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Review of Systems Theory Exploratory Essay


Over the years, the application of the Systems theory in different fields of study has escalated. It has played a pivotal role in analyzing various aspects that impact our lives as human beings. Within the field of marriage and family therapy, it has been used in conflict resolution between members of the family.

In addition, it has helped therapists in addressing family and marital issues such as: divorce, marriage, anger, the role of the parents within a family setting, domestic violence among other issues. In this research paper, we shall analyze the history of this theory, its philosophical underpinnings as pertaining to marriage and family therapy, the main concepts behind it and its applicability in this area of study.


It is a known fact that no man is an island. This statement may seem hollow but it has deep psychological meanings that may help one understand the human psyche. In layman’s terms, it simply means that humans are social beings that need each other to maintain their sanity as well as in surviving the day-to-day tribulation.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, it means that the source of any psychological distress experienced by a person can generally be traced back to his/her society. To further understand how the human mind works, scholars have developed theories that try to justify human behaviors as products of their environment. The Systems theory presents one such development through which human inter-dependency can be explained.

A system as defined by Connors et al (2005) refers to; “an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal”.

A system has various elements that work together towards the achievement of desired results or outputs. This means that a system must have other smaller subsystems if it is to function effectively (Herting et al, 2007). As such, if one aspect of the system changes, it is likely that the pattern of the overall system will change as well. Therefore, a system can be defined as being systemic in nature (Egiazaryan et al, 2007).

This paper shall analyze the applicability of the Systems theory to marriage and family therapy. The concepts of this theory shall be evaluated to measure the extent to which it can be applied into the practice of marriage and family therapy.

History of Systems theory

Systems theory refers to a research strategy that uses different fields of study to create a holistic understanding of a system (Gunaratne, 2008). The main aim of this theory is to analyze the core principles that govern how a system functions so that they can be applied in all fields of study (Trop, 2007).

The origin of this theory can be dated back to the late 1890s. This was an era characterized by scientists who wanted to understand how complex systems worked. To accomplish this, they believed that it would be easier to divide systems into smaller pieces and later study them separately. The rationale behind this group-think was that smaller components would be easy to identify and study as compared to the whole system (Dupuis, 2010).

As time went by, this approach was quickly absorbed by other scholars and it became a core research tool used in the study of sciences (biology, Physic and chemistry). However, scientists started misusing this approach by practicing reductionism (Dunst, 2009). In reductionism, scientists broke each system into smaller parts and studied them without giving due consideration to their relationship to the larger system.

To solve this issue, the general systems theory (GST) was developed in early 1920’s. The scientists agreed that irrespective of the uniqueness possessed by each component within a system, they all worked together to yield the expected outcome. They therefore began to look at systems as holistic units. GST paved way to the development of new techniques which could be used in handling various issues in other areas of study.

Philosophical underpinnings of the systems theory

The systems theory argues that to every action there must be a reaction. According to Robbins et al (2006), Ludwig von Bertalanffy based this theory on three main philosophies: the ontology (classification of entities and studying existence), epistemology (knowledge science), and axiology (ethical and aesthetical values) of systems. The theory was formulated under the following assumptions.

  1. That all events are results of coordinated efforts between various independent elements within a given system.
  2. Despite their different properties, all systems have common patterns that can be studied with an aim of providing more insight into complex tendencies.

In summary, this theory was founded on the assumption that each element in the world (no matter the size or classification), has its role to play in ensuring that efficiency prevails where desired (Kerzner, 2009)). In addition, it placed more emphasis on the fact that a ripple effect is always present in all systems.

Movement to Mental Health Field

Claybourne (2006) defines the human body as a system composed of 10 independent subsystems working together to ensure full functionality and efficiency. The human brain is compared to an engine from which other organs are interconnected. As such, psychologists and other researchers have over the years applied the systems theory as an effective tool in understanding how the human mind works.

In regards to the study of mental health, the systems theory has played a pivotal role in establishing the relationship between brain functions and the functions of other anatomical systems. Boss et al (2008) state that if an individual is mentally healthy, then other body systems are likely to function optimally but if something affects the brain system (psychological, emotional or otherwise), other systems in the body will also experience some level of change.

Systems Theory as the Foundation of Family Therapy

Over the past decades, Systems theory has been the foundation on which the understanding of marriage and family therapy lays (Goldenberg, 2006). The GST assumes that a system consists of independent inputs that work together to yield expected outputs (Bartle-Haring et al, 2007).

