Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 262–287 | Cite as

Challenging the Cause–Effect Logic: Toward a Transactional Approach for Understanding Human Behavior in Crisis Situations

  • Wolff-Michael Roth
Arena of Regulation


It is common in the social science literature to describe human activities to be the results of the thoughts, mental frameworks, intentions, identities, and shortcomings of human agents and their interactions with others. In legal systems, the same type of approach exists in the form of laying blame on those judged responsible for having caused some form of damage—which, in the more serious instances, concern situations where human beings died, including accidents (in high-risk industries, traffic) or exchanges where some form of weapon is involved. However, numerous philosophers have pointed out the problematic nature of the concept of causation and the associated laying of blame, which are the consequence of (implicitly or explicitly) using theories of the self-actional or interactional nature of human behavior. The alternative is a transactional approach, in which there are no things but events and constitutive phases thereof that emerge from, are conditioned by, but are not causally connected to preceding phases of events. In this approach, causation disappears and, with it, the possibility to lay blame in an unequivocal manner. A widely publicized case of a police shooting in Toronto (Canada), details of which had been recorded by multiple cameras, is used to exemplify and make the case for the approach.


Transaction Person–environment Inner movement System Accident 

Self-action: where things are viewed as acting under their own powers.

Inter-action: where thing is balanced against thing in causal interconnection

Trans-action: where systems of description and naming are employed to deal with aspects and phases of action without final attribution to “elements” or other presumptively detachable or independent “entities,” “essences,” or “realities,” and without isolation of presumptively detachable “relations” from such detachable “elements.” (Dewey and Bentley 1949/1999, p. 132–133, original emphasis)

How does one describe human behavior in a non-reductionist way? Most social sciences tend to take the individual as the unit of analysis, leading to the self-actional and inter-actional approaches described in the introductory quotation. As a result, even in the most socially oriented disciplines—social studies of science, social constructionism—the social is taken in a weak sense. The social character of skills and reasoning may only be an accidental quality of human behavior so that “subject to the vagaries of time and place, to historical circumstances, to cultural attitudes, and to characteristics of social interaction, the social, while situationally unavoidable, appears as added on to worldly truths independent of it” (Livingston 2008, p. 212). The purpose of this paper is to present a non-reductive transactional approach, as described in the opening quotation, where the social is taken in the strong sense, its consequences for theorizing critical events in social life, and making a case for using it as a model (theoretical approach) for human activity more generally. The transactional approach recognizes that each next phase of an event contains novelty that could not have been derived from the immediately preceding phase. The transactional approach considers events as events, which are understood as extended materially (physically) and temporally (i.e. historically). It ultimately renders problematic many currently used notions that are based on thinking in terms of things (e.g., subjects, objects, tools). In the introductory section, the problematic is specified with empirical materials from the event that left a person dead and that after the fact has come to be known as a “police shooting.” Following the specification of the source materials, the transactional approach is characterized by means of exemplary analyses. The approach is then shown at work in the non-reductive analysis of aspects of the “police shooting.” The discussion focuses on several aspects of theorizing human activity when analyses give precedence to events over things, their properties and characteristics.

Situating the Problem

On July 26, 2013, at about 11:56 p.m., one of the four security videos recording on the inside of a Toronto streetcar shows what turn out to be the legs of a young man lying across three of the seats in the last row (Fig. 1a). At one point, the young man sits up, reaches across apparently holding a knife in his right hand (Fig. 1b). He then gets up taking what might be perceived as a threatening body positioning, while other passengers further in the front have their heads turned backward (Fig. 1c). After only 8 s, the situation had escalated enough for more and more passengers to hurriedly leave the tramway (Fig. 1d). Within 22 s of the first frame, the streetcar was empty. During the subsequent 3 min, the young man talks to the streetcar driver, who, eventually, unhurriedly exists just prior to the arrival of numerous police officers. After a 50-s “standoff” amidst the noise of sirens, flashing police car lights, a dozen police officers, and bystanders, Constable James Forcillo fires two rounds (one three and one six) of what will have been a total of nine shots over a 10-s period leaving the young man (Sammy Yatim) dead. The police officer would eventually be charged with but acquitted for second-degree murder and manslaughter related to the first round of shots; but, he was considered guilty for attempted murder for firing the second round.
Fig. 1

Over the course of an 8-s period between the first (a) and the fourth frame (d) from a security camera in a streetcar, what had been an everyday ride turned into a scene passengers were fleeing. a Yatim, white pants, lying on a bench on his back. b Yatim sits up, oriented toward the passengers on his right. c Yatim has gotten up, apparently menacing those next to him. d The streetcar already has considerably emptied

Escalating situations abound in everyday life, ranging, for example, from (a) minor family quarrels that end in two people feeling hurt to (b) a brawl between groups of parents that arises from an argument between two children who had won a wrestling match (e.g., Köppe 2018), (c) a high-stakes political exchange between leaders of nations about access to the size of a nuclear button (e.g., Watkins 2018), (d) the exchanges following an engine failure message in a cockpit that end with the aircraft crash leaving over 40 people dead (Roth 2018), and (c) someone being killed in the course of an exchange with a police officer (e.g., Jewell 2013). But, how does one describe and theorize situations of the kind, where an apparent tranquil co-presence of people and some form of exchange transform (“escalate”) into something more serious—such as in everyday arguments—without seeking recourse in outside forces? And, how does one describe and theorize a situation that afterwards will be found to have escalated to the point of leaving someone psychologically or physically hurt or, as in the present case, dead without final attribution to elements, as described in the opening quotation? The question is particularly relevant given that most theories of activity are based on the intentions and knowledge of individuals, who, when they find themselves with others, negotiate and socially construct knowledge, understanding, identities, and the likes. For many everyday situations such as driving but specifically for many high-risk industries—including police, firefighters, or pilots—self-action models constitute the most common approach to human behavior (e.g., Endsley 2015; Zahabi and Kaber 2018). Here, individual interpretations, thoughts, workload, situation awareness, and decision-making skills are the factors that bring about the observable behavior—e.g., how efficient and effective the decisions made by police officers and their senior leadership (e.g., Levine and Tisch 2014).

Individual-based self-action models of human behavior for describing complex behaviors have certain shortcomings, which has led many researchers to interactional and system models. In such models, phenomena that are attributed to the person in individual-based model—e.g., memory or situation awareness—are theorized as the characteristics of a system (e.g., Salmon et al. 2015). The interactional take approaches phenomena such as memory and thought at the system level, so that the memory and calculation of an aircraft’s speed is a characteristic of the cockpit rather than of the individual pilots (Henriqsen et al. 2011; Hutchins 1995). Each component of the system is thought of and modeled as an entity in its own right but as acting upon and reacting to the actions of another component. Whereas interactional approaches constitute an advance over self-action models, they tend to be limited because, while including the situated nature of cognition, they fail to provide adequate accounts for temporal relations within an unfolding activity (Roth and Jornet 2013).

