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2 Human communication and the conversation of gestures: processes of generalising and particularising

2 Human communication and the conversation of gestures: processes of generalising and particularising

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Chapter 14  Local communicative interaction and population-wide patterns   367

people will respond to us, but how people in general in our society will respond to

us. We care about what others think of us and about the consequences of their not

thinking well of us – ongoing existence requires the recognition of others simply

because we are all interdependent persons. We continue throughout life to care and

this provides a powerful constraint on what we do and so a powerful form of social

control. We begin to see here how, despite the inability of anyone to be in control, there are powerful forms of social control expressed most effectively as socially

acquired self-control so that the only alternative to someone being in control is not

anarchy, muddling through or garbage-can decision making. It is only when social

habits break down, as for example in the recent hurricane in the Philippines or the

aftermath of the Iraq war, that anarchy ensues.

Taking the attitude of the generalised other

It is important here to note what Mead means by attitude. He does not mean simply

an opinion; he means a ‘tendency to act’. In taking the attitude of the generalised

other we are therefore taking into account the established tendencies to act towards

us and each other of people in general in our group, organisation and society.

However, we are always having to interpret what these generalised tendencies to

act might mean in the specific, contingent situations we find ourselves in. This is

an insight which stretches back to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, who both

developed an understanding of phronesis, or practical judgement/wisdom, a term we

will take up later in this book. The idea is that human beings and the contexts they

find themselves in are infinitely variable. Generalisations, rules, or the precision of

science, are insufficient for us to know how to go on together in ever-changing social

situations. This means that we develop the ability to make judgements, more or less

skilfully, about how to act in particular circumstances. We cannot simply, directly

apply the generalisation, because in each present time period, in each contingent

situation, we will find it necessary to make the general particular to that time and

situation. This will inevitably lead to conflict in that we will differ from each other

on just how to make the generalisation particular in each present time period and

situation. Such conflict requires us to carry on exploring with each other just what

our differences are and negotiating the meaning of the generalisation; and it is this

conflictual, explorative process of particularisation that makes possible the further

evolution of the generalisation as tiny variations in the particular way the generalisation is taken up are amplified across a population over time. We can immediately

see the superficiality of the notion, taken by some from the complexity sciences

(see Chapter 11), that people should follow simple rules. Simple rules are generalisations, and there is nothing simple at all about the processes of making particular

such generalisations. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has pointed out,

drawing on Wittgenstein, rule-following is a highly social process where the rules

inform how we interact and how we interact informs the rule: rules are ‘islands in

the sea of our unformulated practical grasp of the world’ (Taylor, 1999, p. 34).

To see what the above argument means in terms of human action, consider the

activity of smoking cigarettes. A person who undertakes this activity inevitably

affects others in the immediate vicinity and so, in order to carry on in an ordinary

way with those others, has to take the attitude of those specific others – that is, the

tendency of those specific others to act towards the smoker – and they too find they

368  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

have to take the attitude of the smoker. We are talking about what the parties directly

involved have to take account of in each other’s actions in order to go on being

together. If we are dining together at a restaurant and I want to smoke at the table,

I have to take account of how you might react and you will have to take account of

how I might react if you protest. To go on together we each have to take the attitude

of the other. However, there is more to it than this, because people in general in the

wider society have a generalised tendency to act towards each other with regard to

the activity of smoking. What can we say about the attitude of the generalised other

here? Well, if we go back some 70 years to the period of the Second World War, the

attitude of the generalised other could be described as permissive, even encouraging

of the activity of smoking. For example, the military authorities gave cigarettes to

members of the armed forces in the belief that smoking calmed people down in very

difficult circumstances. In lighting a cigarette in a specific situation, say a restaurant

or cinema, a person would take account of the attitude of the specific others in the

vicinity and, at the same time, quite unconsciously take account of the permissive

attitude of the generalised other at that time, and others in the vicinity who were not

smoking would do the same. So in a specific restaurant or cinema a smoker would

probably feel perfectly entitled to light up and most others would feel that it was

quite acceptable for this to happen.

