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Systemic Thinking and the Myth of Power
Gregory Bateson’s thinking continues to be relevant to systemic and family therapists. He was
right to be concerned about the precariousness of our situation and our hope of survival and
understood that how we think (as evident in our belief in power) presents our species and other
species with enormous challenges if we survive. We can no longer ignore the impact of our
dualistic, goal-orientated thinking. Within this paper, I utilise Gregory Bateson’s view of
‘‘power as a myth’’ as a vehicle to think about his cybernetic epistemology and develop a way
to articulate an approach to aid in systemic thinking. Bateson’s vehement objection to the use
of the term “power” in connection to relationship both fascinated me and troubled me, and I
wanted to try to understand why he railed against a term that remains in common use. Although
I have focused on power in this paper, I invite readers to consider how they might use fourfold
vision in their practice or supervision to consider the families with whom they work. Shifting
focus between details, connections and contexts, within the ever-shifting fourfold visioning,
readers may find ‘‘sparkling moments’’ or the emergence of deep connection with the people
they serve and, perhaps, an appreciation of a greater unity, that Bateson considered sacred.
Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was a significant figure in the history of systemic
practice and thinking; his work in the 1950s and 1960s directly led to the development of the
discipline of family therapy, and he later worked with the team in Milan, helping them develop
and refine their approach. Bateson was not a psychotherapist (although he did undertake
clinical work in the late 1960’s) but an anthropologist, social scientist and natural historian
interested in communication. Despite his integral role in the development of systemic family
therapy, I have argued (Palmer 2021, 2022) that much of his thinking was neglected or rejected,
and I maintain that Bateson’s ideas are still important and relevant, not merely in terms of
therapy but within the contexts of our relationships with each other, other species, and our
I would guess that many people enter the field of systemic therapy because they
understand that a great deal of human suffering is relational and contextual. They want to help
people experiencing emotional pain and are often keen to learn techniques to help them support
others. However, many find much of the language used to describe theories and philosophical
ideas intimidating or consider them irrelevant to the everyday realities of working with families
in distress. Many systemic therapy students and practitioners complain that Gregory Bateson
is challenging to read. Hopefully, this paper will make his thinking more accessible whilst
outlining an approach to systemic practice that draws from his work.
Bateson, Power and ‘‘Cybernetic Epistemology’’
I found that considering the tricky issue of “power'’ was a helpful route into my thinking
about Bateson's philosophy and his understanding of the world of relationships, and I hope that
this will be true for you, too. I have written about this previously (Palmer, 2014, 2016, 2017),
but this paper intends to be a little more accessible and personal. More accessible because many
colleagues and students complain that Bateson is hard to understand, and more personal
because I had many experiences of being bullied as a teenager (requiring surgery after one
particularly violent episode) and was also sexually abused in my teens, too. I have also been
physically held back by other white individuals as my brown-skinned partner was assaulted in
a racist attack. Yet, as a systemic therapist who admires Bateson’s contributions, I wanted to
try to understand his position on power more fully and share my understanding with others.
At this point, I must acknowledge that the limited focus of this paper on Bateson's view
of power excludes other critiques and conceptualisations of power in therapy. There is
considerable scope for developing a wider discussion to incorporate other perspectives, for
example Fors (2021) discusses a heterogeneity of power themes in psychotherapy, highlighting
four areas of power: Professional power, transferential power, socio-political power, and
Bateson’s emphatic rejection of the notion of power in relationships contributed to a
rift between Bateson and Jay Haley, who disagreed with him. In my view, this disagreement
was never, and still is not, resolved. Haley was not alone in his critique of Bateson’s position;
his views on power also led to criticism from feminist writers in the 1980s, who understandably
argued that to deny the reality of power in relationships was to deny the suffering of those
oppressed by violence or coercion. For example, MacKinnon and Miller (1987, p.144) state:
"perhaps nothing could more easily provoke feminist criticism than the new epistemologists’
dismissal of the concept of power. Power, as understood within the cybernetic paradigm, is a
They continued to outline precisely how Bateson’s position on power was so problematic:
Most significantly, if we are to believe Bateson, by avoiding the framework of
power, therapists avoid reinforcing the epistemological error that lies at the heart
of many families’ difficulties, i.e., the lineal villain/victim perspective. The notion
of reciprocity, however, implies that participants are not only mutually, but equally,
involved in maintaining the interaction. Yet, interactions vary markedly in the
degree to which each participant can influence outcome. From a feminist
viewpoint, the Milan interviewing methodology may be all too successful in
reducing blame, thereby creating a “reality” in which all family members appear to
be equally responsible. This becomes most problematic in situations such as incest,
child abuse, and wife battering, where the problem may be maintained in part by a
