One of the greatest contributions of Bowen Theory to the understanding of groups (families, organizations, or societies), is the following: the functioning of the individual is governed by the group. Theory also points out that if an individual can raise his functioning in relationship to other group members, others predictably raise their functioning as well, bringing the whole group to a different level. This reciprocal influence represents an aspect of the emotional system at work.
If this postulate is true, this mutual influence between the individual and the group should be observable not only in humans, but in other groups in the natural world. Not surprisingly, scientists that study group behaviors (in humans and non-human groups) have described this phenomena. Among them, Ian Cousin (1) in his account of animal migration says: “If one individual is confused, it can follow others. When its own magnetic sensing or memory is stronger, it in turn becomes influential. So you have ever changing leadership according to the quality of information each individual possesses.”
The dialogue between Bowen Theory and natural science can result in an increased understanding of groups and how to navigate the challenges of being an individual while being part of the group. Discussing differentiation of self and anxiety as two main variables influencing this process contributes to comprehending the mechanism by which this unfolds. The conversation brings new light to important concepts such as leadership.
Michel Kerr (2) nicely summarizes the link between Bowen Theory and learning about groups in the natural world: “Striking parallels exists in the interactions of cells, ants, mammals, families, organizations and communities. Relationships systems at all levels respond to anxiety in predictable ways. Chronic anxiety can transform orderly cooperation into disruptive conflict. The keys to applying this knowledge are fathoming how a system works and one´s part in it. Bowen theory is sufficiently accurate to provide a reliable blueprint for change.”
- Explorers. Bio. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/lain-couzin/
- Kerr, M. (2001). From the Editor. Family Systems 5(2), 98-100.
Dr. Mariana Martinez is faculty at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in Washington, DC.