Characteristics of Bowen’s research are his use of defined principles, interest in theory and therapy development mutually, the use of multiple models and methods, applying the ideas with broad ranges of families and continuous comparing of results of families, with and without symptoms.
Bowen was a careful researcher who satisfied himself with his findings and kept directing his energies to the development of the theory leaving the working of testing and proving to others.He went forward, leaving his approach, his methods, and the information gathered from his National Institutes of Health research project, in the collection of papers which are now the Bowen Archives. He stuck his neck out in saying that the human family was a biological organism, shaped by evolution, and operating in compliance with natural laws that could be identified and observed.
Humans have adaptive potential, as do other living things. Differentiation allows the human to harness this potential for personal use to some degree.
In the earliest years of Dr. Bowen’s research, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he observed the symbiotic relationship as it had been defined in the professional literature of the times. Years later, Dr. Bowen reflected that seeing what fit with the literature obscured the possibility of seeing the family system even sooner (Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, New York, 1978).
Menninger Foundation (1946-1954)
At Menninger’s, Bowen did experimental work with people with the most serious of human psychological problems—schizophrenia and alcoholism. He adapted psychoanalytic methods in ways that could add to exploring his research interests. Contact with families was not considered contaminating to the clinical work with the patient and he had a social worker meet with families. It was observed that the patients whose families had the casework support and were participants in the overall treatment process did a little better. Research was done with both inpatient and outpatient people using variations of a method designed to test psychoanalytic precepts and practice.
This research at the Menninger Foundation led to a view of the human as having a capacity to form symbiotic relationships well beyond developmental need that, in concert with certain environmental conditions, regulated the emergence of symptoms.
This naturally led to observing the real parent and impaired child in symbiotic attachment—in vivo—and seeing, in a richly supportive, neutral environment, if the symbiosis would resolve. Continuous observation of several sets of these relationships would allow close monitoring of the symptoms. This is the next step in the research.
The National Institute of Mental Health Project (1954-1959)
The research began with the intent to study a positive symbiosis between mothers and daughters and schizophrenia as a symptom manifestation of this intense relationship in a specified environment. Mother/daughter pairs were selected for the study because the space that was available on the ward was for females. Other pairings could have been chosen had there been space available. The beginning hypothesis of Dr. Bowen¼s project at National Institute of Mental Health was an extension of his theoretical thinking and clinical work done during the eight years at Menninger’s. Dr. Bowen was the chief investigator. Other investigators were Robert H. Dysinger, MD, Warren M. Brodey, MD and Betty Basamania, MSW. In addition to this research on schizophrenia, Dr. Bowen conducted a small study on alcoholism while at NIMH.
The first patient was admitted to Dr. Bowen’s research unit November 1, 1954 and her mother arrived on November 3, 1954. The particular hypothesis (study the symbiosis) and the way the environment was structured (rich in resources, neutrality of staff to the intensity of the relationship, relate to the adult not the infantile, parent in charge of child) provided the necessary ingredients for the next discovery to be put in to words.
The development of a new theory has a course that is dependent on the ability to accept what is not in accord with current beliefs. A researcher must be willing to abandon the hypothesis if the facts do not bear it out. The facts of the family as an emotional system were there for anyone to see. Very rapidly the live-in study, with its twenty-four hour, day-in day-out, in-vivo observations, had data for which there was no supportive literature or experience of others to guide the research. These observations indicated that all kinds of symptoms, physical, emotional or social, could be produced or reduced by changes in the relationship system. In March 1955, the study took a quantum leap in considering the family an emotional system. The theory was going in advance of the evidence as any solid theory does. The research would now think of the family as a unit, act toward the family as a unit and treat the family as a unit. Mothers, fathers and siblings became the focus of the research. A form of group family therapy was in place by September 1955 for the mother/daughter pairs on the unit and became the treatment standard in January 1956 when the first full family was admitted.
The observations between the inpatient families were compared with the outpatient work with families with less intense problems and compared with families without problems. The live-in family research formed the basis for the first six concepts of Bowen theory. The baseline data of recorded observations and new ideas that were the precursors to concept formulation are in those records.
For further reading on the Menninger and National Institute of Mental Health research conducted by Dr. Bowen, see Bowen, Murray. 1995. Archives. “A Psychological Formulation of Schizophrenia.” Family Systems 2(1):17-47.