“Stage theory… Is BS.”?

a mystical möbius — curating facts, ideas, text, and media to create a contemplative space.


Provocation hits target!

Recently a rather provocative post by Nora Bateson — author, teacher, film maker, daughter of philosopher Gregory Bateson — appeared on TheFacebook. Here’s a snip:


And Twitter:


As 1.2K Comments might suggest, the terse, stark claim created a good bit of discussion. Obviously, many folks who are using stage-theory-centric approaches (i.e., stadialists) like Integral and Spiral Dynamics quite naturally went to Defcon 1, post-haste. That’s revealing! One couldn’t help noticing many stadialists essentially demonstrating/proving part of Bateson’s argument by being quick to rank and discount Bateson as “Green” (i.e., inferior to their Chartreuse, or whatever). 

I’m pleased to note that Bateson’s discourse includes the concern that I’ve been raising regarding Integral and its issues with White supremacist ideology and, especially, including their messed-up messaging regarding the ‘race in America’ discourse. I’m grateful someone with Bateson’s ‘Klout‘ has highlighted the issue of stadial theory and its relationship with eugenics and racism. 

She touched off a firestorm of debate and discourse

Bateson’s post has sparked many conversations, in many networks, and has recently produced a zoom video discussion panel, e.g., Jeremy Johnson’s ‘Mutations,’ with panelists: Nora Bateson, Maimunah Mosli, and Jon Freeman. I’ll embed the video here for those who are interested [96 minutes]. 



Background: Stadial Theory and Eugenics

Later on I will likely pull a clip or two from that Mutations panel video. First, I’d like to take the opportunity to share some relevant history and, thereby, lay a bit of groundwork.

Here is some very fine audio from NPR’s, “Throughline.” This program, from November 2020, is entitled:The Invention of Race.” It is excellent and I’m including it here in full for anyone who wants to begin with the primary source and hear the whole program up front [37:25]. This is a story that every American ought to know:



A couple notes:

In case you don’t have time to listen to the entire Throughline program right now, here are some portions of the interview to help us surface some much needed historical perspective:

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST: By 1900, Franz Boas had moved up to becoming a professor of anthropology at Columbia University – the first anthropology department ever in the U.S. And at this point, he was one of the only people openly opposing the popular ideas of racial science.

CHARLES KING, professor: So Boas’s ideas are seen as fringe, as radical, as flying in the face of common sense. Because again, at the time, every museum, every textbook, government policy – they’re all pushing in exactly the opposite direction. You teach new generations, particularly of white Americans, that people who happen not to look like them are naturally inferior. You’re creating the very reality that you believe you’re simply describing. And Boas understood that very early on.

Oh, and by the way, if you believed that white, northern European, North American dominant culture was always rational, Boas would say, are you kidding me? You know, you can’t look in an open-eyed way at the insanity of racial theory and believe that that has been the product of rational observation. And it was that breaking down of the belief in one’s own specialness that was kind of the salutary contribution of Boas.

ABDELFATAH: I think that in any conversation around cultural anthropology, there are also some fair criticisms or questions about this idea of cultural relativism, because in theory, it’s all well and good to look around and be like, you know what, I have to respect your culture. But on the flip side, if, you know, Ramtin and I are both from the Middle East originally, and, you know, we look at, for example, treatment of women in the Middle East, and according to this kind of cultural relativism model, we got to leave it alone because it’s something that maybe we don’t understand coming at it from a Western perspective – what is the response to that criticism?

KING: Yeah. Well, cultural relativism never meant that you couldn’t make judgments about things, and it certainly never meant an extreme moral relativism. Boas and his students took brave stands against racism. They took brave stands against eugenics, so he felt throughout his life that his worldview was perfectly compatible with saying some things are simply wrong in a moral sense. But I think his science, in a way, made his morality deeper because he didn’t have to tie his sense of what was right in the world to the superiority of his own culture and civilization.


My friend, Henry, says that in the IT field, habitually problem-causing software is said to have “a design smell.” My sense is that Nora Bateson has sniffed-out the design smells emanating from approaches that tend to center on stadial theory. [Please watch the video embedded above.]


Next week: More “Stage theory … is BS?” Come and see. 

[this post approx. 850 words (about a 3 min. read)]

Your thoughts? 

I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?


New non-stadial graphics:


5 thoughts on ““Stage theory… Is BS.”?

  1. After floundering around trying to make sense of your third post in this series I decided to back up and spend more time here at the beginning. The discussion between Bateson and Freemen was good. Nora is very clear in her thinking while Jon Freemen was seemingly caught off guard in the beginning and then came around towards the end.

    The ramifications of Bateson’s position are so far-reaching it is difficult to see where they stop. While initially she seemed deconstructionist now my thinking is not so certain.

    There was a short video comment back and forth between a couple of the more cogent folks that went like this…. ======================================================
    Brendan Graham Dempsey
    The epistemic suspicion Bateson voices is a familiar trope in postmodern discourse. But, by its own logic, it’s self-negating: how can our recognition of hidden modern premises lurking behind our knowledge be immune from hidden modern premises lurking behind that recognition? Postmodern epistemic doubt gets stuck in its own indictment. Like so many postmodern avenues of critique, it’s a performative contradiction.

    Jennifer Grove
    Right, but how do we bring forward this complaint if it is actually doing damage to human beings? Which it is.
    How is the performative contradiction resolved?
    Invalidating people and their concerns is not a way forward.

    Brendan Graham Dempsey
    @Jennifer Grove Good question. I’d say, let’s name the harm being done, explicitly. Harm done is not an epistemological critique, it’s a phenomenological claim. So what is the harm, who is experiencing it, how, etc. This can get us out of high abstractions and closer to real-world lived experiences. My hunch is that, if we could do this, we would see that it is not some set of empirical data that is hurting people, but rather it is the improper ways in which that data is used/has been deployed. If we can get there, we can start to do something productive–namely, affirm both truths: that stage theories may be accurate AND that they have done harm. If we can get there, I think we stand a better chance of a more fruitful outcome.

    Jennifer Grove
    @Brendan Graham Dempsey
    Totally agree.
    I’ve been looking around to see who else might be able/willing to hold more of this. We have to keep going, even tho there is pain.
    For me, Mr Dempsey’s thinking makes more sense right now. But, since the idea put forth by Ms Bateson is so disruptive to a foundational belief of mine, I’m not sure at this point. It could be my mind is resisting just because of feeling uncomfortable. I do love the challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. hey now, shastatour,

      > The ramifications of Bateson’s position are so far-reaching it is difficult to see where they stop.

      Indeed. and both the commentators you cite are correct. Dempsey is speaking of there being almost no place to stop in historical aspects, and Grove is speaking of the present harm of extant aspects. The expression I’ve used in my own exploration is: ‘White supremacist ideology and its artifacts, both historical and extant.’

      I really appreciated your comment! Thank you!

      I’m in a conversation with Jon Freeman regarding this non-stadial approach I’m exploring. The conversation is on a TheFacebook group page and is under a link I’d posted to my pt.2 in this series.

      Your comment was timely and you gave me an idea that I used in my response to Jon’s latest comment. I think my reply to Jon speaks to your concern here to the extent that it is possible for me to do.

      The thread is here:


      peace and peanut butter,

      Liked by 1 person

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