Gregory Bateson: Pioneer of Family Systems Theory


If you love theory, worldviews, or philosophy, this post is for you.  Minuchin (1998) wrote that the field of marriage and family therapy was born from Bateson’s systems theory in the 1960s.

Bateson (1904 – 1980) was a world-renowned anthropologist, theorist, and researcher (Bateson, 1936; Bateson, 1972; Bateson, 1979; Bateson, 1991; Bateson & Bateson, 1987; Bateson, Jackson, Haley, & Weakland, 1956; Bateson & Mead, 1942). His work has revolutionized the field of psychotherapy in the areas of theory and pragmatics. Bateson was also part of the research group that produced a foundational publication in the field of marriage and family therapy titled Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia (Bateson, Jackson, Haley, & Weakland, 1956). He also published Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a collection of papers spanning a thirty-five-year intellectual journey (1972).

Keeney (1981) wrote, “Bateson’s epistemology proposes a ‘communicational world’ based on cybernetics, systems theory, and ecology. This ‘communicational world’ is studied in terms of its structure, the function within it, and its self-referentialness” (p. 45). Hoffman wrote, “For Bateson, the subject of epistemology was an intensely moral concern. Epistemology for him meant the rules one uses for making sense out of the world” (p. 342).

Bateson’s ideas are not dualistic, and he proposed alternatives to overly simplistic bipolarity (Keeney, 1981). This is perhaps linked to his anthropological experiences with the Balinese, who have almost no dualistic concepts. Bateson (1972) wrote:

The ethological differentiation of the sexes is rather slight; political factions are completely absent… At the symbolic level (partly as a result of Hindu influence) dualisms are much more frequent, however, than they are in the social structure (e.g., Northeast vs. Southwest, Gods vs. demons, symbolic Left vs. Right, symbolic Male vs. Female, etc.). (p. 95)

This seems to be in stark contrast to our Westernized culture where one is surrounded by dualism (e.g. Republican vs. Democrat, good vs. evil, etc.). Further reflecting on the dangers of dualistic thinking, Bateson (1977) wrote:

To draw a boundary line between a part which does most of the computation for a larger system and the larger system of which it is a part, is to create a mythological component, commonly called a “self.” In my epistemology, the concept of self, along with all arbitrary boundaries which delimit systems or part of systems, is to be regarded as a trait of the local culture—not indeed to be disregarded, since such little epistemological monsters are always liable to become foci of pathology. (p. 53)

Bateson made the argument that there is an alternative point of view “a nondualistic cybernetic system of which we are interconnected parts of some whole circuit of I-Thou relation” (pp. 49-50).

Bateson also strenuously rejected linear thinking (Hoffman, 1981). He believed that linear thinking assigns a cause, thereby also implying blame (Bateson, 1972). Bateson viewed the world in whole systems, and believed that linear thinking only examined reductionistic pieces of the large system. In a discussion of Bateson’s ideas, Keeney (1981) wrote:

The contexts of human relationship in particular require that we do not chop up interactions which comprise whole systems. To say that someone is argumentative, dominant, a leader, a communicator, and so forth is to distort a description of relationship by proposing that some thing or property is located within the boundaries of one of the relata. (p. 47)

Clearly, Bateson believed it is necessary to focus on relationship, form, and pattern when working with human systems. Bateson (1972) further stated:

We say that billiard ball B moved in such and such a direction because billiard ball A hit it at such and such an angle. In contrast to this, cybernetic explanation is always negative. We consider what alternative possibilities could conceivably have occurred and then ask why many of the alternatives were not followed, so that the particular event was one of those few which could, in fact, occur. (p. 405)

Keeney (1981) purported, “Since the organization of whole systems is circular where every part interacts with every other part, one cannot delimit any segment without disturbing the wholeness of the system” (p. 49). The recursive nature of systems negates cause and effect thinking. Cybernetics of cybernetics was acknowledged by Bateson as a paradigmatic advance in thinking (Keeney, 1981). This second order cybernetics includes the observer in the system with the observed. Bateson also postulated that the observer is never completely separate from the observed (1972). Keeney (1981) wrote:

The communicational world is, therefore, a world of self-reference and paradox where the dog chases his own tail, the explanation is in the observation, the observer is in the observed. By interacting with our interactions, whether in the form of describing our describing or relating to our relating, we create and maintain a particular experiential reality. (p.49)

Bateson has clearly made a significant contribution to the development of the field of marriage and family therapy.  To my Marriage and Family Therapy professionals, are any of you influenced by Bateson?  Who is/was your greatest theoretical influence?

If you would like to learn more about Gregory Bateson, watch the video trailer below for An Ecology of Mind, The Gregory Bateson Documentary.


  1. 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: Stanford University Press.
  2. Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. NY: Jason Aronson.
  3. Bateson, G. (1977). The birth of a matrix of double bind and epistemology. In M. Berger(Ed.), Beyond the Double Bind, (p. 53). NY: Brunner Mazel.
  4. Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
  5. Bateson, G. (1991). A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: HarperCollins.
  6. Bateson, G. & Bateson, M. (1987.) Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
  7.  Bateson, G. & Mead, M. (1942). Balinese character: A photographic analysis. New York: Academy of Sciences.
  8.  Bateson, G., Jackson, D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J. (1956). Toward a theory of schizophrenia. Behavioral Science, 1, 251-264.
  9.  Keeney, B. (1981). Bateson’s epistemology. Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies, 1(1), 45-55.
  10.  Minuchin, S. (1998). Where is the family in narrative family therapy. The Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, 24(4), 397-403.

Check out Summit Family Therapy in Peoria, IL to learn more about Dr. Courtney Stivers’ professional work. 

About Courtney Stivers, PhD (25 Articles)
Courtney Stivers, PhD, LMFT, is a subject matter expert in Marriage and Family Therapy. Her professional experience includes residential addiction, school-based therapy, community mental health, teaching, research, public speaking, professional consultation, and several administrative roles. She is currently the Executive Director of Summit Family Therapy in Peoria, IL. Please learn more on her practice website,

4 Comments on Gregory Bateson: Pioneer of Family Systems Theory

  1. Thank you for posting!

  2. I have not heard of Agazarian, but I will definitely look up her work soon. I have heard that Texas Tech has a great Marriage and Family Therapy program. Thank you for posting and please tell a friend about us!

  3. He was huge influence, taught to me through Texas Tech Prof. Monte Bobele and the Galveston Family Institue trained faculty at Our Lady of the Lake University. My greatest influence in the past 20 years is Yvonne Agazarian, a Group Dynamics Theorist who has established Systems-Centered Therapy: A model of understanding and managing change in human systems. See

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