However, as the years went by, the attitude of the generalised other with regard

to smoking evolved and became more complex. Groups of people in the medical

research community produced evidence of harmful effects of smoking, not just on

smokers but on those around them. Other groups of people entered into the discussion, particularly over the past twenty years, accelerating over the past five years.

Gradually over these years, and increasingly so over the past few years, the tendency

of people in general to act in relation to smokers has shifted to one of prohibition,

even hostility, and this shift in the attitude of the generalised other has been codified

in the law. Now a person lighting a cigarette has to take the attitude of those in the

immediate vicinity and the attitude of the generalised other and in doing so knows

that he or she is acting in a way condemned by people in general. Non-smokers

now feel perfectly justified in condemning the practice of smoking and refusing permission for others to smoke near them. How is the smoker going to deal with the

attitude of the generalised other in specific situations: for example while waiting for

a bus near a bus shelter? Someone might feel quite justified in lighting a cigarette in

the open air but those nearby might feel that it is quite unjustified. They are both

accepting the general attitude of prohibition but conflicting around what this means

in the specific situation of the area around a bus shelter.

This is an example of how people take up the attitude of the generalised other

across a whole society, indeed across many societies, and of how the generalised

other evolves. However, the processes in this case are just as much in operation in all

of the ordinary, everyday activities of people in any organisation. So, for example,

a manager arrives at the office on Friday to find that a member of his staff has not

reported for work and, furthermore, has not telephoned to explain the absence, as

required by company policy. Some hours go by and the manager telephones her to

find that her mobile phone is switched off and he cannot contact her. In deciding

what to do next, he will find himself taking account of the attitude of the absent

staff member and the attitude of other staff members. Will they be supportive of her

or, given that she frequently fails to attend work on a Friday, will they be annoyed

Chapter 14  Local communicative interaction and population-wide patterns   369

by any failure to take action against her? He will also, largely unconsciously, be

taking the attitude of the generalised other – in general, people in this society do not

approve of people who stay away from work for no good reason and do not explain

why they are doing so. This attitude is codified in company policies and, since she

has done it before, the generalisation would be to take disciplinary action.

However, in this specific, contingent situation, on this particular Friday morning,

in this particular office, how is this generalisation to be made specific? For example, the absent staff member is a single mother abandoned by her partner who has

great difficulty caring for her young daughter and, furthermore, she has produced

letters from her doctor saying that she is suffering from depression. These contingent

aspects of the situation call out other generalised attitudes to do with protecting

single mothers, not discriminating against those with mental problems, and so on.

In deciding what to do, then, this manager is making particular to this situation the

generalisations so far mentioned. Furthermore, over the past few years all of these

generalisations have been evolving as new specific situations are encountered and

many have been codified in law.

Mead’s theory of the evolution of groups and societies in processes of communicative interaction between persons provides us with a way of understanding organisations that focuses upon the ordinary, everyday activities of people, rather than

abstracting from them and regarding people as the resources of an organisation,

which is what most other explanations of organisations do. It is important to stress

that this focus on people is in no way an idealisation of people and their relationships with each other nor is it a fundamentally ideological position except in the

general sense that it is a coherent argument for a particular understanding of reality,

and of course it has ideological implications. (We explore ideology and what it might

mean in the next chapter). There is no claim being made that relationships between

people are essentially good. Mead’s theory of the conversation of gestures, in which

generalisations are made particular, is as much an explanation of war, corruption,

abuse and all the other terrible ways people relate to each other, as it is of caring,

loving relationships.

From Mead’s perspective we come to understand organisations as patterns of

interaction between people which evolve over time in those processes in which people are making particular the generalisations, and in the course of which those generalisations evolve. The strategies of an organisation are those generalisations and

the strategies, therefore, evolve in the ordinary, everyday processes in which people

interpret and negotiate with each other what the strategies as generalisations mean

in specific contingent situations and what implications these meanings have for what

to do next. For example, consider a commercial organisation where the strategy is

described as one of delivering, to customers, mobile telephones of a quality consistently higher than the competition, on time, and at competitive prices, while generating acceptable profit without compromising the safety of staff or customers. It may

also be part of the strategy to do all of this in an ethical, socially responsible and

environmentally aware manner. All of this may well have been codified in the form of

strategy documents, procedural manuals and administrative systems such as financial budgeting and quality monitoring. However, what we are talking about here

are generalisations that have emerged from numerous past conversations, including

formal meetings. Now, at a particular time, on a particular day, particular people in

the assembly operation encounter a quality problem with a particular component.

