RE: [xmca] constraints, affordances and semiotic potentials

From: Peg Griffin (
Date: Sat Jan 21 2006 - 12:18:07 PST

And, as Ann Brown often reminded me, effectivity is a necessary complement
to affordance in the Gibson world. How does that fit into your commentary,
please, bb?

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of bb
Sent: Saturday, January 21, 2006 10:22 AM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [xmca] constraints, affordances and semiotic potentials

 -------------- Original message ----------------------
From: Mike Cole <>
> What is the difference between constraints and affordances and semiotic
> potentials?

Affrodances, as you know Mike, stem from Gibson as what I would paraphrase
as action potentials -- actions made possible by a "thing" or things. So
I'll provide an instantiation to ground this notion: The design of a hammer
affords driving nails into wood. The shape of nails afford being driven.
Wood affords being driven into, steel does not. Constraints are closely
related and provide the flip side of the coin. Trying to drive a nail in a
small space is difficult -- the small space constrains the swing required to
effectively drive a nail. With Norman and his followers, the notions of
constraints and (perceived) affordances have been used for user interface
design of software. I used these ideas for a user-centered approach to
usability testing of the the RelLab software when I was at bbn. They are
useful, but don't consider the actions of making meaning. I really wish I
had known of Halliday's work at that time.

I suppose because making meaning is taking action, in a very basic way as
Leont'ev considers the three levels of activity, that they can be used for
topics such as literacy learning, but my hunch is tha doing so will take a
lot of work, when Halliday (and Hasan), and Lemke, and SFL in general (the
latter of which I still feel to be a neophyte) has already made such
progress in linking texts to making meaning. Another possibility is to
relate constraints to Yrjo's category of rules, addressing the social
aspects of activity.

Gordon Wells' "Halliday Vignette" served as an excellent intro into relating
Halliday and Activity theory. Halliday's work is, from the very beginning,
considering language and social elements as integrated, whereas contraints
and affordances, to the best of my knowledge, do not have such a fundamental
social integration.

Semiotic potential or, as Halliday phrased it earlier in publications such
as 'Learning to Mean' and 'Language as Social Semiotic' (LSS), meaning
potential, is:

1 a set of socially contextualized resources for behavior
2 is language that is related to situations of use (p34, LSS)

Text is what people actually do and mean and say and write (p40, LSS)
against the background of what they can say - the text is actualized
potential. Text is the actual seen against the background of the potential.
Register, also from Halliday, is the range of meaning potential activated by
a situation -- which is why I'm excited about the mapping from the day
schedule to the location of lessons in the room. Learning math happens in
the math area (yellow rug), learning to read and write happens in the
literacy area (red rug), where the materials and texts oriented towards
those lessons are concentrated, providing the material means for activating
those registers. The built environment is a semiotic design, where space
(e.g.the room and its centers) and time (e.g. the day schedule) are integral
elements of making meaning. Each makes its own contributions to the
specialized texts that are collectively made by the children and teacher

In LSS Halliday has written:
Consider the question of literacy, teaching reading and writing: what is
learning to read and to write? Fundamentally it is an extension of the
functional potential of language. Those children who don't learn to read and
write, by and large, are children to whom [language] doesn't make sense; to
whom the functional extension that these media provide has not been made
clear, or does not match up with their own expectations of what languages is
for. Hence if the child has not been oriented towards the types of meaning
which the teachers sees as those which are proper to the writing system,
then the learning of writing and reading would be out of context, because
fundamentally, as in the history of the human race, reading and writing are
an extension of the functions of language. This is what they must be for the
child equally well. Here is just one instance of a perspective on language
in the context of the educational system. (PG 57, LSS)

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