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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

Bowen Systems Theory: Is it Valid?

Discussing the Leadership in Ministry workshop’s focus on Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST), a friend asked where the theory fell in the divide between subjective and objective. “In other words,” he asked, “is it a valid theory?” It was an exciting question that led to some stimulating conversation.

The question is valid and vital. If BFST is to serve as a resource for a theory of practice for ministry, leadership, and relationships, it’s worth knowing if it merits putting one’s confidence in. Is it a bona fide theory, a notion, an ideology, a framework upon which to hang concepts, doctrinaire, symbolic, or merely a common sense perspective?

I would put BFST more on the subjective-interpretive side of an equation. While some proponents of BFST claim it to be “scientific,” it is not, technically speaking, in the sense of the traditional “scientific inquiry method.”

The “science” that it depends on is from the “soft” sciences: clinical psychology, psychotherapy, sociology, anthropology, biology, neuropsychology, etc.

The claim that the theory is grounded in the “biological” sciences must be tempered because while it tries to stay close to the “observable facts” of living systems, it must make some imaginative, interpretive leaps at points. This is not to denigrate it nor to discount its validity; all theories of necessity must do so—even “scientific” ones.

With BFST, we’re dealing with one additional wild card: human beings who have free will, the capacity for being self-determinative, can exert agency, and whose life circumstances have too many variables to anticipate or fit much into a category of “normative.”

If there’s one thing we can say for sure about human individuals and the systems in which they exist, they will always surprise you no matter how many “rules” or “principles” you come up with to explain their behavior and motives. Such is the reality of the “emotional process” and human relationships.

As to my friend’s question, “Is it valid?” here are the things I think make a theory “valid”:

Given that list as the criterion, BFST is a valid theory. I don’t think it needs to be “more scientific” to give it validity.

~Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA.

Dr. G. & Friends