Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 1
THEORIES OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT
SCOTT W. PLUNKETT, PH.D.
Department of Family & Consumer Sciences
College of Health and Human Development
California State University Northridge
Sequoia Hall 200N
(the building directly east of the library)
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 2
WHAT IS FAMILY STUDIES / FAMILY SCIENCE?
FAMILY STUDIES / SCIENCE refers to the study of human families and encompasses issues and topics where
family life is the primary focus.
FAMILY STUDIES OPTION, DEPARTMENT OF FAMILY AND CONSUMER SCIENCES, CSUN
Family Studies supports the well-being of individuals and their families through teaching, research, and
outreach to the community.
The undergraduate and master‟s programs emphasize both theoretical and practical knowledge about
human development through the entire lifespan; child advocacy; the roles families play in our larger society
and economy; diversity in families; family life education; and intervention programs that help families.
National Council on Family Relations - provides a forum for family researchers, educators, and
practitioners to share in the development and dissemination of knowledge about families and family
relationships, establishes professional standards, and works to promote family well-being.
SOME JOURNALS IN FAMILY STUDIES
Journal of Marriage and Family
Family Relations Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies
Journal of Comparative Family Studies
Child and Family Studies Journal
Marriage and Family Review
CAREERS WITH A MASTER’S DEGREE OR DOCTORATE IN FAMILY STUDIES (OR RELATED AREA)
Family Life Education – Professionals who provides community education on issues relevant to
individuals and their families (e.g., parent education, premarital/marital education, divorce recovery,
sexuality education). One can be a FLE without a graduate degree, but the degree gives credibility.
For more information about FLE refer to:
Cooperative Extension – A professional (based in the university system) who uses research-based
information to help people improve their lives and communities.
For more information about cooperative extension refer to http://www.csrees.usda.gov/
Program Developer and/or Evaluator
Marriage and Family Therapist – The primary emphasis is on engaging the family by focusing on how
the entire family functions. An individual‟s problem is viewed as a symptom of interactions within the
family (Requires a Master‟s Degree and Licensure in Marriage and Family Therapy).
Childcare Administration (Requires the administration classes needed for state certification)
Community College Instructor or University Part-time Instructor
A Ph.D. is needed to be a full-time faculty member at a 4-year or doctoral granting university.
CAREERS WITH A BACHELOR’S DEGREE IN FAMILY STUDIES
Essentially, a bachelor‟s degree in Family Studies will allow you to do the same careers as a bachelor‟s
degree in Psychology, Sociology, or Child and Adolescent Development.
Examples include: child protective/welfare, adoption and foster care services, in-treatment facilities,
juvenile detention, case manager, child and family advocate, or any other type of social services.
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EVALUATING FAMILY THEORY
The development and refinement of theory has always been important in graduate education and in the
development of science. The family field of study is currently inundated with competing theoretical
frameworks which often have more similarities than differences. The multi-disciplinary nature of family
studies contributes to this confusion and makes theory building particularly troublesome. Students of the
family must be aware of the theoretical traditions of the field and become proficient in evaluating the work of
others. The purpose of this course is to examine examples of recent family science literature.
THEORY AND CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORKS
Theory – A collection of concepts, constructs, variables, relationships, and propositions that are logically
connected to explain phenomenon (Doherty, Boss, LaRossa, Schumm & Steinmetz, 1993). A theory is
made up of variables and propositions that identify relationships and provide explanations that are logically
deduced, when all things are equal.
“Theorizing is the process of systematically formulating and organizing ideas to understand a particular
phenomenon. A theory is the set of interconnected ideas that emerge from this process.” (p. 20).
Conceptual frameworks identify concepts that are related to each other and put them in proximity; but
they are not necessarily inter-related.
In a true theory, every concept and/or proposition must be compatible with every other one. Conceptual
frameworks do not attempt to explain, but theories do.
CRITERIA FOR EVALUATING SOCIAL SCIENCE THEORIES (DOHERTY ET AL., 1993, P. 24)
Richness of ideas
Clarity of concepts
Coherence of connections among concepts
Simplicity or parsimony
Clarity of theoretical assumptions and presuppositions
Consistency with its own assumptions and presuppositions
Acknowledgment of its sociocultural context
Acknowledgment of underlying value positions
Acknowledgment of theoretical forebears
Potential for validation and current level of validation
Acknowledgment of limits and points of breakdown
Complementary with other theories and levels of explanation
Openness to change and modification
Sensitivity to pluralistic human experience and academic rigor
Potential to inform application for education, therapy, advocacy, social action, or public policy
DEDUCTION AND INDUCTION
Deduction is the attempt to go from abstract to specific, generally when dealing with theory, one moves
from abstraction to theory.
Induction is going from specific observations to generalizations.
A lot of the family theorizing went inductively from data to theory
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POSITIVIST AND POST POSITIVIST APPROACH
Positivist approach attempts to make family studies more scientific. Positivists try to utilize the natural
sciences (e.g., physics, math, biological sciences) to describe the social world.
The positivist approach assumes verifiable truth is very linear and objective.
Three principles of positivist approach (Klein & Jurich, 1993):
The only sound knowledge is grounded in scientific observation.
An idea is meaningful only if it can be verified.
Science progresses by inducing laws from observation and experimentation.
Post positivists believe there are many ways to view the world (i.e., many realities).
Theory precedes observation.
There are no facts without theories.
All theories are socially constructed.
Hence, support or validation of theories results from a consensus of scientists, using methods that
provide reliable and valid information (Doherty et. al., 1993).
BRIEF FAMILY THEORY HISTORY
In the 1800s, family study was dominated by the desire to solve social problems such as slavery, increased
divorce rates, women‟s suffrage, etc. which were directly tied to the family (Thomas & Wilcox, 1987). Many
professionals jumped on the “band wagon” to save the “fragile family” from all these social problems. At this
time, there was a split on the view of the family. The social reformers believed the family was fragile, needed
protection from social problems, and was instrumental to the health of society. They held the traditional view
of the family as a male-dominated, traditional, rural, socialization agent. The sociologists believed the family
was adaptable to societal evolution.
In the early 1900s, the need to solve social problems was still predominant, but the view of families as the only
socialization agent evolved (Thomas & Wilcox, 1987). In 1926, Burgess suggested moving from seeing the
family as a social system to viewing it as a separate unit of interacting personalities. This definition of the
family dominated the sociologists until 1955. During the 1920s and 1930s there was a European-American
exchange of ideas in the family field. This resulted from European works being translated into English and the
migration of several European scholars. During the first World War, the Great Depression, and the second
World War, family studies focused on stress and how it had different effects in different families.
In the 1950s, Hill discussed the obstacles to progress in family studies. He said that there was too much
confusion on how to view the family and too many vested interests. He went on to say that the family field
needed a “multidisciplinary conceptual framework that focuses directly on the family” (Thomas & Wilcox,
1987). This led to an emphasis on the various conceptual frameworks in family theory.
In 1960, Hill and Hansen emphasized the need for developing technology to code and organize the research
that had been completed but not analyzed sufficiently (Thomas & Wilcox, 1987). They argued for the need to
apply the research to conceptual frameworks. They then identified the five conceptual approaches to studying
families at that time – interactional, structural-function, situational, institutional, and developmental.
The 1970s were a time of tremendous growth in the family field due to many cumulative developments
(Thomas & Wilcox, 1987). The traditional methodological view of empirical research evolved to include a
methodology that focused on theory construction. The increased methodological sophistication refined data
collection and enhanced statistics. With all of these developments there ensued a general momentum for
growth in the family field (Holman & Burr, 1980). Part of this growth focused attention on developing the
various middle-range theories. In the 1970s there were three major conceptual frameworks. These included
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 5
symbolic interaction, systems theory, and exchange theory. There were five minor conceptual frameworks
which included conflict theory, behaviorism, developmental theory, ecosystems, and phenomenology. The
peripheral theories included balance theory, game theory, psychoanalysis, field theory, transactional analysis,
institutional approach, learning theories (not including behaviorism), and structural-functionalism.
A general trend in family science is to place more emphasis on family strengths (Stinnett & DeFrain, 1985)
and resources (Karpel, 1986), rather than family deficits and pathology. A recent movement has been towards
integrating research, theory, and practice to allow for more practical applications of the research and theory,
especially in the therapeutic setting. One important task for the future is to keep improving the quality of
family theories through improved methodologies and new theoretical models. More cross-cultural research is
needed to increase the universality and validity of family theory.
HUMAN ECOLOGICAL THEORY
Human ecological theory is an evolving theory within which to view families and their interactions with the
environment. Its roots are wide and varied. Human ecology evolves from “the assumption that humans are a
part of the total life system and cannot be considered apart from all other living species in nature and the
environments that surround them” (Andrews, Bubolz, & Paolucci, 1980, p. 32).
HISTORY OF HUMAN ECOLOGY
Human ecological perspective evolved from ecology. Ecology broadly defined is the study of organisms in
relation to their environment. It is difficult to determine the exact historical evolution of ecology due to its
diverse origins. Ecological ideas are apparent in works of both Plato and Aristotle.
In the 1700s, the “economy of nature” idea derived which focused on the relationship between humans,
other life forms, and the environment (Herrin & Wright, 1988). Two divergent views of nature derived
from this idea.
Arcadian tradition “emphasized the harmonious coexistence of humans and other life forms in the
environment they shared” (Herrin & Wright, 1988, p. 64).
Imperial tradition emphasized humans sovereignty over other organisms and the environment.
Both of these traditions are still delineated in varying views of current ecological thought.
The term ecology originated from the Greek word oikos (house) and logos (knowledge). In 1873, a German
zoologist, Ernest Haeckel proposed the term oekologie to describe a science that studied the organism as a
product of both environment and heredity (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993).
At the same time, an American woman, Ellen Swallow Richards, was suggesting a science of oekology to
improve people‟s lives and their environment by gaining knowledge from many different sources to deal
with change due to technology. Richards and others began meeting together in the late 1800s and early
1900s to discuss social reform and improvement of family life. However, Richard‟s oekology was
confronted with three major criticisms (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993):
too interdisciplinary and not supported by specialized science;
too much emphasis on plant and animal sciences which excluded the human factor;
Richards and her followers were mostly female and most were not scientists
In the early 1900s, Richard‟s discipline was renamed home economics. The ecological perspective was very
predominant in the origin of home economics. Certain assumptions were postulated about the relationship
between humans and the environment.
It was assumed that the social and physical environments are interdependent and a source of available
resources, influence human life, and can be modified to improve quality of life.
This approach was holistic, interdisciplinary and grounded in scientific principles, methods and results.
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Biological ecological contributions
Many argue that ecology began as a formal science in the biological sciences with the emanation of
Darwin‟s evolutionary principles (Herrin & Wright, 1988). In the 1890s, botany contributed to ecology‟s
The emergence of the ecosystem concept by British botanist, Arthur Tansley, in 1935 also contributed to
the field of ecology. Ecosystem was termed to explain the interactions between the living and non living
In 1953, Eugene Odum coined ecoenergetics. Ecoenergetics emphasized “the analysis of the flow of
energy and/or matter in, through, and out of ecosystems” (p. 165). Odum considered the structure,
function and interdependence of the elements of the ecosystems as more important than the community
and species. Three emphasis areas of prevailing bioecology have evolved:
Community and population ecology stemming from botany's contributions
Ecosystems ecology from Tansley and Odum‟s conceptualizations, and
The more recent behavioral ecology from evolutionary biology.
Social science contributions
Human ecology emerged in the social sciences in the early 1900s. In the 1920s, sociology theorists such
as Robert E. Park, Roderick McKenzie, and Ernest Burgess incorporated human ecological ideas in their
writings (Herrin & Wright, 1988). Human ecology experienced a brief rise to popularity and then due to
substantial criticism fell from popularity.
Another contributor is gestalt psychologist, Kurt Lewin. He focused on the influence of environmental
settings and the person‟s perceived experienced environment on behavior and development.
Roger Barker‟s ecological psychology, considered the multiple behavior settings in which behavior
Rudolph Moos‟ social ecology focused on individuals‟ interactions with their physical and social
Edwin Willems‟ behavioral ecology and James Kelly‟s focus on changes at the community level were
Other social science fields recognized the advantages of using an ecological perspective. However, there
was a lack of consensus among the different areas as to definitions of major ideas and also a lack of
shared findings. Some of these other social science areas included geography, anthropology, political
science, economics, and human-environment relations (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993). Human ecology is also
utilized in applied fields such as social work, family therapy and other health professions.
Reemergence of an ecological perspective in the study of the family
In the early 1900s human ecology ideology became somewhat dormant in the face of numerous
criticisms. However, it reemerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s when various college and university
renamed their home economics departments to human ecology departments (Herrin & Wright, 1988).
The renaming was an effort to reflect changes in the structure and functions of the family, recent
technological, political, socioeconomic and scientific changes, a shift to holistic approaches, and
emphasis on terms such as interdependence, interaction and environment (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993;
Herrin & Wright, 1988). During this period, Ellen Swallow Richards was credited with the founding of
ecology for her focus on improving the quality of family life back in 1902.
Other major influences included the conceptualization of the holistic view of general systems theory, the
reappearance of the ecosystem concept, and the entrance of systems ecology and social systems analysis
(Andrews et al., 1980; Herrin & Wright, 1988). These disciplines could be successfully integrated in a
complimentary fashion which further emphasized the importance of an ecological perspective.
Beatrice Paolucci, at Michigan State University, was an important figure in the rejuvenation of the
ecological perspective. She viewed the ecological perspective as being important to the study of home
economics and the family. According to Paolucci, the ecosystem was comprised of interdependent
organisms and communities. This helped shift the traditional view of the family as a completely separate
institution to a view of the family as an interdependent ecosystem that could influence its own destiny
(Bubolz & Sontag, 1993; Herrin & Wright, 1988).
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Another major figure in human ecology is Urie Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University. (Bubolz &
Sontag, 1993; Griffore & Phenice, 1988). His model is explained more fully below.
ASSUMPTIONS OF ECOSYSTEMS (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993; Herrin & Wright, 1988)
Humans are ecological organisms interdependent with other organisms in the environment. Humans cannot
be considered as separate from other organisms or the environment.
This is a departure from earlier views which believed that humans were an exempt species from the
The ecosystem is comprised of the family in interaction with the environment.
