Confusing the Symbol with the Reality

Alan Watts was a clergyman in the American Episcopal Church in 1947 and a theologial scholar of some renown.  His early writings dealt with Orthodox Christian philosophy.  After a trip to China, he began to think about Occidental  (oriental) philosophies in relation to his own brand of moral teachings.  This caused him no small measure of intellectual discomfort, but lead him to read Hindu and Zen Buddhist works that predated Christian teachings by several thousand years.  After a difficult personal struggle, Watts eliminated the competing paradigms and chose the way of Buddhism, convinced that there was a "better" truth in the Buddhist way of thinking.  This change in a devoted minister's fundamental philosophy is interesting enough, but what is more exciting is the change that occurred in his writings.  His early theological writing was pretty tough going for the average reader, while his later writing was much more accessible.

He began a series of essays, each one designed to address a specific problem in modern, western living.  In Does It Matter? Watts discusses the problem we Westerners have with confusing symbols with reality.  The discussion is really  about the
dilemma of maintaining conflicting world views. This, he says, is the fallacy of western civilization: confusing the world as we symbolize it with the world as we live in it and experience it.

He tells a story to illustrate this basic conflict:

While ridiculous on the face of it, we actually play the part of the clerk every day.  1) We can't do research because we can't fund a project - they've used up all the grants down at the research & development office.  Grants aren't issued until the Fall of the year and this is Spring!  2) We'd really like to love someone but we just don't have the time.

The inches story should make us think about the very real difference between the symbol and the reality. Watts goes on to illustrate this conflict by discussing the difference between money and wealth.  For example, we like to think of the United States (the symbolic USA) as the greatest, most powerful, and richest country on earth. It is unAmerican to think otherwise.  However, the U.S. (the reality USA)  is merely a set of boundaries artificially placed around part of one continent on the planet.  The boundaries did not grow into place naturally, but were put in place rather haphazardly. But we used to think it was our God given right to occupy all the land between the two oceans because of Manifest Destiny - a case of seeing something we wanted and dreaming up a myth to justify our desire before allowing ourselves (in this case) to murder or round up all the existing occupants of the land that God has given us and just move right in.

Now occasionally we have to modify our mythology (symbolism) a little bit as the reality of our lives change. Within the boundaries of the greatest geographic symbol in modern cartography came the Great Depression from the years 1929 to 1941.  During these years things were tight, monies (read inches) were scarce.  There were precious few of those symbols of wealth  - greenback dollars - circulating around.  While the real resources of the country - the brain power, the brawn, the raw materials, the factories, the people, livestock, wood, steel - were in no way diminished or depleted, there was a sudden absence of money - a cash flow problem - that forced the whole social system to nearly grind down to a halt. What happened? The nation, and the world itself, found there to be a shortage of the artifacts of wealth. Money is simply a way of measuring wealth, just as inches are a way of measuring length.  But money is not wealth itself, just as inches are not made of wood.  Money is simply the symbol for wealth and all the good things that the wealthy enjoy.

Money, patriotism, love of God and country, romantic love, family relationships are all examples of concepts or symbols with real world referents.  Tomatoes, cattle, bricks, muscles, provisions for the safety of our children, flowers, kisses in the moonlight - these are the real wealth of a nation.  Put another way, wealth to a vending machine is nonsense.  A soft drink is dispensed only after insertion of the proper combination of various sized metal disks - nickels, dimes, and quarters. We must use the proper symbol, or form of the symbol, in order to get our needs met and our appetites satisfied.

However, suppose we could use alternative forms of wealth to barter and trade our way through life.  The costs of doing business can be measured using other symbols, such as energy expended, time spent, the requirements of the persons involved in special tasks, or the costs of  involvement in tasks that take us away from the experiences that we enjoy.  While money is the symbol that may be most salient in our decision making processes, there are many other standards that measure cost that we probably use more often.  By recognizing these standards, we find ourselves to be more able, more capable, and more wealthy than we might otherwise imagine.

One semester a few years back, the United Way in my town wanted to conduct a survey of the homeless and hungry persons in the county in order to better serve that part of the population.  However, the United Way was fresh out of "inches" - it had no research budget or a benevolence grant.  They need some information to justify new projects for the needy and homeless,  but it lay hidden from view for want of a research grant.  One of the Agency people was talking to me one day, asking if there were any research funds around for this purpose.  I responded that, quite simply, there wasn't any need to bother with a grant.   Alternative resources were available and ready to be put to work.