Transactional approaches are based on the recognition that events extend over their parts, which therefore cannot be understood on their own. An event is not thought of in terms of consecutive states the antecedent one being transformed into what succeeds, but the transformation is internal to the system unit (Roth and Jornet 2013). This has the important consequence that an overall event cannot be decomposed into an independently thought antecedent one that somehow was the cause to the independently thought consequence (Bateson 1979; Dewey 1938). As soon as it is accepted that life is emergent and that each situation occurs only once (e.g., Bakhtin 1993) then “every event by which it becomes possible to differentiate passage must have a unique character which cannot be resolved into the conditions under which the events happen” (Mead 1932, p. 38). Emergence, the arrival of the new (novel), the impossibility to predict the future with any certainty (“Without the random, there can be no new thing,” Bateson 1979, p.147), or the gap between plans and situated actions all are phenomena that point to the non-causal sequence between the antecedents and consequences of an event as a whole. In other words, any earlier present, situation, or occasion, together with its inherent creativity (the notion expressing that each event issues in novelty), constitutes the initial phase of the new present, situation, or occasion (Whitehead 1933). This inherent creativity—the results of which are known only after the fact (Marion 1996; Rorty 1989)—transcends the present although it also is constitutive thereof. Characterized by an unpredictability of what precisely comes next, passage has the form of destining, which leads into another (still veiled) destining (Heidegger 2006). The emergence of novelty and the unpredictability of the future also mean lack of control (thus danger) and the more or less serious accidents that issue from it. That which makes life what it is disappears when whole events are broken preceding and succeeding events connected by determining forces or energies (Dewey 1938; Mead 1932; Whitehead 1920).

In philosophy, a distinction is made between essence and accident. The distinction goes back to Aristotle (1889), who employs the former term to refer to what “are per se inherent in [things]” (p. 254) whereas he employs the latter for characters (events) that are not necessary or the consequence of other character (events). In non-philosophical use, the term accident similarly captures what is different from essence, that is, what “happens by chance,” “without expectation,” and “without apparent or deliberate cause” (OED 2018). In a transactional approach, however, the unpredictable (creativity, accident) is a constitutive part of any event: the “creative urge belongs to the essential constitution of each situation” (Whitehead 1933, p. 249). An event is a whole and derives a unity from (a) the continuity of physical and spatial extension and (b) the novelty that is inherent in the passage from past to future (Whitehead 1919). This creative aspect or novelty “is not an accident which is irrelevant to the completed constitution of any [individual] occasion” (Whitehead 1933, p. 249). We may therefore say that accident is constitutive of the occasion and integral to essence in the transactional approach. Accident thus is suited not only to describe events commonly treated as accidents (e.g., car or airplane crash, explosion in a nuclear plant) but more importantly the common, everyday experience where what we have done deviates from what we had intended or thought to have done (e.g., in following a recipe, instruction). The accident comes to be a constitutive quality of the present, part of the essence of being, rather than being something apart (i.e., accidental in the traditional philosophical sense). It is a suitable concept to deal not only with liminal phenomena but also with all the smaller and larger unplanned and unanticipated turns of mundane everyday life. Indeed, in this take, each occasion of the present is understood as liminal, that is, as the locus of the transition from a definite past into an indefinite future.

Source of the Materials and Analytic Take

The case materials used in this study are related to the death of Sammy Yatim, which followed two rounds of shots from the gun of police officer James Forcillo around midnight on July 27, 2013. The empirical materials used here derive from a total of eight videotapes recording of the shooting and surrounding events available online (see Appendix 1). The videotapes include four surveillance cameras operating in the streetcar, a video with audio shot from a few meters back from the streetcar and police offers, a video with audio shot from close up, a security camera in a nearby building (no sound), and a four-channel recording combining three to four of the surveillance cameras and the live audios from the street car (turned on in place of the fourth camera) and police dispatch. A close transcription of the complete exchange between Forcillo and Yatim was produced together with associated talk by surrounding (generally unidentified) police officers (Fig. 2). Also included in the transcription are visual materials from the inside and outside of the streetcar. The transcription conventions employed are those of conversation analysis (Appendix 2).
Fig. 2

What will be known as a standoff between the knife-wielding suspect (victim) Sammy Yatim, on the streetcar, and the police arriving on the scene

Most research in the social sciences is characterized by the special methods that are required in the formal analysis of data so that the hidden orders may be revealed, which are thought to underlie, and thus explain, human behavior (e.g., Garfinkel 1996). In the social sciences of the hidden social order, the methods have to be described so that other researchers may reproduce findings in other settings. The credibility of the research is premised on the description of the methods. The present study follows the approaches typical of “sociologies of the witnessable social order” (Livingston 2008, p. 123). While not disputing the sciences of the hidden order, those sciences concerned with the witnessable social order intend to “find, collect, specify, and make instructably observable the local endogenous production and natural accountability of immortal familiar society’s most ordinary organizational things in the world” (Garfinkel 1996, p. 6). Because the approach is concerned with the witnessable social order, no special methods are required other than those that members of society use every day and in mundane (witnessable) ways.

From Self- and Interaction to Transaction: Theory and Method

In this section, a fragment from the early part of the exchange involving Forcillo and Yatim is used to sketch the self-action and interaction approaches before developing the transactional take. The latter, in its temporal dimension, includes an open future in which novelty is constitutive of the present, continuously arising in unforeseen ways.

Self-Action, Interaction, and Transaction

Three types of approaches to understanding human behavior have been distinguished, which, in the historical order of their historical appearance, are self-action, interaction, and transaction (Dewey and Bentley 1949/1999). The self-action approach—which these authors characterize as “pre-scientific”—is based on “presumptively independent ‘actors,’ ‘souls,’ ‘minds,’ ‘selves,’ ‘powers’ or ‘forces,’ taken as activating events” (p. 122). Any time analysts seek recourse to such theoretical terms as identity, (subjective) meaning, (individual) intention, knowledge, tools, or objects attributed to or operated on by individual actors, they situate themselves (consciously or unconsciously, willingly or not) in the self-actional approach. The interactional approach constitutes an extension, leading to the “presentation of particles or other objects organized as operating upon one another” (p. 122). Although the terms interaction and transaction are sometimes used synonymously, the transactional approach is distinctly different. It consists of the “functional observation of full system, actively necessary to inquiry at some stages, held in reserve at other stages, frequently requiring the breaking down of older verbal impactions of naming” (p. 122). It constitutes a late development in the sciences and no longer is based on the attribution of qualities and phases to independent actors, things, and their relations (interactions). Individual and interactional approaches to cultural phenomena are premised on the idea that human behavior can be understood on the basis of self-identical agents, who (re-) act on or interact with others and the surrounding material world (Roth and Jornet 2013). These approaches are so prevalent that they no longer require extensive exposition. They are similar in presupposing the usefulness to theorize events based on analysis of elements or components of a behavioral situation. They differ in focus: Individual approaches explain behavior based on analyses of what individuals know and can do whereas true interactional approaches (e.g., in situated and distributed cognition) focus on the language, signs, or artifacts between the individuals. The transactional approach is starkly different, generally less well known, and in some instances counterintuitive because it contradicts everyday common cause–effect type reasoning and the more refined scientific approaches to human behavior (Dewey 1938).

