Research is key to the academic vitality of the Bowen Center. Murray Bowen developed Bowen theory through formal and informal clinical research. Important principles guiding the original research remain crucial for Bowen theory research today.

Bowen observed that there is a difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. Since he aimed toward a science of human behavior he wanted to know what people really do. In his original study at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), eleven families lived on the research unit up to three years. Seven additional families were seen as outpatients. The participating families were observed 24 hours a day and their entire behavior recorded.

New observations were possible using this approach. An example is the relationship between emotional process in the research families and their use of medical resources on the unit. This focus on what people actually do continues to inform research guided by Bowen theory today. It is unlikely that people will accurately report their behavior in a questionnaire. Questionnaires attempting to assess level of differentiation of self are especially unreliable (Bowen, 1978 pp. 453-459). Family systems researchers work to collect data on actual behavior rather than relying on subjective reports.

The unit of study is the family system. Once the research view shifts from the individual to the family, the scene looks entirely different and research doesn’t employ cause-effect linear models. This makes research from a systems perspective somewhat complex. If a person does clinical outcome research and only measures the presence or absence of a symptom in one family member, the systems view has been lost. Multiple variables affect the system. Researchers guided by systems thinking holds multiple variables and their interactions with each other, simultaneously in their thinking.

In addition to these current ongoing projects, the Bowen Center has supported the research of other faculty members at the Center and research of those in the larger network of Bowen theorists nationally and internationally.