Gregory Bateson

From New World Encyclopedia

20th century
Name: Gregory Bateson
Birth: May 9, 1904
Grantchester, England
Death: July 4, 1980
San Francisco, California
School/tradition: Anthropology
Main interests: anthropology, social sciences, linguistics, cybernetics, Systems theory
Notable ideas: Double Bind, Ecology of mind, deuterolearning, Schismogenesis
Influenced: Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Paul Watzlawick, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, Richard Bandler, John Grinder, Neuro-linguistic programming, family systems therapy , Bradford Keeney, brief therapy, Systemic coaching, Application of type theory in social sciences, Visual anthropology, Evolutionary biology, Communication theory, Psychology, Ethnicity theory[1]

Gregory Bateson (May 9, 1904 – July 4, 1980) was a British anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, semiotician and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields. Some of his most noted writings are to be found in his books, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and Mind and Nature (1980). Angel's Fear (published posthumously in 1987) was co-authored by his daughter Mary Catherine Bateson.

Bateson is most closely associated with the concept of the double bind. The double bind was originally presented as an explanation of part of the etiology of schizophrenia; today it is more important as an example of Bateson's approach to the complexities of communication. It is intended to explain a certain kind of communication in close interpersonal relationships that results in a violation of one of the parties. It seeks to understand the mechanism of a certain type of mental illness, but has broader application in understanding problems of human communication. It has been especially important for the development of family therapy, the goal of which is to return the family as a whole to health, such that each family member is emotionally connected to the family and embraced as a fully functioning member while at the same time is differentiated as an individual, able to pursue and achieve personal goals.


Bateson was born in Grantchester, England on May 9, 1904, the youngest of three sons of distinguished geneticist William Bateson and his wife, [Caroline] Beatrice Durham. He attended Charterhouse School from 1917 to 1921. He graduated BA in biology at St. John's College, Cambridge University, in 1925 and continued at Cambridge from 1927 to 1929. Bateson lectured in linguistics at the University of Sydney 1928. From 1931 to 1937 he was a fellow at Cambridge[2] and then moved to the United States.

In Palo Alto, Gregory Bateson and his colleagues Donald Jackson, Jay Haley and John H. Weakland developed the double bind theory.[3]

One of the threads that connects Bateson's work is an interest in systems theory, cybernetics, a science he helped to create as one of the original members of the core group of the Macy Conferences. Bateson's interest in these fields centers upon their relationship to epistemology, and this central interest provides the undercurrent of his thought. His association with the editor and author Stewart Brand was part of a process by which Bateson’s influence widened—for from the 1970s until Bateson’s last years, a broader audience of university students and educated people working in many fields came not only to know his name but also into contact to varying degrees with his thought.

In 1956, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Bateson was a member of William Irwin Thompson's Lindisfarne Association.

Personal life

Bateson's life was greatly affected by the death of his two brothers. John Bateson (1898-1918), the eldest of the three, was killed in World War I. Martin, the second brother (1900-1922), was then expected to follow in his father's footsteps as a scientist, but came into conflict with his father over his ambition to become a poet and playwright. The resulting stress, combined with a disappointment in love, resulted in Martin's public suicide by gunshot under the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus on April 22, 1922, which was John's birthday. After this event, which transformed a private family tragedy into public scandal, all of William and Beatrice's ambitious expectations fell on Gregory, their only surviving son.[4]

Bateson's first marriage, in 1936, was to noted American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Bateson and Mead had a daughter Mary Catherine Bateson (b. 1939), who also became an anthropologist.

Bateson and Mead separated in 1947, and were divorced in 1950.[5] Bateson then married his second wife, Elizabeth "Betty" Sumner (1919-1992), in 1951.[6] She was the daughter of the Episcopalian Bishop of Chicago, Walter Taylor Sumner. They had a son, John Sumner Bateson (b. 1952), as well as twins who died in infancy. Bateson and Sumner were divorced in 1957, after which Bateson married therapist and social worker Lois Cammack (b. 1928) in 1961. Their daughter, Nora Bateson, was born in 1969.[7] Nora is married to drummer Dan Brubeck, son of jazz musician Dave Brubeck.


The anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead contrasted first and Second-order cybernetics with this diagram in an interview in 1973.[8]

Epigrams coined by or referred to by Bateson

  • Number is different from quantity.
  • The map is not the territory (coined by Alfred Korzybski), and the name is not the thing named. (from the Ecological Laws, 1972, by Bateson.[9])
  • There are no "monotone values" in biology.
  • "Logic is a poor model of cause and effect."[10]
  • "Language commonly stresses only one side of any interaction. Double description is better than one."
  • Bateson defines information as "a difference which makes a difference." For Bateson, information in fact linked Korzybski's 'map' and 'territory' (see above), and thereby resolved the mind-body problem.[11].
  • The source of the new is the random.
  • What is true is that the idea of power corrupts. Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most. Obviously, our democratic system tends to give power to those who hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don’t want power to avoid getting it. Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it.