family member’s socially sanctioned, compassionate view of the perpetrator. If
women and children are understood to be contributing equally to these situations
and if therapists remain compassionate towards the perpetrator, then therapists may
avoid directly opposing the abusive behaviour and fail to guarantee the safety of
the woman or child. Of perhaps equal concern is the psychological effect on the
woman or child of this form of “blaming the victim” (MacKinnon & Miller 1987,
Of course, this is a valid criticism. However, I would argue that this and similar rejections of
Bateson’s position were in part a result of the misinterpretation, misunderstanding and misuse
of his ideas by many practitioners of the time who enthusiastically embraced some of Bateson’s
contributions. I have argued (Palmer 2021) that early systemic therapists cherry-picked the
“bits” of Bateson that suited them and discarded the wealth of other ideas that provided his
epistemology's overall context and meaning. Yet, as I write, recovering from yesterday’s
temperature of 40 degrees centigrade in the North of England, I am acutely aware that Bateson
hoped systemic therapists would embrace his broader thinking, not simply to help families but
to prevent ecological collapse. Bateson directly addressed therapists (at a Mental Health
conference), exhorting them to “achieve clarity in ourselves; and then to look for every sign of
clarity in others and to implement them and reinforce them in whatever is sane in them”
(Bateson, 1972, pp. 492).
Central to understanding that clarity in thinking is appreciating why he took such an
absolute position on the concept of power. This stems from what Bateson termed a “cybernetic
epistemology”. Epistemology is usually considered a branch of philosophy that investigates
the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge; in other words, epistemology is
the study of how we know and what we know. At this point, it is worth observing that ontology
is about what exists, or “being”.
Bateson felt that knowing (epistemology) and being (ontology) are inextricably linked.
As he observed:
In the natural history of the living human being, ontology and epistemology cannot
be separated. His (commonly unconscious) beliefs about what sort of world it is
will determine how he sees it and acts within it, and his ways of perceiving and
acting will determine his beliefs about its nature. The living man is thus bound
within a net of epistemological and ontological premises which—regardless of
ultimate truth or falsity—become partially self-validating for him…I shall
therefore use the single term 'epistemology' in this essay to cover both aspects of
the net of premises which govern adaptation (or maladaptation) to the human and
physical environment. (Bateson 1972, p. 314).
In effect, this means that we build our beliefs and understanding about the world through a
recursive relationship between cognitive processes, some of which are unconscious, and our
interaction with the world. How I know what I know, then, is a process that is mediated by my
perception (which is largely unconscious – I don't consciously “see” or “hear”), my cognitions,
my relationships and the context in which I live. My knowing is partly self-referential and
based upon unconscious, conscious, relational and contextual processes and interactions. It is
both epistemological and ontological.
Most systemically oriented readers will be familiar with the ideas of first-order and second-
order positions; the former is when an observer looks at a system as if it is a separate entity,
and the latter is where an observer understands that they are part of the system that is observed.
Being in that second-order position is, in effect, the beginnings of a cybernetic epistemology,
where we are continuously participating in the construction of a world of experience, which of
course, includes therapeutic realities. The implication is that there is no such thing as an
observer-free description of a situation that can be objectively assessed and evaluated. Instead,
what one knows leads to a construction and what one constructs leads to knowing.
Bateson (1972 p. 461) went on to elaborate:
The cybernetic epistemology which I have offered you would suggest a new
approach. The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent
also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of
which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger Mind is comparable to
God and is perhaps what some people mean by "God," but it is still immanent in
the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.
An important consideration in this discussion is Bateson’s rejection of dualistic thinking.
Dualism, predicated upon the separation of “mind” and “body”, is anathema to a cybernetic
epistemology based upon wholism and immanence. Moreover, dualistic thinking naturally
leads to further divisions and polarities – us and them, victim and perpetrator, good and bad,
and he observed that:
If we continue to operate in terms of a Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter,
we shall probably also continue to see the world in terms of God versus man; elite
versus people; chosen race versus others; nation versus nation; and man versus
environment. It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology
and this strange way of looking at its world can endure. (Gregory Bateson, 1972,
Bateson's view that power is a myth insofar as relationships are concerned is central to this
cybernetic epistemology, where power cannot exist in the realm of mental process; we cannot
‘think’ powerfully any more than we can ‘see’ powerfully. In one draft for a conference, he
wrote that "all metaphors derived from a physical world of impacts, forces, energy, etc., are
unacceptable in explanations of events and processes in the biological world of information,
purpose, context, organisation and meaning" (Bateson, 1974 p. 26). Bateson implies that as
soon as we use words which fit the world of objects, we inevitably treat one another as objects.
