Family Crisis
Integration of the Five Theory Groups

Toward a Theory of Family Functioning

Beginners in any discipline, by necessity, must start their training in one school of thought or another. As they learn to see the world through their paradigm (i.e., through their teachers' eyes), they begin to realize that there are cracks in the main idea of their science. Theory doesn't explain everything. As the student matures, he or she begins to seek new explanations to these anomalies. Thus, normally professionalized scientists become dabblers in eclecticism.

There is a story in the history of biology surrounding the discovery of the DNA Double Helix.
It seems that Watson and Cricks were post doctoral students in England, each studying different aspects of human biology. In conversations with each other, they found that they both had an enormous curiosity about DNA and what it really looks like. They were severely admonished by their teachers for spending time on DNA when they both had more important things to do, like finishing the work they were contracted to do for their respective academic sponsors. When asked why they continued to work on the double helix idea in spite of threats of dismissal, they said the strangest thing. They said (paraphrased), It's like love. No one can tell you you must love this woman and not that one. It is the same for the pursuit of ideas. No one can dictate what I must think. Science and the scientific method took them so far, and would have ultimately discouraged them, but love motivated them to continue.

I think about the shift in medicine from symptom treatment to holistic treatment of patients as a mixture of world views. The formerly symptom oriented medical model is being amended to include consideration of psychological, religious, and economic aspects of healing, all in a social context that includes the patient, his or her friends and family. While mixing world views may seem to undermine science and theory, it also seems to expand the scope of science and theory, and improve the human condition.

Overview of General Systems Theory as It Relates to the Family

A review of the systems model shows its general applicability to human social behavior. Normal system operation depends on the system's ability to process information. Simple feedback allows the system a mode of processing by which non-crisis type information may be processed without the investment of large amounts of energy. These are automatic responses to everyday, routine environmental input (i.e., alarm clocks, supper time, "it's definitely time to watch Judge Wapner.").

For example, the myriad of interaction observable in thousands of families on Monday mornings - getting ready to greet the day - is nothing more than multiple series of simple feedback loops. Such phenomena are always in a state of evolution and reformation and are static only during singular observations. However, should a crisis emerge during everyday information processing, higher order mechanisms for the control of interaction operate to mediate the reactive nature of simple feedback.

Depending on the system's requisite variety (i.e., breadth of experience, intelligence, rule making capacity), these cybernetic controls serve to offer more thoughtful, rational processing of the meaning and consequences of family responses to outside input. Information of this magnitude demands special attention and is, thus, processed through system meta-rules (simply put - rules that govern the way we make rules for our family). In short, human systems such as the family are self-regulating.

Cybernetic control accounts for the limitations placed on subsystem, or intrafamilial interaction.
Even when meta-rules fail to resolve threatening or disparate information (crises), the system allows for the incorporation of new rules by which to guide member behavior and insure its survival. This facility is a description of adaptation, also known as morphogenic change. It occurs as a response to the system's own inadequate structure. In the case of quite severe crisis, the system's response might be to totally or partially restructure itself. Reorientation of this type results in new directions for system values, goals, and/or outlooks.

The stages of family development, from premarital relationships, through courting and marriage, to the rearing and launching of children and on into late life family interaction, require several morphogenic loops and reorientations. Individual family member boundaries change in terms of responsibility, autonomy, dependency and openness. Like all human social systems, the family increasingly evolves in complexity of organization and in adaptability.

Integration of the Big Five

The integration of GST, structural-functionalism, and symbolic-interaction represents a good candidate for a paradigm, in my opinion. The theories are compatible and are consistent in assumptions. The inclusion of elements of the other "family theories" is less complete. According to the seemingly apparent consensus of social scientists' interpretation of Kuhn's (1970) treatise on the structure of scientific revolutions, social science is in a pre-paradigmatic stage of development. We have no leader to follow.

    In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm, all of the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally relevant. As a result, early fact-gathering is far more nearly random activity than the one that subsequent scientific development makes familiar. Furthermore, in the absence of a reason for seeking some particular form of more recondite information, early fact-gathering is usually restricted to the wealth of data that lie ready to hand. (Kuhn, 1970: 15).

