Family Diagrammatic Assessment

views updated

Family Diagrammatic Assessment

ecomapt. laine scales, renee h. blanchard

genogramj. phillip stanberry


The ecomap, also called a sociogram, is a visual assessment tool depicting the relationships between a family and its social network. As the name signifies, therapist and client together map out connections between the family and its ecological environment. Identifying these connections clarifies and organizes data on a family's environment; highlights energy that flows into and out of the family; and raises issues such as network size and stability, reciprocity of relationships, and access to or deprivation of available resources.

The ecomap diagram consists of circles, lines, and arrows (see Figure 1). Standard symbols are used to express energy that flows from a person or family to other important people and institutions. For example, a solid line may indicate a strong and healthy relationship, while a diffused line represents a weaker tie. Arrows indicated direction of energy flow and conflicted or broken relationships may be represented by interrupted lines. Using the ecomap, the therapist and family can identify the external relationships that are nourishing, as well as those that are wounded. This empowers families to know where to begin making changes.

The social worker Ann Hartman first introduced the ecomap in 1978 in her article "Diagrammatic Assessment of Family Relations." Hartman's work evolves from the school of family theories known as family systems theory, which grew out of the general systems theory applied to sciences such as physics, biology, and anthropology. The concept quickly became popular with family therapists in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Since its creation, the ecomap has been used in a variety of practice settings. Other social workers who have joined Hartman in refining the ecomap include Joan Laird and Mark Mattaini. Although originating in social work, the use of this tool spans disciplinary boundaries; literature on nursing, psychology, law, and other disciplines salutes the usefulness of family diagrammatic tools. In recent years, new computer software allows professional helpers to develop computer-generated diagrammatic assessments such as ecomaps and genograms. Two such resources are "Ecotivity" by Wonderware and Mattaini's software companion to "Visual Ecoscan for Clinical Practice."

Helping professionals from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand have written about the value of utilizing family diagrammatic tools with families. However, virtually no literature exists on the usefulness of the ecomap with non-Western cultures. The ecomap may be an effective cross-cultural tool, especially in situations when language differences may impede therapeutic process. The graphic may be shared with and interpreted for others in the family who may not speak the language of the therapist. In addition, the ecomap promotes the value of communal relationships, highly valued in non-Western cultures, and highlights the strength of a family's ability to connect with those around them. However, practitioners must carefully consider the cultural context before using the ecomap and be prepared to adapt its use. For example, when gathering information from a Middle Eastern or Asian family, clients are not likely to be sitting in the helping professional's office answering pointed questions. It will be the responsibility of the helping professional to listen closely to the family's stories, however they are revealed, and then be willing to piece together the information in a diagrammatic format for further use.

See also:Family Assessment; Family Diagrammatic Assessment: Genogram; Family Systems Theory


hartman, a. (1995). "diagrammatic assessment of familyrelationships." families in society 76(2):111–122.

hartman, a., and laird, j. (1983). family-centered socialwork practice. new york: free press.

mattaini, m. a. (1993). visual ecoscan for clinical practice. washington, dc: nasw press.

mattaini, m. a. (1993). more than a thousand words:graphics for clinical practice. washington, dc: nasw press.

zastrow, c. and kirst-ashman, k. k. (2001). understanding human behavior and the social environment, 5th edition. pacific grove, ca: brooks/cole.

other resource

wonderware. "ecotivity." available from

t. laine scales renee h. blanchard


The genogram is a map of family process. It can be described as a graphic representation of families that charts the interactional processes over three generations (McGoldrick, Gerson, and Shellenberger 1999). With its lines, boxes, circles, and symbols, the genogram records important facts, life-changing events, and complex relationships of a family system. These deceptively simple explanations capture the essence of a complex clinical and consulting instrument that depicts nuances of description and relationship that may be lost in larger narratives or omitted in an overly intense focus upon self.

The construction of a genogram is an interpersonal event in which an individual, couple, or family collaborate with a consulting professional in the gathering, recording, and interpreting of data about family relationships. Data are initially drawn from clients' memories as they report and interpret events. These are recorded with standardized symbols that indicate dates, descriptions of events, perceived relationships between family members, pertinent information about deaths, births, addictions, and illnesses, and family secrets known to the client. An example of a four-generation genogram with significant relational and sociological data is presented in Figure 2.

