Volume 1                                        Number 2                        Fall/Winter 2000

Observing Action in situ

Jacques Van Bockstaele; Maria Van Bockstaele; Martine Godard-Plasman


The conditions necessary for obtaining access to the observation of action in situ in a social system are formulated. These conditions entail exercising control over observer-observed interactions in a situation where the observed social actors are recognized to have a capacity for observation of the same sort as that of the outside observing party, i.e., a group of socioanalysts. This control is described in two ways. For one thing, the technical arrangements are presented for a “qualitative simulation”; these arrangements activate actors’ cognitive capacities (the presupposition of a link with a collective intentionality) in an intergroup situation. For another, an attempt is made to theoretically describe interactions that, through language, entail two levels of action: latent (the silent processes of language inside each actor) and patent (the public action of speaking out and thus producing contents pertinent for constructing and undertaking action in the social system).

KEY WORDS: observer-observed interactions, qualitative simulation, socioanalyst group, perception, cognition, collective intentionality

* Paper originally prepared for the 14th World Congress of the International Sociological Association at Montreal, 26 July – 1 August 1998 (WG 01, Session 15). We wish to thank Cor van Dijkum, Felix Geyer, Bernd R. Hornung and Richard E. Lee for helpful comments on earlier versions of the paper. This paper has been translated from the French by Noal Mellott (CNRS, Paris, France).

Social   systems   are   multi-dimensional.   They  have:   powerful   hierarchical  and  symbolic relations, a regulated production of technologies and practices, an internal dynamics that activates the cognitive capacities of human actors in the system at a given place and time, and, too, boundaries relative to observers. Observing a social system can be conducted in various ways depending on the conditions of access, criteria of delimitation, objectives, methodology, etc. One way to access observation is through the system’s formal structure: its forms of organization; arrangements of activities; explicit networks; channels for transmitting goods, property, information, etc; and the boundaries set by rules and regulations (March and Simon 1958; Perrow 1967; Weick 1995).

Observing action supposes obtaining access to the activation of actors’ cognitive capacities, i.e., being able to detect the processes whereby action arises and produces its effects (Cicourel 1974, 1994). Human beings are, all at once, actors who design and pursue strategies

and who act (Goffman 1974). There is no such thing as an actor who, like a robot, unswervingly performs tasks following specified instructions inside absolutely fixed bounds. Such a robot- actor does not exist, not even in cases where rules for executing actions are set by instructions and can be controlled. There is always room for uncertainty about human actors’ reliability and inventiveness.

Actors see and conceive their actions in a system wherein they are a part. Their ideas and conceptions are not directly accessible, nor easily communicable. Activating these cognitive representations brings into play mental processes and data that stay in the background but that, once active, are translated in the form of rational, factual descriptions. The contents of these descriptions express a particular view of reality, of how things work in general and from day to day. The observer lacks sufficient bearings for determining the appropriate criteria to use for evaluating the difference between this “translation” and the “facts” of the situation.

Observing action is as much an activity of the actors as of the observers, both being part of the system of observation. The observation of this system of observation performed by the one party involves its ideas about the other party. The observer-observed relationship during research in the social sciences entails interactions between systems of action. In a general way, this game of reciprocity leaves its marks on plans for action. For research in the social sciences, the observer-observed relationship takes the form of an interaction between systems of action.

The way a social system works can be described as a complex chain of causes and effects at different levels involving internal and external elements of various sorts, each of which may be real or symbolic: actors, knowledge, objects, contexts and rules. Actions always occur at a particular time and place where actors’ intentions are realized. The processes whereby an action arises gradually set off further actions, which set boundaries and build up defenses. Through this process, the social system identifies and experiences the presence of an outside world. In other words, a system’s actions fit into a constantly monitored context. This process defines the limits of access to any established social group or institution.

The first question raised by the observation of action in situ is epistemological: how to obtain access to the observation of action?

The sociologist observes in order to gain an understanding of social phenomena. His observations refer to a theoretical framework based on knowledge and experience (Campbell 1988). He tries to link phenomena, events, and processes in an explanation; identify categories and classifications; grasp relationships, networks and rules; and communicate his understanding thereof. To do this, he must gain access to the system under analysis.

