What Causes Schismogenesis to Begin and Escalate and Is It Always Destructive?

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson developed the concept of schismogenesis to explain certain kinds of human behavior that seemed to mirror each other or in some way cause the behavior of other people to become more and more extreme. In fact, when he first developed the idea, he wasn’t thinking about destructive conflict—he was thinking about gender, and the way that people in a particular Melanesian society became more and more “male” or “female” in particular ritual settings.

But he went on to emphasize the destructiveness of what he called “competitive” schismogenesis, in which one side in a competition mimics another and both grow more extreme (like an arms race), or even the potential destructiveness of “complementary” schismogenesis, in which a dominant person becomes more dominant and a submissive one more submissive. He argued that you could make the decision to de-escalate—but that you often had to make a conscious choice to do so.

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor in the department of anthropology at Stanford University and the author of When God Talks Back.

Category: Q&A

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