The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

The Family In Society: Navigating Through Turbulent Times

Authored by Regina Ferrera, M.S.W.

Dr. Murray Bowen originated a theory of human behavior in the 1950’s and continued to work on it until his death in 1990. Bowen Family Systems Theory is based on his view of the family as a natural system that functions as an emotional unit. Bowen described emotional process in families and how it shapes and is shaped by the responses of each family member.

As he was developing his theory, Dr. Bowen observed that emotional process also occurs in society. In his book, Family Therapy In Clinical Practice, (p. 421) Bowen wrote, “Family and societal emotional forces function in reciprocal equilibrium to each other, each influencing the other and being influenced by it.”

Each person is part of a family and part of a society. Clinicians and their clients are grappling with the challenge of how to manage themselves in their families and in society. Clinicians who are observing and defining their own functioning have a better chance of helping clients to do so.

This writer will be doing an afternoon presentation at the Center for Family Consultation’s 21st Annual Clinical Conference on Friday February 22, 2019 in Evanston, Illinois. The presentation is about the connection between family emotional process and societal emotional process, including the concepts of emotional triangles, the projection process and emotional cutoff. A case study will be presented of a family affected by a series of societal crises that affected at least four generations. The case study is about Harold Washington and the Washington family. It will include basic information about four generations: the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather of Harold Washington. It is based on genealogical research done by Curtis G. Brasfield, author of the book The Ancestry of Mayor Harold Washington, 1993. Heritage Books, Inc.

In the 2018 biography, Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago, historian Roger Biles describes Washington’s career, and especially his time as mayor of Chicago, in great detail. Harold Washington was a WWII veteran, a lawyer and politician who rose to become Chicago’s first African-American mayor. Washington was the great-grandson of a slave who fought in the Civil War and was freed from slavery. Each generation of Harold Washington’s paternal line exhibited resilience in the face of adversity. Each ancestor improved his life circumstances. Each generation contributed to the family and the society they were part of.

The presentation will address the following questions:

  • How did the societal projection process affect the four generations of the Washington family and how did they respond to it?
  • How was emotional cutoff manifested in our society around the issue of race and the historical treatment of African-Americans? What were some of the emotional triangles in society that Mayor Washington appeared to be part of and how did they function?
  • How did Mayor Washington define himself as a politician and elected official in society? What were the challenges he faced in trying to change an entrenched political system? What was his impact on our society?

Finally the presentation will include ideas from Bowen Family Systems Theory about “managing self” in one’s family, particularly the concept of differentiation of self, and how those ideas can be applied to the societal context. There will be time for discussion and those in attendance are invited to share their own ideas about the family in society.




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