Transactive Memory Systems: A Mechanistic Analysis of Emergent Group Memory

Review of Philosophy and Psychology 4 (1):65-89 (2013)
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Wegner, Giuliano, and Hertel (1985) defined the notion of a transactive memory system (TMS) as a group level memory system that “involves the operation of the memory systems of the individuals and the processes of communication that occur within the group (p. 191). Those processes are the collaborative procedures (“transactions”) by which groups encode, store, and retrieve information that is distributed among their members. Over the past 25+ years, the conception of a TMS has progressively garnered an increased interest among social and organizational psychologists, communication scholars, and management theorists (Ren & Argote 2011). But there remains considerable disagreement about how exactly Wegner’s appeal to group memory should be understood. My goal in this paper is contribute to this debate, by articulating more clearly the value of conceptualizing groups as TMSs. This value, I argue, consists in providing us with a blueprint for how to explain group memory in terms of collective information-processing mechanisms. Collective information-processing mechanisms are dependent on, and interact with, the brain-bound information-processing of individuals, but cannot be reduced to the latter. In my analysis, I lean on extant accounts of mechanistic explanation in the philosophy of science (Bechtel & Richardson 1993; Machamer, Darden, & Craver 2000; Wimsatt 2007) that have been used to analyze the explanatory practices of psychology and cognitive neuroscience (Bechtel 2008, 2009). Based on my reconstruction of Wegner’s conceptualization of a TMS, I argue that the reality of emergent group cognition is compatible with its mechanistic explanation. More generally, my analysis shows that group cognition cannot be reduced to individual cognition, while avoiding the false dilemma between “wholism” and “nothing but-ism” which has hampered traditional construals of the “group mind” thesis (Allport 1968).



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Georg Theiner
Villanova University