An external observer is confronted with the many ways in which a social system’s members observe the system. This “self-observation”, whether spontaneous or planned, enters into play as a function of the stakes of the system. It continually regulates activities and relations at all levels. In order to investigate a chain of actions, social scientists must “observe” their own observation practices as well as those of the actors who talk about their actions: they must observe the observing of both parties.

The question of how to gain access to the observation of action thus takes a pragmatic turn: how to compare the observations of the sociologists who are actors in their own project, to those of actors in the social system under observation who are pursuing their own plans (Burawoy 1998)? Should the sociologist’s description and analysis make communicated information coincide with interpretations, or should they keep them separate? Language is the vector common to both parties. But can the action as described and analyzed be

translation true to the facts of the system that the observer is trying to describe and understand? By maintaining a critical distance based on the principle of non-reciprocity (the one party asks questions, the other replies), the observer risks formulating his observations in nearly tautological terms.

The second epistemological question bears on the ways these two parties observe and interact: how to deal with this “double source” of observation?

This double source of observation is often thought to be an impediment to research, since it produces unwanted effects that interfere with observation or even mislead the observer. In an attempt to neutralize these effects and their eventual distortions, sociologists closely observe their own practices. In many cases, they try to stand even farther back from their subject of study in order to gain a more objective view. Current sociological methods, such as open interviews, questionnaires or even the study of small groups through the likes of sensitivity training, do not establish the distance appropriate for observation. With them, the reciprocity and reflexivity between the internal observation of the system in action (by the members thereof) and the external observation (by sociologists) remain inaccessible. They are taken for granted or are seldom perceived (Perez de Guzman 1997). Social scientists thus fail to take full notice of the processes at work inside the system and the double source of observation remains a mystery. If the observer fails to take into account the effects of concealment inherent in the observer-observed relationship, he cannot deal with the double source of observation.

Our reserves about using the aforementioned methods to explore actions in social systems have arisen out of our professional experience with experiments as researchers and with interventions in the field as clinical sociologists. Our laboratory experiments explored what we call “intra-intergroup relations”, i.e., the relationship between, on the one hand, the relations among subgroups inside the group and, on the other hand, the group’s relations with other “outside” groups. This experimentation brought together a small–real–group, made up of two subgroups (a majority and a minority), and two big–not real but virtual–groups who, hooked up by two-way radio, supported or opposed the aforementioned majority or minority. It must be pointed out that the two real subgroups believed that the virtual groups actually existed. These experiments showed that the real subgroups attributed intentions and symbols to these virtual allies or opponents and, also, that feelings, ideas, images and attributes were projected and transferred onto the real minority instead of onto the outside groups (Van Bockstaele et al. 1963, 1968). This simulation opened up unexplored ground. As we discovered, the intra-intergroup relationship activates causal forces with effects that, themselves stemming from the experiment’s characteristics, could modify perceptions (e.g., of physical size), intentions (e.g., by arousing doubt or reinforcing the certitude about group choices), behaviors (e.g., an increase or decrease in communications with the aim of exerting influence), decisions and judgements (e.g., contradictions or reversals of opinion about subgroups in the minority or majority or in the outside groups) (Van Bockstaele et al. 1994a, 1994b). We have continued observing intra-intergroup relations in the field when working as clinical sociologists. The principle of face-to-face contacts has been maintained through a quasi-experimental arrangement in situ that brings together two parties: an entity representing a social system that decides to undergo an analysis of how it functions, and a professional group of socioanalysts who assumes the responsibility of assisting the former in this task. Once intra- intergroup relations are perceived as such, cognitive responses and behavioral reactions arise.

from “others”, and establishes the conditions for what happens thereafter.

The third question is methodological: how can the force of interactions between social entities be used for the purposes of analysis?

The passage from experiments in the laboratory to clinical practice in the field led us to formulate this third question in cybernetic terms: what happens when a group of sociologists intervenes? This formulation reverses the problem of observation. When the relationship with the observed is taken to be an operational necessity, observation comes to focus on interactions both inside each party and, also, between the parties. Observation can no longer focus exclusively on one party, the subject of experimentation, because the observers, themselves a party to the interaction, become privileged actors through a “qualitative” simulation (Van Bockstaele et al. 1960) that potentially offers each party, observers as well as the observed, a cognitive representation of the system and access to its operation.