I had a research methodology class full of students eager for on-the-job training. Using the mind power developed in Ph.D. school, I could easily draw up a sampling strategy. Students could take on interviewer and data gatherer roles. They could also serve as data coders, and I could do the computer programming and data analysis. So we did just that - The resulting study appeared in national newsletters, on local media, and in reports to government officials who had the power to move resources around.   Had we stuck to the old paradigm of the dollar costs of social science, the cost of the project would have soared past $25,000, and thus would never have become a reality.  Since that first study, we've expanded the survey to the eight counties in Northeast Ohio and run the survey two more times.

Interestingly, when I started college in 1967, the cost of the study would have been roughly 75% less only in dollars because of inflation (see Figure 4.).  The worth of the information extracted would have been just as valuable. This is neither a sad commentary on American economics nor evidence for trying to amass more money to hedge against inflation.  Folks get pretty bent out of shape about inflation, often using it as an excuse to be more selfish or less kind to their brothers and sisters.  The fact of inflation could simply be a useful tool to help us use money as a handy resource, rather than revere money in and of  itself.


Do we really care that a cheeseburger costs 400% more today than it did in 1964, as long as we ourselves are earning 400% more dollars?  So, we come to the point of all this talk.  What is the purpose of theory?
If the functions are to explain, delimit, describe, and predict events, the purpose has to be to clarify the facts of life so we can use them to live life better.  The purpose of theory in the study of the family is to enlighten people with images of the realities of their life.  Alan Watts quotes Timothy Leary, who said, We must go out of our heads sometimes to come to our senses. This is another way of saying that the answer to our questions, the solution to many social problems might not ever be discovered as long as we depend only on the wisdom we possess in our heads at the moment for answers.  If you've ever been worried sick about some event or impending disaster, and you are here today not worried anymore about whatever it was, you probably understand something important now.  The answer to your former problem could have taken many forms, none of them residing between your ears at the time.  The answers had to come from some place.  Probably someone, a friend, a relative, a stranger, a writer of advice, gave you a little theory to help you redefine the facts.
The Philosophical Dictionary defines theory as the hypothetical universal aspect of anything.
For Plato, it was a contemplated truth (the Ideal).
For Aristotle, it was pure knowledge, as opposed to the practical (an abstraction of practice).
For Karl Marx and Dean Witt (my dad), theory is practice.  Whenever I would whine about things not being the way I wanted them to be, ole Dean would say to me, Hold out your hands, Davy.  Now wish in one hand and spit in the other.  Which hand has the results?.  A person cannot help themselves without taking some kind of action. The right answer - the right action - can be found in theory.  Theory is the principle from which practice proceeds.  Without theory, there can be no improvements, no progress, no helping.

Defining Healthy Family Functioning: If  It Walks Like A Duck, It is Probably a Duck
 Students often come to me to advise them on their major course of study.  I always ask them what they want to do AFTER college.  Sometimes students will answer with some variation of "I want to work with families.", or "I want to help families function better."  This is a noble idea on the face of it. When I question these potential majors of family studies as to their concept of healthy family functioning, quite often they haven't thought about health before.  Most of what we hear, read, and see about family life points out the deficiencies, the troubles, the crises that plague families.  Seems to me we need to formulate exactly what a healthy family would be like before we could help unhealthy families get well.  So, here are some notes on healthy family functioning.

 First of all, to delineate healthy family functioning necessarily implies a series of value judgments.  Healthy itself is a value laden adjective. To find out what the statistical norms are that describe family life, we could observe folks in families and see if normal is healthy. But, obviously, we know that "normal" families may not be "healthy" ones, especially in a culture that promotes racism, sexism, poor nutrition for children, violent movies, individual ownership of lethal weapons, and spends more on cosmetics and pornography than it does on hungry children and the homeless.  Therefore, we cannot rely strictly on statistical profiles to allow a healthy family to emerge from the numbers.

 Neither can we totally ignore a statistical description of family interaction, because most families don't wind up in the therapist's office, or walking the streets in search of a hot meal.  Besides, families are subject to the general guidance of their culture and society, so unless the whole society is sick, families living in tune with  the guidance of the culture should be feeling pretty good about the way things are in their households.  Consequently, we must rely on the experience and judgment of professionals in the field who have outlined healthy functioning for us, while maintaining a certain skepticism about the professionals' hidden agendas.  The values of these professionals, though not always explicitly stated, are necessarily interwoven in their descriptions, delimitations, explanations, and predictions.

