Integrating Constructivist Sistemic

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    Journal ofConstructivist Psychology, 15:4163, 2002Copyright 2002Brunner-Routledge1072-0537/02 $12.00 + .00

    INTEGRATING CONSTRUCTIVIST AND SYSTEMICMETATHEORY IN FAMILY THERAPY

    KAREN D. FERGUS

    York University,DepartmentofPsychology,Toronto,Ontario,Canada,andToronto-SunnybrookRegionalCancerCentre,SupportServices

    Department,Toronto, Ontario, CanadaDAVID W. REID

    York University,DepartmentofPsychology,Toronto,Ontario,Canada

    In thisarticle,we critically review the epistemological transitionfrom amodernistorfirst-order cyberneticapproach inwhich subject-object dualism is implicitly as-sumed and enactedwithin the therapeutic relationship, to the currentpostmodern,second-order approach. Problems associated with both epistemological persuasionsare examined. Wepropose a theoreticalway out of the epistemological corner de-fined by aformernaive realism, on the one hand, and the currentpotentialfor anonfunctional relativism,ontheother.Thisroute iscreated throughan integrationof systemic and constructivist metatheorywhereby therapist knowledge, asfallibleas itmaybe, isaffordedarightfulplacewithin the therapyrelationship. Moreover,participant-observation is considered anecessary extension to thepostmodern em-phasisontherapistreflexivitybecauseitreinstatestheimportanceoftherapistknowledge(i.e., objectifications offamily dynamics and experiences). It is suggested that thewillingness toengage in theprocessof intersubjective meaningcreation,guidedbythe therapistandtheclient,butdrivenby theclientsownknowingandexperienc-ing, is central to the success of therapy.

    Received6September2000; accepted 17April2001.Address correspondence to K. D. Fergus, TorontoSunnybrook Regional Cancer

    Centre,2075BayviewAvenue,Toronto,Ontario,Canada,M4N3M5.E-mail:karen.fergus@tsrcc.on.ca

    Itwasnottoolongagothatafatalisticshadowhadbeencastoverthefieldoffamilytherapy:Thesystemicparadigm[is]slowlydissolv[ing]intoincoherence(Erickson,1988,p.234);asthesystemseradisinte-grates (Goolishian and Anderson, 1992, p. 35). With proclamationssuchasthese,theveryfoundationoffamilytherapyhadbeenthrownintoquestion.Theeraofpostmodernismhadarrived,and,foratime,

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    it seemed as though the system hadno place in it. However, it wasnotsystemstheoryperse,butthemodernistdistortionandreductionof it that threatened its demise. The systemic paradigm, in and ofitself,isnot incompatible withapostmodernsensibility.

    Nevertheless, the transition from a modern to postmodern prac-ticehasnotcomeeasilyformanyfamilytherapists.Thesystemicmodelhassufferedinitspostmoderntranslationowingtoadialecticalswingaway from the certaintyofauthoritarianobjectivism, to theparalysisof nihilistic relativism. Alongside the recognition that knowledge isneverabsoluteorobjective,andthatwhatweknowissteeped inoursubjective experience, has come a denunciation of the objectificationprocess

    itself.

    This

    rejection

    of

    the

    object

    has

    proven

    problematic

    be-causetheabilitytoobjectifyisnecessaryinordertoguideouractions.

    Simplystated,whattherapistsbelievetheyknowbasedon theircon-structionof theclientsreality,willdeterminewhat theydo.Thus, ifsystemic family therapy is to be a viable therapeutic modality in apostmodernworld,wesuggest itwillbenecessary toreclaimtheob-jective,notasanarrogantTruthbutasa fallibleyetoften functional(Agnew&Brown,1989a,1989b)meansof informingour therapeuticactivitywithfamiliesandtheindividualswhocomprise them.In this article, we describe the movement within family therapyfromamodernistorfirst-ordercyberneticpracticebasedonanartifi-cialseparationoftheobserverfromtheobserved,toapostmodernorsecond-ordercyberneticpracticeinwhichtherapistsareacutelyawareof their own hand in the familys interactional matrix. Problems in-herent in both epistemologies will be examined. Our intention is todemonstratethatneitheranuncriticaladherencetotheobjectifiedcom-ponentofourexperience,norareactionaryrejectionofitwillbenefitour work as psychotherapists. Rather, the disciplined and criticallyreflexive use of the systemic paradigm to frame our objectificationsandguideourinterventions,combinedwiththetherapistscapacitytoactasaparticipant-observerinthetherapeuticsituation,isconsideredintegraltotheintegrationofthesubjectiveandtheobjectifiedcompo-nentsofourownandourclientsexperiences.

