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Last edit of this page 24/04/2011

Family systems theory

I retrieved these Brief Lecture Notes of Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Psychology University of Wisconsin, on 15/01/09 for readers in rural and remote Canada and Australia who often suffer poor internet connections.

Dr. Marlowe Embree’s collected lecture notes were here and other resources of this clear and diverse thinker.

A social system is any group of persons who share a common identity. Some systems interact regularly with one another (families) while others may never have met each other at all (the collection of persons who enjoy reading Civil War history), but if each person in the group thinks of her/himself as in some way "belonging" to the group (defines her/himself by using the system as a reference group), then the group qualifies as a system.

Systems are defined by the boundaries that separate those who are in the system from those who are outside of the system. Boundaries may sometimes be literal and physical (a fence that separates two nation-states at the geographic border between them, preventing nonresidents from entering the country), but usually they are psychological in nature, having to do with entry and exit requirements. Take this class as an example. To enter the system (become a part of the class), you must be admitted as a UWMC student, must pay your tuition, must sign up for and be accepted into this specific class, must attend during the first week (else you will be dropped administratively from the class roster), and so forth. To exit the system, you must fill out an official drop form prior to the last scheduled drop date; otherwise, you remain a member (whether you like it or not) until the class officially disbands at the end of the final exam.

From this example we see that some boundaries are more permeable than others. In other words, some systems are easy to enter (and/or leave) while others are very difficult to enter (and/or leave). More on that -- along with some examples -- below. Note that boundaries may not be equally permeable in both directions, and also that the permeability of system boundaries can change over time. For instance, at the start of the semester, it is more difficult to enter this class than it is to leave it. But once the drop deadline passes, the exit boundary becomes almost completely impermeable; you can't get out of the class except through death or, perhaps, petitioning the UW Regents. (You can stop coming to class, but that doesn't mean you're no longer part of the system; it simply means you are an absent, inactive member of the system.)

Systems can be classified in terms of the permeability of two kinds of boundaries: external boundaries (those that lie between the system and the outside world, between "insiders" and "outsiders"), and internal boundaries (those that separate one person from another within the system). For an example of an internal boundary, think of the degree of privacy a family member may have within his or her own home. A teenager who insists to her parents, "This is my room!" is attempting to reduce the permeability of an internal boundary -- to establish and defend some "personal space" within the confines of the family system.

With these concepts in mind, we can start classifying systems into four distinct types, by means of two independent (or so-called orthogonal, which is a fancy statistical way of saying "independent") dimensions. Yes, once again, we have a 2 x 2 or "quadrant" classification system -- of which we've had many, and will have many more.

The first dimension has to do with the permeability of external system boundaries -- those that separate "insiders" from "outsiders". Systems with highly permeable external boundaries are said to be open; it's easy to enter or exit the system. (For purposes of simplicity, let's assume that permeability is roughly the same in both directions, though often it's not; "you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave".) In contrast, systems with highly impermeable external boundaries are said to be closed; it's difficult (or impossible) to enter or exit the system.

Let's consider some extreme examples. The collection of people who regularly ride the Route A city bus is a very open system. It's easy to enter the system -- if you have 75 cents (or whatever the fare is these days, it's been awhile since I've ridden the bus), you can enter the system, and leaving is even easier -- just pull the cord and get off. As a result, the membership of this system tends to be very fluid -- constantly changing. Yet, there are some people who have been members of the system (have ridden the same bus) for decades; and these probably tend to start defining themselves as "regulars" (chronic or semi-permanent members of the system). They probably get to know one another and begin to build relationships (at least of a superficial sort), which is evidence that there really is a system. While the boundaries are very open, they do exist; this is not a mere random collection of persons, but a true (though weak and not very influential) social system.

In contrast, the United States Supreme Court is a very closed system. It's extremely difficult to enter the system -- only nine persons are allowed to belong at any given time, very narrowly specified credentials are required even to be considered for a vacancy, and a very arduous screening process is used to qualify applicants. (I don't expect ever to become a member.) Once on the court, a member is usually a member for life (or until very old age, at which point there may be a voluntary retirement). Hence the membership of this system tends to be highly crystallized -- changes only very slowly, thus tending to lag behind changes in the social attitudes of the society it is intended to represent; changes are epochal, highly salient, a major watershed. Those within in the system are extremely likely to define themselves in terms of their membership and to know each other intimately; this is a very strong and powerful social system.