Consider an excerpt from the above-provided transcription of the final phase recorded during the event that left Sammy Yatim dead (Fig. 3). In a self-action approach, the police officer’s (Forcillo) actions would be modeled using the concept of situation awareness. In this model, the situation is more or less adequately represented in the officer’s mind; and whatever the model in the mind determines his decision to act (e.g., Endsley 1994). In this approach, each actor is building an internal (mental) model of the situation. The approach focuses on what key individuals have not but should have done, and is part of the “blaming game” (Dekker and Hollnagel 2004), whereby some actors are charged with the legal or moral responsibility for how a situation ultimately turned out. The approach does not tell why participants have acted in the way they have or how the simple exchange represented in Fig. 3 unfolds into the death of Yatim for which Forcillo will be charged in the court system. This is consistent with the observation that “the ordinary conception of causation as a trait belonging to some one thing is the idea of responsibility read backward” (Dewey 1929, p. 234). That is, some participants in an event are said to have caused its outcome; but, and Nietzsche (1922b) agrees on this point with Dewey, such causation is read ex post facto into the history and has not been available while the event was unfolding.
Fig. 3

This Fragment 1 is from the beginning phase of the exchange between the police, here Forcillo aiming with his pistol, and Sammy Yatim (right) officer (time in seconds); the phrases are turns 3, 5, and 7 from the full transcription (Fig. 2), respectively

Interactional approaches often build on the self-action model by making the independently modeled agents into a relation. The “no” (turn 5, Fig. 2) is a reply to the request/order “drop the knife.” Each turn is an entity in itself, request/order and reply. Another type of interactional model—found in situated cognition and conversation analysis approaches—emphasizes the mutually constitutive nature of person and environment or turns at talk (Roth and Jornet 2013). In such approaches, the nature of turn 5 depends on the nature of the preceding “drop the knife” (turn 3, Fig. 2), and the nature of this turn depends on the “no” turn that succeeds it (turn 5, Fig. 2). But, the analyses still tend to be written in terms of independent micro-events1: ordering, replying, questioning, and so on that are attributed to individuals.

A review of the literature on the situated nature of cognition suggests that transactional models operate with categories where (micro-) events do not follow one another in time but where multiple phases (micro-events) of encompassing events are irreducible and constitutive parts (Roth and Jornet 2013). Although these authors’ review gestures toward activity theoretic approaches as encompassing such categories (units), it leaves unarticulated how this transactional approach might be analytically achieved. An important aspect of transaction across sequences of events is that the traditional notion of causality is no longer usable. Thus, for example, it might be said that the bullet from the police officer’s (Forcillo) gun killed the youth (Yatim). But, it has been suggested that when a bullet actually enters a vital part, such as the heart in Yatim’s case, so that it ceases to function, the entering of the bullet “is not an antecedent of the event of dying, because it is an integral constituent of that event” (Dewey 1938, p. 449). The imputed relationship of cause and effect between the firing of the gun and the death of the person is the result of confusing analysis of a whole into its constituent parts and the idea of one gross event (dying, the consequent) as a consequent of another, independent gross event (shooting, the antecedent).

Transaction Temporal (Social) Relation: Responding

In the unfolding larger event that ex post fact was publicly discussed as an escalation may be thought of in terms of phases, each including multiple phases or micro-events (Fig. 4). The figure shows how common transcriptions only pick out a small number of micro-events from those that are actually occurring at any one time. Those parallel micro-events might be bundled (as captured in the transactional micro-event of corresponding) and appear in “the junction of events” (Whitehead 1920, p. 77) that constitute part of the immediate setting or, though still constitutive part in the duration of the universe, may be so distant that it can be considered as separate. As a recent police chase leading to the death of a person shows, an individual physically distant may be connected into an unfolding event, such as when a sheriff in some other part of the county asks those in pursuit of a pickup to get the latter off the road, even when it requires shooting the driver (Hanna and Hartung 2018). We can see these micro-events constitute larger events still part of the more encompassing event—e.g., what might be glossed as a “standoff.” For example, the micro-event of responding now includes as its constitutive parts (phases) attending to and receiving, replying, and monitoring/understanding the effect. None of these phases can be understood on its own.
Fig. 4

The revised transcription of Fragment 1 includes other micro-events surrounding the exchange. Two transactional categories are indicated, corresponding and responding, each consisting of micro-events—e.g., saying, actively attending and receiving (hearing), and seeing (monitoring)

One problem with the common way of transcribing conversations exists in the fact that only acts of speaking are noted. Other acts may be presumed without entering the transcription, such as when analysts suppose an interpretation or construction of meaning on the part of the recipient, who then decides to reply or act based on whatever the interpretation/construction has yielded. As soon as we add other forms of micro-events required for a conversation to exist at all—e.g., actively orienting and attending to the speaker and receiving the words—new analytic categories suggest themselves. Our first analytic move consists in appropriately describing the relations between the different phases of an event the nature of which will be known only after the fact. The first event is that of responding, which, modeled in Fig. 4 here for Yatim, extends over the micro-events hearing/seeing (phase 1), replying (saying)/acting (phase 2), and hearing/seeing (phase 3). Responding cannot be understood without all of its constitutive phases. This takes into account the inner relation between two consecutive phases, which otherwise could be connected only through some external artifice (Dewey 1929; Whitehead 1920). More is required, however, in the analysis of the arrival of the unseen and thus unforeseen, that is, accident.

To capture that passage as a passage in which something new is created requires rethinking how the phases are related. Thus, for example, turn 5 (phase 2, Fig. 4) follows the actively attending to and receiving to the situation generally and to the words (actions) directed toward the person replying specifically: “Drop the knife” (turn 3, phase 1 in Fig. 4). That is, the “no [I don’t drop the knife])” does not stand on its own but succeeds and arises out of a multiplicity of antecedent events, only one of which are the words of the police officer. Recent neurolinguistic studies show that the brain events of speaker and listener are coupled (Berger 2018); a fact that already had been integral to some philosophies of language and communication (e.g., Bateson 1979; Nietzsche 1989; Vološinov 1930). As a result, the listener is affected without knowing by what—a phenomenon experienced every day when someone is hurt by what someone else is saying. But, the effects of the words and bodily actions (the shaking of head, holding knife, and backing off into the streetcar) are available to participants only subsequently, among others, in the next turn at talk (“drop the fucking knife,” turn 7). The earlier turn at talk (phase of the event) thus could not be a determinate cause of the subsequent one. In conversation analytic terms, there are two pairs of micro-events, one that may be denoted by the expression {ordering | refusing (to do something)} and the other one by the expression {rejecting | repeating (the order)}. These two micro-events share a smaller micro-event (“no,” head shaking, etc.) that they have in common. Moreover, in each case, there is a second micro-event bearing upon (tying back to) the preceding one. The (intended) order (turn 3) becomes a rejected order, in the same way that the rejection (“no [I don’t drop the knife]”) is itself rejected in the reaffirmation of the order. Not only is the same expression present twice (e.g., “no [I don’t drop the knife]”), but also its second (implicit use) changes its initial (intended) “meaning” that is already passing away though still phase of the immediate present. Not only does the same micro-event (e.g., “saying ‘drop the knife’”) stand in two orders, the world before and with the saying of “no” but also “in its emergent novelty it reflects back upon the older world the uniqueness of its new situation” (Murphy, in Mead 1932, p. xxx). The event of responding is an “occasion [that] arises as an effect facing its past and ends as a cause facing its future” (Whitehead 1933, p. 249) or “a saddle-back, with a certain breath of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time” (James 1890, p. 609).

