Re: [xmca] reciprocity continued

From: Derek Melser <derek.melser who-is-at>
Date: Sun Dec 21 2008 - 16:52:03 PST

Mike, Andy:

This 'Synchrony and Cooperation' paper may help us connect a few dots. The
authors are looking at 'synchronous activity', which has also been called
'concerted' activity which term I think is better at capturing the
deliberate nature of the conforming of actions. I mean,
'synchron*ised*activity' would be better. Anyway, it is a good
foundational concept for
activity theory. Plenty of alternative labels, of course: 'collective
activity', 'shared activity', 'joint activity', 'entraining', etc., or even,
at a slightly more sophisticated level, 'collaborative project', say. The
thing is, as some of the people cited in the synchrony article (particularly
McNeill and Ehrenreich) insist, people have a very strong inherent
motivation to participate in synchronous activity. It's enough that there's
a game on, for people to want to pitch in. How strong is this motivation?
There ain't none stronger. And that's good for a small group confronting a
lion, or two. Another book of Ehrenreich's, 'Blood Rites', makes this clear.
Maybe you just don't need any other 'motive' to get *activity* going.

And how basic in our repertoire is synchronous activity? Is the motivation
to it 'innate'? Look at the Nagy and Molnar finding.


It might be appropriate also for me to respond to Andy's (17th Dec)
criticisms of my 'verbal behaviour' paper in the context of this discussion
of 'synchronous activity'. Here goes. Andy's remarks are in black, mine in

   A central feature of your essay I find attractive, that is, the effort to
make what you call the "acting in concert" of just two individuals the
starting point of your analysis. But I have a lot of problems with how you
go about it. Let me note a few:

* the archetypal mode of interaction for you is *doing the same thing*,
which I find to be really odd. I don't think I have ever had such an
interaction. It seems quite at odds, to me, as an archetype of human

Examples of two or more people 'doing the same thing' in concert are:
shaking hands, having breakfast together, dancing, joining forces to lift a
heavy suitcase, drying the dishes together, exchanging a smile.

* you base this idea on firstly the "mirror neurons" hypothesis, which is
pretty recent, entirely speculative, and actually, I just don't believe it.
I think it's a neuroscientist's attempt to avoid cultural psychology and
deduce social action from neurons. In any case, by ditching socially derived
interaction in favour of mirror neurons, you abandon cultural psychology in
favour of neural reductionism, in my opinion.

As far as I know, neither any expert in this area nor me has ever regarded
the mirror neuron findings as anything more than circumstantial
corroborative evidence of a basic urge to concerted activity. See, for
example, Djyksterhuis' and Kinsbourne's respective contributions to
on Imitation: From Cognitive Science to Social Science*, S. Hurley and N.
Chater, eds., MIT Press 2005. My own bias in the 'brain-mechanism or
culture' version of the chicken-and-egg debate is towards the view that
brain mechanisms evolve as a result of the survival value of cultural
innovations (in this case, the foundational cultural innovations concerted
activity and empathy). This 'culture maketh the brain' view was first/best
propounded by Ralph Holloway, or perhaps Donald Hebb.

* You support this hypothesis with "Presumable" reconstructions of human
evolution based only on the evdience that "presuambly" it happened this way,
because you claim that it ended this way. Tautological speculation.

My main 'presumably' is that the pleistocene development by hominins of
culture, verbal communication, consciousness and thinking must closely
parallel the development of these skills by the modern infant. (The latter
process can be observed if you know what you're looking for and have a
terminology capable of describing it.) The 'presumably' is that the
developmental steps are much the same in each case. Given the fact that you
can reproduce much of this development, via the same steps, in chimpanzees
(see Savage-Rumbaugh et al.) and the fact that the hominins we are talking
about are at least half-way on the evolutionary road towards modern humans
(esp., infants), I would say it is a reasonable assumption that a similar
development, via similar steps, took place then.

* You further support this hypothesis on observations of infant behavour
which I find questionable: newborns imitating adults before they even know
about an objective world, though it is outside my area of expertise.

The 1983 Meltzoff and Moore findings on neonatal imitation have been
massively corroborated since. What I find particularly interesting, and what
strongly suggests that it is concerted (joint, shared) activity that is in
question, and not mere imitation, is the 2004 Nagy and Molnar finding that
the newborn is also able to 'solicit' or 'provoke' a synchronous response
from an observer. That is, from the very beginning, the infant can not only
join in with what others are doing but also invite others to join in what
he/she is doing. As for where 'the objective world' comes in: one of the
beauties of making concerted activity primary is that it enables a very
simple and plausible account of objectivity in terms of the concerting (and
concertability (shareability), repeatability, etc.) of perceptions. The
infant masters the concerting pf perceptions (and thus first encounters
'things in the world') in the first year.

