Family Systems Theory

Individuals in society cannot be understood in isolation from one another. However, individuals must be viewed in the context of a family as described by Dr. Murray Bowen. In this case, the family is an emotional unit. A family is, therefore, a system of individuals who are interconnected and interdependent and understanding each requires an understanding of the whole. This paper looks at family therapy as it applies to the characters in ‘Namesake.’ The author aims to look at how individuals who are struggling with cultural differences, cultural identities, and alienation from the normal lives can be helped using the family system theory. The paper will look at challenges facing two of the main characters in the novel and how the theory can be used in helping them deal with the issues of identity and diversity.

The first character who needs social assistance, in this case, is Ashima as her journey into the American way of life is one that has been overshadowed by feelings of alienation, isolation, and despair. She had been hurriedly married to Ashoke in an arranged marriage at the age of 19 when he was in the middle of her studies. This was followed by the alienation from her homeland, relatives, as well as friends (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). Her mind is still overwhelmed by her love for her family. It is evident that Ashima’s life since marriage has been one affected by anxiety, uneasiness, as well as the psycho-sociological problem that include nostalgia, alienation, and mental issues depicted by Ashima as she has moved to a country where she has no relatives (Waro’i, 2016). Ashima did not want her children to grow in a place where she feels culturally alienated.

The Indian community in America provides the Gangulis with a family structure. The sense of communal belonging is essential in assigning Ashima in the upholding of the Bengali customs as well as rituals. Ashima feels part of the family when she takes part in such activities. Taking part in the Bengali communal activities helps in sustaining the sense of family in a community that is unknown (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). Ashima is also fighting to attain self-actualization that would have been essential for her when it comes to dealing with the confusion she had over the two cultures. The death of her husband escalated the alienation problem that Ashima felt especially because she had spent all her married life in America and proximity to her family members.

Ashima’s son Gogol is the other individual who needs assistance in developing his identity. He seemed confused with his identity and alienated from his family background. When they are forced to make a trip to India, Gogol does not want to engage with his heritage and does not enjoy the trip to Calcutta with his parents. The children view themselves as Americans and not Indians (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). Therefore, they are unable to connect to their parents’ heritage and homeland. They quickly forget the eight months that they had spent in India with their parents.

An analysis of Gogol reveals that he has an identity issue that initiates the qualms of his conscience leading to an internal conflict that Gogol will have to deal with for the rest of his life. Gogol is cut off from America as well as India, which means he does not have any sense of belonging (Waro’i, 2016). Gogol has been an isolated figure for a long time, as he does not understand his identity since he was born. He does not seek to understand the meaning of his name. He attributes the hollowness of his life to some of the failures he has seen from childhood to mid age. He has to deal with many obstacles and challenges if he is to establish his own identity between the two conflicting cultures successfully.

The first challenge is that he is a stereotypical immigrant child who is making an effort to fit into the American culture (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). The only way he can be able to do this is by alienating himself from his heritage as well as his values and customs as put forward by his parents. For this reason, he has a negative attitude towards the trip that the family had to make to India. He does not want anything to do with the Indian culture (Waro’i, 2016). His name worsens his identity crisis as it gives him a dilemma about his original identity. Therefore, Gogol has to deal with some of the conflicts that arise because of his Indian roots.

Gogol’ cultural alienation is escalated by the fact that he has faced some racial attacks based on his name. It is for this reason that Gogol is looking to have a name change in order to be able to project a new identity. It is evident that he has self-esteem issues as he attempts to deal with his alienation problem (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). It is clear that Gogol has self-inflicted his pain as he is the only one who does not believe in himself and has a negative attitude towards his name and identity. It is for this reason that he convinces the judge that his name is mysterious and he does not want to be associated with an alienating identity (Waro’i, 2016). Gogol feeling of lacking identity can be seen when he celebrates his birthday at his girlfriend’s house (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). Pamela does not accept him to be American despite his American citizenship. The identity crisis leaves him frustrated and only adds to his alienation from not only the Indian heritage but also the American culture that he wants to associate with.

Gogol does not get solace in marriage as either he still feels a sense of loss or loneliness that makes him feel shattered or the marriage ends in a fiasco. He had numerous intimate relationships that all ended up with the same outcome. What Gogol needs to understand and appreciate is the fact that identity does not only come from names, citizenships, and alluding to a certain background (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). He needed to use his roots, origin, and family bond in order to be inspired in finding his footing in the American society. Gogol only found the importance of family and heritage after the death of her father, which turns him into someone who gets to appreciate his name and origin of his people. The displacement that Gogol felt while in America was the contributing factor to his inability to connect at an intimate level (Waro’i, 2016). He felt a sense of alienation as well as isolation that prevent him from being able to make connections with other members of the community. Gogol may need assistance in realizing that identity and family connections are important in improving his wellbeing.

