Bowen's Family Research

Dr. Murray Bowen developed his family systems theory over two decades beginning in the mid 1950s (Bowen, 1978). He began his formal training as a psychiatrist in 1946, at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas, which was known for its Freudian psychoanalytic approach. Bowen attributed his motivation to move toward theory and science as fostered by that environment (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). His growing interest in moving beyond a theory that was focused on individual pathology, led him to seek out a setting where he could test out his new ideas.

In 1954, he moved to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Maryland, where he conducted research with families who each had a member diagnosed with schizophrenia. During this five year project, families lived in the research ward for durations of one to three years. The project involved an extensive effort to study human families in depth, while using an experimental approach to treat schizophrenia. The research team included psychiatrists, social workers, research assistants, nurses, and attendants. Additional consultants and observers represented psychiatry, psychoanalysis, psychology, sociology, anthropology and other disciplines. The research focused on process and content, continually broadening the perspective from the individual to the dyad, then to the family, and then to the family/staff group.

Bowen based his working hypothesis for the research on the theoretical assumption that the psychosis in the patient was a symptom of a larger family problem. He departed from the usual theoretical position that considers the psychosis a disease located only in the patient. Bowen considered his NIMH research the first nodal point in the development of his theory of family systems. As he became familiar with relationship patterns in families with schizophrenia, he could see less intense versions of the same patterns in people with milder forms of emotional illness, as well people without symptoms. Bowen based his theory on this comparison of the intense patterns in schizophrenia with the less intense patterns in others (Bowen, 1978, p. xiv).

Near the end of the NIMH study, the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Georgetown University became convinced of the importance of Bowen's research discoveries about families, and invited him to join the department (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Bowen accepted the offer and taught there from 1959 until his death in 1990. He also directed the Georgetown University Family Center. During these years, Bowen treated families with a wide range of symptoms using therapeutic approaches based on his emerging theory (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). He also began a professional training component which has expanded and continues today.

At Georgetown, Bowen focused on the development of the theory, and on less severe emotional problems. He began multi-generational research on families, including his own. By 1965, he had developed the fist six interlocking concepts of his theory. He regarded his own work on differentiating himself within his family of origin as "the most important turning point in [his] entire professional life" (Bowen, 1978). This led to his method of training professionals to differentiate themselves within their own families of origin, a method which he found had excellent results for trainees in their professional and personal lives. (Differentiation of self is defined in the section on the eight interlocking concepts.)

In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency invited Bowen to present a paper on "predictable human response to crisis situations" (Bowen, 1978). His paper provided the impetus for a new addition to his interlocking concepts, one that extended the theory to society at large. This concept, societal emotional process, along with sibling position, based on Walter Toman's (1976) research, completed the theory as it is today.

(Note: This description of Bowen's family research is excerpted from a literature review by VCFS faculty member, Monika Baege, referencing the following sources: Bowen, 1978 and Kerr & Bowen, 1988. For further information, see Books or Faculty Publications under the Resources link.)