Academic journal article Family Relations

Family Therapy in the Postmodern Era

Academic journal article Family Relations

Family Therapy in the Postmodern Era

Article excerpt

The purpose of this article is to chronicle the theoretical developments and clinical trends that have emerged in the profession of marriage and family therapy in recent years, an historical period so marked by transition and new ways of seeing the world that the popular press has dubbed it the Postmodern era. On the simplest level, the transition from the recent modern era to the postmodern era is marked by a flagging societal belief in one absolute, fixed reality for all people and an increasing acknowledgment that our culture embodies an infinite variety of equally valid ways to view the world (Anderson, 1990). Gone for increasing numbers of people are the fixed standards that have historically divided right from wrong, decent from indecent, noble from savage. Family values, for increasing numbers of people, are less rooted in sacred principles of church and community than in a very private mix of personal, situational beliefs.

The evolution of family therapy has been tremendously influenced by this postmodern environment in two ways. First of all, families are changing, partly due to the increased prevalence of divorce and remarriage during the last 20 years. Currently, over half of first marriages end in divorce, and projections show a full 67% of all recent first marriages may dissolve (Martin & Bumpass, 1989). Only half of all children living in the U.S. will reach 18 having lived continuously with both biological parents (Furstenberg, Nord, Peterson, & Zill, 1983). Family diversity is evident in other ways as well; societal strictures have eased regarding gay and lesbian families, cohabitating families, bi-racial families, and a host of other family definitions. American society's idea of family and what constitutes family is seemingly open to new interpretation, and family therapists must recognize multiple perspectives as a matter of course.

Secondly, over the last decade, theories explaining how reality is processed, or how we come to know what we know, have seized the imagination of family therapists and given the field a rich metaphorical context for working with families in the postmodern era. The most influential of these theories, second-order cybernetics, constructivism, and finally, social constructionism, have radically influenced the current practice of family therapy. We will briefly discuss these theories, their common respect for language as the medium of change, and then show how they are represented in four influential approaches to family therapy.


Second-Order Cybernetics

In the early to mid-1980s, family therapists began to strain against the basic cybernetic model (Weiner, 1948, 1961) that had informed work in the field since the 1960s. The original cybernetic model, sometimes referred to as the first cybernetics or Post-order cybernetics, grew out of communication engineering and computer science and offered a coherent explanation of how systems of all kinds are regulated. Defined by Sluzki (1985) as "the science of patterns of organization" (p. 26), the cybernetic model was useful for family therapists as a way to conceptualize how families (as systems) maintain their organization. This was a technical paradigm, and families were assumed to follow a discernible and disruptible pattern of self-correction which the therapist, as an outside observer, could adjust through skillful and informed intervention.

During the 1980s, largely through the influence of Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana's work in the mechanics of perception, this traditional way of thinking about the role of the family therapist as a social-science engineer came into serious question. Maturana, writing with cognitive scientist Francisco Varela (1980) and other thinkers such as cybernetician Heinz von Foerster (1981), strongly challenged the idea of the objective observer. They postulated that we process information internally, and, therefore, reality as we know it is a construction of our own private and idiosyncratic way of organizing information rather than an accurate and universally true representation of what is out there. …

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