Developmental and systemic approaches: The clash of paradigms in group
Wander de Carvalho Braga
It is exceptionally difficult if not impossible to hold two or more
contrasting vantage points in understanding the same phenomenon – thus, the
controversy between the individually oriented developmental practitioner and
the system-oriented one. It is entirely possible that this type of
controversy cannot be resolved on scientific/epistemologic grounds. It may
very well be that ethical and esthetic preferences will decide. In addition,
a utilitarian comment may be in order; that is, "the customer is always
right." The purchasers of services will ultimately decide what works best
With these cautions in mind, let me briefly indulge in a few comments.
- In family therapy, it is my impression that the theory lags far behind
the practice. The latter is vital, exciting, challenging, and innovative.
Observing family therapists (systemic or otherwise), one senses their people
orientation, their openness to being scrutinized, and their efforts to
demystify the process of treatment. Yet systemic theory is rather
impersonal, full of electronic metaphors that in my opinion are no
improvement over the so-called mechanistic, hydraulic,
Aristotelian-Newtonian-Cartesian metaphors of the developmentalist.
- The developmentalist, because of his anchoring in psychodynamic
theory, may be excessively focused on the intrapsychic, risking the danger
of losing the broad perspective and neglecting the ecological reality of the
individual in need of help. On the other hand, the systemic thinker, if he
or she becomes a systems purist, risks the danger of neglecting the reality
of the individual and its intrinsic contributions to behavior. People are
not "black boxes."
- If the whole cannot be explained on the basis of the functioning of
its parts, it also follows that the functioning of the parts cannot be
explained by the whole. This concept is most important in group care
treatment settings where the child or adolescent has de facto been separated
from the family.
- Whether or not the concept of the mind (personality, self, ego, and
the like) is an important one in the study of behavior is at the core of the
controversy between systemic thinkers and developmentality The announcement
that the mind is dead is probably extremely premature.
- The insistence on the part of systemic thinkers that their theory
represents a new epistemology is probably incorrect. It would be more
appropriate to refer to it as a new teleology. Witness the common dictum
that symptoms universally have the purpose of preserving equilibrium in the
- Systemic family theory is in its infancy. The systems it deals with
are closed (interactional/communicational) and unidimensional (tend to avoid
biology and psychology). In pursuing a new paradigm, family systems
theoreticians are throwing out both the water and the baby. There is very
little place in their theoretical formulations for accumulated knowledge
from various other disciplines that have studied human behavior, and their
thinking truly represents a quantum jump in theorizing. Thus, it can be
characterized as segregationist, at least at this stage of its development.
- Developmentally oriented group care treatment stands to benefit a
great deal from practitioners who are versed in family therapy but who for
the moment disregard systemic purism. Several approaches to family therapy
are more easily integrated with the developmental approach: examples are
(using Nichols’  classification) the various types of psychoanalytic
family therapy, the group family therapy, behavioral family therapy, the
approach of Bunny and Frederick Duhl, and very likely Kantor’s systemic
family therapy These approaches give due consideration to the individual as
a subsystem with properties of its own that cannot be explained on the basis
of interactional systemic properties alone. Other approaches may cast
residential group care practice into the role of villain. The assumption is
that the residential setting, by removing the child from the family, may
collude with pathologic processes in the family that themselves produce the
symptoms. (Of course, it is probably a myth that every symptomatic child is
scapegoated or a depository for family dysfunction.)
- The developmental approach stands to gain a great deal by further
exploring ways of applying general systems theory to its theoretical
constructs as outlined by von Bertalanffy himself , Grinker ,
Marmor , and others. The developmental perspective has the potential
of satisfying the five Bertalanffyan principles as enunciated by Gray et al.
: (a) the insistence on an organismic or anti-reductionistic approach;
(b) the insistence that the psychophysical apparatus is characterized by
primary activity that is anti-robotic; (c) the demand that an adequate
general systems theory must concentrate on those characteristics peculiar to
the human species, such as symbolism, which establishes an anti-zoomorphic
position; (d) the inclusion of anamorphosis (as opposed to isomorphism) and
organizational laws at all levels as an essential component of advanced
general systems theory; and (e) the requirement of values, affect, and
morals as a necessary part of a new image of man, thereby establishing an
Gray, W, Duhl, FJ., Rizzo, N.D.
General Systems Theory and Psychiatry. 1st Edition. Boston:
Little-Brown and Company, 1969.
Grinker, R. The relevance of general
systems theory to psychiatry. In American Handbook of Psychiatry, Vol. 3,
1st edition. S. Arieti, editor. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1966, pp. 705
Marmor, J. Systems thinking in psychiatry: Some theoretical and clinical
implications. American Journal of Psychiatry 140, No. 7
Nichols, M. Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods.
New York: Garden Press, 1984.
von Bertalanffy, L. General systems theory
and psychiatry. In American Handbook of Psychiatry, Vol. 3, 1st
edition. S. Arieti, editor. New York: Basic Books, 1966.
de Carvalho Braga, W. (1988) Developmental and systemic
approaches: The clash of paradigms in group care treatment. In Carman,
G.O. and Small, R.W. Permanence and family support: Changing practice in
group child care. Washington: Child Welfare League of America, pp.61-82