Spring 2013

The Power of Bowen Family Systems Theory to Address Public Policy Questions

by  Patricia A. Comella, JD from Spring 2013 Family Systems Forum


This two-installment article is the third in a series for Family Systems Forum about Bowen family systems theory and emotional process in society. Here I will describe the perspective I bring to using this natural systems theory to study societal behavior and functioning. In the second installment, I will consider how Bowen theory may be a powerful tool to address public policy questions, especially those of an ecological nature.This article is part of a work in progress. Indeed, as I was wrapping it up, I found myself thinking more deeply about possible correlations among technological innovation, instinct and regression and where these ideas might take me in my next step toward a beginning theory of society as an emotional system.


I have lived in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore since early 2007. Barely above sea level (with a maximum elevation of about fifty-seven feet), Dorchester lies between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Among Maryland’s largest counties, with a shoreline over 1,500 miles in length, Dorchester’s extensive marshes possess an ethereal beauty that makes it a mecca for plein air artists. That beauty, however, masks a fragility to which humanity has contributed through its ever-increasing interactions with the land and water on which human welfare depends.

Living in and exploring Dorchester County and its environs have greatly enlarged my capacity to “see,” to understand at a deeper level of my being, that the human is part of all life on Earth and that it needs other life forms to sustain itself. I have come to believe that human life and health are inextricably intertwined with the health of the land and waters, within an even larger, more complex physical environment. From that understanding flows a further belief that grasping the challenges humans face in the 21st century and successfully addressing them requires acknowledgment, acceptance and understanding of the many interdependencies among living systems and the physical environments shaping them. Almost always, examination of complex societal questions requires looking at their biological underpinnings.

Along with its power to address family issues, I think that, in significant measure, Bowen theory can examine the behavior and functioning of larger natural systems, such as the ecosystems in which humans live, breathe and have their being (and ultimately die). As a natural systems theory, it is grounded in evolution and based on observations of humans in their physical and social environments.

The Encarta Dictionary: English (North America) (November 12, 2012) defines an “ecosystem” as “organisms and their environment,” specifically “a localized group of interdependent organisms together with the environment that they inhabit and depend on.” It defines “environment” in several ways, three of which are useful to the study of emotional systems at the societal level:

  1. surrounding influence, “all the external factors influencing the life and activity of people, plants and animals”;
  2. the natural world, especially when it is regarded as being at risk from the harmful influences of human activities”;
  3. a set of external conditions, especially those addressing a particular activity (usually in combination).”

Eight integrated concepts (differentiation of self, nuclear family emotional process, family projection process, multigenerational transmission process, the triangle, sibling position, emotional cutoff, and emotional process in society) comprise Bowen theory. In the mid-1960s, Murray Bowen, MD, integrated the first six into a natural systems theory of the family. In the 1970s, he added the final two, as well as his hypothesis of the biological underpinnings of societal regressions. Bowen put together evidence showing how families and the larger society mutually  influence  and  are  influenced  by  each  other. His work demonstrated that triangles are the basic building block of all human emotional systems and function the same way in societal relationship systems as in families. In the regression hypothesis, he held out the possibility that the theory would prove robust enough to extend to the functioning of the ecosystems on which human societies depend for their survival, security and wellbeing.

The hypothesis also implicates human technological conditioning of the environment as a possible driver of the regression that seems to be accelerating the human’s disharmony with the rest of life on Earth. When one examines many technological advances during World War II (and other wars), as well as such phenomena as the ecological devastation of the Great Plains of North America during the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, one can often discern an almost instinctual component driving those efforts. Further, examining the “technology” other species employ to condition their environments demonstrates that such modification of the environment is not unique to humans and that instinct plays an important role in it. If human technological conditioning does have an instinctual (automatic) character as humans adapt to life’s circumstances, it should not be surprising that humans, at least under certain conditions, will exhibit an automatic tendency to focus on benefits conferred by technological adaptations, especially in the near term, rather than their possible long-term consequences.

Instincts for Survival, Security and Wellbeing: Individuality and Togetherness

Like all other species on Earth, humans depend on other life forms to sustain themselves, creating intricate interdependencies. The health of humans, of the life forms that sustain them, of the lands and waters essential to life on Earth, and of the larger physical environment are inextricably intertwined.

Like other animals, humans possess an instinctual force to survive and reproduce. This drive automatically operates at deep levels to promote survival, security and wellbeing. However, nature is at once prolific and parsimonious: life is produced in abundance, yet not all life will survive to reproduce and rear a new generation. Life is constantly being recycled. For example, in Dorchester County, one often comes across turkey or black vultures dining on the carcasses of road kill. In my garden, I can watch caterpillars munching on milkweed (or parsley), as they prepare to metamorphose into Monarch (or Swallowtail) butterflies.With a burgeoning human population, which exploits Earth’s resources and pollutes the planet, Earth and the life it sustains struggle to survive the unintended consequences of humanity’s instinctual functioning over millennia.

Like members of other social species, humans’ survival, security and wellbeing require that they be part of a social group on which they depend (wholly, for at least for part of their lives). Humans seem to have an instinctual drive to live in groups. External threats to survival, security or wellbeing heighten the intensity of this need.

Bowen recognized the power of this togetherness force, noting that he did not see the need to worry that there might ever be too much individuality. By this, I believe he understood the togetherness force to favor group over individual survival, thereby exerting strong pressures on members to conform to the group’s imperatives. Within a corresponding force for individuality, Bowen included not only the instinctual force to survive and reproduce but also the capacity for functioning autonomously, within limits, and a capacity for self-regulation.

In The Social Conquest of Earth, evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson explains a shift in his views about the operation of natural selection in the evolution of social species. He describes natural selection as simultaneously operating at two levels, the individual and the group, in producing sociality. This two-level process introduces tensions into group living. The individual’s instinct for survival and reproduction is not wholly compatible with the survival of every member of the group, particularly in times of scarce resources. Thus, within a group there will be competition for resources necessary for survival and reproduction. However, since togetherness confers advantages to the group and, on average, to its individual members, social species have evolved some capacity for regulating individual functioning to foster a capacity for cooperation and collaboration among group members. Indeed, within a species, groups with greater capacity for working together fare better, overall, than groups with more limited capacity for collaboration and cooperation, particularly when competing with other groups for resources.

From such an evolutionary perspective, societies that can strike an appropriate balance between within-group competition (arising from individual-level selection) and within-group cooperation and collaboration (arising from group-level selection) will generally fare better both individually and collectively than groups that go too far in one direction or the other. When a society cannot achieve or sustain an appropriate balance, it will experience increasing difficulty in achieving its potential and sustaining itself over time. (Another evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, discusses religion as an adaptive mechanism for regulating within-group behavior to foster the capacity for collaboration and cooperation. See Wilson 2002.)

E.O. Wilson proposes that the tensions in humanity arising from this dual-level selection place each human in an “eternally” dynamic position of having to strike a balance between grabbing all for self and regulating self in a manner that is good for self and good for the group.

