In this conversation, we look at Gregory Bateson’s intelligence work at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the 1940s, a moment when military uses of anthropology left Bateson facing an ethical dilemma and influenced his lifelong scepticism of applied science. Bateson’s later writings often highlight the problematic relationship between ‘conscious purpose’ and ‘action’. By looking at the broader socio-political context that anthropology was embedded in during WWII, we will look at how Bateson and Margaret Mead’s anthropological research on ideas of ‘cultural order’ and ‘stability’ were reflexively informed by their engagement with multiple sites and intelligence projects that had a relation to design decisions made at the broader level of governance and policy. The divergences that happened towards the end of this period between Mead’s and Bateson’s thinking on the notions of ‘culture’ and ‘applied anthropology’ would also be a focus.
At a moment when different versions of ‘anthropological intelligence’ are still used to aid various forms of colonisation, the ethical quandaries that emerge in Bateson’s story during WWII have much to offer contemporary efforts that call for taking multiple cosmologies and different worlds seriously within various processes of design.
Date: 2 October 2023,