In this section, we present some results from our empirical work, conducted in two different workshops.Footnote 6 In the first one, we analysed a video of two children with autism, and in the second, we investigated the relationship between thinking and interacting in live contact improvisation.
Before presenting these, we reflect briefly on the nature of empirical experience research and what can be considered its outcomes. As van Manen notes (1990), speaking of ‘data’ is misleading in human experience research because of connotations with the quantitative efforts of positivistic psychology and social sciences, and the natural sciences. Nevertheless, investigating experience does involve collecting what is ‘given,’ even if anything ‘given’ is not identical to the experience itself, but already the result of a transformation of experience. The best thing one can do is to accept this — after all, “[w]ithout this dramatic elusive element of lived meaning to our reflective attention phenomenology might not be necessary” (Van Manen 1990, p. 54).
PRISMA makes use of approximations. An approximation is the activity of apprehending an experience through a particular perceptual reference (see section 3.1), and noting down what is then given, as immediately and succinctly as possible. These notations can be considered the initial ‘data’. At specific points in a workshop process, the data gathered so far can turn into ‘interim findings’ to be further processed. The intermediate findings are in this way increasingly refined. They go from individual approximations of experience, through transformations in various kinds of group work (e.g. searching for similarities, conFiguration), to emerging and identifiable regularities or tendencies.
These regularities and tendencies, found by the workshop participants during the research, can be considered the results or findings of a specific workshop, as they represent the deepened insights into the specific issues investigated in that workshop. These outcomes can then be put into critical dialogue with existing theories, concepts, and hypotheses, as well as results from other empirical research.
We would like to note also that outcomes do not just consist of the tendencies and regularities found. Another important result are the ways in which participants change through taking part. The result of a PRISMA process (and similar kinds of practical phenomenology, see e.g. Van Manen 1990), is not just enhanced knowledge or deeper insight into an area of experience, but also – inevitably – the transformation of this experience. This includes both the transformation of the experience itself, and – logically – the transformation of the subjects of this experience: the participating researchers (Kordeš 2016; De Jaegher 2016).
Friends with autism
The first workshop-experiment took place at the University of Heidelberg, in July 2009, and lasted one day. We analysed a video fragment, taken from the publicly available documentary Make Me Normal.
Footnote 7 The video featured Roxanne and Liam, students of a London school for young people diagnosed with autism (this information was given to the participants prior to starting the video-analysis). Six participants took part in the workshop, and worked together in groups of three throughout. All were academics, between thirty and fifty-two years old, four females and two males, working in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and philosophy, three of them were PhD students, one post-doc, and two professors.
First off during the workshop, the participants viewed the video a first time without a specific prompt. This first approximation was more or less unspecific and used as a foil for comparing the initial and final approximations at the beginning and end of the experiment (the ‘before and after’). The question for the participants at this stage was simply: “What did you observe during the video sequence?” The initial approximations are presented in Table 2.
After this, the central part of the experiment was performed. Participants viewed the video 18 more times over the course of the day, making approximations based on specific prompts, one by one, in a structured and guided process, interspersed with breaks, body exercises, and discussions.
The notations from these 18 approximations form what we call the ‘full set’, that is, the set containing every chosen perspective on the material. The approximations consisted of: self-perception while observing Roxanne, Liam, and the in-between (SP), other-perception while observing Roxanne, Liam, and the in-between (OP), and each of these in the modalities of sensing, feeling, and thinking (yielding 108 notations in total). Immediately after each viewing, participants concisely noted down their first impression on a Post-it. These notations formed the basis for further processing (conFigurations) during the workshop. In this way, the participants could track — individually as well as in group, and following the workshop protocol — how and in how far their perceptions on the interaction between Roxanne and Liam changed over the course of the experiment.
Below, we present the full set of approximations, ordered by perceptual reference, and concerning Roxanne, Liam, and the in-between in Tables 3a, 3b and 3c, respectively.
