Epistemological Shock Inquiry #1

Musings and Queries

This page provides an overview of Gregory Bateson's idea of "Epistemological Shock." For the sake of expediency, I am presenting these ideas in more of a Batesonian approach. (Gregory Bateson never provided complete explanations, which often made his talks and writings difficult to grasp. This was intentional on his part. He felt that for someone to truly understand a particular idea that person had to make sense of the idea on his or her own.)


To begin, we should ponder Mary Catherine Bateson's (Gregory's first daughter with Margaret Mead) statement that:

"Reading Gregory Bateson can be dangerous for your mental health."
(2004 – from a talk at the Bateson @ 100 Conference, Berkeley, CA).

If we carefully examine what Bateson discusses, we find that he shakes our fundamental assumptions about how we view the world. Mary Catherine Bateson refers to this shaking of assumptions as:

"Epistemological Shock"

An example of epistemological shock, from Mary Catherine's experience in her university courses, involved her discussion of Islamic culture in Iran and Iraq. She invited guest speakers from these countries to talk about their lives and culture. After the session with these guest speakers, one student said:

"it never occurred to me that they believe their religion."

This is an example of epistemological shock.

Fundamental assumptions are toppled.

We need to have the courage to invite epistemological shock in our own lives. As teachers, we have the responsibility to provide opportunities for our students to encounter possibilities of epistemological shock.

These possibilities are opportunities for transformative learning.

The future of humanity may depend upon students experiencing epistemological shock and transformative learning.

"Epistemology" has to do with how we structure and organize knowledge, whether it is our own personal knowledge or the official knowledge of a subject matter discipline.


Visiting a very different culture often results in epistemological shock, which is often referred to as culture shock. Our fundamental assumptions about life and living are shaken. In cognitive psychology terms, some of these assumptions are intertwined in our "scripts" (i.e., the frameworks we have constructed for how to do certain things or act in specific contexts). Other assumptions have to do with frameworks we have constructed to make sense of what we perceive. When we encounter a new culture, these scripts and frameworks may no longer work. We are left somewhat groundless, which can be quite frightening.

"Conceptual change" theory, as originally described by Ken Strike and George Posner in 1982, may be related to this sense of epistemological shock. In this case, conceptual change has to do with broad conceptions on the level of belief, but not with specific concepts. From this perspective, some event or encounter may begin to shake the foundations of particular belief or conceptual frameworks. The world as we see may change, but such change may not occur quickly. In fact, major conceptual changes that are based on fundamental assumptions may take years to resolve as we ask further questions and ponder the implications.

Epistemological shock is required for some sort of change in worldviews. Worldviews are fundamental frameworks that guide our actions and thinking, and are basically the lenses through which we perceive and interpret the world. They are based on assumptions and beliefs that may seem to be self-evidently true. Currently, all of humanity is heading into a downward spiral on many fronts, where the interactions between corporate greed, political power, basic human needs, and the biological environment may lead to a collapse in the world as we know it. Tinkering with these systems may not be enough to make significant changes. What may be required is an epistemological shock that changes the worldviews of people, especially the political and corporate leaders.

In schools, we perpetuate certain worldviews and assumptions about learning and thinking, as well as what schooling is all about. However, very little, if any, of what takes place seems to provide for the possibility of epistemological shock or even deep learning to any degree.


It may be interesting to examine any epistemological shocks we may have had in our lives. Think about the circumstances.

What kind of learning followed this shock?

How did this experience of shock affect further learning (and the direction of your life)?

Why do you think epistemological shock (or toppling one's assumptions about life) are important?

What are some of the assumptions of various world leaders? How do these assumptions affect their own and others' societies? What would happen, if these assumptions were toppled and replaced with new views and understandings?

What are the implicit assumptions of teachers, principals, school boards, and politicians about teaching and learning?

What would teaching and learning look like if we were to provide opportunities for epistemological shock?


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