Ecosystems are based on the holistic premise that a change in any part of the system affects the system as a
whole and also the parts of the system. This assumes the whole system and the parts are interdependent and
operate in relation to each other.
All humans are interdependent with the resources of the world.
The environment is the source of limited, resources necessary for survival.
These resources and the environment can be modified to improve the quality of life.
The way humans, both on a national and individual level, choose to use these resources is important to
the world‟s ecological health.
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT FAMILIES (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993)
Families are ecological organisms since they are comprised of humans.
The family is generally considered to be the foremost setting in which development occurs.
Families, the environment, and the relationship within and between the two must be considered as
interdependent and examined as a system. “Families are semi-open, goal-directed, dynamic, adaptive
systems. They can respond, change, develop, and act on and modify their environment. Adaptation is a
continuing process in family ecosystems” (p. 426).
The family interacts with more than one environment since it comes in contact and resides in multiple
Family interactions are regulated by physical and biological laws of nature and human-derived rules.
Human-derived rules comprise such things as social norms, role expectations, and distribution of power.
Human behavior is not determined by the environment. The environment does, however, set certain
constraints and limits to human behavior. It also provides opportunities for behavior. So, families have
varying degrees of freedom to make decisions that can impact individual and family goals, and collectively
can influence the environment.
Interdependence refers to the mutual dependence of the various components of an ecosystem.
Example: Family members are interdependent with each other for goods, services, and support, while
families are mutually dependent on the environment for resources.
Adaptation is the “behavior of living systems (e.g., the family) that changes the state or structure of the
system, the environment, or both” (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993, p. 433). Adaptation is necessary for growth,
learning, and survival. Humans adapt to the environment and modify the environment for adaptation.
Bi-directional influences infer that relationships are interdependent and reciprocal.
Example: Parents impact their children‟s behaviors, and their children affect the parents‟ behaviors.
Values are human notions of what is good and worthwhile (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993). Individuals, families,
and other human groups hold values which guide decision making and behavior. It is important to be aware
of the values the individual, family, and socio-cultural environment hold.
Quality of life and environments
Quality of life refers to individual well-being and is based on the extent to which needs are met and
values are realized.
Quality of environment refers to the ability of the environment to supply adequate resources for survival.
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Human development – is “a process of ongoing and interrelated changes in an individual’s ability to
perceive, conceptualize, and act in relation to his or her environment” (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993, p. 437).
An individual‟s development is dynamic.
Development can be influenced by all levels of the ecosystem.
Other important concepts – feed-forward processes, holism, perception, interdisciplinary, laws of nature,
human derived rules.
BRONFENBRENNER’S ECOLOGICAL MODEL (1979, 1989) – Refer to the figure on the next page
Organism/Individual – Characteristics of the individual
Examples: cognitive development, temperament, personality traits, health, intelligence, disabilities
Microsystem – The immediate setting within which the individual interacts.
Examples: family, school, day care, peers, religious setting, play ground
The family is generally considered to be the foremost setting in which development occurs.
Mesosystem – The interrelationships or linkages between the various microsystems.
Examples: parent-teacher conference, guest speakers in school from the community, having friends
come to one‟s home, “go-to-parents‟ work” day
Exosystem – The settings in which the individuals are not active participants, but which affect them in one
of their Microsystems.
Examples: extended family, neighbors, legal services, school board, community services, workplace,
friends of family, city council, federal communications commission
Macrosystem – The developing person‟s society and subculture that includes the broader ideologies, belief
systems, and institutional patterns or values of the culture.
Examples: laws, economic and political systems, religion, cultural values, American ideology
Chronosystem – Encompasses change or consistency over time in the characteristics of the person and the
environment in which that person lives.
The cumulative experiences of the individual in relation to processes and events occurring in her or his
Changes in family structure, socioeconomic status, employment, place of residence
Community, society, cultural, and historical changes
ACTIVITY – Use the human ecological perspective to explain an adolescent‟s decision to either engage in or
not engage in premarital sex.
1. Identify factors at the chronosystem that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
2. Identify factors at the macrosystem that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
3. Identify factors at the exosystem that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
4. Identify factors at the mesosystem that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
5. Identify factors at the microsystem that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
6. Identify individual qualities that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
STRENGTHS (Herrin & Wright, 1988; Westney, 1993; Wright & Herrin, 1988)
Human ecology can be utilized to study a broad scope of issues related to families and their environments.
Since family ecology does not adhere to one definition of a traditional family, it has the capacity to study
families with different backgrounds, structures, and circumstances.
Human ecology is useful for research since it begins with a holistic perspective and tries to avoid
segmented knowledge and findings by utilizing information from other disciplines.
Human ecology provides a holistic view for family intervention programs and policy making. Utilizing the
ecological perspective encourages the utilization of knowledge from many disciplines. This allows a more
holistic overview of the problem or issue to be addressed.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 9
CRITICISMS AND LIMITATIONS (Herrin & Wright, 1988; Wright & Herrin, 1988)
Bioecologists have three main criticisms of human ecology.
Some argue that human ecologists casually borrow concepts and ideas from biology and sociology.
There is a difference in view about the ecological study of humankind that has never been resolved. The
argument centers around human ecologist‟s view that human ecology should evolve separate from
bioecology because humans are different from plants and animals. This unresolved controversy presents
a major obstacle to the sharing of work among various groups of ecologists.
Social sciences have traditionally assumed humans are not dependent on the biophysical environment
Some argue that ecology in general has infringed upon philosophical areas such as ethics and metaphysics,
and in so doing has gone too far to be considered a science.
There is an overemphasis on cybernetics, feedback loops, and calorie charts.
There are different definitions of ecosystem as applied to human populations.
There seems to be varying views as to what modes of research, methodology, and statistical tools are
For example, one study may look at both individual and environmental variables and consider it an
ecological study while other researchers would disagree. The decision as to whether or not a study is
ecological seems to be the author‟s opinion.
The broad range of human ecology makes it difficult to predict or explain human behavior.
Current research and statistical tools are often times inadequate in measuring reciprocal relationships that
characterize the ecological perspective due to their linear nature.
Andrews, M. P., Bubolz, M. M., & Paolucci, B. (1980). An ecological approach to study of the family. Marriage and Family Review,
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1989). Ecological systems theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of child development: Vol. 6. Six theories of child
development: Revised formulations and current issues (pp. 187-249). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press
Bubolz, M. M., & Sontag, M. S. (1993). Human Ecology Theory. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, & S. K.
Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach (pp. 419-448). New York: Plenum.
Herrin, D. A., & Wright, S. D. (1988). Precursors to a family ecology: Interrelated threads of ecological thought. Family Science
Review, 1, 163-183.
Melson, G. F. (1980). Family and environment: An ecosystem perspective. Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Co.
Westney, O. E. (1993). Human ecology theory: Implications for education, research, and practice. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R.
LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach (pp.
448-450). New York: Plenum.
Wright, S. D., & Herrin, D. A. (1988). Family ecology: An approach to the interdisciplinary complexity of the study of family
phenomena. Family Science Review, 1, 253-282.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 10
Human Ecological Model (Plunkett, 2005)
(time) Laws Exosystems Mass
to work day
Peer Disabilities Neighborhood
The image above is from:
Plunkett, S.W. (2005). Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes. Unpublished manuscript, California State University Northridge
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 11
DEVELOPMENTAL CONTEXTUAL APPROACH TO INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPMENT (LERNER, 1995)
ASSUMPTIONS OF DEVELOPMENTAL CONTEXTUALISM (Lerner, 1986)
Individual development occurs within a set of inter-related systems composed of the individual within
his/her social-cultural, community, and family environments.
Human development occurs from the ever-changing, reciprocal relations (i.e., dynamic interactions)
between individuals and the multiple contexts within which they live.
Time and history cut across contexts, hence affecting all interactions.
SOCIAL-CULTURAL-HISTORICAL CONTEXTS – The patterns of environmental events and transitions over the
life course set the stage for the experiences of individual.
Cultural influences – broader ideologies, institutional patterns, or values of the culture
Socio-historical changes – Examples include…
changes in media,
challenges to traditional gender roles,
the increased number of women in the workplace,
the recent emphasis upon fatherhood, changes in political environments,
changes in social welfare services,
increases in the frequency of divorce and remarriage,
current state or federal policies,
and so on.
Although factors at the socio-cultural-historic level may provide insight into understanding individual
development, the developmental contextual perspective also requires consideration of specific community
factors that may be important in shaping individual development.
Community is generally defined as people who reside within some geographical location and/or who share
a sense of being members of that community. Communities provide direct contexts in which individuals
interact in terms of work, socialization, recreation, religion, education, support, etc.
Three basic approaches to examining community contexts
Structural quality of communities. Examples include:
Distribution of socioeconomic status among members of the community
Availability of educational and occupational opportunities
Demographic characteristics of neighborhoods in which the individual resides
Racial and ethnic composition of the community
Role of religion in the community
Involvement of individuals within social networks in the community where they interact with others on a
regular basis. Examples include:
Availability of services and supports in the broader community. Examples include:
The nature and accessibility of social and health care services
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 12
Availability of affordable living arrangements
The availability of affordable, quality child care in a community
Family contexts include the immediate family environment and interactions between the individual and
extended family members.
The unique characteristics of each individual form a qualitatively distinct level within the environment that
has potential to contribute to his or her own well-being.
A person‟s unique biological characteristics, in combination with his/her specific history of life experiences
and roles, create a unique person who experiences life from his/her unique perspective across the life span.
Individual qualities of a person occur within a broader “developmental context” that interacts with the
individual experience. Therefore, individuals both contribute to their own development and experience life
within their developmental contexts.
Individual differences provoke different reactions from different people, which in turn, influence the
A Developmental Contextual View of Parent and Child
The image above is from:
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 13
Lerner, R., Brennan, A. L., Noh, E. R., & Wilson, C. The parenting of adolescents and adolescents as parents: A developmental
contextual perspective. Retrieved on August 30, 2005 from http://parenthood.library.wisc.edu/Lerner/Lerner.html
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 14
APPLICATION OF CONTEXTUAL DEVELOPMENT PERSPECTIVE TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – Domestic
violence infers a more reciprocal relationship with broader implications to the whole family. In other words, if
violence occurs between any family members, it will influence other family members.
Changes across time
Changes in attitudes about domestic violence
Change in policies
Unequal distribution of power due to patriarchal system
Condoning of physical force to resolve disputes
Increasing amounts of violence in society
Public policy initiatives
To launch a national campaign to change attitudes toward domestic violence
To foster prevention and intervention approaches that build on family and community strengths
To provide education to parents, educators, law enforcement officials, and health and mental health
professionals about (1) the effects of children‟s witnessing of domestic violence, and (2) alternative
approaches to resolving conflict.
To promote research that will (1) expand our understanding of domestic violence exposure and (2)
contribute to the development of prevention and intervention strategies
Community structural parameters
Increasing number of children/adolescents who are exposed to community violence
Unemployed men commit double the rate of wife battering as employed men
Men working part-time have an even higher rate of assault than employed or unemployed men
Amount of crime in community (i.e., community exposure to violence)
Availability of resources
Community based interventions
Health care and mental health care systems
Men who experience childhood violence themselves, or observe parental violence are much more likely
to be abusive
Families in which the decisions are shared are less violent
Families with higher levels of stress are more violent
Men who have less education or a lower-status occupation are more likely to be abusive
Women with low self-esteem are less likely to leave abusive husbands
Women who fear economic hardships or who believe their husbands will stop are less likely to leave
ACTIVITY – Use the developmental contextual approach to explain an adolescent‟s decision to either engage in
or not engage in premarital sex.
1. Identify cultural influences that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
2. Identify socio-historical changes that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
3. Identify community factors that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
4. Identify family factors that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
5. Identify individual characteristics that may impact an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex?
Lerner, R. M. (1984). On the nature of human plasticity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lerner, R. M. (1986). Concepts and theories of human development (2nd ed.). New York: Random House.
Lerner, R. M. (1991). Changing organism-context relations as the basic process of development: A developmental contextual
perspective. Developmental Psychology, 27, 27-32.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 15
Lerner, R. M. (1995). Developing individuals within changing contexts: Implications of developmental contextualism for human
development research, policy, and programs. In T. A. Kinderman & F. Valsiner (Eds.) Development of Person-Context
Relations (pp. 13-38), Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
SOCIAL EXCHANGE THEORY
Social exchange theory is an evolving conceptual framework that can be utilized to explain individual
development within the family. Exchange theory is based on the principle that people enter into relationships
in which they can maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. Equity theory, a variation of exchange
theory, holds that exchanges between people have to be fair and balanced so that they mutually give and
receive what is needed.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, exchange theory began to play a major role in family science. Scholars
pointed out how exchange theory could be applied to a variety of family issues (e.g., mate selection, courtship,
sexual bargaining, marital quality, marital power, family violence) at both the micro- and macro-levels.
THEORETICAL CONTRIBUTORS (Sabatelli & Shehan, 1993)
Utilitarian economists made certain assumptions which were applied to exchange theory. They believed
humans are rational and will seek to maximize their gain. They viewed humans as having access to all the
information they needed to make these rational decisions. If a profit cannot be made, they will forego that
area of investment. Also, a long-term reciprocity is necessary for both participants to make a profit,
otherwise one will exploit the other.
Behavioral psychology contributed to the assumption that an individual will elicit behaviors that will
produce the greatest reward and the least punishment. The individual will repeat behaviors that were
rewarding in the past, and will keep repeating the behavior as long as it is rewarding. However, the reward
will lose its value the more the individual receives the reward.
Cultural anthropology made significant contributions to exchange theory. Sir James Frazer in 1919 made
certain assumptions about exchange processes. Exchange processes derive from individuals trying to satisfy
basic needs. When these processes consistently produce payoffs, patterns of social interactions are
developed. These patterns contribute to the development of social structures and lead to power
differentiation in social groups. In 1922, Bronislaw Malinowski devised an exchange theory where
exchanges were dominated more by psychological and social needs than economic motives.
Marcel Mauss (1950s) de-emphasized psychological needs and emphasized the importance of group norms
as regulating the exchange relations.
Claude Levi-Strauss (1969) proposed the collectivist exchange viewpoint. He postulated that exchanges are
a part of a elaborate network of indirect exchanges. These exchanges are representations of the underlying
patterns of society, and that certain costs may be required by the individual.
George Homans applied reinforcement contingencies from operant learning theory to social behavior.