Without a guiding theory, the discipline meanders and competing pre-paradigm concoctions vie for the garlands of wide spread acceptance. However, as Bates and Harvey (1975) point out, there are some competitors that come close to paradigmatic status:

    In our view, the problematic that comes closest to paradigmatic status is the Parsonian-based structure-functional approach. Its claim to this status rests not only on its stated central concern with social systems, and in particular with societies as the object of study, but also on its gradual evolution into modern systems theory ... (S)ymbolic interaction may be viewed as (a) problematic on the way to becoming (a) paradigm ... It is difficult to see how, at least in its present form, it could offer a paradigm for the sociological investigation of complex social investigation of complex social systems, unless it is absorbed into a large paradigm ... Actually, the Parsonian conception of social action and the Blumer conception of symbolic interactionism seem to resemble each other more than they differ." (Bates and Harvey, 1975: 6).

Thus, there is a precedent for attempting to integrate theories with similar, or complementary, assumptions.

Parsonian functionalism (SF theory) is often misinterpreted as a static model of social structure. At least in part, the view that it is a grand theoretical tautology accounts for some of the misdirected criticisms. If such charges are of substance, then the general systems model is more the culprit. In fact, while scientific propositions cannot be tautological in nature, the reader is challenged to name a single social theory that is not a circular argument. Whether beginning with social structure and revealing its consequences (Parsons, 1949), or starting with social needs and demonstrating the emergent structure that evolves (Merton, 1949), functionalist approaches rely on nearly the same assumptions as does general systems theory. For example, in the functionalist view, the first building blocks recognizable as "social" in nature are "groups". This "tinker toy" model has statuses (positions existing in space) that are linked together by roles (expected behavior of the person occupying specific positions). At least some systems theorists also take a status/role orientation in uncovering structure (Broderick and Smith, 1979; Kantor and Lehr, 1975). Simply, when two or more positions are linked together by reciprocal roles, we have a system with structure.

Interaction with the environment is an initial assumption of structural models, as it is in systems models. A system is said to be functional if it is able to resolve problems using environmental inputs and offer the benefit of its adaptation to other systems. Parsons (1949, 1951) outlined four vital characteristics for all social systems:

  1. Boundaries (for maintaining component functions) and ...
  2. Internal differentiation to provide for ...
  3. Qualitatively different functional requirements which have ...
  4. Genesis in the cultural, social and personality hierarchy of the group.

Boundaries contain cultural, social and personal information vital to the guidance of the system through social time and space. Each unique component serves the system by meeting one or more functional requirements. Internal differentiation refers to the AGIL diagram, discussed in earlier chapters. You will remember that the AGIL diagram illustrated how the needs of the system are met through Adaptation, Goal attainment, Integration, and Latency. Adaptation refers to the open system's tendency to keep pace with environmental change and resolve systemic problems (similar concepts are found in GSTs hierarchy of rules, morphogenesis, reorientation and conversion notions). Needed information and resources are procured from sources outside the family. Goal attainment refers to the clarity of system ideals and the focus of system activity on the realization of ideals. Integration refers to the incorporation of cultural, social and personality demands in the adaptive process, as well as goal setting processes. Latency is a catch all phase of system management, where interaction continuity is preserved and intrasystem tension is reduced. These functions correspond to the everyday management of the system (rules of transformation in GST).

Merton further outlined the functional nature of social systems by offering the manifest/latent function/dysfunction typology (yikes!). For our purposes, this simply means that there are intended and unintended outcomes of family action - both helpful and harmful. Summing up to this point, we have systems theory action as an umbrella perspective, under which further (and finer) distinctions about specific intersystem interaction (or interface) might be made.

The addition of symbolic interaction theory will carry our integrative effort to a more microscopic level of analysis.

In order for any social system to evaluate its progress toward goals and to maintain stylistic continuity, it must have a reflexive component - a self-consciousness. The pragmatist philosophers, such as Wm. James, Bergson, and Dewey, were concerned with the question of the origin of the self (another term for personality) and were a great influence on the originators of symbolic interaction theory (Coser, 1971: 321, 335-337). These seminal thinkers were quite systemic in their views.