370  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

To sustain quality they should stop the assembly operation but then they will not

meet time deadlines and profits will suffer. This is, of course, a common problem

encountered when strategy requirements conflict as they inevitably do. It will be

necessary for those involved to make particular decisions about the generalisations

to produce mobile phones of a particular quality in an ethical manner. Would it be

better to take a small risk on quality and meet the time deadline, or not? If similar

problems are more frequently encountered, the manner in which they are dealt with

in particular situations may well come to be expressed in a reformulation of the generalisation. It is in this way that the generalisations evolve in further conversations

on how to deal with the conflict.


This perspective, then, brings conflict to the fore. It is not just that the generalisations may conflict with each other but that the particular people involved in

the particular, contingent situation may well conflict with each other on how to

interpret the generalisations and how to take them up at this particular moment.

The movement of strategy occurs in the negotiation of such conflict. Groot (2005)

draws a conceptual distinction between explorative conflict and polarised conflict. Conflict is usually understood as the polarised form. Here people take up

opposed positions and hold on to them in an overt power struggle in which one

side holds out to win at the expense of the other. When Mead discusses conflict he

acknowledges opposing motivations in groups of people who are negotiating social

situations. The impulses which lead to conflict may be co-operative or competitive,

pro-social or anti-social, he argues, and although he uses the term ‘anti-social’ he is

insistent that both impulses are socially formed. Any highly developed human society involves individuals engaged in a multiplicity of relationships, both competitive

and co-operative, in which they share some interests in common but find themselves

in conflict with each other over other interests. These conflicts can also involve

clashes with different aspects of the same individual social self, that is to say within

their personalities, and can thus lead to examples, in an extreme form, of people

developing split personalities.

Explorative conflict is conversational, negotiating processes in which people

explore how to interpret generalisations and negotiate different interpretations

with each other to make them particular, and in doing so they make (unconscious)

adjustments to themselves and to the people with whom they are negotiating. This

adjustment process involves the socially evolved intelligence, the ability to reflect

and become reflexive which we explored in the last chapter, of those engaged in

the conflictual situation. Explorative conflict always has the potential, but not the

necessity, of polarisation, but always makes a difference to the people engaged in

negotiation and the social order which is being negotiated. They are obliged to make

adjustments to their understanding of themselves in the situation, and thus the situation is transformed. This is the way that Mead understands social evolution.

Notice the difference between Mead’s perspective and the idea that it is somehow

possible to stand outside conflict and take up a neutral position to adjudicate on it,

a perspective one is likely to find in the dominant discourse. For example, Rahim

(2010) argues that managers must first decide what kind of a conflict is ensuing, and

then apply a particular response for a pre-reflected taxonomy of responses in order

Chapter 14  Local communicative interaction and population-wide patterns   371

to resolve it. For Mead and Elias, there is no position to stand outside the ongoing

patterning of experience, or the interweaving of intentions.

In the evolution of organisations, then, many generalisations emerge which are

taken up, or particularised, in people’s local competitive and co-operative interactions with each other and in the course of which the generalisation evolves. So does

the sense that people have of who they are and what they are doing together. This

is a point of major importance. Mead draws attention to paradoxical processes of

generalisation and particularisation at the same time. Mental and social activities are

processes of generalising and particularising at the same time which are mediated

through explorative, and sometimes polarised conflicts. Individuals act in relation

to that which is common to all of them (generalising) but responded to somewhat

differently by each of them as each living present (particularising).

Social objects

Mead’s (1925, p. 934) discussion of what he called a ‘social object’ is yet another

formulation of the generalising and particularising processes discussed in previous

sections. Mead distinguished between a physical object and a social object. A physical object exists as a thing in nature and is the proper object of study in the natural

sciences, while a social object is the proper object of study in the social sciences and

this object exists only in human experience. While the physical object can be understood in terms of itself as a thing, the social object has to be understood in terms of

social acts. The physical object is an abstraction which arises in our social responses

to nature and that process of abstraction is a social object. In other words we find

the meanings of physical objects in our social activity. The social object is therefore

prior to the physical object. Mead argues that we cannot carry on social intercourse

with the physical object. In the social act people respond to each the other with

the response of one evoking further responses in other. This cannot happen with a

physical object since it cannot make a social response which calls out further social

responses in others.

