Sune Vork Steffensen

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Sune Vork Steffensen (Ph.D., Aarhus University, 2007) is associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark and director of the Centre for Human Interactivity (CHI). He is a leading proponent for a distributed view on language, and his field of research is the complex ecologies of human interaction in real-life settings. He is currently involved in projects on cognitive events in departments of emergency medicine, in psychology labs and in private corporations. Across these settings, he is developing a qualitative method of Cognitive Event Analysis. Sune Vork Steffensen has written extensively on ecological, dialogical and distributed topics over the years, including two edited books and two special issues: Language, Ecology and Society (London, 2007), Signifying Bodies: Biosemiosis, Interaction and Health (Braga, 2010), Caring and Conversing: The Distributed Dynamics of Language (Language Sciences, 34(5), 2012) and Ecolinguistics: the Ecology of Language and the Ecology of Science (Language Sciences, 41A, 2014).

Regarding the aims of this workshop, Sune says: “Typically, conflicts are conceptualized from an individualist point of view, i.e. one individual’s needs or interests conflict with those of another individual (the same goes for groups and communities). How does the development of supra-individual (systemic, ecological, distributed) models in cognitive science and in dynamical systems theory affect sociological and cultural thinking about conflicts? How do scholars with expertise in conflicts and conflict transformation understand the dynamics that transpose national, political, or cultural conflicts from a supra-individual level (e.g. as a conflict between states, ethnicities or groups) to an individual level, i.e. as a conflict between living human beings?


Presentation title: “Conflict and Dialogical Systems: A Distributed and Ecological View on the Dynamics of Human Interaction.”

Abstract: This presentation takes a starting point in a distributed and ecological approach to human interaction. A distributed/ecological approach aspires to understand language and interaction “as fully integrated with human existence” (Cowley, 2011). To pursue this agenda, the distributed/ecological approach sees interaction as (a) radically heterogeneous and multiscalar (Steffensen and Pedersen, forth.); (b) intertwined with ecologically embedded cognitive activities (Steffensen, 2013); (c) symbiotically constituted by both interbodily dynamics and symbolic constraints (cf. Rączaszek-Leonardi, 2009); and (d) profoundly dialogical and other-oriented ed (Linell, 2009), i.e. uniting situated activity with situation-transcending meaning-potentials that shape action, as people do things together.

Following Rączaszek-Leonardi, it is argued that interaction – given its dynamic and symbiotic nature – is not an exchange process between two separate persons; rather, it unfolds in “a temporarily coordinated functional whole, consisting of two sub-systems” (Rączaszek-Leonardi et al., 2012). This functional whole is a self-organised, complex dialogical system (Steffensen, 2012), and my presentation pivots on the dynamics of such dialogical systems. In the context of the Interacting Complexity conference, I take the distributed/ecological approach to dialogical systems as a starting point for rethinking some of the dynamics of conflict in human interaction. More specifically, I address three dimensions of dialogical systems, and accordingly three questions on conflicts:

• First, assuming that dialogical systems are self-organised, dynamical systems, the activities of such systems are frustrated (Hodges and Geyer, 2006): the dialogical system can never satisfy all its defining parameters. Thus, there are no law-governed “comfort zones” of interaction; it is performed “all and always on the boundary,” as Bakhtin said. This edginess and frustration raise the questions: how do dialogical systems maintain a balance that over time allows them to avoid conflicts by satisfying its defining parameters; and why do dialogical systems at times implode into conflicts?

• Second, like other dynamical systems, dialogical systems are multiscalar: multiple timescales “all mesh in the current moment” (MacWhinney, 2005:191) of human interaction. Hence, to appreciate the dynamics of dialogical systems, it requires the consideration of both local and situated interbodily dynamics, and of non-local, transsituational sociocultural framing. Multiscalarity makes it important to ask the questions: when do dialogical systems conflict with the dynamics of social systems, and how do participants in dialogical systems handle such conflicts?

• Third, the ecological embeddedness of dialogical systems implies that they play a functional, cognitive role in real-life activities and tasks: the dialogical system has the potential of functioning as a Distributed Cognitive System (Hollan et al., 2000). This property gives rise to a specific type of interactional conflict, viz. the conflict that emerge when the cognitive system faces tasks and activities that places demands on the system that exceed its capacities. How do participants avoid system disintegration when facing such tasks?

The dynamics of conflicts and conflict avoidance in dialogical systems will be exemplified through examples of real-life interactions on various organizational contexts, including the health sector, private corporations and universities.

Professor Steffensen can be reached at the following email address: