AUTHOR: Sidnell, Jack
TITLE: Talk and Practical Epistemology
SUBTITLE: The Social Life of Knowledge in a Caribbean Community
SERIES: Pragmatics and Beyond New Series
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Don E. Walicek, Department of English, University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras
Written by Jack Sidnell, this book has three main objectives: to access the
social organization of knowledge revealed in speakers' conversations about
''mundane activities'' (e.g., advising, story-telling, question and answer
sequences); to provide an adequate analysis of Guyanese Creole within the
tradition of conversation analysis (hereafter referred to as CA); and, finally,
to contribute to work on practice within the rubric of social theory. The
volume, which is based on the author's fieldwork in an Indo-Guyanese community,
will appeal to readers with interests in areas such as anthropological
linguistics, conversational analysis, Creole languages, sociolinguistics, and
pragmatics. It consists of ten chapters, an appendix, and an index.
The first chapter introduces CA, the conceptual framework connecting the various
topics addressed in the text. As Sidnell explains, CA is informed by insights
such as Garfinkel's (1967) observation that ''people make sense of some
particular utterance by seeing it as part of a larger whole,'' not just on the
details of dialogue. This is also a tradition of analysis that positions
language as ''a temporally unfolding series of turns-at-talk'' and recognizes the
''dual prospective-retrospective orientation'' of participants (3). The author
emphasizes that CA calls upon researchers to strive to describe talk in
interaction from the position(s) in which participants encounter it.
This initial chapter draws attention to ''Malinowski's complaint,'' namely, the
idea that many frames of analysis fail to confront a number of central problems
with which Sidnell suggests any ''adequate account of human practice'' should
deal. The author critiques some of these theories, including the idea of
'calculative rationality' put forth by Sahlins (1976), on the grounds that they
offer ''individualist accounts'' which ''link the identity of particular actions to
properties of the individuals who perform them'' (11). He differentiates between
these accounts and his own approach and contends that ''actions must be examined
in relation to the socially organized practices which provide for their
intelligibility'' (11). Sidnell argues that the analysis of talk can be
strengthened when it explores the social distribution and organization of
knowledge, including phenomena such as: situated judgments, situated evaluations
of rationales, understanding, the indexical character of linguistic expressions,
training, and instruction.
Chapter 2 begins by positioning ethnography as an effective means of
investigating and describing practical knowledge. Sidnell points out that in
this text he has shifted the usual emphasis of CA away from particular verbal
exchanges to address instead the organization of talk-in-interaction. He states
that the book aims to demonstrate that through CA anthropologists and linguists
can ''gain entry to the worlds of the people they study'' (19). Sidnell
elaborates, ''Careful examination of what people actually said to one another in
the course of their ordinary activities reveals a kind of social organization
that remains inaccessible to other anthropological approaches'' (19). Three
frameworks which rely on ethnography for studying the intersections between
speech and practical epistemology are discussed: linguistic anthropology, the
'anthropology of knowledge,' and 'knowledge in interaction.' He associates the
latter two frameworks with the work of Goodenough (1964), Keesing (1979), and
Lindstrom (1990); and Sacks (1992) and Roth (2002), respectively.
Chapter three offers a sketch of Callander, the predominately Hindu village
where Sidnell completed twelve months of fieldwork between 1994 and 1996.
Callander is a rural settlement populated by persons of East Indian ancestry.
The chapter's purpose is two-fold: first, to provide background information that
readers can use in interpreting subsequent chapters in the book; and second, to
situate the work in relation to other ethnographic studies that focus on Guyana
(e.g., Jayawardena 1963, Despres 1967, and Williams 1991).
This third chapter includes a provocative discussion of Callander's main road as
a setting in which knowledge is generated, exchanged, and communicated. In
describing the road's relationship to different domains of knowledge, the author
encourages the reader to keep an ''eye on the actual forms of activity in which
members are engaged and allow the analysis of practical epistemology to emerge
as part of the description of those activities'' (74). Sidnell cites advising,
complaining, gossiping, reminiscing, and reporting as examples of activities
which require the use of particular forms of knowledge.
The fourth chapter presents a brief sketch of the English-lexifer Creole spoken
in Callander. This is a variety that speakers refer to as Creolese. The author
considers it a conservative or basilectal variety of Guyanese Creole. He
contextualizes this section by stating that he intends to ''give a sense'' of the
language by focusing on those features of most relevance to later chapters. The
chapter does not provide an exhaustive account of the characteristics of
Creolese, but it does discuss the verb phrase, participant deictics, and the
The next chapter begins with a discussion of Wittgenstein's (1960) notion of a
language game. This concept, in Sidnell's words, ''involves tracing uses of
language back to the simpler, 'primitive' forms in which they are introduced to
the child'' (83). The author relates it to question and answer sequences found in
data from Callander. He observes that these verbal sequences reveal children in
relation to practical epistemologies. These excerpts show, for example, children
acting as reporters and witnesses. Sidnell explains that when young people take
on these roles they contribute to ''[w]hat makes Callander a small place, […] the
local structures of accountability through which the actions and whereabouts of
each individual are tracked and made storyable'' (103).