    HISTORIC ROOTS AND ADVANCEMENTSIN SYSTEMIC THEORY AND THERAPY

    Personal Meaning Systems and Collective Family Constructs

    With the emergence of postmodernism and a constructivist ideol-ogy,

    we

    are

    at

    apivotal

    point

    in

    the

    development

    of

    psychotherapy

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    Constructivist and Systemic Metatheory 43

    practice in general and family therapy in particular. This relativelyrecent transformation in family therapywas similar inmagnitude tothat which took place roughly half a century ago when cybernetics(Wiener,1948)andgeneralsystemstheory(vonBertalanffy,1968)werefirstintroducedintothefieldofpsychotherapy.Withinthefamilysystemsparadigm,thefocusofthetherapistshiftedawayfromtheexperiencesof the individual to thepatterningandprocessingofcommunicationwithin the family inanattempt todiscernandmodify the repetitivestylesof interaction thatcharacterized interpersonaland familialdis-turbances.

    Thesystemicmodelprovidedaframeworkwithwhichtocompre-hend

    the

    unfathomable

    complexity

    of

    individuals

    in

    dynamic

    interac-tionwithoneanother.Essentially,itactedasamoreexplicitheuristic

    guidingthetherapiststacitconstruingprocesses,oraprofessional sub-system (Kelly, 1955). As such, it restricted the information that wasattendedtobutsimultaneously providedamoremanageableframeofreference(Agnew&Brown,1989a,p.154)makingitpossibleforthera-piststoorganizeclinicallyrelevanteventsandnavigatetheirwaythroughaninfinitelycomplextherapeuticencounter.Therefore,theapplicationofsystemstheorytoworkingwithfamilieshashelpedmakeapoten-tiallyoverwhelmingamountofinformationcognitivelydigestible.

    Becauseofitsemphasisonprocessandpatterningatvariouslevelsoforganizationalcomplexity,thesystemsmodelbearsthepotentialofbeingahighlyflexibleandincorporativetool.Functioninginthisway,asametaperspectiveratherthanarigidmodel,thesystemicparadigmissimilartothatofconstructivism.Auniverseviewedthroughasys-temiclensiscomprisedofhierarchicallyorganizedsetsofreciprocallyinterconnectingelements.Theserangefromthesubatomic,tothebio-logical,tothepsychological,tothesocialandthepolitical.Eachmoreencompassinglevelbuildsupontheprioroneinever-far-reachingcom-plexity.Thewholeofone strataconstitutesapartof thenext,whichhasledcertaintheoriststofavorthetermholoarchyoverhierarchy(e.g.,Koestler,1976;Wilber,1995).

    Systemsnotionshavebeenthesubjectofmuchrebukewithinthefieldof family therapybecauseof theways inwhich theyhavebeennarrowly interpreted and restrictively applied. However, systemstheory, being implicitly contextual, is inherently an inclusive model.One does not have to stretch very far to incorporate meaning andconstruingprocessesintothesystemicframework.Individualswillin-fluence and be influenced by one another, not only on the level ofbehavior, but also on the level of how they construct one anothersbehaviors,andhow theyconstructoneanothersconstructions (Bog-dan,

    1984;

    Kelly,

    1955).

    These

    interpersonal

    constructions,

    in

    turn,

    have

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    44 K. D. Fergus and D. W. Reid

    consequencesforbehaviourandforthemaintenance andalterationofpersonalconstructs(Feixas,1990a,1990b).

    Construingsystemsarethussystemswithinsystems.Anindividualsmeans of making meaning relies on language and other verbal andnonverbalsymbolsofthoughtandfeelingprovidedbythesocialsys-temwithinwhichtheindividualcommunicates. Inthiswaythewholeis within the part(s) insofar as the ways individuals construe theirexperiencesare influencedby the largersystemsofwhich theyareapart.Conversely,andconsistentwiththesystemicholoarchy,thewholeisalsoconstitutedby thepart(s).That is, inorder for the familysys-tem toexistasanentity itmustbeconstitutedbythe inputfromtheindividual

    members.

    In

    other

    words,

    there

    is

    a

    reciprocal

    relationshipbetweenthecoconstructedinterpersonalmeaningbetweentwoormore

    personsand the idiosyncratic intrapersonalconstruingofeachof theindividuals. The expression that the whole is greater than the sumof its parts iscentral to systemic thought and captures the idea thatlevelsandpartsarecontinuouslyoperatingsynergistically.

    The supposition that construing systemsare systemswithin sys-tems issupportedbyanumberof investigatorswhohavehelpedex-pand the horizons of family therapy by introducing Kellys (1955)personal construct paradigm into the sphere of the family. Each hasdemonstrated that family constructs (Feixas, 1990a, 1990b, 1995;Procter,1985),orfamilyepistemologies(Alexander&G.J.Neimeyer,1989) are coconstructed through the mutual interaction of personalmeaning systems.Suchcollectiveactsofknowinghavebeendefinedas thoseevolvingnetworksofmeaningthatareforgedandaffirmedthrough intimate familial interaction (Alexander & G.J. Neimeyer,1989, p. 111). Feixas (1990a, 1995) contends that the two areas, per-sonalconstruct therapyand family systems therapy,wereartificiallyand unnecessarily separated for many years owing to the formersfocus on the individual and the latters focus on the group. In hisintegrationof the twomodels,he illustrateshowpersonalconstructsbearsystemicpropertiesandhowaconstru