From this we see that social systems differ in the extent to which they are central to people's sense of self or their role definition. Try coming up with 10 answers to the question, "Who are you?" The answers you come up with are, most likely, those that are central to your sense of self (I am a husband, I am a college professor, I am a Christian); omitted from your list, probably, are items that are just as true of you but more peripheral to your self-definition (I am a grey-haired man, I am a person with Type A blood, I am a native speaker of English). All things being equal, those social systems which members view as central to their sense of self are more likely to be the more closed systems to which they belong, as well as being those which they personally chose to join or those which they had to work to join (that is, achieved as opposed to ascribed social roles). One reason the fact that I am a grey-haired man is not central to my sense of self is that I didn't choose it (ascribed role); in fact I sometimes try to avoid it by the use of various artificial hair coloring products that don't work all that well and are obvious to even the most casual observer. But my academic role is central to me because I selected it for myself and worked hard to obtain it (achieved role).

Note also that social systems (and increasingly so as they become more and more closed, and/or more and more central) tend to differentiate insiders from outsiders by the adoption of unique "insider" customs, rituals, traditions, and language. These help insiders to spot those who are, like them, "in". Generational language is a good example: if a desirable experience is "spiffy", you belong to one generational cohort, but if it is "phat", you belong to another. Occupation-specific jargon is another example: a "cookie" means one thing to a Web developer, quite another to a baker.

The second dimension has to do with the permeability of internal system boundaries -- those between one "insider" and another within the system. Systems with highly permeable internal boundaries are said to be enmeshed: there is very little privacy within the system, everyone is highly involved with others' "business", and independent action within the system is difficult or impossible (anything one member does sends "ripple effects" throughout the entire system). In contrast, systems with highly impermeable internal boundaries are said to be disengaged: members lead highly separate, distinct, private lives within the confines of the system, no one is really involved with other system members, and independent action within the system is the order of the day (no one is really paying attention to anyone else, which is liberating but also lonely).

In our society at least, personal systems (groups of friends, for instance) tend to be more enmeshed, while impersonal systems (those that exist for a purely economic purpose) tend to be more disengaged. This is gradually changing, however, for a variety of reasons too complex to examine here: for instance, many people's closest friends are now often drawn from the circle of their co-workers.

It's also interesting to consider the impact of the information revolution (that is, Bill Gates) on how systems work in our culture. One of the impacts, for better or worse, of the Internet is that the power of propinquity has somewhat been diminished. Propinquity means "geographic closeness" or "nearness": prior to the information age, people usually had little choice but to select friends and intimates from among the circle of those who lived and worked nearby (how else could you meet?). However, in the Internet age, it's much easier than it's ever been before to find groups of like-minded people who may live half a world away but who share similar interests, experiences, perspectives, or values. This has led to some paradoxical distortions in how people relate to one another which again, unfortunately, would take me too far afield to elaborate: people share more freely with those they know only through the medium of the Internet, partly because they are (or think they are) more anonymous. Hence these kinds of social systems tend to be more enmeshed in one way, more disengaged in another... wreaking havoc with the dimension above.

At any rate, we can classify most social systems as falling into one of the four quadrants defined by the two dimensions above:

* Open, disengaged systems -- the Route A city bus riders. (Easy to enter/exit the system, and most riders don't pay much attention to or interact much with their fellow riders.)
* Open, enmeshed systems -- a local political action group. (Easy to enter/exit the system since membership is purely voluntary, but while you're in the system, you act as a group and become strongly involved with one another, impacting each other's activities.)
* Closed, disengaged systems -- fellow inmates at a maximum security prison, where everyone is kept in solitary confinement. (Hard to enter/exit the system, and each person lives a life of total isolation, defining her/himself in terms of a system of persons s/he has never met.)
* Closed, enmeshed systems -- the Supreme Court. (Hard to enter/exit the system, and what any one justice does has a profound and inescapable impact on the other judges.)

