The early pioneers of family therapy emphasized the importance of research to improve practice and it was under its guise that practitioners justified breaking the sanctity of the therapy room and introduced observers and the one-way screen. Early work aimed to identify general scientific laws to explain the functioning of families and the presence of symptoms with the understanding that human problems were interpersonal rather than intrapersonal. Postmodernist systemic family therapists and constructivists challenged this approach and adopted a largely atheoretical approach which reached its most extreme version in De Shazer who claimed that nothing beyond the therapy room could help understanding of the client. Research based knowledge was either rejected or viewed irrelevant as a source of information to guide therapy. A fracture appeared between the two schools of thought.
What are the Implications for the Field?
Lorås, L., Whittaker, K., Stokkebekk, J., & Tilden, T. (2023) warn that cultivation of this difference runs the risk of becoming just as orthodox as those they opposed and that ‘failure to adopt an attitude of respect and humility toward our adjacent professional fields when cultivating our own preferred approach could result in an unproductive dichotomy. This might mean becoming too comfortable in our own camp, and at worst, believing in our own superiority.’
Are there Other Gaps?
Equally troubling is the lack of agreement about a definition of systemic therapy which relates to a disconnection between clinicians and researchers. The authors note that some postmodern systemic couple and family therapists view knowledge that aims to establish general scientific laws as ‘detrimental to individuals, confining them to generic descriptions that constrain creativity, subjugate pride, and disempower the individual in their attempts to solve problems.’ Such views limit contact and collaboration between researchers and clinicians and potentially deny clients access to demonstrably effective treatments.
How can the Gap be Addressed?
The authors advocate an expansive and inclusive approach in which no research design is omitted but one where the focus is on the research question with selection of the best design to answer it. They assert that the fracture within the field is too polarized and that ‘the enriching spiral between the search for commonalities among families facing similar problems and the careful, qualitative description of the unique aspects of each family’s response to similar problems may offer systemic CFT the kind of diversity and complexity required for good theory and practice.’
Lorås, L., Whittaker, K., Stokkebekk, J., & Tilden, T. (2023). Researching what we practice—The paradigm of systemic family research: Part 1. Family Process, 62, 947–960. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12903