Implicit Coordination

Long Abstract of

Implicit Coordination: Acting Quasi-Jointly on Shared Implicit Intentions. Co-authored with Luke Roelofs.

People in society do things together, but there are important differences among forms of ‘together’-ness. Sometimes people work together based on an explicit shared intention; sometimes they operate as members of a structured organisation with defined rules. On other occasions people ‘do things together’ simply in the sense that the individual things they do add up to a total effect, which nobody foresaw or at least which nobody intended. In the former cases it makes sense to speak of collective agency; in the latter the individual agents’ actions sum together in a non-agential way.

But there is also something in between. Collective agency based on explicit shared intentions is demanding to establish and maintain, and much of social life is not really covered by such models, despite seeming to involve more than mere aggregation. This intermediate layer is the topic of this paper: social phenomena, on larger or smaller scales, where people’s actions seem to coordinate and interlock without an explicit plan, but with something like an implicit goal.

For example, people often criticise ‘gentrification’, the process of renovating deteriorated urban neighborhoods by an influx of more affluent residents. This criticism often seems to treat this phenomenon as somewhat agential, rather than mere aggregate of individual decisions. Yet reading such criticisms as attributing an explicit joint intention would make them implausible: they are better understood as reacting to the kind of somewhat-agential collective behaviour which this paper analyses.

We argue that this phenomenon, which we call ‘implicit coordination’, is best understood as involving shared implicit intentions. That is, it differs from the sort of highly committed, highly explicit joint action characterised by writers like Gilbert, Searle, and Bratman in the same way that individual actions driven by ‘explicit’ intentions differ from individual actions driven by ‘implicit’ intentions. This distinction between explicit and implicit intentions depends on their availability for reflection and report: thus it is not tied specifically to the representational formats of the states involved. Implicit states can be implicit for varied reasons: they may be habitual, they may be disliked and thus disavowed, they may be involved in the exercise of a near-automatic skill, and so on.

Not only can there be implicit intentions, there can be implicit parts of intentions which also have explicit parts. That is, intentions can be complex, and only partly available for reflection. Based on this perception, we argue that the distinction between implicit and explicit intentions should be articulated using the distinction between ‘operative’ and ‘manifest intentions’. When not all of the motivational elements that feed into an action are accessible to the agent, the intention the subject regards themselves as acting on (their ‘manifest’ intention) can diverge from content which best captures the actual pattern of their behaviour (their ‘operative’ intention). The overlap of the two – what is both psychologically efficacious and recognised by the subject – is the explicit intention; what is present in the operative but not the manifest intention is the implicit part of the intention; and when the subject is not reflectively aware of why they are acting, the whole intention is implicit.

We thus make a double claim about the relation between large-scale implicit coordination and implicit intentions in individuals: implicit coordination is both analogous to wholly implicit individual intentions, and is constituted by the partly implicit intentions of participants.

Rather than seeking to strictly distinguish layers, we argue that the best way to capture what is interesting about implicit coordination is to look at the dimensions on which social phenomena can vary, and which qualify a phenomenon as joint action when present to a high enough degree. Part of the value of recognising implicit coordination is that it often occupies a middle range on two continua between highly coordinated and uncoordinated activities.

We suggest two key dimensions: (1) the degree to which individuals’ aims coincide or overlap (aim-sharing), and (2) the degree to which each individual acts because of the others acting (interdependence). Implicit coordination is often, as we will say, ‘quasi-joint’ action, in that it exhibit both a moderate degree of overlap in the aims of the participants, and a moderate degree of interdependence among their actions. It thus lies in the centre of a two-dimensional space with joint action (high aim-sharing, high interdependence) at one corner, mere aggregate action (no aim-sharing or interdependence) at the other, and distinct but recognisable social phenomena occupying the other two corners (high aim-sharing without interdependence, or high interdependence with low or even negative aim-sharing).

We discuss the significance of this category for action theory, social ontology, and social criticism. Consider, for example, the idea of ‘microaggressions’, small individual acts which subtly disparage a certain group, and which are sometimes thought to play a key causal role in perpetuating social inequality. The possibility which our analysis tries to cast some light on – and which is suggested by the anger felt toward this phenomenon – would be that some large number of individual microaggressions display both aim-sharing and interdependence, and thus constitute something like a quasi-joint action. Their interdependence would come through the way that each person’s use of the term normalises the next; the aim-sharing would come through an implicit attraction to the prospect of maintaining inarticulately-recognised power dynamics. The more that individual actions form a network of implicitly connected intentions – the more it displays high aim-sharing and high interdependence – the more appropriate it is to judge it in intentional terms, as disrespectful, excusable, vindictive, lazy, oblivious, or so on, at a collective level rather than simply as the aggregate effect of individual acts.