“To be a participant in a complex system is to desire to be both lost and found in the interrelationships between people, nature and ideas.”
Nora Bateson writes these words in the first chapter of her 2016 book Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns (Triarchy Press, 2016). It is hard to put this thoughtful anthology into a single, neat category. And that’s the beauty of it. Not your typical Systems book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles combines lectures and essays, with personal stories, inspired reflections and original poems—crafting a story of systems from Bateson’s unique perspective as writer, filmmaker, expat, educator, daughter, mother and lover of all things messy and complex.
Building on the work of her late father—anthropologist, social scientist and cybernetican Gregory Bateson—and with a nod to her grandfather William Bateson, biologist and geneticist (fun fact: he coined the term ‘genetics’), Ms. Bateson pays homage to an inquiry that started two generations ago—encouraging the reader to not only look for the ‘patterns that connect’, as her father put it, but to spend time in and relish the space—the relationships—between the parts in the system. Bateson describes this as ‘warm data’.
Bateson writes that systems science “is still the best option for preparing for the changes we are facing globally,” but “the word ‘system’ itself has gathered meanings that are distracting”. She suggests there are blind spots in systems thinking that we can address through mutual learning—a process Bateson calls Symmathesy, which just might have the potential to provide the kind of “contextual rehabilitation for addressing dysfunctional and stuck relationships within the ecology of institutions” we need right now.