Action, Language and Social Semiotics – A Theoretical
Contribution to Collaborative Work and Learning
Angela Lacerda Nobre
Escola Superior de Ciências Empresariais, Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal ESCE-IPS
Campus do IPS, 2914-503 Setúbal, Portugal
Abstract. The epistemic grounding of organisational and computing science
thinking is highly relevant to a discussion of collaboration and coordination ac-
tivity. The critical importance of semiotics, and of action and of language phi-
losophy, has been explicitly recognised by scientific communities such as “Or-
ganisational Semiotics” (OS) and “Language and Action Perspective” (LAP).
The importance of the recognition of the social embeddeness of organisational
activity, and of phenomenological interpretations of knowledge and meaning,
are often referred as a “social turn” in organisational theories, such as organisa-
tional learning, knowledge management and communities of practice. How-
ever, the full potential of such approaches needs to be supported by a renewed
interest in philosophical perspectives able to sustain and disseminate their in-
trinsic value. Opposing a humanist paradigm, based on structuralism and cogni-
tivism, the alternative perspective, grounded in social semiotics, Heidegger’s
ontology, and Peircean pragmatism, enables an interpretation of organisations,
information systems, collaboration and coordination, that radically shifts its fo-
cus towards their inner social dynamisms.
1 Introduction
Why is “collaboration” important? And how does it affect work and learning? The
idea of the knowledge society and of the centrality of knowledge in today’s organisa-
tions shifts the attention from tangible and measurable assets to intangible, and diffi-
cult to measure, knowledge. Many authors have discussed and conceptualised this
changing organisational context in different ways [4], [20]. And the answers that have
been searched for are equally diverse. It is possible to identify three different trends in
terms of the focus of attention of each theoretical contribution. Firstly, a focus on
technology and on the technological revolution that has affected every sector of soci-
ety. Secondly, a focus on the individual, the rational, independent and autonomous
individual, which uses technology and that uses neurological brain processes in order
to make the most of the available resources. Thirdly, there is a focus on social proc-
esses, on individuals and on technology together involved in social interactions.
Knowledge management [28], organisational learning [1], [33] and communities of
practice [22] are examples of theories which have been subject to the above referred
Lacerda Nobre A. (2007).
Action, Language and Social Semiotics A Theoretical Contribution to Collaborative Work and Learning.
In Proceedings of the 4th International Workshop on Computer Supported Activity Coordination, pages 101-107
DOI: 10.5220/0002420501010107
trends, and that have emerged with the need to search for answers to the question of
«how best to deal with the knowledge society context?».
2 Action, Language and Social Semiotics
Knowledge and meaning are closely related to action and language within an organ-
isational context, and philosophy of action and of language have important contribu-
tions to make to the understanding of organisational reality. Organisations, action and
learning are concepts that are mutually embedded and profoundly connected. Organi-
sations, in order to survive, have to have effective mechanisms that allow them to
learn and to incorporate their learning into their actions. Or better, organisations have
to recognise and to acknowledge the learning that is already present in their actions.
This permanent process is mainly automatic and unconscious, though it may be made
explicit in various degrees and circumstances. The early works of Austin [2], on
speech act theory, followed by the works of Searle [32] and of Habermas [15], have
set on motion the field of language action theories that have influenced the study of
information systems analysis within organisational contexts. The social constructive
perspective of learning, the concept of situated learning, Kurt Lewin’s 1930’s work
on social psychology and its relation with action research methodologies have been
relevant to organisation studies [13].
The works of the scientific communities of Organisational Semiotics (OS) [9],
[23], [34], [35], Language and Action Perspective (LAP) [12], and Action in Lan-
guage, Organisations and Information Systems (ALOIS) [11] have been influential in
the development of organisational and information systems analysis based on semiot-
ics, speech-act theory and philosophy of language.
The development of American structuralism in linguistics derived from the foun-
dational work of Bloomfield [3] and with Harris [17] the structuralist methodology
reached its peak [29]. In opposition to previous historicism in linguistics, Bloomfield
postulated a descriptive approach to language, i.e. an antimentalistic and behaviourist
approach. No internal mental facts, such as ideas, concepts, or intentions, should be
taken in consideration; only observable behaviour, of speech-acts in the context of
human behaviour, was considered as valid to scientific studies. The consequence of
this antimentalistic point of view was that questions of semantics were long neglected
by American structuralists. According to Nöth [29], taxonomies and classifications as
well as the interest in the study of speech-acts and of observable behaviour is still
strong in late twentieth-century’s analysis inspired by language philosophy. However,
this emphasis has been developed towards mentalistic and cognitivist perspectives.
The importance of the social, the cultural, the historical, the ideological and the
political has been relatively neglected in the field of organisation and other closely
related studies that have been dominated by a cognitivist mainstream approach. As
Child and Heavens [10] argue, current thinking has been affected by a reductionist
approach to individual learning and by a reification of the organisation as a learning
entity, so that there has been an adoption of an undersocialised conception of both.