Family System’s Theory

The feelings that Gogol an Ashima felt can be explained in the context of the family systems theory as developed by Murray Bowen. In most cases, the individuals are inseparable from those networks of relationships that they have. Research shows that in this view, Murray was aiming at the creation of a scientific as well as the objective process of treatment that is an alternative to the diagnostic frameworks of the pathological language. The family systems theory can be used in explaining some of the issues that affect the two main characters analyzed above (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). Bowen’ assertions address the nuclear family emotional process as one of the eight elements.

A nuclear family usually experiences issues that revolve around four main areas that include the intimate partner conflict, some problematic behaviors, some emotional distance, as well as, impaired functionality in children (Titelman, 2014). Individuals in such a family can experience anxiety that may lead to alienation, as was the case with Ashima and Gogol who both isolated themselves from the society they lived with. The emotional system of the family is essential in enabling members to have an understanding of how different elements play out in practice. As a social worker assisting Gogol, it would be a prudent idea to focus on the family history in assisting Gogol to identify with his heritage and appreciate the differences that he has with the family members.

Concerning societal emotional process, there is need to focus on how different principles affect some of the emotional systems of the family and how the emotional system in a nuclear family affects the society (Titelman, 2014). A person may feel anxiety if there is no alignment between one’s principles and the society (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). In the novel, Ashima can be said to be in a state of regression as she is unable to accept the American culture. She feels alienated without the support of the family structure from Calcutta. This is evident when she was getting a baby and did not have the support of her family members. The alienation of an individual from his or her family members affects the way that they relate with members of the new culture (Siber & Riche, 2016). For example, Ashima was not in a position to be assimilated into the American culture as she continued looking for ways to maintain a bond with her Bengali culture. She does not change her mode of dressing in an attempt to maintain her culture.

According to Bowen, the driving force for families comes from anxiety (Titelman, 2014). The anxiety comes from a balance of separateness as well as connectedness that is in existence among family members across several generations (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). Based on the differentiation of self under the eight elements of the family systems theory, the social worker can come up with strategies that can regulate the emotional distance of family members from one another (Siber & Riche, 2016). Gogol, in particular, can benefit a lot from the use of strategies under the differentiation of the self (DoS). The DoS can be termed as the capacity of an individual to be able to exert their autonomy while being able to maintain an emotional connection to the family (Titelman, 2014). After the death of his father, Gogol was able to understand the importance of heritage and his name. The social worker should help Gogol and Ashima have a distinction between feelings and thoughts. Gogol is at the low end of DoS, which indicate fusion causing tension in the family system. Gogol is experiencing some emotional cutoff as well as the triangulation between the family members.

In the debate between culture and self, it is important to understand issues related to family history in order to appreciate the anxiety that Ashima and Gogol had living in a different culture (Titelman, 2014). One thing that that is clear is the relationship between individualism and collectivism. The United States is an individualistic society that usually fosters autonomy as well as independence. The individual in these societies is usually concerned with the attainment of personal goals over any other interest of groups. It is for this reason that Gogol was unable to buy into his father’s ideology of maintaining his heritage and culture. India is a collectivistic society that prioritizes in-group harmony and belonging. Therefore, Ashima was keen to ensure that there was respect for Bengali rituals at all times. Ashima shaped her behavior based on the cultural norms expectations of her Bengali cultures.

The family systems theory has boundaries among self, and other family members can be used as an indication of an imbalance of separateness and connectedness. The Bengali are used to living as a family unit with little autonomy amongst them. The implication is that there is bound to be a conflict between an individual and the family when an individual request some elements of autonomy (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). The issue of individualism and collectivism aspects of the family can be used to explain the anxiety that Ashima and Gogol have. However, the two members of the family are not able to understand the differences they have between them and what they should do. Gogol needs to understand that his parents have their behaviors modeled around the Bengali culture (Siber & Riche, 2016). In contrast, Gogol has his mind centered around the American culture and hence the alienation he feels from his heritage as held by his parents.  

There is an emphasis on the influence of family relationships on the development of an individual as well as the development of healthy autonomy (Becvar & Becvar, 2017). The family systems theory is usually based on the notion that a family is a system and must be viewed as a whole. The implication is that the actions of one individual affects the system and hence has an impact on others (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). It means that a family system has a role to play in identity development. An individual autonomy must be developed in the context of a warm relationship at all times. According to research by Waro’I (2016), identity development is considered a critical factor when it comes to the manufacturing process.

