Blaming and conflict

Understanding trauma_unpublished manuscriptCeriBowen
Understanding trauma summary diagram_CeriBowen

The first paper I attach is about blaming within family settings.

In interviews about conflict-related problems with parents attending a family therapy clinic, I was privy to a range of views, often as many different views as there were people attending. Within a single description of the problem there is an enormous amount of information, not just about the ‘problem’ but about the person giving the account and about their relationship with others within a system. The importance of consulting with all persons connected to the issues is well-recognised by systemic therapists who place particular importance on inviting every party to a consultation. The reason for this is that individuals personify and give voice to the undercurrents and power dynamics within any context or setting, voices that may have been marginalised over time for various reasons. We can see this type of phenomenon happening in any complex dispute or social event that arises, in which those individuals who are not officially recognised and invited to the negotiation table and/ or are not inclined to reconciliation may continue to ‘act out’ their grievances. The logical conclusion to this is that in order to construct a workable peace one cannot escape from having to talk to the aggressors at some point in the process. These ideas have been developed in a further thesis in which I outline a case for the social construction of trauma by deconstructing the various layers to a conflict (unpublished manuscript).

Returning to the attached paper, here I make further observations about how, when a person describes a problem as shared or ascribes blame to another, this has a certain value in terms of rhetoric, depending on the audience – perhaps by claiming superior knowledge over another, drawing some members into conversation while silencing others … so it performs a variety of functions such as connecting and distancing, attributing and negating responsibility, mobilizing support via outside agencies, etc. If one were to consider the case of a child with behaviour problems, for example, opinion may vary on whether the child has control over the problem (i.e. has intentionality), whether the behaviour is normal for the child (a child of that particular age), how best to manage the problem and, crucially, and who has ownership over finding a solution. In order to track the rhetorical function of blame talk, a grasp of the philosophy of ‘social construction’ is required (i.e. how social entities are encapsulated in dialogue and given material status, not mere adjuncts to conversation). Examples of social constructs would include most mental health classifications such as post-traumatic stress disorder and political ideas such as ‘democracy’ or ‘peace process’.


Bowen, C., Madill, A., & Stratton, P.M. (2002). Parental accounts of blaming within the family: A dialectical model for understanding blame in systemic therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 28(2): 129–144.

Bowen, C., Stratton P., & Madill, A. (2005) Psychological functioning in families that blame: Frrom blaming events to theory integration. Journal of Family Therapy. 27(4), 309-329.

Bowen, C. (2003) Intrapsychic conflict in response to trauma: understanding the individual subjective state with a view to linking it to the social/community levels. University of Bradford; unpublished manuscript.

Systemic theory

I take a holistic, joined-up approach to thinking, learning and understanding the world. In terms of health beliefs this encapsulates mind, body and soul, and incorporates both individual, wider relationships and other social factors. Therapeutically, an approach which dovetails this approach is family therapy – otherwise known as systemic therapy. In this approach one considers the shared experience of illness and injury and how relationships impact on both illness and individuals. One aim of systemic therapy is to draw on the strengths of individuals and the group and to highlight examples of positive coping in the face of adversity. Recently I summarized systemic theory as based on the following premises:

• Social systems such as families consist of individuals but also relationships, boundaries, hierarchies;
• The parts of a system are inter-related (one part of a social group cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the group);
• Members of a system are governed by communication patterns (we are constantly in communication with each other even when we choose not to communicate);
• People act on the basis of their beliefs;
• Even behaviours that have negative consequences may have a positive intention;
• The causality of social problems is often ‘circular’; that is to say, the origin of a problem may be different from that which maintains it, and causal and maintaining factors may be distributed across members.

Now to examples of how this plays out in reality …

First a family situation:
• A man who drinks each day and is dependent on alcohol;
• A woman who is depressed and cannot leave the safety of her own house;
• A young girl who is routinely starving herself.
Most definitely each of these is a complex problem in itself but consider how different yet understandable this situation becomes when we are made aware these individuals are part of the same family unit.

Second, a situation affecting the wider health system:
• Due to a financial shortfall there are cuts to services at a local hospital, particularly for people with chronic conditions who require long-term care;
• A group of independent hospitals notices a turn in the market and increases its fees for respite and day centre services across the country;
• A key 3rd sector organization finds it has to double its number of volunteers to cope with the demand for 24-hour telephone and long-term support.
Note how tempting it is to order these events in linear time? Yet any linear analysis depends on when one begins observations and so in many ways it makes more sense to view each development as impact or radiating outwards, forwards and backwards (circular causality).

Third, an example affecting political systems:
• Two neighbouring Governments take differing policies around the control of state media and wider internet access and both have policies and rules that limit the freedom of movement for individuals;
• The inhabitants of the country with greater freedoms are made aware of other countries offering a better quality of life and are able to mobilize to put pressure on their Government to change certain policies;
• For those inhabitants of the country with greater state controls the situation remains the same and the overall feeling of dissatisfaction rises.
Just imagine how rapidly such a situation might escalate…