Cooley (1930) saw society as a whole consisting of individual parts. He asserted that no part could exist in isolation and that the smallest component, the individual, was but a microcosm of the larger society. Developmentally, for each individual, the self and society are twin born _ there is no self-concept ("I") without correlative "others". Cooley's looking glass self is an ideal typical description of the development of self-consciousness consisting of three elements:

  1. The imagination of our appearance to the others.
  2. The imagination of other's judgment of us.
  3. The behavior exhibited resulting from feelings about other's judgment. (Cooley, 1964).

The total dependence of the individual on interaction with others for the development and maintenance of the SELF is provided for in the social system by the presence of primary groups. Such groups offer the "others" of which Cooley refers, and differ from secondary groups by virtue of their qualitatively different goals and interaction styles. Our first primary group, the family, is the first reference point we have to stimulate the emergence of the self. The Self emerges more similar to others in society than different from them, depending on the quality of the members of the family.

The work of George Herbert Mead reformulated some of Cooley's notions and still serves as the guiding influence in interaction theory. Concerning the place of the individual in society:

Mead argued that there can be no self apart from society, no consciousness of self and no communication. In its turn, society must be understood as a structure that emerges through an ongoing process of communicative social acts, through transactions between persons who are mutually oriented toward each other. (Coser, 1971: 334).

Quite striking is the "systems" terminology - communication, structure, process. Mead's views further provide micro-analytic tools for the systems theorist in his description of the socialization process--the Generalized Other. From birth throughout life, the individual enters a learning state where, bit by bit, the roles of all others are internalized until a general guide for behavior takes form. Beginning with early childhood, the individual begins to pretend to be other people--cartoon characters, super heroes, baseball stars. As the individual matures, imaginary or idealized others are replaced by the roles of real others--fathers, mothers, bosses, friends, significant others.

It is in the form of the generalized other that the social process influences the behavior of the individuals involved in it and carrying it on, i.e., that the community exercises control over the conduct of its individual members; for it is in this form that the social process or community enters as a determining factor into the individual's thinking. In abstract thought the individual takes the attitude of the generalized other. (Coser & Rosenberg, 1957: 250).

By taking the role of the generalized other, the individual is able to perceive the rights and obligations entailed in role interaction between himself and others. To be a social critter, a person must be both object and subject. By one's ability to internalize the attitudes of others, the self becomes the object of its own reflection. (Coser, 1971: 337). Thus, the "I-me" dialectic arises.

The distinction made between the components, "I" and "me" of the self serves Mead's notion that the social foundation of the self is more than the mere organization of social attitudes. 4-7 Reflexivity occurs between the two parts. An explanation of their function illustrates the dialectic. The "I" is the response (the change in self-image), of the individual to the attitudes and actions of others. The "me" houses generalized social attitudes and expectations, manifested as behaviors.

When the self initiates action in response to given expectations, the "I" chooses the "me" performance - the role to be exhibited. After each action, the self reflects on its response retaining other's level of acceptance of the action sequence. Whatever the behavior's reception by others, good or bad, is used to modify or restructure future behavior patterns.

In learning various role behaviors through the generalized other process, the individual in society comes to acquire a repertoire of roles - a role set. The way in which we come to interact with others is through perceived sets of significant symbols. These meaningful elements help us select the role behavior required for any particular interaction with which we have had experience. That is, successful interaction is contingent on our level of social experience and is situationally determined, although uniquely performed in concert with others.

Both systems and social exchange appear to be "economic" models of human behavior. In systems, change in the environment is responded to by the system, with reciprocal responses made by elements in the environment to the system's input. Both seem to abide by homeostatic-type laws. In exchange theory, the profit motive is calculated by each actor in a relationship. Further, each actor judges the rewards and costs of maintaining a relationship while setting comparative levels of dissatisfaction. When the relationship is not profitable, the actor will seek a "better deal".

These alternative comparison levels (Nye, 1979) are somewhat equivalent to GST's use of the concepts of morphogenesis, reorientation and conversion. In systems, when situations escalate to unbearable degrees, family members seek resolution to their problems either by resorting to "meta-rule making" or by going outside the family system for assistance and information. When the rules fail the system, the similarities to comparison levels of exchange theory are the greatest. In both instances the actors are seeking reward/relief outside the family or the relationship.

