Eric D. Widmer

Widmer,E.,D. and Sapin,M. (2008).Families on the Move. Insights on Family Configurations of individuals undergoing Psychotherapy In: Widmer E. D. and Jallinoja R.(Eds). Beyond the Nuclear Family. Families in a Configurational Perspective.. Peter Lang, Berne, pp. 279-302.

Family contexts of individuals undergoing psychotherapy are usually considered an anomaly by sociological research. Their variety, complexity, and instability are not well served by standard sociological approaches of the family using survey designs and random sampling or in-depth qualitative interviewing. The strong link existing between psychological health and family relationships was falsely interpreted as a sign that these relationships only responded to psychological causes and processes and therefore that they belonged to another research field, namely clinical psychology. This chapter takes the opposite stand and affirms that studying those family contexts from a sociological perspective will lead to new insights on their functioning, which may help family psychology to move forward by taking other dimensions into account. As for sociology, those family contexts belong to a variety of family experiences, which are especially revealing of the changing nature of family experiences in post-modernity.

The configurational approach considers families open systems characterized by complex and often indirect sets of interdependencies (See Introduction). This approach may be especially suited for studying the moving family contexts of individuals who are undergoing psychotherapy. Sadly enough, the definition of family contexts is generally considered a trivial issue by family researchers. In most cases, it is set by using the limit of the household as unproblematic criteria (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1999; Levin, 1993; Widmer, 1999). Since the seventies, however, some scholars have underlined the idea that family as a concept is subject to distinct interpretations and extends well beyond the nuclear family. Firth and colleagues in their classical study on kinship in East London (Firth, Hubert & Forge, 1970) underlined that the concept of family is used in at least four ways: (a) The term “family” is employed for kin, with a variety of practices, which includes ascendants, descendants, collaterals, and affines; (b) A second usage is associated with large sibling groups in adulthood; and (c) a third way is with the most intimate family ties, self, spouse and children, respectively; (d) A fourth usage is extremely general, including under this denomination kinship ties as well as non-kinship ties. Despite the importance of examining how individuals undergoing psychotherapy define their family configurations, almost no research has been done in the last decade that tackles this issue empirically.

This issue might be especially important, as there is an interrelation between the composition of family configurations and the relational resources they provide to individuals. In recent publications (Widmer, 2006; Widmer, 2007), we emphasized that family configurations lead to two distinct types of social capital. In dense family configurations, most, if not all individuals, are interconnected. This situation enhances expectations, claims, obligations, and trust among members because of the increase of the collective nature of normative control (Coleman, 1988). If any family member fails to conform to the group’s expectations at one point, then he or she is likely to have several other configuration members jointly react against this situation. Dense family configurations also facilitate communication by multiplying the number of information channels and reducing the number of intermediaries between any two configuration members (Baker, 1984). Finally, in dense family configurations, support has a collective nature, as several individuals are likely to coordinate their efforts when helping another. On the other hand, family configurations characterized by fewer connections between subgroups provide brokerage opportunities (Burt, 1995, 2001). Fewer connections between subgroups of a family configuration create “holes” in the structure, which provide some persons - brokers - with opportunities to mediate the flow of information between family members and, hence, control the projects that bring them together (Burt, 2001).

These results suggest that individuals in psychotherapy may have access to distinct relational resources partly depending on the composition of their family configurations. Rather than considering families as nuclear by principle, starting from lay definitions of significant family contexts may help psychologists and sociologists to understand better the family dynamics in which individuals are embedded and how they change through time. This chapter describes the family configurations of a sample of individuals who are undergoing psychotherapy and the relational resources that these configurations provide to them. Then, it discusses ways in which family configurations may change through time. It intends to reveal some of the long-term as well as short-term logics behind changes affecting families of individuals facing psychological frailty.

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