Although the phases of responding—itself a phase in the event of conversation—might be thought of as micro-events, these must not be theorized as elements. This is so because they have arisen in and out of other such events. With any next phase, something is occurring that was not factually known before and that could not be predicted based on the known. When in phase 1 Forcillo says, “Drop the knife,” neither he nor anybody else is in a position to know what Yatim will do. The phrase is part of an “occasion [that] precipitates itself into the future” (Whitehead 1933, p. 250). Indeed, when Forcillo begins, Yatim cannot know what will have been said when the saying transcribed in Turn 3 has ended. The passage from phase to phase is a micro-event of appropriation, where the immediately preceding phase turns into a new phase that comes with something new and unforeseen. The new phase is not independent of the old out of which it has emerged and of which it therefore retains something. The event, as advent, denotes a movement, which heralds the arrival of something new, and therefore is inseparable from transformation. The event thereby brings light to its own context but cannot be derived from it (Ricœur, in Arendt 1983). The present means transition and arrival of the new that reveals itself in arriving.

Transaction as Spatial (Social) Relation: Corresponding

The second form of event corresponding consists of the phases (a) saying and (b) attending to and hearing (Fig. 4). These two phases are not independent but constitute one joint action that is social because it inherently involves self and other. The two micro-events are phases that “have junction” even though “they are separate from each other,” like “the upper and the lower part of the Great Pyramid [that] are divided by some imaginary horizontal plane” (Whitehead 1920, p. 77). However, to have anything like a conversation—which could also be with materials, with drawings (e.g., Schön 1987)—words (actions) also have to exist for the recipients. Sound-words are micro-events that are common to the interlocutors. Thus, the words one person says—e.g., the “no” (turn 5)—simultaneously ring in the ears of the interlocutor and other bystanders (Fig. 4). What the speaker does with the body—such as shaking the head in a movement that tends to be seen as equivalent to the word “no,” the knife in the hand, and the speaker backing away from the streetcar door and further into the streetcar—also is publicly available. All these micro-events that can be seen and heard are part of a micro-event corresponding (dotted box, Fig. 4). This micro-event consists of speaking, on the one hand, and actively attending to and receiving (hearing), on the other hand. If one of these micro-events did not exist, communicating and corresponding would not exist either; but if there is an act of communicating, then speaking (or other form of signing) and actively attending and receiving also exist. Each phase (turn) of the conversational event consists of back-and-forth movements that cannot be reduced to single, one-directional movements: there is a transaction. The same physical-material events are thus common to both (all) interlocutors. The presence of the same event (here word, observable behavior) in different event systems (here Forcillo and Yatim) makes for its sociality (Mead 1932).

The category corresponding is to be understood in at least two important ways. On the one hand, the term can be used in the sense of engaging in a communicative exchange (traditionally, by means of letters). On the other hand, the term corresponding may be used to express that two things are congruous or in agreement. Used in this manner, the category thereby expresses the fact of the commonality. That is, in the exchange, some things (words, signs) are common to participants (Forcillo, Yatim) although its sense is different in the two cases. The difference is not a problem, but rather, this “double view is the relationship” (Bateson 1979, p. 133).

Weaving Emergent Social Patterns: Accidents

The preceding subsections exemplify how any word or phrase—an event phase or micro-event—is common to (a) two pairs of phases {Phase 1 | Phase 2} and {Phase 2 | Phase 3} and (b) at least two people. In the first instance, the second phase within a pair cannot be causally related to the first, which, whereas constituting part of the condition, does not encompass that which emerges as new within the second member of the pair. Each word also exists for at least two participants, though it inherently exists differently because of their different positions. Thus, there is a double passage: from one person to another, from one phase of the conversation to the next. Indeed, an object cannot be present in two systems in any other way, for it “can be a member of two divergent systems only in passage, in which its nature in one system leads to the transformation which its passing into another system carries with it” (Mead 1932, p. 77). As a result, actions exist as temporal units of serially ordered phases (micro-events) in the same way as they function with respect to unities of the spatial variety. Any form of (micro-) event therefore includes “an environment both extensive and enduring [that] is immediately implicated in present behavior” (Dewey 1929, p. 279). Distance and the past are immanent in behavior, thereby making human behavior what it observably is.

The transactional approach thereby exhibits two qualities of life: the diachronic and synchronic phases of any larger event. In both qualities, the same micro-events exist in two orders. In each case, the capacity to exist in two orders simultaneously is sociality (Mead 1932). We thereby move to model passage as passage, where no micro-event is understood on its own and outside of its constitutive relations with other micro-events and the encompassing event as a whole (Fig. 5). Passage here occurs both diachronically and synchronically, from one (spatial and temporal) phase of the event to another. In the shuttling back and forth of words, the “life-thread(s) of occasion” (Whitehead 1933, p. 241) marking two (or more) persons evolves all the while coming to interconnect into a fabric of emergent nature. Indeed, their lifelines are “joined” events in the sense of Whitehead (1919), “intersected” as they are by a common event (i.e., the verbal exchange), each part of which belongs to one or both lifeline events. These lifelines therefore come to mutually shape each other and, thereby, correspond by corresponding. Their respective fates come to be interconnected. In the event of corresponding, something is common to both strands (life-thread). Its occasion comes to be immanent in both strands and each strand comes to be immanent in the other (cf. Whitehead 1933): They come to correspond in the sense of becoming like the other. This has been empirically demonstrated in the development of teachers, who, after working together for a few weeks, began to act like their co-teaching peers (e.g., Roth and Tobin 2010; Roth et al. 2005). Unlike in weaving, where weavers have a plan of the patterns to be made, the contents and processes of conversations emerge like the tangle in a forest of vines. The emergent future, though immanent in the present, is not causally determined by it.
Fig. 5

The passage in the form of a transactional stream of micro-events within a conversation can be thought of as the braiding of two lines of development, with interlocking events of responding on each side, which, in each phase, are braided together by the event of corresponding, and tie backs whereby the emerging novelty reflects back on what has been

The model (Fig. 5) shows how for each person consecutive phases of responding overlap, each succeeding phase, all the while introducing novelty, also having something in common with the preceding phase. The model also shows that with each phase, there is a tie back to antecedent phases, the presence of which changes as life unfolds (e.g., Dewey 1929; Whitehead 1933). There is therefore a historical continuity established without the idea of causation, which would require independent causes and effects. Because successive phases overlap, one cannot be the cause of the other. Indeed, an event is not rigidly bounded, as “its earlier boundary is blurred by a fading into memory, and its later boundary is blurred by an emergence from anticipation” (Whitehead 1920, p. 69).

In the conversation, each turn is part of an unfinished transaction event responding, open toward the future, which arrives with contingent novelty. It thus captures the fact that the present not only has arisen from its past but is arriving with something not known before. Contingency is captured in the notion of accident, which goes with the nature of life where the unforeseen continuously arrives. From the perspective of an individual person, the approach leads to a sequence of phases (micro-events) (Fig. 5). That is, the person is thought not in terms of (stable) qualities but in terms of a history of micro-events that become the conditions for subsequent micro-events. The individual thus is described in the form of a historical continuity of passages (indeterminate events) that only after some closure become denotable events. Passages intertwine in events of corresponding, thereby shaping and being shaped by the respective other.

Transactional Perspective on a Police Shooting

In the ordinary conception of human activity, accidents—as much as achievements (e.g., Nobel Prizes, inventions)—are attributed to individuals, who are then subject to blame, trial, punishment, or reward, depending on the case. In the Yatim shooting, the Courts found the police officer not guilty for homicide and manslaughter in the case of the first volley of shots, but convicted him for attempted murder related to the second volley. The purpose of the present analysis is not to do the work of the Crown, defense, or courts but to exemplify the moves of the analyst practicing a transactional approach to liminal experience.

