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Family therapy and holistic complexity

An Ethnographic Approach to therapeutic practice in a Norwegian psychiatric clinic.


Family therapy emerges from an intellectual trajectory that, in the aftermath of World War II, generated a particular psychotherapeutic ambition to deal not only with individual pathology, but also with relational systems and the way they failed to adapt adequately to a changing environment. We find this ambition highly fascinating, as it seems to have produced a particular inspiration toward experimentation and intellectual, existential reflection. On the basis of anthropological fieldwork at Modum Bad Psychiatric Clinic, Norway, in 2013, we explore in this chapter how therapists and patients at the Family Unit constructed social contexts that could serve as vehicles for reflection, experimentation, and change. An important part of our task, as we came to see it, was to try to understand the therapeutic effects of contextual shifts, as the particular experience of social complexity it generated seemed very meaningful and helpful for patients. We argue that the intellectual resources provided by family therapy as an academic and therapeutic tradition have been applied at Modum Bad so as to make mental problems and relational challenges as a more or less common human set of issues to be dealt with in therapeutic arenas that take the form of “public spaces.” As all actors take part in contextual shifts but grasp the opportunity this provides for assuming different roles, points of view, and ways to talk about problems, they “objectify” problematic aspects of their own selves and behavioral patterns such as to make them into potentially transparent objects of manipulation.

Key words: Family therapy. Ethnography. Social context. Holistic complexity. Boundary. Attachment.