Kantor and Lehr (1975) assert that there are three basic homeostatic family ideals, all equally viable structures into which families can be categorized.   A homeostatic ideal is a  bit of General Systems Theory jargon that simply means a way in which a family processes information and develops rules for behaving toward each other.  The reader of their work is struck with their obvious preference for open ideal or open style of communication. Admittedly I advocate open family structures over closed or random ones, too.  But that's my value, and I choose it without the benefit of scientific investigation.  I just like things that are "open" and "free-flowing".  It is a personal preference.

In describing a healthy family system, we should begin with a short description of a social system's structure.  Remember that word "structure".  Bates and Harvey (1975) say that social systems have structures, existing in time and space, consisting of component parts and having internal and external reciprocal functions for the parts of the system, the system itself, and the environment surrounding the system. It is the structure of a social system like the family that allows the transmission of information, goods, and services.

 Theoreticians usually use the gasoline engine analogy to explain the idea of social structure. An engine is a system consisting of pistons, valves, carburetors, and so on (component parts).  Each part of an engine performs specialized tasks (internal functions) for the whole engine. Each part is connected to some other engine part by wires, tubes, air holes and the like (internal functions). The whole engine is connected to some larger structure (i.e., an automobile), which is "connected" to the local highway system.  If we were to diagram a social system - say a family - we would find the family members residing within a family unit, which is nested with other family units on some leafy street in a neighborhood of some city, which is governed by a larger culture.

 The important point here is that the influence of the larger environment (culture and society) often dramatically influences the structural integrity of the system of interest (the family).   Likewise, the influence of many family units on the larger environment can have radical consequences for the culture.  This idea of mutual influence, coupled with Goffman's (1967) suggestion that ... to describe the rules regulating social interaction is to describe social structure ... leads one to suspect that part of family health is subject to factors located well outside the boundary of the family system.  Just think of the lower degree of "health" of families during a national crisis, such as the Viet Nam war, or the polio scare of the 1950's, or during a civil riot.

Having stated these limitations on the autonomy of the family, we can turn to healthy family functioning as determined by family structure.  One particularly enlightening attempt at delineating systemic organizational features compared healthy and violent components of the family (Elbow, Roper and Witt, 1982).  The authors maintain that family structure can become ineffective at three strategic points of interaction:

  1. the organization of the marital relationship,
  2. the nature of interaction and communication patterns within the family, and
  3. the family's relationship with outside others.
The Organization of the Marital Relationship
Healthy marriages are characterized by complementarity (partners cooperate to achieve goals), mutuality (partners share and negotiate goals), and reciprocity (partners support each other's independent aspirations).  Unhealthy ones might appear rigid, with stereotyped gender role expectations. The family system's "... success in dealing with a variety of tasks ... depend(s) upon the ease with which the members can assume various roles as they are needed." (Berrien, 1968).

 Healthy marriages are also ones in which members employ non-authoritarian strategies in the exercise of power (Star, 1980).  The concept of open interaction is based on rational reasoning processes with a "target ideal" set as one of resolution of conflict, allowance of some differences, and cooperation (Kantor & Lehr, 1975; 148-150).  Additionally, the healthy marriage is based on the sharing of parental leadership (Elbow, 1977).

The Structural Nature of Interaction Patterns

 Perhaps the obvious characteristic of a healthy family is the absence of competing family member coalitions, such as parent-child versus some other member.  Non-possessive warmth and affection (what some folk call "unconditional positive regard") between all member-pairs takes the place of destructive member alliances against other members.  "Intrasystem strain is usually the result of incompatible intent between two competing subsystems, each pursuing its own ends simultaneously." (Kantor & Lehr, 1975: 32).

 Not all coalitions are bad for family functioning, however.  The importance of maintaining generational coalitions (parents do the parenting and not the children, for example) is supported by the cultural definition of familial authority (Cantoni, 1981).  Also implied here is the notion of loyalty to family of procreation (one's spouse and children) being greater than loyalty to family of origin (one's siblings, parents, extended kin).

