I wanted use this blog posting to draw out some lessons from one of Gregory Bateson’s essays. This may not interest anyone reading this. On the other hand, if you’re curious why anyone would want to try to make sense of Bateson’s work (I have my own PhD related reasons), you may find this helps foster your own thoughts.
The essay in question is in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an Ecology of Mind“, a second anthology of his various (and incredible) range of writing over many years, which was published in 1991. In the section of the book titled ‘Form and Pattern in Anthropology’ is the essay “Naven: Epilogue 1958″.
Naven was a book Bateson originally published, as a cultural anthropologist, in 1936 and which was based on his earlier field work in New Guinea. On one level, Naven (the title names a complex ceremony of tribal bonding) constituted the results of an observational study of aspects of the kinship system of the Iatmul tribe, symmetrical and complementary schismogenesis of roles and behaviours among particular family roles. The 1936 publication included an Epilogue, a sort of reflection on his findings. The 1958 edition contained a further Epilogue which critiques and re-evaluates the earlier work and places the two kinds of schismogenesis in one balancing system (and this thought was undoubtedly influnced by the interest at that time in cybernetics and systems theory), but more importantly it is an essay into the limitations of methods of inquiry and of explanation.
These are the things I take from the 1958 Epilogue (bearing in mind that these ideas continued to be developed for a further thirty years or so):
1. “All science is an attempt to cover with explanatory devices”, a game to see how rigorously the scientist can stretch explanation to cover “the vast darkness” of the subject at hand.
2. Aside from the subject under scrutiny, science is also about learning about the process of knowing. In other words, it is about explaining epistemology, or how we know.
3. Explanation is about the fitting together of data.
4. In Bateson’s epistemology, the fitting together of data is subject to logical levels of abstraction. Raw data are always one level removed from the “world as it is”, and the re-arrangement by the researcher of that data in order to make sense of it is on a level of abstraction higher than the data itself. If the data is the picture of the world, then research is rather like trying to put together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Further, the self-reflexive discussion of the procedures of knowing used by the researcher (that which justifies why the activity of putting together a jigsaw has any meaning at all) is itself on another level of abstraction again.
5. The labels that scientists give to explanations are just that, labels, and should not be confused with the things those labels describe. The terms used in the conclusions drawn by the researcher refer to the way that the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has been arranged, not to what’s in the picture.
6. In social science, explanation (theory) is recursive. Failure to discriminate between these various levels is thus cause for confusion and error.
7. Ideas are not things and words such as “learning” and “teaching” are not in themselves explanations for anything. (This may be why so many companies find it impossible to measure the effectiveness of HR training?)
8. If we do not resist the temptation to reify them, then a lot of the theories, models, frameworks, classifications and typologies that are used in learning are simply “heuristic fallacies” when it comes to explanation. This is a valid criticism of, for example, anyone using the Myers-Briggs Type-Indicator as an explanatory principle for behaviour or personality. This would be to confuse the device for description with the thing it describes, though the tendency to do this is very strong.
9. The study of learning and of change is actually the study of explanation not of things but of relationship between things. If learning and change are formally analogous in more areas than just social science, the value of studying what “knowing” means becomes much important for managers, since we may end up being able to explain much more.
10. We tend to think of learning as having a purpose. The idea whether change is directional and that the end of a process is its purpose (and also an explanation of the process that preceded it) is one that has occupied philosophical thought for millennia. But the explanation of the process in a system always lies outside that system (to paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them).
11. In social research the reason why this is hard to demonstrate is the capacity that human individuals have to conceptualise the system that they are an intrinsic part of. This conceptualisation (or double hermeneutic?), while also making humans prone to error in logical typing, means humans agents can consciously make changes in the variables within a system in order to retain permanence and stability. At a higher logical level, however, there is learning going on about the (observed) parameters which are the boundaries of that system.
12. A categorisation of that set of behaviours and utterances (communication) that we class as “Reflection” is not an explanation of what reflection is. ”Reflection” is of a higher logical type than, say, “experience”, “ambiguity” or “dialogue” (or any one of a myriad of behaviours and utterances). As long as we know this, we will not become confused (or, not so easily) and we will not fall into the trap of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in our mapping of data.
13. What you describe, what you see, as a researcher is defined by the choices you make, and by rigour in coding at higher levels as well as lower ones. Alternative descriptions are possible where they are of the same logical type. Human learning, in this sense, might be just as interchangeably, defensibly and unsatisfactorily described by Kolb’s learning cycle as by Jung’s archetypes. The fact of context in human learning, however, is necessarily more than the individual, and cannot be explained by individualistic and atomistic theories.
14. Research into human learning often focuses on examining storied selves. This is fine, and constitutes a description of the self. But care is needed to avoid assuming, first, that these stories ‘exist’ outside their telling and, second, that simply in their telling there will be a change of the order which we may label “Reflection” (i.e. learning, of the sort which changes the parameters of the self).
Bateson, G. (1958) 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: Stanford University Press.