Social Interaction Rhythm & Participatory Sense-Making:
An embodied, interactional approach to social understanding, 
with some implications for autism

Awarded 2007, University of Sussex, UK


How do people understand each other? Mainstream approaches to social cognition (like Theory of Mind theory and simulation theory) have not been able to answer this question satisfactorily. This is because they are methodologically individualistic and have not been able to connect the individuals involved in a social interaction. In the present work, existing alternatives to ToM that focus either on embodiment and situatedness, or on aspects of social interaction, are evaluated. On the basis of a framework of social interaction and coordination developed here, it is proposed that a specific combination and elaboration of these two alternatives promises a more fruitful approach to social understanding.

It is suggested that interactional and functional coordination are central to interpersonal connection, and that temporal aspects of interaction processes play a crucial role in this. A specific usage of the notion of interaction rhythm is put forward to delineate and explain aspects of this temporality of social interactions. Combined with this, the concept of a rhythmic capacity is set out, which refers to degree of temporal flexibility in interactions (and is an interactional rather than a strictly individual capacity).

These new concepts allow an explanation of how individuals in interaction connect and how timing, experience and meaning are essential and intertwined elements of social understanding. Together, they underlie a new conceptualisation of social cognition as participatory sense-making.

Finally, the theoretical framework put forward is applied to the case of autism. This allows a sketch of aspects of its future potential. Our current understanding of autism is critically assessed and the possible advantages of the proposed framework for comprehending this disorder are drawn out. It is suggested that an investigation of the interaction and coordination processes in the social encounters of people with autism – encompassing both the experience of the person with autism and of those interacting with him – will be fruitful, and that this can be done using the embodied, interactional, temporal account of social understanding proposed.