Perhaps there is no such thing as unilateral power. After all, the man ‘in power’ depends on receiving information all the time from outside. He responds to that information just as much as he ‘causes’ things to happen… it is an interaction, and not a lineal situation. But the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth, and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it. It is a myth, which, if everybody believes in it, becomes to that extent self-validating. But it is still epistemological lunacy and leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster. "[12]

  • "No organism can afford to be conscious of matters with which it could deal at unconscious levels."[13]

Double bind

In 1956 in Palo Alto Gregory Bateson and his colleagues Donald Jackson, Jay Haley and John Weakland[14] articulated a related theory of schizophrenia as stemming from double bind situations. The perceived symptoms of schizophrenia were therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and trans-formative experience. The double bind refers to a communication paradox described first in families with a schizophrenic member.

Full double bind requires several conditions to be met:

  • a) The victim of double bind receives contradictory injunctions or emotional messages on different levels of communication (for example, love is expressed by words and hate or detachment by nonverbal behavior; or a child is encouraged to speak freely, but criticized or silenced whenever he or she actually does so).
  • b) No metacommunication is possible; for example, asking which of the two messages is valid or describing the communication as making no sense
  • c) The victim cannot leave the communication field
  • d) Failing to fulfill the contradictory injunctions is punished, e.g. by withdrawal of love.

The double bind was originally presented (probably mainly under the influence of Bateson's psychiatric co-workers) as an explanation of part of the etiology of schizophrenia; today it is more important as an example of Bateson's approach to the complexities of communication.

The double bind is not a simple "no-win" situation in which either choice is a bad one. The double bind requires that the victim deny a certain aspect of the reality that he or she faces. The mother, for example, who asks her son to call her every week, but only if he wants to, but who nonetheless simultaneously insinuates that a loving son would call, succeeds in manipulating the son so that he can't not call, but also can't feel good about it either. At the same time that she has insured that he has to call, she has accomplished more than just receiving the call; she has succeeded in controlling the choices that he makes in a way that robs him of the freedom to act.

Other terms used by Bateson

  • Abduction. Used by Bateson to refer to a third scientific methodology (along with induction and deduction) which was central to his own holistic and qualitative approach. Refers to a method of comparing patterns of relationship, and their symmetry or asymmetry (as in, for example, comparative anatomy), especially in complex organic (or mental) systems. The term was originally coined by American philosopher/logician Charles Sanders Peirce, who used it to refer to the process by which scientific hypotheses are generated.
  • Criteria of Mind (from Mind and Nature A Necessary Unity):[15]
  1. Mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
  2. The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference.
  3. Mental process requires collateral energy.
  4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.
  5. In mental process the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (that is, coded versions) of the difference which preceded them.
  6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation discloses a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.
  • Creatura and Pleroma. Borrowed from Carl Jung who applied these gnostic terms in his "Seven Sermons To the Dead".[16] Like the Hindu term maya, the basic idea captured in this distinction is that meaning and organization are projected onto the world. Pleroma refers to the non-living world that is undifferentiated by subjectivity; Creatura for the living world, subject to perceptual difference, distinction, and information.
  • Deuterolearning. A term he coined in the 1940s referring to the organization of learning, or learning to learn:[17]
  • Schismogenesis - the emergence of divisions within social groups.


Bateson's work has broad applications across a range of fields, including cybernetics, systems theory and family therapy.

Family therapy

Bateson was one of the first to introduce the idea that a family might be analogous to a homeostatic or cybernetic system.[18] Bateson's work grew from his interest in systems theory and cybernetics, a science he helped to create as one of the original members of the core group of the Macy Conferences.

The approach of the early family researchers was analytical and, as such, focused on the patient only. The psychodynamic model of the nineteenth century added trauma from a patient’s past to the list of possible causes. Distress was thought to arise from biological or physiological causes or from repressed memories. Family members and others in the individual’s social circle were not allowed anywhere near, as they might “taint” the pureness of the therapy. It was by chance that Bateson and his colleagues came across the family’s role in a schizophrenic patient’s illness.

By watching families interact with the patient in a room separated by a one-way window, it became clear that patients behaved differently when in the dynamics of their family. The interactions within the family unit created “causal feedback loops that played back and forth, with the behavior of the afflicted person only part of a larger, recursive dance.”

The mother’s role was usually considered to play a central role in the breakdown of communication and the underlying controls that were in place. The concept of double bind was used to explain the constant confusion and unresolved interpretations that took place in some families. Depending on the level of deceit (often called a white lie) both parties are unable to acknowledge what the other is really saying or feeling.

The original framework for the “double bind” was a two-person or “dyadic” arrangement. Criticism of the dyadic approach appeared in an essay by Weakland titled, "The Double Bind: Hypothesis of Schizophrenia and Three Party Interaction,” in 1960. Further articles in the 1970s, by both Weakland and Bateson, suggest that this concept referred to a much broader spectrum than schizophrenias. Bateson began to formulate a systems approach which factored in the relationships of family as a coalition. He used an analogy from game theory that described repeated patterns found in families with a schizophrenic member. The pattern that emerged was that “no two persons seemed to be able to get together without a third person taking part.”

