The diagram I used in the last post is misleading in that it makes things look more contained and bounded than they actually are. The circle that surrounds “Jim” (substitute your name here)—i.e., an enviro-human system—is actually quite porous. Aspects of the environment and of the human wash across the boundary in both ways. The system is not closed, though it does keep a certain degree of integrity, nonetheless.
We have also not said enough about the environment. Humans act, but often not alone. They often act in league with others, with tools, and with other aspects of the environment. Let’s distinguish between “individual acts” and “joint acts”. Now think about cases where people act alone as an individual and cases where they act jointly with others, tools, and aspects of the environment. It is easy to think of cases of joint action: bridges, talk-in-interaction, driving a car, cooking a meal, making love, and many more. It is hard to think of individual actions beyond basic things like walking, sleeping, and such. When we write and read we most often trade on ideas and words that stem partly from others, as well as a bunch of historically specific technologies. The same is true when we think.
There are few, if any, non-basic actions that humans do not do jointly. And, when humans act jointly, the actor is not them alone, it is them joined with other people and things. Let’s call the tethered forces of action in a joint action an “ensemble actor” (because it is from this that causes come and consequences follow).
The diagram above is misleading in that it shows only one part (the human-as-complex-messy-system part) of what is usually an ensemble actor. One key place where ensemble actors occur is in social interaction. In such interaction humans as systems use language, gesture, and eye gaze—as well as the context (environment) around them—to meld together as an ensemble actor.
Thus, we need a diagram in which more them one “Jim” is in the diagram relating to each other. I can’t draw multiple versions of the diagram above, it would take up too much space and get to be a real mess. So, let’s use the abbreviation “EHS” (Enviro-Human System) to stand for the diagram above, to stand for an enviro-human system (a system of systems). Then we can represent social interaction as follows:
What we see above is a system (the whole thing) of systems (like each EHS) of systems (multiple EHSs) interacting with language, tools, and contexts (environments) to pull off joint action. So, we will call this system of systems of systems a “joint actor system” (JAS). The complexity of this system of systems of systems is beyond ken, certainly beyond any conscious awareness of any depth.
A JAS is what we get, for example, in any classroom when students and a teacher are interacting. We get something yet more complicated when groups are interacting with other groups as different but interacting joint actor systems. So, a classroom is a complex system of complex systems of complex systems (and with interacting groups) of complex systems.
Physics deals with complex systems in the material world. Such systems are not open to investigation by controlled studies since a complex system (let alone a complex system of complex systems) involves so many variables and is so sensitive to initial conditions that it never operates the same twice and is not open to determinist predications. Physicists must use powerful theoretical, mathematical, model-based, and simulation-rich methods to understand complexity. Yet, educators and policy makers in the United States have determined that the “gold standard” for studying classrooms (a complex system of complex systems of complex systems …) is controlled classroom studies and simple tests of “significance”. It is it any wonder we know so little—and do so poorly—in our educational research? We face problems harder than physics and attempt to use tools that are far, far too weak to understand them, let alone solve them.
When we want to analyze human social interaction we need to analyze joint actor systems. In such systems, each EHS (itself a system of systems) is a locus of action (causes and consequences), but so is the JAS (a system of systems of systems). Action at any one level reciprocally interacts with and shapes action at the other levels until these actions are not truly separate. There are no well-developed analytic techniques for this sort of analysis, as of yet.