|Bateson, Gregory (1904-1980)|
British-American anthropologist, psychologist, etiologist, and cybernetic theorist. Born in Great Britain, educated at Cambridge, he did fieldwork in New Guinea among the Iatmul. During fieldwork, he met Margaret Mead, who later became his wife, and through her he was acquainted with the psychologically oriented anthropology of Ruth Benedict. He moved to the United States in 1939. His monograph Naven (Bateson 1936) reflects his effort to reconcile the formalism of Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown's structural functionalist approach with Benedict's interests in esthetics and emotion. "Poetry," as he writes in a famous article from 1967, "is not a sort of distorted and decorated prose, but rather prose is poetry which has been stripped down and pinned to a Procrustean bed of logic" (Bateson 1967:136). The empirical base of the 1936 monograph is - as Bateson himself emphasizes - rather poor. Nevertheless, he successfully transforms an ethnographic sketch of an Iatmul male initiation ritual into a fundamental treatise on universal questions of conflict and equilibrium in social systems, concluding with his theory of complementary and symmetrical schismogenesis: two conflict-generating processes of opposed character (peer vs. peer - dominance vs. submission) that may, under specific circumstances, balance each other out.
In the late 1930's, Bateson and Mead did pioneering work in visual anthropology. Their "photographic fieldwork" on Bali attempted to document and analyze the implicit body language (or habitus, as we would call it today) of their informants. The result appeared in Balinese Character: a Photographic Analysis (Bateson & Mead 1942).
In the 1940's, Bateson participated in the interdisciplinary group lead by Norbert Wiener that invented cybernetics, a discipline that would have a major influence on Bateson's later work. The second edition of his 1936 monograph (published 1958) contains a long appendix, where his attempted synthesis of Benedictean and Radcliffe-Brownian themes is radically restated in cybernetic terms.
After the Second World War and his divorce from Mead, Bateson moved to California and drifted out of mainstream anthropology (which largely disregarded his work) into psychology (where he invented the double-bind theory of schizophrenia, see Bateson 1959) and communication theory (see for example Bateson 1955). A number of his articles from the 1950's and 60's were collected in the volume Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972). In one of the minor contributions of this collection, he makes a ground-breaking definition of flexibility, as a system's "unused potentiality for change" (Bateson 1970).
In these articles, Bateson explores the phenomenon he called "mind" - a term he used to refer to complex, autonomous, cybernetic systems, such as the ecosystem, the organism, the psyche, a culture. In Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity (1979), he argues that human learning and biological evolution are processes of the same basic kind: "stochastic" processes, in which a non-random selective element combines with randomly generated variation, a kind of filtered "trial-and-error" approach. In Angel's Fear (published posthumously in 1987), he returns to Émile Durkheim's classical description of the sacred and the profane, and concludes that the social function of sacred ("forbidden") ritual spaces is to create a protective shield against random challenges to the paradigmatic assumptions of life.
Bateson's influence starts to become noticeable in mainstream anthropology in the 1960's, when he is referred to e.g. in the early work of Fredrik Barth. But it was only with the appearance of Steps to an Ecology of Mind that his true impact became apparant. Since 1972 Steps has been published in seven English editions and has been translated e.g. into Norwegian, German, French and Russian.
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1936 Naven. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [second edition 1958, with new appendix].
1942 with Margaret Mead: Balinese character: a photographic analysis. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.
1955 A theory of play and fantasy. Psychiatric research reports, 2, 39-51. Reprinted in Bateson 1972.
1959 "Cultural problems posed by a study of schizophrenic process." in Schizophrenia, an Integrated Approach. Edited by A. Auerback. New York: Ronald Press.
1970 Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization. Paper presented at the conference "Restructuring the Ecology of a Great City", sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Reprinted in Bateson 1972.
1972 Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Balantine Books.
1979 Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: E.P. Dutton.
1987 Angels fear: Towards an epistemology of the sacred. New York: Macmillan