* You erect on ths basis of this implausible speculation, a theory of
pedagogy which I would never dream of implementing in the classroom. I
wonder do you have any empirical evidence that this method of
demonstrate-and-imitate works in the classroom? I would be surprised. I
think kids would laugh.

I have never been a schoolteacher but I grew up in a teaching family. My
parents, John and June Melser, were both prominent educationalists. My
father founded and was for twenty years principal of a highly successful
experimental, arts-based public school (PS3, now the John Melser Charrette
School) in Greenwich Village, NY. My mother was a reading expert who
conceived, edited, graded, and partly wrote, The Story Box, probably the
most successful series of children's readers ever produced, world-wide. Both
John and June were both teachers and teachers of teachers. In my childhood,
much of the dinner-table conversation concerned classroom technique. For
myself, it became clear to me what it is to 'show someone how to do
something' or to 'help someone learn to do something' that is, I saw what
demonstration-and-imitation is founded on much later, with early-school
communal chanting far in the past, when I was copying formulae, notes,
diagrams, etc., that the professor was writing on the blackboard in
mathematics and zoology classes at university.

* Although you develop the initial ideas in terms of a speculative pedagogy,
you claim your aim to be for a technique of managing other people's
behaviour, which I take to be the definition of behaviourism, which is
anathema to me. My aim is emancipation not control. But that's just me.

You might be confusing me with Byrrhus Frederick. What I say in the article
is that verbal communication is a technique that enables people to manage
(plan, organise, initiate, implement, monitor, etc.) their own concerted and
cooperative activity. This is Wittgenstein's 'language-game' concept. But,
yes: telling someone something, or asking them to do something, could be
seen as a form of mind-control.

* Your second mode of interaction is what you call cooperation, i.e.,
division of labour. But you completely overlook what I take to be the
archetypal mode of interaction, i.e., joint action or collaboration,
independent subjects working towards the same end, and taking joint moral
responsibility for the outcome. In my view this *includes* conflict, and I
completely disagree with your characterisation of conflict as treating the
other person as an object. I am criticising you now precisely because I
treat you as a person. Conflict and cooperation are inseparable in genuine,
human collaboration, i.e., two subjects working towards the same objective
and really caring about the outcome.

My view is that, in your terms, "the archetypal mode" is "joint action",
yes. Let's neither of us overlook that. Describing prototype concerted
activity without giving ontological priority to the individual participants
is difficult, maybe impossible. Yet that's how it happens. Concerted
activity is logically and developmentally prior to solo action. 'Independent
subjects' are creatures of solo action and thus cannot logically precede
concerted activity. The latter is the matrix from which 'independent
subjects' or 'independent agents' (see immediately below) emerge. That's the
whole point of an 'activity'-based approach, surely. Activity, specifically
collective/concerted activity, is ontologically prior to both 'the world'
and to 'subjectivity' (or solo agency or 'the individual' or whatever).

* I say it is untrue that it is "Standardly assumed" that cooperation is the
outcome of rational decision by independent agents. This is a strawman.
Maybe among Chicago School economists.

You yourself say, immediately above, that joint action is a matter of
"independent subjects working towards the same end". This illustrates how
difficult it is, using everyday language, to describe concerted activity
without 'valorising' (?) the individual in the process. Wittgenstein ended
up saying that primary concert is ('forms of social life' are) ineffable.
Concert can't be described objectively, only empathised or, of course,
participated in. And, although this is fine for us non-academic folks, it
ain't so propitious for 'social science'.

* Altogether I think your approach is founded on mistaken ideas about
imitation and getting other people to do things.

BUT ... your aim of founding a psychology and pedagogy on a theory of joint
activity is well worth supporting, and I hope you continue to discuss it
here. There are scores of people on this list with experience in pedagogy
who would doubtless like to contribute ... though they might not want you
to imitate them. :)

Merry Christmas everyone,

2008/12/22 Mike Cole <>

> The attached article may be relevant to recent discussion of habitus and
> need with respect to the
> primacy (or not!) of reciprocity. I think Durkheim gets short shrift, but
> I
> appear to like his ideas better
> than most here.
> mike
> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list
xmca mailing list
Received on Sun Dec 21 16:53:31 2008

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