The game theory Bateson drew from was based on Theory of Games by von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. In this theory, the tendency of “winning” personalities is to form coalitions. This rule, however, did not apply when the group had three or five members. Bateson found in his research that “no two members ever seemed able to get together in a stable alignment” in schizophrenic families.

A game of imperfect information (the dotted line represents ignorance on the part of player 2).

The next logical progression was the consideration of families as a “cybernetic” system. In Strategies of Psychotherapy, Jay Haley agreed with Bateson’s conclusion that schizophrenic families exhibit consistent use of “disqualifying messages” or “double bind” communication style. He added to this the idea that “people in a family act to control the range of one another’s behavior.” He based much of his argument for the two levels of disconnected communication and need to control on Bertrand Russell’s “theory of logical types.”



  • Bateson, G., D. D. Jackson, Jay Haley & J. Weakland, "Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia," Behavioral Science, vol.1. 1956, 251-264.
  • Bateson, G. & D. Jackson, (1964). Some varieties of pathogenic organization. In Disorders of Communication. Research Publications 42: 270–283.
  • Malcolm, J., "The One-Way Mirror" (reprinted in the collection The Purloined Clinic). 1978. Ostensibly about family therapist Salvador Minuchin, essay digresses for several pages into a meditation on Bateson's role in the origin of family therapy, his intellectual pedigree, and the impasse he reached with Jay Haley.


  • Bateson, G. (1958 (1936)). Naven: A Survey of the Problems suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe drawn from Three Points of View. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804705208.
  • Bateson, G., and Margaret Mead. (1942). Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. New York Academy of Sciences. ISBN 0890727805.
  • Ruesch, J., and G. Bateson. (1951). Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 039302377X.
  • Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226039056.
  • Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences). Hampton Press. ISBN 1572734345.
  • Bateson, G., and M.C. Bateson. (1988). Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0553345810. (published posthumously)
  • Bateson, G., and Rodney E. Donaldson, (1991). A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Harper Collins. ISBN 0062501103 (published posthumously)

Documentary film

  • Trance and Dance in Bali, a short documentary film shot by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, but not released until 1952. In 1999 the film was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

About Bateson and his work

See also


All links Retrieved July 20, 2008.

  1. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Bateson and the North Sea ethnicity paradigm Univ. of Oslo. Retrieved November 13, 2008.
  2. NNBD, Gregory Bateson, Soylent Communications. Retrieved November 13, 2008.
  3. G. Bateson, Jackson, D. D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J. 1956. "Toward a theory of schizophrenia." (in: Behavioral Science vol.1, 251-264)
  4. Anne Schuetzenberger. The Ancestor Syndrome. (New York: Routledge, 1998.)
  5. Margaret M. Caffey and Patricia A. Francis, (eds.) To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead, With foreword by Mary Catherine Bateson. (New York: Basic Books, 2006.)
  6. Caffey and Francis.
  7. Caffey and Francis
  8. Interview with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, in: CoEvolutionary Quarterly (June 1973).
  9. Jerry J. Vaske, Charles E. Grantham. Socializing the Human-computer Environment. (Intellect Books, 1990. ISBN 0893914711), 190
  10. Gregory Bateson. (1979) Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. (New York: Dutton.)
  11. Gregory Bateson, "Form, Substance, and Difference," in Steps to an Ecology of Mind. (1972), 448-466
  12. Bateson, 1972
  13. Bateson, 1972, quoted in Stewart Brand. II cybernetic frontiers. (New York: Random House, 1974. ISBN 0394706897)
  14. G. Bateson, Jackson, D. D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J., 1956, "Toward a theory of schizophrenia." in Behavioral Science vol.1, 251-264)
  15. Bateson, 1972
  16. Carl Jung. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (New York: Vintage Books, 1961, ISBN 0394702689), 378
  17. Max Visser. Managing knowledge and action in organizations; towards a behavioral theory of organizational learning. (Stockholm, Sweden: EURAM Conference, Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management, 2002)
  18. L. Hoffman. Foundations of Family Therapy. (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000 (original 1972). 978-0226039053
  • Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Dutton, 1979.
  • Brand, Stewart. II cybernetic frontiers. New York: Random House, 1974. ISBN 0394706897.
  • Gilbert, Roberta M. Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1992. ISBN 047134690X.
  • Hoffman, Lynn. Foundations of Family Therapy: A Conceptual Framework for Systems Change. New York: Basic Books, 1981. ISBN 046502498X.
  • Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books, 1965 (original 1961). ISBN 0394702689.
  • Malcolm, Janet. The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings. (1978) New York: Knopf, 1992.
  • Minuchin, Salvador. Families and Family Therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974. ISBN 0674292369.
  • Schuetzenberger, Anne. The Ancestor Syndrome. New York: Routledge, 1998.
  • Vaske, Jerry J. and Charles E. Grantham. Socializing the Human-computer Environment. Intellect Books, 1990. ISBN 0893914711.
  • Visser, Max. Managing knowledge and action in organizations; towards a behavioral theory of organizational learning. Stockholm, Sweden: EURAM Conference, Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management, 2002.


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