Primacy of Interaction



15-17 SEPTEMBER, 1995

‘Cognitivism’ continues to dominate modern psychology and many disciplines. The reaction against cognitivism has been widespread, yet hardly unified. Ecological psychology, for instance, emphasizes the essential material conditions which support human and animal activity. Discourse analysis, ethnomethodology and social constructivism also place emphasis upon the contexts of action, but stress their socially constituted nature. Tensions arise from the dichotomy of nature and culture, and the opposition of realism and relativism.

Are these ecological and ‘social’ approaches irreconcilable? Can the ecological be socialized, and the social ecologized? The aim of this workshop was to explore the scope of these different approaches, and to discuss the (im)possibility of some kind of unification. The workshop was the sequel to “The Primacy of Action”, a workshop held at Manchester in December 1993, and was intended to focus discussion upon the question of the social. The term “inter-action” was meant to embrace not simply interpersonal behaviour (in the standard sense of social psychology), but, more fundamentally, the idea of action as a socio-historical category.

The papers focused on the following main themes: the applicability of an ecological approach to ‘the social world’; the complementarity of ecological psychology and existing social theory; the material conditions of sociality and the sociality of things; the manifestation of intentionality in action; radical ‘anti-cognitivist’ developments within cognitive science itself.

The issues that emerged included the following. The possible dualism implied by the very idea of extending an ecological approach to the ‘social world’, as opposed to a pre- or non-social world (the latter being characterized as either the ‘physical’, the material, or individual). ‘Information’ as coming into being within the coordination of agent and world, or agent and other, rather than the precondition. The apparent contradiction between the appeal both to realism and mutualism within ecological psychology, and a questioning of the value of mapping the distinction between information and affordances onto the traditional distinction between epistemology and ontology.

The organizers wish to thank the following organizations for support: The International Society for Ecological Psychology; The Developmental Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society; The University of Portsmouth.

Alan Costall, Paul Morris, Vasu Reddy, and Ivan Leudar.

The abstracts are arranged in alphabetical order. All of them are listed by author and title first, so that you know how far to scroll to get to a particular abstract.


  8. P.M. Graves-Brown — BENDING THE RULES
  10. Lieselotte van Leeuwen — INTERACTING WITH OBJECTS
  20. S. Stavros Valenti & Marty Sobel — RAPPORT AND INTERACTIONAL SYNCHRONY.
  26. Patricia Zukow – Goldring — PROPAGATING CULTURAL KNOWING



Alan Costall
Department of Psychology
University of Portsmouth
Portsmouth, PO1 2ER

Gibson’s concept of affordances was meant to bridge the gulf between agent and world, by defining the environment, not in animal neutral terms, but in relation to the animal in question. A certain substance constitutes food, for example, in relation to a certain kind of animal. Food really exists but constitutes food within that relation.

However, even the more sympathetic critics have questioned the possibility that this concept of affordances could apply to other than the most primitive kinds of behaviour. Bruce and Green have claimed that the concept of affordances could only convincingly apply to the “simple visually guided behaviour such as that of insects,” whilst Chris Sinha has characterized it, in relation to humans, as the “Trojan horse” of Gibsonian epistemology. Yet there is uneasiness also among ecological psychologists about how the social might fit in. I have heard one prominent ecological psychologist assert that we should spend our time sorting out the basic bio-mechanical conditions of action before turning our attention to the problems of the social (and that, he predicted, could take some 200 or 300 years). Such a position does not simply postpone a reconciliation of ecological and social theory. It entails some highly questionable assumptions: that the social is derivative, more ‘complex’, ultimately separable from the material, and, in short, ‘unnatural’.

The underlying concern seems to be that an emphasis upon the social would introduce relativism into our naturalistic science. This is a puzzling fear, not because there is no issue of relativism, but rather because that issue already arises. Gibson’s definition of affordances is blatantly relational: “Affordances are both objective and persisting and, at the same time, subjective, because they relate to the species or individual for whom something is afforded. (Gibson, J.J. 1982, p. 237).” The logic of mutuality cuts both ways – neither environments nor organisms can be defined outside of the relation between them. And, of course, it is only within a very particular ontology (one which Gibson himself did much to discredit) that one would have to deny the reality of the environment (any more than the organism) on the basis of its relational status. Yet in the same book in which Gibson pursued this principle of mutuality, he makes the following remarkable retraction: “The organism depends upon its environment for its life, but the environment does not depend on the organism for its existence. (Gibson 1979, p. 129).”

Gibson, and many of his students, have wished to argue for mutuality whilst also insisting that affordances are fixed and preexisting, just waiting (from the beginning to time, as it were) for the right kind of animal to come their way. It is true that we do experience the meanings of objects as intrinsic to them. But the question of how meaning comes to be reified or objectified itself has a crucial social, indeed political, dimension (Costall, 1995). Thus, we can neither avoid relationalism by a resort to objectified meaning, nor expect it to afford a pre-social foundation for a socialized ecological psychology.

Costall, A. P. (1995) Socializing affordances. Theory and Psychology, 5, 467-482.
Gibson, J.J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Gibson, J.J. (1982) Gibson-Shaw Discussion. In W.B. Weimer & D.S. Palermo (Eds.), Cognition and the symbolic processes, Vol.2. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1982. Pp. 227-239.


Walter E. Davis
263 MACC Annex
Exercise, Leisure and Sport
Kent State University
Kent OH 44242. USA

In this presentation I draw parallels between Giddens’ structuration theory and Gibson’s theory of affordances and suggest that the former can be utilized by ecological psychologists in understanding intentionality. Although Shotter (1983) introduced Giddens to ecological psychologists 12 years ago, they have largely ignored him. Giddens (1984) defines social structure as “regularized practices”. Social structures are reproduced or transformed by human actions, which in turn are constrained — limited and enabled — by these very social structures. This “duality of structure” concept is the same as the mutual and reciprocal notions describing Gibson’s theory of affordance (Kugler & Shaw, 1990). There are also important distinctions. Gibson’s affordances constituted by surfaces, objects and the movements of people make up the physical environment. Whereas, in the social environment social structures, systems and institutions constrain human actions (Giddens, 1976/1993). Unlike physical objects and events, social structures “are not spontaneously apparent in the observable pattern of events; they can be only identified through the practical and theoretical work of the social sciences” (Bhaskar, 1989, p. 2). Social structures are not directly perceivable as such but are nevertheless real; they pre- exist for individuals’ who’s actions reproduce or transform them but do not create them (Bhaskar, 1986; 1989; Giddens, 1979; 1984). Intentionality as studied by ecological psychologists to date relates only to affordances in the physical environment and to successful discrete goal directed actions. But in the social environment, unacknowledged conditions and unintended consequences are entailed in the interplay of human actions and social structures (Giddens, 1976/1993). As Bhaskar (1978) writes, “people do not marry to reproduce the nuclear family, or work to reproduce the capitalist economy. But it is nevertheless, the unintended consequences (and inexorable results) of, as it is also the necessary condition for, their activity” (p. 16).

