Sunday, May 15, 2005

Cybernetics and the birth of family therapy

Which brings us to ecosystemic theory in psychology and its links with cybernetics. There were numerous well-known pioneers involved in the development of cybernetics - Nobert Wiener, John von Neumann, Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, Von Foerster, Maturana, Gregory Bateson, and numerous others. The field of scientific cybernetics, practically founded by Wiener through publication of his seminal work in 1948, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, became one important branch of the burgeoning frontier of cybernetics. The scientific branch looked at control in machines, finding most of its early data in the focuses of war - notably guided missiles.

The concern with control is manifest in the word cybernetics itself. In Greek it means helmsman - the one who steers a ship. Cybernetics is concerned with self-regulation - how systems can be regulated through another system, or by itself.
The possible application of cybernetics to the social sciences, the second branch of cybernetics, was understood early on by Bateson, who many family therapists (i.e. those psychologists or counsellors working within the framework of ecosystemic theory) regard as the intellectual founder of systems theory.

To appreciate the birth of cybernetics in the social sciences - and how it is linked to the development of similar ideas in science and biology - it is worth observing that many of the important early names already mentioned were present in a now famous series of interdisciplinary conferences (the Macy conferences, because they were sponsored by the Josiah Macy Foundation). Many of the attendees were at that time the leading mathematicians, scientists, engineers and social scientists.

A lot of the discussion there focused on feedback mechanisms, an exciting new way to understand how systems are able to maintain stability despite: by introducing historical information into the system. In a much later interview Bateson recalls how at first the talk was all about positive feedback (not a value judgement - it means that the system acknowledges that a change has taken place), but it wasn't clear how the system could keep on incorporating change without blowing out - and then the concept of negative feedback was introduced to describe how a system maintains status quo. In essence these concepts were exciting because they provided a framework (which was completely new at the time) to formulate a way to change the future behaviour of a system through a change in feedback information.

Although Norbert Wiener also started reconceptualising psychological concepts in the new language of information processing, Bateson started investigating how families maintain stability and thereby casting his work in terms that have since become familiar to family therapsists. But Bateson was always more interested in the epistemological concerns, which he developed in his most famous work Steps to an Ecology of Mind and later Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, and finally also Angels' Fear, co-authored with Mary Catherine Bateson, his daughter. He remained outside the practical applications of his work in therapy, leaving it to others to continue that and to extend it into what has since become knwon as the field of family therapy.

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