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

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Infants’ understanding of their social world

2.4 Gregarious babies: shared understanding in infancy

The majority of studies of infant social cognition have been at the level of the dyad, that is they have involved two infants or an infant and parent. The Australian researchers, Jane Selby and Ben Bradley (2003) are very critical of this approach. They argue that research on dyadic mother/infant interaction or dyadic interaction between unfamiliar peers neglects the possibility that babies are born with a more general relational capacity that allows them to be socially involved with more than one person at the time. Selby and Bradley argue that infants are biologically prepared for relationships in general rather than for forming exclusive attachments. In their research, they carried out detailed observations of babies in groups of three. Their analysis of these three-ways, triadic interactions allowed them to develop a more detailed account of the role of early intersubjectivity in the development of communicative competence.

In common with the studies by Trevarthen and Reddy discussed earlier, they argue that:

What is given in the brain at birth is its intersubjectivity or psychological inter-dependence, and it is this that affords the baby’s active participation in the relationships from which mental functions are derived. (p.198)

Like Meltzoff and Zeedyk,, Selby and Bradley’s research also demonstrated the importance of imitation for signaling and maintaining cooperative, coordinated social interest between groups of infants aged 8 – 12 months. In their paper they set out the following claims:

Studying infant groups allows us to address three kinds of emerging theoretical argument: (1) that babies are born with a ‘general relational capacity’ which complements or even founds the more specific ‘dyadic program’ that generates attachments; (2) that Infants’ communication with peers is the best route to understanding the shared meanings that inform language acquisition, and (3) that the reconceptualisation of ‘nonbasic’ emotions requires we discover whether babies are communicatively competent to elaborate context-specific meanings over time. The materials we use to illustrate this two-stage approach show infants manifest core characteristics of group-communication in the second six months of life, in particular the capacity to be involved with more than one person at a time and for relational encounters to shift behavioural significances for the infants as a product of group interactions’, (p. 197).

9 Activity

Timing: Allow 45 minutes to 1 hour

The video clip, Early Peer Interaction, for this activity shows a replication of the study by Selby and Bradley (2003) and the triadic interaction between three babies. The babies, Elijah, Lily-Mae and Arthur are all 9 - 10 months old. They had not met each other before. During the filming, their mothers were present in the room, but were standing behind the babies out of eyesight. Each baby was in strapped into a lightweight pushchair and the pushchairs were arranged in the triangular formation described in Selby and Bradley’s paper. The babies could see each other, and, if they stretching out their legs, could make physical contact with each other.

You should use this clip to analyse the interaction between the babies. You may want to think, for example, about which baby is looking at whom and whether any of the babies individually interacts more with the others. The clip is quite short and so you may want to watch it more than once. Selby and Bradley suggest that the first step in any research on change is to distinguish between different ‘starting positions’ that the babies may bring to the group. They present four such positions: Being at a loss, ready to play, relaxed without needs and caught between inner and outer demands. You may want to consider the babies initial reactions to each other from this perspective.

Download this video clip.Video player: Early Peer Interaction
Early Peer Interaction
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  • How easy did you find it to identify the four starting positions described by Selby and Bradley?
  • Do you think that there is evidence of multiple relations in the clip of the three babies?
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