Salzburg Global Mourns the Loss of Mary Catherine Bateson

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Jan 21, 2021
by Salzburg Global Seminar
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Salzburg Global Mourns the Loss of Mary Catherine Bateson

The Salzburg Global Fellow, scholar, and cultural anthropologist died on January 2, 2021, aged 81 Mary Catherine Bateson (Picture supplied by marycatherinebateson.com)

Salzburg Global Seminar wishes to pay tribute to Mary Catherine Bateson, the renowned scholar and cultural anthropologist, who died earlier this month.

Dr. Bateson, a friend and a Fellow of Salzburg Global, died peacefully on January 2 at a hospice facility while holding her daughter's hand. She was 81-years-old.  

Her notable works included Composing a Life, Our Own Metaphor, Peripheral Visions, and her memoir, With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.

Mary Catherine also taught at universities worldwide and served for thirty years as president of the Institute for Intercultural Studies. In recent years, she was passionate about developing efforts to involve seniors in improving future generations' lives.

Dr. Bateson's relationship with Salzburg Global extends all the way back to the organization's first program in July 1947. Aged seven, she joined her mother, Margaret Mead, who served as faculty chair. It was her first time outside the United States.

In July 2007, Salzburg Global was delighted to welcome Mary Catherine to Schloss Leopoldskron again to keynote its 60th-anniversary celebrations. The invitation came due to her long friendship and working relationship with William "Bill" Reckmeyer as cyberneticians.

Dr. Reckmeyer, also a long-time friend and Fellow of Salzburg Global, who is currently Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Systems at San José State University, recalled that Mary Catherine really cherished the opportunity to reconnect with the Seminar for multiple reasons.

He said, "It was not just because of her early experience with Salzburg Global, which was rather limited, but primarily because the Seminar's long focus on fostering cross-cultural conversations about critical issues echoed her own priorities.

"She was most famous (at least publicly) for being the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, both of whom were major founders of cybernetics, so her interest in broader concerns isn't surprising.  But, more importantly, in my view, she is highly regarded by those who knew her and her work well because she was a world-class anthropologist and cybernetician in her own right who was deeply committed to building a better world, which was the major reason she received the Norbert Wiener Gold Medal for Cybernetics in 2011.

"I met Mary Catherine when I was president of the American Society for Cybernetics in the early 1980s, interacted with her on a number of efforts during the 1990s, and then collaborated more regularly over the past 20 years as a result of our joint interest in using cybernetics to address complex global challenges.

"She did express, on more than one occasion over the intervening years, how surprised and grateful she was to have reconnected with the Seminar after such a long hiatus. I first broached the possibility with her at an ASC conference in 2005. I can remember how surprised she was and how wonderful she thought it would be to return - especially after what I told her about the Salzburg Global Seminar’s focus on global citizenship education, which was a subject near and dear to her heart.

While speaking to other guests on her return, Bateson recalled her memories from the first program. She said, "It was all out of a fairytale - a castle, kings, queens, and I had all sorts of adventures." While Mary Catherine came to Salzburg Global's 60th-anniversary celebrations as part "a sentimental journey," she said the experience left her with a "new sense of commitment."

She spoke of two challenges the world was facing: the diversity of cultures and the possibility of environmental disaster. She asked an audience, "How will we develop the cross-national thinking on which it will be necessary to rely in constructing a more closely knit and more mutually intelligible world?"

In addition to the anniversary celebration, Dr. Bateson agreed to serve as a faculty member at two of Salzburg Global's International Study Program (ISP) sessions that month – the predecessor to the Global Citizenship Program and later the Global Citizenship Alliance. In total, she would take part in five faculty and student ISP programs. The last time Mary Catherine visited Schloss Leopoldskron was in July 2010 for the 41st International Study Program: Colleges and Universities as Sites of Global Citizenship.

On January 10, this year, an obituary was published in the Washington Post. It said:

Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson, died peacefully on January 2, 2021 holding her daughter's hand. Dr. Bateson was a best-selling author, a linguist, and a cultural anthropologist. Among her many books, With A Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, was the New York Times Best of the Year list in 1984 and her New York Times best-selling Composing A Life was published in 1991. Her literary legacy will be cataloged at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. In the later part of her life, she was dedicated to preserving our natural world and addressing the social and environmental impacts of climate change and the dire need for inter-generational communication, increased focus on the changing life cycle and encouraging older adults to claim a voice for the future. At the time of her death, she was working on a book based on six lectures she gave at Boston College entitled "Love Across Difference." This book will be published posthumously. She is survived by her husband of 60 years, J. Barkev Kassarjian, her only child, daughter Sevanne Margaret Kassarjian, son-in-law, Paul Griffin, grandsons, Cyrus James and Anton Gregory Griffin, and her half-sister, Nora Bateson. Services private.

"We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn." Mary Catherine Bateson

On January 16, Matt Schudel, obituary writer at the Washington Post, published an additional feature on Dr. Bateson's life. The New York Times has also published a detailed reflection on Dr. Bateson's impact worldwide. Our thoughts are with her family, friends, and colleagues at this difficult time. To learn more about her life and works, please visit marycatherinebateson.com.