Thinking of your own family of origin (the one within which you were raised as a child), and remembering that the two dimensions above are actually continuous (middle-of-the road scores are possible) rather than strictly dichotomous, in which quadrant do you think your family falls? How about your family of generativity (the one within which you are a head of household)? While there's no clearly better or worse configuration overall, extremes on any of the dimensions above tend to become less adaptive (liabilities begin to outweigh the assets):

* Excessively open family systems tend to feel insecure for child members, since the family is not doing its job of being a sufficient buffer between the child and the world. Wider macrocultural influences (including potentially destructive influences) are not sufficiently filtered out by the system boundary; children are exposed to "too much, too soon" and are not sheltered sufficiently. They may also feel uncared for because if it is so easy to leave the system, the child may feel "not particularly special" -- "Mom and Dad don't seem to care if I'm part of the family or not".
* Excessively closed family systems tend to feel trapping or confining for child members, since the family is working too hard to keep the outer world at bay. The child may be overly sheltered or kept from knowing anything about the outer world, or may be actively discouraged from exploring ideas and influences that do not have the sanction of the family microculture. Children are exposed to "too little, too late". The system may have or encourage "family secrets".
* Excessively enmeshed family systems make it difficult for children to develop any autonomy, individuality, or privacy. Everything is "everyone else's business", and family members "stick their nose in" where it isn't wanted or needed, wanting to know everything (too much?) about what each member is doing, feeling, thinking, considering. No action of any member is considered trivial; everything is invested with deep significance or "hidden meaning", and sends ripple effects or feedback effects throughout the system. Indirect communication (triangulated messages) may be frequent as members "talk behind each other's back".
* Excessively disengaged family systems promote such a high degree of autonomy, individuality, and privacy that children may feel completely left to their own devices, or may feel very alone and isolated ("we all live in the same house, but nobody ever talks to me"). Members may lead generally separate lives and may end up talking only about trivial, surface, or superficial matters. There is minimal emotional involvement and little bonding or affirmation.

Clearly the optimal configuration is closer to the midpoint of both dimensions, where there is a moderate degree of permeability in both external and internal system boundaries. External boundaries are impermeable enough to be protective, permeable enough to allow access to culturally diverse inputs and experiences. Internal boundaries are impermeable enough to permit some freedom and privacy, permeable enough to permit some interactivity, bonding, caring, and sharing.

Some tentative links to other concepts explored elsewhere in this course and this Web site:

* The Big Five model of personality: The permeability of external boundaries is (probably) largely a matter of dimensions O and, to a lesser extent, C; O+ (and especially O+ C-) parents tend to create open family systems for their children, while O- (and especially O- C+) parents tend to create closed family systems for their children. The permeability of internal boundaries is (probably) largely a matter of dimensions E and, to a lesser extent, A; E+ (and especially E+ A+) parents tend to create enmeshed family systems for their children, while E- (and especially E- A-) parents tend to create disengaged family systems for their children. Dimension N probably mediates all of the above in terms of how the system handles stress; under stress, common patterns tend to become more extreme.
* The generational model of history: As noted on the hyperlinked page, Reactive and, to a lesser extent, Civic parents tend to be more overprotective of their children (more closed systems), while Adaptive and, to a lesser extent, Idealist parents tend to be more underprotective of their children (more open systems). Since each generation probably seeks to correct the mistakes of the previous generation in raising the following generation, the cycle persists (over- and underprotective styles of child rearing tend to alternate over each 80-year cycle). With less certainty, we might predict that Idealist and Reactive parents would tend to generate more disengaged systems, while Civic and Adaptive parents would tend to generate more enmeshed systems.

Models of parenting

An influential model of parenting styles is that of Diana Baumrind, who classifies parents along two dimensions:

* Warmth: How emotionally involved (in terms of caring, closeness, affirmation, emotional self-expression) parents are with their children;
* Control: How many limits parents set on their children (in terms of discipline, rules, accountability within the family system).

