“Stage theory… Is BS?” — pt. 6

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


Bateson’s “Stage theory… Is colonial BS” critique hits target

Anecdote offers an analogy

Back when I aspired to rise develop serve as a commercial photographer, I was privileged to meet some very successful Chicago photographers. I learned important principles from the influence of those who were kind enough to reach back and help a fledgling along. One piece of wisdom that I held onto applies to our present discourse. 

This particular principle forms an analogical take on how epistemologies vector (bias) our theoretical constructs. Despite conspiracy theorists’ tendency to see everything as the product of a sinister cabal, most often, it’s contingencies and their inherent dynamics that steer collective thought and its artifacts. What? Let’s see.



Master class

My Chicago friends were very intentional in teaching me to practice photography in such a way as to achieve consistent excellence. They were convincing because all of them faithfully practiced these precepts. One such practice was completely second nature within the studio operations that my friends led.

The common denominator for excellence to which I’m referring was a stern insistence that when an image had been captured (and film processed) and a project completed, then all the photo/light gear must be put back in their appropriate places in the equipment cabinets.

Location gaffers/grips are accustomed to this practice. On location shoots, everything goes back into the cases/trailer after a shoot as a matter of course to prepare for a move to the next location.



In a studio, the temptation is to just leave the lights and control equipment out, because it may be needed for the next shoot.

My friends knew/know how important it is to begin every image with an empty space, even in the studio. So while gaffers/grips do this simple thing as a matter of course, studio associates need to be taught this discipline. Any preconception [e.g., leaving equipment set up] vectors creativity, and this fosters repetition and sameness.

What if a creative advance into novelty requires a drastically different kind of lighting and control? But, “hey, we already have these lights set up.” Sometimes, the allure (ease) of the existing set-up is so strong that we don’t even question it, and we miss an opportunity to ‘see’ the possibility of different lighting. 

During Clare Graves’ career (1940s-70s), stadial theory [ST] was like background equipment in a pre-existing set-up in the social sciences idea-space. ‘Development’ and ‘stages’ formed what Judith Butler describes as ‘frames of recognition.‘ Researchers like Graves probably didn’t question the consensual context as ST was a legacy norm. Quite natural to believe that any new data would need to fit into a developmental matrix.  —We note, this can be an unconscious piece of the theorizing process, i.e., bias.



Stadial theory/Eugenics—systematizing superiority

Stadial theory (stage theory) essentially systematizes/justifies human stratification. The defense of ST — on any basis — represents an ongoing challenge.
An Integral leader recently told me: “No one calls it stadial theory, if that ever was popular, just an fyi.”
So, I replied:
Why do stage theories “intuitively” feel so correct? Because we’ve been trained to see that ‘higher is better’, and we’re largely caught up in the many ways that implanted-training leverages and influences our thinking/behavior. 
I’ve been concerned that some very smart, really passionate folks can’t see the forest for the trees regarding the problematic nature of ST—which is basic to Integral and Spiral Dynamics. After this past week, I’m thinking it may be more like a fish not perceiving/realizing/understanding that it is wet.
“If that ever was popular” is a clear tell that someone doesn’t know the disturbing relationship between ST and eugenics. Unfortunately, many folks fail to see the ubiquity of eugenic thinking in our contemporary cultural zeitgeist.
My use of the 19-20th century expression, ‘stadial theory,’ is quite intentional. It evokes old critiques [like phrenology as stadial pseudoscience, for instance] and allows me to remind [see snip above] my apparently uninformed conversation partner[s] of the fact that the idea of human stages [naturally, with white Europeans on top of the rankings] has already been met with fierce criticism and shown its rightful place as pseudoscientific, racist, bigotry. 


A legacy to overturn, again

We recall the story of Franz Boas (“Stage theory… Is BS?” — pt. 1) and a band of renegade anthropologists overturning stadial theory nearly a hundred years ago. Those few were swimming against the swift currents and tide of  “consensus.” That’s rare.

It’s no accident that arguments from 100-200 years ago are re-appearing right now. Nationalistic sentiments have awakened old ideas/old justifications and this is happening all around the “developed” world. Sadly, I’ve observed that some intellectual circles [e.g., Integral] are providing cover, aid, and comfort to these dark impulses. In light of DJT‘s America, a Boas revival seems more than fitting. 



Next week: “Stage theory… Is BS?” — pt. 7. Come 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?



2 thoughts on ““Stage theory… Is BS?” — pt. 6

  1. As this discussion on Stage Theory has settled with me I find more reasons to be skeptical. For example, this article https://metamoderna.org/how-a-psychedelic-sex-cult-infiltrated-a-german-ecovillage/?fbclid=IwAR1izD3eli0_J2y5_88oLmBBd2W14KDYz3tgg4oyYfWxEUl5BxU5UPrhOc8 on how someone used the idea of being at an advanced level to control others shows many people’s innate deference to someone “higher” and how that is exploited. There are plenty of examples of the advancing level of awakening or clearing that people have been caught in like Scientology where you spend a lifetime going up the ladder. And, the idea in many spirituality groups that we develop and progress might be flawed completely. Are we awake or not? Is there really a half-way or gray area? In Christianity and Buddhism there really are not levels.

    Personally, I have been trying to not see reality in binary terms like good/bad, positive/negative; evil/godliness; dirty/clean, etc because those can be limiting. So, Stage Theory became a way to parse shades of gray which seemed beneficial. The downside is that may not be the way reality works. And, there are plenty of examples of Stage Theory and Stadial Theory being used in ways to control, coerce, denigrate, etc groups of people.

    Where are we in this discussion? In the beginning like the original video with Bateson on Mutations, many commenters and myself kept thinking well, if we get rid of Stage Theory how are we gong to replace it? Maybe the idea that if we throw out Stadial Theory we have to replace it with something is flawed. That is what Nora seemed to be getting at in the video when she used a one-on-one example. We don’t need Stage Theory for a one-on-one interaction. So, why do we need it for looking at society/culture?

    A word that now has some strange energy attached to it is development. Stage Theory was supposedly to explain the evolution of culture and the people within it. With these somewhat charged feelings now getting attached to “evolution” and “development” how should we view evolution? At a basic level we say evolution is the adaptation by a species to its environment. Most of us see things differently with the latest/greatest mentality predominating most thinking. For example, who would posit that Homo Sapien is not more “advanced” than Neanderthal or Denisovian or other early humans? Yet, without stadial theory and taxonomy how do we talk about our relationship to these earlier species? It looks like I need to study Boas more since some of these answers may lie in his work.

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