Peter Blau focused on the exchange concepts of norm of reciprocity, norm of fairness and social power.
John Thibaut and Harold Kelley focused on the “role of perceived rewards and costs in encouraging and
Richard Emerson focused on how the exchange ratio of rewards among participants shifted over time.
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT THE NATURE OF INDIVIDUALS (Nye, 1979; Sabatelli & Shehan, 1993)
Individuals avoid costs and seek rewards.
In relationships, feeling states, and interaction
When interacting with others, individuals seek to maximize profits and minimize losses.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 16
Individuals are rational beings; hence they consider rewards, costs, and alternatives before acting (i.e., cost
The standards used to evaluate rewards and costs differ from person to person and can vary over time.
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT THE NATURE OF EXCHANGE RELATIONSHIPS (Nye, 1979; Sabatelli & Shehan, 1993)
Social exchanges are interdependent.
Social exchanges are regulated by norms of reciprocity, fairness, and justice.
Trust, commitment, and stability result from individual‟s experiences in relationships, levels of attraction,
Rewards refer to anything which brings pleasure, benefit, and/or satisfaction in a social interaction or
relationship (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959).
Resources include anything (material or symbolic) which can be exchanged in a social interaction. In other
words, a resource gives one person the ability to reward another person (Emerson, 1976).
Costs include foregoing a reward, experiencing a punishment, or investing time or energy in a social
interaction or relationship (Blau 1964).
Principle of satiation refers to rewards losing value as the number of those rewards received increases.
Principle of deprivation refers to rewards gaining in value when the rewards are few.
Comparison level (CL) is an evolving, individual, subjective standard that determines whether the
exchange meets the individual‟s expectations (Nye 1979; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959).
CL is based on:
societal norms for similar exchanges,
past experiences in similar exchanges, and
observations of others‟ exchanges.
When relationship/exchange outcomes exceed the CL, then satisfaction is generally high.
Comparison level of alternatives is an evolving individual subjective standard that determine whether the
exchange exceeds the individual‟s other alternatives (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959).
When the comparison level of alternatives exceeds the current relationship, the likelihood increases that
an individual will leave the relationship.
Nonvoluntary relationships refer to unsatisfactory relationships that remain stable due to a lack of a
Dependence – The degree to which an individual believes he/she is contingent on the other for relationship
Dependence could be viewed as a cost of participating in a relationship.
Interdependence – The degree to which individuals influence each other and are mutually dependent on
Power results from the ability to get compliance in an exchange relationship by controlling rewards and
resources (Sabatelli & Shehan, 1993).
Partners with greater resources tend to have greater power.
Partners least interested in the relationships tend to have greater power because they are less dependent
on the relationship.
Distributive justice – Rewards and costs should be proportional, just as profits and investments should be
Norm of fairness – A subjective test by one participant in an exchange or relationship to determine
whether or not the rewards derived from an interaction are proportional to the costs (i.e., is it fair?).
Equity – An interaction is viewed as equitable when both individuals derive similar levels of rewards. It is
viewed as inequitable when one individual derives greater rewards than the other.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 17
Norm of reciprocity – A subjective test as to the mutual responsiveness of the exchanges.
Trust – An individual‟s belief that his/her partner will not take unfair advantage of or exploit him/her.
When relationships conform to the norms above, then trust is more likely to develop.
Trust allows an individual to be less calculative and to expect fairness and justice in the long-term.
Satisfaction = (Rewards – Costs) – Comparison Level
Commitment refers to an individual‟s willingness to work to maintain his/her relationships (Leik & Leik
Level of commitment distinguishes social from intimate exchanges.
Commitment is generally higher when partners experience high rewards, reciprocity, and trust (Sabatelli
Commitment = Satisfaction – Comparison Level for Alternatives + Investments
Normative orientations refer to societal/cultural views on acceptable and appropriate behavior in
Other important terms in social exchange theory include principle of least interest, loss, and profit.
Most people can understand the general assumptions
The ability of exchange theory to explain many family issues
Assumes humans act rationally when deciding on an exchange
Some issues are difficult to explain effectively utilizing exchange theory such as altruism
A tendency to place one‟s own bias on the perception of the situation. Very difficult not to place our own
bias, such as accepting another‟s view of what a resource, cost or reward is.
Generally limited to dyadic relationships
THE APPLICATION OF SOCIAL EXCHANGE VIEW TO SPOUSAL/MARITAL ABUSE
Spousal/Marital Abuse – Implies that abuse can occur to either partner
Possible Rewards & Costs
Rewards for the abused person staying in the relationship
More money and a higher standard of living
Perceived social approval for remaining in the relationship
Esteem or perceived respect due to a very attractive spouse, community status, or material
Perceived love and affection
Rewards for perpetrator
Violent action to maintain family order can elevate social status.
Compliance by the spouse as a direct result of the violence.
Costs of leaving the abusive relationship
Threats to the children – including the threat to gain custody, to harm them, or of losing them to child
Retaliation against parents, other close relatives, or pets
Starvation and homelessness due to lack of economic resources and assets
Shame and failure of not maintaining the marriage
The loss of social identity
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 18
Loss of one‟s standard of living.
Cost for the perpetrator of violence
Possible loss of social status in the community due to being labeled a “spouse abuser.”
Trouble with law
Costs of staying in the abusive relationship
Dependence – degree to which an individual believes he/she is contingent on the other for
Physical and psychological harm
Nonvoluntary relationship – Married individuals who stay in a violent relationship because they do not
see better alternatives (Gelles 1976).
Other important concepts in explaining domestic violence
Comparison level and comparison level of alternatives
Norm of fairness and norm of reciprocity
Equity, trust, and commitment
ACTIVITY – Use exchange theory to explain an adolescent‟s decision to engage or not to engage in premarital
1. List rewards of engaging in premarital sex (at least 3)
2. List rewards of not engaging in premarital sex (at least 3)
3. List costs of engaging in premarital sex (at least 3)
4. List costs of not engaging in premarital sex (at least 3)
5. What resources might an adolescent have to exchange with someone in order not to have sex
6. How might the concept of comparison level apply in an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex.
Blau, P. M. (1964). Exchange and power in social life. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Gelles, R. J. (1976). Abused wives: Why do they stay? Journal of Marriage and the Family 38, 659-668.
Leik, R., and Leik, S. (1977). Transition to interpersonal commitment." In R. Hamblin, & J. Kunkel (Eds.), Behavioral theory in
sociology (pp. ?). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Nye, F. I. (1979). Choice, exchange, and the family. In W. Burr, R. Hill, F. I. Nye, & I. Reiss (Eds.), Contemporary Theories about the
Family (Vol. II, pp. 1-41). New York: Free Press.
Sabatelli, R. M., & Shehan, C. L. (1993). Exchange and resource theories. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, &
S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach (pp. ?). New York: Plenum.
Sabatelli, R. M. (1999). Marital commitment and family life transitions: A social exchange perspective on the construction and
deconstruction of intimate relationships. In W. H. Jones & J. M. Adams (Eds.), Handbook of interpersonal commitment and
relationship stability, (pp. ?) New York: Plenum Press.
Scanzoni, J. (1979). Social exchange and behavioral interdependence. In R. Burgess and T. Huston (Eds.), Social exchange in
developing relationships, (pp. ?). New York: Academic Press.
Thibaut, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1959). The social psychology of groups. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
FAMILY DEVELOPMENTAL THEORY
Family developmental theory includes the two basic concepts of the life cycle and developmental task. The
family life cycle divides the family experiences into stages over the life span and describes changes in family
structure and roles during each stage. Developmental tasks refer to growth responsibilities that arise at certain
stages in the life of the family. To be successful, family members need to adapt to changing needs and
demands and to attend to tasks that are necessary to ensure family survival.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 19
The idea of a family life cycle dates back to 1777 (Mattessich & Hill, 1987).
The systematic conceptualization of family developmental theory dates back to the 1930s from works of
sociologists, economists, and demographers who established family categories (i.e., precursors to stages of
From the mid 1940s to the early 1950s, theorists such as Paul Glick, Evelyn Duvall, Reuben Hill, and
Rachel Ann Edwards contributed to a more sophisticated developmental approach.
Glick reoriented the emphasis of the family life cycle into phases of family development over historical
Duvall and Hill viewed the family as an avenue for life course mastery of more complex developmental
Duvall‟s book, Family Development (1957), outlined the family developmental tasks for each stage.
Elders outlined traditional and developmental tasks of fatherhood.
Since the 1950s, family developmental theory has been used to explain the processes observed in families
over time. James H. White is probably the most prolific current writer on developmental issues.
Hill and Rodgers (1964) believed family development proceeded through specific life-cycle stages:
Families with young children
Launching of children out of the home
Each family member and each family is unique and complex in terms of its age and role expectations.
Human and family behavior is the sum of past and present experiences as well as future expectations and
For the most part what is studied is the individual, however, it is applied to the family.
The individual is the basic autonomous unit in a social setting.
Humans are actors as well as reactors.
Families and individuals change over a period of time. They progress through a series of similar
developmental stages and face similar transition points and developmental tasks.
The success or difficulty of achieving the developmental tasks in each stage leads to readiness for the next
stage or difficulty in later stages.
Developmental tasks are considered to be working towards goals as opposed to meeting them, tasks
themselves are ongoing or a process.
The primary focus is internal family development. Family developmental theory is focused on the
interactive behavior within the family over time. Burgess stated “The family is a unit of interacting
personalities.” Some would argue that symptoms or dysfunction are signs of developmental arrest (i.e., not
being able to make it from one stage to another). Family developmentalists might ask “When do things
start?” and “When are things the worst?”
Development can be looked at in regards to stages/processes of development. Once an individual meets the
requirements for a particular stage, they do not go back to a previous stage. Hence, development is forward
going, but individuals and families can stagnate if they do not complete the requirements for the next stage.
Some have argued that the concept of a “stage” is too static.
Development is not comfortable since it involves the change process. Evidence of stage completion is when
and individual and family do not go back further than a particular point. Stages are attained through a
process. Individuals and families can not skip a stage without some consequences.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 20
Family is a social group that contains at least one parent-child relationship.
Family life cycle/course – Set of predictable steps/patterns and developmental tasks a family experiences
over time. The family life cycle concept facilitates studying the family from beginning to end.
The family life cycle is also called family career (Rodgers, 1973)
Family stage – A time period in the life of a family that has a unique structure and interaction patterns.
Hence, each family stage is distinct from the other.
Example – Launching a child does not end the parental role, but it does result in change in the structure
of the family and the interaction patterns.
Transition events – The separating points between two family stages.
To make the transition from one stage to the next, a mastery of the particular developmental tasks of the
current stage and a readiness to go on to the next stage are needed (Rodgers & White, 1993).
Norm – Societal expectations that govern group and individual behavior . In other words, the norms
provide rules for how individuals/families should develop and how behavior develops.
Example – incest taboo is a strong norm that forbids sex/mating between family members.
Other institutions have norms that regulate specific areas of social life (e.g., work, religion, polity)
Two types of norms:
Timing norms depict when an event or stage is to be experienced.
Having a first child at age 50 would be an example of a violation of a timing norm.
Sequencing norm is the order in which the events or stages are to be experienced.
Premarital birth would be an example of a violation of a sequencing norm.
Social change comes about when large numbers of families deviate from the expected family life cycle
to align with a change in nonfamily institutions.
Example – Increased education and later age of first marriage results in changes in the timing norm
Family violence example:
There is a disagreement between the following social norms: (1) people should stay in a marriage, (2)
people should not hit their spouses, and (3) husband/father is not challenged.
Position – The location in a social structure (e.g., location of a person in a family or kinship structure).
Basic positions in the family include: husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister.
Multiple positions are possible for one person (e.g., husband, father, son).
Role – The sets of expectations (i.e., norms/rules) for behavior associated with a particular position.
Examples of roles in American families include provider, housekeeper, and nurturer.
For example, the role of the mother is often defined as nurturing the offspring
Positions in the family may have several roles
Example – Husband-father who may have the role of provider, sexual partner, recreation organizer.
Role relationships within the family change with the family stage.
Roles assigned to positions can vary from society to society or subculture to subculture.
Other concepts include role behavior, sanction, role sequence, role cluster, positional career, role complex
and family career.
STAGES OF THE FAMILY LIFE CYCLE (according to Evelyn Duvall)
Stage 1: Married couples (without children)
Stage 2: Childbearing families (oldest child, birth-30 months)
Stage 3: Families with pre-school children (oldest child, 2 1/2-6years)
Stage 4: Families with school-age children (oldest child, 6-13 years)
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 21
Stage 5: Families with teenagers (oldest child, 13-20 years)
Stage 6: Families as launching centers (first child gone to last child leaving home)
Stage 7: Middle-age parents (“empty nest” to retirement)
Stage 8: Aging family members (retirement to death of both spouses)
One approach rejects the idea that the family life cycle ends with the death of the family members in a
particular generation since death can occur at any stage and affect the lives of all family members. This
approach views the developmental tasks of each generation as superimposed upon one another.
Another approach analyzes normative as well as unusual sequencing of stages, such as childbirth before
marriage, single parent families, and childless couples, from a developmental perspective.
Another approach analyzes the impact of a particular life event on family development from the individual,
relationship, group, and institutional levels.
Other approaches have defined different numbers and types of family stages.
The ability to view the dynamic nature of the family over long periods of time
The ability to determine how change occurs in the family life cycle (which supports the link of therapeutic
change to family development in family therapy)
As an illustration, researchers have applied the theory to as a therapeutic tool to assist in the analysis of
on-time careers and events (Carter & McGoldrick, 1988; Falicov, 1987).
The ease of understanding the stages and developmental tasks
The ability to understand the basis of behavior
Can be utilized to research a variety of areas including equity in marital roles; divorce; work-family
interface; marital and family stress; normative sequencing events such as first job, marriage, and birth of
first child; and the effect of roles and positions within the family or the absence of roles and positions.
International scholars can use family developmental theory to describe and compare family stages and
family life across different cultures.
Family Developmental Theory is often viewed as a static approach even though the family is viewed as
evolving and changing as a social institution.
Theorists have addressed this criticism by developing dynamic approaches of studying the family that
address change or by developing separate models for families who have gone through different
developmental stages such as divorce or remarriage.
It is often confused with child developmental theory and other time-oriented approaches.
Concepts are too vague or ambiguous to operationally define.
