Sociology of the Family Murray Bowen David Olson General Systems Theory

Sociology is the study of groups and group behavior. Groups create dynamics related to roles, function, and purpose. Groups are interconnected with other groups and a systems view understands that the dynamics at work within one group will affect the dynamics at work within the interconnected groups. 

Some call the nuclear family an institution but a better description of the family might be a culture. A culture is a group of people bonded together around some significant commonality. Cultures consist of relationships among members. The members create an intergroup language and engage in meaningful rituals and traditions. 

Sociology of the Family

A sociological examination of the family includes a number of features. For example, sociology of the family considers demographic characteristics such as family size, social class, and constellation characteristics (gender, ethnicity). Contemporary views of the nuclear family have expanded to include same-sex couples, single parents, and cohabitating parents. 

A sociological perspective of the family explores the relational alignments that exist between family members. Spouses will create patterns of behavior and interactions that will contribute to dynamic assessments of marital satisfaction. Parents and children form a relational alignment complete with patterns of interaction. Siblings are a third relational alignment. 

Other social dynamics relate to family member interactions with people or social agents outside of the nuclear family. Relationships with extended family form another dynamic that could affect the nuclear as with grandparents. The actions of social agents like media, government, or economic-related entities influence the nuclear family. 

Family as a System

Murray Bowen borrowed from the psychoanalytical perspective that the family was an “undifferentiated family ego mass.” The family consists of an emotional system and an intellectual system. Both systems are in the process of development through family member interactions. 

The goal was for family members to experience and “differentiation of self” that means the person’s develop a sense of healthy identity separate from the family though the member remains connected to the family. The emotional and intellectual development called for by Bowen shares similarities with psychodynamic views such as those held by Alfred Adler, John Bowlby, and Erik Erikson. 

David Olson represented General Systems Theory (GST) with his Circumplex Model (CM). GST recognizes that problems within a family system have more than one cause and no one way will fix the broken family system. The CM approach views family systems as functioning within to polar opposites. Two separate dimensions of “emotional bonding” and “balance” are held in balance. First, “emotional bonding” balances “separateness” and “togetherness.” Second, “flexibility” requires a balance between “stability” and “transition.” Family health comes from balancing the two dimensions identified by Olson. 


The nuclear family is a culture of complex relationships. The social dynamics at work within the nuclear family creates an environment that contributes to the learning and identity development of children. The family also represents a dynamic culture that balances competing forces. The ability to effectively balance the dimensions identified by Olson and expanded upon by others increases the likelihood that family members will experience satisfaction in the family.