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The granularity of social action ascription in conversational interaction

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A point of common interest in the fields of linguistic pragmatics and conversation analysis is the ways in which we use language to do things. The traditional approach to speech acts in pragmatics has favoured a theoretically more formal approach that draws upon the putative intentions and beliefs of speakers. On Austin’s (1962/1975) account of speech acts at least, the subsequent uptake of recipients is also considered to be important. In conversation analysis, folk categories, along with technical neologisms, have been used in descriptive accounts of the sequential accomplishment of social actions that generally eschew recourse to intentional mental states. In CA, action ascription is generally held to involve the assignment of an action to a prior turn through what the subsequent response of the next speaker reveals (Sacks 1992; Schegloff 2007). In this paper, the way in which participants interactionally accomplish social actions as particular kinds of social actions is discussed. The focus will be on instances where offers of assistance from recipients are prompted by reports or inquiries about needs, difficulties or troubles on the part of the speaker (Drew 1984; Haugh 2015; Kendrick and Drew 2014). While in pragmatics these have traditionally been analysed as “off-record requests” or “requestive hints” (Brown and Levinson 1987; Weizman 1985), close analysis indicates that construing instances of prompting offers of assistance as intended by that speaker is treated by the participants as an interactionally delicate matter (Haugh forthcoming). That is, participants work to avoid licensing inferences about the offer-recipient’s intentions through both the design of prompted offers and subsequent non-straightforward responses to them. The implications of this analysis for our understanding of act(ion)s accomplished through conversational interaction are argued to be two-fold. First, we need to develop a formal account of social act(ion)s that not only gives us the ability to assign gross categories of act(ion)s, but can also accommodate the inherently granular nature of locally situated instances of these act(ion)s in conversational interaction. Second, rather than rejecting a role for cognitive processes in analysing social action ascription, we need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the role that reflexive representations of intentions, and intentionality more broadly, play in construing actions as particular kinds of social actions in conversational interaction.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Linguistics Forum series.

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