The correlational nature of the relationship between variables is modest.
Example, the concepts are only modestly correlated to marital satisfaction.
Lack of explanatory power
Lack of ability to account for different family forms, and gender, ethnic and cultural differences.
FUTURE OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENTAL THEORY
Despite the criticisms, family development theory and/or family life-cycle stages is still one of the most
internationally popular academic approaches to the study of the families.
Rodgers and White (1993) have argued that worked to move family developmental theory beyond the more
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 22
traditional view of families moving through deterministic, unchanging stages.
Researchers are modifying theory to explore different family forms
Blended families (Baxter, Braithewaite, & Nicholson, 1999)
sexual orientation (Friedman, 1998).
This approach has also proved useful to international researchers; such as the study of:
German families (Vaskovics, 2000)
Eastern European families (Judge, 1999)
Families in India (Desai, 1993)
Aldous, J. (1978). Family careers. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Aldous, J. (1990). Family development and the life course: Two perspectives. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 571-583.
Baxter, L. A., Braithewaite, D. O., & Nicholson, J. H. (1999). Turning points in the development of blended families. Journal of Social
and Personal Relationships, 16, 291-313.
Carter, E. A., & McGoldrick, M. (Eds.). (1988). The changing family cycle: A framework for family therapy. 2nd edition. New York:
Duvall, E. M. (1957). Family development. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Falicov, C., (Ed.). (1987). Family transitions. New York: Guilford.
Friedman, R. C. (1998). On sexual orientation and family development. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 68, 653-653.
Hill, R. (1949). Families under stress. New York: Harper & Row.
Hill, R., & Rodgers, R. H. (1964). The developmental approach. In H. T. Christensen (Ed.,), In Handbook of Marriage and the Family
(pp. 171-211). Chicago: Rand McNally.
Judge, S. L. (1999). Eastern European adoptions: Current status and implications for intervention. Topics in Early Childhood Special
Education, 19, 244-252.
Mattessich, P. & Hill, R. (1987). Life cycle and family development. In M. Sussman & S. Steinmetz (Eds.), Handbook of Marriage and
the Family (pp. 437-469). New York: Plenum.
Rodgers, R. H. (1973). Family interaction and transaction: The development approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Rodgers, R. & White, J. (1993). Family developmental theory. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, & S. K.
Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach (pp. 225-254). New York: Plenum.
Vaskovics, L. A. (2000). Family development in Germany – Socio-demographic processes, theory, law, and politics with respect to the
GDR. Kolner Z. Soziologie, 52, 383-385.
White, J. M. (1991). Dynamics of family development: A theoretical perspective. New York: Guilford.
SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM THEORY
Before reading about the theory, do the 20 Statements Test
20 STATEMENTS TEST
The 20 Statements Test is a common technique for initially assessing an individual‟s sense of self or identity.
Do not read the “Scoring Instructions” until after you have completed the exercise. Please complete the
following sentence using a different word or phrase.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 23
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 24
Categorize each of the 20 statements as either external or internal.
External describes some social role you play or enact (e.g., father, daughter, student, manager, Muslim, liberal, republican, activist)
Internal describes an interior quality or trait you have (e.g., happy, nervous, curious, secure, extrovert, shy, humorous)
Put an E for external OR an I for internal beside each of your 20 statements.
Total up the number of statements in each category:
Total # of external descriptions: __________
Total # of internal descriptions: __________
BRIEF SUMMARY OF SYMBOLIC INTERACTION THEORY
Symbolic interaction (SI) theory describes the family as a unit of interacting personalities. This theory
focuses attention on the way that individuals interact through symbols: words, gestures, rules, and roles.
According to Peterson (1986), SI is the most widely used conceptual framework in the literature. Its
popularity derives from a strong conceptual heritage and research tradition. The SI perspective is based on
how humans develop a complex set of symbols to give meaning to the world (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993).
Meaning evolves from their interactions in their environment and with people. These interactions are
subjectively interpreted through existing symbols. Understanding these symbols is important in
understanding human behavior. Interactions with larger societal processes influence the individual, and
vice-versa. It is through interaction that humans develop a concept of larger social structures and also of
self-concept. Society affects behavior through constraints by societal norms and values. Self-concept also
affects behavior. SI‟s unique contributions to family studies are that families are social groups and that
individuals develop both a concept of self and their identities through social interaction.
Humans interact and develop roles in the family according to symbols used to describe the family. These
roles are based on the symbolic meaning attached to each role. How family members react to a situation is
based on how they interpret the situation. Hence, it is important to understand the symbols the family uses
to understand their interactions and behaviors. In a family, complicated sets of meanings are transmitted
through symbols that help each member communicate with each other and share experiences (Peterson,
1986). For example, youth may use words and gestures to express intimacy or autonomy as they try to
control the actions of their parents, while the parents, in response, may respond with affection or authority
in an effort to regain control.
MAJOR CONTRIBUTORS (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993)
Symbolic interactionism evolved from a variety of perspectives such as the eighteenth-century Scottish
moralists, nineteenth-century German idealists, and the turn-of-the-century American Pragmatists.
Charles Horton Cooley (1902, 1909) proposed that a child develops a sense of self through a desire to
influence others and gain their approval. Cooley coined the term the “looking glass self.”
William Isaac Thomas (1928) co-authored The Polish Peasant, a book that linked symbolic interactionism
and family studies. Derived the term “definition of the situation.”
George Herbert Mead (1934) is often cited as the main contributor to symbolic interactionism.
He never published his ideas, but after his death, his students published his teachings in Mind, Self, and
Meaning evolves from gestures (an action which produces a response in another)
Language is a set of shared meaning;
Taking the role of the generalized other (i.e., the ability to extend interpersonal meanings to an entire
Herbert Blumer (1969) was Mead‟s student. He further developed the theory and is credited with coining
the term “symbolic interactionism.” He also summarized the basic assumptions of symbolic interaction
from Mead‟s earlier works.
Willard Waller and Reuben Hill focused on exploring issues in the family such as conflict, power, crisis,
and divorce from a symbolic interaction perspective.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 25
MAJOR ASSUMPTIONS (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993)
People act towards things on the basis of meanings they have for them.
Meaning is created through interaction between people.
Meanings are modified through an interpretive process.
Communication occurs through the creation of shared significant symbols.
People are not born with a sense of self, but develop self-concepts through communication and social
Self-concepts once developed, provide an important motive for behavior.
It is through social interaction in everyday situations that people work out the details of social structure.
Individuals and small groups are influenced by larger cultural and societal processes.
People must continually adjust their behavior to the actions of others. People can adjust only because they
are able to interpret others‟ actions.
The ability to adjust one‟s behaviors is enhanced by one‟s ability to imaginatively rehearse alternative
lines of action before acting.
CORE PRINCIPLES OF SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM - MEANING, LANGUAGE, THOUGHT
Meaning – people‟s construction of reality.
People act towards others or things on the basis of the meanings they assign.
Once people define a situation as real, it‟s very real in its consequences.
Meaning-making is a community project (i.e., shared meaning), but each person‟s reality differs (i.e.,
U.S. flag has a shared meaning, but then each person may view it very differently.
Language refers to the assigning of meaning through social interaction (e.g., communication).
Language gives people a way to negotiate meaning through symbols.
Thought refers to how an individual interprets symbols through mental conversations or dialogues (also
Thought requires role taking or imagining different points of view.
TO PRIMARY SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
First school of symbolic interactionism.
Emphasizes participant observation research
Key person – Herbert Blumer
Encourages the use of more experimental and replicable methods of research so as to be able to
Key person – Manford H. Kuhn
Self is a function of the interdependence between meaning, language, and thought.
A person must be a member of a community before consciousness of self emerges.
Looking glass self refers to a process of developing a self-image based how a person perceives that
significant others see him/her (Cooley, 1902, 1909). In others words, significant others represent a social
mirror into which a person looks to detect opinions about one‟s self.
A person imagines how he/she appear to others;
A person imagines how other‟s judge/perceive them;
A person develops self-feeling (e.g., pride, shame) based on the perceived judgment of others.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 26
The looking glass self emerges in primary groups (e.g., family, peer group).
Reflected appraisals refer to self-perceptions that result from the reflections of perceptions by others
(Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934).
Name-calling forces a person to view one‟s self through a distorted mirror.
Negative images are hard to dispel.
Self-fulfilling prophecy refers to how our expectations and view of self evoke responses from others
that confirm our view of self.
Example – If a person sees one‟s self as a good student (i.e., tries hard in school, turns homework in
on time, studies), then others will reflect that image back to the person. Hence, the responses from
others reinforce the person‟s view of his/her self as a good student.
Core versus situational self
Core self (i.e., core identity) is developed in childhood and maintains through life.
Situational self allows one to modify self based on the situation.
Self is not a structure; it is an ongoing process combining the I and the Me (see “I & Me” section).
Hence, the self is always fluctuating.
Self is found through taking the role of the other (see “Roles” section).
I & ME
I – Actor
The active part of the self that is capable of performing behaviors.
The I is the driving force that encourages behaviors/thoughts that are novel, unpredictable, and
Me – Object
The socially reflective portion of the self (i.e., generalized self)
In other words, the Me refers to the image of self seen through the looking glass self.
The generalized other shapes how we think and interact with the community (see Roles)
The Me provides social control for the actions of the I.
Identities are the self meanings in a role.
Roles refer to “collections of expectations that define regularized patterns of behavior within family life”
(Peterson, 1986, p. 22). Roles within the family may include, but not be limited to, the following: nurturer,
socializer, provider, and decision-maker.
Role-taking is the ability to see how others perceive themselves (i.e., putting oneself in the place of
another), and then responding to their expectations.
In other words, role-taking allows the individual to monitor and coordinate his/her behavior in order to
facilitate interaction with others and also to anticipate the responses of other individuals.
Role conflict refers to the situation in which there are conflicting expectations about a specified role. Role
conflict usually arises from a lack of clarity and/or consensus about a role.
Role making is the “process of improvising, exploring, and judging what is appropriate on the basis of the
situation and the response of others at the moment” (Peterson, 1986, p. 23).
OTHER MAJOR CONCEPTS
Definition of the situation – The subjective interpretations given to the situation.
Human action cannot be understood apart from these subjective interpretations.
Significant others are those who are defined as important and mutually influential.
Society refers to patterned interactions among diverse individuals
Symbol manipulation – Symbols can be used to galvanize people into united action
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 27
Shared symbols/rules – Emerge from social interaction and turns into the basis of sustained interaction
(Human cooperation is possible because of these agreed/shared symbols and rules
Other important concepts include gestures, salience, identity, commitment, role terms, positions,
interactions, and context (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993).
CRITICISMS (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993)
SI is hard to summarize, is vague/abstract, and lacks clarity.
It is difficult to operationally define the key concepts, and hence, it is difficult to test the concepts.
Unable to develop SI into a formal or systematically developed theory
SI research lacks methodological rigor.
SI overestimates the power of individuals to create their own realities (i.e., subjectivity), ignoring the extent
to which humans inhabit a world not of their making.
SI is downplays or ignores large-scale social structures
SI has failed to address the unconscious and emotional aspects (e.g., needs, emotions, unconscious,
motives) of human behavior.
SI advocates a more involved position with research participants, hence departing from the detached
Powerful theoretical perspective for understanding families and other social worlds
Symbolic interactionism has a rich theoretical background
Symbolic interactionism is suited well for historical research
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. New York: Charles Scribner‟s Sons.
Cooley, C. H. (1909). Social organization. New York: Charles Scribner‟s Sons.
Hewitt, J. P. (1984). Self and society: A symbolic interactionist perspective. Allan & Bacon, Inc.
LaRossa, R., & Reitzes, D. C. (1993). Symbolic interactionism and family studies. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R.
Schumm, & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach (pp. 135-163). New
Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Peterson, G. W. (1987). Role transitions and role identities during adolescence: A symbolic interactionist view. Journal of Adolescent
Research, 2(3), 237-254.
FAMILY STRESS & COPING THEORY
Psychoanalysis and family development – intrapsychic conflict impacting development
Structural-functionalism – stress as a normal function
Systems – equilibrium
Symbolic interaction – perception
The concept of stress was first introduced into family studies by researcher‟s examining impacts of the
1930s great depression.
Parson’s notion of system equilibrium is a foundation of stress theory, as well as structural-functionalism.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 28
Hill (1949) – ABCX model
McCubbin and Patterson (1981) – Double ABCX Model
McCubbin and Figley (1983) state that families generally operate on a predictable normal cycle,
anticipating and accepting a sequence of events that will occur throughout the life-force. Events disturb the
families‟ equilibrium and require coping to regain homeostasis and remain organized in a stable fashion
(Note the systemic and structural functional similarities)
Note: Family stress theory is not widely accepted as a theory; it is generally considered a mid-range theory.
Stress is normal
Stress disturbs equilibrium. Coping is used to maintain equilibrium.
Individuals and families view stressors and resources according to their own perception
Individuals and families adapt to stress. Adaptation is influenced by the perceived stressors, the perception
of the situation, and the resources or coping strategies available to deal with the stress
It is important to consider families within the community and cultural contexts to understand why and how
families are stressed, as well as to understand how families respond to stress.
Family adaptation (central concept) – Refers to the outcome of family efforts to achieve a new level of
balance after a family crisis.
Family bonadaptation (also called regenerative power) – The processes by which families restore
balance (reducing demands, increasing capabilities, and/or changing meanings). Bonadaptation is
observed in the family‟s (a) continued ability to promote the development of individual family members
and (b) willingness to maintain their family unit so it can accomplish its life cycle tasks.
Maladaptation (vulnerability) – When families engage in processes leading to poor adaptation.
Stressor events – Life events impacting upon the family unit which produces, or has the potential of
producing change in the family social system
Prior strains – Residue of strain that may result from unresolved hardships from earlier stressors or
transitions, or may be inherent in ongoing rolls.
Normative/Non normative transitions and stressors
Normative transitions and stressors – Predictable and expected transitions that happen to the
majority of people, in other words, events that are expected over the family life cycle
Examples include birth, launching an adolescent, marriage, aging, or death of an elderly family
Nonnormative transitions and stressors – Stressors that result from unexpected life events, often but
not always disastrous.
Examples include winning a lottery, getting a divorce, dying young, unexpected death of a spouse,
or being taken hostage.