Bhaskar, R. (1978). A realist theory of science. Sussex, England: The Harvester Press.
Bhaskar, R. (1986). Scientific realism and human emancipation. New York: Verso.
Bhaskar, R. (1989). Reclaiming reality: A critical introduction to contemporary philosophy. New York: Verso.
Giddens, A. (1976/1993). New rules of sociological method. 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory: Action, structure and contradiction in social analysis. London MacMillan Press.
Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kugler, P.N. & Shaw, R.E. (1990). Symmetry and symmetry-breaking in thermodynamic and epistemic engines: A coupling of first and second laws. In H. Haken & M. Stadler (Eds.), Synergetics of cognition (pp. 296-331). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.


Ole Dreier
Psychological Laboratory
University of Copenhagen

Paradigms dominate psychology which basically study an organism and a “thing” (or set of “things” or persons) regarded contemplatively as “objects” of cognition. If action is introduced between organism and environment, theoretical issues focus on the place of “the human psyche” in human agency. Some consider action the basic, “missing link” between subject and environment and set out to study “psychic functions” as aspects of subject-action-environment relationships. Still, most study one individual agent in its immediate environment. Even if action is considered primary, the place of agency (and with it “the human psyche”) in the world remains an open question. If social/societal dimensions of the subject-world relationship are addressed, we find a schism between theories which a) derive psychological phenomena from outside and above (thus losing agency and subjective perspectives upon the world) or b) from immediate inter-actions between individuals (sometimes also regarded from an external perspective).

This schism is grounded in issues of the relationship between social structure and agency. The turn in social theories to emphasize action – and the unresolved crisis in our notions of social structure (concepts of society, the nation-state, the ulti-this-and-that-culture) have reopened and – emphasized them.

But it is also grounded in issues about the standpoint and perspective from which to theorize: from a first-person perspective of “each and every” human agent or from the third-person perspective of researchers, professionals, or some imagined non-person. In the latter case, we create a science fit for purposes of control over others.

In the “science of the subject” as developed by the socio-historical approach of Critical Psychology, we have come to emphasize subjects as participants in and across interrelated social contexts of action. At the workshop I shall lay out some of the notions this has led us to adopt and some of the issues it has led us to readdress.



Alan Fogel
Department of Psychology
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
UT 84112 USA

Affordances specify and inform relationships between individuals and the ‘environment.’ I propose that for humans, and possibly some other social species, these relationships have similar properties regardless of whether they are with inanimate objects, animate objects, responsive objects, or other persons. These properties include the following.

  • Relationships develop: They have a life history and exhibit creative spurts of growth.
  • Relationships are dialogical: They evolve through discourse.
  • Relationships are meaningful: They involve emotions, attachments, responsibilities, and insights.
  • Relationships are dynamically stable: They resist change but are locally variable.
  • Relationships are cultural: They are embedded in histories of practice, traditions, and guidance.


David Foxcroft
Department of Psychology
University of Portsmouth
King Charles St
Portsmouth, PO1 2ER.

A recurring theme in research and education concerning adolescent alcohol and drug use is the importance ascribed to peer group influences. This is characterized by the notion of “peer group pressure” which pervades contemporary alcohol and drug education. From this perspective, individuals are susceptible to influence from deviant peer groups who, explicitly or implicitly, coerce them into substance use.

This explanation of social influence is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, not least because it portrays individuals as passive rather than active protagonists in the development of their own alcohol or drug use. Individuals tend to make friends on the basis of perceived similarities, and as such development of drinking or drug use is a shared experience: friends provide an opportunity to drink, get drunk, or get high.

In search of a theoretical framework to account for such group processes, the Gibsonian notion of affordances is assessed, and some questions raised. For example, do friends provide a group affordance for action? Would such an affordance be directly perceived or indirectly perceived (e.g. as a cognitive representation)? Or are affordances perceived at all? Are meanings shared if affordances are shared? What motivates/gives rise to particular affordances? Are the theory of affordances and social cognition approaches mutually exclusive? Or do they in fact help each other out?


Bill Gaver
Royal College of Art
Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU, UK

The ecological approach was originally developed in the context of psychology, and most work on affordances — which is probably its quintessential concept — has focused on the ways the environment shapes individual action. But the environment shapes social interaction as well, and understanding interaction in terms of affordances can help explain seemingly arbitrary social conventions.

In this talk, I discuss this approach using examples from the design of technologies that support collaboration, including paper, email, and video. My aim is to show that the ecological approach may challenge existing perspectives on social interaction as usefully as it has traditional theories of perception.


James M.M. Good
Department of Psychology
University of Durham

Attempts to socialize ecological psychology have been underway for at least fifteen years. The need to accommodate an active perceiver and acknowledge the role of interaction has been clearly acknowledged. Inconsistencies in Gibson’s handling of the relationship betweeen nature and culture have been noted and efforts have also been made to incorporate a more adequate conception of culture. Yet progress appears to have been slow. The problem would appear to be not a simple matter of a clash between a naturalized ecological science and a social science. Commentators on the development of ecological psychology have sometimes detected a tension between its Pragmatist and Realist concerns. Indeed, ecological psychology’s commitment to Realism could be seen to have outweighed its commitment to Pragmatism. As a consequence, the relational nature of perception, action, and interaction – although clearly recognised – has been neglected. In this paper I identify briefly some of the Pragmatist affinities of ecological psychology and then consider the requirements of a Pragmatist approach to interaction, especially its situated character and the need for a relational ontology. In the absence of a suitable Pragmatist psychology, I then consider what exemplars might be available for such an approach and examine briefly some recent sociological approaches to social interaction. It is argued that such approaches properly acknowledge the situated nature of interaction, eschew traditional dualisms, do more justice to the mutuality of interaction, and place centre-stage its emergent and co-regulated nature.


