Reflections on systemic family therapy

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In seeking to describe the key concepts and approaches which inform systemic practice with families and couples one faces a simple, yet clear, problematic; systemic theory and practice subsist in an intellectual space larger than the sum of its concrete representations. Notwithstanding, a conceptual groundwork may certainly take place. A system, for instance, may find significance as a complex, rule-based organisation consisting of parts, sub-systems and functional processes. The scene of systemic concepts, more broadly, might be situated as obtaining from an overarching, paradigmatic shift in relational psychotherapeutic thought. Indeed, systemic concepts may be said to be a contemporary relational therapeutic modality which may actually deconstruct traditional Cartesian phenomenology and, in turn, represent a mode which radically subverts notions favouring a privileged individualised psychopathology and categorical diagnostic truth alike. (Where once there was the intrapersonal, so there came to be the interpersonal, so to speak.) Following this reasoning, pragmatic reconstructions now appear to mark each stage in a tentative apprehension of the nature of (skewed or schismatic) relational systems (i.e. the family): a system with sub-systems (e.g. Minuchin, 1974); culture and acculturation; the life-cycle and/or transitions (e.g. Carter and McGoldrick, 1980; Duvall, 1977; Erikson, 1997; Gorell Barnes, 1998; Haley, 1973); family scripts (e.g. Byng Hall, 1995); the core or assumed or automatic behaviours, beliefs, and lexicological meanings obtaining from members of the family; and the repetitive behaviours presenting. Moreover, this revaluation of values, pace the purview contended to be sited in systemic thought here, aim to locate the relationship, difference and origins of change (morphogenesis), mental representations, and processes (i.e. personal schema, social constructivism; see also Gergen, 1973; Hegel, 1994; Kant, 1999, Kelly, 1955; Kuhn, 1962; Piaget, 1950) in terms of equilibrium and constancy (i.e. homeostasis, morphostasis, ‘Milieu de l’intérieur’; see Bateson, 1972) and situate each at the heart of cybernetic (e.g. Weiner, 1949) systemic praxis. That is, systemic thought might be construed as ethically-oriented collection of theories and actions situated in the heat of the family group as if it were a naturalised system of systems (i.e. a cybernetic system; see Bateson, 1972; Haley, 1973; Watzlawick, Beavin Bavelas, & Jackson, 2011).

It is, then, in the act of location and amplification that problematic relations within the family – as a system of systems – that the personhood of the persons involved can become absolved of pathology. Within this act of systematic location (more correctly this biopsychosocial act of location), the context and ecological epistemology of the ‘in-between’ becomes the pathological space where the relational system itself is understood to operate, and where it is examined most closely and reflexively. Freed from pathologisation the identified person (i.e. previously the site of the symptom) can be reinstated – intact – back into a dynamic, relational economy of the family group. In other words, where reinstated the personhood of the family group members are re-established as an actualising entity effectively restored, de-marginalised and de-alienated; that is, sovereign entities held within an equitable therapeutic relation: story intact; place of origination intact; milieu intact; relational environment intact (i.e. heteronomy and power established). Thus it is from a systemic perspective where, to my thought, there opens up a transitional space – an ethically informed rationalist space (vide postmodernist) – marked with an openness to the continual revaluation for the self and other, coextensively (i.e. reflexive and contra value-free facts) (see Lyotard, 1984). In the transitional space envisioned here for systemic praxis (i.e. theory and ethical practice), the face-to-face encounter may be transformed from an act of mere pathology into an intimate ethical encounter situated squarely within the otherness occupied by the other (see Levinas in Hand, 1989).

