Self and Family in Flux


Self and Family in Flux: Opportunities and Risks Engendered by Change

Guler Okman Fisek, Prof. Dr., Ph.D.

Congress on Culture and Mental Health

November 27-29, 2002

Brussels, Belgium


While it is probably a true statement that the only constant in life is change, contemporary life seems to involve such an escalation in the speed and complexity of change that people are presented with very serious demands for adaptation.  It is a credit to humanity's resilience that most people are successful in this adaptation process.  In this presentation I will make some observations about the changing circumstances of Turkish individuals and families and try to derive some conclusions about avenues of successful adaptation.  To that end I will first present a brief schematic description of traditional ways of being for Turkish families and individuals, followed by the effects of social change on these ways of being, whether the change is due to local effects or immigration.  Some theoretical and empirical observations on adaptational processes will be followed by suggestions for intervention.


A Theoretical Framework

 The Multilevel Contextual Systems Perspective (Fisek, 1998; Fisek and Schepker, 1997) provides a framework within which to systematically describe human experience at different levels of collectivity, such as cultural, familial and individual; as well as comparing cross-cultural differences at these levels.  It is assumed that human experience at each level can be usefully described by two key dimensions. The dimension of "structure" refers to social organization, role relationships and power orders in group life and "relationship" refers to the degree of social and emotional interconnectedness.

            At the cultural level, social structure describes societies in terms of a bipolar dimension or continuum, ranging from a hierarchic/authoritarian structure to a horizontal/egalitarian one (Hsu, 1985; Kagitcibasi, 1990, 1996b; Roland, 1988). Relational ethos at this level ranges from individualism/separateness to collectivism/ relatedness (Kagitcibasi, 1985; 1996b; Triandis et al., 1988) in reflecting the preferred mode and extent of interconnectedness (Fisek, 1998). At the family level, structure is seen in the dimension of gender and generational hierarchy which varies in strength and identifies the power and role boundaries differentiating individuals and subsystems within the family system, while proximity varying in degree, reflects the interconnectedness and the emotional reactivity of the relationship network within the family (Fisek, 1991,  Minuchin, 1976; Wood, 1985). At the level of the individual, the very definition of selfhood can be seen to differ across cultures (Landrine, 1992; Kagitcibasi, 1990; Markus and Kitayama, 1991; Roland, 1988; Shweder & Bourne, 1984). At one pole of self structure is the “familial self”, an intrapsychic organization that allows the individual to find a niche for selfhood “within the hierarchic intimacy relations of the family”, while the other pole contains the “individualized self”, an intrapsychic organization which permits autonomous existence and development within a network of “contractual egalitarian relations” (Roland, 1988, p. 7-8). Relational style for the familial self involves "closeness through connections", an interpersonal relatedness that is assumed as a given; while for the individualized self it involves "closeness through autonomy", an interpersonal relatedness that is achieved through negotiated disclosure.

            Schematically, traditional Turkish culture is represented toward the hierarchic/relatedness end of the relevant dimensions,  however the cultural level will not be elaborated here.  The family leans towards strong hierarchy, involving a structure in which control and nurturance flow from the parents to the children, where every member has a differentiated role based on age and gender and where father has status primacy.  At the same time high proximity serves to add relational and affective depth to role based ways of being.  The self tends to be familial in structure and enjoys closeness through connection.  The individual is not self contained but exists in a familial and social context within which relational embeddedness is emphasized, where each individual has a niche understood by everybody (Fişek, 1998; Kağıtçıbaşı, 1996).  Expectations of intense emotional connectedness and reciprocity form the basis of intimate relationships, while less intimate relationships are governed by role prescriptions based on normative expectations.  While the outer self boundary is somewhat permeable, allowing easy connections between people, innermost wishes, thoughts and feelings tend to be kept private, and not directly communicated, rather there is a reliance on expectations of nonverbal communication and understanding (Fisek, 2002; Seckin, 1996).


Social Change Effects

            The traditional Turkish picture is being significantly disrupted by social change; democratisation, industrialization, urbanization and increased educational opportunity are transforming the society, however this change is not uniform; different sectors of the society adapt to social pressures in different ways (Fisek and Kagitcibasi, 1999). While patriarchal hierarchy is being eroded in the society and family, relational ethos and proximity remain significant forces (Fisek, 1991, 2002; Kagitcibasi, 1990, 1996a).  In the family while control based age and gender hierarchy are weakening, nurturant hierarchy involving protectiveness and close monitoring  continues (Fisek, 2002).  Thus while hierarchic distance due to power decreases, that due to respect and loyalty remains. 