In response to the question “What happens when one intervenes?” the group of socioanalysts, i.e. a collective analyst, can but observe that something does indeed happen in its face-to-face contacts with the social entity wherein it is intervening. Its active presence and the social group’s expectations about it are tangible evidence that the collective analyst becomes a substitute for the entity’s relations with the outside. This intra-intergroup relation is always activated in an action. The perplexity of the parties in presence sets off cognitive and relational reactions.

What can be observed through such a simulation is neither a projection of a psychological sort whereby one attributes what one thinks to others nor a protective transference whereby one uses others to express what one dares not formulate. Once part of the interaction, the group of socioanalysts becomes responsible for the simulation’s effects. It must foresee the consequences. To do this, it must clarify among its own members why it is intervening, how it does so, and what means it will use. It must assume the moral and material responsibility for controlling eventual risks or chance events.

In concrete terms, to tap the force of interactions between the parties involved in the intervention, the group of socioanalysts must see to it that certain preliminary conditions are fulfilled. Four prerequisites have to be met for an intervention to be possible:

  1. There must be a request or several compatible requests from one or more complementary, independent entities (i.e., firms, administrations, associations, families, etc.).
  2. There must be one or more explicitly formulated projects expressing the will to change things in the system(s).
  3. The request must be borne by a group involved in the project(s) and made up of members of the entities occupying various positions and having different but definite responsibilities.
  4. This group must accept fundamental rules that recognize: the relativity of viewpoints and positions; equality as to freedom of speech; and the “historicity of action”, i.e., the awareness of the need to work and rework the feedback between expectations (at the start of the project) and evaluation (during the course of the project).

By examining these four conditions (a demand, a formulated project, an involved group and basic rules), the socioanalysts can adopt the techniques best suited to the request as formulated. Such a simulation requires managing time (the frequency and length of meetings, a

specific rules case by case, and drawing up a contract to define the commitments of both parties (the entity that formulated the request and the group of socioanalysts). Before an agreement is reached on these technical conditions, there is a period of information, clarification and reflexion.

Since the force of interaction in intra-intergroup relations in a simulation can provide leverage for effecting cognitive and relational changes in the way the system works, the question of controlling and regulating this force arises for each group concerned with the simulation. The entity’s acceptance of the work of socioanalysis implies confidence and trust. Inside the limits set by the contract and in line with the foregoing technical conditions, the group of socioanalysts, given its technical power, can operate in the stead of formal power holders. The trust and the wager represented by the decision to become involved in a simulation usually reveal the legitimacy of the power of “leaders” and their capacity for integrating into their own actions potential changes, even though the momentum of interactions may lead to changes different from those initially expected (Van Bockstaele et al. 1992).

We shall illustrate the foregoing remarks with a qualitative simulation that grew out of an appeal expressed by civil servants “wanting to develop, inside the administration, thought on the state’s action with the aim of improving its effectiveness so as to take into account the relations between the state and social or economic actors and favor changes in these relations” (Groupe Méthodes et al. 1991: 90). To carry out this intervention, we adopted a socioanalytical approach, which we would later call “simulation-action”, that consisted in constructing the four previously mentioned technical conditions. Our initial preoccupation was to delimit the group bearing the request. To this end, we proposed forming, through cooptation, an open group of voluntary civil servants. These volunteers had to want to change their ordinary ways of relating and acting and, moreover, had to be capable of encountering, on an equal footing and over a long period of time, social or economic actors having dealings with the state in one of six fields, each involving several ministries: small industries (1969-1977); industrial safety (1980-1990); regional economies (1982-1990); banks and insurance companies (1986-1990); industry and the environment (since 1991) and finances (since 1991). On the basis of the request received from inside the public administration, encounters between groups of civil servants and outside actors, each made up of several categories of persons, gradually led the latter to also formulate an appeal. By developing “intercategorial” relations, a joint request emerged from two “collective subjects”, each delimited by its institutional attachments, and both equally associated in the simulation.

