Foreword: Societies, Families and Planet Earth: Exploring the Connections, the 2009 Spring Conference of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (BCSF), explored the concept of emotional process in society (“societal concept”) and its associated hypotheses about possible drivers of a sustained societal regression, such as the one we have been going through in this post-World War II era. Several members of the conference Organizing Committee asked me to provide speakers not acquainted with Bowen family systems theory and the concept of emotional process in society some readings on the theory and concept. In response, and in my role as conference moderator, I put together this brief paper that draws on my professional experience using Bowen theory over many years in regulatory, legal and public policy work regarding the peaceful uses of atomic energy and the associated risks. That work, particularly my experience in the conduct of multi-party international negotiations, triggered my passion to hold this conference to explore the human’s relationship with the Earth.
Introduction: The societal concept comes from Bowen family systems theory (“Bowen theory”), which the psychiatrist Murray Bowen (1913-1990) developed during the middle part of the 20th century and continued to elaborate until his death in 1990. “Societal regression” is a gradual erosion of functioning at societal levels over time, evidenced by, among other things, increasingly emotionally-driven decisions that are inadequately supported by relevant and reasonably available facts. It is described in the concept of emotional process in society as a response to sustained chronic anxiety, which is defined as response to “imaginary” threat that may or may not materialize, in contrast to acute anxiety, which is defined as response to “real” threat that will almost certainly materialize. In contrast, “societal progression” is a process that has occurred during periods in which humans have been able to identify more clearly and factually what issues or problems need to be addressed, in contrast to making anxiety-driven decisions about less relevant matters. During periods of progression, the sciences often flourish and the bases for decision-making are often supported by relevant, demonstrable facts coming from advances in scientific knowledge.
The concept of “differentiation of self” and its companion concept, “the emotional system,” are essential in family systems theory. . . . The “self” is composed of constitutional, physical, physiological, biological, genetic and cellular reactivity factors, as they move in unison with psychological factors. On a simple level, it is composed of the confluence of the more fixed personality factors as they move in unison with rapidly moving psychological states. Each factor influences and is influenced by the others. The psychological is the easiest to be influenced by the individual. . . . The psychological includes relationship factors from the past and the present that influence the individual. . . . Many people are completely dependent on evolution to raise or lower “differentiation” in a lifetime. Family systems theory contains several concepts through which psychological states can be modified. These include the concepts of the “emotional system,” “triangles,” and the “multigenerational transmission process.” (Kerr and Bowen, 342, emphasis added)
the explosion in human populations globally,
the exhaustion of existing resources to sustain human life and well being,
the absence of new territories to which humans could migrate to find new resources,
and the production of wastes from unsustainable human consumption that could not be absorbed by the ecological systems in which humans live and which are adversely affected and disturbed by such unsustainable human exploitation.
Societies experience periods of progression and regression.
Societal regression is a process that, over time, reduces capacity for making intellectually determined choices, based to the extent practicable on relevant and reasonably obtainable facts.
Chronic, sustained anxiety is necessary to fuel a societal regression.
As a regression continues, choices become more and more emotionally-driven to allay that anxiety, which is an automatic, instinctual response to sustained, underlying and unknown, unacknowledged or unrecognized societal-level threat(s).
At the intellectual and cognitive level, there is cut-off from knowledge of the underlying threat, which impairs fact-based decision-making to combat that threat.
At the feeling level, there is a vague, undifferentiated awareness of the anxiety elicited by the underlying threat, but that the threat remains unidentified.
The felt anxiety is ready to be expressed in action, such as distancing to get away from the perceived threat, conflict to combat the perceived threat, or, when escape is not possible, chronic under-functioning of some societal component(s) and chronic over-functioning of other(s). There is also the phenomenon of “scapegoating,” or blaming some societal component(s), as the cause of a society’s woes.
Often action, energy and resources are directed at resolving some issue, especially one perceived as threatening and around which societal conflict has erupted. The issue is inaccurately perceived as causing the felt anxiety, and the action taken in response to the inaccurate perception is largely or wholly ineffectual at relieving the underlying anxiety.
When the underlying threat has been addressed insufficiently, if at all, the failure to make the problem go away further heightens societal anxiety and fuels the regression.
ethnic conflict or “cleansing,”
polarization within a society, whose conditions demand cooperation in common interests,
collapse of institutions, especially those affecting the procurement, production or distribution of resources necessary for the welfare of society;
increasing disparity within a society of access to and distribution of such resources.