Though mainstream organisational theory and practice is largely influenced by this
‘undersocialised’ perspective there is an impressive array of approaches that work at
the margin and periphery of dominant thinking and that are increasingly making their
presence noticed in the fields of organisational learning and knowledge management
so that we could envision a ‘social turn’ in organisation theory. Among the vast array
of approaches drawing on postmodernism theory, on social construction of reality and
on a phenomenologist epistemology, the works of Gherardi and Nicolini [10], and of
Elkjaer [8] that refer to the influence of Heidegger’s [18] ontology and to the influ-
ence of pragmatism are of particular relevance to the present paper.
Heidegger’s philosophy is centred on the question of being, and it develops a
complex account of our being-in-the-world [18]. Heidegger’s phenomenology of
everydayness works to counteract the tendency toward the displacement of meaning
into subjectivity, that began with the rise of modern science [7]. Heidegger’s work
Being and Time [18] influenced Maturana and Varela’s work [25] and through them
the work of Winograd and Flores [36], thus setting a tradition in computing science
and information systems design. Against a Cartesian view of human beings as purely
autonomous and rational, perfectly in control of their “situatedness”, Heidegger’s
perspective calls upon the importance of human’s relationships with our world and
our surrounding environment. From this perspective, information systems designers
may acknowledge the importance of their influence on work systems and, through
these systems, their influence on the individual and on the collective users of the
Heidegger’s ontology and the American philosophical school of pragmatism are
fundamental philosophical contributions because they represent non-dualistic and
post-cognitivist perspectives of action and language. It is critical to stress the impor-
tance of these approaches to action and language, and how these enable an epistemo-
logical perspective that goes beyond individual and cognitivist trends. As referred
above, at the beginning of the present section, Nöth [29] identifies these trends within
philosophy of language itself. But philosophy of language and of action intrinsically
have the capacity to explore other perspectives.
Peirce [30] is well known for his work on semiotics. Together with Saussure [31],
they created two schools of semiotics that have been influential throughout the twen-
tieth century. Pragmatism was one of Peirce’s [30] creations, later followed by James,
Dewey, Popper, Morris, Sellars, Putman and others [19], [7]. Pragmatism derives
from the Greek word ‘pragma’ that means action. It emphasises the concept of human
beings as agents and focuses on their practical relation to the world. The concept of
abduction and its relation to deduction and to induction was also developed by Peirce
[30], [19], [7]. Abduction is the process by which a new concept is formed on the
basis of an existing concept that is perceived as having something in common with it,
thus it focuses on associations.
Ronald Stamper [34], coined the term “organisational semiotics” and his pioneer
work centred on the use of norms as key organisational elements. Stamper exten-
sively developed his theory of organisational semiotics as a method to help improve
the quality of systems analysis and design. Organisational semiotics interprets organi-
sations as information systems, independently of technology [34]. The social con-
structivist perspective of organisations, viewed as social constructs, is also relevant to
organisational semiotics. Information is a central concept that may be analysed
through diverse perspectives, and semiotics offers a framework that allows us to in-
terpret information at syntactic, semantic, pragmatic and social levels [9]. Stamper
has added three fields to semiotics, besides the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics
levels: empirics, physics and social world [35], [9], [23]. Most applications of
Stamper’s work on organisational semiotics [9], [23] consist on developments that
focus on the socio-technical aspects of information systems and on the use of this
method to improve information system’s analysis and design.
Social semiotics holds a critical position in relation to the study of meaning crea-
tion and signification processes. Though semiotics, as a whole, considers the specific
aspect of sense-making, social semiotics goes deeper in this analysis in the sense that
it takes into account the dynamic, social, cultural, political, ideological and historical
dimensions of social action, language use and meaning creation. Social semiotics [5],
[16], consists on a theoretical approach to the study of social realities through the use
of semiotic based approaches. Social semiotics developed out of the work of sociolo-
gists interested in language issues and of linguistics interested in the social influences
within language use. Under this perspective, human development is as much the de-
velopment of individuals, as that of the social communities to which they belong, and
language is the working tool and enabler of this developmental process. Semiotics is
commonly related to language though it covers all forms of communication or rather
characterisation of a practice so that dressing, teenage gear, wrestling or cooking,
have a semiotic content [7].
Social semiotics, developed by Halliday [16] and Kress [21] among others, raised
out of the Saussurean school of thought. Saussure claimed that we use language not
only to communicate but also to construct our world, and when he distinguished be-
tween langue, the abstract structure of a language, and parole, the way it was actually
used in practice, he directed his attention to the former. Social semiotics explicitly
takes a non-positivist approach as it focuses on the contexts, prerequisites, and condi-
tions of possibility for meaning creation processes to occur. All meanings are made
within a community. The analysis of sign systems and of sense-making processes
cannot be separated from the social, historical, cultural and political dimensions of
these communities. Social semiotics also takes a non-cognitivist approach: instead of
referring to meaning-making as something that is done by minds, it points to the role
of social practices within communities. Communities are thus interpreted not as a
collection of interacting individuals but as a system of interdependent social practices.