Under this condition, the collective analyst can fulfill its role as an independent third party, in particular by mediating the relation between the state administration and the “administered”.

The design and implementation of such a simulation-action protects the actions, institutions and persons involved and, at the same time, helps develop a co-investigation involving several categories of persons. Three rules preside over this co-investigation. The “equality” between persons and between categories keeps participants from justifying themselves with arguments based on authority. Under this rule, participants from all categories, regardless of their affiliation and position, are volunteers; their superiors do not appoint them. In the fields investigated, the “relativity rule” means recognizing that a problem does not have a single solution. Every viewpoint has the right to be voiced and to be received as a percept or concept for discussions. As a practical consequence of this rule, categories are constantly reshuffled during the intervention. The “historicity rule” refers to the management of time and the

continuity in any program or project. Time is an operator of change. This rule has as a consequence transmission, cooptation and, therefore, evaluation.

What is produced during such an intervention very much depends on the conditions for producing it. The force of interactions between partners in the simulation can be used to help all parties better understand the conceptions of action that each category of actors has, to become aware of what is at stake for each actor, and to better perceive the reciprocal images and judgements that underlie action.

The fourth question is ontological: what is being simulated?

What differences exist between the prerequisites for the simulation, as formulated earlier, and the “in-house” procedures that prescribe changes? An initial response might advance the idea that a simulation represents a facsimile containing simple analogies with the usual procedures for delimiting and organizing activities in a social system. Or one might imagine that the technical arrangements for a simulation are formulated in line with the request for an intervention or the project at the center of this request. These responses leave out of the account the momentum set off by a simulation.

As stated at the start, a social system activates human actors’ cognitive capacities in the system at a given place and time. Without this dynamics, the system lacks creative energy. What a simulation makes possible is to start this activation. When it does so, it provides the possibility of accessing the processes causing this activation under normal conditions. Behaviors and interactions are spontaneously recognized and can be attributed. Participants’ perceptions, the positions they adopt or the words they speak thus provide evidence of how they mentally represent the system, in other words, of how they perceive the simulation. A gradually growing awareness of this activation and of how it works opens up the possibility for participants to deal with their relations and the specific tasks for which they have responsibility.

Such a qualitative simulation relies on two properties that, according to our hypothesis (Van Bockstaele et al. 1981), social processes have: they can be reproduced and they can be substituted for one other. These properties become accessible only if there is an “outside” group or object on which judgements, opinions, interpretations, intentions, proposals, etc., “condense”.

Once the party requesting the intervention and the collective analyst come face-to-face, nothing happens in a random, arbitrary manner. Visible preferences will not be a matter of psychological empathy. Instead, they will mainly express how participants perceive the power structure–the positions favoring an alliance or risking conflict. The choice of other parties with whom to have contacts will reflect intentions, goals and expectations. The activated intentions with regard to action, and what comes out of them, will be shaped by the state of relations inside the group and the impact of the group’s relations with outside parties. This social “pairing”, spontaneous and thought out, will open up a way of analyzing the workings of the system and the social processes in intra-intergroup relations.

The first means of access to observation is language and associated forms of expression. An utterance conveys, all at once, information, a relation, an intention and a judgement. This complex vector tends toward multiple interpretations of the message and of its receiver(s), goal(s) and effect(s). An utterance is an act for both speaker and listener. The contents of an utterance and the ways it is produced become accessible thanks to the properties of language whereby an utterance may have several, simultaneous levels of meaning and translate the complexity of processes of self-organization and self-regulation in social systems.

Like an act, it vehicles energy. This energy can be detected through cognitive activation,

which takes the form of communication, contents, positions, etc. When made in a definite context–here, in the relation between the request for a simulation and the system’s project–an utterance reveals, reflects or transposes the complexity of the system’s power structure. Aspects of this complexity can be observed during the simulation. Though perceived, they are neither talked about nor described. They are used. This spontaneous use during discussions is proof of the power of social relations–of the vitality of experiences, practices, norms, rules, judgements and interpretations. Through it, one can notice and understand the processes whereby the “remanence” of these forms of behavior reactivates, day after day, beliefs, ways of thought and relations in a situation outside the contexts where these forms took shape–“in real life”, during social, technical, economic and political activities.

