Infants’ understanding of their social world
Infants’ understanding of their social world

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Infants’ understanding of their social world

2.1 Innate intersubjectivity

Colwyn Trevarthen has argued, since the 1970s, that very young infants are competent partners in social interaction. He has suggested that this is because newborns have latent sociability and intentionality, for example, co-operating with their mother and anticipating her actions during activities such as feeding and holding (Trevarthen, 1979b). In particular, Trevarthen suggests that young infants have a primitive motive to achieve interactive relationships with others and this is responsible for their sociability. Trevarthen used the terms subjectivity and intersubjectivity to explain some of these processes. He writes:

For infants to share mental control with other persons they must have two skills. Firstly, they must be able to exhibit the rudiments of individual consciousness and intentionality. This attribute of acting as agents I call subjectivity. In order to communicate, infants must also be able to fit this subjective control to the subjectivity of others; they must also be able to demonstrate intersubjectivity.

(Trevarthen, 1979a, p. 322)

More recently, Trevarthen (2001) has argued that

the baby is also capable and interested from birth in engaging ‘protoconversationally’ with the dynamic thoughts and enthusiasm of caregivers […]

the so-called ‘complex’ emotions, the interpersonal sense of ‘pride’ in admired accomplishments, and ‘shame’ in being misunderstood or disliked, are part of the human condition. Powerful innate emotions of human relating, evident in infants, and different from those that establish and regulate attachment for care and protection, bring risks of mental illness associated with failure in collaborative intersubjectivity. (p. 95)

Trevarthen’s view of early interaction is that infants are doing more than automatically responding to the behaviours of others. Core to his account is the idea that infants are born with the motivation to engage in social interaction and primitive communication with people.


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