P.M. Graves-Brown
Dept of Psychology
University of Southampton

This paper will explore the relationship between formal and informal social organisation. I shall talk mainly about some current work I am doing in the university context but will also refer to other relevant contexts particularly the environmental protest movement. I suggest that the formal structures of an institution; be it the facilities, spaces, rituals, rules or personnel; form the ecology around and in between which informal practices are enacted. All institutions have informal practices as a means of circumventing cumbersome bureaucracy, indeed, one might argue that the survival of institutions depends upon unofficial practices and relationships. However, there is a darker side to informal networks – plagiarism, not to say cheating, and nepotism. Nevertheless, we may see the formal:informal relationship as a form of mutualism. Although the rules and structures of an institution are sometimes obstacles, they also form the environment, a form of scaffolding, within which informal relationships can exist. In a sense, then, my conclusion is that the ecological can appear in many guises – the environment and its affordances may be physical structures, or it may be the conceptual spaces of an institution like a university. Which ever, the environment presents a kind of resistance that while appearing to block interaction also props it up!


Endre E. Kadar
Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action
University of Connecticut
406 Babbidge Road, Box U-20
Storrs, Connecticut 06269-1020

How can a science be both hermeneutic and natural? According to the traditional distinction between social and natural sciences it is impossible. But what was the reason for this distinction?

At the end of last century science as a specific type of human inquiry was accepted and well respected. Mature sciences, primarily physics, became role models of the sciences. New scientific disciplines which were about to divorce from philosophy were struggling for their own scientific status. Their immaturity and the difficulty in borrowing scientific methods from physics to deal with social phenomena (history, values, social institutions) prevented them from finding formal approaches similar to those used by physics. These new disciplines asked for a distinct status within sciences by referring to their unique nature. Dilthey called them Geisteswissenschaften (study of the human mind). Rickert, however, preferred to called them Kulturwissenschaften (study of the culture) because he thought that these sciences were dealing with individual cases unlike natural sciences which organize their data in terms of laws.

Do we still need this separation of social and natural sciences? I will use the basic problems of hermeneutics (understanding and interpreting texts, e.g., ancient scripts, Bible), ecological psychology (behavior of an organism in an ecological niche, including social setting), and physics (motion of a particle in a field) as testing ground to show the futility of the traditional distinctions. The crux of the matter is to identify the proper minimal unit of analysis and its constituent parts with their natural dynamics. Having done that the fundamental problems of hermeneutics, ecological psychology, and physics take a very similar form (e.g., hermeneutic circle between the organic whole and its part, perceiving-acting cycle in a situated intentional context, interaction of the field with the particle). Consequently, their scientific framework requires similar formal system. Moreover, it can be argued that we need to ecologize all sciences rather than making ecological psychology either a natural or a social science.


Lieselotte van Leeuwen
University of Berne

Studying social interaction from an ecological realism perspective means that one main task is to identify the information people use to plan and control their interaction. Since the ecological approach has dealt mainly with actions on the inanimate world, this knowledge will guide the study of perception as related to interaction. Social affordances can be seen as affordances of actions. Interaction takes place if changes in the actor- environment relationship caused by one partner are perceived as affordances by the other and vice versa. Object-centred interaction provides the opportunity to describe interaction in terms of a comparison of object-affordances realised by the partners. Such a comparison allows us to investigate theoretical assumptions, such as:

  1. The object-affordances realised by one partner in relation to the information about object-affordances provided by the other provide a measure of efficiency of interaction.
  2. Interaction affects the number and kind of object-affordances realised by young children.
  3. Different objects affect interaction in different ways.

In a longitudinal study 50 mother-child dyads were observed from 3 months to 4 years during free play with objects and during problem solving situations. These observational data will be used to demonstrate the methods used to test the theoretical assumptions. The specific contribution of the ecological approach to the study of interaction will be discussed.


Ivan Leudar
Psychology Department
University of Manchester
Oxford Rd
Manchester M13 9PL

The paper will report on some of the joint work by myself and Phil Thomas on dialogical aspects of voice hearing experiences (EHV). Wehave examined these with twenty-two ‘voice hearers’, half of whom were ‘users’ of the psychiatric services, the other half were students who had never consulted a psychiatrist.

The dialogical properties of EHV were determined in a semi-structured interview. The information provided allowed us to ask the following specific questions and provide the following answers.

Question 1. What are the dialogical properties of hearing voices experiences? How do they compare to the ordinary private speech?
Answer: Voices are rarely richly individuated as people are. Voice talk is mundane. It usually relates to on-going activities, as ordinary private speech does. The experiences are often truly dialogical. Voices typically do not impel actions of voice hearers. Their advice may be followed if it is good or in the same way one may give in to persistent nagging.

Question 2. Are the dialogical properties of EHV different in different populations? Are the experiences of hearing voices abnormal phenomena which can be used reliably as psychiatric symptoms? Or are they just unusual?
Answer: Taken either as hallucinations or as private dialogues EHV do not differ in the two populations and thus they cannot in themselves be taken to indicate mental health problems.

Question 3: Is the ordinary private speech different in people who do and do not hear voices?
Answer: There is some indication that in some individuals conversations with voices substitute for private talk with oneself and with imagined others.

Question 4. Why do voice hearers actually hear voices rather than just imagine hearing them as in everyday talking to oneself?
Answer: Our research indicates that compared to controls, voice hearers depend more on acoustic feedback than on internal feedback in the monitoring of speech production.

Our findings are hard to account for in terms disorders of speech planning and monitoring. To understand EVH one has to approach them as situated private dialogues.


