“Yes, but 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 interesting question that led to some stimulating conversation.
The question is valid and important. 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. Is it a bona fide theory, merely a notion, an ideology, a framework upon which to hang concepts, doctrinaire, metaphorical, or merely a common sense perspective?
Personally, 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 so, technically speaking, nor in the sense of 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 by the fact that while it tries to stay close to the “observable facts” of living systems it must yet 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, have the capacity for being self-determinative, have the capacity to 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 certain about human individuals and the systems in which they exist, it is that 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 “emotional process” and human relationships.
As to my friend’s question, “is it valid?” here are the things I think make a theory “valid”:
- It is internally consistent and does not contradict itself
- It is comprehensive: explains all phenomenon in its area of focus and concern
- It is universally applicable to all objects of its concern (to all organic systems, to all relationship systems, etc.)
- It is disprovable (it is honest, based on observable facts, and not akin to “magical thinking” or an ideology).
Given that list as criteria, BFST is a valid theory. I don’t think there’s a need to make it “more scientific” than it is to give it validity.
The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops as part of its Pastoral Excellence Program. The workshops are offered at four locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, and Lost City WV. These theory-based, peer-learning experience workshops challenge congregational and organizational leaders toward personal and professional growth.