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Family Systems Theory

Challenges And Future Directions

Family systems theory has had a significant impact on the study of families and on approaches to working with families. It has guided research into such areas as understanding traumatic events or chronic health issues and their impact on individuals and families, substance abuse intervention and treatment modalities, and kinship networks. It has provided a useful lens through which a greater understanding of families has emerged. However, as with any lens, critics have challenged the clarity of the lens in certain areas. Some critics have argued that issues of gender inequality are not fully articulated or addressed within family systems theory. For example, in patriarchal societies, where power lies primarily with men, equality of influence between men and women can not be assumed. Critics of family systems theory argue that such inequality is often overlooked or understated (Goldner 1989; Yllo 1993). The application of family systems theory to issues of family violence has been criticized. For example, a systems perspective on family violence will focus on the family dynamics that contribute to the violence, and less attention will be given to the characteristics, motivations, and attitudes of the perpetrator of the violence. Critics argue that the utilization of family systems theory in this area can lead to the perception of a shared responsibility for violence between the victim and perpetrator and less accountability by the perpetrator for his or her actions (e.g. Whitchurch and Constantine 1993; Finkelhor 1984).

Over the years variants in family systems have emerged. The communications model focuses on the communication patterns found within family systems, specifically on the role of inputs and outputs in communication and the consistency between these in explaining family communication patterns in functional and dysfunctional families. Such a model was heavily influenced by the work of Gregory Bateson, Don Jackson, Paul Watzlawik, and others at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto (Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson 1967). In contrast, Salvador Minuchin's (1974) work with family systems theory has focused more on the spatial nature of families. Central to this orientation is an examination of the social contexts and structures in which families find themselves and their interaction with those contexts and structures. In a different area, family systems theory is being challenged to consider and integrate the increasingly important role that genetics and neurobiological structures have on personality traits and individual behavior. Family systems theory is also being challenged to consider cultural and broader contextual issues that influence families. The integration of family systems theory into the medical realm, the study of ethnic and cultural differences, and broader systems is a testament to its continued utility.


Anderson A., and Sabatelli, R. (1999). Family Interaction: A Multigenerational Developmental Perspective. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bertalanffy, L. von. (1968). General System Theory. New York: George Braziller.

Bertalanffy, L. von. (1975). Perspectives on General Systems Theory: Scientific-Philosophical Studies. New York: George Braziller.

Finkelhor, D. (1984). Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research. New York: Free Press.

Goldner, V. (1989). "Generation and Gender: Normative and Covert Hierarchies." In Women in Families, ed.
M. McGoldrick, C. Anderson, and F. Walsh. New York: Norton.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Steinglass, P. (1987). "A Systems View of Family Interaction and Psychopathology." In Family Interaction and Psychopathology, ed. T. Jacob. New York: Plenum Press.

Watzlawick, P. P.; Beavin, J.; and Jackson, D. (1967). Pragmatics of Human Communication. New York: Norton.

Whitchurch, G., and Constantine, L. (1993). "Systems Theory." In Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach, ed. P. Boss, W. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. Schumm, and S. Steinmetz. New York: Plenum Press.
Yllo, K. (1993). "Through a Feminist Lens: Gender, Power and Violence." In Current Controversies on Family Violence, ed. R. Gelles and D. Loseke. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesFamily Systems Theory - Basic Concepts/propositions, Challenges And Future Directions