Carlos Leon
Wolfgang Schachner
Jean-Jacques Ducret
10 rue des Vieux-Grenadiers
CH-1205 Geneve

This paper describes how on the continuity with the work of Piaget, – a fundamentally subject centered approach -, our current researchs are treating the interactionism issue. In general, psychology and genetic epistemology is studing today the attempt to elaborate a constructivist genetic psychology supplementing the constructivist epistemology of Piaget. Historically, four typical features can characterize the traditional epistemological and empirical work related with the theory of cognitive development: the genetical perspective setting up a hierarchical organisation of cognition, the use of mathematical models to account for this organisation, and the constructivist and interactionist approach of problems.Once genetic psychology has described the development of different types of knowledge and explained the reasons for stages by algebraic means, the next question was the one suggested by artificial intelligence: to consider the process by which artificial and natural cognitive structures are constructed and structural knowledge applied in more specific contexts than those studied in classic genetic psychology. The main problem was no longer that of genesis and structure but that of cognitive fonctioning.Consequently genetic psychology and epistemology are currently striving to produce a theory of psychological fonctioning: a theory of schemes and their transformations which will provide a finer explanation of psychological phenomena that was possible with the classical genetic and structural approach. In this entreprise we are more focusing the problem of “how the environment structure the individual” than it was made by Piaget. As while in Piaget’s work, interactionism was considered from a theoretical perspective, it was treated with some modesty from the methodological point of view. This paper is then concerned with this basic problem of method and approach. We will illustrate this issue, by describing briefly the influence of this matter in two of our current researchs. The first one concerns the methodological aspect of defining the cognitive environment of children understanding a cybernetic’s microworld. The second one discuss some problems of the “physical and social” interaction in the case of a robot simulating and modelizing the sensori motor period of development. The different epistemological issues that supposse being now integrated in a interdisciplinary program of research.


Katherine A. Loveland
Center for Human Development Research
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
University of Texas Medical School
Houston – Health Science Center
Houston, Texas USA

In this paper I will first identify some of the outstanding questions that arise from an ecological approach to the study of human social behavior and suggest some approaches to these questions. For example, from which sources do we pick up information about other humans, their behavior, and the significance of these things for us? What is the role of culture in determining what is perceived? Can all social meaning be construed in terms of affordances? What are the roles of direct and indirect perception in human social interaction?

I will then go on to discuss what we have learned in the past several years about autism – a disorder in which the developmental foundations of both social behavior and language appear to be disrupted – that will advance what can be said about an ecological approach to human social behavior. In particular, alternative models for the developmental impairment of autism will be discussed in ecological terms, and their importance for the normal development of social behavior will be explored.


Paul Morris
Dept. of Psychology
University of Portsmouth

Traditional approaches to person perception have focused on how we acquire information and formulate opinions about other people. If the conclusions of this literature are to be believed a more accurate description of the process would be person misperception. An ecological approach to person perception has emphasised that there may be more accurate information available to perceivers than previously thought possible. Thus some authors have suggested that the programme of an ecological approach to social psychology should be a more careful analysis of the structure of the available information, and that such an analysis is logically prior to the question of how it is detected. The key idea, however, within ecological psychology is that organisms cannot be understood except in terms of their relations to their environment. Thus an approach that emphasises the properties of the environment whether physical or social rather than the relations between the organism and environment cannot be entirely ecological. The purpose of this paper is to review the extent to which current approaches are neglecting the reciprocal nature of social interaction and person perception. It will be argued that person perception should no longer be studied as a process of observation, but rather as a process of engagement.


Sarah Norgate
Department of Psychology
University of Warwick
CV4 7AL.

A current interest in ecological psychology is the extent to which ecological psychology is compatible with other contextualist approaches. There is the possibility of socializing ecological psychology by diluting it with the approaches of discourse analysis, ethnomethodology and social constructivism.

When the theoretical basis of a particular approach to psychology is broadened it provides a good opportunity to reconcile any failures of communication between competing approaches. This is because specification of new or modified aims, objectives and contexts for theorizing helps to make explicit the boundaries between different approaches. If ecological psychology evolves sufficently to be considered socialized then it is crucial that such advancements are considered in relation to those occuring in cognitive science. Even if ecological psychology maintains its current identity it could do well to re-examine how its own principles relate to those in cognitive science. By doing this, ecological psychology (unsocialised or socialised) will present a strong and coherent identity. It is striking how unsuccessful cognitive science has been at communicating the products of its own developments to ecological psychologists. For instance, the focus of the reaction against cognitivism has been a near obsession with the “single-discipline” view of cognitive science. Thus cognitivism is frequently described as being an “in the head” approach. Yet the most recent branch of cognitivism, ecocognitivism, involves a number of contextualist perspectives. For example, there is a move away from a search for general structures for knowledge and towards the study of particular environments for cognitive activity and the knowledge attuned to these environments. Some perspectives treat the picking up of regularities from environmental input as the unit of analysis. One of the main reasons why criticisms have always been directed at traditional views of cognitive science is because cognitivists have not made clear how the boundaries of their evolving discipline relate to ecological psychology.

This paper examines whether ecological psychology can be socialized without demonstrating the same difficulties cognitive science has faced in creating an identity for itself. In doing so, it uses a developmental perspective to examine the ways in which socializing ecological psychology might differ distinctly from any form of ecocognitivism.


John Pickering
Psychology Department
Warwick University.

Cognitive reductionism is part of psychology’s debt to modernist science. The movement that is now occurring beyond it is part of the broader shift in postmodern science from mechanism to organicism. This shift provides a richer framework for considering the social dimension of action. Genetic reductionism, like cognitive reductionism, over emphasises internal determinants of the structure of brain and mind whilst underplaying the role of action in evolution. Now, however, proposals like those of Edelman or of Maturana and Varela point to a selectional origin for brain structure. Approaches like these suggest that the brain may be more fundamentally plastic than was previously thought. This in turn implies that brain structure is also due to external influences. This helps to refocus attention away from genetic determinism and towards the process of interaction between environment and the developing organism. Other developments in evolutionary theory are indeed pointing to a more significant role for the cultural actions of human, proto-human and animal species. Ecological psychology, too, reminds us that outer structure also exists and that cognitive skills and their psychological support may reflect this ecological constraint rather than internal prefiguration.

