Exploring Social Space

by Peter Saint-Andre


One of the insights I find so intriguing from ecological psychology as developed by James and Eleanor Gibson is the concept of exploring visual space. Animals (including we humans) aren't simplistic sensory processing machines that are fixed to a point in space; instead, we are free to move around in order to see things from multiple perspectives.

Consider a simple object like the blue mug on my desk.

If you were limited to viewing this mug from only one particular angle, it's possible that all you'd see is a blotch of blue. But because you can move around the mug or move the mug around, you can easily discover that the mug has a handle (an affordance for gripping it), that it's hollow inside with a solid bottom (an affordance for filling it with liquid), etc.

An analogy I'd like to think about further is the exploration of social space, with its associated discovery of what I recently called social affordances (of course there are other kinds of space, such as natural space, intellectual space, and inner space). From birth we humans are continually engaged in social learning by pushing against constraints, accomodating ourselves to interpersonal realities, trying new behaviors, building new relationships, formulating new goals, and modifying our thoughts, priorities, actions, and reactions based on what we've learned (consider activities like "the terrible twos", adolescent acting out, dating, travel, and early-career job hopping). And we do this in every domain of social life: family, friendships, school, work, community, etc. Indeed, I'm coming to see that a great deal of human existence consists in the exploration and navigation of social space.

What are the implications? They're not fully clear to me because I'm no expert in the fields of sociology, anthropology, or social psychology. However, as with everything else, different people do a better or worse job at this task of living (consider those with "dark triad" personality traits who manipulate family members or co-workers) and experience plays a large role because it takes years to figure out how to navigate the social world (human psychology and relationships are complicated!).

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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