Today the human species appears to have become the steward of the health of the planet and the life it sustains. Human population growth and density no longer seem effectively checked by natural forces alone, such as famine, disease and drought. Today humans can no longer rely on Nature to check acquisitive instincts toward unbridled excesses that threaten Earth’s capacity to sustain human life.

Increasingly intense patterns of reactivity threaten to tear human societies apart, with less and less capacity for within-group cooperation and collaboration. Elements in particular societies seem to be flourishing, but often at the expense of others, who more frequently and intensely insist on a fairer share of available resources.

Looking comparatively at what is happening around the globe, we see similar patterns of societal disruption and of trying to fix problems of balance, while striving to maintain or restore order and civility – with frustrations at the failure of restorative fixes.

As Bowen wrote, his theory is:
about the functioning of the emotional system in man. In broad terms, the emotional system is conceived to be the function of the life forces inherited from his phylogenetic past, that he shares with the lower forms, and that governs the subhuman part of man. It would be synonymous with instinct, if instinct is considered to be the forces that operate automatically. The intellectual system is conceived to be the function of his highly developed cerebral cortex. The emotional and feeling systems are interconnected, each influencing the other. The feeling system is a bridge between the emotional and intellectual systems through which subjective states from the upper levels of the emotional system are registered in the cerebral cortex. This theory postulates that more of man’s life and behavior is governed by automatic emotional forces than he can easily admit. (Bowen, 423)

Bowen captured in the scale of differentiation the varying capacity of individuals to achieve an appropriate balance between the two life forces. The higher an individual’s level of differentiation is, the greater capacity the individual has for appropriate self-regulation that is good for self, good for the group, and, perhaps, even good for Earth.

Bowen Theory: A Pathway to Harmony

Wilson identifies “three great pathways to learning”: the social sciences, the humanities and natural history. The first two deal with proximate causation, and the third, with ultimate causation. Wilson stresses that “put[ting] together both proximate and ultimate causes . . . [is] the key to [human] self-understanding”:

How to think out and deal with the eternal ferment generated by multilevel selection is the role of the social sciences and humanities. How to explain it is the role of the natural sciences, which, if successful, should make the pathways to harmony among the three great branches of learning easier to create. The social sciences and humanities are devoted to the proximate, outwardly expressed phenomena of human sensations and thought. In the same way that descriptive natural history is related to biology,  the social  sciences  are  related to human self-understanding (242, emphasis added).

Bowen theory offers one such “pathway to harmony” by providing a framework to put together proximate and ultimate causes, allowing human beings, in Wilson’s words, “to see ourselves as we truly are and then to explore outside the box.” (242, emphasis added). Further, the framework of Bowen theory, especially the concepts of the triangle and emotional process in society (and emotional cutoff and multigenerational transmission process), and the societal regression hypothesis, provide the means to “explore outside the box,” navigating among levels of functioning affected through a process of natural selection that operates simultaneously at group and individual levels. In particular, the regression hypothesis postulates, in effect, that humanity’s disharmonious relationship with the rest of nature might explain in significant measure the global reactivity to perceived imbalances, especially in access to resources deemed necessary to human survival, security and wellbeing.

Like other organisms, humans, from genetic and cellular levels to cultural ones, continually react and respond to their social and physical environments, especially to threats that affect the survival, security or wellbeing of the parties involved. They influence what they encounter in their environments, and what they encounter automatically influences them. This emotional process is ongoing and reciprocal.

Interdependent Members

But as members of a social species, humans are not fully autonomous but function as interdependent members of relationship systems. While there are many kinds of human relationship systems, the family generally serves as the unit for reproduction and development of offspring, as well as a basic economic unit. (See Comella, 2010a.) Observations of nuclear and multigenerational family functions, which were foundational evidence for Bowen theory, established that families are emotional systems. Evidence supporting, in particular, the concept of emotional process in society demonstrated that all human relationship systems, from the family to the totality of society, are emotional systems. The societal regression hypothesis, if proven valid, would extend human relationship systems to include ecosystems of which humans are an interdependent part.

In an emotional system, the parties function dynamically, reciprocally and interdependently in relationship to each other and to external factors in their larger social and physical environments. They exist and function in a context of relationships in which they define and redefine, create and recreate, indeed, co-create their existence. In an ongoing process of interdependencies, changes in one part of the system trigger changes in other parts of the system.

The reactivity of living systems permits them to detect threats. Bowen theory distinguishes between imminent threats (“real threats”) and threats that may or may not materialize (“imaginary threats”). Evolution has programmed organisms to react to imminent threats automatically and instinctively upon detection, which may occur out of awareness of the intellectual system. Bowen theory calls reactivity to imminent threat “acute anxiety” and reactivity to threats that may or may not materialize “chronic anxiety.” In reaction to imaginary threats, organisms exhibit sustained states of vigilance to detect materialization of potential threats and sustained preparedness to respond. In human organisms, intellectual functioning, which is necessary to focus on the long-term implications of actions, erodes when exposed to chronic, sustained threat conditions.

Functioning within an emotional system is context-specific. Bowen theory assists in seeing both the functioning and the context and in assessing how they interrelate and unfold over time, as circumstances change. The theory also provides a way of correlating present functioning with past functioning. In situations of escalating, chronic, and sustained anxiety, Bowen theory can, within limits, be predictive of future functioning. In particular, using the principles of the triangle (Bowen, 478ff.), the theory can, within limits, predict the circumstances under which the functioning of a third party in a triangle can assist the other two parties in lowering the intensity in their relationship with each other (without merely transferring their reactivity to the third party or the larger social and physical systems in which the three are functioning). As will be discussed in the second installment of this paper (“Formulating Public Policy in Times of Regression”), the principles of the triangle can be used to construct “pathways to harmony” in dealing with complex societal issues. Such pathways would be emotional systems of interlocking triangles in which at least one participant consistently works at managing self in accordance with the principles of the triangle.

Levels of Natural Systems: Sub-Cellular to Ecological

One can profitably contrast an excerpt from “An Odyssey Toward Science,” Bowen’s epilogue to Family Evaluation, with wording from a New Yorkereditorial about the choice for President on the eve of the 2012 election (“Comment: The Choice.” October 28 – November 5, 2012 issue. 35 et seq.). The first provides an overview of the complex natural system of systems called the “self.” The second offers a political perspective on human emotional functioning in the United States on Inauguration Day 2009.

