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What now, is my answer to the question I posed at the outset of this chapter?

Social interactions are socially constructed realities — we can see this

phenomenon when we look for it. Two “tribes” explain the province, purpose,

and product of social interaction quite differently, based on competing ontological

and epistemological pre-suppositions and assumptions [see Varey

(2000) for a meta-review in business and management literature]. In talking of

an Interaction Society, we can attend to matters of technology or morality.

Both, of course, have substantive value. Do we want the former to determine

the latter, or vice versa? Human interaction both produces, and is subject to,

deep philosophical differences.

It is not that interaction has become a social phenomenon, but rather that we

can use the concept of interaction to better explain what we can observe in

social settings. The “organisation,” for example, arises as the patterning of some

people’s interactions, and this produces learning. Following Elias (1939), the

social is the plural of interdependent people — interaction is requisite.

In a capitalist society that is dominated by the market mode of social

coordination, the concept of “interaction” takes on a special meaning —

responsive communication. However, communication can be interactional or

interaction-free. It is better to reserve the term “communication” for dialogical

interaction, and not use it in place of “information dissemination.” Social action

is not societal action: communication is possible without interaction — i.e.,

without presence.

A number of themes can be highlighted from this discussion.

What’s Wrong with Interactive Communication?

Why is the alternative conception of interaction better than the commonsense

conception? Castells (1996, p. 359) is not alone in referring to the idea of

“interactive communication,” but I ask what kind of communication is not

interactive? Of course, the answer is given by the analysis of modes of

interaction. Thus, we find that informational (monological) interaction is not

communicational (dialogical). Communication is an interactive social process.

Much so-called “interaction” is better termed and explained as “reaction” —

the action of a person prompts (catalyses) a response by the other. For

example, someone asks for directions or for a chocolate bar. The other

describes a route with landmarks, or hands a chocolate bar from a box. An

effect is produced, but there is no necessity for reciprocity or mutuality (another

fuzzy term in common use). We might better speak of “re-action” in place of

interactive when we mean responsive action. Perhaps “reciprocal” should be

reserved for situations of giving in return (“give-and-take”) — what we have

referred to earlier as exchange.

From Information Technology to Interaction Technology

In considering possible effects of the involvement of ICTs and PCTs, we are

attending to the problem of the spatial organization of social relationships. ICTs

and PCTs do impact on our lives, in terms both of relationships and social

practices [see Katz & Aakhus (2002) and Hutchby (2001) for examination of

this issue]. When persons are not in the presence of the other, their respective

glances, looks, postural shifts, words spoken, tone of voice — that “carry”

implications and meanings — are concealed or lost.

Information technologies make possible the mass reproduction of meaning for

dissemination, yet the core processes of learning and innovation require a dense

network of face-to-face interaction that shape the way that, and the degree to

which, ICT is absorbed into, and used within, societies. ICT adoption doesn’t

necessarily enable a network of social interactions. Gergen (in Katz & Aakhus)

explains that monologic technologies of interaction lead to monologic presence,

providing information or simulation, moving from the collective to the private,

removing or minimizing any transformation through collective deliberation. TV

and radio are fine examples of this. On the other hand, dialogic technologies of

interaction, especially, for example, email, and also telephone and print, allow

a high degree of dialogic engagement. What is created by insertion of these

technologies, points out Gergen, is “absent presence.” The growth in ICT and

PCT use diminishes the importance of face-to-face relations. There is more

interaction, but of an increasingly shallow nature. The technologies divert and

redirect attention, expanding the range of actual and imagined relationships.

Absent presence makes a cultural shift in the form of a wholesale devaluation

of depth of acquaintance to breadth/number of acquaintances. My Microsoft

Outlook Address Book has an ever-increasing number of contact details, and

the proportion of people registered therein with who I have active communication

decreases each time an entry is made.

Castells (1995) points out that CMC has been the medium for communication

for the most educated and the most affluent minority of the population of the

most educated and affluent countries — it is not available to, nor used by, most

people. Interaction mediated by ICT is a minority sport, it would seem. Habits

of usage will be shaped by a cultural elite.

Castells also points out that “the symbolism of power embedded in face-toface

communication has not yet found its language in the new CMC” (p. 360)

(written in the early 1990s). Email is replacing telephone conversation, but not

face-to-face conversation — the return of the written word, according to some

commentators. For others, email is a new form of orality. Castells suggests that

we have an emergent new medium, mixing forms of communication that were

previously separated in different domains of the mind (speech, writing) in a

many-to-many mode of interaction.