I understand why many might be uncomfortable with Bateson’s views about power. I know
from my own experiences what it is like to live in fear of people bigger and stronger than me,
others willing to use their size, strength or authority to hurt or control me. This discomfort with
a denial of power is particularly pertinent at a time when discourses about coercive control,
gaslighting and colonisation are rightfully dominant. However, given these criticisms and my
personal experiences, I needed to find a way to articulate and understand why Bateson
considered power in relationships a myth. Hopefully, this will emerge as you read on.
Traditional linear views of power tend to conceptualise one party as having power over
another, for example, due to physical or financial attributes or positions of authority. This is
probably the most commonly held perspective about power, and on the surface, it makes sense
and seems to fit with most of our everyday experiences, too. Yet, this is the same view that
Bateson tells us is a myth:
…the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth and probably most people
in this world more or less believe in it. It is a myth which, if everybody believes in
it, becomes to that extent self-validating. But it is still epistemological lunacy and
leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster” (Bateson 1972, p. 462).
A simplistic first-order cybernetic perspective might view both parties as having a
complementary relationship where the “powerless” party somehow requires the other party to
have power over them and vice versa. This view is problematic because it decontextualises the
relationship without regard to broader influences, including historical and cultural aspects. It
is evident that from a first-order perspective, any suggestion that power is a myth would rightly
be criticised as holding the victim equally responsible as the perpetrator.
Harries-Jones (1995), a biographer of Bateson, suggested that, instead of thinking of
power in human relationships, we would be better served by reflexive dialogue about the
“metaphor of power” and see ourselves as simply parts of a larger situation. I felt this was a
helpful way of thinking; if we widen the context, a relationship may then be located within
these wider contexts. To merely focus on individual injustices risks ignoring broader, cultural
injustices in which those actions are entangled. By widening the focus, one person’s power
over another may be observed to take place within broader patterns of human domination and
violence towards others. However, I did not feel Harries-Jones sufficiently addressed the issue;
merely shifting our focus to a wider context is inadequate. To have a greater understanding of
an imbalanced relationship, we need to be able to shift focus between contexts, to move from
the details of the participants to the broader contexts of their lives and back again, rather like
zooming a camera lens back and forth between a wide-angle and close focus.
I read Dell’s (1989) explanation of the problem of power as confusion between two
profoundly different and separate domains, suggesting that Bateson spoke of power and lineal
control in the “domain of scientific explanation”, whereas therapists are speaking in the
‘humanist domains of experience and description’ when they talk of power. I was dissatisfied
with this analysis, as it didn’t answer Bateson’s critique of power at all; instead, it sidesteps the
issue and introduces the idea of separate and discrete “domains”, which are unnecessary
boundaries that are not entirely consistent with Bateson’s ‘holistic’ perspective.
Fourfold Vision and Power
Eventually, I stumbled upon a way of better articulating Bateson’s position regarding
“power” almost by accident after reading Noel Charlton’s (2008) biography of Bateson, in
which he focused upon Bateson’s view of the sacred and aesthetics. Referring to Bateson’s
chapter, “The Convergence of Science and Psychiatry” (Ruesch & Bateson 1951), Charlton
noted that Bateson saw a general trend away from “hard” nineteenth-century science toward a
more “humanist” and interrelated way of working that includes the observer or therapist in the
processes. He suggested that Bateson saw the way forward as being a compromise; a working
together of both types of practice; between intuition, and examination and description, each
informing the other. This idea of different elements working together, a synergy, resonated for
me, especially when Charlton went on to suggest other aspects that might be important:
"Humanist, scientist, artist and theoretician are all needed to form the cybernetic unity of
healing" (Charlton, 2008, p. 94).
I began to think about how we might understand unequal, oppressive relationships by
shifting our perspective to and fro; between thinking about the lives and stories of the
individuals involved, considering our responses to the situation, and our theories about what is
happening. Shifting our perspective in this way might give us a richer appreciation of the whole
Around the same time, I had been reading William Blake (the artist, poet and mystic who was
a considerable influence upon Bateson), and one particular piece of writing struck me:
Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight,
And three fold in soft Beulah's night,
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep.
