The Social Nature of Joint (Social) Work

In the preceding section, we exhibit and exemplify the primacy of the social in mathematical reason, and then move to the structure of practical action that constitutes its social (objective) as opposed to individual (subjective) nature. In classical approaches, however, actions are attributed to individuals.[1] If our claim is that there is a primacy of the social, then we have to provide an account of the (social) ways in which action becomes attributable to the individual. In this section, we are concerned with understanding how and under what conditions joint (social) work comes to be thought of, and experienced, as if it were the result of a collation of individual actions. That is, whereas individualistic psychologies need to be able to show how something like collective action can come about—which, as suggested in Chap. 4, they do by taking recourse to the concept of mediation—a cultural psychology that begins with the primacy of the social has to provide an account of how something that is fundamentally social can be seen as if it were the result of individual action.

Watching any form of social event, we always witness some whole, a whole characterized by transactional relations. Entering the classroom in which Fragment 5.1 was recorded, we did not perceive some elements from which we then built the whole. Instead, we entered a classroom and, in the context of the classroom, came to know Jane, Melissa, and Sylvia as students and Mrs. Winter as their teacher. The desks were desks rather than something else (e.g. dining tables, picnic tables) because we found ourselves in a classroom. In mundane cognition, some identifiable (useful) thing never is a thing in itself. Instead, a thing exists in its particular way, in relation to and for the purpose of a totality that determines it as that thing rather than as another. Sometimes, when a thing is moved from one setting to another, it is used differently; it has different function. Such objects have come to be known as boundary objects (Star and Griesemer 1989). This notion indexes the relation between thing and thing-totality because it makes thematic the different function of some artifact in different social contexts.

When we observe and analyze the social world, we cannot really say what a person is doing in and to that situation unless we look at the effect. Thus, merely by looking at the words “it’s a cube” (Fragment 5.1, turn 01), we do not know what the phrase does in and to this situation. We may analyze the phrase and note that there is an index to some entity (“it”), the subject of the sentence, which is characterized as a cube in the predicate (“is a cube”). We can look up the words in a dictionary; and we may do nothing but speculate about the “meaning” in the mind of the person who said it. Was it an assertion, a question, a reply, or an offer of a reply that the person is uncertain about? Scholars often introduce into transcriptions signs extraneous to the situation, such as question marks, exclamation marks, and other signs to mark some things that were actually not available in this way. The following are five possible ways in which the phrase might have been intonated, heard, and transcribed:

  • 1. It isacube?
  • 2. It is a cube?
  • 3. It is a cube?
  • 4. It is a cube.
  • 5. It is a cube!

We do not know how the phrase is taken up and, therefore, how it has changed the social situation in which it appears. Different things can be done with the same phrase. In fact, the take-up will depend on the situation, which, as shown in Chap. 4, may lead to a divergence of the grammatical and psychological subject. In the five cases, the grammatical subject always is the same “it.” But it differs from the psychological subject, which consists in the subject to which whatever is informationally new (psychological predicate) concerns or falls upon.[2] The intonation changes the phrase psychologically even though it has the same grammatical form (word order)—were it not for the punctuation marks that are added when the phrase is transcribed. In the first instance, the “it” is emphasized, which, when there are several objects available, might have a next turn of the type, “No the other one.” In this event, the question concerns the subject, that is, it concerns which of two or more objects was namable as cube; but the predicate was not questioned. In the second instance, “cube” is emphasized, whereas “it” is not. The question now concerns the predicate, whereas the subject itself is definite. In the third instance, the verb part of the subject is at stake, which can be seen if the next turn was “no, it was a cube” or “no, not yet, but it will be a cube.” Case 4 differs from the preceding only by a change in the punctuation. Now it has become an assertion, whereas in the fifth case, there is a command with respect to the predicate while the subject is unquestioned. We might find the last case in a situation where a student asserts some entity to be a rectangular solid and the teacher, perhaps thereby also cutting off any further debate, commands that the entity be characterized as cube.

