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  • Writer's pictureSasha Raskin, MA

Structural Family Therapy and Functionalism: The Family as a Machine

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In my work as a family therapist in Boulder, whether it's individual therapy, couples therapy, or family therapy, I always take into account the larger picture: What is the person's role in the family? How is the family structured? What are the patterns in the family that contribute to the family members' happiness and the family's resilience, and what is actually hurting everyone?

Structural family therapy is the result of the work of Salvador Minuchin and his colleagues during the 1960s (Vetere, 2001). This theory exists as part of the systemic view of family therapy, that looks for the source of human distress within the system, rather than just in the individual: "Structural family therapy is a body of theory and techniques that approaches individuals in their social and relational contexts." (p.1). Structural family therapy focuses on the structures within the family that contribute to the way it functions. It has been found empirically useful in treating children and families. In this modality, the positive therapeutic change is achieved by examining the way that the family is organized, with its spoken and unspoken rules, and its subsystems, and by changing the organizational patterns that are unhelpful, such as communication ways that cause harm to members of the family.

Functionalism is a way of looking at phenomena as mechanisms:

The core element in functionalist logic is that questions about "why" things exist are actually explained by "how" things exist or the thing's function. For example, we might explain why we have a heart by citing the need for a pump in our circulatory system. Thus, the heart is explained by the function it performs within a larger system and context. (White & Klein, 2008, p. 34-35).

When Nichols and Schwartz (2017) say, “The consistent patterns of family behaviors are what allow us to consider that they have a structure, though only in a functional sense”, it seems that they are interested in the way that families are organized both in a functionalist way and through the lens of structural family therapy. Their view refers to the structure of a family as a way to look at how it functions: "a function is required for maintaining a social structure." (White & Klein, 2008, p. 35).

Sasha Raskin, a therapist in Boulder, provides individual ,family, and couples therapy / counseling in Boulder, Colorado, and worldwide via video and phone calls, drawing from over ten years of clinical experience. Schedule your free 20-minute phone consultation with Sasha Raskin


Vetere, A. (2001). Structural Family Therapy. Child and Adolescent Mental Health,6(3), 133-139. doi:10.1111/1475-3588.00336

White, J. M., & Klein, D. M. (2008). Family theories (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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