The first part of this article has examined the requisite conditions for obtaining access to the observation of an action in situ. These conditions seek to establish a situation homologous to “live” action. A relational dynamics develops as actions are produced, by actors and the entity (institution, association, or organization) of which they are a part, around a recognized project in the presence of a group of socioanalytical observers. Given the face-to-face presence of actors and observers, a situation of mutual observation arises wherein ordinary processes recur and cognitive activities take place.

Before its conversion into a concrete, observable external act, action is an internal human production. This “exteriorization” does not break the continuity of an active human being’s presence. Throughout this process, the orientations and instructions established by actors are translated into acts and plans. Ideas arise, renew practices and open the way to innovations. During the whole internalized part of this process, an actor’s abilities, knowledge and experiences become evident only if precise circumstances activate him cognitively and pragmatically so that he spontaneously makes adjustments as need be. The reality or virtuality of this process for producing action contains, in the background, the need to constantly monitor action. And this vigilance implies the actual or potential presence of human actors.

This action-actor, or product-producer, link is so complex and activates such barely accessible processes that observers, unable to cope with it, usually tend to neglect it. The advantage of a qualitative simulation lies in the transposition of this link to the project at the center of the request (a project implying actors, what they say and do), the immanence of the institution (or organization) of which they are a part, and the context.

The context is a set of circumstances. The actors are already familiar with some of them, but other circumstances arise out of unexpected events or situations, or evolve as a function of problems inside or outside the system. The context also refers to the set of learned and assimilated rules of behavior, an organization of physical space, a time frame, bounds, etc., all of which are used for operational purposes during action.

To adapt to this set of circumstances, an actor uses basic human abilities: language, know-how, experience and imagination. Activating these abilities leads to multiple forms of communication and interaction arising out of the goals and projects the actors are pursuing or want to pursue. The movement thus set off is “ordered” in line with informal procedures and practices for “naturally” arranging things, i.e., in a spontaneous way that does not ensue from a purely legal or normative structure.

The first such practice–indeed, the driving force behind action–is mutual observation, in other words, the observer-observed relationship. This social practice can be considered to be an anthropological fact. What characterizes an action as experienced by an individual or group is

the impossibility of escaping from the flux of relations or out of the presence, even if virtual or imaginary, of others. In the observer-observed relationship, there is a constant monitoring of oneself and of others and, too, an ongoing regulation of oneself and of others. This vigilance is a source of cohesion and imagination; it implants “otherness” inside each member of the observer or observed parties. The interplay between the view of oneself by oneself and by others, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the view of others by oneself and by others sets more or less definite bounds for the purpose of defense, dissuasion or even, more simply, coexistence.

The observer-observed relationship becomes more clearly evident once, in addition to this interaction, actors group together on the basis of spontaneous affinities or of common interests and a solidarity that has stood the test of time. The thus formed “kernels” of actors are informal entities consubstantial with action.

Institutional structures distribute in the system all the categories of actors necessary for satisfying the system’s production requirements. This assignment of duties and positions leaves enough room for informal social activities to develop. This undefined “degree” of freedom allows for interpersonal relations to arise out of a complex cooptation without any clear-cut criteria, with no aim at being a permanent organization and without internal stability. This cooptation can be understood as the effect of institutional resonance, i.e., as an echo in response to the system’s rigidity, to the formalism of social control, and to restrictions on responsibility and innovation. Given their informal nature, these “kernels” of actors have a conditional, shifting existence. Such networks of relations cannot be inventoried; they have no assignment, no program.

The effectiveness of cognitive activities is partly based on interactions between the formal structure and these informal networks. As can be seen during a qualitative simulation, the ability and force of certain actors often are unappreciated because they are unusual or do not seem legitimate. Judgements and interpretations give voice to a tension that, depending on the case, can serve as a means of regulation or as a provocation in the relations between formal structures and informal networks.

