President’s Letter: The Multidisciplinary Nature of Family Science

William D. Allen, NCFR President
William D. Allen

Just before the holidays I had the chance to have brunch with one of my mentors from graduate school. As you might expect, before long the conversation turned to how much the Family Science field had changed, yet how many of its original challenges remained. A specific area of tension we noted was the need to establish a unique identity while still honoring the diverse backgrounds from which we (and our founders) emerged. Our discussion caused me to recall how I got interested in families and their emotional well-being.

I started my undergraduate studies as a premed student but quickly switched to child psychology because it seemed clear to me that people could be better served by avoiding psychological problems,  rather than by trying to fix problems after they had already taken root. I was lucky enough to be at Brown at a time when several eminent child psychologists were teaching there, and I spent many hours at a children’s hospital in Providence that specialized in treating child and adolescent behavioral disorders. But as much as I was fascinated by child psychology (and psychology in general), I became increasingly disenchanted with the idea that individuals could be treated in isolation from their families. It also seemed odd to assume that all children would benefit from treatments that ignored the larger cultural and socioeconomic factors shaping their lives. And although we focused on children, I heard very little talk about families or family systems theory.

Fast-forward two decades (and a brief sojourn in the business world), and I found myself considering applying to graduate programs in either counseling or child psychology, but this time there was a new player on the block. A graduate program at the University of Minnesota focused on something called “family social science,” and after talking with several of the faculty there (and at other more traditional psychology programs in town), it became clear that this “new” discipline was a much better fit for the work I was interested in doing with children and their families. Although it was new to me, I learned that the Family Science field had been evolving for several decades. Contextual factors like race/ethnicity and gender also seemed part of this discipline’s formulation, as opposed to something that needed to be retrofitted to long-held beliefs regarding the universality of mental illnesses.

One aspect of Family Science I found particularly intriguing (and yet,  a bit enigmatic) was the notion that it was a multidisciplinary field. As a student and new professional, it was often difficult to imagine just what profession I was entering, or what (specifically) I could do as a “Family Scientist.” At the time, I didn’t appreciate the significance of the term multidisciplinary, but over the years I have come to believe that it is what makes the family field unique in the panoply of social and behavioral sciences. (It is also the reason I’m convinced that NCFR should always strive to be the best NCFR it can be, and not (as some have called for) to be more like the American Psychological Association, the Society for Research in Child Development, or the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy). Our multidisciplinary heritage is what has enabled us to incorporate important theoretical concepts from other fields while also synthesizing larger, theoretical models that more accurately describe the lived experiences of family members and family processes.

As the brunch discussion concluded, my mentor observed how she saw the fields of Family Science, child development, and psychology merging. This makes sense, as each of these related disciplines holds important pieces of the human experience puzzle. And yet there is still much work to be done in bringing this understanding to the rest of the world. It is much less common these days to hear child psychologists talk about treating children in isolation from their parents, or to see a clinician attempt to treat one partner’s depression without assessing the quality of the relationship between partners, but it does happen. We are getting better at designing research that accounts for contextual factors and so ensures a more nuanced understanding of familial relationships (particularly those of increasingly diverse families) and at avoiding the temptations of stereotyping, overgeneralizing, or relying too heavily on convenient methods.

So, as we begin another year, I am thinking more about how NCFR can embrace its multidisciplinary roots while doing a bit of evangelizing about the need for us to seek and build upon “common ground” in a world that often celebrates division and tribalism. Our organization must face the challenge of growing its membership at a time when resources for collaboration are shrinking. We must also find new ways to make our scholarship and practice-based evidence more accessible to families and those who serve them. And we still have a long way to grow in partnership with our colleagues around the globe, from whom we can learn as much as we can share. It may be that in our research, our scholarship, and our practice, we can consistently model important concepts like mutual respect, a spirit of collegiality, an ability to embrace ambiguity, and a healthy sense of curiosity, and do these for a nation, and a world, that sorely needs them.

Wishing you the best in 2017,

Bill Allen

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