Again (no surprise) we end up with a 2 x 2 system of four quadrants:

* Authoritative parents are high Warmth, high Control (both love and limits)
* Authoritarian parents are low Warmth, high Control (limits but no love)
* Permissive parents are high Warmth, low Control (love but no limits)
* Indifferent or Uninvolved parents are low Warmth, low Control (don't really seem to interact with the child at all, either by way of love or limits)

Links between this model and material above, as well as with previous lecture material on attachment and on Erikson's model of socioemotional development, should be obvious... I hope.

Baumrind argues forcefully that children of Authoritative parents fare far better than those raised by parents of other types. While her model has some biases (cultural and otherwise) and is partially confounded with some of the variables above, she has garnered some impressive empirical support for her point of view (which unfortunately may hold true only for some, not all, generational cohorts since she has probably not paid sufficient attention to that class of variables). She argues that children of overly Authoritarian parents tend to become overcontrolled (rigid, repressed, turning frustration inward) while children of overly Permissive parents tend to become undercontrolled (irresponsible, acting out, turning frustrating outward).

We'll revisit this distinction in the last unit of the course, when we talk specifically about childhood pathology. One well known study that examines Baumrind's model looks at responses to peer pressure among middle-schoolers, with the children categorized as having been raised by either Authoritative, Authoritarian, or Permissive parents. (Many of these studies ignore -- or can't locate any -- children of Indifferent parents, for the same reason that studies using the Ainsworth paradigm often ignore or can't identify any children with the type D attachment pattern.) The tendency of children to cave into negative peer pressure (to engage in behavior that adult authority figures would proscribe or dislike) was measured in two settings: (1) adult authority (teacher) present, (2) adult authority absent (children were viewed through a one-way mirror apparatus). Results (with higher scores = more socially deviant behavior, or in other words, more compliance with negative peer pressure) are illustrated on the graph below:

Can you see what the graph means? (Hopefully you can!) Children of Authoritative parents resist peer pressure in all situations; those of Permissive parents cave into peer pressure in all situations; those of Authoritarian parents behave in a situationally dependent way (defer to the highest authority present, whether adult or peer).

Again, as noted in the material on generational cohorts, it's likely that Permissive parenting styles reach their peak when parents are Idealists (children are Reactives), while Authoritarian parenting styles reach their peak when parents are Civics (children are Adaptives). Whether the proportion of Authoritative parents shifts from one generation to another is debatable, but parenting "mistakes" tend to be of opposite types from one generation to the next.

Birth order

The influence of birth order on personality is a hotly debated topic. Some psychologists firmly believe that birth order effects are real and pronounced; others just as firmly believe them to be illusory and largely a cultural myth. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but following are some of the expected birth order effects which proponents, at least, believe exist, using the Big Five model as a backdrop. Of course this is mediated by -- sometimes confounded with -- generational cohort effects; we would expect the results below to be most pronounced when both birth order and generational cohort variables point in the same direction. In larger families or in those with longer gaps between children, siblings may not belong to the same generational cohort (for instance, I'm an Idealist but my brother, born six years later, is an early-stage Reactive).

* Earlier borns tend to be more E-, later borns more E+. Presumably what mediates this is the presence or absence of near-age siblings with whom one can (and must) learn to interact. Obviously, firstborn children spend at least some of their formative years by themselves (no siblings) and must learn to "amuse themselves" or become more self-reliant to some extent; laterborns never experience being the "only" child and must learn to interact, negotiate, get along with others.
* Earlier borns tend to be more C+, later borns more C-. Presumably this is because (especially in "responsibility driven", that is, Civic and Adaptive, eras) older children are given the responsibility of being "surrogate parents" or "secondary authority figures" for their younger siblings, while younger children (especially in "freedom driven", that is, Idealist and Reactive, eras) are treated as "babies" for a long period of time.
* Earlier borns tend to be more N+, later borns more N-. Presumably this is because parents are growing and changing too, becoming less "uptight" and more relaxed with the birth of each succeeding child, and also because firstborns often are clothed with a mantle of parental expectations that later children do not experience.
* Few effects are seen for dimensions O and A, though older children may be slightly more conservative (O-) and slightly more compliant (A+) on average; these are weak trends, however.
* A slight (though much disputed in the literature) effect on intelligence can also be noted. Older children tend to be slightly more intelligent or at least slightly more "academic". Some of this effect is due to differences in dimension C (C+ children tend to be overachievers, C- to be underachievers), but some is also likely due to the "mean intellectual level" of the family: if we average the "mental age" (hence the level of intellectual stimulation) of the family, obviously with the addition of each new young child the mean age of the family drops. Hence earlier borns (who interact primarily with adults, that is, their parents) receive more intellectual stimulation than later borns (who interact primarily with peers, that is, siblings). Also, parents have more time and perhaps more energy and inclination to provide intellectual stimulation to earlier borns.