What emerges here is a unique material on two children diagnosed with autism interacting with each other. Here, the in-between is an integral part of the investigation all over the process. Specified approaches to intercorporality or the in-between in interaction exist (for instance Merleau-Ponty 1945/2012; De Jaegher and Di Paolo 2007; Fuchs and Koch 2014, see also section 2), but it is still not so clear how to empirically grasp its characteristics in conjunction with the two interacting agents’ involvements. The prismatic procedure allows to unfold the interaction, here compiled in the full set matrix, and leads to a differentiated picture of what Roxanne, Liam, and the in-between contribute to the interaction.
Roxanne and Liam each play quite different parts, e.g. “power, vitality” (3a, P5, OP, F, regarding Roxanne)Footnote 8 versus “helplessness, absence, drifting off” (3b, OP2, P5, F, regarding Liam). This is reflected in the in-between in terms of a certain tension, e.g.: “still feeling very related to each other, (even needing each other in all differentness)” (3c, P5, OP, F); “… constant change between ‘succeeding’, ‘rather harmonic’ contact and lacking congruity/alternating between affection and ‘missing each other’” (3c, P2, OP, F); “liking each other/criticizing each other/wanting to be friends/wanting to be oneself” (3c, P2, OP, T); “to be linked together as a very unequal couple, in constant ‘polarity between activity-passivity’ (‘Push me – Pull you’)” (3c, P5, OP, S).
Participants’ initial approximations (Table 2, e.g. “Two young people, who seem to be friends, in several interaction situations, with an idiosyncratic, ambivalent-seeming exchange of gestures”, P5) become refracted into several of its aspects, in quite precise terms that often recur in the notations of several participants. For instance, the “ambivalent-seeming exchange of gestures” is appreciated in “joy,” “vitality,” “tension,” oscillation, polarity, alternation (notations recurring in several places in Table 3a, regarding Roxanne, and 3c, regarding the in-between), versus “need of protection” (emerging in several notations in Table 3b, regarding Liam). Another example is the contrast between “we could have ‘more action, more fun’” (3a, P5, OP, T, regarding Roxanne) and “The boy would need a training in boxing” (3b, P5, SP, T, regarding Liam). The children “seem to be friends” (3c, P5, SP, T), and “an unequal couple, but they like each other a lot” (3c, P5, SP, T).
After the full set was completed, the participants performed one final viewing. This final approximation was generated by applying a conFiguration process (explained in section 3): After selecting a particular notation from the full set of statements, each participant produced additionally and on purpose this chosen sensation, feeling, or thought, while once again viewing the video and taking a particular perceptual reference on it, as instructed by a prompt (given in Table 5). The selected statements came from the notations regarding participants’ self-perceptions (SP) of what happened between Roxanne and Liam (Table 3c). Group A chose the statement “Love, empathy, but also a certain tension, I’d like to open my arms” (from SP-F, participant 4, Group A, Table 3c). Group B chose “an unequal couple, but they like each other a lot” (see participant 5, SP-T, Table 3c). The final notations that this resulted in are presented in Table 4.
Comparing the initial approximations in Table 2 and the final approximations in Table 4, and the full matrix (Tables 3a, b and c), we can see that participants notice more and more specified aspects of the interaction, which remained undetected or hidden at first. One striking result regards Liam: In the first approximations, it is already noticed that the two children behave and move very differently: one “wilder, more demanding” and “gently, rather careful” (see Table 2). In the full set, it was noticed that Liam is “doing well” in various places, as well as that there are tensions in his demeanour, e.g. “I feel challenged and I like it, but don’t always know what she wants” (3b, P6, OP, S), and “superficially threat, but deep down the feeling of security with Roxanne” (3b, P1, OP, F). But it is only in the final approximation that a participant (no. 3) notes down “he manages, in his own way, to stay in contact with her and with himself” (Table 4, P3). This relational quality of Liam’s behaviour – remaining in touch with himself and Roxanne – had not yet been detected in the initial approximation (Table 2), nor fully in the full set (Table 3b).