The eclecticism of developmental theories (Hill and Rodgers, 1964) is attributed to its conceptual adolescence. However, developmental theories tend to take a systemic approach to explaining maturation and personality change. Hill and Rodgers mention the use of role set development, just as Broderick and Smith (1979) and others recommend the conceptual use of roles to identify family positions. To demonstrate the developmental aspects of GST requires some examples. Each stage of family development--courtship, early marriage, parenthood, grand-parenthood, widowhood--require different rules of transformation and different talents for making new rules.

As the relationship between two people matures, normal systems evolve new rules through the processes of morphogenesis and reorientation. Environmental input is processed, new information stored, and appropriate action is taken by the system. Part of the need for new rules lies in the addition of new people (children) to the family, as well as the addition of new role demands from those already in the system (i.e., Mom, Dad, siblings).

Thus, as the relationship develops, boyfriend becomes husband, father, grandfather, widower. Each new role entails developmental tasks, acceptance of new responsibilities, as continuous family changes take place. Additionally, concepts of goals, direction and purpose mentioned in developmental theory are part of GST, as well as the same meanings implied by the use of boundaries, structure and role relatedness.

Conflict models are really functional models (Gelles and Straus, 1979). They deal in social structure, interaction with that structure (conflict) and the material/emotional effects of that interaction. It is possible to detail at least four conflict theories - with one basic set of ideas. Turner (1974) has derived assumptions from the conflict school of thought. Marxian conflict theory has evolved from the writings of Karl Marx, with departures from Georg Simmel. Marx was the materialist thinker, Simmel was the functionalist. The assumptions for both are:

    1. Social relationships display systemic features encompassing conflicting personal interests.

    2. Conflict occurs over the unequal (perceived) distribution of scarce resources.

    3. Conflict is the major source of change in any human system.

Marx based his economic model of social inequality between the classes on the structure of society. Within the family, tiny bourgeois and proletariat classes exist (i.e., head of the household, domestic worker, children). The distribution of scarce resources, such as privacy, space, status, autonomy, and material goods, are competed for in the family system (Kantor and Lehr, 1975).

In our General Systems Theory (GST), the major source of change is crisis, roughly comparable to conflict as the culprit in that the crisis is usually a conflict of family and personal goals or values. Think about the documented points of conflict in families. What do married people argue about most often? Ranked in order and ferocity of the conflict:

  1. Money
  2. Husband is a workaholic
  3. Parenting issues and children
  4. Quality and frequency of sex
  5. Lack of affection
  6. Infidelity of sex and confidence

Coser, out of Simmel rather than Marx, views conflict as inevitable in close relationships.
However, contrary to Marx, who saw conflict as positively destructive to social systems (i.e., positive in that old, unfair systems are undermined and replaced by new just systems), Coser feels conflict to be a positive aspect of relationships, and one that strengthens the bond after resolving differences. Conflict also aids in defining goals and clarifying interests. GST does incorporate the notion of healthy dissent through its change processes. A reoriented family may be a stronger one for the experience. The interaction of the family system with other institutions is considered by both conflict and systems.

Social learning theory (Bandura, 1978) is already an integration of behaviorism, symbolic- interaction, and GST. Although not always explicitly so, we see elements of each approach in his work. The behavior/environment/personality factors triad evidences this. By placing the individual within a family setting, the immediate environment becomes the other members of the family.

The actor's personal beliefs, and so on are allowed to develop through processes similar to those described by Mead, Cooley, and other SI theorists. Systemically, the Self is described as a self-regulating system (remember the development of the Generalized Other, and the I-me dialectic?). Finally, the notion of reciprocal determinism is similar to system's concept of positive and negative feedback. Depending on the family's rules of transformation (a combination of pooled personal factors and environmental factors) behaviors can be reacted against in deviance producing or deviance dampening ways by family members.

An Integrated Theory of Family Interaction

The intent here is to show that social interaction, in and out of the family, is guided by forces at every level of analysis. Theories attempting to explain social behavior at only one level are, by their own restrictions, doomed to short-sightedness. These approaches lack utility. The model attempts to integrate elements of general systems, structural-functionalism, and symbolic- interaction theory, producing a multi-dimensional view of the family and family members embedded in an interaction structure with other systems.

