One important requirement for Bowen theory in science is a standardized methodology with which to track what theory describes as “emotional process.” This is a basic requirement for any scientific theory. Emotional process is the manner in which individuals in a human system automatically interact to solve a problem. Emotional process can be productive toward solving the problem or unproductive as agitation increases. The application of Bowen theory is aimed at making emotional process as productive as possible.
Bowen theory describes characteristics of emotional process. But this description does not rest on a systematically collected dataset that can be replicated. The Toward and Away symbols in Family Diagram represent one effort to develop a way to collect such a dataset.
Daily logging appears to be one way that anyone can begin to experiment in accruing such a dataset in their own lives. The Family Diagram app makes daily logging more sophisticated and possibly even fun. Such an effort requires inductive thinking, which is integral to the development of emotional objectivity. Inductive thinking challenges what a person thinks they know about emotional process and their own part in it.
What are Toward and Away?
A description of the toward and away symbols can be found in the article: New Family Diagram App Symbols, Rapid Logging, and More. In summary, toward and away are currently analogous to approach and avoid in biology and animal/human psychology. These definitions are still provisional in Bowen theory. They may well describe the “atomic operations” of Bowen theory, which must be defined for any rich data model of biological behavior. Atomic operations are the indivisible actions that underly the complexity of emotional process, regardless of the complexity involved. In other words, if toward and away are actually atomic operations of Bowen theory, then they are the basic moves that are always occurring underneath the many variations of triangles and interlocking triangles.
A phone call is a toward move by one person to another. An argument is two simultaneous toward moves from each individual to the other. A heart-warming valentines day between two people is also two simultaneous toward moves.
An amicable resignation from a board position is several simultaneous away moves from the resigner to each of the other board members (or just one to the board, depending). So is a person “ghosting” (i.e. stopping contact without notice) another person they met through a dating app. So is avoiding a Christmas holiday. So is spending a few days apart from someone because you had an argument with them.
Daily Logging and Differentiation
Watching one’s own moves every day provides an opportunity to assume the “research position.” In the application of Bowen Theory, the research position is the default starting point for an effort at differentiation. A goal is not to miss a single move. However, this takes practice and probably even coaching, especially in the beginning.
Many challenges become immediately apparent as soon as a person begins an effort at daily logging. These challenges ruthlessly reveal weaknesses in what one believes one knows about emotional process. One must choose what to track, when to track it, and how to analyze the results.
Indeed, some of these weaknesses are in Bowen theory itself. Some examples are; defining which of the many degrees of detail to log, what to call a toward and what to call an away, and what to do with the “triangle” concept when recording observations.
The problem of level of detail is one area where vagueness in the theory is obvious. Bowen theory provides definitions that pertain to long-term shifts/moves in a multigenerational history just as much as moment-to-moment shifts/moves in a single conversation. For example, making a phone call is as much a toward move as hanging up the phone is an away. Tracking every beginning and ending to every interaction would be practical over shorter time periods but impractical over longer time periods. Thus, each logger still has to choose the level of detail that is appropriate to their goal.
A basic scientific principle is that these parameters must be defined before an experiment. Changing these parameters as one goes erodes objectivity in the effort. It increases the chances of bias from impulsively changing the observations to fit one’s suspicions.
However, it is also important to adapt when necessary. Perhaps more changes occur earlier in a research effort. Research on one’s own part in emotional process is certainly “early” in the arc of scientific research. At this stage, it is synonymous with “basic” or “exploratory” research.
Regardless of the state of research on emotional process, clear definitions prior to the effort make it easier to see the kind of variations in observations that the whole effort is aimed at finding.
For example, In my own effort I have only been logging “notable” moves. I am not even logging something every day. My own goal is mostly just to refine the definitions themselves and this way of logging is perfectly sufficient for that goal. Others may choose to record moment-to-moment interactions at a business meeting or a family phone call. Others may only log important shifts over weeks, not minutes.
The toward and away data model is flexible enough to accommodate this, but every logger must make these kinds of decisions for themselves.
Most importantly, any effort at logging must be falsifiable. (See the “Methodology” section of this link for a description of falsifiable observations and predictions). Broadly speaking, if an observation is not falsifiable then it is not scientific but an opinion. Any effort at accumulating valid and reliable knowledge must be falsifiable. Though the criteria or even definition of science remains as debated as ever, there is a strong argument for falsifiable prediction being a basic characteristic of knowledge inherent in nature (See The Role of Modeling in Scientific Theory for more).
