Mary Catherine Bateson: Composing a (Further) Life (1989, 2010)

A Systems Library, Vol. 28

Philippe Vandenbroeck
8 min readOct 30, 2022
Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

In this new addition to the Systems Library, I focus on two books — Composing a Life, and Composing a Further Life — published 20 years apart by the same author, Mary Catherine Bateson. Mary Catherine, who died early in 2021 at the age of 81, was the daughter of cyberneticist Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) and anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978). The younger Nora, who was born of Bateson’s marriage to Lois Cammack, is Mary Catherine’s half-sister.

Both Nora and Mary Catherine carry on their father’s legacy, but in different ways. The former positions herself emphatically in a distinguished line of polymaths, which includes her father and her grandfather, the geneticist William Bateson. Both in style and substance Nora’s thinking builds directly on Gregory’s. She continues to sculpt and mine a core set of Batesonian ideas.

Mary Catherine seems to have oriented herself to both father and mother in equal measure. Margaret Mead was a free-spirited woman and a formidable intellectual presence. At the time she was actually more of a figurehead than her husband. It seems to me Mary Catherine was an intellectual hedgehog (who knows one thing) rather than a fox (who knows many things). Her core insights center on patterns of cross-cultural understanding and social learning. In this she leans towards her father. But she has more of her mother in the way she connects these abstract ideas to the texture of a particular life, and how she mirrored their moral import in her practical engagements as parent, educator and university administrator.

It is this blend between the abstract and the concrete which lends Mary Catherine’s work a very distinctive quality. Indeed one may wonder how her books — rich narrative tapestries full of (auto)biographical detail — qualify as contributions to the field of systems thinking. To appreciate that we have to move away from the notion that systems thinking is merely about tools and ideas; we have to see the thinking as a foundation for — and an emanation of — systems tinkering and systems being. Composing a life is tinkering; it is crafting a meaningful pattern out of the unpredictable and ever-changing mix of base materials that meet us on our path.

“I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent to compose and re-compose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in — making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and re-creating themselves.” (CaFL, 23)

The pattern that underpins our lives is, therefore, a pattern of collaborative learning, across disciplines and cultures. Most often there’s only a rudimentary script to guide us — the bounded norms and codes of our own culture — or, when we venture in foreign social and cultural settings, no script at all. Then we need to let ourselves be guided by values and dispositions that we share with all other human beings: a natural cognitive fluency allowing us to reinterpret our own behaviour in the light of new experiences, an inescapable empathy with fellow living creatures, and an intuitive sense of beauty and grace.

This is the pattern that Mary Catherine Bateson illuminates in a sequence of books, starting with Composing a Life (1989), moving onto Peripheral Visions (1994) and ending with Composing a Further Life (2010).

In the earliest publication she adopts an emphatic female perspective to explore the underlying grammar of an improvisatory life. The rationale is that women, more than men, have always lived discontinuous and contingent lives.

“Historically, even women who devoted themselves to homemaking and childcare have had to put together a mosaic of activities and resolve conflicting demands on their time and attention. The physical rhythms of reproduction and maturation create sharper discontinuities in women’s lives than in men’s, the shifts of puberty and menopause, of pregnancy, birth, and lactation, the mirroring adaptations to the unfolding lives of children, their departures and returns, the ebb and flow of dependency, the birth of grandchildren, the probability of widowhood. As a result, the ability to shift from one preoccupation to another, to divide one’s attention, to improvise in new circumstances, has always been important to women.” (CaL, 21).

She wrote that when she was 50, having lived and worked in several countries in the Middle and Far East, modulating between roles as spouse, mother, researcher, teacher, writer, activist, and university administrator.

So what provides coherence in this jumble?

A sense of identity. For Mary Catherine this was her calling as a writer: “Each time some other engagement has been interrupted, I have gone back to clean paper. Otherwise I would probably be trapped today in narrow expertise, working in some prestigious and arid university department. Writing has been the constancy through which I have reinvented myself after every uprooting.” (CaL, 175). In her work Bateson did not foreground a lot of theoretical concepts. But one framework she returns to often and which provides a scaffolding for her thinking about how identity develops through a life cycle is the Eriksons’ theory of psychosocial development. This posits a sequence of stages, marked by developmental inflection points subject to competing biological and sociocultural forces, which individuals negotiate as they mature. Depending on how successful we are in bringing these forces into alignment at each of these stages, we grow into progressively capable and balanced adults. Bateson sees this developmental perspective as something that imbues our lives with a feeling of continuity, both good and bad: “Every loss recapitulates earlier losses, but every affirmation of identity echoes earlier moments of clarity.” (CaL, 174).

