Gregory Bateson uses this term to describe progressive differentiation between social groups or individuals. For example, if two groups exhibit symmetrical behaviour patterns towards each other that are different from the patterns they exhibit within their respective groups, they can set up a feedback , or "vicious cycle" relation. For example, if boasting is the way they deal with the other group, and if the other group replies to boasting with more boasting, then each group will drive the other into excessive emphasis on the pattern, leading to more extreme rivalry, and ultimately to hostility and the breakdown of the system. (Steps towards an Ecology of Mind, p. 68) An arms race is another symmetrical form of schismogenesis.
Schismogenic patterns can also be complementary, such as responding to assertion with submission, and again will lead to distortions of personality, mutual hostility, and the breakdown of the system.Reciprocity, on the other hand, can be compensated an balanced within itself and does not tend towards schismogenesis.
The topic of research in both types of schismogenesis is the mechanism serving to exacerbate or restrain the escalation, in more general terms, it is "the reaction of individuals to the reactions of other individuals." After his exposure to the Macy Conferences, Bateson adopted the language of cybernetics pertaining to circuits of positive or negative feedback.
In his first major anthropological study, Bateson studied the Iatmul tribe in New Guinea. From his fieldwork, he concluded that an Iatmul village is nearly perpetually threatened by fission of the community because it is characteristic that intense and growing rivalries occur between two groups. It puzzled Bateson that usually the community does not disintegrate. He found that one elaborate event heading off a blowup is the elaborate "Naven" ceremony which entails tranvestism and buffonery. (S. J. Heims)
When Bateson and Margaret Mead studied Balinese culture, they found it strange because nearly all kinds of schismogenesis were absent. According to Bateson, "schismogenic sequences were not found in Bali." (p.112) Instead a "continuing plateau of intensity" was substituted for climax. Unlike most societies, the Balinese seek a "steady state" or "plateau," (a usage adopted by Deleuze and Gauttari in Mille Plateaux) instead of the cumulative experiences of tension and release which Bateson calls schismogenic.
Schismogenic behaviors, when put into equations (!) and graphed as curves, are "bounded by phenomena comparable to orgasm." They reflect conscious or unconscioius hopes for release of tension through total involment. (p.111) Bateson sees this basic human characteristic as making man prone to struggle and often as a potent factor for war. (and also for love.) (see also pleasure)
D.W. Winnicott describes "transitional phenomena," such as both culture and play, in much the same way as Bateson and Mead. In "The Location of Cultural Experience," he writes that transitional phenomena "have no climax."