In the final plenary discussion at the end of the experiment, the participants wondered Why are these children diagnosed with autism? This question was considered by the group to sum up the end-result or outcome of the workshop. While the children may have seemed strange in their interactions (in accordance with the diagnostic criteria for autism), at the same time the researcher-participants attuned themselves to many intricately social things that the children were doing.Footnote 9 They uncovered fine-grained aspects of their embodied interaction, confirming research which suggests that children with autism do have certain capacities for interactionally coordinating, when the behaviours are studied within their interactional context (cf. Stribling et al. 2005–06, 2007; Dickerson et al. 2007; Sterponi and Shankey 2014).Footnote 10 In PRISMA, this is met by systematically considering — in its concepts and its empirical investigations — the interactors as well as the in-between, all of them integral components of the interaction.
The prismatic investigation reveals that a potentially subtle embodied instrument for understanding autism consists in a group of researchers engaging in a sustained, systematic, intersubjective unfolding of interactive experience. If it is true that the different ways in which people with autism move, both individually and with others, affect their ways of understanding the world and of thinking (as suggested by Hobson 2002; Donnellan et al. 2013; De Jaegher 2013), then PRISMA offers a tool for testing and refining this claim.
Thinking and interacting
The second experiment was conducted as a one-day workshop at the University of the Basque Country, San Sebastián, in October 2013. Six participants took part, four females and two males, between twenty-five and sixty-five years old. Five were academics (two of them also Feldenkrais practicioners), working in psychology, sociology, cognitive science, and philosophy, and one city council administrator.
In the experiment presented in 4.1, self-perception, other-perception and the in-between were addressed as equal references for perceiving the interaction. In this workshop, we focused directly on the in-between, an aspect of which is intercorporeality. Intercorporeality is a mutual embodiment of intentions, which Merleau-Ponty understands as being “achieved through the reciprocity between my intentions and the other person’s gestures, and between my gestures and the intentions which can be read in the other person’s behavior” (Merleau-Ponty 1945/2012, p. 190–191). We hypothesised that intercorporeality is a part of social interaction, and more than the sum of each interactor’s activities. Its investigation in this experiment should therefore not focus on single agents’ doings, nor on a particular pre-established interactive situation. The title of the workshop was “Grasping the experience of interacting: How can the experience of interacting and intercorporeality be investigated bodily?” We invited the participants to study this question by engaging in brief contact improvisations. Contact improvisation is a contemporary dance style developed in the early 1970’s in the USA, and first named as such in 1972 by Steve Paxton (Novack 1990). Novack describes how “The dancers in contact improvisation focus on the physical sensations of touching, leaning, supporting, counterbalancing, and falling with other people, thus carrying on a physical dialogue” (p. 8). This heightening of embodied aspects of interactive experience, which can, in some sense, be considered analogous to the experience of less clearly embodied interactions, makes it well suited for a PRISMA investigation.
Different from the first experiment, where the investigation was of a video, in this workshop the researchers engaged in live interactions. Other live interaction workshops we have done usually involved a particular kind of short interaction (e.g. helping someone into their coat). In this workshop, because it was based on improvisation (an element also generally present in daily life interactions), each subsequent interaction engaged in during the day was novel, rather than a ‘repetition’ of a particular interaction. Since we were looking for principles of intercorporeality’s role in intersubjectivity, it should not matter which precise interaction the participants engage in; any kind of interaction should show us something about that role.
We approached the question about intercorporeality head-on, in that we formulated all prompts in terms of the ‘in-between,’ as can be seen in Tables 5 and 6. The participants worked in two groups of three: two interactors and one observer. Each participant did a self-perception and an other-perception regarding the in-between in only one role (interactor or observer), initially generating matrices of 6 findings. The most exciting results in this experiment, however, were generated in the conFiguration processes after the initial matrices were filled.
