Murray Bowen, MD (1913-1990) developed a new theory of human behavior based upon what he considered scientific in the work of Freud, upon studies in evolution and the natural sciences and upon his own research with families. First called “family systems theory, Bowen theory is a natural systems theory distinct from general systems theory, from the individual theories of psychiatry and psychology, and from group theories in sociology.
During the 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 of 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.
There are those who say ‘Life dealt you a hand of cards & you ain’t gonna get no more. And it all depends on how you play it.’
I’ve worked on a theory that would say… there is a way to beat nature’s card game… to beat the dealer… if you know enough about the system. You don’t have to be a pawn of the system.
Murray Bowen, Georgetown Clinical Conference Videotape with Victoria Harrison, January 1984
By the time Bowen established The Family Center at 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. Differentiation of self and the scale of differentiation, along with six other interrelated concepts, formed the basis for a new view of health and human functioning. 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 added societal emotional process, as a last concept, and emphasized the origin of problems in human society in man’s relationship to the natural world. Principles based upon these basic concepts provide a foundation for applications in research, education, psychotherapy, medicine, and personal life.
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 the product of efforts to adapt to challenges in the natural environment and in the relationship system.
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. Applications in therapy, in research, in business and organizations, in life grow out of understanding and using Bowen theory to see the system and one’s part in it. Steps toward differentiation of self provide operating principles that guide the functioning of individuals in various fields.
The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (formerly Georgetown Family Center)
Dr. Bowen founded The Family Center, now independent of Georgetown University, to be a center for research, study and practice in this theory. Dr. Michael Kerr because the second director in 1991. The faculty there apply Bowen theory toward problems facing families, organizations and human society. The Bowen Center Postgraduate Training Program provides ongoing training to professionals from various fields throughout the US and world.