By John Hitchin
Whilst there were certain things about the film that I didn’t enjoy – Californians walking bare-foot around rock pools did not add to my thinking about double bind – it was, in the most part, a wonderfully accessible route into Bateson’s thought. Some of the archival footage of him talking about schismogenesis made the idea much clearer and more accessible than one could imagine from his books. It made me realise what a wonderful teacher he would have been.
There are lots of ways into Bateson’s thought – and I am nothing more than a beginner – but the idea that struck me most last night was his definition of information as ‘the difference that makes the difference’. If my understanding is right, our way of defining the difference between x and y is one based on the thing that makes a difference to us in our usage of either x or y.
And since I am just finishing off a piece of work for the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, that is where my mind immediately turned. The work was an evaluation of a pilot project that was exploring whether supporting the whole family was a more effective route to better outcomes for young carers, than supporting the young carer in isolation.
We hope to publish that work soon, but my view was that it definitely can be. And if you have any knowledge of Bateson, then you would know that his thinking would support that too. It’s all about relationships and ecologies, not ‘things’. In fact, for Bateson there is no ‘thing’, just our ideas and relationships that surround and define them. And so just looking at one end of a relationship – the young carer – is always going to lead you down a cul-de-sac.
The challenge for any evaluation, however, is the ability to pull out and definite the ‘difference that makes the difference’. There is a lot of interest at the moment in randomization in public policy evaluation. I think that is a good thing and to be commended. As I have written about before, however, there are risks to the push. It is the potential loss of the qualitative. And for me the qualitative is what Bateson is talking about a lot of the time.
The difference that made the difference for many of the families that we worked with in that study, was the relationships between them and the work of the project staff in shifting those relationships. We were only able to get into those relationships by purposively talking to families, young carers, staff, health workers and others: to develop our understanding of the ecologies of relationships around those young carers. That was the only way we could see what was working and what was changing.
The challenge for this sort of work, however, comes also from Bateson. Because qualitative research leads us to create typologies, and if those typologies are too loose or too imprecise, then we define types or circumstances for ease rather than for their ability to identify the crucial characteristics.
The best thinkers encourage cognitive dissonance in others. And Bateson does for me. But from the perspective of public policy research and evaluation, I strongly believe that whilst we need more randomization, we also need more qualitative. Because as there is a growing interest in randomised controlled trials, there is also a growing interest in the human elements in our services. In his new book, David Boyle says that ‘The human element may be a source of error, but it is also the only source of genuine change’. I strongly agree with this, but I believe the only way to understand this human element is to get to grips with the relationship ecologies they create. Because they are the differences, that make the difference.