March 17, 2007

Complementary schismogenesis

I don't know about anything else I accomplished during spring break, but I learned a new term, complementary schismogenesis, that has its roots in a 1935 article by Gregory Bateson about cultural contact but is probably less used today by anthropologists than communications folks such as linguist and pop-communications writer Deborah Tannen. (See a June 2006 entry in Omniglot for a decent explanation from a communications perspective.)

The devolution of the term from a macro-societal context (what happens when two cultures interact) to microdynamics (what happens when two people interact) is a fascinating evolution in the social sciences. In both cases, the term refers to a dynamic that reinforces asymmetrical (and often dysfunctional) relationships. In the anthropology of education, John Ogbu's work comes closest to the term, arguing that involuntary minority cultures have responded to long histories of oppression by crafting an oppositional identity and punishing members of the culture who pick up even functional attributes of the dominant culture. Tannen's example of men who like to play Devil's Advocate pushing women to withdraw from active participation, a behavior which in turn reinforces the conversational argumentation of men, is a stereotypical example on the micro level.

On one level, the borrowing of concepts from another discipline is evidence of interdisciplinary creativity. On another level, I wonder if we do ourselves a disfavor by attempting to use society-scale concepts to explain individual or small-group behavior. At some point, scale does matter, and usually the borrowing/translation is one way, from the social down to the individual level.  The borrowing is sufficiently asymmetrical that there's an old joke Doug Fuchs told me about a troubled man who leaves a psychologist's office without talking to the therapist:  "I'm sorry, but you can't help me. My problems are so big, I need a sociologist."

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Posted in Reading on March 17, 2007 4:54 PM |