The existence of a social relation does not depend on the agreement or disagreement subjectively expected by actors. Even at a level of what seems to be fully subjective interpersonal relations, a social relation is not intrinsically the outcome of an actor’s personal decision. In the case of collectively experienced issues, a social relation exists independent of an actor’s subjectivity. The images an actor sets off in the mind of other actors do not belong to the actor himself. He has but a relative degree of hic et nunc control over them. They can exist prior to his presence and persist despite his absence.

Of course, a strong interaction may emerge between an actor’s images of himself and the images of others, but a just as strong an interaction exists between the contents of activities and the finalities of projects. Relations between persons and relations between activities/finalities have different facets depending on whether individuals or instituted groups are involved. Conflicts or settlements counter or balance each other depending on the recourse that is possible, desired or denied. The networks of actors who know or come to know each other implicitly share a conception of their actions and positions. The actors’ “world-views”–or, might we not say, “system-views”?–are a means of action for them. A world-view sets off acts and serves to orient and evaluate acts. It is not at all a description drawn up by an observer who, for a short while, abandons his position and sees his acts as independent of the determinants of his observation. Observation is constantly mixed up

acts. The purpose of this feedback loop is to make experience useable by seeing to it that acts are adjusted to the surrounding world.

Mobilizing actors and generating acts, observing and processing observed data, all this activates each party’s ability to observe the other party and, by doing so, causes actors and their acts to interact. This provides the basis for reciprocity in the observer-observed relationship. But reciprocity is not equality. The ways in which the observer-observed relationship emerges adjust “naturally” to the society’s hierarchical operation. The duties assigned or the powers deriving from them determine positions, distances and possibilities for acting. Adjustments come about at different levels and paces. At the institutional level, the disparity among actors sets limitations on behaviors, activates and reinforces beliefs, stimulates the production of judgements and interpretations. In a hierarchy, holding power confers a right to observe subordinates. But in terms of cognition, any human observer has the natural ability to form ideas about any other human being really or virtually present in his field of action.

Since a field of action is also a field of force, a relation during the course of an action always implies a line-up of forces. For this reason, the observer-observed relationship takes on quite specific forms. Actors experience and test the rules, reference-marks and history of the social structures in which they are inserted. They perceive each other, judge each other and form groups as a function of the system of power and of the degree of cohesion or dissension inside the group to which they belong or as a function of relations with outside groups. They assess the strategies implemented at various levels of decision-making and see their position in terms of their relations inside and outside the system. They discern the social distance separating those who make decisions from those who execute them. They evaluate the degree of cohesion and sharing as experienced by themselves and by other parties.

This gauging of the morale, pride, satisfaction and performances of various parties produces behaviors, acts and judgements that affect the social climate and the willingness to cooperate. However, the aim at this point in a simulation is not to describe a state of morale or measure a level of satisfaction. Affective states and the forms in which they are expressed relate directly to the complex processes involved in implementing an action.

Nothing backs up the claim that a perfectly localized source exists to which we can attribute this capacity for observation and action. Does the fact that every individual gives evidence of having it imply that only individuals are able to feel, observe and act? Groups also “use” world-views that do not amount to the sum of the world-views of the individual members. Are the world-views attributed to social groups, organizations, etc. acquired any differently than those that condition the individual’s perceptions, experiences and descriptions thereof? Can we, without anthropomorphizing, attribute to groups, such as the aforementioned kernels of actors, properties like those ascribed to individual actors-observers? Must we not question the boundary defining and separating the individual and the collective spheres (Knorr-Cetina 1981)?

Our experience with qualitative simulations has led us to design a model for describing and interpreting the processes whereby the action of a human entity develops. Several approaches have been made to this problem in the developments that led from post-WW II cybernetics up to the present-day cognitive sciences (Dupuy 1994). Current debate about this mainly occurs between philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists or inside these disciplines.

The question is open of whether cognitive capacities have their source in the individual or whether a group activates cognitive capacities that, lacking any material localization,

of relations and interactions. Human interaction founds and organizes society. Speech, as a capability (or competence), usage and act, is acquired only through intense interactions (Bruner 1990), since learning a language entails learning how to do things with words, to borrow Austin’s formula (1962). In any social group involved in action, the processes activating cognitive capacities stay active, often silently so.