It looks to be a basic challenge for many to understand the difference between something that is falsifiable and something that is not. This appears to come more easily to engineers than physicists because they work exclusively with falsifiable ideas while physicists also speculate with theoretical concepts. It comes easier to biologists than social scientists. It seems to come easier to psychologists than sociologists. It seems to come easier to social scientists with training in quantitative research than those without it.
The toward and away data model is not totally falsifiable because their definitions are not clear enough to record them without human perception and cognition as the recording instrument. But they are more falsifiable than many social science concepts.
Aside from their imperfect definitions, toward and away are mostly falsifiable because they can occur both 1) in the management of tension between people, and 2) apart from the management of tension. A triangle is defined as one move that is simultaneously toward one and away from another. Not all moves are a triangle.
Thus, toward and away can be used to ask the falsifiable question, “Do triangles actually occur with sufficient tension?” The question is falsifiable because it can be false. The data model defines what data would not constitute triangles occurring with sufficient tension. That would be scenarios where triangles occur even when anxiety is low.
Another question a person is immediately confronted with is determining what is trackable and what is not. This is precisely a challenge of emotional objectivity. A person can notice that emotional process is occurring, but not know what to track. Even if something is clearly important to track, they may avoid recording the move(s) as they are happening for various reasons.
Another way this occurs is that aspects of emotional process can appear quite uninteresting while they are occurring, or even one day after. My own experience is that it very often takes at least one day to be able to see that an important event had occurred. Often this retrospective view is perfectly obvious with enough time. It is then a challenge to have the staying power to go back and record what is now obvious.
Another challenge is determining exactly what is a toward and what is an away. A wonderful principle of research is that you can track whatever you want so long as you use clear and consistent definitions. The ability to predict is always the ultimate test of what was tracked.
Definitions for toward and away have been provided here and elsewhere on this site. These are reasonably useful definitions, but they are not perfect. Whether a person uses these definitions or uses better definitions of their own, they will have to get clear on what definition they are actually using when watching day to day.
Some Personal Anecdotes
In my own effort, I saw things I had never seen before even in the first two concerted efforts at logging. In those cases I was recording emotional process over a few minutes with a small and known system. I saw a no-self position held by someone I had assumed was a leader. I also saw a move to define self in someone I assumed was a chronic no-self for the first time. These had always been occurring, but I had no opportunity to see them until I found a way to keep track of what was happening in a falsifiable manner.
I also saw this same well-known system not triangle for the first time. I tracked a series of interactions during an annual event that had predictably produced lots of tension in the past. When I looked at what I had recorded, all I saw toward moves and no away moves. I took this as evidence the toward and away model was broken.
But I later realized that this was actually evidence that the model was falsifiable. That is, that both toward and away moves occur with enough tension, and perhaps only toward moves occur when tension is low enough. A basic proposition of Bowen theory is that triangles form to contain rising tension. A falsifiable experiment aimed at asking this question would have to define outcomes that both prove it correct and prove it incorrect (incorrect is “false,” i.e. falsified).
The model had simply shown that it can track instances where there was not enough tension to show triangling. I now had some sequences that showed triangling and some that did not. I could then move on to asking the logical next question, “How does one record the level of tension in a manner that predicts triangling.” That was progress.
Daily logging provides an opportunity to get clearer about what one observes, and what one makes of their observations. Everything is merely hypothetical until data is tracked. This forces one to confront many problems in one’s own thinking.
Once something is recorded in a systematic way, it is finally possible to offer one’s suspicions up for critique from coaches or colleagues. Good-faith critique is the cornerstone of science. Science is asking, “I suspect I see a pattern here, here is why I think I see a pattern, and I am asking you to do everything you can to find the faults in my suspicion.” Science is not, “Here is the pattern I see and here is how I am going to convince you that I am right.” It is not possible to receive legitimate critique without data, without examples.
Toward and away are candidate falsifiable atomic operations of emotional process. There may be better candidates out there. Regardless, daily logging of falsifiable atomic operations may provide an accessible way to get clearer about what one really knows and does not know about emotional process.