At the individual level such changes might be reflected in a new kind of self organisation variously called “relational autonomous self” (Kagitcibasi, 1990, 1996 a, b), “expanding self” (Roland, 1988), and “individualised/familial self” (Fisek, 1998; 2002). Thus the individual is expected to act on the basis of his/her own predilections in addition to the privileges and duties ascribed to his/her position in the family, however reliance on emotional interconnectedness remains a central feature of one’s experience. In short heterogeneity and complexity pervade all levels, enabling structural change in a matrix of relational continuity.

            Understanding how a self expands to become more individualised would benefit from an exploration of the effects of cultural exposure (Fisek, 2002).  To the degree that cultural factors inform interpersonal relations, there will also be an impact on the internal mental representations of such relations.  Internal mental representations are  prototypic memories which help us predict and interpret future occurrences on the basis of past lived events.  Based as they are on an accumulation of memories, they tend to act as a  conservative force in interpreting current experience; however they can get updated with new experience. .Relational mental representations can emerge from those relational codes and behaviors deliberately taught within the family such as sex role behaviors; we can call these macro level representations, "what my mother taught me" (Fisek, 2002).  The child will internalise these codes, with some awareness and may be able to question them later with some level of awareness.

There are also micro level representations built up from experiences of  moment to moment affective give and take between the child and significant others from very early on.  Many such experiences involve nonverbal and maybe nonverbalisable ways in which culture is worked into individual identity: "what it was like to be with my mother".  These representations get worked into our relational styles and are hard to become aware of and question, they seem more like self evident givens.

A person exposed to different relational styles and wanting to change will undergo a process of partial, nonuniform, inconsistent transformation.  Relational paradigms derived from macro level experiences of inculcated culture will be more amenable to challenge than those based on micro level experiences.   To the degree that there is overlap in these experiences and representations, the individual is likely experience conflict, ambivalence and inconsistency.  Thus the expanding and individualising self is also likely to present a picture of multiplicity, contradiction and compartmentalisation.

            In short it would appear that the dominant feature of the evolving culture, of changing families and  the expanding Turkish self is one of partial movement, complexity and  compartmentalisation (Roland, 1988).  Different, sometimes contradictory clusters of experience, thought and feeling can exist side by side.  If this is indeed so, then it is important to explore the implications of  such partial change for adaptation and distress at each level of human existence.  Multiplicity is actually seen at the cultural, familial and individual level, however for the sake of brevity the cultural level will not be addressed there,


Opportunities for Adaptation

            Families are adaptive systems, they do change in order to maintain health, growth and coherence in the face of changing environmental conditions, in a number of ways.  It is not always easy to predict what kinds of conditions facilitate families' ability to transform themselves in response to external change. One hypothesis is as follows. Just like individuals, a family system cannot change in all respects at once, small partial changes need to occur in the process of overall transformation (Hoffman, 1981). Thus one subsystem can begin to change while others remain in the old way of functioning. Children, for example, can begin to develop new attitudes, while their parents remain wedded to old ideas. This is possible if there are clear boundaries which allow subsystems to function independently of each other to some degree. In enmeshed systems that are "too richly cross-joined" (Hoffman, 1981, p. 71), change in one member immediately sets off a reaction in other members that is too stressful and triggers negative feedback chains rather than transformation.

            Subsystem boundaries that allow partial change can exist along the hierarchy or proximity dimensions.  In the traditional Turkish family system, partial change is ensured by virtue of its hierarchic boundaries regarding gender and generation, since high proximity by itself would engender enmeshment. Individuals in the female or child subsystems can engage in activities that they do not share with those in authority over them; hierarchic distance between father and child can allow the father "not to be aware of" some newfangled activities and interests of the child and so on.

            Thus seemingly oppressive boundaries can paradoxically serve to create subsystem autonomy, allow relative individuation and subsystem change and moderate the effects of otherwise too richly cross joined proximity. The key position here is that of the mother, who acts as a buffer (Kiray, 1976) between father's authority and children's wishes, and she becomes the most potent force for gradual change in the traditional Turkish family (Gokce et al, 1993).

            In more modern sectors, families who want to embrace different ways of being, will weaken hierarchic control deliberately and opt for a more democratic, autonomous life within the family, while still maintaining nurturance and closeness.  This system provides the individual with a matrix of safety and acceptance, within which to experiment with expanded self assertion and intimacy across generations and genders.  This partial diffusion of hierarchic boundaries also undermines the culturally promoted macro level parameters of selfhood and identity, leaving room for more individualised developmental trajectories.. The positive here is the knowledge that one need never be alone, even while choosing to go off on one's own, there is always acceptance back home (Akhondzadeh, 2002; Seckin, 1996).