(William Blake, Letter to Thomas Butt, 22 November 1802)
Blake offers us, with the four types of “vision”, a means of taking different perspectives that is
not hierarchical, nor does it create distinct domains. An analogy for fourfold vision is to think
about using a zoom lens on a camera. You can zoom in to details, then zoom back out to look
at connections and relationships while at the same time being aware of one’s own experience,
empathy and intuitions (and how these inform the process of “zooming in” to details and the
“zooming out” to connections). This process of focussing in and out whilst being aware of our
own experiences and reactions can become an aesthetic, ethical and even delightful experience.
Each of Blake’s visions correlates roughly to the components of ‘cybernetic unity of
healing’ described by Charlton – scientist, theoretician, humanist and artist. Importantly, it
provides a means of thinking consistent with Bateson's cybernetic epistemology, connecting
scientific rigour, systemic (and other) theories and our intuitions within an elegant, aesthetic
process. I realised that the concept of fourfold vision offers a means to think about ‘power’
from a systemic position. I quickly grasped that it also provides a framework for thinking about
The Newtonian view of a mechanical universe, with the accompanying attachment to
scientific materialism and pure rationality, was anathema to Blake. Bateson also continued this
theme, frequently mentioning how “conscious purpose” disconnected humanity from the
wisdom of nature. Although Blake appears to be critical of single vision, his point was to
complain about thinking exclusively in this way, as single vision is a necessary part of a greater
whole that incorporates other ways of thinking.
Single vision concerns scientific observational skills and the ability to “zoom in” and
focus on detail. It also involves what might be called ‘linear’ thinking, considering cause and
effect, and looking at things in isolation.
Considering (relational) power from a single vision perspective allows us to explore the details
of a situation and to look at the people involved. For example, who is the perpetrator, and who
is the victim? What are their roles? What is happening, and how is it happening? All vital
information, but not an explanation.
Twofold vision shifts the focus by “zooming out” from specific details to focus on
broader, contextual and relational aspects of interest. Twofold vision is to see not only with the
eye but through it, perceiving contexts, associations, emotional meanings, and connections. I
have interpreted twofold vision to include our consideration of theories, to observe patterns
within the system of interest and the connections we might make with theories, especially
Twofold vision invites us to look at the contexts within which power relations arise.
We could include the family and zoom out to the community and even global contexts in our
thinking. How might patriarchal values, structural violence or the use of military action by
governments influence the situation? Considering power with twofold vision encourages us to
look at the relationships between the parties and their relationship with ourselves and others.
Blake frequently uses the concept of Beulah to refer to paradise and innocence;
however, I consider threefold vision incorporates what we might nowadays call the
unconscious. Threefold vision is how we react to a situation; it is embodied, in the feelings that
arise in response to given circumstances, our memories, previous experiences, and intuitions.
It is about being human.
Considering the concept of “power”, threefold vision allows for empathy with all the actors –
what are our intuitions and embodied responses to the situation? How does this situation
connect with our own experiences? Of course, this position does not mean being neutral or
condoning violence by appreciating both sides, but equally, it does not encourage the
polarisation of issues, either.
Rather than being an additional perspective, fourfold vision is the process of moving
between single, twofold and threefold vision, moving between details, relationships and
contexts and our inner responses to them. Therefore, your fourfold vision is unique. How you
choose to zoom in to different elements and zoom out to explore connections and contexts
depends upon your embodied responses to the situation.
Your responses will be, in part, unconscious and will also be guided by the theories you use,
your previous experiences and the connections you make. As you engage in this process of to-
ing and fro-ing, you will be able to create a richer, more profound understanding of the
situation.How you conceptualise power using fourfold vision will be mediated by your own
experiences and responses; however, I will offer my thoughts as an example. This example is,
of course, personal to me. My experiences of being bullied at school, being sexually abused as
a teen, and being a parent, grandfather, nurse and therapist all contribute to my understanding,
along with unconscious biases and assumptions I might have.
Thinking about power, I will utilise the violence of a male to a female partner. I have
chosen this example because it is a significant issue seen by therapists; the number of domestic
abuse-related crimes recorded over the year in England and Wales rose 6% in March 2021 to
845,734, following increases seen in previous years. In 73% of these cases, the victim was
female (ONS 2021). Please bear in mind this is not an example of clinical practice; instead, it
is a vehicle to illustrate how I might think in a way that is consistent with Bateson’s cybernetic
Single vision would include exploration of the parties involved and what is happening.
First, I could take the histories of the individuals, explore their experiences, and perhaps learn
about any trauma they had experienced in childhood. Next, I might track an episode of violence,
considering antecedents, the episode itself, and the violence's consequences. Finally, I might
explore connections between episodes to see if any patterns emerge.