The meaning of events and relationships within the family is a function of individual memory and is of equal importance with objective facts, because memory intrudes itself into one's interpretation of present events. The role of memory in present events has long been debated in professional circles but, nevertheless, is still taken seriously by investigators from varied and diverse fields of study including anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy.

Many clinical observers relate the genogram to the theory of Murray Bowen (Becvar and Becvar 2000) because it easily communicates the intergenerational transmission of anxiety that is focused around closeness/distance issues of relationships; these dynamics are the centerpieces of his theory. The genogram's depiction of dates, sequences of nodal events, and descriptions of relationships, together with the evolved context of family history, provides a picture where marital and family problems can be readily identified (Guerin and Pendagast 1976; Titelman 1998).

Though similar to the ecomap, the genogram can also identify community and other systems that interact with the family as well as beliefs, rituals, and customs of culture. This function is particularly important because the cultural diversity is a reality for everyone. Family professionals must therefore be sensitive to the contours of cultural practice.

Culturally, the genogram is also used to chart the uniqueness of families. Using the genogram, culturally sensitive professionals can recognize both the strengths and vulnerabilities of minority families—as represented by diverse family forms and relationships—and therefore avoid harmful labeling. For example, African-American families often include blood and non-blood members, informally adopted children, and varied support arrangements (Boyd-Franklin 1989). Asian and other immigrant families may live in multigenerational households in which the opinions of senior members are revered and respected in ways unfamiliar to western family practice (Tseng and Hsu 1991). While nontraditional by some standards, family professionals now find evidence that varying cultural traditions of family life can and do provide the nurturance, care, and respect attributed to healthy family relationships and a place where children can grow to responsible adulthood.

Personal genograms help sensitize family professionals and consultants to their own multigenerational issues and the differences between their clients' values and cultures and their own (Hardy and Laszloff 1995). Therapists, consultants, and educators can construct a three-part genogram that records demographics (dates, places, absences, and relocations), relationships (conflicted, close, or disconnected), and cultural contexts (coping strategies, loss, grief, or community resources). When this personal narrative is in focus, the family professional's experience of cultural difference can be made clearer and can therefore obtain an uncluttered view of diversity and its meaning.

The genogram has multiple applications. A selected literature review reveals its use in assessment of belief systems, serious illness and aging issues, career choices, family developmental issues, sexual attitudes, women's issues, organizational assessment, and consultation.

Thus, the genogram is widely used for assessing family dynamics, either in general or focused around specific issues. This versatile instrument is used in both consultation and research. Its value resides in objective and subjective evaluation as well as the collaborative development of a family narrative.

See also:Family Assessment; Family Diagrammatic Assessment: Ecomap; Triangulation


becvar, d. s., and becvar, r. j. (2000). family therapy: asystemic integration, 4th edition. boston: allyn and bacon.

boyd-franklin, n. (1989). black families in therapy: amultisystems approach. new york: guilford press.

guerin, p. j., and pendagast, e. g. (1976). "evaluation offamily system and genogram." in family therapy: theory and practice, ed. p. j. guerin. new york: gardner press.

hardy, k. v., and laszloff, t. a. (1995). "the culturalgenogram: key to training culturally competent family therapists." journal of marital and family therapy 21:227–238.

hargrave, t. d., and anderson, w. t. (1997). "finishingwell: a contextual family therapy approach to the aging family." in the aging family: new visions in theory, practice, and reality, ed. t. d. hargrave and s. m. hanna. philadelphia: brunner/mazel.

mcgoldrick, m.; gerson, r.; and shellenberger, s. (1999).genograms in family assessment, 2nd edition. new york: norton.

milewski-hertlein, k. a. (2001). "the use of a sociallyconstructed genogram in clinical practice." american journal of family therapy 29:23–38.

titelman, p. (1998). "family systems assessment based onbowen theory." in clinical applications of bowen family systems theory, ed. p. titelman. new york: haworth press.

tseng, w-s., and hsu, j. (1991). culture and family:problems and therapy. new york: haworth press.

walsh, f. (1993). "conceptualization of normal familyprocesses." in normal family processes, 2nd edition, ed. f. walsh. new york: guilford press.

j. phillip stanberry

About this article

Family Diagrammatic Assessment

Updated About content Print Article