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photo of Stephen Cowley
 Dr Stephen Cowley

School of Psychology
University of Hertfordshire
College Lane
AL10 9AB


Research Interests


While many take language to be 'real', I regard this as misleading. Instead, it is traced to a meshwork of dynamical processes, imagination and our how we use heterogeneous artefacts. Language, like mind, is a social product. Thus, as children, we come to take a language stance. Rejecting the tradition of idealizing language away from behaviour, I distinguish the dynamics of human dialogue from the second-order cultural constructs (words and meanings) emphasised in structuralist traditions. Language, on this view, is triply grounded: it connects embrained bodies, cultural processes and first-person phenomenology. My interests thus fall under three main headings:

  • Distributed language
  • Infant development in different cultural contexts
  • Social robotics

Distributed language:

Theoretically my work links an extended views of cognition to first-order linguistic events. By starting with an interest in distributed cognitive systems, I emphasise continuities between talk and other vertebrate communication. Accordingly, I treat communication and cognition as depending on how we integrate activities in and across time. In published work, I focus on (a) distributed language; (b) how the 'phonetics of conversation' shape talk and (b) developmental effects of living in a world where infants (and embryos) are immersed in the affective dynamics of talk.

I also co-ordinate the Distributed Language Group. Of its members, my closest collaborators are Nigel Love (University of Cape Town), Jesper Hermann (University of Copenhagen), Alex Kravchenko (University of Irkutsk) and Paul Thibault (University of Kristiansand)..

Infant Developement in different cultural contexts:

A distributed approach to language can only be pursued bottom-up. Since 2000, therefore, I have carried out micro-investigations of infant (and child) development. This research has been conducted with Dr. Jane Kvalsvig at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. At KZN, we have been studying the effects of iron deficiency anemia in infant-caregiver dyads in Pemba, Tanzania. At the same time, alongside the medically oriented work, we ask how caregiver beliefs (and culture) impact on infant development. In pursuing such issues, I have published widely on early development.

Social robotics:

Bottom up thinking about cognition leads one to consider both cultural and bio-cultural mechanisms. In turning to the latter, I collaborate with designers of interaction-oriented robots. This has allowed me to use my experience with infants in studying human-robot interaction to open up new issues in how language dynamics extend human cognitive powers. Among the most important are ones concerning whether androids -machines that behave and look like humans -elicit human responses that bear significant resemblances to those a baby uses in learning to talk.

My principal collaborators are Karl MacDorman (Indiana University), Hiroshi Ishiguro (Osaka University) and Takayuki Kanda (ATR, Kyoto).


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