Ecological psychology emphasises the direct perception of what the environment affords a particular species. This, in most cases is only marginally affected by the past actions of the species in question. However, the human environment is almost totally shaped by the recent actions of other humans. Most attempts to isolate what it is that makes human organisms different from non-human organisms have concentrated on something that is assumed to exist ‘inside’ the organism. However, far outweighing any internal critierion is the fact that in the human case development occurs in an environment that is a cultural product. The vast majority of objects and events encountered by the infant are created by other human beings with other human beings in mind. The interaction between humans and the cultural environment they have themselves constructed means, in a more radical sense than hitherto considered, that human beings may be ‘self-produced’. The human species is ‘self-made’ just because the affordances of the human environment are cultural creations. Thus, if psychological development is learning to notice affordance, in the human case this means learning the possibilities for action that are offered by the cultural condition.

Tools are central to this cultural condition. Tool technology evolves; early tools were for processing matter, later tools were for processing energy. Learning the affordances of such tools became progressively distant from natural action and thus from early stages of development. Presently, media technology is explosively expanding the variety and power of tools for processing information and meaning. However, unlike previous periods in the evolution of tools, the encounter with these tools is occurring earlier and earlier in human development. Signification and affordance being complementary, the early encounter with tools offering powerful and subtle affordances will be of major importance in the assimilative process by outer cultural structure becomes inner cognitive structure.

The inner and outer are poles in the field of interaction between nature and culture. Postmodern science offers a new image of how this field generates structure. Development is not mere inner maturation nor simply the assimilation of an outer order of symbolic culture. Inner structure is indeed there, as the predisposition for action shows. Outer structure is indeed there, but as a product of mutual evolution. Evolution here includes both biological evolution in the conventional sense and the more recent phase of cultural evolution.

Cultural evolution is broadly speaking the evolution of objects, which are mainly tools, and the practices that go with them. The objects and practices which surround individuals as they develop are not neutral. They draw out and modulate an inner predisposition towards action. This may require another individual to act as intermediary, model or teacher. It may be, however, that an object draws out action in and of itself. It is in this sense that objects as well as individuals may be considered to be social in some sense.

Predisposition for action is the inner shell of development, while objects and practices are the outer shell. The actions they draw out, if the selectional view of brain structure is correct, in turn produce inner structure. The outer thus becomes the inner and this mutual structuring is at the heart of most accounts of development. This mutual structuring may be understood as the extra-genetic transmission of inner structure using the objects and practices of the outer shell.

Objects have been proposed as vehicles for cultural transmission before, especially by Sinha. However, such theories applied mainly to objects with direct physical uses, such as simple tools or playthings. To call such objects social is defensible, but it broadens the term considerably. However, as recent cultural theorists like Sadie Plant point out, objects are rapidly becoming social in the more conventional sense. It seems quite possible that technology of the next few decades may bring the distinction between people and objects, that presently seems unproblematic, quite sharply into question, at least, for the developing individual.

This distinction is important when considering the object as a critical issue concerning the social-ecological bridge. The essential material conditions that support human and animal activity are reflexive. That is, these conditions are themselves products of the accumulated history of inter-action between the environment and the human and animals that are supported by them. As technology adds layer after layer of interactive and responsive objects to the zone of proximal development, this distinction may become significantly more difficult to make.


Vasudevi Reddy
Dept of Psychology
University of Portsmouth

One of the motivating factors for focusing this workshop on the question of the relation between the ecological and the social was an explicitly developmental concern. This is that no matter how well developed the explanations and theories of an ecological psychology concerning the infant’s adaptation to a physical world, when it comes to questions of sociality and intersubjectivity the ecological, like most other approaches, balks and procrastinates, implying essentially that sociality is derivative. Given that the largest and most significant part of the infant’s world is social and intersubjective, this avoidance is unfortunate.

Part of the problem lies with a difficulty in defining what it means to be social or intersubjective. In mainstream developmental psychology, sociality is conceived of as an internal process. An act is judged truly social only when it can be ascertained that the correct thought or plan has preceded the act. In other words, the sociality of an act is assumed to lie, not in any situational relevance or determinants of the act, but in the processes within the individual that are assumed to cause it. This conceptualisation of sociality as the thought that lurks behind the act (in the sense that Ryle explicitly criticised), causes many problems, both for measuring the social and for measuring an understanding of the social. First, in order to assess true sociality, the psychologist would need to remove all contaminating social situations and supports. Second, in order to measure the understanding of sociality, the psychologist would need to ensure that what is being understood is not the social act, but the ‘plan’ for the act. This understanding is believed to be available only in thought, not in interaction.

The dualism of this approach in two ways denies the social in social cognition. It assumes the conscious reflective and essentially asocial nature both of sociality and of its understanding. The agenda for the study of social cognition is set up as the study of concepts and theories about the invisible mind. Any ecological approach to the study of social cognition must be concerned with an avoidance of this fundamental mind- behaviour dualism. The reinstatement of the social in social cognition must come about through a focus on action and interaction not as contaminants in the path of the psychologist’s understanding, but as more truly reflective of social cognition than the plans and concepts which are assumed to lurk behind them.


Julie C. Rutkowska
School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Brighton, BN1 9QH, UK

From the perspective of ecological psychology’s methodological realism, the social can be seen as playing two main roles in early human development. Firstly, infants may be preadapted to perceive some of the affordances of persons that complement their own evolutionarily determined effectivities for social action. Secondly, consistent with viewing development as the `education of attention’, new actions may be acquired through a process of social scaffolding, whereby adults mark key attributes of novel tasks and support ordering of the infant’s sensory-motor capacities, leading to repeated experience of goals/outcomes that the infant could neither seek nor attain in isolation. Both of these possibilities are grounded in the notion that the environment is rich in information that is available to control the actions of a suitably tuned subject. Social scaffolding does not, therefore, serve to construct action so much as to select from preexisting possibilities by channeling attunement to information-carried affordances of the environment.