In the epilogue Bowen describes individual human functioning in terms of a natural system (the individual “self”) that itself is a multi-level emotional system of emotional sub-systems:

The concept of “differentiation of self” [and] its companion concept, “the emotional system,” are essential in family systems theory. . . . The “self” is composed ofconstitutional, physical, physiological, biological, genetic and cellular reactivity factors, as they move in unison with psychological factors. On a simple level, it is composed of the confluence of the more fixed personality factors as they move in unison with rapidly moving psychological states. Each factor influences and is influenced by the others. The psychological is the easiest to be influenced by the individual. . . . The psychological includes relationship factors from the past and the present that influence the individual. . . . Many people are completely dependent on evolution to raise or lower “differentiation” in a lifetime. Family systems theory contains several concepts through which psychological states can be modified. These include the concepts of the “emotional system,” “triangles,” and the “multigenerational transmission process.” (342, emphasis added)

The New Yorker tries to describe the functioning of the marketplace under the great stress of economic downturn. Its basic point is that the marketplace, serving as a bastion of private interests, has also been charged with looking after the public good, to society’s detriment. From the vantage of Bowen theory, the description appears symptomatic of an unfolding regression in which multiple levels of society fail to act responsibly or appropriately in balancing private and societal interests, in consequence of which societal and private interests become conflated. The events appear to reflect a fundamental failure to understand that being for self and being for the group are the responsibility of an entire society, individually and collectively:

On Inauguration Day [2009], the United States was in a downward financial spiral brought about by predatory lending, legally sanctioned greed and pyramid schemes, an economic policy geared to the priorities and comforts of what soon came to be called “the one per cent,” and deregulation that began before the Bush Presidency. In 2008 alone, more than two and one half million jobs were lost – up to three-quarters of a million a month. The gross domestic product was shrinking at a rate of nine percent. Housing prices collapsed. Credit markets collapsed. The stock market collapsed – and, with it, the retirement prospects of millions. Foreclosures and evictions were ubiquitous; whole neighborhoods and towns emptied. The automobile industry appeared to be headed for bankruptcy. Banks as large as Lehman Brothers were dead, and other banks were floundering. It was a crisis of historic dimensions and global ramifications. However skillful the management in Washington, the slump was bound to last longer than the Great Depression. (35 et seq).

Although The New Yorker gives a clear sense of intense emotional process operating at multiple societal levels, its perspective, emphasizing financial, economic and political distress, does not facilitate understanding of movement among the reactive elements or of navigation of the relationship systems implicated by the description. (To be fair, that was not the editors’ intent. Their purpose was to provide a political perspective that formed the basis for the endorsement of a particular candidate.) As such, the editorial does not offer insight (other than for whom to vote) into what it might take to interrupt such a downward spiral in functioning.

Single Theoretical Framework

In contrast, Bowen theory offers a way to join within a single theoretical framework political, economic and financial functioning with functioning at the biological level, where so many of the consequences of inappropriate balancing of individual and societal (and ecological) interests are experienced. As the excerpt about the “self” suggests, Bowen theory offers a way to move among and within the (often) many levels of dynamic functioning of complex natural systems.

The first six concepts of Bowen theory describe the functioning of families at the levels of the individual, the nuclear family of which the individual is a member, the extended family, and the multi-generational family. They permit us to obtain an integrated view of individual and family functioning across generations. With the theory’s expansion in the 1970s, it became possible to examine societal emotional functioning at multiple levels and understand how societal components also function as emotional systems and interrelate within, between and among the various levels as a natural system in which the components, which themselves are natural systems, mutually influence and are influenced by the other components. With the societal regression hypothesis, it is possible to integrate and understand interdependencies amongs natural systems at all levels of organization, including the ecosystems on which humans depend. This aspect of Bowen theory gives it potentially tremendous power to tackle complex environmental and ecological issues and perhaps provide a “pathway to harmony.”

Technology, Instinct and Societal Regression

For many years, my professional work has involved regulation of dangerous technologies, misuse of which could result in ecological disasters. That work has led me to consider whether technological innovation might, in some instances, take on an instinctive character in which consideration of potential negative long-term consequences is sacrificed to secure near-term benefits.

My initial interest began in the 1990s (Comella 1995) with a 1952 paper about relationships between population dynamics and social behavior written by John B. Calhoun.1 This noted behavioral researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health helped me to see that technological conditioning of the environment is not unique to humans.He wrote:

Wherever animals live they are constantly altering the environment about them. . . . [i.e.] biologically conditioning the environment. . . . [which] has repeatedly been shown to alter the welfare of existing members of a population as well as the density exhibited by later generations.

[S]ociality is a factor in affecting the welfare of the group. There is a tendency among many animals toward group activity, the result of which ameliorates the environment so that their physiology is more efficient or their survival rate is increased.… Beyond a certain point the same activity may become deleterious as the participating group increases in numbers, to the point that the formerly beneficial activity lowers survival rate or physiological efficiency. The merits of any social behavior are thus relative to the conditions and history of the group within which they occur.

As soon as animals begin to condition their environment through the elaboration of relatively permanent artifacts, such as trails, nests, burrows, and the like, biological conditioning assumes a more definite cultural aspect.… [B]eyond such primary functions, [artifacts] . . . further serve as a physical mold in which the social matrix takes its form (Calhoun 1952, 142-143).

The beaver (Castor spp.), “a primarily nocturnal, large, semi-aquatic rodent,” provides a good example of biological conditioning of the environment that is also “technological” in nature: beavers select sites for their dams, harvest resources to build them, and adapt the dams to conditions encountered. Conditioning also has an instinctual character, evidenced, for example, in their basic lodge plans, and harvesting and building “equipment”:

Beavers are known for building dams, canals, and lodges (homes). . . . Their colonies create one or more dams to provide still, deep water to protect against predators, and to float food and building material (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaver, accessed 8 Oct 2011).

The beaver lives in a dynamic physical environment constantly changed through beaver engineering. Beavers “know” what’s good for beaver society by way of resources and the use and shaping of those resources. Ultimately, beavers must move on to colonize new water-based ecosystems, leaving behind an altered environment for reuse and colonization by other species.

In thinking about such recent ecological disasters as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and fire in the Gulf of Mexico and the severe 2011 accidents at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, I note that these disasters had strong technological and anthropogenic characteristics and did harm at multiple levels of life.

For example, in Fukushima, there was willful disregard of evidence from operating experience with nuclear power facilities and about past natural catastrophes that had predictive value with respect to future recurrence. In the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, technological applications went beyond the underlying science regarding their safe and prudent use and involved underestimation or lack of acknowledgment of the uncertainties about risks if things went wrong, including large-scale environmental contamination, loss of life, and other significant risks at multiple societal and ecological levels.

Instinct and Innovation

Thinking of such examples spurred my interest in looking more broadly and deeply at the role that instinct might play in human technological innovation. Specifically, I have tried to understand better when instinct might play a role in shaping innovation, including the degree to which the physical and social environments might have limited consideration of potential long-term deleterious effects. The examination is necessarily post hoc but nevertheless has predictive value when used in the context of a natural systems framework such as Bowen theory. Examples abound of technological innovation that achieved near-term benefits but later exhibited unexpected longer-term consequences. Their sheer number suggests that instinctually driven technological innovation may be strongly implicated in the kind of societal regression Bowen described.