Consequently, there can be no successful identity development if there is no psychological autonomy as well as familial intimacy. To attain the two, then Gogol has to be trained in how to pursue personal goals while at the same time maintaining ties with his past and heritage. Gogol needs to understand that with personal exploration, making decisions and commitments while ensuring that there is a strong relationship with one’s family helps in the promotion of an identity. Alienating himself from his parent’s family does not help him when it comes to the development of an identity.

As a social worker, it is important to always uphold diversity at all times in order to ensure the success of the practice. The code of ethics requires each social worker to have an understanding of one’s family history when analyzing some of the challenges that are facing a client. In this case, we have two individuals who do not have a sense of belonging because of being in another culture (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). This raises the need for the social worker to promote social and cultural diversity of the two people. Ashima was born and brought up in a society that is concerned with the interests of a group as compared to personal goals. On the other hand, Gogol was born in America where individualism is promoted over group goals. The two have different cultural views, and hence the social worker has to understand their familial history as the first move towards assisting them effectively.

Gogol should be trained on how his family history knowledge can make a tremendous contribution to the development of family relatedness in the system. With family stories, a link between generations is developed coupled with a sense of connectedness and belonging. This leads to a positive family relationship. In the case of Gogol, it is clear that he did not want to have anything to do with his heritage in India. He did not enjoy the trip that the family made in India. His alienation from his heritage comes from the fact that he did not have any idea of how his people were back in Calcutta (Waro’i, 2016). The social worker should be able to instill the sense of appreciation to the family origin and the reason he was given the name Gogol. There is evidence to support the view that family knowledge may have a positive influence on the identity of the individual. There is a need to focus on the sense of self as well as relatedness when it comes to looking at how family history knowledge affects the development of an identity.

Adolescents have been found to draw on family stories and traditions in the constructions of a sense of self through an extensive exploration of roles and values. Family history knowledge usually enhances commitment to the increased emulation of the family values and traditions (Sarwar & Thontya, 2016). Gogol should be guided on how to focus on his family stories and how they can help him with the development of his identity. He would have been in a position to understand his parents in regards to why they wanted their children to maintain a connection with their Indian heritage.

The social worker should focus on assisting Ashima and Gogol to attain identity in the American society. This intervention is important as it helps in ensuring that the individuals are aware of how they can integrate between the American culture and the Indian one. It is paramount to help Gogol not only understand why his parents were acting the way they are acting towards him. This would ensure that he can combine both cultures in a way that does not have a negative impact on him and his relationship with parents. Listening to such an individual is one of the most important things if he is to have the right assistance. The social worker needs to assist individuals to set some goals in regards to identity. There is a need to make sure the client can drive themselves towards setting the right goals and making decisions by themselves. Helping an individual attain self-awareness concerning identity is ideal towards enabling Gogol to understand how to combine both cultures.


Family history knowledge is essential as it influences identity development of individuals in a society. This is essential especially in those families that are living in a community that isolated from their original background. Social workers are in a position to educate parents on the value of using family history stories in ensuring that there are increased family relationships. Moving to another country comes with cultural implications because of the diversity. In most cases, moving from a society that values group interests over personal interests to one that is individualistic raises many concerns for individuals as they find it hard to adjust in a new society. Ashima is unable to blend into the American way of life despite spending all her married life in the United States. She still wants her children to return to India where they can bond with their extended families in Calcutta. A social worker must ensure that he or she critically analyzes the background of his or her client in order to understand the source of anxiety that the individual may be having. Gogol and his mother have conflicting anxieties that can only be dealt with if the two are educated on how family history can promote commitment to traditional values and traditions. Identity does not only come from heritage and name but can also come because of being committed to the family values.


Becvar, R. J., & Becvar, D. S. (2017). Systems theory and family therapy: A primer. Rowman & Littlefield.

Sarwar, N., & Thontya, M. D. (2016). The Namesake: Case Study on the Development of Cultural and Personal Identity in the Work of Lahiri. New Horizons10(2), 105.

Siber, M., & Riche, B. (2016). Bengali cultural identity and ‘multi-cultural America’s in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003): A cultural anthropologist approach. ANGLISTICUM. Journal of the Association for Anglo-American Studies2(3), 264-270.

Titelman, P. (2014). Clinical applications of Bowen family systems theory. Routledge.

Waro’i, M. R. H. (2016). Identity negotiation of Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake (Doctoral dissertation, Universitas Islam Negeri Maulana Malik Ibrahim).

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