Affordance

This term has its origins in the work of the psychologist James Gibson (1979) on perception and action. Working from an ‘interactionist’ perspective Gibson focuses on agent-situation interaction which means that he defines affordances as all ‘action possibilities’ latent in an environment, where the potential uses of a given object arise from its perceivable properties and always in relation to the actor’s capabilities and interests (because perception in always selective). Donald Norman (1988) took up these ideas in relation to the design of objects, and he emphasizes social, as well as material aspects. Adapted by Kress (e.g. 2010), the term ‘modal affordance’ has particular currency in multimodality. It refers to the potentialites and constraints of different modes – what it is possible to express and represent or communicate easily with the resources of a mode, and what is less straightforward or even impossible – and this is subject to constant social work. From this perspective, the term ‘affordance’ is not a matter of perception, but rather refers to the materially, culturally, socially and historically developed ways in which meaning is made with particular semiotic resources.

The affordance of a mode is shaped by its materiality, by what it has been repeatedly used to mean and do (its ‘provenance’), and by the social norms and conventions that inform its use in context – and this may shift, as well as through timescales and spatial trajectories (Lemke, 2000; Massey, 2005). Each mode – as it has been shaped and is socially contextualized – possesses certain ‘logics’. The logic of sequence in time is characteristic of speech: one sound is uttered after another, one word after another, one syntactic and textual element after another. In producing possibilities for putting things first or last, or somewhere else, in temporal arrangement, this sequentiality becomes an affordance. In contrast, still images are more strongly governed by the logic of space and simultaneity because items are represented concurrently. Not without its critics, the term ‘affordance’ is subject to ongoing debate.

See also: Materiality, Mode, Provenance

Editor: Diane Mavers
Other contributor: Martin Oliver

Key References
Kress, G. (2010)
Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication
London: Routledge

Oliver, M. (2005)
‘The problem with affordance’
The E-Learning Journal 2 (4): 402-413

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