Toward a critical social history of the profession of family therapy

Date of Completion

January 1997


History, United States|Social Work|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies




Historians of family therapy agree that the field originated in the 1950s with the work of Bateson, Haley, Bowne and other. However, this dissertation demonstrates that the important concepts underlying family therapy were present in social work in the early 1900s. Early social workers (most notably Mary Richmond) formulated their ideas about the importance of family dynamics "in the trenches"--practicing social casework in their homes and neighborhoods. Despite this wealth of knowledge, during the period between 1918 and 1930 social work turned away from the family idea and embraced the individual medical-model approach.^ Sociologists of knowledge tell us that ideas succeed not only on their merit, but also because of the receptivity of the clutter in which they arise. Clearly the "family" idea found a receptive environment in the 1950s. My central purpose here is to identify the factors that mitigated against the success of the same idea in the period between 1890 and 1930. These factors include: (1) competition between social work and psychiatry--two young professions--for the cultural authority to define and treat social and psychological problems; (2) underlying presumptions about gender and professionalism which affected female-dominated social work and male-dominated psychiatry and the contested boundary between them; (3) the idealization of science and medicine--including psychiatry--following the public-health triumphs of the early 1900s; (4) the shift from progressive to conservative ideology after World War I, undermining social work's credibility because of its identification with reform; (5) the impact of funding from philanthropic foundations which flowed along conservative and "scientific" pathways, privileging psychiatry and subordinating social work.^ Some of these same factors are present today; however, American social sciences--including family therapy--have characteristically been a-historical. This has left us without an understanding of the cultural contexts in which our ideas developed, or an appreciation of how vulnerable our ideas are as these contexts shift over time. Furthermore, family therapy as well as social work has lost a valuable repository of grounded knowledge, and as a result may have re-mapped a territory already familiar to social caseworkers at the turn of the century. ^