Risks of Distress

Some families intent on avoiding the threat they experience from pressures to change, try to resist through a conservative homeostatic process involving negative feedback (Hoffman, 1981), and members pursuing new or deviant ways of being and behaving are brought back in line with family norms. Thus for example a teenager's attempts to copy the latest fashions are blocked by the elders and the old hierarchy prevails. When homeostatic conservative forces are predominant, the family can close in on itself and rigidify external boundaries, stifling change. This is probably the case of many ghettoized Turkish families sequestered in the gecekondus (shantytowns) of Istanbul as well as the "Turkish sections" of host towns in Europe. These families can remain stable as long as external demands can be contained but at the cost of oppressing members. The more immediate risk is for the structurally most vulnerable member, lowest in the family hierarchy, the preadolescent or adolescent girl, who is likely to be the most oppressed..

            Another adaptational process can be set off when the pressure to change is of such magnitude that it transcends the self corrective ability of the family, members oppose each other; and an escalating conflict is set off, in which deviant behavior is met by symmetrical counterbehavior, a positive feedback sequence (Hoffman, 1981) increasing the stresses within the family, rigidifying intrafamilial subsystem boundaries, distancing members from each other. Here, if escalation goes unchecked, system breakdown in the form of divorce, intrafamily violence, delinquency, etc. can occur. The particular risk here involves especially the adolescent boy, who is most open to the outside, subject to pressure from both family and environment. The outcome is likely to be generational conflict (Sluzki, 1979), runaways and delinquency.

            In all this distress over change, the member with the most to lose is the father, whose hierarchic standing is eroded by children who are more adaptable. Giving up power is difficult, protecting his status by increasing hierarchic distance can alienate him further from his family and may prove unsuccessful, leaving him prey to violent outbursts, avoiding the home or a variety of decompensations, depression and substance abuse being primary. The mother, usually caught in the middle between father and children, open to the pain of all members is similarly at risk, most often manifesting this pain in somatic complaints..

            In the case of more modern families deliberately seeking change, the risk has to do with managing the hierarchy-proximity balance.  Opening channels of communication so that children can have access to decision making and self expression, weakens generational hierarchy, while increased spousal communication and self expression weakens gender hierarchy.  However nurturant hierarchy, protective caretaking expectations across genders and generations is not weakened (Bovete, 1986; Fisek, 1998).   Coupled with continuing high intrafamilial proximity, this situation can create heightened emotionality and expectations, leading to a need for negotiation of boundaries.  However these people cannot rely on negotiation skills from their traditional background, different rules apply here; the risk of disillusionment, confusion and conflict is evident.  The father is again likely to distance himself from the emotionally charged atmosphere, while the mother is likely to get enmeshed with the children.  The outcome can be one of gender and generational conflict, symptomatic children, while for the adults vaccillation in behaviors, conflict and a sense of powerlessness and possibly divorce is to be expected (Fisek and Scherler, 1996)..

            The risk for the individual is that if the developmental trajectories diverge too far from the norm, there is the risk of disapproval, rejection and loneliness.  It is not easy to assert one's autonomy while at the same time seeking continued acceptance and support.   Further there is an internal psychic risk of being alienated from one's inner "private self" (Roland, 1988) resulting in conflict and ambivalence.  While attempting to challenge macro level representations, one can be held back by unacknowledged micro level representations.


Migration Effects

            It would appear that the Turkish family gets significantly more strained in external than internal migration. In internal chain migration, women quickly form support networks and get on with the process of gradually pushing their families toward the good things of city life, especially in the form of education for their children (Gokce, et al, 1993). In external migration women tend to lose the most resources; having less freedom of movement, being less likely to work and encounter the host culture, and thus to speak the language. This situation would make it difficult for Turkish families in foreign countries to engage in gradual, partial change.


Some Empirical Examples

The section above addresses the vicissitudes of change, going from the traditional and familial towards the more individualised, without surrendering relatedness, adapting to change without undue distress.  While being far from a total review, the following  section presents a number of empirical findings that provide support for the more theoretical assertions made above.

The first set of examples will be from a series of studies conducted on the familial self and change among university students (Akhondzadeh, 2002; Seckin, 1996; Sinan, 1998; Tokgoz, 1999).  The results which were very consistent with each other can be summarised as follows: The traditional Turkish family with its strong hierarchy and  high degree of proximity provides a matrix for the development of a self which can be called familial.  There is a clear move towards more individualism but a basic familial self remains strong.  Education and exposure to different life styles fuel this change, which shows itself in questioning of one's identity, a search for more internal psychological autonomy, protecting such autonomous strivings.  What is desired is an acknowledgement of differences, disagreements, even separation, all within a matrix of reliable interdependence and closeness.  The move towards individualisation is more evident with peers than parents.  The need for individualised decision making power is strong enough to  lead to a defiance of familial pressures, yet at the cost of admitted internal conflict.  Despite the conflict there is no acknowledgement of defeat, instead a determination to cling to both individualisation and familialness.