Catastrophes – e.g., house burns down, earthquake, war
Internal – Events that begin from someone inside the family.
Examples: getting drunk, suicide, running for election
External – Events that begin from someone or something outside the family.
Examples: earthquakes, terrorism, inflation rate, cultural attitudes toward a group of people
Ambiguous – You can‟t get the facts surrounding the event. It‟s so unclear that you‟re not even sure
that it‟s happening to you and your family.
Nonambiguous – Clear facts are available about the event (e.g., what is happening, when, how long,
and to whom).
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 29
Volitional – Events that are wanted and sought out
Examples: freely making a job change, college entrance, planned pregnancy
Nonvolitional – Events that are not sought out but just happen.
Examples: being laid off, the sudden loss of someone loved
Chronic – A situation that has long duration.
Examples: depression, diabetes, chemical addiction, racial discrimination
Acute – An event that lasts a short time but is severe.
Examples: breaking a limb, losing a job, flunking a test
Cumulative – Events that pile up, one right after the other, so that there is no resolution before the
next one occurs. A dangerous situation in most cases.
Isolated – An event that occurs alone, at least with no other events apparent at that time. It can be
Pile-up of stressor events – The accumulation of stressor events. Families seldom deal with one event at a
time, instead they deal with overlapping stressor events.
Resources – The properties, attributes, or skills that individuals or families have at their disposal when
adapting to stressor events. Different types include personal resources, family system resources, and social
Crisis – Continuous variable denoting the amount disruption, disorganization, or incapacitation in the
family social system.
On a daily basis, families engage in relatively stable patterns of interacting as they try to balance the
demands they face with their existing capabilities to achieve a level of family adjustment.
There are times when families‟ demands significantly exceed their capabilities. When this imbalance
persists, families experience crisis (i.e., a period of significant disequilibrium and disorganization).
A crisis is very often a turning point for a family, leading to major change in their structure, interaction
patterns, or both. A crisis can lead to a discontinuity in the family‟s trajectory of functioning either in the
direction of improved functioning or poorer functioning.
Stress – Demand capability imbalance
Coping strategies – Cognitive and behavioral strategies used alone or in combination to decrease or avoid
stressors, manage hardships, and bring about family adjustment (e.g., avoidance, assimilation, elimination)
Mark where each stressor falls on the dichotomies
Internal Ambiguous Volitional Chronic Cumulative
Stressor Events vs. vs. vs. vs. vs.
External Nonambiguous Nonvolitional Acute Isolated
Rape of teenage girl
Building a house
Child born with developmental
Quadruplets are born into a
Pimple on the nose of
Earthquake hits your city
Step in a puddle on the way
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 30
ACTIVITY – use family stress theory to explain an adolescent who gets pregnant.
A 13-year-old getting pregnant is considered which type of stressor?
(1) normative transition (2) unexpected stressor (3) prior strain
What other stressors could be occurring in this adolescent‟s life that might contribute to the pile-up of
stressors? (name at least 7)
What resources might be available to the adolescent and her family that could help the adolescent during
this time of stress? (name at least 7 resources)
ABCX (Hill, 1949)
Double ABCX see the Double ABCX Model diagram
FAAR – Family Adjustment and Adaptation Response (FAAR) Model (Patterson, 1988)
Families engage in active processes to balance family demands with family capabilities as these interact
with family meanings to arrive at a level of family adjustment or adaptation
Family demands are comprised of (a) normative and nonnormative stressors; (b) ongoing family
strains (unresolved, insidious tensions); and (c) daily hassles (minor disruptions of daily life).
Family capabilities include (a) tangible and psychosocial resources (what the family has) and (b)
coping behaviors (what the family does).
Family meaning refers to the families‟ definitions of their demands and capabilities. Family
meanings shape the nature and extent of risk, as well as the protective capacity of a family.
Family identity refers to how they see themselves internally as a unit
Family world view refers to how they see their family in relationship to systems outside of their
Example: The process of adapting to major, nonnormative stressors (e.g., the diagnosis of a child‟s
chronic health condition), often involves changing prior beliefs and values as a way to make sense
of the unexplainable and as a way to adapt.
Family adaptation has been defined as a process of restoring balance between capabilities and
demands at two levels of transaction: (a) between family members and the family unit, and (b)
between a family unit and the community.
Resilience refers to doing well in the face of adversity. Most researchers view resilience as a process
where there are interactions between risks and protective factors relative to a specified outcome.
Risks include stressors and demands on the individual and family system.
Protective factors (capabilities) help individuals contend more effectively with risk factors and
stressful life events. They include resources and coping strategies utilized by the individual and
Family resilience (sometimes conceptualized as family strengths) refers to characteristics, dimensions,
and properties of families which help families to be resistant to disruption in the face of change and
adaptive in the face of crisis situations. In other words, it is the ability of a family to cultivate strengths
to successfully meet challenging life circumstances.
Easy to understand
Translates well into therapy and intervention
Explains the processes involved in dealing with stress
Limited to discussion of those aspects in the family dealing with stress
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 31
McCubbin, M. A., & McCubbin, H. I. (1989). Theoretical orientations to family stress and coping. In C. R. Figley (Ed.), Treating
Stress in Families (pp. 3-43). New York: Brunner/Mazel.
McCubbin, M. A., & McCubbin, H. I. (1991). Family stress theory and assessment: The resiliency model of family stress, adjustment,
and adaptation. In H. I. McCubbin & A. Thompson (Eds.), Family Assessment Inventories for Research and Practice (pp. 1-32).
Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison.
McCubbin, H. I., & Patterson, J. M. (1983). The family stress process. The Double ABCX model of adjustment and adaptation. In H.
McCubbin, M. Sussman, & J. Patterson (Eds.), Social Stress and the Family. Advances and Developments in Family Stress
Theory and Research (pp. 7-37). New York: Haworth Press.
Patterson, J. M. (2002). Integrating family resilience and family stress theory. Journal of Marriage & Family, 64, 349-360.
The Double ABCX Model (McCubbin & Patterson, 1981)
existing & new
a x aA
percept ion of x
+ aA + bB
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 32
AN APPLICATION OF THE POST-CRISIS COMPONENTS
OF THE DOUBLE ABCX MODEL TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Social Support Individual Resources
Fam ily support Resilency
Support group Assertiveness
Friends Negotiation skills
Able to get on with life
Ability to develop and maintain
existing & new
resources healthy relationships
Fam ily life satisfaction
x aA coping
Stressors related to
the domestic violence
Police i nvolvement
Court i nvolvement cC xX Increased anxiety
Lack of com mitment to obligations
(school, work, etc.)
Involvement with maladaptation
perception of x Constant fear
+ aA + bB Inability to develop meaningful and
Lack of sym pathy
sexual relationships with another
Physical problem s
Perception of domestic Disassociation
Pre-existing stressors violence in the context Sexual disfunction
of the pile-up of Eating disorders
Work stressors and resources
Birth of first child
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 33
FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY
Many therapists have felt a sense of helplessness and frustration when working with clients. The therapist may
feel he/she works so hard with an individual, only to have him/her go back home and relapse back into the
problem behaviors. Sometimes the relapse is blamed on the individual, such as “He really did not want to
change” or “He is just a bad person.” Other times the parent and/or family are blamed, such as “We wouldn’t
have so many screwed up children if we didn’t have so many bad parents,” or “They are just a dysfunctional
family.” Other times the society is blamed, such as “TV and the media are causing this dysfunctional
behavior,” or “His choice of friends keeps getting him in trouble.” Each of these explanations is very limited in
nature because they are trying to contribute a specific cause to the behavior, and the relationships and
interactions between the individual, family, and society are not addressed.
Family Systems Theory (FST) views the family as a unit of interconnected people that reciprocally influence
each other over time. To be successful in helping people, FST believes that prevention and intervention efforts
should target the family instead of the individual. Hence, FST and therapy models based on FST, are distinctly
different from the individually-based, intrapersonal paradigm in which many helping professionals (e.g.,
psychologists) have been professionally trained and culturally socialized. A few differences follow:
The primary focus of FST is the family and family interactions, instead of the individual.
FST tends to avoid pathologizing human behavior, unlike many of the medical models.
FST tends to reject linear causal explanations for behavior.
Many helping professionals are interested in working with the whole family, yet managing an entire family
system can be complex and/or overwhelming. Interviewing, assessing, as well as intervening in family systems
require different methods than working with individuals.
Information Theory focuses on the reduction of uncertainty through the acquisition of information.
Cybernetics examines the communication, control, and manipulation of information in various systems.
General systems theory (GST)…
Emphasizes interrelationships between objects,
Is used to explain a variety of complex, organized systems, and
Is a process of theory construction which focuses on building universal concepts, postulates, and
principles. Family systems theory is an extension of GST.
OVERVIEW (Whitechurch & Constantine, 1993)
The family systems orientation is a collection of loosely related perspectives that have significant
application to the family.
Systems exist in the environment. All systems are open to influence from the environment, although some
are more open than others. When new information comes into the system, the system may resist change
(i.e., morphostasis) or it may change, grow, or develop (i.e., morphogenesis).
The primary focus is on process rather than on structure.
WHOLENESS AND NONSUMMATIVITY
Wholeness – The family system is made up of a group of individuals who together form a complex and
unitary whole (Whitechurch & Constantine, 1993).
The family system cannot be wholly understood by simply looking at the parts since the system consists
of more than the individual family members.
The family system is not limited to just the individual members, it also comprises the various
subsystems and the whole system.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 34
The whole is distinctly different from the simple sum of the contributions of individual members
because each family system is characterized by structural rules of relating that determine how family
members interact with one another.
Two people relating together are not independent because they mutually interact with one another.
A change in one part of the system will cause a change in the total system.
When part of the group is together and one or two are not there, their absences are felt. In other words,
the group does not feel whole until all are present; hence the absent members influence the present
family members (Phillips, 1980).
Nonsummativity – Systems theory, as applied to the family, views the family as a system composed of
interconnected parts where the family system is greater than the sum of the individual family members
(Phillips, 1980). In other words, the effects of system membership on individual or system behaviors are
greater than a simple summation of the behavioral tendencies or characteristics of the individuals
comprising the system. Nonsummativity suggests looking at how the parts are organized.
Dualism refers to taking the crucial elements of a whole system and treating them as separate parts and not
as parts of the whole. Dualism basically implies that the parts are independent and not connected (Dell,
Examples from other theories include mind/body, mind/brain, mental/somatic aspects of illness.
Systems theory rejects dualism.
Example: A counselor only sees the wife in a marriage characterized by spousal abuse towards each
other. The counselor sees the wife as separate from the husband in the dynamic, yet in actuality, they are
Too often in counseling (and life) we want to attribute one cause to an event.
Example 1 – The boy drinks because his father drinks.
Linear causality (i.e., cause-effect) refers to one-way causal links (i.e., A causes B).
Linear causality suggests that problems are within the individual, or somebody or something caused it.
Hence, the removal of the cause would automatically cure the problem.
Example: Husband nags so wife drinks. Husband stops nagging. Does wife stop drinking?
Linear causality takes a process and slices it at a given time to look at it (i.e., punctuation). In a process
there is no starting point. (Note: Any cause/effect relationship is an observation of an individual).
Punctuation refers to the simplistic segmenting of a complex interaction sequence in such a way that a
beginning of the sequence is posited and “cause” and “effect” elements are arbitrarily assigned
(Montgomery & Fewer, 1988). In other words, arbitrary starting and ending points are assigned to an event
by an observer.
Two ways to punctuate the same event – He drinks because she nags VERSUS she nags because he
drinks demonstrates the punctuation dilemma. Which is correct?
Families are not linear, hence, systems rejects linear causality (Dell, 1982; Montgomery & Fewer, 1988).
Systems theorists try to expand A causes B by looking at mutual causes or multiple causes because the
cause of any event or outcome may never truly be known (Phillips, 1980).
Circular causality (also called pseudofeedback, reciprocal causality, and mutual causality) refers to mutual
interactions of causes and consequences. The effect of an event returns indirectly to influence the original
event itself by way of one or more intermediate events (Montgomery & Fewer, 1988).
A affects B, which then affects A, and so on, in a circle of events which modify each other.
Example 1 – The father‟s drinking causes his son to drink. The son gets in trouble; this causes the
father to get stressed out so he drinks, which then increases the son‟s drinking.
A child cries, parent yells at the child, and the child cries more.
A mother yells at her daughter for being late, the daughter decides to stay out late to get back at
her mom, who then gets upsets, yells at her daughter, and then grounds her, and so on.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 35
Equifinality refers to how the same results can be obtained by different means and by starting from
different beginning points. In other words, there are many different means to the same end, and no matter
where one begins, the end will be the same (Bertalanffy, 1968; Bevacar & Bevacar, 1982). Even though the
family systems may start from different beginning points, they have the ability to achieve the same goals
through different means or developmental routes.
A simplistic Example: we may take different roads to campus, but we all arrive at the same place.
Very different family backgrounds, living conditions, and family interaction patterns may still produce
adolescents with very similar outcomes (e.g., delinquency, drug abuse, or valedictorian).
Example 1 – The boy may drink for many different reasons (e.g., father drinks, easy access to alcohol,
acceptance of drinking in the house, peer pressure).
We cannot say the drinking had one specific cause. This decreases the focus on the “why”. What
becomes important is the focus on the present-centered “what.” In other words, what is going on, and
how is the system maintaining the behavior?
When looking at equifinality and circular causality together it demonstrates how any arbitrarily designated
behavior may have many “whys” and may be influencing many other behaviors.
Multifinality (also called equipotentiality) refers to how similar initial conditions may lead to dissimilar
Individuals with very similar family backgrounds and living conditions in early childhood may have
very different outcomes in adolescence.
In the broader sense, identical twins may have different end states.
Example 1: A father who drinks may end up with a son who drinks or a son who swears never to drink.
Fit means complimentary in nature. The concept of „fit‟ was developed to replace the notion of causality.
Fit simply posits that the behaviors in a family system have a complementary nature (i.e., they fit together;
Dell, 1982). It is an “as if” position; it is tentative and evolving. Fit is more appropriate than cause-effect in
being applied to what happens in living systems (Montgomery & Fewer, 1988).
ORGANIZATIONAL COMPLEXITY / HIERARCHICAL ORGANIZATION
Hierarchical organization (i.e., “layering” of systems of increasing complexity) is an important concept in
systems theory. Family systems are comprised of smaller subsystems and larger suprasystems
(Whitechurch & Constantine, 1993).
