A proposal: Collaboration for the sake of it

Most conceptions of the human condition have it that the foundation of civilisation is division of labour, from adoption of natural and traditional roles to exchange of labour on the market. However, what these conceptions miss and what is essential is collaboration, which entails both cooperation and conflict in the production of a shared outcome.

The only serious study of the notion of collaboration I know of is Vera John Steiner’s Creative Collaboration, and despite the fact that collaboration is at the very heart of what it is to be human, there has been no philosophical or ethical advocate for collaboration nor a historian who has tracked its increasing prominence in modern life.

Closely related to the notion of collaboration is the idea of self-determination, or more precisely self-determination as something which subjects attain only in collaboration with others. Collaboration as communicatively mediated self-determination is the key relation which governs the interactions between social and political entities as well as individuals in modern societies whose fabric is being torn apart by neo-liberal emphasis on exchange and division of labour and the loss of traditional ways of life.

It was the natural childbirth movement of the early 1960s who, in claiming that a woman ought to have control over her own body and denied the right of a medical expert to exercise control over the act of giving birth who began the process of breaking down the ‘hierarchy of expertise’ which had been the norm in medicine, not just in the modern era, but for millennia. The women’s health movement and the self-help movement of the 1970s, the People with AIDS in the 1980s, the organisations of mental health patients such as MIND in the UK, organisations of people with disabilities, particularly those with mobility problems, groups opposing de-institutionalisation, and the community health movements opposing neo-liberal policies in the health services which demanded that health professionals see their clients as ‘customers’ – all these social movements have challenged hospitals, governments and universities and in Australia at least, have largely changed the paradigm. The idea that a patient ought to be in charge of their own care and that the relation between patient and health professional is one of collaboration is now the norm in many areas of health care.

In education, the idea of ‘collaborative learning’ is now the dominant motif in pedagogy, despite the fact that many in the leadership of our schools and universities have not the faintest idea what this means. It was chiefly through the dissemination of the ideas of L S Vygotsky through teacher education and in the ‘teaching and learning’ units at universities, that collaborative learning has gained support amongst teachers. This idea negates both the traditional conception of the teacher as possessor of knowledge, whose role is to impart knowledge to the student according to an institutionally determined curriculum, and, the neo-liberal conception of the school or university as a seller of education services, the form and content of which is determined on the basis of the relation of service provider and customer, i.e., the customer is always right.

In the arts, collaboration lies behind the production of every artwork, from the thousands of names listed in the credits of a movie, to the relation between named maker of a piece of jewellery and the technician who actually made the work, to the quotation, allusion and imitation prevalent in all art movements, to the subtle relationship into which writer and reader enter in the performance of a work of literature. Likewise in the sciences, collaboration has been uniquely productive in the creation of breakthroughs in the history of science. But this central theme of art and science has been as undertheorised as has collaboration in service delivery or as a conception of the relation between citizens in a modern community.

What is the proper relationship between citizens and their government? Do citizens cede to their rulers the obligation, as experts, authorities or delegates, to make all decisions on their behalf? And if so, how far down the hierarchy of government does this extend? What is the meaning of the democratic process in terms of the relationship between citizen and delegate it defines?

In what normative terms can free and equal relations between individuals be conceived? Is the communicative paradigm, in which individuals send and receive messages to one another, adequate? Is the liberal paradigm in which individuals are conceived as independent agents adequate? Is the conservative model based on hierarchies of expertise tenable? I think not.

It is my contention that the normative mode of interaction between individuals and subjects in general is collaboration, and that only collaboration provides subjects the means of achieving communicatively mediated self-determination, which is the aim of participation in social life.

The following articles elaborate on separate aspects of this problem:

An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity, a critique of activity theory which argues that ‘project collaboration’ must be the basic unit of analysis

Vera John Steiner’s Creative Collaboration, which reviews hundreds of instances of collaboration in the arts and sciences and proposes a 4-way typology of collaboration

The Semiotics of Suffering and For Ethical Politics, which argue for collaboration as the fundamental relation for ethics

The Missing Mediation in Pragmatic Interpretations of Hegel, which is a critique of the notion of intersubjectivity used in critical theory.

Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, Peter Kropotkin

Or see Michael Tomasello's Origins of Human Communication, for a contemporary exposition of the centrality of collaboration in human evolution.

The proposal is:

October 2008