The Final Minutes Before the Shooting: Temporal and Spatial Extension

After the recordings were made available on the Internet and had gone viral, the public discussion of the shooting primarily focused on the (nature of the) exchange between the two key participants, Forcillo and Yatim. From a police perspective, a key question was whether Forcillo had “reasonable grounds,” which, following the Criminal Code of Canada, justify the use of deadly force (e.g., Jewell 2013). Legal experts suggest that if Forcillo “believed” that there was a danger and then followed the dictates of “universally accepted use of force protocols,” then there were reasonable grounds for using the firearm (e.g., Manishem 2016). The implication here is that rational forms of thought based on the Criminal Code brought the actions about. The evaluation whether a person poses a deadly threat is based on three components: presence of a weapon, intent, and delivery system (e.g., proximity). Again, reasoning is based on the contents of the individual’s (Yatim’s) mind: his intent. What Forcillo and Yatim do and say, thus, are attributed to their minds; and the standoff comes to be attributed to the interaction of these minds. Thus, for example, concerning police officers—as operators in other high-risk industries (aviation, power plants)—accidents tend to be attributed to “situation awareness,” a particular mental capacity (e.g., Saus et al. 2006).

Analyses of conversations generally make the assumption that talk is all that matters. Ethnographic description or previously identified personal characteristics constitute context that analyses mobilize when required to fill some gap. Everything else tends to be abstracted. But, who is to say that the immense noise from the police car sirens, the gyrating flashing lights that eerily illuminate the midnight scene, the darkness even further behind, the presence or absence of spectators and fellow police officers, and so on are antecedent events that can be disregarded? (Fig. 6). In the transactional approach, events are understood in terms of the emergent properties of an emergent system—i.e., a system that continuously and unpredictably generates something new. Events are taken here in terms of accident as constitutive of essence rather than in the classical terms of essence (plans, intentions, things) opposed to the contingency of accident. Thus, neither the psychological characteristic of the police officer (Forcillo) nor those of the person acting up (Yatim) can give us any clue to the unfolding of the event because they are only external attributes (characteristics). Perhaps much more strongly, any characteristic we might be tempted to ascribe to one or the other individual is itself an emergent property of the system as a whole involving, at a minimum, the two agents (Bateson 1979). The event as a whole has a qualitative unity, and forms a continuum in spatial and temporal terms, where many interlocking and constitutive, parallel, and consecutive phases may be identified. That unity comes to be destroyed in common reasoning because of the habit to let everything apparently constantly slip from the analysis, which leads investigators to think of facts in terms of two-termed relations (cf. Whitehead 1920). However, when the description of the event in terms of its temporal and co-existential continuity “is attained, the conception of causation has served its purpose and drops out” (Dewey 1938, p. 446, emphasis added). If they want to understand the dynamics of the event, analysts cannot consider on its own the actual exchange between Forcillo and Yatim; in addition to considering how talk and actions arises out of the preceding turns and actions, analysts also have to consider all the other co-existential and temporal phases of the event that make for the unity in which the transcribed phases (Fig. 3) have their constitutive place as parts of a single whole.
Fig. 6

The scene at the instant when the first volley of shots rings out, as recorded by a security camera (left) and a bystander (right)

The event—that after the fact will have been a “stand-off between Const. James Forcillo and Sammy Yatim” (e.g., Hasham 2015)—did not just begin. There are many small, co-existential, and sequential events that preceded the first exchange between Yatim and Forcillo (Fig. 2). Figure 1 provides images from the time before the police officers arrive and from before passengers evacuated the streetcar. But even the very first instant depicted, when Yatim is lying down, as if resting, which evolves into the wielding of the knife, is not the beginning. Before that, Yatim was entering the streetcar, and this arose from whatever occurred before and what was the anticipated end result of the ride. Forcillo’s presence, too, was fortuitous, emerging from many other concurrent and successive micro-events. He happened to be on duty, and happened to be among the first officers to arrive on the scene. He could have been somewhere else in the city, or he might not have been on duty at all, for example, because of an illness or some family situation. Analysts—researchers, district attorneys, judges, or juries—may be tempted to causally attribute the shooting to characteristics of the police officer, his intentions, beliefs, knowledge, habits, or skills (e.g., management, decision-making) and other human factors (e.g., situation awareness). We would also have to interrogate the kind of training situations the police officers present have undergone, and the kind of habits that may have begun to form. This is important because the habits are the result of historic learning trajectories, and the more that has been learned, the more situated learning has to occur to overcome the existing grooves of behavior—otherwise, death or some form of catastrophe will result (Dewey 1929). Any “habit,” a patterned form of conduct, is a micro-event that has arisen and developed in preceding occasions. This was documented in the case of an airplane crash, where the pilot, after a failure of the right engine, shut off the operating left engine; investigators found out that during most of the training and retraining events in the airline, the trainers were faulting the left engine, requiring the pilots to shut it down (Roth 2018). Habits, as all other personal characteristics that might be named and called upon in causal explanations, emerge from a continuing history of events. The preceding analyses suggest that any breaking of this continuity into separate parts, self-identical preceding and succeeding events, is arbitrary, leading to the need for devices to reconstruct a whole but now from independent rather than interdependent parts.

Figures 2, 3, and 6 provide evidence for other micro-events that occur simultaneously with the one (arbitrarily) chosen in the consideration of the relation between the police officer (Forcillo) and the ultimate victim (Yatim). Through the streetcar door, two bicycles and the legs of bystanders are visible. The sound of police car sirens fills the air, and the flashing lights eerily illuminate the midnight scene. That is, this one line of micro-events concerning the two occurs with many other lines of micro-events. Neither the police officer nor Yatim acts in some vacuum but in the public arena, where citizens and police officers alike are witnessing (in various ways) what is happening in its unfolding. Being aware that others are witnessing a situation is part of the constitution of acting and thinking. Here, the situation as a whole is escalating rather than merely the (verbal) exchange between Yatim and Forcillo. Nobody can know what others will say or do next and how the situation will be ending, and what kind of event it will turn out to have been, the participants are subject and subjected as much as contributing to the unfolding. The situation (exchange) carries on precisely because no one really is in (full) control. In the public discussion of the case, there were suggestions of how Forcillo could have acted to de-escalate the situation (e.g., Rosenthal 2015); and the Ontario police force as a whole was charged for providing “plenty of training on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths” (Leslie 2016). The happening is a phenomenon of a new logical type and has a quality of its own that cannot be reduced to the reasoning of individuals. Its unfolding has its own laws that cannot be derived from the laws of individual behavior. It is a social phenomenon sui generis. It has to be understood and theorized on its own terms, that is, in terms of categories that are proper to transaction (exchange) and not to self-actions of individual agents. The agents are carried away by the events as much as shaping the events and their unfolding. The events constitute “evolutionary sequences,” where the evolution is to be understood as one of “fitting together” (Bateson 1979, p. 138); the “(language-) game” and its creation arise as the same phenomenon. Unless there are precedence, and thus a form of second-order learning, new patterns of relations being generated and discovered emerge from the relation and survive over the duration of the event (here, the escalation observable in the transcription between the arrival of the police officers and the death of Yatim).

