Gregory Bateson was born into a highly acclaimed academic family in England in 1904. Bateson’s father, William, was the founder of the prestigious Cambridge School of Genetics. Bateson was named “Gregory” by his father after the famous geneticist, Gregor Mendel who is known as the father of genetics. While Bateson received his undergraduate degree in biology, he is also known as an anthropologist, cybernetic theorist, and a philosopher. He was known as a great cross-disciplinary thinker. He had a profound impact on the field of mental health, particularly the incorporation of cybernetic and systemic thinking into the field that led to the birth of family therapy. Bateson died in 1980.
Bateson obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology in 1925 from St. John’s College, Cambridge. He then went on to teach linguistics at the University of Sydney in 1928. He was recruited by the Anthropology chair at Cambridge to do field work in the South Pacific where he spent several years. There he met and married Margaret Meade in 1936. He then moved to California. He worked at Saybrook University in San Francisco and at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He never settled into a discipline or into a tenured position. When he died, he was a scholar-in-residence at Esalen Institute in California.
Contributions to the Profession
Bateson’s work in anthropology led to the publication of an important book, Naven in 1936. This book had a huge impact on the practice of anthropology as it argued that the anthropologist as observer does not report raw data but rather inferences about behavior viewed through the lens of the anthropologist’s theory. The book also proposed ideas about sequences of interaction or vicious cycles, mutual influence or recursiveness, and the mutual roles of the observer and the observed. These were seminal ideas that would later shape the epistemology that Bateson advocated for a paradigm shift in the field of mental health.
One of Bateson’s early forays into the field of mental health occurred through his participation in the set of famous Macy conferences devoted to cybernetics (1946–1953). The purpose of these conferences was to establish a foundation for studying how the mind works. A rich multidisciplinary group of giants in their respective fields grappled with this topic. They employed cybernetics, systems theory, mathematics, biology, and anthropology to name a few. The Macy conferences advanced the understanding of cybernetics and systems theory and laid the foundation for the new field of cognitive science.
Excited by these ideas and their application to the state of the art of mental health, Bateson did two things. He co-authored a book with Jurgen Ruesch titled: Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry (1951) and he sought funding to study human communication. It is impossible to measure the critical impact Bateson’s direction would have on mental health and the yet to exist field of family therapy. Bateson did receive his funding to study communication of schizophrenic patients and began the Palo Alto project in 1952. The research team he assembled included himself, Jay Haley, John Weakland, and Don D. Jackson. It should be noted that only Jackson, a psychiatrist, had any formal training in mental health. The team’s first publication, Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia (1956), would become one of the most influential papers in the field of family therapy. In this paper, the team introduced the concept of the Double Bind which is a form of paradoxical communication. The article suggested that such paradoxical communication accounts for the bizarre communication of schizophrenics. The double bind theory was subsequently investigated in many research studies and found not to be a causal factor in schizophrenia; nevertheless, it remains seminal as a classic example of early theorizing that would evolve into the interactional view and the importance of family context in the formation and maintenance of human problems. The team was highly generative for a decade, publishing dozens of articles, many of them still considered classics.
The team disbanded in 1961. Evan though Bateson had deeply touched the field of mental health and the early beginnings of family therapy, he wasn’t interested in therapy. Some of these views affected the relationship between him and Haley who was already writing about therapy. Haley and Weakland would become highly acclaimed in the field of family therapy. Jackson also contributed to the emergence of family therapy. He founded the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in 1958 but suffered an untimely death in 1968.
Although Bateson no longer moved in the circles of mental health, he continued to be viewed as a visionary and many in the field of family therapy continued to follow his work closely. Two books by Bateson, widely popular among family therapists, are Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (1979). These books captured Bateson’s understanding of the foundational concepts that underpinned the enormous paradigm shift that had taken place during the previous quarter century and gave birth to the field of family therapy.
Bateson’s writing has always been dense and challenging; hence, some have avoided it. In 2011, his younger daughter, Nora Bateson, produced a wonderful documentary DVD that beautifully captures what she believed were five of his most essential ideas. The first is relationship. All things exist in relationship to each other. The second is cybernetics. Processes exist that regulate the nature of any interaction. The third is ecology of mind. The mind is a network of ideas and not a thing. The fourth is epistemology. We must always be diligent about how we know, what we know. Finally, the fifth is difference. Information is a difference and one should always ask: what is the difference that makes a difference? Many other ideas could be added to this list, including systems theory, context, homeostasis, feedback family rules, circular causality, first- and second-order cybernetics, etc.
Bateson was ahead of his times. Today many of the ideas that were radical for his time are a mainstay of how human systems are viewed. His genius changed the course of numerous disciplines including communications, anthropology mental health and its subspecialty, family therapy.
- Bateson, G. (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 0-8047-0520-8.Google Scholar
- Bateson, G. (2000) . Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-03905-6. Retrieved 19 Mar 2013.Google Scholar
- Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity (Advances in systems theory, complexity, and the human sciences). Hampton Press. ISBN 1-57273-434-5.Google Scholar
- Bateson, N. (2011). An ecology of mind: A daughter’s portrait of Gregory Bateson. Oley: Bullfrog Films.Google Scholar
- Haley, J. (1981). Development of a theory: The history of a research project. In J. Haley (Ed.), Reflections on therapy and other essays. Rockville: The Family Therapy Institute of Washington, DC.Google Scholar
- Lipset, D. (1980). Gregory Bateson: The legacy of a scientist. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
- Nichols, M. P. (2011). The evolution of family therapy. In The essentials of family therapy (pp. 7–28). Boston: Pearson.Google Scholar
- Ruesch, J.; Bateson, G. (2009) . Communication: The social matrix of psychiatry. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-1-4128-0614-5. Retrieved 19 Mar 2013.Google Scholar