The instinctual life forces of individuality (which promotes individual survival, security and wellbeing) and  togetherness (which promotes survival, security and wellbeing of the group) operate automatically. At the level of survival, technological conditioning applies knowledge and experience to solving practical problems of living in the here and now. Under conditions posing threats to survival, security or wellbeing, particularly of a sustained nature, a major aim of technological conditioning would be removal or mitigation of threats. The greater or more proximate the threat, the more the focus would be on near-term, rather than long-term, effects. In exigent circumstances, such as wartime, when prompt, effective action is necessary to survive or restore security or wellbeing, the instinctual character of response becomes clear.

The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project provides a good example of wartime exigency to achieve technological breakthroughs as quickly as practicable, for the stated purpose of early victory with lessened loss of life. Its instinctual character is evident from the focus on near-term breakthroughs, with deferred attention to possible unintended consequences. The post-World War II “Atoms for Peace” program reflected a desire to apply outcomes of wartime military research to civilian applications of atomic energy. Both technological and cultural elaboration (including legal, regulatory, administrative and procedural rules and practices) was (and continues to be) used to regulate and control civilian applications, albeit imperfectly, as Fukushima and other severe accidents demonstrate. International instruments and standards to strengthen the safety, security and safeguarding of applications of the atom continue to be elaborated and implemented in response to emergent circumstances. In the context of this paper, efforts to use the atom for peaceful purposes show that effective regulation and control of technologies with potential for deleterious consequences for the health of humans, of life forms that sustains them and of the planet require continuing vigilance and response as circumstances demand. (To understand this governance process and see how it has unfolded for several generations, the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, provides an excellent resource: www.iaea.org.)

Many examples of ecological degradation illustrate an instinctual component to human technological innovation. The discussion below offers examples from agriculture and its continued industrialization, beginning with the ecological catastrophe known as the “Dust Bowl.”

The Dust Bowl of the American prairies during the 1930s had both climatic and anthropogenic origins. The greatest contribution to the devastation appears to have come from poor agricultural practices during a preceding wet period, when the land was first disrupted. This set the stage for drought and winds to  exacerbate erosion greatly, triggering foreclosures, abandonment of farms, and mass migrations from the prairies. (See Egan, 2006.) Although many remained on the land during the epochal collapse of this vast ecosystem, mass migration and abandonment of farms set the stage for aggregation of deserted farms into larger holdings suitable for industrial-scale agricultural practices.

Unintended Consequences

Modern industrialized agricultural and animal husbandry practices demonstrate unintended consequences of technological innovation. In the short term, food yields have risen enormously, sustaining billions of humans. However, the practices have raised significant concerns about their long-term sustainability.

According to the final report in 2008 of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (“Pew Report”), in the post-WWII economy, the “Green Revolution” from the 1940s through the 1960s transformed agricultural productivity worldwide through reliance on genetic selection of seeds, irrigation, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Unintended consequences of the technological innovations emerged somewhat later, including aquifer depletion (from irrigation), groundwater contamination (from pesticides), and excess nutrient runoff (from fertilizers). (Pew Report, 6)

Depleted Aquifer

For example, the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies much of an area stretching from South Dakota to Texas, is being drawn down at a rate “eight times faster than nature can replenish it.” Drawdown supports industrial agricultural practices through “a vast infrastructure of pumps and pipes that reach deep into the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the nation’s largest source of underground fresh water.” (Egan, 310)

Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP), which emphasizes production efficiency and cost minimization, gives examples of unintended consequences of feeding the world’s rapidly growing human population:

For most of the past 10,000 years, agricultural practice and animal husbandry were more or less sustainable, as measured by the balance between agricultural inputs and outputs and ecosystem health, given the human population and rate of consumption. IFAP systems, on the other hand, have shifted to a focus on growing animals as units of protein production. Rather than balancing the natural productivity of the land to produce crops to feed animals, IFAP imports feed and medicines to ensure that the animals make it to market weight in the shortest time possible. Animals and their waste are concentrated and may well exceed the capacity of the land to produce feed or absorb the waste. Not surprisingly, the rapid ascendance of IFAP has produced unintended and often unanticipated environmental and public health concerns. (Pew Report, 23).

IFAP facilities produce food animals with proven efficiency. Operators can produce more food more quickly and in larger quantities, often with greater control over factors that influence production and with achievement of greater economies of scale and lower cost per unit, albeit assisted by U.S. government policies that lower the costs of production. Externalization of costs to society and the environment  lowers  the  apparent cost  of  production  as well. (Pew Report, 6-7).

Transfer of Production Costs

Inadequate management of industrial-scale agricultural processes also results in transfer of production costs to the land, water and society rather than to the producer and/or consumer. In effect, costs are borne by those who are not direct beneficiaries and/or allocated to future generations.

Federal and state governments can regulate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), IFAP facilities that concentrate animals at high densities, in efforts to control environmental impacts. (See, for example, the website for U.S. EPA Region 7.) Concern about externalized costs and risks from CAFOs has expressed itself in litigation brought by concerned third parties in citizen suits. Kirby 2010 describes some of the litigation in detail. Of particular interest are the discussions of evidence underpinning the suits, particularly regarding waste management practices having adverse effects on air, water and soils, especially in fragile ecosystems. CAFOs vastly increase and concentrate animal waste products, as do wastes from slaughterhouses. The soil often cannot recycle wastes on the scales produced, which in turn can adversely affect water quality from runoff, including the capacity of affected waters to support sustainable populations of fish and shellfish. Affected waters can also carry pathogens holding public health risks for humans coming in contact with the water. There are also concerns about uses of antibiotics, antimicrobials and hormones in animal feed to prevent disease and accelerate growth to market size. (Pew Report, 6-7.) Consistent with Calhoun’s observations of the sometimes deleterious effects of increased population density, animals raised in CAFOs appear to have sacrificed some degree of health. It further appears that emergent chronic disease processes in the human may be tied to consumption of industrially produced food.

Short-Term Thinking

Not a new phenomenon, short-term thinking has accelerated post-WWII from, among other things, efforts to feed a globally burgeoning human population. The discussion here provides a glimpse into aspects of societal emotional process that appears to have instinctual underpinnings. Specifically, externalization of costs to the future implies a focus on near-term gains without sufficient regard to long-term societal and ecological consequences.

E.O. Wilson wrote:

Ten thousand years ago, the Neolithic revolution began to yield vastly larger amounts of food from cultivated crops and livestock, allowing rapid growth in human populations. But that advance did not change human nature. People simply increased their numbers as fast as the rich resources allowed. As food again inevitablybecame the limiting factor, they obeyed the territorial imperative. Their descendants have never changed. . . .

The struggle to control vital resources continues globally, and it is getting worse. The problem arose because humanity failed to seize the great opportunity given it at the dawn of the Neolithic Era. It might then have halted population growth below the constraining minimum limit. As a species, we did the opposite. There was no way to foresee the consequences of our initial success. We simply took what was given us and continued to multiply and consume in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained Paleolithic ancestors (Wilson 2012, 76, emphasis added).

