Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy

Living Edition
| Editors: Jay Lebow, Anthony Chambers, Douglas C. Breunlin

Autopoiesis in Family Systems Theory

  • Michelle A. FinleyEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_244-1

Name of Concept




In the early development of family therapy, general systems theory offered a mechanistic view for explaining interactions among family members (Bateson 1972). Early family therapy work also was based on first-order cybernetics, which viewed families as self-stabilizing systems by employing homeostasis and feedback (Jackson 1957; Weiner 1948). These ideas focused on how family systems stabilize and organize. Family therapy underwent further refinement through the inclusion of second cybernetics, which focuses on processes such as positive feedback and deviation-amplification to explain how family systems are dynamic (Maruyama 1963). Autopoiesis originated in biology and was then adapted to other fields including family therapy (Mingers 1995). Family therapy theorists Dell (1982a, b, 1985), Keeney (1982), and Watzlawick (1984) brought the concept of autopoiesis to family therapy, which underscored a core feature of family systems (Mingers 1995). The emergence of autopoiesis refined the idea that family systems are self-regulating, autonomous systems and that changes to the system from external sources such as a therapist only occur via perturbations through the therapist’s conversations with the family (Mingers 1995).

Theoretical Context for Concept

Autopoiesis has its roots in the work of biologist and cybernetics theorist Humberto Maturana who sought to distinguish between living and nonliving systems with the former being “self-referred” and the latter being “other-referred” (Maturana and Varela 1980; p. xii.). Autopoiesis, which is derived from Greek, literally means “self-making” and can be broken into its constituent parts: auto meaning “self” and poiesis meaning “making” or “creation” (Capra and Luisi 2014). Maturana and Varela (1980) coined the term “autopoiesis” in their pursuit to understand and define what the essential characteristics of a living system are, and they postulated that the main characteristic of life is the ability to achieve self-maintenance through internal processing and networking that continuously reproduces itself within a self-made boundary. The most basic example of a biological autopoietic process would be the cell, which is an autonomous entity that has a cell membrane or boundary enclosing the cell’s various structures and components (e.g., nucleus, mitochondria). Crucially, the cell is able to produce and be produced by nothing other than itself. These qualities comprise an autopoietic process that defines what it means to be a living system (Maturana and Varela 1980).

Varela extended Maturana’s work on autopoiesis to include social systems, which he termed “autonomous systems” meaning any system comprised of elements that may or may not themselves be autopoietic (Varela 1979). Many family therapy theorists influenced by constructivism and Maturana’s ideas viewed family systems as autopoietic in the sense that families maintained themselves through rules and patterns formed over time, and families distinguish themselves from other systems by their self-made boundaries (Dell 1985; Leyland 1988).

Finally, language connects Maturana’s descriptions of autopoiesis and social systems to how autopoiesis is viewed in family systems theory. Maturana and Varela (1980) viewed language as fundamental to being human, and they posited that the outcome of language is determined within the cognitive domain of the listener such that the listener’s behavior is ultimately determined by his or her own structure and organization and not the speaker directly. This concept was expanded to the family system whose response to language is determined by the structure and organization of the family system itself in addition to the corresponding cognitive domains of each family member (Mingers 1995).


Autopoiesis is the process where a living system internally responds to messages from all components of itself in order to preserve its organization enabling the system to exist and remain identifiable (Leyland 1988). Any changes living systems make are determined by their own structure and how they are organized rather than due to external triggers, which Maturana refers to as “structural determinism” and “non-instructive interaction.” Structural determinism is the idea that a living system’s structure and organization informs how a living system is configured and responds to perturbations external to the living system. Non-instructive interaction is the notion that living systems respond differently to the same external perturbation because the system itself determines how it will behave, not the external perturbation or information. Maturana further notes that if living systems were instructable, then they would all achieve the same state under the same external perturbations.

Maturana recognized that autopoietic systems exist within a medium through which the system interacts with other systems. This process of interaction is called “structural coupling.” Although the autopoietic system’s structure determines how it will respond to a given external perturbation, autopoietic systems interact reciprocally with other entities in their environment (structural coupling), which can also lead to structural change that alters the future behavior of the autpoietic system (Goolishian and Winderman 1988; Leyland 1988; Mingers 1995).

