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Schismogenesis literally means "creation of division". The term derives from the Greek words skhisma "cleft" (borrowed into English as schism, "division into opposing factions"), and genesis "generation, creation" (deriving in turn from gignesthai "be born or produced, creation, a coming into being").


In anthropology

In intergroup dynamics, the concept of schismogenesis was developed by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, to account for certain forms of social behavior between groups. Analogous to Émile Durkheim's concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity (see functionalism), Bateson posited a symmetrical form of schismogenic behavior that consisted of a competitive relationship between categorical equals (e.g., rivalry) and complementary schismogenesis between categorical unequals (e.g., dominance and submission). Bateson's specific contribution was to suggest that certain concrete ritual behaviors either inhibited or stimulated the schismogenic relationship in its various forms. In his earlier formulations, Bateson tied the notion to that of ethos.


Bateson, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind describes the two forms of schismogenesis and proposes that both forms are self-destructive to the parties involved. He goes on to suggest that researchers look into methods that one or both parties may employ to stop a schismogenesis before it reaches its destructive stage.

Complementary schismogenesis

The first type of schismogenesis is best characterized by a class struggle, but is defined more broadly to include a range of other possible social phenomena. Given two groups of people, the interaction between them is such that a behavior X from one side elicits a behavior Y from the other side, The two behaviors complement one another, exemplified in the dominant-submissive behaviors of a class struggle. Furthermore, the behaviors may exaggerate one another, leading to a severe rift and possible conflict.

Symmetrical schismogenesis

The second type of schismogenesis is best shown by an arms race. The behaviors of the parties involved elicit similar or symmetrical behaviors from the other parties. In the case of the United States and the Soviet Union, each party continually sought to amass more nuclear weapons than the other party, a clearly fruitless but seemingly necessary endeavor on both sides.

A form of symmetrical schismogenesis exists in common sporting events, such as baseball, where the rules are the same for both teams.


In sociolinguistics, complementary schismogenesis is a force that can take effect in a conversation where people have different conversational styles, id est "[complementary schismogenesis is] creating a split in a mutually aggravating way".[1] The effect causes two well-meaning individuals having a conversation to ramp up different styles, resulting in a disagreement that does not stem from actual difference of opinion. For example, if one person's conversational style favoured louder voices, while the other favoured softer speech, the first person might increase the loudness in their voice while the other spoke softer and softer, each trying to lead the conversation towards their style's conception of normal talking.[1]

[2] [3] [4] [5]

Systems of holding back

Systems of holding back are also a form of schismogenesis. They are defined as "mutually aggregating spirals which lead people to hold back contributions they could make because others hold back contributions they could make."[6] . In Systems intelligence literature it is held that human interaction has a tendency to fall into such systems unless conscious effort is made to counter this tendency. For example, although most managers would want to give support to their team and most team members would like to receive such support many times support does not result. This is because both parties might feel that the other party is not giving enough and thus they will themselves hold back what they in the best case could give. It has been suggested that systems of holding back are "the single most important key to life-decreasing, reciprocity-trivializing and vitality-downgrading mechanisms in human life." [7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Tannen, Deborah. That's Not What I Meant!, Random House Publishing.
  2. Bateson, Gregory (1935) Culture Contact and Schismogenesis, Man, Vol. 35 (Dec) pp.178-183
  3. Bateson, Gregory (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chandler Publishing Company
  4. Feld, Steven (1994) "From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis..." In Music Grooves, edited by Charles Keil and Steven Feld, 257-289. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  5. Tannen, Deborah (2004) “He Said, She Said; Exploring the Different Ways Men and Women Communicate” Portable Professor: Linguistics. Barnes & Noble Audio Lecture Series.
  6. Hämäläinen, R. P., & Saarinen, E. 2007. Systems Intelligent Leadership. In R. P. Hämäläinen & E. Saarinen (Eds.), Systems Intelligence in Leadership and Everyday Life: 3-38, Espoo: Helsinki University of Technology, Systems Analysis Laboratory.
  7. Saarinen, E., & Hämäläinen, R. P. 2007. Systems Intelligence: Connecting Engineering Thinking with Human Sensitivity. In R. P. Hämäläinen & E. Saarinen (Eds.), Systems Intelligence in Leadership and Everyday Life: 39-50, Espoo: Helsinki University of Technology, Systems Analysis Laboratory.
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