Joint Action, Coordination, and Control

Summary of my Dissertation Project

In everyday contexts we do numerous things together. We cook, eat, and drink together, do chores together, and engage in more complex activities such as work in highly structured organizations. Whether we cycled to work together or by sheer coincidence cycled to work almost at the same time and only a few meters apart, makes a difference in the way we prepare for the cycling, do the cycling, and experience the cycling. What this difference between parallel and joint action consists in is hotly debated.

This debate on joint action is shaped by both philosophers and psychologists. Their traditions give them different starting points and different worries, leading to different theories. In recent scholarship, there is a tendency to distinguish between emergent coordination (Tollefsen and Dale 2012, Knoblich et al., 2011) and planned coordination (Bratman 2014, Knoblich et al., 2011). I argued that this pushes us to a position of dualism, a strict —and problematic— division between two kinds of joint action.

I develop three claims: (1) There are several functions that help human agents coordinate, which entails that joint action can be best understood by understanding the differences but also the interrelatedness of these different types of coordination. (2) In order to understand the different forms of coordination and their contribution to join action we need a multidimensional conceptual space. This multidimensional space will allow us to understand the jointness of an action in a more encompassing way. This multidimensional allows for a more embodied perspective of coordination and joint action. (3) In order to understand this interplay we also have to take the situatedness of this agency into account.

Philosophers of collective intentionality have wondered how we can distinguish parallel cases from cases where we act together. Often their theories argue in favor of one characteristic, feature, or process, that differentiates the two. This feature then distinguishes parallel actions from joint action.

One of the problems with contrasting cases, is the potential dualism lurking in the background, enticing us to see the distinction as a hard distinction. Another problem with this approach is the tendency to focus on one key element, and forgetting about the situational factors that play an important role in the coordination between agents. Picking out one thing (a shared intention) seems wrong in the sense that this one feature can only be understood within a specific situation.

Although psychologists seem more open to the idea that there is a multiplicity of ways to act jointly, they usually merely focus on fairly automatic processes that contribute to coordination. By setting up the debate as such, (1) both philosophers and psychologists underestimate the interdependence of the different levels of coordination and (2) both overemphasize the difference between the two types of coordination. Based on the distinction between three levels of control (Pacherie 2008, Fridland 2014, and Christensen and colleagues 2016) I introduced three —highly integrated— levels of coordination. Together these three levels of coordination allow us to skillfully act together.

  1. Planned Coordination. The long-term plans, including the upcoming minutes, but also the upcoming years.
  2. Situation Coordination. These include adjustments of existing plans because due to contingencies and on-the-spot improvisations when there is no plan yet.
  3. Emergent Coordination. At all times agents that are interacting and acting jointly will adjust their movements and facilitate coordination of their movements through alignment and synchronization mechanisms.

In order to make room for these three levels of coordination we have to give up on several binary distinctions, including those between action and mere bodily movement, joint action and parallel action, and acting together and not together.