In the joint (social) action {turn 01 | turn 05} of Fragment 5.1, the first part takes the role of an assertion that the second part renders problematic (i.e. questions).[3] That is, what turn 01 is, its function in this talk, and, therefore, what it has done in and to this situation is that of an assertion (i.e. in and through its having been taken up as such in the relation). In this assertion, a particular object is characterized by means of the predicate “is a cube.” This is only part of the determination of turn 05, the second part coming from its relation to the turn that takes it up (i.e. turn 08). That turn reasserts (“still”) the predicate, despite the provision of a procedural description. In each case, the function of the turn is given not by the turn itself but by virtue of its place in the sequentially unfolding whole of the talk. How do we get from these relations structured in the way shown in relation (4.1), to the action as something individual ?

In a first step, to reduce to individuals what actually are irreducibly social relations we have to show that actions can indeed be interpreted like a text, where each statement is independent of contextual particulars and only a function of other statements or propositions. To be able to consider an action in itself, to attribute it solely to an individual and to consider it independent of the unfolding social relation, it has to be objectified through a process of fixation similar to that by means of which spoken words come to be fixed in a (written) text (Ricreur 1986). In the process, the action no longer is the transaction that we actually witness. The “I think it’s a cube” and “Why’s that a cube” come to be taken independently and are attributed to the individual speakers. But as soon as we begin looking for, wondering about, and asserting individual “meanings,” we get ourselves into hot and turbulent waters. This is so because we then place ourselves into a practice of speculative epistemology rather than into science. We are no longer concerned with the event that the girls produce as a witnessable objective (because recognizable type of) event, an event the production of which they actively make visible (e.g. by means of providing reason). That irreducibly relational aspect of language, turn 05 as questioning the assertion in turn 01, disappears from our analyses when we consider individual turns as productions of individual minds. Yet, in the setting of this mathematics classroom, turn 01 visibly is treated as an assertion; and it can be paired with a statement that questions the validity thereof because it is recognizably an assertion. If Sylvia could not hear turn 01 in one rather than any other of the many possible ways (#1 to #5 or more), it would be impossible for her to produce a reply to the question. This is so because the relation of turn 05 to turn 01 would no longer be apparent and repair actions would have been needed if the conversation were to proceed further. But in its specific, recognizable appearance, turn 01 exhibits its irreducibly social nature. It is therefore necessary to begin with transactions, inherently social-relational in nature, rather than attempting to build the social from individual actions that somehow float between solipsistic minds.

Speaking of transaction allows us to understand that every action, including every instance of speaking, really is a reaction to another reaction to which it is a response (Bateson 1987). As we describe in Chap. 4, transaction is different from interaction . In interaction, two or more agents exchange actions, which go from one, the subject of the action, to another, the object or recipient (Dewey and Bentley 1949/1999). Here, subject, object, and their relation can be abstracted from one another. By contrast, the term transaction denotes social relations that cannot be reduced to any of their parts—or to interactions of parts—because the parts are intermeshed and, as and together with the whole, are changing. Transactions are precisely the origin of all higher psychological functions. Tracing what appear to be individual higher psychological functions to their social origin is the heart of the sociogenetic method.

  • [1] F. Nietzsche has been an ardent critic of the attribution of actions to individuals, who, thereby, aredepicted as the causes of actions. Thus, he writes: There are neither causes nor effects. Linguistically we cannot get away from this. But thisdoes not change matters. When I think the muscle separately from its “effects,” then I havenegated it ... In summa: an event is neither caused nor causing. Causa is a potential to bringsomething about, invented and added to events. (Nietzsche 1954: 768)
  • [2] See Chap. 3 where we discuss the changes in psychological subject and psychological predicatewhen the intonation is changed.
  • [3] The notation {query | reply} denotes a social action that cannot be further reduced because aspecific phrase functions as a query because there is a reply, and a phrase functions as a replybecause there is a query.
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