The question concerning what really was happening and who was responsible was unanswerable while it was happening. Attribution of responsibility only could occur with an increasing number of audio and video recordings becoming available. The story further evolved with the availability of forensic data from the autopsy, and continued through the various court proceedings that produced conclusions about how to distribute blame. Every novelty—what is known that was not known before—thereby reflects back on the past from which it has emerged thereby changing what it has been (cf. Mead 1932). The past as it is available in the present constantly changes (cf. Husserl 1928/1980), and, with it, any notion of what has happened and “‘what it [the past] was’” (Mead 1932, p. 3). The past as it happened essentially is irrevocable, but the understanding of “what it was” is not.

The First Volley: Was It Second-Degree Murder/Manslaughter?

Just before and during the ringing out of the first volley of shots, only police officers are seen close by the streetcar—some standing, some walking (Fig. 6). In a small group of officers, two have their pistols aimed in the direction of Yatim while the third has the hand on the grip of the pistol still in the holster (see images in Fragment 2, turns 42 and 43). The transcription of the audio of the seconds immediately preceding the shots shows that someone says (in a way that can be heard as an order), “don’t move,” and a statement concerning the getting of the Taser (turns 40, 41). There is a 0.9-s pause in the talk, before another call ensues: “drop that” (turn 43). To this call latches the first gunshot (i.e., no pause as normal in turn talking). The images from the surveillance camera in the streetcar show that during the pause, Yatim was moving from the position of the first row back from the entry (turn 42, Fragment 2a) into a position where his full body became visible to the officers aiming their guns at him (turn 44, Fragment 2b). The body movement and the gunshots are two connected phases of the larger event (“standoff”). Indeed, we do know whether the movement was completed; and whereas it constitutes an antecedent phase to the shots that follow, the parallel with the analysis of how talk arises in and from talk questions (see preceding section) precludes any attribution of a causal relation. This is so even though, from a police perspective, what Forcillo did can be attributed to a critical assessment of the situation, a plan of action, which was then executed: “Any Police Officer standing in the shoes of the contact officer would have properly come to the conclusion the threat had to be contained on the street car” (Jewell 2013). That is, if Yatim could be seen as attempting to exit the streetcar, “deadly force would have to be used to stop him” (Jewell 2013). But in the face of an unknown future of the unfolding event, the question of how Forcillo should have acted finds its answer only in the effect that the unfolding happening has had. This effect then becomes a defining phase of the event. The morality of the act here—as it always does—followed the act (because the act is known only after the fact), and the ideal act, what possibly ought to have been done, arrives with the end of the event (Bakhtin 1993; Nietzsche 1922a).

Fragment 2

Besides the talk and the movements of those officers at the front door, other officers are on the scene and in the (peripheral) view of Forcillo, moving about, coming closer, or standing in particular positions. All of these other simultaneous and consecutive parts (phases) of the event as a whole come to be its constituents. Thus, just as a bullet cannot be the cause of death because it is a constituent of the event (Dewey 1938), other concurrent phases (micro-events) set up the historical conditions out of which the shots emerged as something new. This something was unseen before, and thus unforeseen. It is only if the analysis arbitrarily limits itself in time and space that the shooter “and gun enter as separates and come together by means of cause and effect” (Dewey and Bentley 1949/1999, p. 141). Just before they occurred, these shots did not have to happen, and many other possible next phases were imaginable (e.g., and officer saying, “let’s step back to see what he wants to do”) and possible. Only if they had to happen is there sufficient reason to attribute causation. However, in the legal situation where the firing is to be defended, Yatim’s visible steps toward the entry door—which could (but did not have to) be turning into an exiting movement—offer themselves for constructing a series of logical steps leading to the executed decision to fire.

It might be argued that, of course, the police officer must have had the intent to shoot. But anything that might be occurring in the privacy of an individual’s consciousness, thinking, is an event stretching from the environmental situation triggering it (setting it off) to the understanding of the act from its effect (Il’enkov 1977). The analyst then has to seek for the causal origin of the intent, which extends the inquiry further and further making us “see the transaction account as the one that best covers the ground” (Dewey and Bentley 1949/1999, p. 141). Any form of thinking, any form of consciousness, is only one of the “families of durations” (Whitehead 1920, p. 55) that make the event as a whole; and there “cannot be the cause and effect relation between thinking and bodily action … for the simple reason that no such relation exists” (Il’enkov 1977, p. 34). The parts (phases) of the event are triggered (but not causally determined) by other phases. The pulling of the trigger, like the turning on of a light switch, is “possible without collateral information about [the person], [the person’s] hand, or the switch” (Bateson 1979, p. 136). The pulling of the trigger is a phase of a larger event itself arising out of (triggered by) and connected to other phases of the event. The result is a form of learning called practice in the sense of forming a grove along which future actions may occur.

The Second Volley: Was It Attempted Murder?

In the courts, Constable Forcillo also was charged with attempted murder. The Crown argued that the shots from the first volley were fatal and de facto killed Yatim, who died or would have died from the injuries sustained. That is, the medical evidence established during the autopsy showed that the bullets “pierced Yatim’s heart, shattered his spine (paralyzing him from the mid-chest down) and fractured his arm” (Jewell 2016). The Crown suggested that because of the gunshot wounds, Yatim no longer was a threat. But, to justify the firing of the shots, the defendant had to show evidence that a threat still existed. Because five of the shots from the second round were non-lethal, the charge was attempted murder. That is, the charge and conviction were based on knowledge obtained after the fact, produced by a coroner (in Ontario this is a physician) during an autopsy conducted in the peace and quiet of a morgue, rather than what was available from within the then-and-there of the unfolding event on the night of July 27, 2013. Before the autopsy and long before the court case, police insiders already articulated the core aspect to be considered in the courts in terms of the contents and processes in the officer’s mind, that is, his “mindset, interpretation and articulation of the threat will be essential elements required to arrive at any conclusion regarding the secondary use of deadly force” (Jewell 2013).

The videos show that there are many other things occurring during the connecting phase between the first and second volleys. A female officer can be seen initially backing further away from the streetcar door and then walks in the direction of the group of three that includes Forcillo; another officer is seen approaching the group from the right and back. The officer next to him initially continues aiming the gun, but then backs away toward the curb. Just before the second volley, yet another moves into the scene from the left of the group. None of the officers closes in on the door behind which the feet of Yatim are seen. Multiple police car lights are gyrating and the sounds of police sirens are filling the air. The situation as a whole is a manifestation of a remaining-at-a-distance and being-cautious-in-the-face-of-what-might-come-next. These are concurrent and consecutive forms of micro-events of the corresponding and responding types, respectively, discussed above. Here, corresponding is understood to include not only the two focal protagonists (Yatim, Forcillo) but also what is happening (or not) in the streetcar and what is unfolding next to and surrounding the focal situation.

Between the first and second volley of shots, no talk is heard on the videotape, yielding a 4.9-s pause (Fragment 3, turn 45). But, the absence of talk does not mean nothing is happening. The videotapes provide evidence that the sirens continued to sound, the gyrating police car lights flashed over the scene, and the streetlights eerily illuminated what was happening. Officers ran or quickly moved, several coming up right next to Forcillo when the second volley unfolded. The person recording all of this still was situated very close (Fig. 6, right). During the speaking pause following the first volley of shots, the surveillance camera in the streetcar shows how Yatim’s left foot slightly moved, and how it kicked considerably while the first two shots of the second volley rang out (turn 46). Even if this phase of the event was to be reduced to the contents and processes in Forcillo’s mind, those would have to be somehow inferred from the evidence—which would have to be produced after the fact because even the officer has access only to his thoughts produced but not to the antecedent thinking out of which it would have emerged (cf. Dewey 1929; Merleau-Ponty 1945; Vygotsky 1987). Such inversions of history—which construct facts and causes a posteriori—are pervasive in society, as evidenced in the case of the headline “The Florida gunman left a trail of ominous hints” (CNN, headline, February 16, 2018). Both the hints and their ominous character are found after the fact but, if noted at all before the event, constituted a context out of which no actions concerning the gunman were arising.

