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

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

Published onSep 16, 2022
6. Cultural Premises, Conscious Purposes, and Design: conversing with the legacies of Gregory Bateson and Vern Carroll

Abstract: 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 (Vern Carroll 1977, also see Raymonde 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 are 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’ (Dervin 1998, 2010) in design 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 skeptical about the utility of conscious purpose for human adaptation.  Contemporary systemic design practice arguably challenges narrow notions of conscious purpose.  

This session, was submitted as a “Bateson dialogue” for the Bateson focus area for RSD11 (Relating Systems and Design conference in Brighton, UK) October after consultation with Ben Sweeting and Dulmini Perrera (Dulmini is organizing the Bateson focus area), and will take place on October 13. We will also have a follow-up session at RSD with more time for audience participation included in the NewMacy sessions on Saturday October 16.

Here is the other material submitted in addition to the abstract:

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

Eve C. Pinsker, Michael D. Lieber, Fred Steier, Tim Gasperak, and Daniel Wolk

University of Illinois at Chicago|University of Illinois at Chicago (emeritus)| Fielding Graduate University| Strange Attractor LLC | City Bureau

KEYWORDS: Bateson dialogue, ethnography, innovation research methods, culture, epistemology

RSD TOPIC(S): Methods & Methodology, Society & Culture


Carroll, R. (1988). Cultural misunderstandings: The French-American experience. University of Chicago Press.

Carroll, V. (1977). COMMUNITIES AND NONCOMMUNITIES: THE NUKUORO ON PONAPE. In M. D. Lieber (Ed.), Exiles and Migrants in Oceania (pp. 60–69). University of Hawai’i Press.

Dervin, B. (1998). Sense-making theory and practice: An overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use. Journal of Knowledge Management, 2(2), 36–46.

Dervin, B. L. (2010). Clear . . . unclear? Accurate . . . inaccurate? Objective . . . subjective? Research . . . practice? Why polarities impede the research, practice and design of information systems and how Sense-Making Methodology attempts to bridge the gaps. Part 1. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 16(5), 994–997.

Jones, Peter and Sam Ladner, 2018.  Innovation Research Methods.  Course Syllabus SFIN-6020-001, Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation, OCAD.

Workshop format

90 minutes| hybrid| designed as Bateson ‘dialogue’ session|

Panelists will question and respond to each other. Questions and comments will also be invited from the audience, both in-person and virtual.  Three of the panelists are expecting to attend in-person: Pinsker, Lieber, and Steier.

Workshop agenda

Presentation of background and key concepts: 20 minutes

This will include an explanation of the concept of cultural premises, and its relationship to Bateson’s identification and description of epistemological premises (for instance, in analyzing addiction).  We will then briefly outline how the concept of shared premises relates to variation over time in what assumptions, mental models, world views, etc. are shared or not, and how widely, and how this can be related to Bateson’s categories of learning and communication (Learning I, II, III and IV).

Written copies of cases to ground discussion will be provided –on handouts for those present and via links to uploaded, publicly accessible documents.  All authors will be contributing cases.  Each case will be no longer than one page and following the introduction we will give the audience a few minutes to review the cases, reconvening at 30 minutes after the start of the session.

We plan to draw on the following cases for discussion and dialogue: Vern Carroll’s comparison of Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi settlement on Pohnpei Island; Erik Schwimmer’s account of Orokaiva relocation and transition to coffee production following a volcanic eruption in Papua New Guinea (also, like Vern Carroll’s article, one of the accounts of relocated Pacific Islander communities reported on in Lieber 1977); Pinsker’s account of differing views of community assessment and engagement in a health promotion project in Southeast Chicago; Wolk’s account of premises embedded in public safety policy in Chicago; a case drawn from Steier’s experience with participatory design in the Museum of Science and Industry, Tampa, Florida; and a case from Gasperak’s design practice. We will not present the cases in detail, only give brief summaries and use them as fodder for discussion, responding to questions from each other and the audience.

The main questions we will address in discussion, for the final hour of the session, include the below.  The discussion may identify other salient questions.

1.     How are cultural premises identified – how have the researchers/designers on the panel identified them?  How does that relate to practices of dialogue and sense-making?

2.     What is the utility of identifying cultural premises or engaging in cultural analysis as we are describing it? Does it have a place within design practice, specifically the practice of designing social interventions?

3.     Is “cultural premise” useful terminology, or should we be calling this phenomenon something else, since the connotation of premise as logical postulate could be misleading?

4.     Is identifying cultural premises itself an intervention – does making these largely implicit assumptions or premises explicit have consequences?

5.     Are some premises deeper, in the sense of more foundational or generative, than others?

6.     What is the relationship of change in premises to learning, both at the individual and at the group or community level, and are Bateson’s levels of learning useful in understanding this? Can we apply this to our cases?

7.     Since social theorists and historians have argued that deeply held cultural or epistemological premises have changed (e.g., from the medieval to the modern in the Western world) – what makes them change, and can we work intentionally to change them at a societal level? For instance, how do we deal with Bateson’s admonition that a society that reflects the premise that humans are separable from their environment and has an advanced technology is doomed? 

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