Acting in a populated environment: an ecological realist enquiry into speaking and collaborating
The thesis seeks to develop an account of collaborative activities within the framework of ecological realism—an approach to psychology developed by James J. Gibson in the course of work on visual perception. Two main questions are addressed; one ontological, and one methodological. The ontological question is: given that collaborative activities take place within an environment, what kinds of structure must this environment contain? The response emphasizes the importance of relations which exist between entities, and which connect a given perceiver-actor with the other objects and individuals in its surroundings, and with the relations between those entities. It is held that activities take place within a field of relations. This description draws on the radical empiricist doctrine that relations are real, are external, and are directly perceivable. The present proposal insists that, in addition to being directly perceivable, relations can also be directly acted upon: throwing a ball for a dog is acting on a relation between dog and ball in space. The relational field account of collaboration naturally extends to an account of speaking: people, through their history of acting in an environment populated by other speakers, come to stand in a set of relations with objects and events around them, and these relations can be directly acted upon by others through the use of verbal actions. Verbal actions serve to direct the attention of others to relevant aspects of the environment, and this allows us as speakers to coordinate and manage one another’s activity. The methodological question is this: granting that the environment may be structured as a field of relations, how are we to conduct our empirical investigations, such that we can ask precise questions which lead to useful insights about how a given collaborative activity is carried out in practice? The central issue here concerns the concept of the task. Psychologists are in the habit of using this term quite loosely, to denote the actions of an individual or a group, in a laboratory or outside. This creates confusion in discussions of collaborative phenomena: who is the agent of a ‘collaborative task’? The definition offered here states that a task is a researcher-defined unit of study that corresponds to a change in the structure of the environment that has a characteristic pattern and that is meaningful from the first-person perspective of a particular actor. On this definition, the task is a tool that allows ecological psychologists to carve up the problem space into specific, tractable questions; the task is the equivalent of the cognitivist’s mental module. Task-oriented psychology encourages us to ask the question: which specific resources is the individual making use of in controlling this particular activity? The methodology is developed through an examination of the alarm calling behaviour of vervet monkeys, which is explained in terms of actions on the relational field, and through an analysis of corpus data from a laboratory-based collaborative assembly game. The relational field model promises to provide a way of studying social and collaborative activities on ecological realist principles. The concluding chapter identifies two particular areas in which the model might fruitfully be developed: in the study of learning, and in the theory of designing objects and spaces for interaction.