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Focus: Different stories in design

Different stories in design: provocations from the work of Gregory Bateson

The work of cybernetician Gregory Bateson provides a valuable entry point to explore the limitations and possibilities of mobilising design in the context of systemic complexity. Common throughout Bateson’s diverse work was the exploration of living systems of all kinds—octopuses, cities, families, institutions, minds, or ecosystems—in terms of communication and learning rather than matter and energy. For Bateson, these varied contexts all participate in the same sets of ecological relationships.

Addressing these contexts separately from each other, including in well-meaning attempts to mitigate problems, distorts the overall pattern of relationships, reinforcing the underlying causes of ecological crisis. This reductive way of engaging is embedded in the stories built around modernity, human agency, technology, innovation, and design. In their later work, Bateson explored themes such as dialogue, metaphor, and a secular rethinking of the ‘sacred’ as different logics of operations that could lead to different stories and other forms of engagement.

How may we use Bateson’s provocations to rethink the problematic stories around design and modernity as mobilised in contemporary design practices?

Organised by Dulmini Perera

In a series of two dialogues, a workshop and paper presentations spread across RSD11 Symposium, we bring together several scholars, practitioners, and artists to explore the ways in which Bateson’s provocations can be used to rethink problematic stories around design and modernity as mobilised in contemporary design practices.

Dialogue 01.

Gregory Bateson and the Political

Fred Turner and Phillip Guddemi join Jon Goodbun to discuss the question of Gregory Bateson’s relationship to the political by looking closely at periods of Bateson’s life where he was not only engaging with political problems but attempting to intervene in the very possibility-space of the political. Moderated by Dulmini Perera. Full description

Dialogue 02.

Cultural Premises, Conscious Purposes, and Design: Conversing with the legacies of Gregory Bateson and Vern Carroll

Anthropologist Vern Carroll was a postdoc of Gregory Bateson’s and the person who instigated the compilation and publication of Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind.    Carroll developed what Bateson called “epistemological premises” into a theory of “cultural premises” and an associated practice of cultural analysis (V. Carroll, 1977, also see R. Carroll, 1988).  Analytically identifying “cultural premises” is a way of stating what goes without saying, the shared assumptions or ways of parsing the world and construing context that is socially learned, usually unconscious, embedded in stories as well as embodied in interaction, and shared in varying degrees in wider communities.  Many social theorists and philosophers have proposed related concepts; cf. Bourdieu’s “doxa,” Gramscian hegemony, Michel Polanyi’s tacit knowledge, Gadamer’s notion of “pre-understanding.”  We propose to discuss, through sharing cases from both ethnography and design practice, the relationship between cultural analysis and dialogic explorations of ‘sense-making’ (B. Dervin, 1998; B. L. Dervin, 2010) and, furthermore, whether there is a space for identification of cultural premises and cultural analysis in “innovation research methods” (Peter Jones) that can serve the larger purpose of designing beneficial social interventions.  Bateson himself was deeply sceptical about the utility of conscious purpose for human adaptation. Contemporary systemic design practice arguably challenges narrow notions of conscious purpose.


Eve C. Pinsker, Michael D. Lieber, Fred Steier, Tim Gasperak, and Daniel Wolk discuss the notions of premises (cultural/ epistemological), conscious purpose and how these notions affect the stories of design today.

Dulmini Perera and Simon Sadler will facilitate the discussion where panellists will question and respond to each other as well as ideas emerging from dialogue 01(add link) to the page. Questions and comments will also be invited from the audience, both in-person and virtual.


The dialogue will be followed by Stephen Nachmanovitch’s story of Bateson – storytelling through words, poetry and music.


Cultural Premises, Conscious Purposes, and Design

Building on Dialogue 2, Eve C. Pinsker, Michael D. Lieber, Fred Steier, Tim Gasperak, and Daniel Wolk will work with participants at this workshop to explore the relationships between premises (cultural/ epistemological) and design.

How are cultural premises identified – how have the researchers/designers facilitating this session identified them? How do these understandings relate to practices of dialogue and sense-making? Does the identification of cultural premises have a place within design practice, specifically the practice of designing social interventions? Is identifying cultural premises an intervention – does making these largely implicit assumptions or premises explicit have consequences?

Full description

Indicative references

Bateson, G., & Bateson, M. C. (2005). Angels fear: Towards an epistemology of the sacred. Cresskill, N.J: Hampton.

Bateson, N. (2021) Aphanipoiesis. 65th Annual Proceedings for the International Society of the Systems Sciences.

Boehnert, J. (2018). Design, ecology, politics: Towards the ecocene. Bloomsbury.

Steier, F. (Ed.) (2005). Gregory Bateson: Essays for an ecology of ideas [Special double issue]. Cybernetics & Human Knowing, 12(1-2).

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Special thanks

Thanks to those who have proposed and developed the focuses: Gareth Owen Lloyd, Christopher Daniel, Dulmini Perera, Sally Sutherland, Ben Sweeting, James Tooze, Jeffrey P. Turko, and Josina Vink.

Posted April 2022