We hypothesize that levels of cognitive activity are differentiated in two classes, the one having to do with latent action and the other with patent action. A latent action is the set of background processes that silently prepare for a patent action and amplify cognitive activation so as to shape a public language. An actor’s bodily involvement–gestures, postures, movements, etc.–during interactions provide evidence of these silent processes.

A latent act turns patent through an activation of cognitive capacities. But the latter can be fully activated only if the silent background processes of latent action have been activated. These processes mainly involve perception and intentionality. Perception mobilizes the body as a whole: the body, and not just the brain, reacts to what it perceives. When a percept is felt to be immediately pertinent, the person has, we may suppose, formed an image of what has triggered the percept and has expectations about how to use it (Berthoz 1997). Intentionality thus transforms the percept so as to open the way to cognition, to concepts and actions through the use of a public language.

When actors, inserted in a formal structure and involved in a common project, work together, this transformation occurs through speaking up. Speaking occurs in an “order”, expected or not, known or ignored. Silences and utterances are phases always out of rhythm; accelerations and decelerations come about unforeseeably. Speaking triggers judgements or interpretations that, whether formulated or not, are vented through gestures or mimics. Silences play a major role in observation, imagination and adjustment. A ceaseless flux of signs runs through the mind, but the selection of certain signs as pertinent depends on the circumstances (Chauviré 1989). This temporal process generates a relational process. The observer-observed relation becomes a driving force behind a collective intentionality (Searle 1983), the force that creates potential projects (Atlan 1995).

Intentionality is collective because it depends on interpersonal relations (Searle 1995). At the level of latent action, language is still an inner voice, as the individual talks to himself, and speech, an idiolect. This exercise in self-communication prepares what will be a “cognition- action”. In other words, it “anticipates” that this idiolect will be translated into the “dialect” characteristic of the group to be addressed. Differences in group membership are managed as a function of distances between the respective parties and of their positions. What comes literally “out” of these silent processes is expressed as a function of rules that are put to use and meaning in preparing plans of action, which implies a will to act and a common heritage.

The diagram of the processes and regulation of action produced below presents the dynamic relation between latent and patent actions and its consequences. Far from representing a break, the zone for making what is latent patent and vice-versa is the place of an unspoken intersubjective negotiation based on an awareness of rules and boundaries and on a monitoring of signals (Van Bockstaele et al. 1971).

The emergence of a public language creates a field of interactivity between the parties present. Each actor has his own rhythm, history, and experiences–in brief, his idiosyncrasies. Once actors are all involved in a collective action, the characteristics of individuals become interrelated. Actors have the talent of feeling, through empathy, the perceptive situation of others (Quine 1990). Compared with public language, an actor’s inner language is silent

activated at any time. Public language does not just announce contents. The speaker expresses his more or less evident intentions and marks his position in an order for speaking aloud. This “speaking order” is as much act as content. The succession of instances of speaking out changes the relational system. Rearranging relations inside a group leads to readjustments in the inner language. In other words, the determinants of the contents transmitted in a patent action modify the form and substance of the contents prepared for through latent action.

Thinking out action is a fundamental task for which actors are physically and mentally equipped. The work undertaken to think out an action taps resources at the most constructed level of cognition. Language plays a major role in this work. What is required of language cannot be reduced to a demand for a rational or technical discourse isolated from the relational world, disconnected or cut off from actors’ bodily and sensory involvement. In Quine’s words (1990), the requirement of intersubjectivity is what makes science objective.

In such a complex flux, noticing a causal link between elements or processes is uncertain. Drawing the conclusion that a particular belief or frame of mind is a cause of a particular action is merely a mechanistic way to link desire (or belief) to action (Engel 1997). Replacing the idea of causality with the notion of propensity provides a finer, livelier interpretation of how situations produce effects. Since this notion is tantamount to the idea of force, we can see propensity in terms of the properties inherent in a situation (Popper 1990). Rational discourse fails to notice or take account of many of the processes underlying social and interpersonal relations. The processes analyzed herein and presented in the foregoing diagram become accessible, as our professional practice in situ has shown, through qualitative simulation.


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