Twofold vision might incorporate my thinking about the immediate context; I could
construct a genogram to explore relationships between the individuals and their family histories
in more depth. I might draw upon different theories to think about what is happening, perhaps
asking about times when violence didn’t occur when it might have done so, to think about
resources within the system.
Threefold vision is how my responses to the situation might guide my thinking and
exploration. For example, I might further widen the lens to think about how power and violence
manifest within communities and societies as means to exert control, from individuals using
their fists to nations using bombs and missiles.
My threefold visioning may guide me back to single and twofold visioning, perhaps to
locate local episodes of violence and attempts to control others as part of a broader problem.
The myth of power is self-validating at all levels of society, from individuals to nation-states.
While I might condemn the actions of an individual perpetrator of violence, I can also denounce
the patriarchal structures within which the particular action takes place and how elements of
capitalism go hand in hand with patriarchy to create structural violence. I might think about
how that structural violence and poverty traumatise families and how traumatised children may
grow up to be adults who coerce, use and abuse others as a survival strategy.
Thinking beyond interactions between people, I could consider how exploiting animals
and natural resources lead to ecological destruction as another expression of power and
violence. I might even consider how our anthropocentric worldview centres and privileges
human beings over other life forms and the assumptions about power and dominance within
You might now appreciate that fourfold vision is the overarching process of shifting
attention, of exploring details and contexts, mediated by our own human experiences and
responses. This process, leading to a deepening understanding and sense of connection with
the situation, has an aesthetic quality.
I believe that Bateson’s denial of power was a significant facet of his general rejection
of a non-relational, one-dimensional epistemology. “Power” is not the problem; instead, how
we are encouraged by predominantly Cartesian, dualistic Western discourses to think about our
relationships with each other is our problem and challenge. Combs (2018) offers some useful
pointers about how we can begin to think differently about power in connection to white
privilege; “We must also sharpen our felt sense of how racism intersects with the politics of
class and gender so that we can help join and build coalitions that work for fair, just, and
equitable treatment of all families in our society" (Combs, 2018, p. 9).
I have used Bateson’s view of ‘power as a myth’ as a vehicle to think about his
cybernetic epistemology and to develop a way to articulate an approach to aid in systemic
thinking. I am acutely aware that my utilisation of the concept of power to think about
Bateson’s cybernetic epistemology is limited in respect to (much needed) wider considerations
of power in psychotherapy, but nevertheless I hope that this is a useful contribution, and
perhaps a beginning of further dialogues about power and epistemology in practice. I wonder
if there is an opportunity to develop new systemic/cybernetic theories of power; theories that
don’t deny its existence or lived experience (i.e., see it as an illusion), but instead explain how
power can be both relational and give greater agency to one party in that relationship (e.g., the
adult abusing a child has greater capacity to stop the abuse than the child). Within this
framework, other aspects of power would need to be considered, such as the role of knowledge
Equally, I appreciate that my use of domestic abuse as an example to consider power
from a fourfold perspective is limited in that it is not an attempt to provide an explanation, nor
understanding, of such an important and distressing issue. I have attempted to illustrate how I
might think about an abusive situation, which would of course, guide my interventions and
As I reflect upon writing this paper and think about Bateson’s epistemology, I am
acutely aware of how relevant his thinking continues to be. Bateson was right to be concerned
about the precariousness of our situation and our hope of survival. Bateson understood how we
think (evident in our belief in power) presents our species (and many other species) with
enormous challenges if we survive. We can no longer ignore the impact of our dualistic
thinking; the Anthropocene is an epoch where one species is destroying habitats on an
industrial scale and threatening the survival of many more species, including its own.
Given that “mind” and “matter” are inextricably linked as processes of knowing and
being, we are both within the world and creating it (worlding) at the same time as our species
is destroying (or “unworlding”, as Haraway p.56 puts it) much of the ecology of our home
planet. A world where the myth of power reigns. Perhaps fourfold visioning is a route to more
fully understand and embody personal versions of a cybernetic epistemology to enable us a
way to re-think our future.
Finally, I would invite you to consider how you might use fourfold vision in your
practice or supervision to view the families with whom you work. Shifting focus between
details, connections and contexts, within the ever-shifting fourfold visioning, you may find
“sparkling moments” or the emergence of deep connection with the people you work with, and,
perhaps, an appreciation of a greater unity; that which Bateson considered being sacred.
Hugh Palmer is an independent systemic family therapist and writer.
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