Ecological psychology’s decision to highlight the pragmatic, action-based nature of knowledge will be endorsed in this paper. However, the shortcomings of a cognitivism that is dominated by central representation in the form of more or less exhaustive world models that substitute for the environment are unlikely to be overcome by any alternative that replaces representations in the subject’s head with (equally problematic) information in the environment as the foundation for knowledge. Can there be an account of development that relies neither on central representations nor on the external information that Varela characterizes as the `phlogiston’ of cognitive science? How feasible is a research programme such as enactivism that goes beyond (ping-pong style) interaction between subject and environment (of which there is plenty in ecological psychology) to explore their co-dependence (which the ecological psychology of action affirms but realism ultimately denies)? These issues will be discussed by considering links between human infant development and the growing contribution of behaviour- based robotics to cognitive science and artificial life. This contribution stems from countering representationalism by understanding intelligent systems in terms of specifics of their physical embodiment, their sensorimotor coupling with the environment, and the organizational possibilities of the situatedness to which these properties give rise. Nevertheless, an account of subject and environment that does not invoke a privileged precursor in subject or environment proves elusive. Most promising may be robotics approaches informed by dynamical systems theory that reject the dichotomy between representing and reacting to the environment, and which offer an alternative to traditional views of the sensors as encoding or picking up information.


Barbara Saunders
Centre for Social and Cultural Anthropology
University of Leuven

In the cognitive (Cartesian, Kantian) tradition, investigation has been directed towards the discovery of the necessary conditions of objective experience. Within this tradition colour is taken to be a primitive or foundational structure which scientists from a variety of disciplines have sought to locate as a colour space in the brain. One consequence is the assumption that there are innate and invariant capacities of the brain based on uniform neurophysiological or genetic structures. The further metaphysical claim is then made that the complete physicalist description of the brain or DNA makes sense of the world and all the things in it.

Although realists and relativists alike often share this assumption, relativists tend to problematise the issue by being realists at one remove. Where the realist is happy to say that uttering ‘red’ just is the firing of certain neurons or the operation of the colour gene, the relativist insists on supervening mediating constructs: culture, language, mentality, Weltanshauung.

The World Color Survey (Kay, Berlin and Merrifield 1991) provides data for both the realist and relativist to chew on. Many speakers use the same word in response to black and white Munsell colour chips. Other speakers use the black term for yellow, or focus purple in green, or green in pink which is then called ‘red’. Yet others have one term for pink and black, or red and blue, or scatter the terms for red, green, blue and white throughout the spectrum; and mappings may look as though the box of chips was dropped on the floor.

For the realist there is a uniquely correct set of constraints governing the perception of colour: so the anomalous data is mere noise in the system. For the relativist there are differing and incomparable sets of constraints spawned by alternative expressive, theoretical or ideological resources. This explains the difficulties in trying to fit the WCS data into one universal model. However, although the relativist presses for a view of each culture with its own conceptual scheme of colour predicates, he nevertheless shares the realist premise that the content of perception is universally grounded in ‘colour’ .

In this paper the fallacies underlying this position will be brought out. The picture theory of perception which underlies both realist and relativist accounts and provides their transcendental guarantee will be replaced by an ecological optics. The nature/nurture dichotomy will be dissolved drawing on insights from developmental systems theory. A socio-historical account of the affordances of the chromatic world we live in will be developed.


S. Stavros Valenti & Marty Sobel
Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY

There is strong agreement among medical and mental health practitioners that the development of rapport is a key constituent of a therapeutic relationship. Rapport is said to increases the likelihood that clients continue therapeutic interactions, and in itself rapport may promote better health. Rosenthal, Bernieri, Tickle-Degnen and colleagues have argued that rapport can be conceptualized a constellation of qualities of focused and sustained interactions, where there are changing degrees of (a) mutual attention and involvement, (b) affective positivity, and (c) coordination among participants (Bernieri & Rosenthal, 1991; Tickle-Degnen & Rosenthal, 1987). Whereas the measurement and manipulation of positive affect and mutual attention is quite common in social research, the nature and measurement of interactional coordination is not as clear (e.g., Bernieri, Davis, Rosenthal, & Knee). The goal of this presentation is to briefly examine the nature and significance of interpersonal coordination, and to evaluate recent research which links the perception of rapport to the quality and degree of interpersonal coordination.

Research on interpersonal coordination has a fairly long history in the social sciences, and has included investigations of speaker-listener turn-taking in conversations (e.g., Duncan & Fiske, 1977), postural mirroring (e.g., Scheflen, 1964), and interactional synchrony–the synchronization of movements of individuals in a group (Condon & Ogston, 1967). This research may be of interest to psychologists in the ecological tradition of Gibson because, collectively, it provides a source of concepts and methods for studying social affordances–the emerging interaction possibilities and associated affective tone of face-to-face encounters.

The hypothesis for this presentation, quite simply, is that rapport is a recognition of mutually valued social affordances, and the perception of rapport is based, in part, on emergent rhythmic structures in interaction. Face-to-face encounters create interaction possibilities (social affordances), such as possibilities for continued conversation, for cooperation, for giving and receiving assistance, and even for competition. When the set of interaction possibilities contains those that are mutually valued by interactants, the awareness of these social affordances is experienced as rapport. As is true for any perceived qualities of surfaces, objects, or events, the perception of the rapport of an interaction is based on informative structures in the ambient media (e.g., light, sound). These socially-informative, objective structures may include the kinds of rhythmic patterns observed in conversational turn-taking, and coordinated gross body movements, body gestures, and expressions measured in research on interpersonal synchrony.

To evaluate the proposed model which links rapport to the perception of interpersonal coordination, data will be reviewed from the recent work of Bernieri and colleagues, as well as from our own laboratory (e.g., Kritzer & Valenti, 1990).


Bernieri, F. J., Davis, J. M., Rosenthal, R., Knee, C. R. (1994). Interactional synchrony and rapport: measuring synchrony in displays devoid of sound and facial affect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 303-311.

Bernieri, F. J., & Rosenthal, R. (1991). Interpersonal coordination: Behavioral matching and interactional synchrony. In R. S. Feldman & B. Rime (Eds.), Fundamentals of nonverbal behavior (pp. 401-431). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Condon, W. S., Ogston, W. D. (1967). A segmentation of behavior. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 5, 221-235.

