Extract from the book
Family Therapy: Exploring the fields past, present and possible futures
An interview with Michael White by David Denborough
Perhaps I could begin by asking you about what you see as some of the key themes that make up what is known as family therapy?
Family therapy is a field that is constantly changing, and has a great history of engaging with new and diverse ideas and developing innovative practices. There are a number of broad themes that can probably be traced through many of the ‘schools’ or traditions of family therapy thought and practice. One of these is that family therapy since its very beginnings has been vitally interested in how life is shaped by family relations. This involves considering identity as something that is achieved in relationship with others rather than something that derives from human nature, whatever it is that human nature is construed to be. Over time, the definition of the family has been expanded to include families of origin, families of imposition, and families of choice. And there has been increasing attention given to explorations founded on the understanding that today’s family is itself a specific historical and cultural phenomenon, regardless of form.
Another key theme involves the understanding of people’s problems within terms of the wider contexts of life. Rather than locating problems within individuals, family therapists have sought to identify the links between the problems people experience and the wider contexts of life, including the family, and the many other institutions of society.
A third theme involves meeting with families and other networks/ communities of people to address the problems in their lives. There is considerable emphasis given to the re-negotiation of people’s identities within the context of their interactions with each other. These are all traditions of inquiry within the field of family therapy which strongly resonate for me and that have influenced my thinking and practice.
Apart from these general themes, there have been various specific developments within the family therapy field that I see as of great importance. For instance, the conceptualisation of therapy as a process of questioning, which derives principally from the work of the Milan Group. I still remember the day I read their 1980 paper, which has since become a classic. It was like experiencing a change in the weather. I believe that this contribution to the field of family therapy has been very significant.
There are also specific traditions of the family therapy field that are generally accepted and that to some extent are distinguishing of the family therapy endeavour. For example, there is some degree of commitment to the sort of transparency that is witnessed in the sharing of ideas about practice through the showing of videos of therapeutic conversations and in a willingness on behalf of family therapists to undertake live interviews with families and to be available to comments and feedback from other therapists and students. This tradition of transparency has led not only to a context of openness, but also to challenge and creativity that I think has been very important.
You said earlier that you believe that the field of family therapy is constantly changing, can you give an example of these changes?
One change that comes immediately to mind is the outcome of the influence of feminism in family therapy. Feminism has been perhaps the most extraordinary social achievement of the last few decades, and I think its influence within family therapy has been enormous. I believe that it has contributed to a sea-change, many of the implications of which are still being worked out. I know that there has been a backlash to feminist ideas, but, despite this, the ripples are ever widening. Feminism has changed, and is continuing to change, so much of what we think and what we do.
Within the field of family therapy itself there have been many contributors to this development, including: Olga Silverstein, Betty Carter, Peggy Papp, Marianne Walters from the Women’s Project at the Ackerman Institute, Rachel Hare-Mustin, Monica McGoldrick and many others. In Australia, feminism had a particularly profound effect on the shape of family therapy practice through the early to mid-1980s. The 1980s’ initiation of the women only ‘Women and Family Therapy Meetings’ ahead of the annual Australian and New Zealand Family Therapy Conferences was a very significant milestone in this development. In concert with this development, women like Kerrie James and others effectively drew the attention of the Australian family therapy community to the politics and power relations of gender, and they continue to do so. More recently, in our part of the world, the work of The Family Centre of Wellington, New Zealand, has significantly changed the family therapy field’s ideas about issues of culture and partnership with other peoples.
What are some of the things that you are currently really enjoying about your work?
I really love meeting with the families that come to consult me. Every family I meet with is different and comes up with unique ideas to address their problems, many of which I find that I could never have predicted, nor imagined. It is in the context of these meetings that I always find new challenges for me to rethink the work that I am doing and to make changes to this. I find that I am always having to question what I think.
And I have always loved engaging with ideas, and with the history of ideas, which is a treat. This pursuit of ideas often takes me to reading outside of the field of therapy. Having a sense of engaging with ideas that take me beyond what I routinely think is good for me. There is always something else to discover.