
in the room but upon the thinking of the therapist. Decisions about who
to see are based upon assessment of levels of differentiation of self,
and upon determining strengths and leadership within the family. In
this theory, one therapist best consults to the most motivated and
responsible family member or to a variety of family members rather than
referring family members to different mental health professionals, an
individual therapist, a couple's counselor, a child psychologist, etc.
Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 1978.
Michael Kerr, Family Evaluation, 1988.
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