Duncan, S. D. Jr., & Fiske, D. W. (1977). Face-to-faceinteraction: Research, methods, and theory. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Kritzer, R., & Valenti, S. S. (1991). Rapport in therapist-client interactions: An ecological analysis of the effects of non-verbal skill and interactional synchrony. Unpublished manuscript, Hofstra University.

Scheflen, A. E. (1964). The significance of posture in communication systems. Psychiatry, 27, 316-331.

Tickle-Degnen, L., & Rosenthal, R. (1987). Group rapport and nonverbal behavior. Review of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 113-136.


Dankert Vedeler
University of Trondheim

The traditional definition of intentionality in terms of goal directedness implies that intentions are viewed as mental entities within the head of an actor. In accordance with the principle of organism-environment mutuality – central to ecological psychology – I have proposed that intentionality should rather be defined in terms of object directedness, and primarilly behavioral object directedness, stressing that intentions are first and foremost to be found in the relationship between organism and environment. On this view, mental intentions are looked upon as derived from the basic organism-environment relationship and an extension of intentionality into the mental sphere by organisms capable of handling representations.

On this view, also, intentionality is looked upon as an observable quality of behavior as related to a particular piece of environment, in no need of inferences, but in principle accessible to direct perception. according to the principle of kinematic specification of dynamics, as put forth by Sverker Runeson.

Several scholars have pointed to the difference between the infant’s orientation towards physical objects and toward persons, some attaching it to individual differences, other to stages in development. However, Alan Fogel has reminded us that this difference should not be attributed solely to the infant, but looked upon also as a fact of the interaction between the child and its physical and social environment, not only in the present but also in a historical perspective.

My own research aims at an understanding of the development of an infant’s intentionality and how social interaction and interaction with a physical environment becomes integrated in this development. In this presentation I will focus on the role played by the parent’s perception of infant intentionality in this development.

In accordance with, among others, Colwyn Trevarthen’s description of the development of infant intentionality, I have found that socially oriented intentionality decreases between 3 and 4 months at the same time as intentionality oriented toward physical objects increases. Naturally, the decrease of social intentionality was accompanied by a decrease of parental responses to social behavior of the infant. However the decrease on the parent’s side was much stronger than the decrease on the infant’s side, meaning that the parent paid less attention to the few social behaviors that were left. Thus, not only did infant social intentionality decrease, also the parent’s sensitivity to social intentionality decreased. This latter finding is also reported by Suzanne Zeedyk, using quite different methodology which excludes explanations solely in terms of real time situational variables. Such results highlight the role of the parent in the development of infant intentionality. They underline that infant development is situated in, among other things, a context of parental development.


Francoise Wemelsfelder
Genetics and Behavioural Sciences Department
Scottish Agricultural College
Bush Estate
Penicuik EH 26 0QE, Scotland

The field of animal welfare is a relatively new area of scientific investigation, which is rapidly gaining momentum. Its task is to investigate the general public’s concern that animals may suffer seriously under the various regimes imposed upon them for human purposes (e.g. intensive farming, scientific experimentation, zoos). The public takes for granted that the various forms of abnormal behaviour shown by animals under such circumstances is directly expressive of an abnormal inner state, and indicates subjective suffering. Such a stance reflects that in common-sense, daily life, animals are addressed from a first-person perspective, that is as independent, sentient agents pursuing their own goals and desires. Scientists in the field of animal welfare, on the other hand, seek to address the issue of animal suffering from a third-person, mechanistic perspective, to test the reliability of public assumptions. This approach has generated a variety of research models, based upon a diversity of behavioural and physiological measurements. In the interpretation of these measurements, the concepts of ‘stress’, and, more recently, ‘cognition’, play a central role.

The problem with such models is however that the subjective, experiential aspect of suffering remains elusive. Within mechanistic models of behaviour, subjective experience inevitably is conceived as a private, hidden cause, unavailable for direct observation.

This paper proposes that mechanistic models of animal behaviour provide useful information about the animal’s physical state, but are not appropriate to investigate the experiential aspect of well-being and suffering. ‘Privateness’ is not an intrinsic characteristic of subjective experience, but arises from the misguided attempt to investigate subjectivity as if it were an object in the mechanistic sense of the word (cf Ryle, 1949). Alternatively, it must be recognized that the first- person perspective represents an independent level of description and analysis, the validity of which is equivalent to that of a third-person level of analysis. This requires that a methodology be developed, suitable to assess the qualitative, expressive aspects of behaviour as a phenomenon in their own right. It is proposed that a subjective, first- person terminology reflects a dynamic, integrative, anticipatory level of behavioural organization which may be designated as ‘active attention’. Through active attention and orientation, animals actively decide whether, and how, they may interact with the environment. In this context, the notion of ‘innerness’, or subjectivity, does not so much refer to private internal mental thought, as to the expressive, evaluative nature of patterns of active attention. In the way in which an animal pays attention to a certain situation, its subjective perspective on that situation comes to expression. A methodology designed to measure behavioural expression should therefore seek to categorize dynamic attentional processes on the basis of a first-person, agent-related terminology. Such a methodology will facilitate assessment of subjective states of well-being and suffering, and will submit public assumptions on the nature of animal suffering to scientific scrutiny in the most direct way possible.


Emma Williams
Dept. of Psychology
University of Portsmouth

Kanner, in his seminal paper on autism, made a striking contrast between the fascination of autistic children with objects and their apparent disinterest in people. According to Kanner, although their relations to people are ‘nonexistent’, those with things are described as ‘excellent’. This opposition between a physical world of things and a separate socioPcultural realm of persons is apparent, not only in current cognitive theories of autism (who have neglected object use other than pretend play and imitation) but also in those theorists who seek to socialise ecological psychology by examining simply what people afford for action and who fail to take into account the profoundly social nature of our understanding of things.

This paper compares the development of object relations in normal and autistic children in the first three years, with a particular emphasis on the social dimensions of object use.

The aim, through highlighting both the difficulties and similarities of autistic and normal children’s object use, is to challenge Kanner’s assertion of autistic children’s ‘excellent’ relations with objects and thus, in so far as autism can be described as a specifically social deficit, to throw light on the social nature of our understanding of objects. Two, possibly inseparable, issues fundamental to socal cognitiion are discussed: the place of social mediation in our understanding of things and of things in our understanding of each other.


