Dr. Murray Bowen (b. 1913 – d. 1990) was a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He was one of the pioneers of family systems theory.
A Search for Scientific Understanding
Early in his career as a psychiatrist, Bowen sought to understand human behavior and functioning in a way that would be more scientific and objective than the prevailing views of his time. He thought that the basic principles governing nature must also govern human functioning.
As such, Bowen family systems theory (or Bowen theory) seeks to understand human beings as part of the natural world. And though Bowen worked professionally in the field of psychiatry, he wanted his theory to help understand human behavior in all areas of life. He based his theory of human functioning on years of observational research, particularly observations of individuals and families.
Bowen’s Early Research
In the mid 1950s, Bowen began to hypothesize that the functioning of schizophrenic patients was related to the interactions of the other members of their families. So he began exploring the phenomenon of schizophrenia by hospitalizing families. This allowed him to move from a conceptualization of schizophrenia as an individual problem (i.e. having its roots in one person) to seeing schizophrenia as something to do with the mother-child relationship. From there he moved to seeing schizophrenia as something to do with the functioning of the whole family unit. Without blaming the family for the schizophrenia, he began to articulate a theory that described how the social existence of human beings, in family groups, affects the functioning of each individual member.
Developing a Systems Perspective
In Bowen’s time, human functioning was seen primarily in terms of the individual’s behavior and psychology. Bowen, however, recognized that human family groups have evolved over millennia and that the human individual is primarily a social creature. As such, he believed individual behavior could be better understood in terms of the group—that is, arising from the dynamics of the larger family emotional and relationships systems.
Bowen’s theory is consistent with modern scientific thinking about life. For example, when we consider ecosystems, we understand that one organism can only be understood in terms of its relationship to other organisms in that system. We also understand molecular activity, chemical processes, and the motion of planets in this interdependent, interactive way. Yet a similarly systemic view of human functioning has been remarkably hard to achieve.
The Individual in the System
Bowen theory starts with the premise that the family context must be the basic unit of study for understanding human beings. After years of observing family interactions, Bowen became aware that individual behavior often seemed determined less by individual choice and more by the individual’s relationship context, by the shifting flow of anxiety and emotionality between and among family members. He thought that each family member actually derives his or her identity largely from involvement within the family relationship system.
Based on these observations, Bowen concluded that to change individual behavior first required awareness of how the individual’s choices are affected by current and historical family behavior. In this view, “family” would include the immediate people with whom the individual lives, the extended family of relatives and friends, including prior generations, and the community at large. In short, we come to know ourselves by knowing our families.
Key Ideas from Bowen Theory
- Human functioning is governed by principles common to all life forms.
- Human life is guided primarily by emotional, instinctive forces that can be regulated to some extent by an individual’s ability to think. Human emotional forces and behavior are influenced by an interplay among instinctual, biological, genetic, psychological, and sociological factors.
- The family is a single emotional unit made up of interlocking relationships existing over many generations.
- We can best understand the individual’s behavior across the life span as being closely related to the functioning of her or his family of origin, including past relationships and family histories.
- When the individual is seen in her/his family context, we can move beyond simplistic cause-and-effect thinking to a more comprehensive understanding of the multiple factors that interact across time to produce problems or symptoms.
- People are able to modify their automatic, emotional responses by studying their own patterns of behavior as well as the behavioral patterns of their multi-generational families.
Learning and Applying Bowen Theory
Bowen theory is the basis upon which the Western Pennsylvania Family Center was founded. The theory is both remarkably simple and elegant, and yet takes years of study. The Western Pennsylvania Family Center is dedicated to that ongoing study and offers a variety of ways for learners to grapple with Dr. Bowen’s considerable legacy: workshops, lectures, and conferences, formal training in Bowen theory, and coaching and consultation services for individuals, families, and organizations. The Center encourages continuing research and growth in family theory, especially as the theory applies to those serving families in educational, medical, clinical, religious, business, and social service settings.
Today, Bowen theory is used by mental health practitioners, physicians and other medical workers, clergy, organizational consultants, teachers, and other professional working with families. It is used as well by non- professionals who just want to better understand their own family, workplace and community relationships.