Mead referred to markets as an example of a social object. When one person

offers to buy food, this act obviously involves a complex range of responses from

other people to provide the food. However, it involves more than this because the

one making the offer can only know how to make the offer if he is able to take the

attitude, the tendency to act, of the other parties to the bargain. All essential phases

of the complex social act of market exchange must appear in the actions of all

involved and appear as essential features of each individual’s actions. The activities

of buying and selling are involved in each other and one side of the activity must be

able to anticipate, in general, the responses of the other or others. In highly evolved

societies it is not possible for an individual to be able to complete all aspects of a

complex social object, but they must be able to take the attitude, more or less well

informed, of all the participants in the patterning of the particular activity.

As another example of what we take Mead to mean, take a National Health Service trust in the UK. From a complex responsive processes perspective this organisation is the iterated patterning of communicative interaction between large numbers

of interdependent persons and groupings of them – when asked what they do, their

answer is that they work in a hospital. Some are employees and belonging to the trust

is an aspect of their identities, the ‘we’ aspect of each of them. Furthermore, they

372  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

are not simply members of the trust, because each of them also belongs to groupings

of doctors, nurses, porters, managers, and so on – when asked who they are, their

answer is that they are doctors, hospital porters, and so on. Even in these grouping

there are subgroupings – for example surgeons – and even within that  there are

groupings – say, heart surgeons – when asked who they are they reply that they are

heart surgeons. All of these groupings give rise to the ‘we’ identities of their members, providing them with a powerful sense of identity or self. Others are receiving

attention as patients and so belong to the group of the ‘sick’. Yet others are relatives

of the ‘sick’ and so belong to yet another group, perhaps, ‘carers’. And of course

each of these groups consists of subgroups, such as the diabetics, the mentally ill,

the Aids patients and so on. They too take aspects of their identities, albeit often

more temporarily, from belonging to these groups. For all of those mentioned, such

identities constitute how they are recognised by others in the wider society. All of

these people continually interact with each other in a coherent manner, moment by

moment, every day, because each has the largely unconscious capacity to take the

attitude, the tendency to act, of all the others in the hospital game. We have some

expectation of what will happen when we enter a hospital as a patient. We have

some expectation of how doctors, nurses, administrators and porters will act. And

so do all of them of us and each other. What we are all doing is taking up the attitude of the ‘game’. We are all taking up, in our interactions, the social object that is

the hospital organisation. As an organisation, the hospital does not exist as a thing.

Rather, it is only to be found as patterns of interaction in our experience. This must

be so if we are to interact coherently. Try to imagine what it might be like to be

rushed to a modern hospital in London from a remote jungle village somewhere in

South America.

However, taking up the social object in our interactions is not a perfect process,

because it is not the actualisation of something given and the expectations of all

involved will not therefore fit in easily with each other particularly if the social

object is highly complex. As generalisation, the social object will have to be made

particular in each particular, contingent situation and this will inevitably lead to

some kind of conflict. Nurses and physicians, for example, might well take up the

social object in their actions in different ways so that they will conflict and there will

be complaints.

Social objects, as generalisations, can also be idealised, becoming what Mead

called a ‘cult value’, a matter to be discussed in Chapter 15. We mention this concept of an idealised generalisation here in relation to the hospital example, because

nowhere will the conflict caused by making some generalisation particular be greater

than when this generalisation is also a cult value. For example, how will the cult

value ‘treat all patients equally’ be taken up in Ward A at the Royal Free Hospital

at 15.25 on 14 May 2014 in relation to patients X and Y by doctor L and nurse M?