Lucy Yardley
University College London

This paper will firstly outline the reasons why a constructivist approach to health and illness is needed, and then consider three broad theoretical perspectives which avoid the mind/body dualism of contemporary approaches, and facilitate exploration of the intimate reciprocal connections between the socio- linguistic and material aspects of health and illness.

Contemporary approaches to the psychology of health and illness. The “biopsychosocial” model currently provides the theoretical framework for research in the field of health psychology. The model was developed by a psychiatrist (Engel, 1977) who suggested extending the use of systems theory from the biological sciences to also incorporate the social sciences. The biopsychosocial model has encouraged a reductionist and mechanistic approach to the psychosocial aspects of illness, designed to produce quantitative “scientific” measures of health-related psychosocial variables which can be readily added to the biomedical model of disease. Recent alternatives to the biopsychosocial model include the sociological “experience of illness” framework, which draws heavily on sufferers accounts to describe subjective experience and psychosocial consequences of illness, and post-structuralist and social constructionist critiques of medicine. But these approaches risk perpetuating the mind-body dualism of biomedicine in an inverted form, by placing socio-cultural processes in the foreground and conceding the realm of the body to medicine.

Constructive alternatives. Three perspectives which have the potential to embrace both the material and discursive aspects of health and illness will be explored, and health-related illustrations will be provided:
a) Social constructionism, post-structuralism and critical realism. The original exponents of these theoretical perspectives explicitly noted how the social is inevitably physically manifested, while the “natural” is always socially modified. In addition, both the physical and the social world are experienced by the individual as “real” in the sense that both have an existence which is to some extent prior to and independent of individual consciousness.

b) Metaphoric and functional links between the socio-linguistic and material realms. These include the material functions of discourse, the symbolism of the body and desire, and the perceptual, affective, and functional equivalences between linguistic and enacted experience. c. Non-reductionist, constructionist descriptions of material being. The ecological description of the process of detecting “affordances” is proposed as a material counterpart to social constructionist accounts of the processes whereby objects and subject positions are discursively constructed.


M. Suzanne Zeedyk
Psychology Dept.
Univ Dundee, Dundee DD1 4HN

Paradigms for studying the development of intentionality commonly focus on the actions of the individual infant, for example examining reaching and grasping (e.g., the work of Butterworth or Rovee-Collier) or strategies of object retrieval (e.g., the work of Frye, Piaget, or Willatts). This emphasis on individual action reflects the traditional definition of intentionality as a cognitive, mental capacity.

Other theorists (e.g., Murray, Newson, Schaffer, Trevarthen, Tronick) have argued it is more appropriate to study the emergence of intentionality within the context of parent-infant interaction. Accordingly, they make use of paradigms that place such interaction at the centre of experimental examination. Supporters of this perspective have stressed the critical role that parental behaviours play in the development of intentionality. However, parental behaviours have often been confused with parental beliefs. For example, when parents respond to their infant’s vocalisations with the comment “what are you trying to tell me?”, this has been treated as an indication that parents believe the infant means to communicate (i.e., that the behaviour is intentional). However, it is not clear to what extent such comments do, indeed, reflect parental beliefs; perhaps they function more as a linguistic convention for interacting with infants, rather than as a conclusive judgment about the meaning of behaviour. To determine the relation of parental beliefs to parental behaviour, it is necessary to investigate parental beliefs using more direct methods than are possible with standard interaction paradigms.

The present study was designed to assess maternal interpretations in a direct manner. Additionally, I sought to determine the extent to which maternal interpretations are influenced by developmental changes in their infants’ behaviours, such as the shift that occurs at approximately five months of age, when infants’ attention moves from social stimuli toward object stimuli. Sixty primiparous mothers of 4- or 8-month- olds viewed video clips of unfamiliar infants engaged in social-, object-, or non-directed activities and rated the actions for perceived intentionality. These ages were selected because the experience of mothers in the two groups would differ; in the younger group, mothers’ experience would have been limited to infants’ social “mode,” while mothers in the older group would have experienced both the social and object “modes” of infancy.

Results indicated that mothers of younger infants assigned more intentionality to social behaviours than did mothers of older infants, suggesting that social behaviours hold less meaning for mothers as their infants mature. This indicates that maternal interpretations exhibit a developmental course which parallells that of infant development. However, rather than simply reflecting shifts in infant behaviour, it is argued that changes in maternal interpretations constitute a re- interpretation of earlier judgments about the meaning of infants’ actions. Converging evidence will be reported by Dankert Vedeler, whose work reveals similar longitudinal patterns in parental behaviours, despite the use of very different, indirect assessment methods. These findings highlight the contextual nature of assigning meaning to human (infant) behaviour.


Patricia Zukow-Goldring
School of Social Ecology
University of California, Irvine, USA

Infants do not know “what everybody already knows,” but they do not enter the world empty-handed. Infants arrive with a variety of preattunements for perceiving and acting. From their earliest days, newborns can detect amodal invariants, select hand- sized and mouth- sized graspables and suckables, avoid aversive, intense stimulation and more. With a relatively simple set of preattunements, can the infant educate her/his own attention to notice what the world affords for action and interaction withoutassistance? My answer is probably not.

This paper offers/introduces a social ecological realism informed by the work of J. J. Gibson and E. Gibson, socio-cultural approaches, and ethnomethodology/linguistic anthropology to document how infants become competent members of their cultures. I flesh out caregivers’ methods for educating their infant’s early preattunements by detailing the incarnate/embodied practices that may promote the growth of perceiving and acting. I illustrate (with video data) the potential of this approach by summarizing how the process of educating attention relates to the emergence of effective kicking in football/soccer.

Caregivers have no curriculum, no plan for getting through the day. The meaning of events emerges ad hoc without a moment’s notice. Caregivers find what to say and do “on demand.” Caregivers make previously unnoticed affordances perceivable to infants. They afford infants new vistas for perceiving the structural and transformational invariants that constitute daily life, giving new members opportunities to detect invariance where none had been perceived before.

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