In thinking about humans who might get beyond blind obedience to instincts, Bowen wrote:

The type of man who survives that [final major crisis] will be one who can live in better harmony with nature. This prediction is based on knowledge about the nature of man as an instinctual being, and on stretching existing thinking as far as it can go. There are many questions about what man can do about his environmental crisis. The thesis here is that he might modify his future course if he can gain some control over his reaction to anxiety and his ‘instinctual’ emotional reactiveness, and begin taking constructive action based on his fund of knowledge and on logical thinking (281).


In the first installment of this article, I have tried to describe why Bowen theory can be used as a tool to inform the development of public policy, particularly around societal-level issues that are inherently biological and ecological in nature. Addressing such issues requires consideration of the interplay between intellectual content and emotional process. Both must be addressed in order to arrive at more thoughtful outcomes, especially during periods of intense emotional reactivity. In the second installment, I will present examples from experience that demonstrate such interplay, underscore my belief that Bowen theory can assist in dealing with the emotional intensity that often attends the effort to address complex, controversial public policy questions, and offer glimpses of how it might be done.


Bowen, M. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1978.

Calhoun, J. “The Social Aspects of Population Dynamics.” Journal of Mammalogy (1952) 33(2):139-159.

Comella, P. “Natural Selection, Technology and Anxiety.” Family Systems: The Journal of Natural Systems Thinking in Psychiatry and the Sciences (1995) 2, 138-152.

Comella, P. “Emotional Process in Society: The Eighth Concept of Bowen Family Systems Theory.” Family Systems Forum (2009) 11:2, 1-2, 7-9.

Comella, P. “Some Thoughts on a Beginning Theory About Society as an Emotional  System.” Family Systems Forum (2010), 12:1, 1-2,   5.

Egan, T. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2006.

Kerr, M., and M. Bowen. Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1988.

King, D. Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010.

Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. 2008, Final Report.

Wilson, D. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago., 2002.

Wilson, E.O. The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2012.


1 In  June 2012,  the  National  Library  of  Medicine,  the repository for  Dr.  Calhoun’s  intellectual  legacy, announced the public opening of the Calhoun collection: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/news/calhoun_papers_released.html.

2See, for example, the website for U.S. EPA Region 7, http://www.epa.gov/region7/water/cafo/index.htm.

Patricia A. Comella, a member of the faculty of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, has worked with NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She retired from the U.S. State Department in 2007.

Summer 2003 (Volume 5, Number 2)

The Process of Self-Focusing and Other-Focusing As Related to Objectivity and Differentiation: Part I

By Hal G. DeShong, Ph.D.

The clinician with goals of differentiation’ of self and promotion of differentiation in others, faces the task of gaining as much objectivity as possible in personal and clinical situations. A first element of an objective perspective involves a study of the attentional processes of the thinking person who is attempting to see self as one part of a naturally occurring system rather than as the writer and director of life’s occurrences. This paper examines the ideas of self-focus and other-focus as these processes inhabit and/or promote clinical work and personal efforts toward the differentiation of self.

The Process of Self-Focusing

Objectivity in the study of human interaction is promoted with increased capacity to attend to one’s own thinking and behavior. In this section, five aspects of this attention to self will be described: 1) the direction of individual attention and energy; 2) self-responsibility; 3) awareness of self versus non-self; 4) influences on thinking processes in making long-term decisions for self; and 5) the potential advantages in efforts toward differentiation.

Regarding the direction of attention and energy, the process of self-focusing has to do with attending more to what I am doing than attending to what the other is doing. When I am attending more to what I am doing, I am better able to observe how I contribute to the situations of which I am a part. Objectivity is promoted as with self-focus I am less likely to exaggerate the contributions of others or self. Carefully observing my contributions involves studying how, through my own efforts, I can improve or worsen the outcome of interacting behaviors. This studying of “self” promotes process relevant to differentiation of self. Particularly, the careful observation of self requires an attention to what I am thinking over attending anxiously to what others may be thinking. Attending to what I am thinking in this close way promotes an awareness of where my mind goes in particular situations. By paying attention to my own efforts to think, I am better able to notice when my agitation level increases or decreases as surges in anxiety pull me from the task of attending to my own functioning. This should enable me to become better aware of the difference between my emotional and thinking systems and, perhaps, keep my thinking, at least a little, out in front of the reactivity generated by my emotional system.

A second dimension of self-focusing, which I think of as promoting differentiation, involves the relationship between the capacity to pay attention to one’s own thinking and behavior and self-responsibility. Taking responsibility for one’s actions is more likely when the direction is on observing the actions of the self. This focus makes possible wider-lensed perspectives on the problems and dilemmas of life as the effort away from searching for blames and causes should promote greater objectivity and neutrality in my estimations of situations. Increased self-responsibility is likely when I am attending to how my thinking and behavior are manifested rather than being seduced by my anxious desire to focus on how others ought to change in order to better prop me up or to solve my dilemmas. I recognize that the anxious desire to calm myself by attending to how others are doing can take the form of positioning others in a way that lets me “solve” their problems while, again, avoiding attending to self This potential is particularly relevant to clinical issues.

A third aspect of self-focusing promoting differentiation is that by attending to the thinking and actions of self I am more able to identify separate self. I am better able to see where I stop and the other begins.

A fourth component of focus on self is that the increased objectivity possible with this perspective provides an incentive to stay more clearly invested in outcomes beyond attaining immediate comfort. As efforts to manipulate others in order to reduce my own anxiety are decreased, I am more interested in functioning in ways that bring long-term improved results in managing my own anxiety.

A fifth and encompassing aspect of self-focusing is that the process promotes the possibility of a more defined self. This “defined self’ can stand separately from the identity offered by the borrowed self which has been generated with easy access, and little effort, through the other-focused processes of trying to influence the thinking of others and then studying their responses to determine a sense of self. Efforts toward differentiation through self-focused processes afford the opportunity to know what I think and to express those views.

The Process of Other-Focusing

Other-focusing is attending more to what other people are doing and contributing rather than attending to self. This direction of attention to others particularly involves focusing on what I “think” others are doing or not doing and thinking or not thinking, as observations filter through carefully protective personal subjectivity. This process carries with it a certain amount of agitation. Though the transfer of attention from self to the other provides a powerful way to bind anxiety, as in marital conflict and child-focus, the attendant agitation of other-focusing occurs, because the actions of others and the dilemmas of living are constantly changing. Thus, the use of such a mechanism to steady self carries with it the necessity to more or less consistently monitor and attempt to manipulate others. By using the other-focusing method of self-calming, when anxiety increases I can have a tiger by the tail. When I think of how such a process influences functioning, I think of the Zen story of the man lost in a dense forest. He finds himself in a small clearing with trails going off in all directions. The lost man luckily has a Master he calls on in such fixes. He asks the master, who has some knowledge, but not full knowledge, “Which trail should I take?” The Master replies, “I don’t know the way for you to get out of here. But, I do know where some of the trails end that won’t lead you out of here.” In the effort toward differentiation, other-focusing is one of the trails that won’t get you out of the forest. In exploring the structure and effects of focusing on the other with regard to personal and clinical issues, four aspects of the process seem relevant: 1) the attractiveness and accompanying problems of other-focusing as an anxiety-reducing mechanism; 2) the use of other focusing as a distraction from the work on differentiation; 3) attending to the other as a form of seeking feedback; and 4) other-focusing as it relates to avoiding self-responsibility.