Also, it is more complicated than this because there will be more than one cult value

and they may well conflict with each other. Nowadays, hospitals take up cult values

to do with performance, quality assurance, risk management and evidence-based

treatment. These frequently clash with other cult values such as vocation, collegiality, causing no harm, professional freedom and personal responsibility. People

then have to negotiate their way through inevitable conflicts in ways that inevitably

transform their identities. This becomes especially pressing when the scope for particularising the generalised cult values is more and more severely restricted by shifts

Chapter 14  Local communicative interaction and population-wide patterns   373

in power relations, as in the concentration of policymaking, monitoring and control

in the hands of central government. People must comply, or at least be seen to comply, to avoid public humiliation, shame and even annihilation of identity. Identities,

which can only be sustained in the recognition of important others, may come to be

characterised more by appearance and spin than substance. Compliance may mean

submerging values that may feel more important, leading to feelings of alienation

and a lack of authenticity because to survive we may have to deceive. All of this

will have enormous implications for the strategy of hospital improvement. As is

now very evident, it is by no means guaranteed that formulating a strategy of health

improvement and implementing it through administrative systems of monitoring

will have sustainable effects. This is hardly surprising when one takes account of the

local particularising of generalised strategies such as ‘healthcare improvement’ and

the imperfect process of anticipating and responding to the gestures and responses

of others involved in the social object, and the necessary adjustments to themselves

and to others which are taking place for all concerned.

It is important to notice how Mead used the term ‘object’ in a social sense as a

‘tendency to act’ rather than as a concept or a thing, which are meanings appropriate

to physical objects. In a social setting, then, Mead used the term ‘object’ in tension

with the usual understanding of object as a thing in nature. The pattern, or tendency,

which Mead calls an ‘object’ is in a sense an object in that it is what we perceive in

taking it up in our acting, but this is a perception of our own acting not a thing. We

seem to have a strong tendency to reify patterns of acting and this makes it important to emphasise that Mead’s social object is not a thing.

Mead, therefore, defined a social act as one involving the co-operation of many

people in which the different parts of the social act undertaken by different individuals appear in the act of each individual as a social object. The tendencies to act as

others act are present in the conduct of each individual involved and it is this presence that is responsible for the appearance of the social object in the experience of

each individual. A social object is only to be found in the conduct of the different

individuals engaged in the complex social act. The social object appears in the experience of each individual as a stimulus to a response not only by that individual but

also by the others involved – this is how each can anticipate how the others are likely

to act in general situations and it is the basis of co-ordination. A social object is thus

a generalised gesture taken together with many tendencies to respond in particular

ways. Social objects are common plans or patterns of action related to the future of

the act. Social objects have evolved in the history of the society of selves and each

individual is born into such a world of social objects. Individuals are forming social

objects while being formed by them in an evolutionary process. In other words social

objects are found in the life process of the group, not simply in individuals.

What Mead is talking about here is the manner in which population-wide patterns

of action are generalisations that can only be found in the particular local interactions between people. Generalising is the same as both articulated and unconscious

population-wide patterning and particularising is the same as local interacting.

Social control

Mead linked social objects to social control. Social control is the bringing of the

conduct of the individual person into relation with the social object. The social act

374  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

is distributed amongst many, but the social object appears in the experience, the

selves, of all of them. Social control depends upon the degree to which the individual

takes the attitude of the generalised other: that is, takes the attitude which is the

social object. All institutions are social objects and serve to control individuals who

find them in their experience. So the social tendencies to act feature as key aspects

of the individual selves comprising a group, organisation or society as the basis of


Mead’s notion of social object has something in common with the notions of

social structure, habit and routine. What was distinctive about Mead’s approach

to these matters, however, was how he avoided positing social structure as a phenomenon that exists outside individuals. Social objects are generalisations that

only have any existence in their particularisation in the ordinary, everyday interactions between people as the living present. Box 14.1 summarises the key points

about social objects. In a similar vein, but in different ways both Elias and Pierre

Bourdieu also strove to overcome the dualisms of the individual and the social,

rational and irrational action, micro and macro with their concept of habitus. For

both of these thinkers human beings are social through and through, but for Elias

the equivalent of a social object is figuration, a network of individuals involved

in a particular power relationship, and for Bourdieu it is field. Though both of

their perspectives are helpful, neither of these sociologists developed as complete

a theory of how the formation of individual selves results in social patterning as

did Mead.

