Family as a System and Systems Theory

Introduction to Systems Theory

It is the interdisciplinary reading of the conceptual organization of happenings, regardless of their essence, type, or spatial or sequential scale of subsistence. It scrutinizes both the standards frequent in all composite entities, and the models (typically mathematical) used to illustrate them. In particular, one can examine and/or explain a collection of objects that work together to generate an outcome using a structure. This might well be a sole organism, any union or society, or perhaps an electro-mechanical or informational object. Origins of the Systems theory dates back to the 1920s. It came into existence as an outcome of the efforts to elucidate the interrelationship amongst organisms in the ecosystems.

The biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy brought systems theory forward and Ross Ashby’s work in the field furthered Bertalanffy’s proposition. Bertalanffy accentuated that real systems are exposed to and intermingle with, their environments, and they can obtain qualitatively new characteristics through materialization, which leads to incessant evolution. Instead of reducing an entity to the characteristics of its constituents or elements (for instance, the human body to organs or cells), the systems theory concentrates on the understanding of the associations between the components, which bond them into a whole about the concept of holism. This specific organization establishes a system, which is free of the materialistic substance of the constituents (for example, particles, cells, transistors, people, etc). Thus, the unchanged perceptions and doctrines of organization highlight the various disciplines (physics, biology, technology, sociology, etc.), providing a foundation for their amalgamation. Systems concepts incorporate system-environment boundary, input, output, process, state, hierarchy, goal-directedness, and information. The scope of Systems theory expands into various diverse fields including engineering, computing, ecology, management, and family psychotherapy. Systems analysis, developed in parallel to the systems theory, makes use of systems ideologies to assist decision-makers to deal with the problems of recognizing, restructuring, optimizing and calculating a system (generally a socio-technical association) while considering several goals, limitations, and resources. It intends to stipulate feasible courses of action, along with their risks, costs, and benefits. (Leeder, 2003)

Family Systems Theory

The roots of the Family systems theory lie in the works of Ludwig Von Bertalanffy on general systems theory, which provided the world with an alternative perspective of science. As an alternative to the mechanistic models of the time, the general systems theory brought out the argument that organisms are composite, ordered, and interactive. This approach moved away from a linear causal model to models that necessitated a more liberal, holistic course to facilitate the overall perceptive of the dynamics involved. By the end of the twentieth century, family systems theory acquired the status of one of the key theoretical fundamentals, which ensured smooth progress of experimental investigations into the learning of families and from which clinical involvement and programmatic effort with families were being formulated.

A general systems outlook observes the structure in which constituents of a system interrelate with each another as a whole. Instead of just riveting on every single separate part, a systems viewpoint concentrates on the connectedness and the interrelationships and mutuality of the entire entity. It allows one to observe how an alteration in an element of the system influences the other factors of the system, which sequentially affects the original element. The exploitation of the systems approach has scrupulous significance to the study of the family as they consist of individual affiliates who have a historical association, exhibit levels of emotional linkage, and develop tactics to fulfill the requirements of each member and the family as a set. Family systems theory facilitates the understanding of the organizational intricacies of families, in addition to the interactive practices that channel into family communications. (Hanson, 2003)

Fundamentals of the Family Systems Theory

One of the most fundamental assertions of family systems theory is that family systems systematize themselves to accomplish the everyday challenges and run errands, in addition to regulating activities to cater to the developmental requirements of its members. The notion of holism forms the basis of this approach. A family systems approach contends that to comprehend a family system it is vital that one views the entire family as a single entity. On the contrary, a non-systems approach strives to comprehend every family by examining each member independently. By examining them in isolation, the means of their interaction, communication, or individuality is gone or is possibly blurred. As opposed to “who constitutes a family,” the question of how they interact explains the perception of the family altogether.

The notion of hierarchies depicts how families arrange themselves into an assortment of subsystems that in concert form the entire family system. These subsystems are normally ordered by sexual category or generation. Practitioners largely pay attention to three major subsystems: marital, parental, and sibling. Every subsystem is differentiated by the individuals who constitute the subsystem along with the responsibilities of the subsystem. When the elements or responsibilities related to a subsystem are clouded by those of supplementary subsystems, it has been observed that families have trouble. For instance, when offspring are tangled in the marital subsystem issues, complexities, which require interference, crop up. (Solomon, 2006)

Associated with the perception of holism and hierarchies is the concept of boundaries. Families create a distinction between the internal and external factors of the system. Boundaries arise at all levels of the system. They control the in and outflow of the system. Boundaries normalize the flow of inward and outward information of a family.

The degree of permeability of these boundaries varies from one family to the other. Practitioners working with families frequently come across families where they are well received into the family and information about the family is easily accessible. In these cases, the practitioner’s thoughts and involvements are generally well accepted with minor constraints. Conversely, in reserved families, practitioners face difficulties in being acknowledged by the family. Obtaining information becomes a complicated task and thoughts and perceptions of the practitioner are met with opposition. It is also imperative to be aware of the internal boundaries of a family system and discern the assorted subsystems that form the family system. Lastly, the permeability of such boundaries is observed to be dependent on the time as well as needs of its members.