First, other-focusing is a frequently used anxiety-binding response, as in child-focus, attention to dysfunction in a spouse, conflict and distancing. These mechanisms are undergirded by the notion that others are both the cause and the solution to personally experienced reactivity. Seeing self as the result of what was done to one in the past and what is being done to one is the present is the hallmark of the other-focused individual. A simple example would be a man who, having hit his thumb with a hammer, turns to his spouse and says, “See what you did? Why were you talking to me while I was trying to hammer this nail?” Another simple example would be someone at a dice table in Las Vegas with a friend standing by for the purpose of generating good luck. Being critical of others or making the presence of others the determining factor in how things turn out (positively or negatively) are elements of focusing on the other. The example of the good luck charm friend at the dice table is a simple one. The decision to divorce because one’s marital partner fails in the task of relieving one’s discomfort is a more complex example.

Other-focused attempts to reduce anxiety result in additional problems for the user of this mechanism. Once anxiety has been managed through the other, agitation arises. Agitation is a corollary of the need tokeep the other available and behaving in required ways. This can result in considerable anxiety as people are notoriously difficult to train-either to stand by the dice table holding the correct foot off the floor while whistling “Dixie” or to respond correctly and consistently as a spouse.

A second relevant problem with focusing primarily on others is that it encourages attention to problems and dilemmas as the issue for change rather than seeing the issue as differentiation of self. As outside dilemmas are defined as the arena that needs work, four additional possibilities for anxiety generation become apparent:

  1. Most obviously, much agitation is generated with the notion that the outside situation must be altered. Such a belief encourages a reliance on techniques. Individuals with this orientation will turn to everything from murder to Tarot cards, convinced that all that is needed is discovering the “right” way to control the environment.
  2. Defining the situation as the problem generates anxiety for the individual as he or she is more likely to take on the problems of others as one’s own.
  3. Careful attention to shifting situational variables feeds anxiety by an increased awareness of movements in the environment, movements which would go unnoticed by less vigilant persons unawareof how critical such changes are in determining internal experience.
  4. The individual accepting problems and dilemmas as the primary focus for change is more likely to land anxiously in the “impossible dilemma” such as when a person is saying, “If I had had different parents I would be a happy person.” Or, “If you were better at making me feel worthwhile I would be successful, but since you can’t meet my needs, I must remain unsuccessful.” It is an impossible dilemma, because the solution is seen as existing totally outside the individual.

A third way in which the process of other-focusing interferes with attempts toward differentiation is activated when the individual’s efforts for change are directed toward using others to reduce anxiety by concentrating on methods of living to control feedback received. This leads to attention and energy invested in “appearance” management over a focus on thinking for self and determining actions based on personally determined principles for living. Thoughts and efforts are directed toward “How am I being received and treated?” “How am I coming across?” rather than on “What do I think?” or “How am I behaving in relation to my best thinking about my functioning?”

A final point in considering other-functioning impediments to differentiation is the tendency, in using such a process, to over-rely on “experts.” This outward faced effort has elements of searching for the right technique to change one’s circumstances with the added element of over-valuing the other to calm uncertainties in the self. With the right other willing to take on the job, responsibility for self-functioning can be handed over to the expert. Energy and attention goes into keeping the expert on the job rather than being directed toward development of the self s capacity to manage anxiety. Problems are solved in a manner that fosters an inability on the part of the individual to solve future problems. This presents a major dilemma.

The Process of Self-Focusing and Other-Focusing As Related to Objectivity and Differentiation: Part II

By Hal G. DeShong, Ph.D.

Implications for Clinical Work

The process toward a more defined self involves a quality of thinking based on self-questioning that can evolve toward a life freer from anxiety and a mind that functions more objectively. No one can answer for another the questions about what one thinks, what one believes, what one values and by what principles one guides his or her life course. Such questions can be answered only by the less anxious mind of the solid-self. As the clinician function, he or she is in a position to promote or undermine the development of solid-self in the other. The promotion of solid-self in the other is best done with a sense of how the processes of self-focusing and other-functioning influence development of objectivity and solid-self. The following implications for clinical work are relevant:

  1. By self-focusing, the clinician has a way to better manage anxiety and therefore maintain more flexibility in functioning. When over-attending to the rises and falls in anxiety with the other, the clinician will be less likely to maintain a framework of the more objective “big picture.” He or she will become more predictable and less thoughtful. This is not to suggest that the clinician is not paying very close attention to the facts of the problem presented in order to raise sensible questions and/or provide feedback. The other-focusing process addressed here as interfering with clinical work is a sort of “locking on,” to watching the other as a way of measuring one’s own movements.
  2. The more the clinician is able to pay attention to self, the more he or she will be able to say what he or she will and will not do and the freer the client will be to see boundaries and recognize limits. The client is better able to see where the clinician begins and ends. As the clinician is not in a willful match to manipulate the client to change, the client is less driven to resist or to engage in a struggle to manipulate the clinician to take over responsibility for self.
  3. Through self-focusing the clinician has a better chance of knowing and expressing what he or she thinks with this information less clouded by subjectivity. Through this effort to stay in one’s own head in order to direct self based on thoughtful principles, the clinician will be more likely to resist picking up fads circulating in professional literature and conferences. Attention to differentiation of self will reduce the drive to borrow self with the excitement of a new diagnoses, techniques and promises of “fixing” other individuals.
  4. Self-focusing will help the clinician to stay clearer on what will be helpful to the client to promote his or her ability to focus on self. The clinician will less likely be automatically steered off course by content features of the interaction.

Implications for Self

Each of us puts great effort into affecting life outcomes. The extent to which the individual invest these efforts in self-focusing processes and other-focusing processes influences the outcome of life’s situations. From a personal perspective, as I consider desired change, I must ask myself, “Where are my thoughts going?” I believe that an emphasis on the capacity to self-focus is essential to differentiation of self and that other-focusing blocks efforts at differentiation of self. It is difficult for me to think clearly if I am not in my own head.

