Common grounding

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Common grounding or Grounding or mutual grounding or (sometimes) shared understanding refers the process by which conversants try to establish that what has been said is understood. It is basic to communication. Common ground also can be described as the shared context and mutual knowledge available to participants in a collaboration and that has to be updated and maintained.

Grounding is related to collaboration. According to Dillenbourg et al. (1996): “Roschelle and Teasley (1995) defined collaboration as a "Coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem" (p. 70)”.

Marilyn A. Walker, in a book review, summarizes Clark's theory theory of language as action book by stating that {{quotation|The book examines both social and cognitive aspects of language use, drawing from speech act theory (Austin 1965; Searle 1965; Allen and Perrault 1980), theories of discourse and dialogue (Reichman 1985; Grosz and Sidner 1986), and theories of social interaction (Goffman 1970; Brown and Levinson 1987; Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974).

The book examines both social and cognitive aspects of language use, drawing from speech act theory (Austin 1965; Searle 1965; Allen and Perrault 1980), theories of discourse and dialogue (Reichman 1985; Grosz and Sidner 1986), and theories of social interaction (Goffman 1970; Brown and Levinson 1987; Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974). Clark begins the book with an overview of its central thesis that "language use is really a form of joint action" (p. 3), i.e., action carried out by an ensemble of people acting in coordination with one another. As a joint activity, conversation consists of a joint action and the individual actions by the conversational participants that constitute the joint action (Bruce 1975; Power 1974; Clark and Carlson 1982; Cohen and Levesque 1991; Grosz and Sidner 1990). Joint activities require coordination of both the content of the activity and the process by which the activity moves forward. The source of conversants' ability to coordinate is their common ground, the set of knowledge, beliefs and suppositions that they believe they share (Stalnaker 1978; Clark and Marshall 1981; Prince 1981). Common ground makes it possible for a speaker and a hearer to coordinate on what the speaker means and what the hearer understands the speaker to mean.

Communicative acts can be characterized by

  • a presentation phase
  • an acceptance phase within which participants can express how much they understand and whether they accept the contribution.
  • some kind of purpose that defines a larger joint activity in terms of goals and/or plans.
  • social constraints (the fact that they take place in a social situation and a social relationship)

Clark et al define speaking as a bilateral process: “speaking and listening together form a joint activity. Speakers monitor not just their own actions, but those of their addressees, taking both into account as they speak. Addressees, in turn, try to keep speakers informed of their current state of understanding.” (Clark & Krych, 2003). [ Dillenbourg et al. (1996)


“Speakers try to ground their communicative acts as they go along: They work with their partners to reach the mutual belief that the partners have understood them well enough for current purposes ([Clark and Schaefer, 1989]; [Clark and Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986]; [Traum, 1994. Traum, D. (1994).”(Clark & Krych, 2003)

Mutual common grounding is defined as an incremental process where participants have to deal with four levels:

  1. Vocalization and attention: A must make sure that B will attend to a vocalization
  2. Presentation and Identification: A must get B to identify what has been presented (words, phrases, etc.)
  3. Meaning and understanding: A must get B to understand what he means by these words
  4. Proposal and Uptake: A must get B to consider answering a proposal

Since grounding involves other communication channels (e.g. gestures) and takes place in a situation “grounding is often most efficient when they can monitor each other’s voices, faces, gestures, and workspaces. (Clark and Brennan, 1991)”. (Clark & Krych, 2003).

“As articulated by [Clark86], what is important is not individual effort by the receiver of a communicative act, but the overall Least Collaborative Effort. The cost of producing a perfect utterance may be higher (if it is even possible) than the cost of collaboratively repairing those problems which do arise.”

Shared understanding is often used to describe common grounding across a larger context and/or over time. E.g. shared understanding can be the result of a process of common grounding, or a common vocabulary can help a community build and maintain shared understanding.

Grounding is easier to achieve in face to face dialogs, it is more difficult in computer-mediated communication, e.g. CSCW or CSCL. Kraut (2003), cited by Bly (2003), states this principles as follows: “Research has shown that communication is more efficient when people share greater amounts of common ground. ... people may have common ground prior to an interaction if they are members of the same group or population. ... people can construct and expand their common ground over the course of the interaction on the basis of linguistic co-presence. ... people can share common ground due to physical co-presenceâwhen they inhabit the same physical setting.”

Application areas

  • Learning designs, in particular computer-supported collaborative learning
  • Design methodology, e.g. rapid prototyping
  • Innovation and change management, e.g. expansive learning
  • Design of computer mediated communication environments, e.g. Bly (2003) makes the point that “When conversations include physical objects, a computer-mediated collaborative environment must be able to allow a representation and transformation of those objects in the conversation. The extent to which this is accomplished in a way that minimizes the loss of shared context and shared experience will provide the ability to talk about things remotely in a useful way.”
  • Software localization efforts


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  • Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge University Press.
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