Australian National University, Department of Anthropology, College of Asia and the Pacific
Triadic engagement and the dialectical emergence of culture and mind
Recent work by Michael Tomasello, Peter Hobson and others has established the importance of triadic forms of interpersonal engagement as a key feature of human sociality. Special importance in this regard has been attributed to our human capacities and propensity for sharing and exchanging intentions and perspectives with one another, jointly focusing on objects of shared attention, and coordinating our actions in relation to them – capacities which in Tomasello’s view have provided the basis for our uniquely human capacity for ‘cultural learning’. So far the developmental evidence for these claims has come mainly from western settings involving a relatively narrow range of cultures and languages. Here I build on this work in three ways. First, drawing on the results of comparative-typological linguistics I identify a set of apparently universal features of languages which build into them a primordial social scenario that includes triadic engagement and other distinctively human elements of sociality. Second, drawing on recent work in linguistic anthropology and practice-oriented social theory I take up the question of how everyday interaction is grounded in particular socio-cultural orders and how it contributes to their reproduction and transformation. I argue that Tomasello’s account of triadic interaction provides a valuable supplement to current anthropological understandings of those processes, and in combination with them affords new insights into not only cultural learning but the creation, reproduction and transformation of culture itself. Finally, drawing on a long tradition of dialectical and dialogical theories of mind and the self (Hegel, Peirce, Mead, Bakhtin, Vygotsky) I show how current linguistic-anthropological frameworks for the analysis of human interaction can provide us with new tools for understanding the emergence of mind as a social process. Ethnographic evidence for these arguments will be drawn from a wide range of sources including my own field research in Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea.