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Celebrating the work of Gregory Bateson

On a train to Yorkshire, where tomorrow I am to attend a day celebrating the work of Gregory Bateson, organised by Relate in Bradford. Interrupted my philosophy reading (I’m at the beginning of the long haul of a part-time Masters with the Open University) to re-read the seminal 1956 article, Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia, co-written by Bateson, which I first read as a callow social work student in the late 1980s deep in the bowels of the Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield.

I knew that this theory, especially perhaps as later elaborated by RD Laing, an early professional hero of mine, has attracted a fair share of opprobrium due to its apparent mother-blaming in cases of diagnoses of schizophrenia – been entirely discredited in this respect according to some. But I was still shocked to see the extent to which mothers do get it with both barrels in the paper, making it uncomfortable reading, a part of this discomfort probably due to remembering my not only uncritical but positively positive reaction to it the first time round.

And yet. The double bind theory remains important as does the article. As a losing sports coach might say after the game these days, there are many positives we can take away from it.

For one, the authors’ commitment was to find meaning in the often seemingly strange communication patterns of those diagnosed with schizophrenia, and they warned against placing ‘so much emphasis on the differences from the normal – rather like the fearful physical segregation of psychotics’ as this ‘does not help in understanding the problems’.

What struck me most forcefully however were the reflections on the therapeutic implications of the double bind hypothesis at the end of the paper. Having described one brilliantly intuitive intervention, Bateson and his colleagues concluded: ‘We share the goal of most psychotherapists who strive toward the day when such strokes of genius will be well enough understood to be systematic and commonplace’.

The problem-focused brief therapy of the MRI developed directly out of the double bind project and much magical therapy followed, by the likes of John Weakland, Paul Watzlawick, Dick Fisch and others. I am not sure however that their work has ever been well enough understood to become systematic and commonplace. I think that this had to wait until a certain therapist came along who was suffused in the MRI model and yet was able to turn it on its head, aided by his simple yet revolutionary realisation that it wasn’t the therapist who had the magic, it was the client! This is how Steve de Shazer put it in an interview with brief therapist Harvey Ratner, when talking about how he had made the shift into solution-focused brief therapy. It was a stroke of genius by de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their Milwaukee colleagues, that finally transformed the work begun by pioneering theorists some thirty plus years earlier, that led to a therapy which has become well enough understood to be used in a systematic and commonplace fashion.

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