Social semiotics may be understood as a discourse on meaning making where the aim
is to examine the functions and the effects of the meanings we make in every day life,
within communities, organisations and society.
3 Discussion and Conclusions
The vitality of the scientific communities that use semiotics and language and action
perspectives within organisational and information systems research, referred above,
is a sign of the vast potential of the implicit theoretical and corresponding ap-
proaches. However, the argument of the present paper is that there is room for further
exploration of such origins, in particular in terms of their epistemological grounding.
Instead of focusing on structuralist approaches, it is possible to search for dynamic
and pos-structuralist standings that are richer in terms of addressing the social dimen-
sions of human interaction. Within the context of coordination activity, such ap-
proaches are particularly relevant. Coordination theory [24] has had a profound im-
pact in the development of an interdisciplinary study of coordination, setting its basic
principles and extending its applications to computer supported collaborative work
and activity studies. However, such initiatives are often dominated by positivist,
structuralist and cognitivist thinking.
The argument of the present paper is that particular developments within both
semiotics and language and action philosophies enable the possibility to study col-
laboration and coordination in innovative ways that explore the social embeddeness
and embodiness of human meaning and knowledge creation. The idea of “Semiotic
Learning” [26], [27], applies these principles to a practical methodology that facili-
tates organisational learning.
Some authors claim for the need to further explore the contributions from the sci-
entific communities, already referred - Organisational Semiotics (OS), and Language
and Action Perspective (LAP) – under the argument that they bring essential insights
to the understanding of organisational contexts and information system design. The
humanist paradigm is often referred as the common ground from which these com-
plementary perspectives have developed [6]. However, it is critical to analyse the
origins of the humanist paradigm and of its links with the rationality developed in
modern times, from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries onwards. The ideal of hu-
manism is centred on individuals conceived as being autonomous and independent,
following rational, formal and linear forms of rationality, and focusing on conscious
and explicit pure mental and intellectual activity. The phenomenologist tradition, on
the contrary, rejects such independence and autonomy of subjects, and focuses on
non-linear forms of rationality. Heidegger’s ontology, Peircean pragmatism and so-
cial semiotics implicitly take this phenomenological standing. And the argument of
the present paper is precisely that both OS and LAP origins and fundamental princi-
ples have strong links with this tradition and therefore it is critical to further explore
their contributions under this phenomenological perspective.
In summary, the present paper discusses the importance of revisiting and reanalys-
ing the dominant paradigms behind organisational and computing science mainstream
thinking. There are three main arguments for the relevance of this course of action:
First, philosophy is always present, whether it is explicitly acknowledged or not.
All action and every practical activity may be interpreted from a philosophical per-
spective. This perspective needs to be addressed in explicit terms whenever it is nec-
essary to re-equate and re-consider its epistemological grounding, i.e. the underlying
assumptions and basic principles which sustain a specific practice. This need occurs
in times of change, turbulence, and increased levels of complexity as happen within
current organisational contexts.
Second, philosophical reasoning is never merely philosophy or simply a bunch of
ideas. There is an inherent and implicit practice which is being constructed and sup-
ported through philosophical reasoning. The practice is already present, and philoso-
phy enables the questioning of such practice and the development of an inquiry which
may lead to such practice’s improvement. Computing science has developed pioneer
work related to the philosophical grounding of organisational practices. The high
relevance of such work, unfortunately, is not matched by the dissemination of its
rationale. There is a reductive, oversimplified, under-socialised and non-philosophical
informed generalised approach to organisational practices, and to the critical role of
technology in improving such practices.
Third, the information systems scientific communities of “Organisational Semiot-
ics” (OS), of “Language and Action Perspective” (LAP) and of “Action in Language,
Organisations and Information Systems” (ALOIS), stand out for their interest and
theoretical grounding in the philosophical traditions of semiotics, action and lan-
guage. However, the argument of the present paper is that there is often a bias to-
wards structuralist and cognitivist interpretations, supported by a humanist paradigm,
even within such communities. Instead, this paper argues in favour of a pos-
structuralist and pos-cognitivist perspective, and claims that it is precisely from semi-
otics and from action and language philosophy that a sociosemiotics paradigm has
emerged. The contributions of social semiotics, of Heidegger’s ontology and of
Peirceian pragmatism are referred as critical dimensions of a phenomenologic episte-
mology on organisations and on information systems design.
The issues of collaborative work and learning and of coordination activity are par-
ticular relevant within this context. The reason for this is that formal, explicit and
procedural aspects of coordination and collaboration are but a fraction of that which
is relevant in terms of promoting cooperation and collaboration at organisational
level. The tacit, implicit and complex social aspects of organisational practices must
unavoidably be addressed from a philosophically informed and mediated perspective.
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