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Joint Action Analysis

Based on the coactive systems model, I am currently developing a system for the dynamic analysis of joint action.  This system provides a set of conceptual and empirical tools for analyzing developmental changes the dynamic structure of jointly-produced acting, thinking and feeling.   Using this system, one can identify the structure, content and developmental level of virtually any set of actions, thoughts and feelings as they arise within particular episodes of social interaction.   Thus far, the analytic system has been used to examine developmental changes in a variety of different psychological domains.  These include:

  • The development of representations of self in sociocultural contexts (USA, India)
  • The development of self-evaluative emotions (pride, shame, guilt, etc.) in sociocultural contexts (USA, Chinese-American immigrants)
  • Teaching and learning how to perform everyday tasks (sensori-motor tasks; how to tie shoes; adding integers; storytelling, etc.)
  • The micro-development of self and emotion in psychotherapy
  • Individual and social change processes in development

Theoretical Framework

The foregoing system for the dynamic analysis of joint action builds on three basic models of psychological functioning and development.   Dynamic skill theory (Fischer & Bidell, 1998; Mascolo & Fischer, 1999; in press) provides tools for identifying the precise structure of psychological structures constructed by individuals within a given context.  Social process (Fogel, 1993) and sociocultural (Rogoff, 1998; Valsiner, 1997; Wertsch, 1998) assess ways in which social partners co-regulate each other’s thinking and action within social interaction.   Discursive psychology (Harre & Gillett, 1994; Perinbanayagam, 1991; Wells, 1998) and speech act theory (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969) provides ways of identifying the functions of specific sign-mediated social action within social exchanges.   In bringing these approaches together, the DAJA system provides tools for analyzing specific ways in which control over acting, thinking and feeling is distributed throughout joint activity and develops in sign-mediated interaction.  In so doing, the approach:

  • extends neo-Piagetian theory by providing tools to assess ways in which individual psychological structures (including affect) emerge in co-regulated exchange between persons.
  • elaborates sociocultural approaches by providing ways to identify the precise structure of acting, thinking and feeling of individual interlocutors within co-regulated social activity.
  • bridges the gap between these models by identifying the functions particular speech actions within social interaction and how they promote development within both individuals and dyads. 

Tools for Empirical Analysis of Development within Joint Action

The basic tool for the developmental analysis of joint structures of action analysis is the relational skill structure.  Within any given interactive episode, one can identify a relational skill structure that provides a qualitative and quantitative representation of the structure and developmental level of the acting, thinking and feeling of each social partner with reference to each other.   Relational skill structures are represented visually using the relational skill diagram.  A sample relational skill diagram is depicted in Figure 1.
  This relational skill diagram represents an actual interaction between a 15-month-old boy and his mother as they jointly manipulate a jack-in-the-box. The relational skill diagram represents and allows quantification of the ways in which control over specific elements of the task is distributed both within and between social partners.  This is accomplished in three ways.

First, the left portion of the diagram specifies the elements of action over which the child exerts control; the right portion indicates those elements over which the mother exerts control.   The diagrams draw on skill theory (Fischer & Bidell, 1998; Mascolo & Fischer, 1998)  to describe the specific coordination and developmental level of each partner’s actions.  In Figure 1, the mother exerts control over holding the box; the child controls looking at the box and turning the crank.   The structure of action and thought for social partners is assessed using Fischer's (1980) dynamic skill theory. 

Second, the symbol in between these two portions indicates the specific type of co-regulated activity involved in the interaction.  This particular case involves asymmetrical co-regulation, in which the mother’s adjustment to the child’s actions functions to raise the child’s level of functioning.  Thus far, eight broad categories of co-regulated activity have been identified which correspond to different ways in which social partners adjust to each other within interaction.  These include (a) prompts, praise and encouragement; (b) sequential modeling-and-imitation; (c) asymmetrical assistance; (d) psychological distancing; (e) social direction; (f) concurrent modeling-and-imitation; (g) guided modeling-and-imitation; and (h) mutual co-regulation. 

Third, the symbol appearing within the box reflects the specific functions of each social partner’s action (or speech acts) within the social interaction.  In this case, the mother’s speech serves a directing function; the child accepts her direction.   A suite of interaction social functions has been identified.  One can direct, probe, or encourage the other, describe or interpret an event.  In response, one can accept, reject, qualify, appropriate (i.e., take in and use), elaborate (i.e., take in and add) or transform (i.e., take in and modify) the other’s meaning