Fragment 3

In the courts, intent was at issue twice: the (possible) intent to attack on the part of the suspect (which would justify deadly force) and intent on the part of the police officer, to whom the attempt to kill is attributed. But analysts are not bound by court practices, which are based on a system of values and morals always only attributable to actions after the fact (Bakhtin 1993; Nietzsche 1922a,b). Such analyses constitute little more than “dormitive explanations” (Bateson 1979, p. 133), where psychological entities attributed to individuals—e.g., aggressiveness as the cause of aggressive behaviors, intent/will as the cause of actions. It is a form of “rudimentary psychology” (Nietzsche 1922a, p. 244), which also underlies the defense that actors are not responsible when they did not intend some effect and thus could not intentionally have caused it. Although there is no material evidence in the video recordings of intentions (wills) of Forcillo or any one of his fellow officers, the intent to kill is imputed to him before the courts. It is based on this imputed intent that Forcillo was found guilty and convicted.

Emergence and Accident

In the court case against Forcillo, the Crown made a case for (a) second-degree murder and manslaughter with respect to the first volley of shots and (b) attempted murder in the case of the second volley. The case rested—and, as it still is in the courts, continues to rest—on what the officer should have seen, thought, and done. That he should have acted differently, however, can be established only after the fact; and such maneuvers tend to be related when an accident has happened. Whereas the jury dismissed the first charge, it found the defendant guilty of the second. The police officer was held responsible for attempting to kill Sammy Yatim. The case is much more complicated for the analyst who is committed to a transactional approach. This is the situation even in cases where a police officer comes to be celebrated as a hero for his “cool-headed arrest of suspect in van attack” (Woo 2018), also in Toronto, that left 10 people dead. As the preceding analyses show, there are many antecedent (concurrent and sequential) events of the event that left Sammy Yatim dead. Minor changes in any one of these co-existent and successive historical phases might have brought about conditions out of which the shooting would not or could not have occurred. The shooting as it actually has occurred is understood here to have arisen out of and from the coming together a number of lines of historically emergent lines of development. This continuous emergence and coming together may make it a more useful model of human activity on the notion of accident rather than on plans (intentions) and the pre-established, from real life-abstracted and after-the-fact-established morals that go with them.

Emergence Challenges of Cause-Effect Logic

The preceding analyses exemplify how with every phase of an event, something new arrives over and above what was already known. Even if we reduced our analytic gaze to the single line of development represented in Fig. 3, we would still have to deal with the fact that none of the actors could know at any instant what would happen next and what they would say and do even seconds hence. Empirically, the phenomenon has been shown in the case of the gap between planned and situated actions of engineers and scientists, who only (sometimes hours) after the fact knew whether their actions had conformed or not with their plans (Roth 2009; Suchman 2007). The phenomenon denoting the arrival of something new that cannot be deduced from antecedent conditions is denoted as emergence. Although often associated with the discussion of chaotic system and catastrophe, emergence is a fundamental quality of human lives characterized by an open future. Indeed, without emergence, which allows a distinction between distinguishable antecedent and successive phases of an event, no notion of time could exist (Bateson 1979; Mead 1932). But, if something new arrives in every phase of an event that could not be predicted based on the antecedent condition, then the notion of emergence constitutes a challenge to cause-and-effect reasoning. The belief in the existence of cause–effect relations has its origin in the ancient Greek notion of credit or blame. The belief arises from a human need for control, which requires filling in something that eliminates the indeterminacy that comes with creative emergence. Thus, explanations based on cause–effect reasoning are fallacious (Dewey 1938; Mead 1932; Nietzsche 1906), for the two aspects are not known to exist in isolation: the world, where happenings are emerging in continual and ceaseless novelty, is a continuum from which some micro-events (phenomena) are isolated. All the philosophers referenced here suggest that the thus isolated events are reconnected only via some external force (e.g., the motor of a projector moving a film from frame to frame creating the illusion of motion) or some mediator. There are many parallel and antecedent events accompanying the one isolated and abstracted. If one were to consider the flux of the total event (happening), the concept of cause and effect would show itself to be an illusion (Nietzsche 1906).

Philosophers have noted that humans have no experience of causes; instead, the notion of cause is derived (Nietzsche 1922a, b). For example, when Forcillo shouts, “Put the knife down,” he does not know whether the knife is going to be put down or not. The effect of that phrase (action) while it is unfolding is unknown. We cannot therefore speak of an action as a definite cause until after it has happened and the effects come to be known. It is for this reason that two forms of motive of action have been distinguished: a prospective in-order-to-motive and a retrospective because-motive (Schütz 1932). In Forcillo’s shouted words, an in-order-to-motive is apparent. If Yatim had put the knife down, a because-motive would have become available: He did so because of what Forcillo had said.

Cause–effect reasoning is problematic because consecutive eventual phases, which are grasped in their specificity only after the fact, are internally connected rather than externally by means of some artifice (e.g., an external force, a “mediating” object). The analyses surrounding Fragment 1 show how two successive phases of communication overlap, the subsequent arising in and from the earlier one. But, the connections do not exist as things or mediation of things. They exist only in a living event—a “living syntaxis” (Mamardashvili 2010, p. 23)—that denoted here the term bringing-into-a-certain-connection. This bringing into a connection constitutes a “living nonverbal state—the state that is within performance or realization” (p. 23). This bringing into connection by an event that is in an old and a new order simultaneously—i.e., the endpoint prior to a bifurcation and the first point of the bifurcated phase—is sociality (Mead 1932). It is a quality characteristic of emergent evolution. Once defined in this manner, mind (consciousness) is but “the culmination of that sociality which is found throughout the universe” (p. 86). At the same time, the later phase of an event brings with it something novel and unknown before.

The idea that every present instant of life comes with something novel challenges the cause–effect logic underlying the natural and social sciences (e.g., the postulated relationship between plans and intentions). Some studies suggest that it is more useful to think of the present as the locus of two different orders, the known past and the partially unknown and unknowable (unseen and thus unforeseen) future (Roth 2014). Each instant in unfolding life-as-event constitutes a furcation, where the immediate past constitutes the conditions for many different futures. From this transactional perspective, “the notion of causal explanation … implies a breach in the continuity of historic process” (Dewey 1929, p. 273), as it attempts to make a causal link. The link is to be established between analytically separated earlier and later phases of the same event by selecting the earlier one as the cause and the later one as the effect. The only way around the reigning mechanical and teleological fallacies is to recognize that the historical growth process is reality. In the transactional approach, this historical process, existence, is thought in its entirety (Dewey 1929; Mead 1932; Nietzsche 1922b). In the analysis of human behavior, the world as it exists for the person now, and thus the world that is the condition what will be next includes its entire past—the person is understood only in terms of a lifeline (see below).

