The external world does not exist because we perceive it, but because we are constantly building it.
James J. Gibson, an American psychologist, was interested in these phenomena that go beyond the simple sphere of perception; in 1979, he introduced the concept of affordance. Affordance is the way in which an environment, whether material, social, or symbolic, is given to an individual and the way in which the latter interacts with this same environment in return. Pushing this notion of affordance to its limits, Gibson went as far as to posit that the external world does not exist because we perceive it, but because we are constantly constructing it.
Affordances are therefore what exists between us and our environments, what connects us to them and what suggests our interactions with them.
Let us go back to our city dweller lost in the Amazonian forest. No one can blame them for their lack of knowledge of the local flora, its subtleties and its great virtues, it would all be a matter of affordances – in other words, of the nature of the connections built between them and this environment which seems, for the moment, hostile.
Can we say that this city dweller has fewer connections than the Native American mentioned above? Well, that depends. At this stage of the story it is undeniable. But if we take into account the emergent and therefore dynamic character of affordances, it would be more accurate to speak on the one hand of proven connections, those that exist at a precise moment in history; and on the other hand of latent or potential connections, those that are waiting to be expressed or even revealed.
Thus, the concept of affordance informs us that there is no real disconnection, in the sense of cutting connections. The feeling of disconnection actually reflects the fact that, confronted with a new environment, we do not yet see all the potential connections. These can only be truly expressed if we change our view of this environment, if we develop our ability to observe and interact with it.
The feeling of isolation would thus be more related to a mental construct than to objective characteristics of our environment: as a pilot flying solo, at one with their plane, would certainly confirm.
Affordance also sheds light on the fact that we cooperate without always being aware of it, nor knowing exactly with whom or what. This is where it gets interesting.
As Stéphane Allaire points out: “The interest of the concept of affordance is then no longer limited only to the possibilities offered by a given tool and to what happens when an individual uses it, but also to what happens when an individual interacts in a given social context – i.e., within a community of individuals sharing values, practices, norms, routines, etc. We can then talk about social affordances.”
In the context of the company, grasping the concept of affordance means questioning the relationship between individuals and their socio-professional environment. It is to describe, formulate, and represent the interactions of some with others, and vice versa.
It is a radical change of point of view when trying to represent an organization. It is necessary to opt for a vision centered on the interactions between individuals and their environment, rather than limited by the hierarchical structure of organizational charts and the compartmentalized perimeters of job descriptions. The idea is to take into account the complexity of the company’s social network and the opportunities for adaptation and transformation offered by the resulting affordances, rather than limiting the field of possibilities to a reductive, often simplistic, and always theoretical representation.
From an individual point of view, the documentation and figuration of these interactions allows each person to visualize their own contributions in order to better understand them and their own affordances within the network. They facilitate the construction of meaning, since everyone can now distinguish the elements that answer the question: “what are the people, objects, symbols, or ideas with which I interact and on which I have an impact?”
It is in this dynamic and through this methodology that it becomes possible to reveal the social networks implicitly at work in organizations. These networks transcend, or even transgress, the niche social groups or areas of responsibility of the actors; they constitute the keystone of an organizational approach that reconnects individuals in new cooperations by developing collective awareness, the construction of meaning, collaboration, and empowerment.