Mead’s view of control stands in contrast to how control is thought about in

the systemic perspectives underlying the theories reviewed in Part 1 of this book.

From the systemic perspective, control is usually equated with someone being ‘in

control’, and this control is effected by cybernetic system forms of monitoring where

Box 14.1

Key points about social objects

• Social objects are generalised tendencies, common to large numbers of people, to act in similar

ways in similar situations.

• These generalised tendencies to act are iterated as each living present as rather repetitive, habitual

patterns of action.

• In their continual iteration, these general tendencies to act are normally particularised in the specific

situation and the specific present the actors find themselves in.

• Such particularising inevitably involves conflictual processes of interpretation as the meaning of the

generalisation is established in a specific situation.

• The possibility of transformation of social objects arises in this particularising because of the potential for spontaneity to generate variety in human action and the capacity of nonlinear interaction to

amplify consequent small differences in their particularisation.

• While physical objects are to be found as things in nature, social objects can only be experienced

in their particularisation in complex social acts as the living present. Social objects do not have any

existence outside of such particularising social acts.

• The self is a social object and since social objects appear in the actions of individual people, the

processes of particularising the general constitute social control.

Chapter 14  Local communicative interaction and population-wide patterns   375

Table 14.1  Some of the key differences between Mead, Elias and Bourdieu





dualism of

individual and


I am a self because there are

other selves

The ‘I’ in the ‘we’: two sides of

the same coin

Our position in the network is


Subjectivities are objectively

formed. Objective

regularities are class,

education, gender, social


Role of the body

Mind as bodily activity directed

towards itself always involving


Bodies regulated by rising tides

of guilt and shame

The body is in the social

world and the social world

is in the body. The body

as site of pre-reflected


Theory of action/


Gesture and response.

Anticipating the anticipation of


(Social) individual response to

the way in which drives and

emotions are responded to and

satisfied by the other

Improvisation on the rules:

exploitation of immanent

possibilities in the situation



Communication of significant

symbols (significant if shared

between gesturer and responder)

Symbol theory

Language and symbolic

power: the accumulation of

linguistic capital

Time a central


Temporal structure of experience.

Acting in the present, interpreting

the past in anticipation of the


Socio-genesis: social

development and psychological

development are coterminous

The logic of logic is not the

logic of practice. Deciding

when to cut the cycle of

time as an ideological



Generalised other

I/me dialectic

Social object

Immanent regularities of social

relationships in particular


Internal steering mechanisms

Socialised personality structure

Durable dispositions

A feel for the game.

Second nature


‘Struggle over the life process of

the group’


Social control



Power chances


Social and cultural capital





Taking oneself as an object to


Taking a detour via detachment

Reflexivity as post-facto:

formed and therefore

limited by habitus

Illusio as investment in the


Method as

processual and


Micro-processes – behavioural


Action-oriented. Role play and

the game

Studying particular empirical

realities – historical


Studying particular

empirical realities

temporarily objectified:

statistics also useful

actual outcomes are compared with targets and action is taken to close the gap.

From this perspective the only alternative to someone being ‘in control’ through the

use of monitoring procedures is anarchy or some form of muddling through. What

Mead is making clear is that there are far more widespread and powerful forms of

social control which do not involve any individual or powerful group of individuals

being in control. The only alternative to someone being in control through operating

monitoring process is not anarchy or muddling through simply because humans are

376  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

social animals – that is, they are dependent upon each other, which requires each

to unconsciously take up the generalised other, the social object, in their particular

interactions with each other as aspects of their very selves.

14.3 The relationship between local interaction and

population-wide patterns

In all his formulations of human communicative interaction, Mead presented

the same paradox: gesture and response are inseparable phases of one social act;

generalising and particularising are inseparable phases of social objects; the ‘I’

and the ‘me’ are inseparable phases of the social self. It is in the ongoing activity

of gesturing and responding, of generalising and particularising that meaningful patterns of interaction between people arise, including their very selves. We

suggest that these meaningful patterns take the form of iterated, emerging, narrative and propositional themes that organise the experience of being together

(see Chapters 12 and 13). Such themes are iterated as each present taking the

paradoxical form of habit, or continuity, and potential transformation at the

same time. The essentially reflexive nature of human consciousness and self-­

consciousness means that we have the capacity to reflect imaginatively on these

patterns, both local and population-wide, articulating both the habitual and the

just-emerging transformations and, in doing so, either sustain the habitual or

reinforce the transformation of habit.