Suprasystems examples include family of origin, race/ethnicity, community, geographic region,
religion, and national system.
Subsystems in families are comprised of members who join together to perform various functions
(Braziller, 1968). They function the same as the larger system except they may be less complexly
organized, and they may get part of their wholeness, organization, structure, function, and self-
regulatory characteristics from the larger system (Phillips, 1980).
Every individual is a subsystem.
Dyads are subsystems comprised of two people (e.g., marital dyad, parental dyad)
Subsystems can be determined by generation, gender, or common interests (e.g., sibling subsystem)
Within each subsystem, the family members will have different levels of power and functions.
For example, a daughter may not have much power in the family system. However, in the mother-
daughter dyad the daughter may be more of an equal since the mother and daughter share many
interests, and she functions more as a confidant than a daughter. The daughter may have little
power in the sibling subsystem since she is the only girl in a family of five older brothers. These
brothers give their only sister the function of being the baby to be looked after. So, if a therapist
sees this girl in counseling by herself or with her mother, she would most likely react very
differently than if she were with her brothers.
Spouse subsystem is formed when two adults join with the purpose of forming a family. It has
specific tasks vital to the family‟s functioning (Minuchin, 1974).
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 36
Parental subsystem – With the birth of a child the spouse subsystem must differentiate to perform the
tasks of socializing a child. A boundary must be drawn which allows the child access to both parents
while excluding him/her from the spouse functions (Minuchin, 1974).
Sibling subsystem is the first social laboratory in which children can experiment with peer
relationships. Within this context, children support, isolate, scapegoat, and learn from each other.
They must learn to negotiate, cooperate, and compete. They make friends and allies, how to save face
while submitting, and how to achieve recognition of their skills (Minuchin, 1974).
Generally larger systems have more control over smaller systems, yet influence can go either way.
For example, the family system has more control than the smaller sibling subsystem.
The community suprasystem has more control over the family system such as through setting curfew
times, or making schooling mandatory through age 16, setting speed limit laws, etc.
The smaller systems may have an influence on the larger systems but typically do not have any
control over them.
It is important when looking at an issue in relation to the family that we don‟t just focus on one level of
the hierarchy. We must look at all levels and at the transactions between the different systems.
Interdependence – Individuals and subsystems that comprise the whole system are mutually dependent
and mutually influenced by one another.
Each person‟s family-related behavior is associated with, depends upon, and fits with the family
behavior of every other family member (Montgomery & Fewer, 1988).
Even factors that appear to only influence one member in a family still have influence on the whole
family and its members.
STRATEGIES AND RULES (Anderson & Sabatelli, 1995)
Strategies (also called rules of relating) refer to the patterns of interaction within the family. In other
words, families develop strategies to manage its demands and/or accomplish basic tasks.
Rules refer to recurring patterns of interaction (i.e., well-established strategies) that define
acceptable/appropriate and unacceptable/inappropriate behavior in the family.
Rules do the following:
Reflect the values of the family
Define the roles of individual family members
Help maintain the family system
Types of rules
Overt rules refer to explicitly/openly stated rules
Example – Boys do not cry.
Covert rules refer to implicit rather than openly stated rules. However, all family members know the
Example – Anger cannot be expressed in the family.
Meta rules refer to rules about rules (e.g., limits or exceptions to rules, which rules are more
important than others)
Example – (Rule) Parents tell their children they can come and talk to them about anything.
(Exception) They do not want to hear their children tell them about their sex lives.
BOUNDARIES (Bevacar & Bevacar, 1982; Montgomery & Fewer, 1988; Minuchin, 1974)
Boundaries are hypothetical constructs that define membership in a system and represent the point of
contact between the system and other systems (i.e., subsystems and suprasystems).
Simply by identifying a system, we identify a boundary as to who and what are included in the system.
Boundaries help to distinguish between the various subsystems and suprasystems.
Boundaries determine the rules of the family, and they act as a buffer for information coming in and going
out of a system. Boundaries serve to regulate the flow of information and feedback to the systems.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 37
The boundary of a family system may keep members from telling others about the sexual abuse in the
family. There may be unspoken rules that say information does not leave the house.
A family system may only accept information that supports their family values while not allowing
information into the family that is not compatible with their values.
Consistent boundaries generally contribute to more functional systems. For proper family functioning, the
boundaries of subsystems must be clear.
Types of boundaries
External boundaries – Invisible barriers that defines a family‟s relationship to other external systems.
In other words, families establish strategies and rules for interacting with outsiders
Internal boundaries – boundaries within the family
Personal boundaries – Invisible barriers that surround individuals and subsystems which regulate
the amount of contact with others. (See the Cicrumplex Model for more on internal boundaries)
Enmeshed internal boundaries – family systems with a low tolerance for individuality
Disengaged internal boundaries – family systems with a high tolerance for individuality.
Generational boundaries – Invisible lines of separation between generations. Healthy generational
boundaries allow (1) parents to maintain parental roles and (2) children to maintain child roles.
Parentification – When the parents rely on a child for nurturance/support or when the child has
Parental/Parentified child – The role played by an overly responsible child who has power and
authority that more appropriately belongs to the parents. The child is allowed to violate boundaries
and intrude in decisions that should be made by the parents. This typically reflects an
inappropriate generational boundary within the family.
Permeability – The degree of difficulty or ease that information and system members have in crossing the
boundaries between systems.
Types of Systems – A very closely related concept to boundaries is that of openness and closedness of the
system. These two terms refer to the boundaries a family system establishes among family members and
with other systems. All family systems fall along a continuum from openness to closedness.
Open systems – All family systems are open to some extent to survive. The more input from family
members or other systems the more it is open. Those family systems that are extremely open lack clear
boundaries and have very little family identity.
Example: A family with a single mother and her two children allows others to move in and out of the
home. Every time she remarries, they adopt the mom‟s new husbands‟ last names and/or values. The
children have been removed and placed back into the home on various occasions. This type of system
would be very open and would lack clear boundaries, functions, roles, and rules. There would not be
a congruent family identity among the members. It would take an intense crisis to pull the family
system together for a short time.
Closed systems – If the boundaries of the family system do not allow much input from other family
members or from other systems, then the family system would be more closed. Systems with closed
boundaries would allow limited information to come in and would restrict the outward flow of
information (Braziller, 1968). In an extremely closed system, the boundaries may be very rigid, and the
information flow between systems would be hindered. In this type of family system, what affects one
member would affect the others.
Example: An incestuous family might be very closed. They might not allow others to come into the
house. The rules and roles may be very rigid. If one of the family members had a nervous breakdown,
it would affect all the family members. They might be afraid the family secret would get out, or they
may lose a sexual partner, etc.
A family system cannot survive if it is completely closed to other family members and to other
Equilibrium – A state of balance between opposing forces. Systems are characterized by a relatively
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 38
steady state, or homeostasis, that is maintained through regulation and family norms.
Feedback loop – Path of communication in a system. Feedback is considered either positive or negative
based on the effect it has on the system, not on it‟s content (Bevacar & Bevacar, 1982; Dell, 1982; Olson,
Sprenkle, & Russell, 1979; Phillips, 1980).
Negative feedback (also called morphostatic feedback, constancy loops, and deviation-attenuating
loops) refers to forces that maintain the current system‟s structures and members‟ behaviors. In other
words, it is the forces that try to maintain the system‟s current rules, interaction patterns, and/or power
structures in the family.
Negative feedback attempts to maintain the status quo (i.e. system morphostasis).
Example: A wife learns new communication techniques from watching TV. She tries them on her
husband who makes fun of her. So, the wife quits using the new techniques. Hence, the interaction
patterns in the marital dyad are maintained. The husband making fun of her is negative feedback
designed to maintain current interaction patterns in the marital dyad.
Important note – Negative feedback is not necessarily good or bad. It is simply a process that negates
changes or disturbances in the system.
A husband is always surprising his wife with romantic gestures (e.g., cards, poems, and flowers).
Each time he does this, his wife responds very positively. The wife responding positively is
negative feedback because it helps maintain the current interaction patterns.
Positive feedback (also called morphogenic feedback, deviation-amplifying loops, or variety loops)
refer to forces which try to alter the family system‟s rules, interaction patterns, and/or power structures.
In other words, the net effect increases the probability of the family member increasing a given behavior,
which alters the system. Positive feedback helps the system “grow”, create, and innovate, and/or evolve.
Example: A couple learns new communication techniques and conflict resolution strategies from their
therapist. The therapist is providing positive feedback since the new techniques are designed to
change the interaction patterns in the family.
All feedback produces some change, even negative feedback.
First order change refers to a minor change in the system, yet the system itself is not altered (i.e., the
system develops or makes an adaptation). In other words, first order changes in the family system are minor
structural changes among the system‟s components that might occur as a result of one member changing his
or her behavior, yet the system itself does not change and is vulnerable to relapses. First order change often
leads to a vicious circle because the system itself does not change.
In first order change, the most logical cause of the behavior is the focus of the therapeutic change
(Braziller, 1968). So, the system, as a whole, maintains stability and organizational integrity.
Second order change refers to a major, higher level of change where the system itself is altered. The
system makes a transformation. Second order change will be the family system‟s adaptation to the
individual‟s changes, resulting in the transformation of status and meaning within the system and the
evolution of new elements of structure. This type of change is much more dramatic and enduring, as when
the entire system is reorganized into new transactional patterns (Boss et al., 1993). Second order change
breaks the vicious circularity of the problem situation and allows other solutions to become apparent.
A system‟s organizational change that is of such magnitude the former system ceases to exist and a new
system (or systems) with a different membership and different patterns replaces it (Montgomery &
It is enormously important in counseling couples/families where problems are characterized by rigid,
maladaptive patterns. If the patterns themselves are not altered, there is little hope that the individual
behavior will change in a significant way without the client‟s leaving the system (Braziller, 1968).
Map – One‟s view of the world
Family mapping – The diagramming of a family‟s organizational structure, boundaries, and patterns of
interaction. Family mapping is useful in hypothesizing family functioning and forming goals for structural
change (see Appendix A: Genogram).
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 39
The practice of labeling a behavioral pattern and then using the label as an explanation of the pattern
(Montgomery & Fewer, 1988).
Reification abounds in social science
Example: mid-life crisis, passive-aggressive, codependency, anorexia, bulimia
According to systems theory, we need to avoid reification.
Family triangles refer to a process of establishing triadic interaction so that two persons are allied against a
third (Montgomery & Fewer, 1988).
Bowen posited that a two-person system (i.e., dyad) is inherently unstable. When anxiety or tension
becomes too high within the dyad, a third person (or activity or thing) is brought in to serve as a stabilizing
force and to reduce anxiety in the dyad.
Often, one child in the family is consistently used as the “third leg” of the triangle to make it more
stable. This child might be selected because of his or her position in the family, looks, behavior, or other
characteristics (Minuchin, 1974).
Types of family triangles
Triangulation – According to Minuchin (1974), triangulation refers to a process in which a conflict-
ridden, dyadic relationship is expanded to include a third person (e.g., child, therapist) so as to cover up
or defuse the conflict. Usually the person pulled into the triangle has limited awareness of the process.
Example: A parent demands that a child sides with him/her against the other parent. Siding with one
is defined as attacking by the other, which places the child in an intense conflict of loyalty.
Triangulation can be used as a therapeutic technique. For example, the therapist might relieve the
child by entering the triangle and then act as a “go-between” in order to challenge and change the
structure of the system.
Detouring occurs when spouses ignore issues in their own relationship and focus on the child's issues.
Detouring-attacking (also called scapegoating) – Spouses attempt to avoid the conflict between
themselves by seeking and/or exaggerating problems in another family member. The person recruited
to be the scapegoat is usually the child. In other words, stress/conflict between spouses gets
redirected through a child so that the spouse subsystem gives the impression of harmony (Olson,
Sprenkle, & Russell, 1979).
Detouring-supportive triads involve the parents uniting to protect a child who is sick or weak.
Hence, parents are able to conceal their conflicts in their common concern for the child.
Example: The parents in the movie, Lorenzo's Oil
Coalition – A family subsystem that includes an alliance between two or more family members against
The alliance between the family members against the other family member is usually covert.
Coalitions can either promote family effectiveness (general coalitions such as an „intervention‟) or
they can be detrimental family effectiveness (Montgomery & Fewer, 1988).
Cross-generational coalition – When one parent sides with a child against another parent. This
differs from triangulation because it is the child who initiates the coalition and the attachment
between the parent and the child exceeds that between the parents.
Broad in scope, yet not just generalities
Translates well into therapy and intervention
Mid-range theories have been developed from family systems theory such as the Circumplex Model (see
the next section)
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 40
Fairly complex theory
Tends to undervalue the importance of individual attributes such as the biological components
Traditional statistics measure linear relationships, but family systems theory is concerned with curvilinear
and other non-linear relationships
Criticized for poor explanatory power because it is difficult to clearly identify and measure constructs.
Hence, many of the concepts remain unclear (i.e., difficult to operationalize) and/or unverified by research.
Limited recognition of power in family systems obscures the privilege of dominant groups.
Systemic constructs often reflect sex bias.
For example, enmeshment is pathologized, while differentiation is promoted. This devalues a way of
relating that is common to many women.
Clinically, systems theory generally emphasizes therapist neutrality.
Ironically, feminists view it as not systemic enough.
Interdisciplinary scholarship has demonstrated that all cultures utilize gender and generation as
fundamental categories of organization, but systems theory ignores gender concerns.
APPLICATION OF FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY TO FAMILY VIOLENCE
Domestic violence is seen as a symptom of the overall family system.
Domestic violence affects the entire system. According to Minuchin (1974), by focusing on the family
system and working/orchestrating change within the system, then change occurs in the individual members
of the system.
Systemic thinkers do not focus on who‟s to blame in domestic violence for this would be linear causality.
Instead, the focus is on how the system maintains the domestic violence (negative feedback). However,
each person in the system is responsible for his/her own behaviors in a contextual explanation.
Violence between family members has many causes and roots (i.e., equifinality). Some of the many
predecessors of violence include normative structures, personality traits, frustrations, and conflicts.
More family violence occurs than is reported. Most family violence is either denied or ignored.
Stereotyped family violence imagery is learned in early childhood from parents, sibling, and other children.