Ours is basically a systems model in that component system member interaction is mediated by the same devices as described in GST. The contributions to systems theory are that member interaction is viewed as symbolic in nature on a micro-theoretical level. Institutional interaction is viewed from a structural-functional level. To fully explain the integrative model, let's look at the systems concepts one at a time.

Concerning everyday interaction between family members, the governing elements are the sets of "reciprocal role transformation rules" for each pair of members in the family. Following Mead's generalized other concept, these sets of rules are evolved over the lifespan of the pair relationship. Thus, one comes to expect quite specific behaviors from each of the various roles in the family. Likewise, one learns the behaviors he or she is obligated to perform at different times and different ages. Interaction is temporally specific _ that is, in a young family, parents expect appropriate behaviors from children that they will not expect as the child matures. Children also modify their expectations of parents, each other and themselves as they grow up and incorporate an increasingly larger portion of the generalized other.

The notion of boundaries takes on a broader meaning here. Obviously, boundaries are perceived from two perspectives within a pair of reciprocal roles. These may take on added perspectives as observers to interaction are included in family drama. For example, a father-son talk may be possible as long as father's rules (dominant, more experience, caretaker) complement son's (submissive, impulsive, in need of supervision). Not only will the two actors be able to communicate, but observing grandparents, other children, and others will nod their heads approvingly at the homey scene of the two principle actors as they interpret life's incredible journey.

However, as in all families, members soon begin to cultivate additional roles as children initiate friendships outside the family, take on more responsibility for their actions, and have unique experiences. Should one actor or the other deem it necessary to independently expand or restrict her boundary with "others", the relationship becomes asymmetrical (it changes). Boundaries come into conflicting definition, and rules of transformation are differentially perceived. For situations requiring negotiation, such as non-routine crises, meta-rules developed in the Generalized Other process also exist to aid in conflict resolution.

A major distinction is made in this model between family system as primary group and other secondary groups/systems (Cooley, 1930). A conceptualization that is consistent with Cooley's notion is Parson's pattern variables. Generally, and depending on the openness of the system of analysis, primary group interaction is characterized by sentimentality, warmth, particularistic notions, and informal kinds of rules. Secondary group interaction, such as encounters with "institutional" representatives - the police, administrators, others - is guided by rules demanding universality, formal and uniform application.

Decision making and crisis resolution are accomplished in the family by applying meta-rules internalized from pooled family member experience. Aberrant family member behavior is more readily excused than would be the case if the individual performed inappropriate behavior outside the family. Behavior sanctions are parceled out as Generalized meta-rules suggest.

Should crises accelerate to levels destructive to the family system, morphogenic devices may be imported into the family. However, these perceived solutions must necessarily be sought outside the family, in other institutions or in the environment (friendship networks, self-help gurus).

Structural-functionalism is particularly helpful in explaining the family's use of information lying within other systems. The global approach to institutional interaction with the grand social system illustrates that the family is truly embedded in a neighborhood within a community, within a society. Although Parsons' rigid explanation of his social system often gets in the way of functionalism's theoretical utility, it is clear that no family system exists in social isolation. On the contrary, emotional needs are sometimes met through the church, intellectual needs through education, subsistence needs through political and economic systems.

Morphogenic solutions to family problems may be systematically incorporated into family meta-rules. Witness the existence of referral mechanisms among family service organizations.

Not found in general systems theory of family relationships is the plain fact that often institutions are in conflict with the general maintenance of the family. Latent dysfunctions found in the economic system may act as stressors on family member interaction. Burdened with increasing taxes and shrinking paychecks, the typical middle class husband may come to view his family as an economic albatross.

Similarly, the typical middle class housewife, usually the major consumer agent for the family, may be seen as a spendthrift by her spouse, when in actuality she is unable to cover the costs of family material needs with the family income. These objective facts have symbolic, as well as empirical, impact on intrafamily relationships. The national economy does cause changes inside individual families. Likewise, political perceptions of a need for strong military defense often conflict with individual or family meta-rules defining family member welfare and safety as the higher priority. In the next chapter, we will look at the state of the family in our culture using statistical charts and graphs generated through demographic and survey research. We will identify several crises, attempt to define their cause, and move on to possible solutions. During this process, we should strongly bear in mind the theoretical ideas we now understand.