The Family Systems theory has therefore branched from this general theorization of systems. This theory focuses on the fact that a family is a system comprising of interrelated members. It acknowledges that there is some level of difficulty in understanding one member of a family without considering the others. It therefore provides a strong foundation to some of the family therapy techniques (Coates et al, 2005).

One of the underlying principles behind the family systems theory is that the behavior of an individual occurs in, is affected by and influences the family (Greene, 2008). As such, having a clear understanding of the family system makes it easier to understand how each individual influences it.

Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman (2009) reiterate that families are evolving systems governed by rules. He further states that people within a family have their roles to play. In addition, each family has a set of common and predictable behavioral patterns which affect it.

Future Directions of Systems Theory

As mentioned earlier, family systems theory has tremendous impacts on family therapy. It has created a clear path towards understanding the affects of trauma on individuals in the family, interventional techniques (as pertaining to drug abuse, domestic violence, anger management and communication problems affecting a family (Price & McKenry, 2009).

Variants of the family systems theory have also emerged which seek to address core issues that lead to functional or dysfunctional families. The communication model is one such variant that studies the communication patterns that are adopted by various families as well as the implications of these patterns to the interactions of the family members (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2009).

Possibilities of Further Application

I believe that more can be done to address family and marital issues using the systems theory. For example, when addressing violence, the systems theory focuses on the factors that lead to violence within a family setting. However, I feel that more studies should be conducted towards analyzing the characteristics and behaviors of those that cause the violence.

In addition, the family systems theory does not effectively address the issue of gender inequality (Taylor, 2006). In most societies men are still viewed as being superior to women. As such, there is a great difference between their influence and that of the women to the functions of the family. This inequality has been understated by the family systems theory and therefore needs to be articulated fully.


The importance of the systems theory in a family setting cannot be understated. This paper set out to review the various concepts and implications of this theory. To this effect, an overview of these attributes has been offered and viable recommendations given. The applicability of this theory to marriage and family therapy has also been discussed.

However, more studies should be conducted to ensure that this theory fully addresses the issues that affect the smooth running of a family system. This will not only assist therapists in providing viable solutions for dysfunctional families but will also ensure that family values and harmony prevails even in generations to come.


Bartle-Haring, S., Glebova, T & Meyer, T. (2007). Premature Termination in Marriage and Family Therapy within a Bowenian Perspective. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 35(1), 53–68.

Boss, P, William, J. D., & LaRossa, W. (2008). Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach. NY: Springer.

Claybourne, A. (2006). The human body. USA: Evans Brothers.

Coates, J., & Sullivna, R. (2005). Achieving Competent Family Practice with Same-Sex Parents. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 1(2), 89–113.

Connors, J. V., & Richard, B. C. (2005). A Review of Group Systems Theory. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 30(2), 93–110.

Dunst, C. J., & Trivette, C. M. (2009). Capacity-Building Family-Systems Intervention Practices. Journal of Family Social Work, 12(2), 119–143.

Dupuis, S. (2010). Examining the Blended Family: The Application of Systems Theory Toward an Understanding of the Blended Family System. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy: Innovations in Clinical and Educational Interventions, 9(3), 239–251.

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Goldenberg, I. (2007). Family Therapy: An Overview. CA: Cengage Learning.

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Herting, S., & Stein, L. (2007). The evolution of Luhmann’s systems theory with focus on the constructivist influence. International Journal of General Systems, 36(1), 1–17.

Kerzner, H. (2009). Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling. NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Price, S. J., & McKenry, P. C. (2009). Families & change: coping with stressful events and transitions. CA: SAGE.

Robbins, S. P., Chatterjee, P., & Canda, E. R. (2006). Contemporary human behavior theory: a critical perspective for social work. USA: Pearson.

Taylor, B. A. (2006). Gendered Training: Men and Men’s Issues in Marriage and Family Therapy Programs. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 34(3), 263–277.

Trop, J. L. (2007). Discussion of Dr. Judy Pickles’s Paper: The Perspective of Nonlinear Open Systems Theory. Psychoanalytic Inquiry: A Topical Journal for Mental Health Professionals, 27(2), 166–176.

Zastrow, C., & Kirst-Ashman, K. (2009). Understanding Human Behavior and the Social Environment. CA: Cengage Learning.

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