Another study on the concepts of independence and interdependence (Dayi, 1997) supported the idea of partial change, where desired autonomy is "conditional", i.e., accepteble in certain circumstances, independence is "self reliance" not separateness, and psychological separation within the family is achieved  through reliance on subsystem boundaries, such that parents, siblings or gendermates can keep their affairs separate from the other subsystems.  In a context of weakening hierarchy, balancing the degree of proximity seems to be made manipulating distances between people, emotional ( dealing with one's feelings by oneself), physical (being physically separated), and personal (having own hobbies) (Dayi, 1997, p.100).

A study conducted by Schepker and Fisek (2000) comparing gecekondu families in Istanbul with Turkish worker families in the Ruhr section of Germany concluded that internal migrants tended to be more urban, more educated and more "westernised" in their attitudes towards psychological problems in their children.  For example they were more apt to recommend seeking an expert rather than religious counsel, they saw children's psychological problems as more rooted in lack of affection and interest than the "laziness" of the child..  The German Turks, however showed indications of compartmentalisation in stating that they would seek a traditional healer (hoca) as well as a professional expert.

Two studies conducted in the mid eighties and the mid nineties on low ses families and their elementary school age children indicated that weak hierarchy coupled with high proximity was associated with more behavior problems in the children (Fisek, 1991).  In fact for this sector of the society, a moderately conservative mode of authoritative parenting, yet a more contemporary mutuality in the emotional life of the couple produces positive outcomes in both parents and children, while traditional benign neglect of the child's psychological well being has the opposite effect (Fisek, 2001).  Social change is most apparent in the changing role and increasing status of the mother, both of which induce stress for the husband; however this stress seems to be compartmentalised within spousal boundaries and the children do not appear seriously affected.

            In summary the above mentioned research seems to indicate that while the bedrock of the traditional familial self and familial relatedness remains strong, individuals and  families are finding a variety of ways of expanding their range of experiencing and relating, changing some features of the traditional family landscape to suit their emerging needs, while hanging on to that which they find valuable.


Implications for Intervention

            Social scientists and health service professionals dealing with such a landscape

need to ask themselves how best to facilitate individuals' and families' adaptation to the changes occurring around them.  In actual fact most families and individuals manage very well on their own, without external help and experience themselves as successful (Gokce et al, 1993).  However there are those who need help in coping and moving on.  The above material suggests some pointers that would be useful to keep in mind:

1.       Identifying the loci of change and resistance within the family.  In planning any kind of family intervention be it therapeutic or educational, it is important to identify the locus of the pressures for change and adaptation and plan accordingly.  While we may have a clear idea of our goals and methods, it is still important to do an initial needs assessment for particular client groups. 

2.       Related to this is the issue of recognising hierarchy.  Attacking traditional hierarchy head on is counterproductive and dangerous.  Not only will it produce resistance, sudden and extreme erosion of hierarchy will lead to disruption in the family as explained earlier.  Respectful recognition of the families' ongoing ways of being is a very important starting point, along with an awareness of the opportunities offered by partial subsystem change.

3.       Supporting the low SES mother.  Given that the mother emerges as the key facilitator of change in the family, she needs to be supported in all areas where she needs help, ranging from literacy training to self support training to parent education.  The higher ses mothers do not need this particular kind of support, at least not in the same way.

4.       Supporting the low SES father.  This member of society has few resources and yet the most to lose on all fronts from change.  He cannot and should not be ignored or treated as an exemplar of patriarchal hierarchy to be overcome.  Such an approach can only lead to risks of rigidified  resistance or intrafamilial conflict.  They need to be understood and supported as much as the mothers.

5.       Supporting  higher SES couples.  In this case the couple can be seen as a unit since their starting premise seems to be a shared one of increased democracy.  The problem here seems to be one of how these parents define democracy, namely as more friendly interest and closeness to their children, not as more egalitarianism (Bovete, 1986).  This phenomenon is easy to understand, friendliness is a reflection of weakened control hierarchy without a weakening of nurturant hierarchy, that is willingness to let the child suffer the consequences of his/her acts.  As explained earlier such a structure risks enmeshment and distress and parents have to be helped to restructure their approach without giving up appropriate authority, while giving up too close monitoring.

6.       Recognising that avenues for successful adaptation and change can be found in an awareness of the enabling use of methods of partial, compartmentalised movement.  That means a very westernised insistence on total coherence and consistency is likely to be counterproductive and that the professionals have to extend their horizons about how development and change occur.


Looking at the above suggestions, it is clear that they all hinge on the crucial roles of proximity and hierarchy as key features of the Turkish family.  Recognition of the ramifications of these dimensions and how they interact to produce the kinds of families and individuals we are dealing with, will go a long way in helping us help them.




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