CMC reinforces pre-existing social patterns rather than creating new networks

— it is used in addition to telephony and transportation — it expands the reach

of networks, and enables more activity and more choice in patterns of time and

place. However, this does not apply beyond the cosmopolitan elite, who live

symbolically in a global frame of reference, unlike most people who hear and

see only what happens among those present.

The mobile phone privatizes public spaces. There is physical presence, but

mental absence. Private conversations are open and shared in public places.

They allow instant contact and ensure availability, but is this freedom or

control? PCT enable more and more frequent interaction. In society that

explicitly values interaction, we can acquire new contacts and enlarge our social

network. We can talk more with more people. But how much of this activity is

talk with a reason? Much is emotionally empty chatter — texting for texting’s

sake. ICTs and PCTs may indeed shorten social distance, but in doing so

weaken emotional bonds. Paradoxically we can be alone in a crowd — in

contact, but increasingly lonely. Peer pressure in the form of obligation to

chatter without meaningful and emotionally loaded relationships is no more than

constant connection. Maybe (excuse the telephonic pun), to be engaged is what

we want!

Hutchby (2001) helpfully suggests the power of talk-in-interaction and the

pervasive use of ICTs and PCTs for conversation. He highlights the inherent

strangeness of talk-in-interaction with others as if they are co-present, when

they are not. This technologised interaction emerges through the effects of the

properties of the technologies that support many conversations. The systems

are designed with a computational model in mind: encoding and decoding of

intended meanings as messages. Hutchby traces this mindset back to Saussure

(1915) and subsequently Shannon & Weaver’s (1949) process of monologic

message transmission. What this conception of communication misses is that

perception produces experience, but not meaning; interactants may or may not

accomplish communication, and interaction is for the coordination of action. An

interactional conception of communication is inherently dialogical.

Dialogue and Appreciation in the Interaction Society

Dialogue has both practices and forums. We have witnessed the rise of “team

working,” “cooperative” organisation, and similar calls premised on a social

hope for “working together” over several decades, resulting in the term

dialogue entering our everyday vocabulary. Participation processes have been

designed and deployed in many spheres of work and local politics, and we have

been invited to work towards and with communication and information to make

“better” decisions, and have been provided with “information age” resources

for this purpose. What seems, however, to be absent in this is the logic of

participation in communication and information processes. Thus, “dialogue” is

productive, rather than reproductive, communicational interaction. In dialogue,

there is continual social formation of consensus in interaction, beyond the

intentions and opinions of the participants. A dialogic theory of communication

is necessary for the practices of working together (Deetz & Simpson, 2003).

In a society constituted by interaction, the most likely occupation of members

is influencing and being influenced through talk (conversation), determined by

communicative acts, events, and styles.

Sir Geoffrey Vickers (1983) refocused attention on the initiation and pursuit of

desired relationships and the elusion of undesirable relationships. This is quite

different from Herbert Simon’s earlier explanation of human behaviour as

essentially goal-seeking. Every act of a person is interpreted by other people

and so becomes communication only when meaning is attributed to it by the

other(s), i.e., when it is perceived and appreciated. Vickers could find no

accepted word to describe the attaching of meaning to perceived signals to

create communication. He thus referred to this mental activity as “appreciation,”

the code it uses as its “appreciative system,” and the state of the code as

the “appreciative setting.”

Vickers clarified the nature of the human communication problem. Culture and

communication cannot be separated. For us to communicate and cooperate,

we must share some common assumptions about the world we live in, and some

common standards by which to judge our own and each other’s actions. These

shared epistemological assumptions must correspond sufficiently with social

reality to make common action effective. The shared ethical assumptions must

meet the minimal mutual needs that the members of our society have of each

other. “Culture” is the shared basis of appreciation and action which communication

develops within any political system (a corporation is simply a subsystem

of wider society).

Philosophically, “the purpose of words is to give the same kind of publicity to

thought as is claimed for physical objects” (Russell, 1979, p. 9). Pragmatically,

“[c]ommunication is the management of messages for the purpose of creating

meaning” (Frey et al., 1991).