Reviewing this exploration of the basic direction of one’s attention in dealing with life, the following observations are pertinent to personal efforts toward differentiation:

  1. Self-focusing allows me to move a little less automatically. Observing myself slows down reactivity a bit or at least allows my review of situations to be more objective. This stance opens the possibility that I can recognize my patterns of reactivity in similar future situations. Following this line of thought, self-focusing may be essential for real change to occur.
  2. Processes that involve focusing on self make it less likely that, when anxious, I will distance from others by attending to what I think they should be doing differently. Of course, when I started in this profession, that is what I thought being a mental health professional was all about. This included the belief that the more anxious another made me, the more I should tell them what to do – to help them of course.
  3. Attending to my own thinking and behavior enables me to move and make choices without denying attention to real problems and dilemmas, but without being swallowed up by them either. I retain greater responsibility for what happens in my life.
  4. Self-focusing gives me a way through the familiar temptation to judge my effectiveness by the response of others. I am better able to attend to whether or not I am moving in line with my best thinking rather than continually asking myself, “How am I coming across to others?”
  5. The process of attention to self reminds me that I am responsible for my reactivity. This observation is challenging as well as a gift.


An example of a small, personal step: Several weeks ago my wife announced that she was removing from her office a particular memento that I had given her and relegating my gift to the hall closet. Her explanation had something to do with décor, what sorts of things she did and did not like to look at all day – silly reasons that had to do with her selfishly thinking of her own preferences while forgetting her duty to keep me comfortable. At the moment of my disappointment, I felt a surging desire to follow old, other-focused ways of thinking about the dilemma. In the past I would have first relished scenarios in my head about what uncaring thoughts were surely going through her head to allow her to step on my feelings. Next, I would have begun an other-focused campaign to convince her to reverse her behavior and, on a really good day, convince her to apologize for the whole affair.

This time I carefully chose to use self-focusing processes. First, I refocused on some computer work I was doing. Then I concentrated on relaxing and thinking about what sorts of things I like having in my office and what I did and did not enjoy looking at all day. The moment passed. I never raised the issue with my wife. Nor, more importantly in some ways, did I ever mention my agitation and how I managed to find a more effective way to deal with myself. Through the intentional effort involving attention to my own thoughts, my familiar, subjective view of myself as the center of the universe or at least at the center of my wife’s universe, was balanced somewhat with a more objective view of self and others. It’s a start.

Spring 1999 (Volume 1, Number 2)

Educational Programs in Bowen Theory

By Victoria Harrison, M.A.

My brother had a brain like a big engine. It never stopped. His brain got all these other engines started.

(Jess Bowen 1990)

Murray Bowen began to write and teach about the development of a new theory of human behavior, based upon the study of family systems and evolutionary science, at a time when family therapy emerged from various fields. Family therapy training programs proliferated in the 1970’s. Some, such as the Menninger Family Therapy Training Program, began as extensions of psychodynamic, analytic, or group paradigms predominant in psychiatric, psychological and social work institutions. Some universities established graduate degree programs in family therapy. Most of the early training programs in family therapy became eclectic, systemic or comparative. A few maintained a consistent theoretical framework.

Many who heard and read the early work of Murray Bowen incorporated ideas from family systems theory into their own framework for therapy. Concepts and terminology from family systems theory were adopted more as techniques for therapy than as part of a new theoretical framework. The majority of texts that survey the field of family therapy include Bowen family systems as a method of therapy and do not well represent the implications of a radically different theoretical framework for practice or for learning. In “An Odyssey Toward Science”, the Epilogue to Michael Kerr’s Family Evaluation. Dr. Bowen distinguished the history of his careful attention to research, theory, and science from the more popular locus on methods of therapy (Bowen 1988). He established the Family Center at Georgetown University Medical School as a place for continued research and development of knowledge guided by concepts defined in family systems theory.

Educational programs at Georgetown Family Center encouraged students to develop their own ability to “think systems” through a thoughtful process of study in their own family, through development of  knowledge within the sciences, and through application of theory in clinical work and research. A percentage of students attended only one year of postgraduate study before they returned to conventional therapy practice. Serious students from medicine and psychiatry, from nursing, social work, psychology, and from religious vocations attended the training programs year after year. Those who employed the concepts of Bowen theory to study such diverse subjects as cancer, the field of evolution, child abuse, reproduction, alcohol and drug addiction, spirituality, societal process and organizations, as well as biofeedback and physiological reactivity, began to teach and develop educational programs throughout the country.

The following historical time line provides dates at which various programs began. The programs listed here do not include each and every program in Bowen theory that has ever been held or developed.  Anyone who is interested in being included in a larger history of educational programs in Bowen theory is invited to provide information about their program. Readers are encouraged to write the organizations included in this article for details about history and faculty, about their purposes and programs.

Murray Bowen believed that the implications for knowledge based upon natural systems theory were best realized within the disciplines of science and departments of medicine. He maintained that connection with Georgetown University and the Department of Psychiatry until his death. Although numerous physicians and psychiatrists who studied family systems theory employ concepts in their practice, few established teaching programs within academic institutions. Dr. Ann Cain integrated the study of family systems into teaching and clinical programs at The University of Maryland School of Nursing in the 1970s. Dr. David Drake directs programs at the University of Osteopathic Medicine and Health Sciences in Des Moines, Iowa, where he is associate professor of psychiatry. These programs depend upon key individuals to maintain consistent efforts at systems thinking. research, and practice while interacting with others who have different ideas.

The majority of educational programs in Bowen theory and the study of family systems developed separate from academic or scientific institutions. Connections between theory and the natural sciences are established in various ways. Those individuals who develop research interests of their own collaborate with scientists. Some of the leadership in training and educational programs integrate Bowen theory into graduate studies of their own. Many programs include guest speakers from the sciences. Some programs have included scientists within the structure of the organization, as members of the board or advisory board.

There are probably as many differences in organizational history and structure as there are programs. Often one individual begins to offer conferences or seminars, Individuals who are introduced to Bowen theory through a local program or teacher often begin to attend the post-graduate training program at Georgetown Family Center. Over time the number of serious students expands. The structure and organization of the program take shape as dedicated leadership develops. Each program has its own unique integration of theory into the relationships and disciplines among students and founders. Some programs are a loose collection of individuals with common dedication to theory who organize conferences and training activities. Other programs are 501(c)3 nonprofit corporations. The structure of the Board varies. Financial resources and funding vary. Some have a specific location. Others hold programs at community centers, universities, hospitals, churches and museums. Perhaps each program represents its own experiment in the introduction of theory and science into the emotional system of family, society and its institutions.

Educational programs throughout the country also vary in the activities they include. Some organize one or two major conferences a year. Others offer a series of conferences and seminars from introductory to advanced levels of learning. Some programs include coaching in the study of one’s own family on an individual basis as well as supervision in groups of students. Others organize the study of one’s own family within the group supervision setting only. Most programs organize seminars in which students present their efforts to study and apply theory in their organization or field. These presentations may be primarily case consultation for students who are mental health professionals. Some educational programs include the applications of theory toward understanding organizations as well as families. Most focus on topics that are of particular interest to the founders and students. Teaching programs include a combination of local faculty and guest speakers who represent leaders in the field of Bowen theory. The faculty at Georgetown Family Center maintain a commitment to support the development of educational programs throughout the country, not only through their on-going; research, work and writing, but also through travel, consultation, and teaching throughout the country.