After the groups each gathered a full matrix, each group searched for a similarity out of their approximations, and conFigured it in order to generate a refinement. After this, the matrices were exchanged between groups, so that group A inspected group B’s matrix, and vice versa. Now, each group searched for a similarity in the ‘foreign’ matrix for conFiguring and refining. Here, we present two of these conFiguration and exchange processes.
First, we present the data from the initial matrix, generated in the mode of thinking by group A (Table 5).
When group A searched for similarities in their matrix (Table 5), they noted two similarities: “connection emerged” and “not much thinking”. They selected the latter as ‘interim-finding’ for further processing. After producing this on purpose by doing “not much thinking” during a further contact improvisation, participants refined it as “Three aspects of thinking: commentary, controlling, judgement. There are ways of thinking that are not controlling or judging. T-shirt message: less control and judgement, more commentary”.Footnote 11
When group B scrutinised this same matrix (group A’s) for similarities, they also found two, and formulated them as follows: “The connection was progressive through the interaction” and “Thinking was not a priority, but probably an obstacle to the interaction”. Group B chose the latter for conFiguring. After producing this on purpose in a new short contact improvisation, group B formulated the refinement: “The task of not bringing thinking into priority goes together with a relief, and this enables even obstacles to become part of the in-between”.
It is worth noticing that both groups independently detected “connection” and “thinking” as similarities in group A’s matrix, and both came up with quite specific refinements in the addressed thinking aspects, and in revealing coherencies – contributing to a fuller picture of group A’s recorded interaction. Such results in comparing material among groups are characteristic for how the PRISMA procedures allow to reach ‘graspable’ findings. Moreover, the participants involved in this process grow more and more confident of their perceptual capacities as they realize the reliability of the findings.
The groups also gathered data in the modes of feeling (group A) and sensing (group B). Each group practised contact improvisation in just one of these modes. Here we take a closer look at group A’s matrix (Table 6), and both groups’ conFigurations of it.
Group A detected and formulated out of their own matrix (Table 6) the similarity “surprise-uncertainty”. After conFiguring “surprise-uncertainty” in the mode of feeling in another contact improvisation, they refined it as follows: “Allowing for uncertainty leads to even more trust”. When group B looked over this same matrix from group A, they formulated the similarity “At the start, when interaction seems blocked, there are tension asymmetries and clumsiness”. Group B now, while producing “tension asymmetries and clumsiness,” used the mode of sensing (previously applied in their own process), and refined the conFigured similarity into “The bodily tension (forces, support, pulling, pushing) could be used to unblock the flow of interaction”. Methodologically, this shift in the mode of experiencing the interaction, from feeling to sensing, allowed different aspects to emerge than those found at first. Moreover, the embodied engagement in the interaction process revealed that the bodily aspects of interacting could be used to unblock tensions.
Together, these findings confirm something we all know well: that thinking can be an obstacle to interacting and that, with less thinking, interactions can be more fluid. But it also significantly refines this common insight, and supports embodied theories of intersubjectivity in their emphasis on the roles of interacting and embodiment. The individual activity of thinking may interrupt the flow or temporary autonomy of an interaction process (De Jaegher and Di Paolo 2007; De Jaegher et al. 2010). Furthermore, it seems that, when allowing for uncertainty in the interaction, there is more trust. And when there is tension, focusing on its bodily aspects (“forces, support, pulling, pushing”) and away from thinking, can help loosen or even unblock unease in the flow of interaction. This confirms the centrality of interaction’s role in intersubjectivity, and moreover, that it is possible to investigate this in bodily and experiential ways, which can generate novel insights. The findings we present here are in line with research supporting the use of body therapies in the treatment of various psychiatric disorders, for instance schizophrenia and autism (Behrends et al. 2012; Galbusera and Fuchs 2014; Maiese 2016; Martin et al. 2016). PRISMA can be used to help further refine ways to test and improve such ideas.