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Schismogenesis: Seeing How We’ve Got Nothing in Common

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Abstract image black to dark blue with white lines dividing

Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

The term schismogenesis was coined in 1935 by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Nowadays Bateson is best remembered as being married to the vastly more famous anthropologist Margaret Mead. But in his time Bateson was a public intellectual and innovative thinker, and we still use some of his ideas today, even though he no longer tends to be credited as the originator of the ideas.

In his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson defines schismogenesis as a “creation of division.”

The term derives from the Greek words σχίσμα skhisma, “cleft,” (borrowed into English as schism), and γένεσις genesis, “generation” or “creation.”

Schismogenesis is “creation of division.”

Dr. Bateson claimed that we human beings define ourselves and each other through schismogenesis.

Remember: Bateson was an anthropologist. He was describing schismogenesis as something endemic to the human mind. Professor Bates was not attempting to fix the world with his idea of schismogenesis. He was trying to describe the world and how it works so that we can better see ourselves.

Schismogenesis is our method of self-differentiation and group identification.

We humans tend to find polar opposites and then attempt to define things by examining them in that frame of opposites. This is a way that we have learned to think about our concepts and a way we have found to create solutions to our challenges.

Think of all the ways we human beings create difference: gender, race, age, ethnicity, social class, urban-suburban-rural . . . and the list goes on.

Schismogenesis is a feedback loop that functions in two directions: continually feeding us differences or continuously feeding us similarities, with each iteration amplified by the last iteration, and forever escalating: “I have nothing in common with those people” or “I’m exactly like those people. Or, tragically: “I am alone and no one understands me.”

Schismogenesis gives us things to think about and things to talk about.

Schismogenesis can also occur in terms of negative communication: no one says anything or shares anything: if I perceive that you are holding back, and you perceive that I am holding back, then we both begin to hold back.

Schismogenesis can also be at work in situations of domination and submission.

That’s how “mansplaining” and “white-splaining” develop into feedback loops: many white men fit into and understand the dynamics of a white, heteronormative patriarchal structure, which brings with it assumptions concerning appropriate communication style. Therefore, white men feel confident navigating that structure, and therefore talk more and explain more, while those who have been traditionally marginalized can’t get a word in edgewise.

This dynamic was explored by feminists in the 1970s with the concept of “male-identified women,” meaning women who bought into the patriarchal system but learned to use it — “steel magnolias.”

Professor Bates provides us with a way to clarify our differentiation process so that we can see and use its possibilities and its limitations. The concept of schismogenesis is a tool in the thinker’s toolbox.

First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis

Din of Conversation

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