Development of educational programs based upon the study of Bowen theory and family systems is subject to the very forces and factors that Murray Bowen observed in families and society. Differences in history, structure, program and leadership represent variation in the way individuals approach learning a new way to think. Differences reflect the effort that individuals make to introduce a new way of thinking into the network of relationships in their organization, community, or field. There are common emotional reactions with which to contend. Everyone deals with pressure to append or compete, to join forces or give up, to be a part or to cut off from Georgetown Family Center, from the network of people who study Bowen theory, or from the local communities of science, academic and social institutions. As Michael Kerr wrote in an article for Georgetown Magazine, “Family systems theory provides a blueprint for an approach to human problems that is based on distinguishing between the consequences of reacting emotionally to a relationship system and the consequences of having a thoughtfully determined direction for oneself.” (Kerr 1988). The extent to which individuals are able to define and employ principles for dealing with relationship reactions will determine the contributions educational programs can make toward the purposes and promises of Bowen theory.


  • Bowen, Jess. 1990. Murray Bowen’s funeral. October.
  • Bowen, Murray. 1988. “An Odyssey Toward Science.” Epilogue in Family Evaluation, by Michael Kerr. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Kerr, Michael. 1988. “From Darwin to Freud to Bowen.” Georgetown Magazine, Spring.
Historical Timeline: Development of Bowen Theory Programs throughout the Country


  • Paulina McCullough, LCSW began to study with Murray Bowen at Georgetown University Department of Psychiatry


  • Murray Bowen taught at Medical College of Virginia in Richmond (MCV)
  • Morton Schuman, LISW; Dick Armstrong, M.D.; Allen Entin, Ph.D.; and Henry Lederer, M.D. sponsored and offered training program at MCV


  • Phillip J. Guenn, M.D. began to study with Murray Bowen at Georgetown University Department of Psychiatry


  • Rabbi Edwin Friedman began to study with Murray Bowen


  • Phillip Guerin, M.D. and Tom Fogarty, M.D.: Center tor Family Learning in New Rochelle, New York


  • Paulina McCullough, LCSW began to teach Bowen theory at Western Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


  • Don Shoulberg, LCSW, began to study Bowen theory
  • Victoria Harrison, MA began to study at Georgetown Family Center
  • Louise Rauseo, RN, MS began to study at Georgetown Family Center


  • Bob Noone, Ph.D.; Syndey Reed, LCSW; and Carol Moran, LCSW: Center for Family Consultation in Chicago, Illinois; Stephanie Femra, LCSW joined this faculty in 1980


  • Edwin Friedman began teaching throughout the country


  • Mary Bourne, LCSW: Minnesota Institute of Family Dynamics in Minneapolis, Minnesota


  • Paulina McCullough, LCSW with Walter Smith, Ph.D.; Cynthia Larkby, Ph.D.; Jim Smith, MS; Ann Read; and Stuart Libbman, Ph.D.: Western Pennsylvania Family Center


  • Seldon Dunbar, LSCW: Princeton Family Center for Education in New Jersey


  • Ann Bunting, Ph.D.: Supervision Group in the Study of Family Systems in Burlington, Vermont


  • Ann Bunting, Ph.D.: Bowen Clinical Conference Series in Burlington, Vermont
  • Laura Havstad. Ph.D.: Programs in Bowen Theory in Sebastopol, California
  • Lee Ann Howard, LCSW: Kansas City Forum in Kansas City, Kansas


  • Edwin Friedman, Ph.D., with Myrna Carpenter, Ph.D.; Mickie Crimone. MS, RN, Gary
  • Emanuel, Ph.D.; and Susan Luff, MS, RN: Center for Family Process in Bethesda, Maryland


  • Victoria Harrison: Bowen Theory Seminar in Houston, Texas


  • Polly Caskie, Ph.D. and others: Florida family Research Network
  • Betty Carrington, LCSW: Family Systems Training Programs in Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • Louise Rauseo, RN, MA: Bowen Theory at the Border in EI Paso


  • Margaret Otto, MSW and Kathleen Riordan, MSW: The Center for Family Health in Kansas City, Missouri


  • Vermont Center for Family Studies by Ann Bunting, Ph.D. and others


  • Victoria Harrison, MA; with Elizabeth Smith, Ph.D., Susan Munson, and Louise Rauseo, RN, MS: Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family in Texas
Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family

By Victoria Harrison, Executive Director

Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family (CSNSF) was incorporated in October 1998 to provide educational and training programs in Texas, to connect research, and to offer clinical and community services based upon Bowen theory, the study of natural systems, and the family.  It has a particular mission to contribute toward integration of this knowledge by individuals within their fields and organizations.  Center programs will make unique contributions locally, throughout, the state, to Georgetown Family Center, and in the network of programs by people who study this theory.

The Board of Directors includes Victoria Harrison, Susan Munson, Louise Rauseo, and Elizabeth Smith.  An Advisory Board of leaders from various fields is in formation and currently includes Michael Kerr, M.D., Director of the Georgetown Family Center, Anne Jacobson, Ph.D., Dean of Cognitive Sciences Initiative at University of Houston, and Daryl Koehn, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Business Ethics at University of St. Thomas.  Tax-exempt status is pending IRS approval.

The number of individuals who want to study theory and contribute toward CSNSF is growing.  Sixty people have attended the first three conferences in the conference series, Future Tense: Factors that Impact Future Generations.  Louise Rauseo is directing a postgraduate training program in El Paso and teaching a class in Cd. Juarez, Mexico, with students who contribute toward developing programs there.  Individuals have volunteered leadership in guiding and funding non-profit incorporation, for producing the newsletter, Family Systems Forum, for investigating the formation of a training and demonstration clinic for health and mental health services, for developing a website for the Center, for funding video production, and for organizing publicity for the programs.

There are many ways where an individual can make contributions to CSNSF.  The most important contributions truly arise from using CSNSF as a resource to develop new knowledge, to address family and societal concerns, and to apply Bowen theory in one’s own field.  People are welcome to contact members of the Board to talk about ways they may wish to put the Center to work.

Certainly, financial contributions are welcome.  While registration fees pay most of the program costs, contributions will allow research and demonstration projects to move more quickly.  The library of literature and audio and video material is expanding.  A location for Center programs will soon be possible.

Public information is the most expensive and perhaps most perplexing of challenges.  The best source of information about these programs is someone who has found them valuable.  I plan to dedicate more time to expanding contacts with people, as must others.  This will leave administrative tasks for those who want to do them.

Contributions of time and leadership are welcome.

The first year will be one of “trial and error,” rich with learning.  It is vital that leadership at the Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family be directed by theory and by work on differentiation of self.  That starts with me.  I proceed with gratitude for the work ahead.