According to Kreps (1990), human communication occurs when a person

responds to a message and assigns meaning to it. Specifically, we should be

careful to define a message as any symbol or thing that people attend to and

create meanings for in the communication process, whether or not intended by

another person. Meanings are the mental images created to help us interpret

what happens around us so that we develop an understanding. Human

communication is irreversible, bound to the context in which it occurs (e.g., time

and place), and arises within relationships between communicators.

Acceptance arises from the apprehender’s choices, not the initiator’s intentions.

Participants to a communicative event take part in a process of creating

shared meaning. First we interpret the situation, then act, influencing one


We all have concerns, in response to each of which we construct an inner

representation of the situation that is relevant to that concern. The Apprecia162

Table 2. Levels at which human communication may arise (Vickers, 1983)

1. Violence Erodes trust and evokes a response to contain it

and to abate it, but has no specific communicative


2. Threat The conditional “do it or else” – involves trust only

to the extent that the threatened needs to believe

both that the threatener can and will carry out a

threat unless the condition is fulfilled and to fulfil

the condition will avert the threat

3. Bargain Involves a greater shared assumption – each party

has to be confident that the other regards the

situation as a bargain – the attempt to negotiate an

exchange on terms acceptable to all the parties –

each must believe that the other parties can and

will carry out their undertakings if agreement is

reached – each is free to make not merely an

acceptable bargain but the best they can, or to

withdraw from the negotiation

4. Information The receiver must not only trust that the giver’s

competence and reliability, they must also be assured

that giver’s appreciative system corresponds

sufficiently with their own to ensure that what is

received fits the receiver’s needs. Even if it does, it

will, to some extent, alter the setting of their appreciative


5. Persuasion The giver actively seeks to change the way in which

the other perceives some situation and thus to

change the setting of their appreciative system

more radically

6. Argument When the process is mutual, each party strives to

alter the other’s view whilst maintaining their own

7. Dialogue Each party seeks to share, perhaps only hypothetically,

the other’s appreciation and to open their

own to the other’s persuasion with a view to enlarging

both the approaching mutual understanding, if

not shared appreciation

tive System (Vickers, 1983) is a pattern of concerns and their simulated

relevant situations, constantly revised and confirmed by the need for it to

correspond with reality sufficiently to guide action, to be sufficiently shared

among people to mediate communication, and to be sufficiently acceptable for

a “good” life. The appreciative system is thus a mental construct, partly

subjective, largely inter-subjective (i.e., based on a shared subjective judgement),

constantly challenged or confirmed by experience.

Only if the appreciative mind classifies the situation as changeable or in need of

preservation does the person devise possible responses and evaluate them with

criteria determined by their other concerns. Thus “problems” are discerned,

and “solutions” sought. Action may or may not follow.

Vickers (1983) distinguished seven overlapping and coexisting ascending

levels of trust and shared appreciation (Table 2).

The most basic, fundamental, defining characteristic of a social group is

interaction. There is no self-identity or group identity without interaction —

interaction is a relational concept — i.e., not several discrete entities in

monological contact, but dialogically constituted. When we speak of “interactive,”

we mean dialogical/reciprocal. The social act of communication is a

strategic attempt to reproduce meaning, or an opening to create meaning in

response to the other (person, object, situation).

Interaction cannot be understood as “communication” (the exchange of information).

Giddens (1984) viewed interaction as a social “space” with three

dimensions: signification (communication: understandings meanings), domination

(power: understanding who has authority), and legitimation (morality:

norms of acceptability). His theory of structuration explains the production and

reproduction of a social system through members’ use of rules and resources

in interaction. The social structure enables and constrains human action.

Knowledge is the product of interaction.

By focusing our attention on the notion of “interaction” we find that this is

“working together.” This normative idea is for hoped for “togetherness,” where

actions are with, rather than done to. There is inclusion, rather than exclusion.

People participate, rather than are subjected. There is a parallel call for

“dialogue” in our social affairs. Interactive ways of doing things are appealing

— so is dialogue. There seems to be a separation: “interactive” ways of acting

are mediated interactions, whereas dialogical ways are personal. Philosophical

analysis reveals not ambiguity, but absence of conceptual clarity in the everyday

use of these words and ideas. The concern is the manner of interaction


Interactionally produced understanding can be characterised as based on

creativity, commitment, contribution, and co-determination.