While the pioneering concepts of Bowen and Minuchin still guide powerful and effective ways to work in Family Therapy, they rely on the expert knowledge of a therapist who designs a treatment plan and knows the goal of the therapy. The description of a family therapist’s perspective has recently expanded to include therapies that are focused on language and meaning delivered by therapists who do not consider themselves as experts on the family, or as separate from the family system.
Family therapies that evolved after World War II, began to see problems as arising from the system an individual was part of (interpersonal) rather than from internal problems that developed from an early age within the individual (intrapersonal). A “family system” was defined as the related group of persons being treated and the therapist, or therapist and supervisor, were seen as a separate “treating system”. The family system was to be viewed objectively and interventions were designed to impact that system to promote and support change. This traditional position which included Bowen and Minuchin was referred to as “first order family therapy”. A major shift occurred when the therapist system and the family system became seen as both existing within one system. The therapist was no longer the separate, objective source of knowledge about the family but a part of a system in which all members were vulnerable to change. This was referred to as “second order” family therapy.
The work of the early Milan Systemic group represented an expansion of Strategic Therapy (first order therapy) that included hypothesizing about the function of the symptom, positive connotation of the problem and restraint from changing too quickly. These therapists remained in the role of a “treating system”. Treatment was highly innovative, frequently employed outrageous paradoxical interventions, and was highly successful in producing change. Remarkably, Luigi Boscolo and Gianfranco Cecchin, two members of the original team, initiated a paradigm shift when they broke away from the group in the early 1980s. They implemented the philosophical ideas of Gregory Bateson and moved into a “second order” therapy position. Bateson’s idea that information is defined as “news of difference” was the basis of their revision of the Milan Systemic therapy. New information is found in relationship differences and this information is produced through a series of recursive questions which are co-evolved by the therapists and the clients. The information itself influences change and this therapy of questioning replaces the highly strategic, interventive methods. In this method the therapist takes a partnership role, emphasizing genuine curiosity and co-constructing the direction of the therapy. There is no initial assessment by the “expert” system, the clinician. Neither is there a pre-planned treatment map. Bateson’s notion that “news of difference” is the fundamental building block of change became popularized within parts of the family therapy community and dominated the “cutting edge” of our field for over a decade.
This was also a time when other ideas from other countries were also
circulating. Ideas about language from Ludwig von Wittgenstein, ideas about power from Michel Foucault, about culture from Clifford Geertz, about deconstruction from Jacques Derridas. Different constellations of these ideas were joined with Bateson’s contribution and basically these combinations of ideas underlie the more recent models that have come to be called, “post-modern” or “post structural” therapy. Through his early writing it can be seen that Steve deShazer found Wittgenstein’s writing about the role of language and meaning compatible with Bateson’s ideas. The resulting method that he initiated was “Solution-Focused” Therapy. Michael White’s early writing demonstrates his foundation with Bateson’s ideas and his move toward the development of “Narrative” Therapy as he added the influence of Foucault, (power) Geertz (culture) and Derridas (deconstruction). Harry Goolishian of the Houston-Galveston Institute combined Bateson with influences from the cognitive biology of Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela. This merged with his strong background in hermeneutics and the emerging social construction writings of Gergen and Shotter to develop the “Collaborative Language Systems”. Each of these methods has adopted a unique combination of the currently circulating ideas and developed a unique method of treatment. While there are significant differences between them, there are some collective similarities. They share a view of clients that has shifted from a pathologizing description and tend to see their clients as having strengths and resources. They have changed the focus of therapy talk from rehashing the past to paying attention to what people want in the future. They do this conversationally by asking questions about what people want. Generally, they see people as having greater potential for creating the lives that they would prefer to live.
We have been tracking the development of these more recent models of therapy and have documented the work of much of what has been unfolding. We offer clinical sessions within Milan Systemic, Solution-Focused, Narrative and Collaborative Language Systems and we have many of the sessions presented with the pioneers who have been bringing forth these models. We also offer a “conversations” series that conducts interviews with many of the people who have been writing the seminal work in Social Construction. We invite you to look over the body of work that we have documented on this website. The collection is a work in progress and is in the process of growing in a parallel process with the field of family therapy. We welcome comments and suggestions from you.