Systemic Thinking for "Societal Diagnoses"

Systemic Thinking for "Societal Diagnoses"

Be it the issues of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, “Family values” and divorce, gun violence and prevention, or mental health care and child rearing it is helpful to understanding and intervention to connect the emotional processes in the family of origin with the emotional processes in society. How does systems theory translate to the larger societal system? What insight and guidance might thinking systemically provide for treatment interventions, problem solving and conflict resolution? In his 1973 paper “Society, Crisis, and Systems Theory”, Murray Bowen proposed a theory to incorporate the interactions between individual “acting-out” or oppositional behavior, multigenerational family dysregulation and more complex societal issues involving educational institutions, social service agencies, law enforcement and criminal justice proceedings, religious establishments and governmental regulation. The inherent connection being that systems are systems.

Connecting symptoms with systems leads to the conclusion that the basic relationship patterns developed for adapting to the parental family are recapitulated and transferred to social and work relationships. On occasion the intensity of relationships in work and social systems approximates the intensity in the original family. Under duress people have difficulty hearing the message and most react emotionally. Bowen noted the following signs of increasing tension and emotional issues in administrative, legal and political systems; people withdrew or became silent, formed cliques and alliances, or would talk and gossip about others. He concluded, “It is as accurate to think of varying levels of differentiation in work situations as it is in the family.”

Ronald B. Cohen of discusses how societal problems stem from individuals with problems.Vulnerability to emotional alliances in lieu of goal directed interests leads to the creation of triangles, an  organizational threesome of interlocking relationships that can reduce anxiety and stabilize a system but almost always guarantees that the core issues never get resolved. This is compounded by the fact that seeking relationships at work to satisfy emotional needs complicates rational decision making. People who cut-off from their own parental families are the most vigorous in their efforts to create “substitute” families at work and in social relationships. In many businesses and institutions the basic problems that exist on the highest administrative level are triangled and re-triangled again and again until the conflict surfaces between two employees low in the administrative hierarchy or is shifted onto clients and customers.

Despair is both a psychological and a sociological issue. When we get anxious and flooded and overwhelmed, we stop thinking and react inappropriately. We project and we stigmatize and we discriminate and we scapegoat. The negative side of the triangle is merely a symptomatic expression of the total system problem.  The way out of this dilemma is to work to improve one’s level of self-differentiation thereby reducing fusion and reciprocity and improving relationship functioning. “Any time one key member of an organization can be responsibly responsible for self, the problem in the organization will resolve.” The effort is most productive if focused on the process and not the content of issues. It takes two to tango but only one to change the dance.

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Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
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  1. Suzanne Dunne, LCSW on February 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm said:

    Absolutely brilliant. Dr. Cohen, it is rejuvenating to read this comparative piece. You demonstrate how clearly system theory’s terminology clarifies so much more than internal family dynamics. I remember when I took my first class at UCLA in Family Systems. I felt akin to what I have often heard from addicts in early 12-step recovery, and discussed in NA literature, about how their feelings in their first NA meetings:that feeling of identification, of “being home.” I had finally found a theoretical premise to describe for how my brain had been functioning for years, how I had been conceptualizing events around me since I could remember. Today, I am not naive enough to believe that systems theory, in isolation, explains everything…I don’t believe I could ever be such a purist. However, I, like yourself, do see through systemic “glasses”, per se, when viewing the struggles of those I work with. It provides not only a workable context for my own understanding, but also a simple framework which I use often with clients and supervisees alike. Thank-you again.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on February 13, 2013 at 8:34 pm said:

      Hi Suzanne,

      Thank you for the warm, positive and encouraging comment. The beauty and value of Systemic Family Theory and Therapy is its near universal applicability. One can work towards the differentiation of self in One’s Family of Origin, in Administrative Systems and in Societal Systems among many other venues. Another commentator quoting Michael Kerr wrote; “Lack of ‘self’ fosters a buildup of chronic anxiety in a system, anxiety that is then absorbed by one person. It is tempting to opt for new and better ways to cope with anxiety rather than taking on the more difficult task of trying to develop more ‘self.'” By attending to our own “stuff” we always have the opportunity to make things better. The longer quote from Bowen reads “It is accurate to say that if (1) self can do a reasonable job in defining the problem, and if (2) self is able to make some progress in modifying self, then (3) the problems within his sphere of responsibility will work toward automatic resolution.”



  2. Carroll Straus on February 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm said:

    “It takes two to tango but only one to change the dance.”

    My driving motive lo these many years, but one alas, I have never been able to teach anyone else.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on February 13, 2013 at 8:53 pm said:

      Hi Carroll,

      Glad to continue the dialogue in a new venue. Not to be supercilious or critical but perhaps you are looking for change in all the wrong places. A more positive reframe would be that there are more productive ways to make the world a better place or at least improve your own emotional well-being. It reminds me of a story I’ve read many times, but unfortunately can’t recall its origin, about a man who sets out to change the world but finds that too difficult so he tries to change is country but that is also beyond him, then he proceeds to his town, community, family etc. and each time comes up short. Finally he decides to change himself and low and behold everything is better.

      I might sum that up as Think globally/systemically, Act locally/individually. For more thoughts please see the reply to Suzanne above.



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