Application of Concept in Couple and Family Therapy

Autopoiesis is most relevant to the ideas promulgated within the constructivist schools of family therapy (Goolishian and Winderman 1988) and autopoietic-like concepts can be seen in the Milan School of family therapy (Mingers 1995). The specific framing within the Milan School is to see families as “self-regulating systems” that maintain control via rules and patterns formed over time (Selvini Palazzoli et al. 1978; p. 3). Further, the Milan School, like Maturana and Varela’s view of social systems, sees family systems as noninstructive to external triggers such that perturbations by a therapist do not automatically produce changes in the family system. Leyland (1988) defined the family as a complex system consisting of two or more autopoietic structurally determined individuals who are structurally coupled to one another.

In the context of therapy, a therapist would see herself as only triggering a response in the family, not directing one. When a family receives the message that it should be different, it will likely respond by maintaining itself as it is, which is traditionally labeled as “resistance.” However, when considering that a family is autopoietic and structurally determined, this process can be seen instead as the structurally coupled system trying to be itself (Leyland 1988). Autopoiesis offers a framework for understanding the paradox of change and stability among family systems such that a family therapist would see herself as someone who helps facilitate rather than directs change in families.

The existing structural coupling of the family undergoes change during crisis or at critical junctures such as a birth, death, or divorce leading to a new pattern or view of reality that must emerge as the system evolves (Leyland 1988). This notion is similar to the Milan view that a family presents symptomatically in therapy when its view of reality has become outdated and no longer fits the current system. Thus, the therapist is to facilitate change that allows the family to create a new reality for itself. This facilitation best occurs when the nature of structural coupling between the therapist and the family is such that the therapist enters the family system as though she were an equal member who gains permission to question the family’s current reality and introduces new connections to facilitate the family’s ability to extend its cognitive and behavioral patterns, which is also known as taking a second-order cybernetics stance (Hoffman 1985; Leyland 1988).

Clinical Example

A husband, wife, and their 14-year-old daughter enter therapy for help with their daughter’s frequent outbursts and truancy. Both parents feel helpless to change the situation and have “tried everything.” The therapist employs “positive connotation” (therapist offers a positive view of the effects problematic behavior has on family members) to effect change. The therapist states that the teen’s behavior has brought together her parents in a way that has not happened since she was a little girl. The intervention helps the family shift their perspective and frees them to consider alternative paths toward connection apart from the symptomatic behavior (changing their structural coupling). Using positive connotation is likely most effective with the therapist entering the family system as an equal with no urge to directly change anyone because to do so would likely lead the family to double its efforts to maintain itself (structurally determined).



  1. Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Jason Aronson.Google Scholar
  2. Capra, F., & Luisi, P. L. (2014). The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Dell, P. (1982a). Beyond homeostasis: Towards a concept of coherence. Family Process, 21, 407–414.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Dell, P. (1982b). Family theory and epistemology of Humberto Maturana. Family Therapy Networker, 6(4), 26, 39–41.Google Scholar
  5. Dell, P. (1985). Understanding Bateson and Maturana: Towards a biological foundation for the social sciences. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 11, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Goolishian, H. A., & Winderman, L. (1988). Constructivism, autopoiesis, and problem determined systems. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 9(1), 130–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hoffman, L. (1985). Beyond power and control: Toward and “second order” family systems therapy. Family Systems Medicine, 3(4), 381–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Jackson, D. (1957). The question of family homeostasis. The Psychiatric Quarterly. Supplement, 31, 79–90.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Keeney, B. (1982). What is an epistemology of therapy? Family Process, 21, 153–168.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Leyland, M. L. (1988). An introduction to some of the ideas of Humberto Maturana. Journal of Family Therapy, 10, 357–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Maruyama, M. (1963). The second cybernetics: Deviation-amplifying mutual causal processes. American Scientist, 51, 164–179.Google Scholar
  12. Maturana, H., & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Dordrecht/Boston/London: Reidel Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Mingers, J. (1995). Self-producing systems: Implications and applications of autopoiesis. New York: Plenum Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Selvini Palazzoli, M., Boscolo, L., Cecchin, G., & Prata, G. (1978). Paradox and counterparadox. New York: Jason Aronson.Google Scholar
  15. Varela, F. J. (1979). Principles of biological autonomy. New York: North-Holland Press.Google Scholar
  16. Watzlawick, P. (1984). The invented reality. New York: Norton Publishing.Google Scholar
  17. Weiner, N. (1948). Cybernetics: Or control and communication in the animal and the machine. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Antioch University SeattleSeattleUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Kearns
    • 1
  • Bahareh Sahebi
    • 2
  1. 1.Iowa CityUSA
  2. 2.The Family Institute at Northwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA