affordances evoked by social interaction

February 23, 2007

William W. Gaver

Gaver, W. W. (1996). Affordances for interaction: the social is material for design. Ecological Psychology, 8(2), 111–129.

Gaver describes affordances not as perception-based relative aspects of the environment that become noticed in activities (like Gibson’s affordances), but goes beyond it claiming that there are affordances, which are not perceptible per se, but which emerge due to interaction and actions in the environment.

There is a tendency to invoke sociological and anthropological constructs such as “communities of practice” or “social convention” rather than recognising the degree to which social activities are embedded in and shaped by the material environment.

Seemingly similar material conditions are incorporated into seemingly different social behaviours.

The concept of affordances, as introduced by Gibson (e.g., 1979), provides a way to describe the world that cuts across traditional subject-object dualities. Affordances go beyond value-free physical descriptions of the environment by expressing environmental attributes relative to humans.
At the same time, they go beyond subjective interpretations (e.g., associations, schemas, or social conventions) by describing meaning relative to an objective physical world.

Affordances are primarily facts about action and interaction, not perception. This contrasts with the common impression that affordances refer to—approximately—situations in which one can see what to do.

They allow meaning to be understood in terms of the relations of humans and their environment.
When affordances are perceived, a tight link between perception and action may ensue. But the concept is also useful in describing situations in which perceptual information is misleading about possibilities for action, or those in which affordances exist but information for them does not. In general, the perceptibility of an affordance should not be confused with the affordance itself.

Affordances exist not just for individual action, but for social interaction as well. Research on “social affordances” (e.g., Still & Good, 1991; Goldring, 1991) focuses on the possibilities for action that people offer one another and on the role of other people in pointing out new affordances (e.g., to babies). These are not social affordances, as defined above, but affordances for sociality.


The interpretation given to unanswered communications varies depending on the medium. For instance, the delay between sending postal mail and deciding it has gone unanswered is much longer than that between dialling a telephone number and deciding it will not be picked up.

The properties of email also constrain the social interactions that it mediates. Because email is newer, less predictable, and more varied than other media, however, the behaviours that form are less stable and more open to examination. Subcultures have formed whose uses of email vary analogously to the differences between telephone and postal mail use. Some groups use email incessantly, monitoring it continuously and replying to messages almost immediately after they are received. Others use email only occasionally, reading new messages once a day or less, and replying to them only after some period of thought. And some regard email as a high-tech curiosity to which they would never entrust any important communication.

These communities do not reflect arbitrary differences in local culture, however, but the affordances of the email systems they use. If email is troublesome to access, slow, difficult to operate, prone to breakdown, and expensive, then intensive email cultures are unlikely to develop around it. If email systems are slow, they may be used analogously to postal mail – relatively formally and infrequently. If they are unreliable, then they cannot support formal communication well at all and will tend to be used as an unimportant novelty.

A range of social behaviours can thus form around the differing affordances of email, with the fact that it is viewed as a single medium confusing their coordination. Unanswered email will be interpreted differently by the two communities.
Moreover, the sender and recipient may have different interpretations of the same unanswered email, leading to new confusion and tensions.
The differences themselves are unavailable, or at least not obvious, to the sender and recipient.

Analysing the affordances offered by media spaces is useful in understanding their differences from the everyday medium, in part because it suggests design possibilities relatively directly (Gaver, 1991). Several limitations on the perceptual information media spaces convey become clear from such an analysis.

Perhaps the most important affordance of the everyday world lacking in media spaces is the ability to move. As Gibson (1979) emphasised, movement is fundamental for perception.
We move towards and away from things, look around them, and move them so we can inspect them closely. Movement might allow people to compensate for the discontinuities and anisotropies of current media spaces (Gaver, 1992; c.f. Heath & Luff, 1991). Social interactions in media space would be better supported if people could explore remote sites as easily as they can move around their own rooms.

The ecological approach is useful in the design process because it describes perception and interaction in terms of the properties of the environment, as well as those of people, and design is fundamentally about manipulating the environment for people.
Thus the ecological approach challenges researchers to avoid the temptation of using memory and inference in explanations of perception, and encourages them instead to discover the possibly high-level physical attributes that serve as information about the world.

Designing Electronic Collaborative Learning Environments
Paul Kirschner
Jan-Willem Strijbos
Karel Kreijns
Pieter Jelle Beers
Kirchner, P., Strijbos, J-W., Kreijns, K. & Beers, B. J. (2004). Designing electronic collaborative learning environments. ETR&D, 52(3), 47–66.

The authors distinguish between technological, educational and social affordances. It seems they rely mainly on the perceptable concept of affordances in case of technological and educational affordances and isocial affordances, the affordance concept of Gaver which suggests that interaction itself in the collaborative system, might determine some affordances differently is not emphasised much in case of social affordances.

The question is not what outcomes specific educational techniques and collaborative work forms cause, but rather what activities they actually afford, also often referred to as the affordances of a learning environment. Specific types of learning need to be afforded in different ways (i.e., different opportunities provided for learning) because the learners perceive and interact with each other and with the environment differently.

An affordance is, by definition, characterized by two relationships. First, there must be a reciprocal relationship between the organism and the environment.

The affordances must be perceivable and meaningful so that they can be used and must support or anticipate an action.

Second, there must be a perception-action coupling.

In Gibson’s (1977) view, natural selection has tuned a species’ effectivities to the affordances associated with its niche or occupation (Allen & Otto, 1996). In
Gibson’s terms, effectivities (i.e., one’s capabilities for action) allow humans to exploit their world just as effectivities such as wings allow birds to exploit the air for travel and the branches of trees for nesting.

Norman (1988) linked affordances to an object’s usability, and thus these affordances are designated technological or technology affordances (Gaver, 1991).

Kreijns, Kirschner, and Jochems (2002) defined social affordances—analogous to technological affordances—as the “properties of a CSCL environment that act as social-contextual facilitators relevant for the learner’s social interaction” (p. 13).

Kirschner (2002) defined educational affordances as those characteristics of an artifact that determine if and how a particular learning behavior could possibly be enacted within a given context.

three types of affordances

6 stage interaction design

The last interaction-design sequence suggests that the affordances are derived from learners’ behaviour, translated to the affordances by developers, tested in activity through learner’s perception and action and then evaluated on the basis of effectiveness on learning.

At iCamp Madrid meeting we discussed how should we define the necessary pedagogical (now i would rather use the concept educational due to different connotation of pedagogy term in german and british educational systems) affordances evoked by actions, which should meet the educational affordances of supposed tools; what would happen if we define these affordances teacher-centered way. The 6-stage interaction-design sequence suggest we should collect the web 2.0 learning activities first, and then derive the educational affordances from user’s behaviours in actions with tools.
The ideas of Gaver suggest that we will never be able of defining educational affordances in actions objective and definitive way, rather there exists the fuzzy set of affordances each user might act upon in interactive settings.
I like the idea that not all the educational affordances can be directly perceived by senses (eyes, ears), there are educational affordances of tools (e.g. support_community_sharedmeaning) which have intersubjective nature and which exist as the sum of shared perception plus the sythesis of what was perceived.



  1. I would welcome the use of “educational affordances” … though the term “Erwachsenenpädagogik” is well established in German.

    I think that some of the connations of “pedagogical” and the etymology of the word (see for example http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pedagogue) are quite unfortunate if we want to work with (young) adults in higher education and beyond.

  2. I am not so sure what to make out of Gibson’s epistemological ideas around his concept of “affordances”. To me it sounds like he is a proponent of a (simple?) realism and rather objectivist view on the world. I need to have closer look… but doesn’t he suggest that there are (objective) affordances in the environment that people can then “discover” in a particular situation and in a particular state of mind?

    Norman’s reformulation sounds more relativist and more modest too me. But then… maybe I am reading too much into Gibson’s statements right now. As I said… I need to have a closer look.

    What are your thoughts on that?

  3. My actual favourits are Wiredu’s and Gaver’s ideas about affordances that are evoked in social interaction. I agree that Gibson is too perceptional and objective, but same is Norman attributing the affordances to the objects and tools directly. This relates Norman’s approach too directly to objective kind of instructions..supporting people to perceive affordances which the tutor has predefined.
    Also, Neisser’s ideas referred in the Walter Kintsch book:
    1. Direct perception/action, which enables us to perceive and act effectively on the local environment.
    2. Interpresonal perception/reactivity, which underlies our immediate social interactions with other human beings.
    3. Representation/recognition, by which we identify and respond appropriately to familiar objects and situations.
    seem to be well in line with the former authors.

    It seems to me, that the diagrammic image

    where we indicate affordances as part of actions, and also we indicate subjects and artifacts (with meanings) as part of actions is supporting what Neisser, Wiredu and Gaver have been suggesting about the nature of affordances. They are not so much of part of tools. Rather, affordances are part of action-directed behaviour.

    It doesn’t seem weird to me to think of affordances of objects, tools, people and even meanings to emerge in interaction.

  4. From Pirkko Hyvonen:
    You wrote in the first paragraph that: “Gaver describes affordances not as…,but goes beyond it claiming that there are affordances , which are not perceptible….emerge due to interaction and actions in the environment.”
    This is found in Gibson’s theory as well. I see that gaver do not go beyond Gibson.The problem is that Gibson has written his theory very tricky way.It lookes very simply, but is not. Threfore it takes me a lot time to form a solid picture of the theory and explain it from the perspective of my research.

  5. >It doesn’t seem weird to me to think of affordances of objects, tools, people and even meanings to emerge in interaction.

    Potential purposes of an object, as lately demonstrated by neuroscientists, is triggered by the perception of object related stimuli, both visual and auditory. So, potential affordances very likely arise even on an individual basis, since individual perception of objects triggers potential affordances. That is, individual affordances of objects, tools, people may very likely depend in first place on the action-driven evolutionary engineering of our body integrating in the same framework the common coding of perception and action, with interoceptive processing of emotion and evaluation. Of course, social interaction may play a crucial role when it comes to the development of individual perceptual skills, but that’s probably a preliminary factor (cfr. Stanley I. Greenspan & T. Berry Brazelton, The Irreducible Needs of Children. What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn and Flourish).
    From a darwinist point of view (the one I worship) affordances of objects, tools, people and even meanings very likely emerge in interaction, in terms that they are socially selected by interaction. That’s basically how ‘standard functions’ arise, since functional degeneration rules out any assessment of affordances as object-inherent properties. Indeed, everybody uses objects for purposes they are not ‘meant’ for. Not to mention the fact that Homo Sapiens Sapiens spent the 99% of his evolutionary life just figuring out ‘functions’ of logs, stones, whatever. Trees didn’t evolve so to provide logs to be burned, stones are not geologically ‘there’ to be sculpted and so on.
    So, since ‘absolute meaning’ and ‘social meaning’ seems basically the same thing to me, meanings definitely emerge in interaction.

  6. >Potential purposes of an object, as lately demonstrated by neuroscientists, is triggered by the perception of object related stimuli, both visual and auditory.

    Potential purposes of an object, as lately demonstrated by neuroscientists, ARE triggered by the perception of object related stimuli, both visual and auditory.

    (sorry for bad spelling grammar, I was in a hurry :s)

  7. I have just read some interesting ideas that Heft (2001, 2003) has brought into the affordance discussion.

    Basically his idea is that ecological knowledge is the meanings what environment (environment with all its objects, artifacts and subjects) entails in the form of canonical affordances. This ecological knowledge is established socio-culturally in activities.

    The idea that affordances are the meanings in the environment which are even existing without a perceiver who does some actions was also supported by Chemero (2003) and Michaels (2003). This seems a bit tricky claim for me, as far as for me meaning needs to be evoked by someone to come to living. I wouldn’t say the affordances are always in the environment as meanings or ecological knowledge but maybe as the meaning potentials…

    Heft sees mainly the perception between the actor and the elements of this broad environment, and somewhat denies that the relations (eg. interpersonal), which we perceive in the environment, might become sources of affordances we rely on when interacting with the environment.

    For example if we use social bookmarking to find information, we actually rely on the ongoing interpersonal activities that creates the information-finding affordance of social bookmarking that we can rely on (folksonomies and browsing on the basis of social paths).

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