Above we saw that the importance placed upon the principle of inclusivity toward the other in an empathic space which remains forever other to us (see Levinas in Hand, 1989). That is to say, a systemic position toward change, to my thought, at least, may come to purposive fruitfulness within the space opened-up through empathic acts of reflexion (vide self-reflexivity). My conception here is that systemic skills (e.g. reframing) take place within a system in the ‘in-between’ space of that system that facilitate and foster change (‘the difference that makes a difference’; Bateson, 1972: 315f) (i.e. second-order cybernetics or mutual influence, as opposed to first-order cybernetics or ‘change from outside’). Change, thus conceived, takes place where the family-image (i.e. ideal of the family) reconnects with the presenting family (i.e. the real family) (see Laing, 1969) there may be a good deal of relational activity to be necessarily observed, for example: in the dramaturgy of enactment (e.g. Minuchin & Fishman, 1981); in positive and negative feedback loops (acts of self-correction), in circularity (i.e. in the equifinality of communication and causality; e.g. Watzlawick, Beavin Bavelas, & Jackson, 2011), and punctuation (i.e. as if the ‘springboards’ for repetitive patterning; e.g. Watzlawick, Beavin Bavelas, & Jackson, 2011). Each of these processes may be viewed as if an artefact derived entirely from relational processes (not relational content) of a system; each in turn a function and process ripe for what may, epistemologically, be termed, on the one hand, cybernetic information (‘a difference which makes a difference’) (Bateson, 1972: 315f; see also Derrida, 1978), or, on the other, an archaeology of genealogy (i.e. using genograms) (e.g. Bowen, 1978; see Foucault, 1967; 1972). Furthermore, here through the conceptual frame made available by a systemic epistemological revaluation, change and difference are conceived as transposable terms.    It is in the pursuit of insight – gained precisely through the skilled use and practice of reflexivity – individual family group members, and therapists alike (i.e. self-reflexivity), might begin to discern appearances of complementarity (i.e. polarisation of behaviour) and symmetry (i.e. similarity of behaviour), and, perhaps, the corollary possibility for arresting schismogenesis (i.e. fragmentation of the system) (e.g. Bateson, 1972). In the overt or covert introduction of conceptual boundaries, strategic means may be employed by the therapist in pursuit of greater regulation, control mechanisms, and/or as expeditious toward first or second-order change (i.e. in the former the same roles and rules as prior are seen, in the latter rule changes are made) (e.g. Bateson, 1972; Bateson et al., 1956; Jackson, 1957; Kelly, 1955; Maturana, 1978; Maturana and Varela, 1980). Another important skill with systemic applicability in the description of complex behavioural patterns is reframing (i.e. subtle acts of positive redescription) (e.g. Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 2011). Reframing allows important new dimensionality of the object of concern to be encountered in situations otherwise lacking a positive aspect; new choices and options can thus be brought within the sensible reach of the brackets of lived-experience in the service of change.

My clinical psychotherapeutic training was gained over four years in broadly-based humanistic, psychoanalytical, and phenomenological studies to postgraduate level. I have also studied cognitive psychology and psychoanalytical history at Masters level. Prior to clinical training I worked for ten years in the field of virtual private network design. My choice to study systemic practice reflects a core belief in the effectiveness of systematic and relational perspectives. Systems, I might venture to suggest, have played a central and enduring role in my life thus far; and this fortunate actuality, to my thought, lends itself to a strong sense of continuity and, therein, bolsters my sense of self-identity, whilst also providing a modicum of subjective meaning. (It is noteworthy perhaps that many systems are chaotic in nature and, therein, difficult to derive meaning from.) Thus it is that in writing this short essay, for instance, I feel warmed by the thought that I may have chosen a good path on my journey toward increasing self-awareness and personal development.

Power, alongside authority and oppression, have for some not inconsiderable time been a specific research interest of mine. Power may find a broad significance as a disposition toward the other as seen in the terms exchange-power (e.g. economic) and co-ordination-power (e.g. individuals or groups): ‘There is somehow power in the system or in the culture we have inherited, and that power controls us, sometimes in deleterious ways.’ (Honderich, 1995: 709). My own weltanschauung on power (and oppression) is one inclined toward and appreciative of critical thinking, political science, liberalism, analytical philosophy, historical materialism, and phenomenology (e.g. Canetti, 1962; Foucault, 1967; 1978; 1985; 1986; Hobbes, 1990; Hume, 1990;
Heidegger, 1962; Marx, 2000; Mill, 1962; Nietzsche, 1990; 1996; 2005; Schopenhauer, 1958; 1970). In turn, my ethical praxis can also be said to be informed by close readings of humanism, post-Freudian psychoanalysis, analytical psychology, feminism, rationalism, and an interest in the principle Upanishads (e.g. Hume, 1877; Lacan, 1977; LeBon, 2001; Jung, 1969; Kristeva, 1984; Rogers, 1961; Warnock, 1967). Furthermore, though I should very much like to say much more, I fear that what this combination of influences makes for I cannot precisely say in the space allowed. That said, at the most general substantive level, I might broadly align myself with those for whom power, obedience, and oppression in the helping professions is a matter of the utmost ethical concern (e.g. Bond, 2000; Canetti, 1962; Foucault, 1967; 1978; 1985; 1986; Guggenbuhl-Craig, 1971; Milgram, 1974; Szasz, 1970).


One thought on “Reflections on systemic family therapy

  1. It seems like u actually know a good deal related to this subject matter
    and it demonstrates with this blog post, labeled “Reflections
    on systemic family therapy Paul’s Reflections”. Thanks a lot -Gonzalo


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