Dialogical Nature of Human Activity

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Below is an explanation by John Shotter, Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire, which contrasts a relationally-responsive understanding to a representational-referential understanding. Only the former is an adequate response to the dialogical, joint, nature of human activity.

URL = http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jds/MD_Globalization.htm


Notes on the dialogical, joint nature of human activity

“A living thing can indeed be grasped as a spatiotemporal magnitude of motion, but then it is no longer apprehended as living" (Heidegger, 1977, p.120).

Below, I want to set out some of the characteristics of a very special phenomenon that occurs only when we enter into mutually responsive, dialogically-structured, living, embodied relations with the others and othernesses around us – when we cease to set ourselves, unresponsively, over against them, and allow ourselves to enter into an inter-involvement with them. It is here, in the intricate ‘orchestration’ of the interplay occurring between our own outgoing, responsive expressions toward those others (or othernesses) and their equally responsive incoming expressions toward us, that a very special kind of understanding of this special phenomenon becomes available to us. The phenomenon in question is the creation within the responsive interplay of all the events and activities at work in the situation at that moment of distinctive, dynamically changing forms, an emerging sequence of changes (or differencings’) each one with its own unique ‘shape’ which, although invisible, is felt by all involved as participants within it in the same way.

In the intricate ‘orchestration’ of the interplay occurring in such living relations, between our own outgoing (responsive) expressions toward the other (or otherness) and their incoming, equally responsive expressions toward us, a very special kind of practical understanding becomes available to us. In such an understanding, we grasp the nature of these others and othernesses, not as passive and neutral objects, but as “real presences (as agencies)" (Steiner, 1989), toward which we must adopt an “evaluative attitude" (Bakhtin, 1986, p.84). We shall call this a relationally-responsive understanding to contrast it with the representational-referential understanding more familiar to us in our traditional intellectual dealings. This does not occur in all conversations, only in truly reciprocally or mutually responsive ones:


‒ We cannot not be responsive both to those around us [others] and to other aspects [othernesses] of our surroundings.

‒ Thus, in such spontaneously responsive sphere of activity as this, instead of one person first acting individually and independently of an other, and then the second replying, by acting individually and independently of the first, we act jointly, as a collective-we.

‒ And we do this bodily, in a ‘living’ way, spontaneously, without us having first ‘to work out’ how to respond to each other.

‒ This means that when someone acts, their activity cannot be accounted as wholly their own activity – for a person’s acts are partly ‘shaped’ by the acts of the others around them – this is where all the strangeness of the dialogical begins (“joint action" - Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993a and b).

‒ Our actions are neither yours nor mine; they are truly ‘ours’.


‒ Also: “The mechanism of meaning is present in the social act before the emergence of consciousness or awareness of meaning occurs. The act or adjustive response of the second organism gives to the gesture of the first organism the meaning it has" (Mead, 1934, pp 77-78).


‒ “Sawing and dancing are paradigm cases of dialogical actions. But there is frequently a dialogical level to actions that are otherwise merely coordinated. A conversation s a good example. Conversations with some degree of ease and intimacy move beyond mere coordination and have a common rhythm. The interlocutor not only listens but participates with head nodding and ‘unh-hunh’ and the like, and at a certain point the ’semantic turn’ passes over to the other by a common movement. The appropriate moment is felt by both partners together in virtue of the common rhythm" (Taylor, 1991, p.310)... not in virtue of a common rhythm, but in virtue of a sensed ‘completion’ of a ‘mental movement’.


‒ Further: If we are to sustain the sense of a collective-we between us and the answerability to a common rhythm, we find ourselves with certain obligations to ‘our’ joint affairs:

‒ Only if ‘you’ respond to ‘me’ in a way sensitive to the relations between your actions and mine can ‘we’ act together as a ‘collective-we’; and if I sense you as not being sensitive in that way, then I feel immediately offended in an ethical way - I feel that you lack respect for ‘our’ affairs.

‒ Indeed, “[if] the minute social system that is brought into being with each encounter [becomes] disorganized... the participants will feel unruled, unreal, and anomic" (p.135).

‒ Thus, as Goffman (1967) puts it: a participant “...cannot act in order to satisfy these obligations, for such an effort would require him to shift his [sic] attention from the topic of the conversation to the problem of being spontaneously involved in it. Here, in a component of non-rational impulsiveness - not only tolerated but actually demanded - we find an important way in which the interactional order differs from other kinds of social order" (p.115).


‒ What is produced in such dialogical exchanges is a very complex mixture of not wholly reconcilable influences – as Bakhtin (1981) remarks, both ‘centripetal’ tendencies inward toward order and unity at the center, as well as ‘centrifugal’ ones outward toward diversity and difference on the borders or margins.


‒ Further, because the overall outcome of any exchange cannot be traced back to the intentions of any of the individuals involved, the ‘dialogical reality or space’ constructed between them is experienced as an ‘external reality’ or a ‘third agency’ (an ‘it’) with its own (ethical) demands and requirements.

‒ “The word is a drama in which three characters participate (it is not a duet, but a trio)" (Bakhtin, 1986, p.122)... a third agency is at work in dialogical realities.


‒ Thus, such activity is not simply action (for it is not done by individuals; and cannot be explained by giving people’s reasons), nor is it simply behavior (to be explained as a regularity in terms of its causal principles); it constitutes a distinct, third sphere of activity with its own distinctive properties.

‒ This third sphere of activity involves a special kind of nonrepresentational, sensuous or embodied form of practical-moral (Bernstein, 1983) understanding, which, in being constitutive of people’s social and personal identities, is prior to and determines all the other ways of knowing available to us.

‒ Activities in this sphere lack specificity; they are only partially determined.

‒ They are a complex mixture of many different kinds of influences.

‒ This makes it very difficult for us to characterize their nature: they have neither a fully orderly nor a fully disorderly structure, neither a completely stable nor an easily changed organization, neither a fully subjective nor fully objective character.

‒ They are also non-locatable - they are ‘spread out’ among all those participating in them.

‒ They are neither ‘inside’ people, but nor are they ‘outside’ them; they are located in that space where inside and outside are one.

‒ Nor is there a separate before and after (Bergson), neither an agent nor an effect, but only a meaningful whole which cannot divide itself into separable parts.

‒ Indeed, it is precisely their lack of any pre-determined order, and thus their openness to being specified or determined by those involved in them, in practice - while usually remaining quite unaware of having done so - that is their central defining feature. And: it is precisely this that makes this sphere of activity interesting... for at least two reasons: 1) to do with practical investigations into how people actually do manage to ‘work things out’, and the part played by the ways of talking we interweave into the many different spheres of practical activity occurring between us; but also 2) for how we might refine and elaborate these spheres of activity, and how we might extend them into novel spheres as yet unknown.


‒ It is only from within a living involvement in such an ongoing flow of dialogical activity, that we can make sense of what is occurring around us.

‒ These are not understandings of a situation, which allow it to be linked to realities already known to us, but new, first-time understandings which are constitutive for us of what counts as the significant, stable and repeatable forms within that flow." (http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jds/MD_Globalization.htm)