In the transactional approach to liminal events presented here, there are no more cause-and-effect relations between successive phases of an event—even in the case of a bullet entering a vital organ and the death of a person. The assignment of blame, guilt, or causation—as it occurs in the legal system—requires a reduction from the Being-as-event, which is transactional in nature (Bakhtin 1993; Ricœur 1986), to interaction and self-action. When events are read backward, making possible the attribution of cause based on the knowledge that a specific effect has occurred, this reduction then affords assignation of blame (Nietzsche 1922a). The transitivity from cause to effect—which, in the case of death following a gunshot, allows such distinctions as accident, self-defense, homicide, premeditated murder, and suicide—is premised on such a reductive (abstractive) move (Dewey 1929).

The Accident as Model of Activity

The present study is part of a more encompassing effort to theorize human behavior from within events as they happen and before it can be more definitely known what kind of event is occurring. In technological thinking, using cause–effect reasoning, everything unfolds according to some plan. Deviations from plans, innovations and accidents, tend to be attributed to the activities of individuals—specially gifted members of society or perpetrators to be blamed, respectively. This flies in the face of everyday experience, where we are often surprised by our own actions (e.g., “I don’t believe I said/did that”), where a meeting may end with results that differ from anything any participant has started out with, and where accidents (ranging from a nick in the skin while paring fruit to nuclear or weather-related disasters) are more or less common. In technological thinking, individuals and their mental contents are the causes of their actions and the accidents that ensue. What is good and according to plan is taken for granted, whereas what deviates (evil, accident) is treated as problem, even though both are equally adventitious (Dewey 1929). The result is a blaming game that is played whenever accidents occur in high-risk industries (Dekker and Hollnagel 2004). This blaming game seeks to locate responsibilities for trouble in someone or something. The ideas of free will and cause–effect relations are part of any (simplistic) psychology that attributes responsibility and blames individuals for accidents (Nietzsche 1922a). Blaming is based on a combination of propositions, one stating that blame can be effectively laid only if there is a free will, the other stating that there needs to be a causal (i.e., effective) relation between thought and the ultimate effect (cf. Dewey 1938). The transactional approach is designed to appropriately understand human actions in the way they exist—i.e., facing an always-uncertain future—rather than from an (implicit) a posteriori perspective attributing causation to goals and intentions, which does not reach the event-ness of individual and social life. The approach recognizes life as “answerable, risk-fraught, and open becoming through performed actions” (Bakhtin 1993, p. 9). Given the risk and open becoming involved in every act, it may be more appropriate to approach human behavior using the notion of accident rather than that of plan (intention). The transactional approach recognizes each event and every instant of life as singular. In that, “the event is unique in its singularity, occurring at one and only one time and place, so that, at any rate, there is no recurrence in the event in its singularity” (Dewey 1938, p. 454).

There might exist the temptation to theorize what the event leading up to the death of Sammy Yatim (Fragment 1, Fig. 2) as social construction. But, outcomes are not social just because there were multiple participants in exchange with each other. The term sociality is used to refer to the event of the readjustment that occurs in and with the emergence of the new (Mead 1932). That one object—e.g., word or phrase—is both the old and the new, and, therefore, marks passage. The readjustment that occurs during passage, whereby each “thing” becomes something other than it was before, is sociality. Mead’s approach to social psychology thus takes the social in a strong sense that overcomes the difficulties associated with the social in a weak sense (i.e., as the result of individuals coming together and constructing the social). Here, sociality in this situation “is the capacity to be several things at once” (p. 49). In this take, each part of a system then is thought in its (synchronous and temporal) multiplicity. We can also understand it in terms of the idea of “multiple contrasts,” a term used to mark when contrasts are contrasted (Whitehead 1929/1978). Two distinct micro-events—{order | refusal [to put down knife} and {refusal | reiteration (to put down knife)}—are joined in phase 2 common to them. The contrast of contrasts is of what others call a new logical type—which is, e.g., characteristic of the transition from stimulus–response learning to learning from stimulus–response occurrences in different situations (e.g., Bateson 1979). This distinctness is understood not merely in terms of disjunction but as the very basis of emergent evolution.

The proposal here is this: to think and theorize everyday events from the perspective of accident as being the norm and the arrival of the expected as the extraordinary to be explained. Technological thinking, on the other hand, embodies the hope that every aspect of life could eventually be known and controlled (e.g., “designer babies,” “driverless cars”). But, the more is known and the more habits have formed, the more learning subsequently is required in the face of novelty and the more further learning becomes difficult (Dewey 1929). Thus, there is an advantage to think of human endeavors in terms of the notion of accident. Etymologically, the term derives from the Latin verb accidēre, fall down, cut down, happen (to), pass, or come after; in later usage, the term signaled the arrival of something not essential to the thing, an accidental happening. The accidental does not follow from essence, and therefore belongs in the realm of destiny and fate. It thereby also lies outside of knowledge, outside of what can be modeled. Once we think about human behavior and (systems) activity in terms of accident as the norm, then societal efforts are directed toward resilience in the face of possible accidents rather than (impossible) elimination thereof.

Coda: Future Perspectives

Approaching the event as event leads us to a transactional perspective in which each phase of life not only arises from a preceding phase but also comes with something novel. That which is novel heretofore was unseen and, therefore, unforeseen. Each instant of life therefore also has to qualify of being accidental. The accidentality of life (existence) contravenes any attempt of theorizing human activity in terms of cause and effect, which is the main quality and characteristic of technological thinking. Heidegger is often depicted as criticizing technology when in fact he is suspicious of technological thinking. He indeed criticizes reductionist analysis of situations that works according to “technological division and delivers to technological consciousness an according historical-technical description of events” (Heidegger 2006, p. 123). Such an analysis cannot ever come close to the nature and truth of Being or, for all that matters, of the world-as-event.

As one way of overcoming technological cause–effect reasoning that misses the quality of being, we have to turn toward a primacy of verbs over nouns that refer to self-identity and things. We then turn to characterize the “world in its worlding [as] the nearest of all nearing that nears, in bringing truth near” (Heidegger 2006, p. 124) or talk about the event of lightning rather than the existence of the flash (Nietzsche 1922b). Rather than considering a cat as a thing in itself, a transactional approach takes the minimum unit to be one of “man-watching-man’s-watching-cat-watching-man” (Bateson 1979, p. 117). We then arrive at knowings (e.g., of the occasion that left a dead Sammy Yatim in its wake), which themselves are “organic phases of transactionally observed behaviors” (Dewey and Bentley 1949/1999, p. 194), where behavior is the transactional relation involving organism and environment. Individual human beings then are no longer understood in terms of characteristics belonging to them; instead, traditional psychological and sociological qualities (e.g., dependency, power) are thought of as qualities of relations.

The transactional approach presented here can lead us to new solutions of heretofore-intractable problems. For example, the courts tend to attribute the responsibility for a shooting to the individual who pulled the trigger. The individual is removed from society by means of jailing or execution. Whereas a jail term may serve definitive purposes in that particular situation, it does not deal with the extended network of events that led up to the death of a person. Questions such as why some societies exhibit much higher murder rates than others—even though rates of imprisonment are higher and despite the existence of death penalty—become unanswerable. The transactional approach shows promise precisely because each occasion is understood in its temporal and physical junctions with other events that make the experienced world what it is.


  1. 1.

    The term micro-event is used in the sense of “limited events” that may bear the (inclusive) relation of being extended one over the other (Whitehead 1920, p. 58).


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of VictoriaVictoriaCanada

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