The conception of interdependence is inherent to the organizational character of family systems. Each member and the subsystems that make up the family system are reciprocally acted and are mutually reliant upon one another. The actions and experiences of one member have an impact on the other family members as well. Clinicians realize that to work efficiently with families it is essential to reflect on the systemic influence of any intervention. (Leeder, 2003)

A second essential principle in family systems theory is that families are dynamic in character and exhibit outlines of regulations and approaches that administer their interactions. The dynamic quality of the family helps to make certain that the family can stand up to challenges related to day-to-day livelihood and fulfill the developmental needs of the members. The perception of equilibrium elucidates how families endeavor to strike a balance between the challenges and the wherewithal of the family or homeostasis. Families are continually adjusting, changing, or reacting to daily proceedings in addition to more chronic developmental confrontations and modifications. In cases where such balance is not instituted, the dynamics of the family are required to be attuned to reinstate this balance. The conception of morphostasis denotes the capacity of the family system to preserve uniformity in its organizational distinctiveness notwithstanding the challenges that arise over time. Models of interaction materialize within the family that regulates demands for transformation. Quite the opposite, the notion of morphogenesis concerns the systems’ capacity to develop systemically eventually to acclimatize with the varying requirements of the family. In all families, the constant dynamic pressure of upholding stability and bringing in change is observed. (Chibucos, 2004)

The theory of feedback loops is utilized to explain the prototypes or channels of dealings and communication that aids drift towards morphogenesis or morphostasis. Negative feedback loops are the forms of interaction that preserve steadiness or constancy while curtailing change. These help to reach a phase of homeostasis. Positive feedback loops, on the contrary, are forms of interaction that ease alteration or shift towards either development or dissolution. Even though the terms negative and positive are applied within systems theory, it is not intended to typify the interaction as good or bad. No ethical worth is implied by the labels. For instance, in the Smith family, the father chooses to go back to school part-time to finish his schooling as their youngest kid is now preschool age. Negative feedback loops are linked with forms of relations and communication that ensure the family system functions the same way as it presently does. The members of the family may carry on expecting that the execution of the household chores and the availableness of the father would remain the same, notwithstanding the detail that the father has supplementary engagements at school. For instance, the father may be anticipated to exhibit unchanged levels of availability for his children as well as his spouse. On the other hand, positive feedback loops refer to patterns of relations and communication that materialize because of the necessity for change related to the father’s schooling engagements. The family may arrive at conformity that the father should not be bothered at certain hours of the day, which facilitates his study. Or else, days of the week can be divided into family time and studying time to devote time to both. (Chibucos, 2004)

As composite interactive systems, it is observed that families tend to be goal-oriented. Families try hard to achieve definite aims and goals. Through forms of interactions, such as negative and positive feedback loops, the accomplishment of the objectives becomes essentially attainable. The notion of equifinality concerns the capability of the family system to realize the same goals using varied routes. Equifinality suggests that the same start can bring about varied outcomes and that in effect it may be accomplished through several paths. For instance, the Ryan family has the aspiration of having all children educated at a college. Academic scholarships are viewed as the prime means of making a college education available for children. Consequently, the family may systematize itself to cultivate academic merit among the children by concentrating on training and offering demanding educational openings that drive the children towards excellence. As a second option, the family may stress on developing the athletic proficiency of the children, which would present a special opportunity into the educational world. Alternatively, one or both the parents could toil additional hours or work on additional jobs to raise the funds required for the college education. Families may well make use of one or more of these schemes to attain the same objective. (Solomon, 2006)


Family systems theory exerts a momentous influence on the study of families and on methods of working with families. It has steered investigation into areas like comprehending distressing events or long-term health concerns and their effect on families and its members, substance maltreatment intervention and treatment modes, and relationship networks. It continues to offer a valuable lens using which a superior perspective of families has surfaced.

In due course of time, modifications of the family systems have emerged. The communications model concentrates on the communication practices observed within family systems, particularly on the function of inputs and outputs in communication and the uniformity among these in elucidating family communication forms in functional and dysfunctional cases. This model was profoundly shaped by the works of Gregory Bateson, Don Jackson, and Paul Watzlawik along with others at the Mental Research Institute situated in Palo Alto. (Leeder, 2003) On the other hand, Salvador Minuchin’s works on family systems theory revolved around the spatial character of families. Fundamental to this course is an assessment of the societal frameworks and formations in which families are oriented. It also includes their dealings with those circumstances and arrangements. In a dissimilar perspective, family systems theory researches are being carried out to reflect on and incorporate the progressively more significant aspects that genetics and neurobiological structures have on behavior patterns and individual persona. Various studies are also being performed to contemplate cultural and related issues that have their impact on families. The incorporation of family systems theory into the medical field, the researches of cultural and racial distinctions, and various other broader systems is evidence of its persistent effectiveness. (Solomon, 2006)


Hanson, Barbara; 2003; Systems theory and the spirit of feminism: grounds for a connection; Systems Research and Behavioral Science; 18, 6, 545-556; Atkinson College, York University, North York, Ontario, Canada

Solomon, Judith & Carol George; 2006; Defining the caregiving system: Toward a theory of caregiving; Infant Mental Health Journal; 17, 3, 183-197; Center for the Family in Transition, Corte Madera, California; Mills College, Oakland, California

Chibucos, Thomas R. Randall W. Leite, David L. Weis; 2004; Readings in Family Theory; SAGE

Leeder, Elaine J; 2003; The Family in Global Perspective: A Gendered Journey; SAGE