Imaginative constructs

In our reflection we generalise the tendencies we experience across many present situations, creating imaginative ‘wholes’ that have never existed and never

will (Dewey, 1934). What we are doing in creating these imaginative ‘wholes’

is constructing in our interaction perceptions of unity in the patterning of our

interactions. That imaginatively perceived unity is then a generalised tendency to

act in similar situations in similar ways. What is emerging is the imaginative generalisation that is one phase of what Mead calls social object. The other phase,

which is inseparable from the generalisation, is the particularising of the general

in the specific contingent situations we find ourselves in. The general population-wide pattern can only be found in its particularisation in our local interaction, and that particularising inevitably involves conflict, what Mead referred to

as the struggle over the life process of the group. In reflecting upon our patterns

of interaction, in generalising those patterns and in imaginatively constructing

some kind of unity of experience, we employ the tools of writing to codify habits

or routines – for example, as law – and even design changes in them. However,

any i­ntentionally designed change can only ever be a generalisation, and what

that means can only be found in the particularisation: that is, in the interplay

between the intentions of the designers of the generalisation and the intentions

of those who are particularising it. To persist with the analogy of law, in each

trial a judge will be required to give a particular interpretation of a general law,

Chapter 14  Local communicative interaction and population-wide patterns   377

partly by drawing on the precedents of past cases reinterpreted in the light of the

situation she now finds herself facing. The best judgments are deemed to be those

which weave the particular and the general, the past and the present together in

a systematic and imaginative way.

Given the points made above, we can now understand what we mean by ‘local

interaction’ and ‘population-wide pattern’ and how they are related to each other.

Population-wide pattern is the imaginatively created unity across a whole population that we perceive in our patterns of interaction – it is the activity of generalising as one phase of social object. Local interaction is the particularising of

the general, of the imaginatively constructed unity of our experience across the

whole population we are part of. However, these are phases of one social act

and can never be separated. The general is only to be found in the experience

of the ­particular – it has no existence outside it. The processes of particularising are essentially reflective, reflexive, emotional, imaginative, improvisational

and potentially spontaneous. It is possible for individuals and groups of individuals, particularly powerful ones, to intentionally articulate and even design a

desired generalised pattern, but the particularising involves an interplay of many

intentions and values, and this interplay cannot be intended or designed, except

temporarily in fascist power structures and cults (see Chapter 15). F

­ urthermore,

the generalisations will further evolve in their particularisation. In short, the

population-wide and the local are paradoxical processes of generalising and

­particularising at the same time.

This point about the particularisation of generalisations is of great importance

and reinforces the inappropriateness of simply applying the notion of complex adaptive systems, or any notion of systems for that matter, to human interaction. In

complex adaptive systems, the agents follow rules – in effect, they directly enact generalisations. If humans simply applied generalisations in their interactions with each

other, there would be no possibility of individual imagination and spontaneity and

hence no possibility of creativity. We would simply be determined by the generalisations. It is in the essentially conflictual particularising of the generalisations, which

have emerged over long periods of human interaction, that socially constructed,

interdependent persons display spontaneity, reflection, reflexivity, imagination and

creativity as well as conflict.


We are making a distinction between spontaneity and impulse. In humans, impulse

is an unreflective compulsion to do something, on the ‘spur of the moment’, as it

were. Impulsive actions, however, are still socially formed and reflexive. Humans

are reflexive in that their actions are formed by their own histories. Whatever we

do, whether impulsive or not, depends upon who we are, upon identity/self, which

is socially formed. Humans are also socially reflexive in that what they think and

what they do is formed by the group, community, society they are part of, which

have histories. This social reflexivity is also shaping whatever we do, impulsive

or not. Spontaneity is often spoken of as if it were the same as impulse and the

opposite of reflection in that spontaneous action also has that ‘spur of the moment’

quality. However, this is to chop out one event from an ongoing flow of interaction.

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2 Human communication and the conversation of gestures: processes of generalising and particularising

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