A network of social relationships. It is very telling that the very first sentence of Composing a Life is this: “This book is rooted in friendship.” This acknowledgement goes beyond mere politeness; it reflects a systemic principle that orients the co-improvisatory unfolding of our lives. In her recent book on Action Research for Transformation Hilary Bradbury helpfully foregrounds the notion of developmental friendship — a disposition of friendliness, open-heartedness, and genuine curiosity for our partners’ intentions and offerings. This is the kind of friendship that animates Mary Catherine Bateson’s inquiry and which permeates the texture of her writings. Both Composing books grew out of conversations with friends — female friends in the older book, both men and women in the later volume.

Peripheral vision and reflexivity. Improvisation and learning demand that we are attuned to change and novelty. The strange is often encountered on familiar territory. We need peripheral vision that sees through and beyond the meaning of our dominant foreground. “I believe that participant observation is more than a research methodology. It is a way of being, especially suited to a world of change.” (PV, 7). It was Margaret Mead who gave a keynote paper in 1968 at the inaugural symposium of the American Society for Cybernetics that would prove to be a milestone in the development of systems science. Leaping from participant observation to second-order cybernetics, she essentially asked the question “How can you do something and observe yourself doing it?” This skill has been exemplarily taken forward by her daughter.

I’ve written about Bateson’s Composing a Further Life elsewhere. The motto theme of improvisational living and learning is brought to bear here on a particular part of the life course. She takes her cue from the observation that life expectancy has risen dramatically over the last century. As a result something qualitatively has changed in the way we experience adulthood. A traditional tripartite structure of the life course — childhood, productive adulthood, old age — has now expanded with a fourth interval. Bateson labels it as Adulthood II or ‘the age of active wisdom’. It follows upon a stretch devoted to key commitments (life partner, children, career) and typically starts in the 55–65 age bracket. Life events such as retirement, the confrontation with empty nest syndrome, or the passing away of loved ones may trigger a reactive transition into Adulthood II. The point made by the author is that we don’t have to wait for a crisis or an externally imposed change but would do well to proactively mould this new phase in life in a way that does justice to our earlier life experiences and opens up new areas for a meaningful contribution to a larger social context.

I’ve come to love Mary Catherine’s books as much as her father’s (I have yet to study her mother’s work). In its obituary the New York Times referred to her “quietly groundbreaking” work as a feminist and systems thinker. The foundational theme that underpins her life-long journey of exploration is the following:

“The individual effort to compose a life, framed by birth and death and carefully pieced together from disparate elements, becomes a statement on the unity of living. These works of art, still incomplete, are parables in process, the living metaphors with which we describe the world.” (CaL, 23)

This deeply felt affirmation of the fleeting and fragile pattern that connects colours all her writings and lends her prose a particularly poignant quality.

More to read in the Systems Library:

Vol. 27: Hilary Bradbury: How to Do Action Research for Transformations (2022)

Vol. 26: Francis Laleman: Resourceful Exformation (2020)

Vol. 25: Keller Easterling: Medium Design(2020)

Vol. 24: Ian Cheng: An Emissaries Guide to Worlding (2018)

Vol. 23: Janis Birkeland: Positive Development (2008)

Vol. 22: Michel Serres: The Natural Contract (1990)

Vol. 21: Henk Oosterling: Resistance in Times of Ecopanic (2020)

Vol. 20: Ray Ison & Ed Straw: The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking (2020)

Vol. 19: Andreas Weber: Enlivenment (2019)

Vol. 18: Luc Hoebeke: Making Work Systems Better (1994)

Vol. 17: Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems (2009)

Vol. 16: Lois Holzman: The Overweight Brain (2018)

Vol. 15: Hanne De Jaegher: Loving and Knowing. Reflections for an Engaged Epistemology (2018)

Vol. 14: Judi Marshall: First-person Action Research: Living Life as Inquiry (2016)

Vol. 13: Jocelyn Chapman (Ed.): For the Love of Cybernetics (2020)

Vol. 12: John Morecroft: Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics (2007)

Vol. 11: Antoine de St Exupéry: Flight to Arras (1942)

Vol. 10: Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)

Vol. 9: Peter Block: Community. The Structure of Belonging (2008)

Vol. 8: Valerie Ahl & Timothy Allen: Hierarchy Theory (1996)

Vol. 7: Herbert Simon: The Sciences of the Artificial (1969, 1998)

Vol. 6: Donald Schon: Beyond the Stable State (1971)

Vol. 5: Barry Oshry: Seeing Systems (2007)

Vol. 4: Béla Bánáthy: Guided Evolution of Society. A Systems View (2000)

Vol. 3: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh: The Path (2016)

Vol. 2: Stafford Beer: ‘Designing Freedom’ (1974)

Vol. 1: John Law and Annemarie Mol (Eds.): ‘Complexities’ (2014)



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?