The family violence stereotypes are continually reaffirmed for adults and children through ordinary social
interactions and the mass media (i.e., negative feedback).
Violent acts by violent persons may generate positive feedback (i.e., a violent person may get someone to
change his/her behavior to what the violent person wants).
Most of the time when violence occurs it is not the first time. Systems perspective would try to
contextualize the event (i.e., place the event within a broader context).
A systems therapist would try to identify patterns in the family that maintain the domestic violence.
The next step would be to try and identify a medium for change to take place.
The communication system is often indirect; family members often have difficulty expressing feelings.
They often make statements about what they don‟t want instead of what they do.
Lots of blaming of self for violent behavior rather than mutual responsibility for the behavior.
These families often lack common friends and activities.
There are often affairs, public quarrels, and attempts at triangulation.
Persons who are labeled violent may be encouraged to play out a violent role, either to live up to the
expectations of others, or to fulfill their own self-concepts of being violent or dangerous.
Note: For further application of Family Systems Theory to domestic violence, see the application of the
Circumplex Model in the next section.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 41
ACTIVITY – Use family systems to explain an adolescent‟s decision regarding premarital sex
1. Give a linear causality explanation for an adolescent engaging in sex.
2. Give an equifinality explanation for an adolescent engaging in sex.
3. Give a circular causality explanation for an adolescent engaging in sex.
4. A school provides sexually active adolescents with information regarding sexually transmitted diseases
and abstinence with the goal of stopping the sexual behavior. Which type of feedback is the school
engaging in? (1) negative feedback (2) positive feedback
5. A school provides information regarding sexually transmitted diseases and condoms to sexually active
adolescents who have not been engaging in “safe” sex. The adolescents start to use condoms, but then go
back to unsafe sex. Which type of change has taken place? (1) first order change (2) second order change
6. A sexually active adolescent watches a friend die of AIDS. Then he/she quits having sex until he/she gets
married. Watching the friend die was which type of feedback? (1) negative feedback (2) positive feedback.
7. In the above example, not having sex until marriage is which type of change? (1) first order change (2)
second order change
Anderson, S. A., & Sabatelli, R. M. (1995). Family interaction: A multigenerational developmental perspective. Boston: Allyn &
Bacon.Barnes, H. L., & Olson, D. H. (1985). Parent-adolescent communication and the Circumplex Model. Child Development,
Coppersmith, E. (1980). The family floor plan: A tool of training, assessment, and intervention in family therapy. Journal of Marital &
Family Therapy, 6, 141-145.
Duhl, F. S., Kantor, D., & Duhl, B. S. (1973). Learning space and action in family therapy: A primer of sculpting. In D. Bloch (Ed.),
Techniques of family psychotherapy: A primer. New York: Grune & Stratton.
Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
Minuchin, S., & Fishman, H. (1981). Techniques of family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Olson, D. H., Sprenkle, D. H., & Russell, C. S. (1979). Circumplex model of marital family systems: I--Cohesion and adaptability
dimensions, family types, and clinical applications. Family Process, 18, 3-27.
Perls, F. S., Hefferline, R. F., & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt therapy. New York: Julian Press.
Sherman, R., & Fredman, N. (1986). Handbook of structural techniques in marriage and family therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Stuart, R. (1989). Helping couples change. New York: Guildford Press.
Whitchurch, G. C., & Constantine, L. L. (1993). Systems theory. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, & S. K.
Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach (pp. 325-352). New York: Plenum.
The Circumplex Model is considered a mid range theory that developed out of family systems theory. The
model uses cohesion and flexibility to describe types of marital and family systems. Communication is the
process that facilitates and/or restricts the cohesion and flexibility in the family. The model is used in research
as well as in family therapy (i.e., for diagnosing and treatment planning for families).
FAMILY COHESION (BONDING)
Family cohesion is defined with two components: (1) the level of emotional bonding members have with one
another and (2) the degree of individual autonomy a person experiences in the family system (Olson, 1999;
Olson, Sprenkle, & Russell, 1979).
Family cohesion is viewed as being on a continuum. The focus is on how the system balances separateness
Disengaged family (very low cohesion) - low bonding and high autonomy
Separate time, space and interests predominate. Hence, there is little involvement among family
members. Disengaged family members “do their own thing.” Family members are often oblivious to the
effects of their actions on each other.
Members have limited attachment or commitment to their family, lack loyalty and belonging, lack the
capacity for interdependence, and are unable to turn to one another for support and problem-solving.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 42
Primarily “I” instead of “We”
Separate family (low to moderate cohesion)
More emotional separateness than togetherness (but not as extreme as the disengaged system).
More independence than dependence
More “I” than “we”
While time apart is more important, there is some time together. Activities and interests are generally
separate, but a few are shared.
Some joint decision-making and some loyalty.
Connected family (moderate to high cohesion)
Moderate to high closeness and considerable loyalty to the relationship.
More togetherness than separateness.
There are separate friends and friends shared by the couple. Shared interests are common with some
More “we” than “I”, more dependence than independence
Enmeshed family (very high cohesion) – high bonding and low autonomy
Enmeshment is an extreme pattern of family organization where there is an over identification with the
family that results in extreme bonding and limited individual autonomy (Montgomery & Fewer, 1988).
According to Minuchin (1974), the lack of subsystem differentiation discourages autonomous
exploration and mastery of problems. In the pathological range, the family‟s lack of differentiation
makes any separation from the family an act of betrayal (Minuchin, 1974).
Extreme amount of emotional closeness and loyalty is demanded. Individuals are very dependent on
each other and reactive to one another.
There is a lack of personal separateness and little private space is permitted. The energy of the
individuals is mainly focused inside the family, and there are few outside friends or interests.
Adaptability refers to the ability of the family system to change its power structure, role relationships, and/or
relationship rules in response to stress (Olson, 1999; Olson, Sprenkle, & Russell, 1979). Too much flexibility
leads to chaotic families, and too little flexibility leads to rigid families.
Authoritarian leadership, strict discipline, limited discussion
Roles very stable and unchanging
Structured (low to moderate)
Leadership sometimes shared, somewhat democratic, organized discussion
Roles stable, but can change when needed
Few rule changes
Flexible (moderate to high)
Leadership often shared, democratic, open discussion
Role sharing but somewhat consistent
Moderate rule changes when needed
Chaotic (very high)
Lack of leadership, lenient discipline, endless discussion
Dramatic role shifts
Frequent rule changes (little consistency)
CHANGE, STRESS, AND THE CIRCUMPLEX MODEL (Olson, 2000)
First Order Change
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 43
First order change is curvilinear
Too little change (i.e., rigid system) and too much change (i.e., chaotic system) are related to less
functional patterns in families.
Structured and flexible family types generally have more balanced levels of change.
Second Order Change
Second order change refers to movement from one system type to another system type.
Second order change is linear.
Change and equilibrium
There is higher change in balanced systems
Lower change in unbalanced systems
Balanced systems, in comparison to unbalanced systems, will generally…
Function more adequately
Have more positive communication.
Unbalanced systems are not necessarily dysfunctional.
Extreme behaviors on cohesion and flexibility…
Can be appropriate for certain stages of the life cycle, or when a family is under stress
Can be problematic when families are stuck at the extremes.
Systems will change in response to developmental needs and situational stress.
GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS ABOUT THE CIRCUMPLEX MODEL
The communication dimension (i.e., third dimension) is not shown in two-dimensional model, but it is very
The better the communication the more possibility of adaptation or movement in the model. Greater
communication increases the resources of the family to adapt and move around in the models.
The lower the communication, the fewer the resources the family has to adapt.
The Circumplex Model should not be used to describe dysfunction because there is a lot of diversity in
families. More specifically, different cultures have different views.
In general, couples/families with balanced (two central levels) cohesion and adaptability will generally
function more adequately across the family life cycle than those at the extreme of these dimensions.
However, an unbalanced/extreme family is not dysfunctional when it is normative for the system and all
members are in agreement. Yet, one member can throw the system off balance.
If the normal expectations of a couple/family support extreme behaviors (on one or both dimensions),
they will function well as long as all family members are satisfied with these expectations.
To deal with situational stress and developmental changes across the family life cycle, families will change
their cohesion and adaptability, to adapt to the stress.
In times of stress, balanced systems often change to another system type to adapt
In time of stress, unbalanced/extreme systems often stay in the extreme pattern, which can often create
Difficult to assess rigid, chaotic, and enmeshed from an insider‟s view. People are usually better at typing
other families. Observational approaches tend to be better.
Chaotic flipper – When families are in one of the extremes such as chaotically disengaged or rigidly
enmeshed, they will often flip flop to another extreme instead moving toward the center of the model.
RESEARCH AND THE CIRCUMPLEX MODEL
In general, research studies in the U.S. have shown that balanced families will function more adequately
than midrange or extreme/unbalanced families.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 44
In over 250 studies using FACES (described below) as a linear measure, balanced couple and family
systems tended to be more functional compared to unbalanced systems. In several studies using the
Clinical Rating Scale (i.e., a curvilinear measure) the hypothesis is also supported. These two assessment
tools are designed for research, for clinical assessment and treatment planning with couples and families.
Balanced family types have a larger behavioral range and are more able to change compared with
extreme family types. They tend to have more positive communication skills than extreme families.
Positive communication skills will enable balanced couples/families to change their level of cohesion
and adaptability more easily than those at the extremes.
The Family Adaptability and Cohesion Evaluation Scales (FACES) is a self-report assessment instrument
developed to use in diagnosis and treatment planning with the Circumplex Model. It is based on extensive
testing with families and counselors. FACES is a 111-item instrument designed to measure a family
member‟s perception of family cohesion and adaptability (Olson, Sprenkle, & Russell, 1979).
PREPARE-ENRICH was developed for use in premarital and relationship enrichment counseling/ classes
following this model (Olson, Sprenkle, & Russell, 1979).
APPLICATION OF THE CIRCUMPLEX MODEL TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Families in which domestic violence occurs are often characterized by being closed systems. There is a firm
commitment to maintaining a tight boundary between the family and the outside world.
The family generally has strong, inflexible family rules which range from overt rules governing the
movement of the abused spouse to unstated rules that every family member observes. A common rule is
secrecy. Family members may be aware of the violent behavior, but they may not speak about “it”. The
battered spouse may not even confront the abusive spouse, and in actuality may even make excuses for the
other‟s behavior or deny the severity of the beating. In battering families there are rigid rules and roles as
well as a limited capacity to cope with change as needed.
Boundaries and roles are often unclear, diffuse, and may be inappropriately reversed at times. There is often
difficulty in setting limits and following through with limits. For example, an abused wife may never say
“no” to battering and passively accepts it. Then if she does set limits (e.g., pressing charges) she may not
follow through with it.
Barnes, H. L., & Olson, D. H. (1985). Parent-adolescent communication and the Circumplex Model. Child Development, 56, 438-447.
Olson, D. H. (2000). Circumplex model of marital and family systems. Journal of Family Therapy, 22, 144-167.
Olson, D. H., Sprenkle, D. H., & Russell, C. S. (1979). Circumplex model of marital family systems: I--Cohesion and adaptability
dimensions, family types, and clinical applications. Family Process, 18, 3-27.
Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
Minuchin, S., & Fishman, H. (1981). Techniques of family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 45
The image above is from:
Plunkett, S.W. (2005). Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes. Unpublished manuscript, California State University Northridge
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 46
THREE-DIMENSIONAL (3-D) CIRCUMPLEX MODEL (OLSON, 2000)
The image above is from:
Olson, D. H. (2000). Circumplex model of marital and family systems. Journal of Family Therapy, 22, 144-167.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 47
FAMILY DEALING WITH FATHER’S HEART ATTACK (OLSON, 2000)
53 Family was flexibly connected. 51
Father had a heart attack’
The image above is from:
Olson, D. H. (2000). Circumplex model of marital and family
M.‘93 systems. Journal of Family Therapy, 22, 144-167.
17 15 13
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 48
RESEARCH WITH THE CIRCUMPLEX MODEL (Images below from Olson, 2000)
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 49
Conflict theory has wide and varied roots that range from the individual intra-psychic approach of Freud to
the systemic societal approach of Karl Marx.
Conflict theory as applied to families challenges the myth that families are harmonious, and instead focuses
on the ability of the family to deal with differences, change, and conflict.
Conflict theory begins by asserting that conflict in families is the normal state of affairs and that family
dynamics can be understood by identifying the sources of conflict and the sources of power.
Solutions are a result of establishing better communication, developing empathy and understanding, and
being motivated to change.
If you have interaction, you have conflict.
Conflict and change are normal, inevitable and ubiquitous (i.e., everywhere) in family relationships and
All human societies and groups possess conflicts of interest.
Conflict is necessary for growth and social change.
Resources are scarce.
Human societies consist of varying degrees of inherently unequal elements
Hierarchies emerge since power is not distributed equally
Power structures are typically stable
Individuals and groups usually try to maximize their own positions within the hierarchies instead of
completely changing the society.
Conflict – The confrontation between individuals or groups over scarce resources.
Competition for resources – In a family, members will compete for limited resources such as affection,
material items, money, and food.
Inequalities – Within the family inequalities will exist such as parents having more power than children.
The unequal distribution creates hierarchies within the family which depict family structure and influence
Other important concepts include cooperation, competition, threats, negotiation, bargaining, and aggression.
Farrington, K. & Chertok, E. (1993). Social conflict theories of the family. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm,
& S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach (pp. 357-381). New York:
FEMINIST FAMILY THEORY
Feminist theory/perspective reflects the thinking across the feminist movement that focuses on the inequality
of power between men and women in society and in family life. The feminist perspective is about choice and
about equally valuing the choices individuals make.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 50
FEMINIST THEORIES ARE A GROUP OF THEORIES WHICH FOCUS ON 4 IMPORTANT THEMES (Avis, 1986)
A recognition of women‟s oppression
An examination of what contributes to the maintenance of that oppression
A commitment to ending the unjust subordination
A futuristic vision of equality
BRIEF HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Women‟s subordination appears in works of Plato, who believed that men were more virtuous by nature, and
others who believed men had more intellectual and reasoning capabilities. In the 19th century, following the
industrial revolution, the women‟s movement emerged. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a key figure due to her
critique of traditional norms. Stanton eventually established the National Organization of Women (NOW).