The research of Teman suggests that birth order may significantly interact the choice of intimate (marital) partners in adulthood as well as self-rated satisfaction with intimate adult relationships. To see what he's saying, we need to first develop a working vocabulary. Teman studied adult couples who fit certain defined characteristics, for the sake of clarity:

* Each adult was either the oldest or the youngest sibling in her/his family of origin. Only children and middle children were excluded from the study. Presumably only children would show patterns similar to those of firstborns, while middle children would show patterns in between those of first and last borns, but Teman did not specifically study this question.
* Each adult had, in her/his family of origin, siblings who were all of one gender: all brothers or all sisters, but not both. Those who had both brothers and sisters were excluded from the study, but would probably show patterns in between the two extremes.

Thus (since each adult was either male or female) Teman ended up with eight types of subjects in his study:

* OBB = older brother of brothers (a firstborn male whose siblings were male)
* OBS = older brother of sisters (a firstborn male whose siblings were female)
* OSB = older sister of brothers (a firstborn female whose siblings were male)
* OSS = older sister of sisters (a firstborn female whose siblings were female)
* YBB = younger brother of brothers (a lastborn male whose siblings were male)
* YBS = younger brother of sisters (a lastborn male whose siblings were female)
* YSB = younger sister of brothers (a lastborn female whose siblings were male)
* YSS = younger sister of sisters (a lastborn female whose siblings were female)

Thus, 8 x 8 = 64 distinct couple types were studied (e.g., an OBB married to a YSB, and so forth), but these can be collapsed into six distinct types:

* Couples with opposite birth orders, both of whom had opposite-sex siblings (example: OBS married to YSB)
* Couples with opposite birth orders, only one of whom had opposite-sex siblings (example: OBB married to YSB)
* Couples with opposite birth orders, neither of whom had opposite-sex siblings (example: YBB married to OSS)
* Couples with identical birth orders, both of whom had opposite-sex siblings (example: YBS married to YSB)
* Couples with identical birth orders, only one of whom had opposite-sex siblings (example: OBS married to OSS)
* Couples with identical birth orders, neither of whom had opposite-sex siblings (example: YBB married to YSS)

Teman had each subject rate his or her level of satisfaction with the marriage, and averaged the two ratings for each couple to yield a composite index of relationship satisfaction. Results were as follows:

Persons married to someone of opposite birth order (first with last) indicated higher relationship satisfaction than those married to someone of identical birth order (first with first or last with last). This is probably due to the fact that, as children, each adult learns a pattern of responding to others (peers) that transfers to adult relationships; there is a "parent" and a "child" role, and the best marriages have one of each. (Two "parents" are always vying for control, two "children" neither want to grow up.) And having experience with opposite-sex siblings probably enhances the likelihood that a person will have learned how to relate productively to members of the opposite sex. Of course, these are statistical trends only (any marriage can be happy) but are suggestive.

Hence, the happiest marriages overall (in the aggregate) are the OBS-YSB ("traditional" marriage) and the YBS-OSB ("inverted" marriage), though in the latter case the (sometimes necessarily overresponsible or "caretaker") wife may feel frustrated that her YSB husband "never quite grows up". To an appreciable extent, however, Teman's results (which are cross-sectional only) are confounded with generational cohorts and would likely hold true during historical cycles in which defined and distinct sex roles are at their peak (Civic and Adaptive generations), and would tend to be less true during more egalitarian or androgynous phases of the cycle (Idealist and Reactive generations). During these latter phases, birth order effects should be less pronounced or even possibly, at the very peak of the cycle, slightly inverted (YBS-YSB marriages are probably the most strictly egalitarian, with no one in charge... and no one wanting to be).

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