 The concept of closeness without symbiosis also works as a structural rule.  Here, boundary maintenance that differentiates self from others serves to allow one member to feel reasonably close to all others, but not so close as to fear invasion of others into oneself.  Detrimental effects of possessiveness and affection for one member to the exclusion of others is not possible.  Healthy families hold age appropriate expectations for their children (Star, 1980).  Realistic perceptions and expectations by parents of each other and of their children are characteristic of an open family's goal of catering to the needs of each member. Children are expected to perform role behavior consistent with the family's rules (local norms) only when the child achieves required levels of development.  The family's shared normative expectations serve to connect the separate members together (Hill, 1971).  By contrast, violent families often demand behavior in excess of the family member's capabilities, as when children are expected to "rescue" one parent from the abusive
behavior of the other parent (Elbow, Roper, & Witt, 1982).

 Allowance for the development of a distinct self for each member is essential to family
functioning.  Parents are differentiated from their families of origin, having developed a sense of self prior to the establishment of their family of procreation (Framo, 1981).  This implies that the family has respect for, and acceptance of, individual differences instead of the rule of conformity in accordance with the closed family's rigid expectations.  By allowing individual expression, the open family takes advantage of any potential for increasing its requisite variety of experiences and information (e.g.,  the number of experiences the family has encountered).  Thus, with a larger body of information on which to base family rules, the family is less likely to experience morphogenic crisis  (i.e., fly off the handle, explode, self-destruct, find itself in distress).

 When conflict or crisis does occur in the open family, resolution is achieved through talking through the problem (i.e., negotiation,  communication).  Cook's (1973) explanation of family decision making processes illustrates that the healthy family "puts its heads together" instead of relying on avoidance behavior or coercion.  Members are encouraged to be "authentic" in expressing their needs (Kantor & Lehr, 1975).  Family rules demanding such behavior are included in the system.

 Permeability of subsystem boundaries and intersubsystem empathy are essential to healthy families.  While the family system is said to be closed to outsiders unless selective admission is granted (Hill, 1971), maintaining completely closed subsystem boundaries would lead the family members toward an inability to relate to the needs of other members (Thorman, 1980). "Each member is encouraged to feel a personal responsibility toward each of the other members as individuals, and toward the family group as a whole." (Kantor & Lehr, 1975: 127).

 Healthy families invite spontaneity in interactions as opposed to stereotyped interactions found in rigid or closed families (Cantoni, 1981).  By contrast, violent families are over controlled and are unable to simply "play" together.

Communication Patterns

 Communication in healthy families is clear and open. Verbal expression and acceptance of self and others' emotions is the rule (Steinglass, 1967).  Kantor and Lehr  (1975) point out that the open system prefers dialectic argument to acceptance of ideology.  It lets itself in for small crises in the form of heated debates during sessions where family members are "leveling" with each other.  While communication is usually informal, it is no less salient, straightforward or demonstrative for the actors involved.

Family's Relationship with Outside Others

 The open family is affiliative and trusting instead of isolated and suspicious.  Openness extends to the doors, windows, outsider traffic in attempts to incorporate external resources into the family.  In this way, new information and perspectives flow into the family and often serves as "fuel", tapping outside energy sources.  There is a high level of individual and family initiative in community involvement.  Such behavior is seen by the open family as beneficial.  These are only a few characteristics of healthy family structures.  Most of these examples are logical and rational extensions of common sense.  In other words, identifying healthy families is a lot like differentiating species of animals from one another. If it walks like a duck, acts like a duck and quacks like a duck - it's probably a duck.

 Now, in the interest of clarifying things, why don't you try to outline the qualities that healthy families possess according to the notes you've just read.  After that, take a look at your outline and see if you'd take anything away, or add any other qualities requisite of a healthy, functioning family.

 From here on out, we will be summarizing specific theories.  I have organized the notes on each theory using a more or less standardized format.  You should see a chapter number and the name of the theory (i.e., Chapter IV, Talcott Parsons' Structural Functional Theory).  Then you should see the word "Focus:" and a blurb on the general field of interest that the theory claims to explain.  Next there should come a short paragraph dealing with "The Concept of Family to" the theory under discussion.  Somewhere during the discussion you should encounter something like "Basic Assumptions" of the theory, followed by a more in-depth description of the theory at hand.  Look for diagrams and figures along the way, too.

Be sure to ask questions in class if some passage is unclear, and don't forget to go to the library for more information.

Back to Syllabus
Forward to Chapter 4