However, Susan B. Anthony was chosen to represent the Suffragists because of her less radical views. By the
1880s there was widespread support for obtaining the vote. Many believed women deserved the vote due to
their maternal virtues, while others believed women and men were equal in endowments. The conflicting
views of whether men and women are inherently different or equal are still present in varying feminist
theories. Other major contributors in the late 1800s and early 1900s include Charlotte Perkins Gilman who
pronounced the “grand domestic revolution” and Margaret Mead who researched the socio-culture
determinants of gendered personality traits. A major accomplishment during this period was the right to vote
in 1920. In the 1960s there was a resurgence of the feminist movement that grew from the movement for the
rights of African Americans. Major themes were oppression and liberation. Contributors included (1) Betty
Frieden, who wrote The Feminine Mystique, described dissatisfaction and depression among American
housewives, and (2) Simone de Beauvoir who formulated the idea that power is central to the social
construction of gender in the book, The Second Sex. In 1972 the ERA was approved by the U.S. Congress;
however, it failed to become law.
Liberal feminists believe gender should not be a barrier since men and women are endowed with the same
rational and spiritual capacities. Liberal feminists are committed to “social and legal reforms that will create
equal opportunities for women” (Osmond & Thorne, 1993, p. 594), ending sex discrimination and
challenging sex stereotyping.
Social feminists believe women are oppressed by capitalism. The focus is on redefining capitalism in
relation to women‟s work.
Radical feminist theories insist the oppression of women is fundamental. Radical feminists believe the
current patriarchal system must be eliminated. Attention is directed towards issues of the body such as
men‟s control over women‟s sexuality and reproduction, and also men‟s use of rape and violence to violate
women. In more radical feminist literature, such as Networking Against Female Sexual Slavery by Charlotte
Bunch (1984), patriarchy has been associated with militarism, racism, economic exploitation and global
warfare. In Sexism and the War System (Reardon, 1985), feminists view ecological destruction and violence
as the result of patriarchal domination.
Women are oppressed
Must focus on the centrality, normality and importance of women‟s experience
Gender is socially constructed
The analyses of gender should include the larger socio-culture context
The term “family” supports women‟s oppression because it contains class, cultural, and heterosexual biases
Social change and methodological approaches should be value committed
Women need to succeed and change the oppression.
Patriarchy – The hierarchical social structure through which men dominate and manipulate women (Avis
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 51
Gender – A person‟s learned masculine or feminine status apart from ones biological male or female
makeup. Gender is analyzed in terms of the socialization process; gender identity; the social structure of the
family, state, education, religion and other institutions; cultural or symbolic notions; and gender-power
Women and men evoke, create, and sustain their gender, day by day through their interaction with others
(West & Zimmerman, 1987).
The person is political – Women‟s personal lives are an expression of their subordination within society
Oppression – The imposition of constraints by one group over another (Osmond & Thorn, 1993)
Important values of feminism include cooperation, mutuality, equality, democratic use of community
power, enjoyment of body and work, and peace.
APPLICATIONS OF FEMINIST THEORY
Critiquing of other perspectives on families as ignoring or misrepresenting power structure and paying
insufficient attention to socio-culture and historical contexts.
Pointing out the sexual politics in current family therapy.
Challenging the traditional approaches to the study of families
Focusing on gender as a theoretical construct instead of as a variable
Advocating the use of “household” instead of “family” due to the bias associated with “family.”
Emphasizing the harmful effects of the traditional family roles, economic exploitation, and social
Refuting the stereotypes of the women as dependent and economically unproductive
Focusing on the influence of capitalism and patriarchy on the organization of work, including work
within the family
Viewing motherhood as an experience as opposed to a role
Challenging the structure of heterosexuality as the norm
Recognizing the public-private dichotomy where men are recognized with public society and women
with private family
There is an emphasis on women‟s experiences.
Focuses on ending the subordination of individuals based on class, ethnicity, race, age and gender.
Current feminism has a commitment to change (Osmond & Thorne, 1993).
Feminist research attempts to understand gender power relationships.
A major feminist principle is the need to deal with familial conflict, competition, and structural
arrangements that increase the probability that family processes will be harmful (Walker, 1993).
Feminism reveals harmful effects that traditional family roles, economic exploitation, and social
inequalities have on women‟s general well being.
FEMINIST THEORIES AND POLITICAL MOVEMENT ARE INEXTRICABLY INTERWOVEN – as demonstrated by
the many efforts to apply feminism to political actions such as:
Changing policies that economically weaken female headed households
Changing laws that support heterosexual and male dominated nuclear family arrangements over alternative
Making laws to combat sexual and physical violence against women and children
Supporting women‟s reproductive freedom
Reinforcing women‟s unpaid work
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 52
Can be applied to a broad range of issues
Provides valuable critique of other theories and perspectives
Research and practice are emotionally charged
Over emphasis on gender and power
FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE ON WIFE ABUSE OR MALE VIOLENCE
Generic labels (e.g., domestic violence) obscure the dimensions of gender and power that are necessary in
comprehending wife abuse. More specifically, the generic terms ignore the context, nature, and
consequences of violence; ignore each family member‟s role obligations; “downplay” the importance of
gender; and can lead to prejudice in how the causes and solutions of wife abuse are viewed
Wife abuse/male violence – use of physical pain or force by a man against his female partner
Two cultural norms contribute to violence against women:
Unequal distribution of power between the sexes associated with traditional sex roles
Traditional power imbalances between male and female heads of household set up situations for
economic, social or physical abuse in the marital relationship
The more powerful will abuse the less powerful, and abuse tends to gravitate to the relationship of
greatest power differential
When the male partner‟s educational or occupational status is lower than the wife‟s he has an
increased tendency to use violence as a way of acquiring power in the family so as to meet society‟s
expectation of male dominance.
Male partner does not feel he has enough control at his job or in his community he may abuse his
wife so as to feel he has control somewhere in his life
The condoning of physical force to resolve disputes
Males have been socialized to view aggression as acceptable for themselves through rewards by
parents and peers. Females were discouraged from being aggressive as they grew up.
U.S. culture has a long tradition of using and encouraging physical force to resolve conflicts.
In 1975 NOW created a task force to address the issue of few shelters for battered wives, by the next
year over a 1000 shelters had been built
Goldner, V. (1993). Feminist theories. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.),
Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach (pp. 623-625). New York: Plenum.
Osmond, M. W., & Thorne, B. (1993). Feminist theories: The social construction of gender in families and society. In P. G. Boss, W. J.
Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual
Approach (pp. 591-623). New York: Plenum.
FAMILY SYSTEMS AS A THERAPEUTIC APPROACH
IMPLICATIONS OF UNDERSTANDING THE FAMILY AS A SYSTEM IN THERAPY
Symptoms are looked at in terms of role they play in the entire family system. Therefore diagnosis and
treatment involve a system level of analysis.
Family distress springs from multiple sources, not from a single source. Therefore it is more effective to
approach families from the perspective of their resources rather than pathology.
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 53
A collaborative model, which elicits family context, rather than an expert model which attempts to fix
problems in isolation of context, more closely reflects the family experience.
Relationships have intergenerational consequences that shape the nature of future relationships. Attention to
the consequences of relating is an ethical mandate for families.
Family relationships have a degree of patterning or lawfulness, which help in understanding the meaning of
the family experience.
Reactivity, blame, and avoidance in family relating are signals of emotional distress. They need to be
explored for their context.
Past emotional and relational trauma and loss, particularly when they occur in the form of injustice, can
intensify current family distress.
The family systems approach tries to include all parts of the system rather than being limited to the
individual (i.e., the identified patient). Since an individual‟s problems are relational, he family systems
therapist focuses on the interactions and external factors that influence the person.
The emphasis of therapy models based on family systems theory is on the family, possibly neglecting the
individual. Hence, a family systems therapist might lose sight of the individual.
FAMILY ROLES IN ADDICTED FAMILIES
When a parent has an addiction, the family system often revolves around the addict and his/her addiction.
Each family member maintains certain roles (see below) to keep the system balanced.
The roles are interchangeable, however there is less flexibility in a family with more problems
Family members may play more than one role.
Even if the addict ceases to drink, use drugs, etc., the family has a difficult time making a second order
change (Ziter, 1988).
Addicted parent – This is the parent who has the addiction.
Surrogate parent/little parent – This family member (usually an older child) will take on the role of
parenting the younger siblings, especially when the parents are immersed in the addiction. Sometimes, the
surrogate parent may even parent the parents.
Chief enabler – This family member allows the addiction to continue by “saving” the abuser from the
consequences of his or her actions and helping the addiction to occur (e.g., buying alcohol/drugs for the
person who is addicted). For example, if a substance-dependent parent does not go to work/school, the chief
enabler might make excuses for that absence. The chief enabler’s life often revolves around the addict‟s
life; hence, this person may sacrifice his/her own needs, desires, and goals to take care of the addicted
person. The chief enabler may also feel responsible for other person‟s addiction. The chief enabler is
generally the other parent, but it is possible for one of the children to take this role (e.g., contributing to
family finances by getting a job).
Family hero/hero child – This youth family member fulfills the family values to create the illusion of a
successful family. For example, if the family values sports, then the youth excels in sports. If the family
values education, then the youth excels in academics. If the family values criminal activities, then the youth
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 54
excels in criminal activities. The parents often publicly brag about the family hero’s accomplishments. The
family hero may sacrifice his/her own needs and goals to achieve due to pressure to be successful. The
family hero is often vulnerable to addiction due to feelings of pressure to achieve, sacrificing needs, and
feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Scapegoat – This family member, often an adolescent, is thought of as the “problem child” because he/she
displays many unacceptable behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, criminal behavior, aggressive acts, school
problems) to (1) draw attention away from the parent‟s addiction, and/or (2) act out the family anger. When
the scapegoat was younger, he/she might have been blamed for things that he/she had little control over.
So, as the scapegoat got older, he/she always felt like he/she was in trouble or blamed for anything that
went wrong. The scapegoat often feels hopeless and like a failure. Family members may believe that if the
scapegoat would stay out of trouble, their problems would go away.
Mascot – This family member does not like conflict, hence he/she often uses humor to divert attention
away from family conflict and problems. The mascot is often popular with other youth, but he/she may
have trouble forming intimate relationships because of fear of conflict.
Lost/forgotten child – This family member rarely causes any problems and is relatively invisible. The lost
child has friends and engages in activities unknown to the other family members. Also, the lost child may
live in a world of books, fantasy, video games, computer, and/or television. Often, this family member feels
sad and alone. As an adult, the lost child may disconnect from the family.
Jacob Shin Juan Maria
Takes care of Lee when he’s ‘sick’
Cooks lunch for Lee every day
Often prepares supper for family
M.‘46 M.‘48 D.‘64
Drinks every day
Andre Adrineh Often passes out Lee Works 60+ hrs week Mabel Carlos Rosa
Private plumber Sees kids at breakfast
46 43 Loses customers 43 Wakes Bob up when she 42 30 25
due to being ‘sick’ Watches Bob
gets home during the day
M.‘90 M.‘93 C.‘2003
Has always made straight A’s 20 17 14 13 3
Works 20 hrs week
gives $ to mom Alex Sepi Mary Ani Bob
Makes breakfast for siblings & parents Always in Born 9 months after Mary
Packs lunches for Mary, Ani, & Alex trouble at Considered the ‘quiet’ child
home and Reads a lot
school, Makes Makes good grades
Date of Genogram – 2005
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 55
APPENDIX 1: GENOGRAM
The genogram is used to provide a graphic representation of the family‟s basic structure, demographics,
history, and interaction patterns (McGoldrick & Gerson, 1985). The practitioner and individual/family
construct the genogram together (usually early in therapy). It is revised as new information becomes available.
The genogram provides an enormous amount of data and insight for the therapist, as well as the family
members. It can be used as an informational, assessment, diagnostic, preventive, and intervention tool. As a
clinical assessment tool, the genogram helps the therapist and individual/family think systematically about
how events, relationships, problems, issues, events, and symptoms are related to patterns in the family (i.e.,
how events and relationships are interdependent). The therapist can use the genogram to identify potential
prevention and intervention points.
REASONS TO DO A GENOGRAM
Enhances rapport building and „joining‟ with the family
Facilitates systematic history taking
Helps simplify a complex system by providing a graphical representation of the family
Helps the therapist visualize the family “at a glance”
Aids in analyzing family processes
Helps family members gain a holistic view of their family
Provides a method for developing an efficient clinical summary
Facilitates case management and record keeping
Saves time and repetition in subsequent visits
Connects symptom/problem to context
Assists with treatment planning
Identifies points of prevention, stressors, risk factors, and points of intervention
Assists with research
GENERAL GUIDELINES FOR CONSTRUCTING A GENOGRAM
There is no “right” or “one” way to construct a genogram.
Begin with the immediate household and then move to the extended family system.
Go from the present to the past.
Solicit the easy information first and then move to the potential anxiety-producing information
List facts before judgments.
Solicit as many perspectives as possible from the different family members.
McColdrick, M., & Gerson, R. (1985). Genograms in family assessment. New York: Norton.
McGoldrick, M., Gerson, R., Shellenberger, S. Genograms. assessment and intervention. 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton and
Plunkett’s FCS 542 Notes 56
Male m ‘92 LT ‘92 m ‘92
Married couple; husband on left, Living together or affair Gay couple
wife on right (m = marriage date) (LT = marriage date)
m ‘92 d ‘97
m ‘92 s ‘97 LT ‘95
Index person or Lesbian couple
identified client s = separation date d = divorce date
Deceased Birth date is Death date is m ‘88 d ‘92 m ‘95 d ‘01 LT ‘03
above left, above right
age is inside Man with two ex-wives and current live-in partner
Children are drawn in birth order with the oldest child on the left
Biological Adopted Foster Fraternal Identical Pregnancy
child child child twins twins
Other Other Substance Suspected Serious mental or Substance abuse In recovery from
marriages marriages abuse abuse physical problem and physical or substance abuse
and children mental problem
Close Very close or Conflictual Close and Very close and Estranged or
fused conflictual conflictual cut-off
Distant Focused on
m ‘92 d ‘97 m ‘99
OTHER INFORMATION WHICH MAY BE NOTED ON THE GENOGRAM
Ethnic background Religion or religious change
Education Occupation or unemployment
Military service Current location of family members
Trouble with law Physical abuse or incest
Obesity Psychological problems
Smoking Medical problems
Retirement Dates when family members left home (i.e., LH ’85)