Chapter 6 discusses the death of a resident as it relates to the social life of
the village. In Callander, death rituals are typically the concern of the
deceased's patrilocal group; however, in the case at hand the man who died had a
strained relationship with his patrilocal group. When he married he went against
norms by establishing a home on land belonging to his wife's family. This
chapter describes how participants invited, gave, received, and resisted advice
about how to execute ''ritual dead work.'' In addition, it documents indications
of uncertainty and incompetence and explores how they relate to the giving of
advice. Sidnell tells how knowledge of particular rituals is distributed
unevenly as a result of gender dynamics and the status of given practices as
Concerning uncertainty, Sidnell makes two intriguing claims: first, he defines
it as a public phenomenon, not a condition restricted to a private or inner
mental state; and second, he notes that participants sometimes consider
uncertainty to be ''intersubjectively sustained'' among members of a socially
defined unit (e.g., a clan or kin group) (128). In line with Wittgenstein's
later philosophy, this second assertion complicates the notion that uncertainty
is merely a property of the individual.
The seventh chapter focuses on talk about an incident in which sexual norms were
violated, an event that evolved into a dispute between rival patrilocal groups.
Sidnell provides transcripts which recount how a woman, an aunt of one of those
accused of improper behavior, controls knowledge generated about this
unspeakable incident. Her words show how she displays ignorance without ever
explicitly stating that she does not know what happened. Sidnell reviews
research on referent identification (Sacks and Schegloff 1979) and relative
expertise (Schutz 1964). In the case of the former, the author confers that
referent identification is sequentially organized. He critiques the latter
research for failing to ''[…] analyze the absence of knowledge in its own right''
and merely opposing 'knowing' and 'not knowing' (149).
Chapters 8 and 9 both deal with local history and story-telling. 'Local history'
includes knowledge of genealogies as well as events of local importance (151).
The author explores how local historical knowledge is strictly regulated, even
while access to it is not controlled by elaborate mechanisms of initiation or
socialization. Sidnell makes an engaging distinction between reminiscing and
other kinds of storytelling, suggesting that the former is unique for involving
recipients who are knowledgeable about the events being recounted.
Much of the eighth chapter describes the organization of talk among age-mates
(men of roughly the same age and social status) in the rum shop, an exclusively
male setting in which men tell and reminisce local history. It details how
alignments that distinguish participants as informed or uninformed are
established, maintained, and displayed in narratives based on first-hand access
to the events about which speakers talk (and / or reminisce). Sidnell also
illustrates how speakers conclude, evaluate, and follow up a story.
The penultimate chapter examines examples in which participant access to
epistemic access is challenged. Challenges, are ''a means by which
co-participation in talk generally, and displays of knowledge specifically, are
policed and regulated'' (179). This section begins with a discussion of the
significance of story-telling. Next, it describes how story-tellers position
themselves in the events they narrate. Various examples of co-participation in
story-telling are presented. Individuals are shown to utilize the uneven
distribution of knowledge to expose certain aspects of local social
organization, social organization that is shaped by and reflected in talk.
The text's final chapter is organized as a conclusion. It reviews the main
points of the book and makes connections between some of these and other texts,
including Wilson's (1973) study of epistemic issues in the Anglophone Caribbean
and Brenneis's (1984) research in one of Fiji's Indian communities. Arguing that
practice deserves more attention from linguists and other researchers, Sidnell
comments further on the relationship between the individual and society and
arguments about the relationship between ''agency'' and ''structure.'' He rejects
the proposal that a dialectic adequately represents the relationship between
these concepts. In his words, ''An account which focuses on the middle ground of
practices, rather than in either the ether of theoretical constructs or the
inescapable plurality of unique actions, offers a way out of this conundrum – or
rather a way of avoiding the problems which beset traditional theorizing from
the outset'' (192).
There is much impressive and to be appreciated about this book. Three of its
strengths strike this reviewer as especially noteworthy. First, by the last
chapter Sidnell has clearly accomplished each of the objectives he set out to
achieve. Perhaps most striking among these is the author's utilization of CA and
his keen ability to link the insights it offers to topics which are not
typically discussed by its practitioners. Second, the volume includes a generous
amount of empirical data: substantial excerpts of spoken discourse and
ethnographic information. These come together in a relatively seamless manner,
consistently reminding the reader that talk is embedded in and intertwined with
its own epistemologies of practice. Third, the book successfully straddles
various analytical perspectives. This study establishes its topic by tracking
and pursuing it across boundaries that are reified in many other more
traditional inquiries. It can be said to link, and also to frequently transcend,
established perspectives in the study of conversation, narrative, language and
gender, sociohistory, identity, and performance.
This book seems most appropriate for readers who already have some background in
at least one of the subfields of linguistics with which it deals. It will be
particularly compelling for those who have interests in sociolinguistics but are
less knowledgeable about CA. The volume has only a few typographical errors and
is written in a clear manner that makes it appropriate for those new to the
field as well as more senior scholars.
As noted by Briggs (1996:4), ''The status of narrative production and reception
as situated social activities that play a crucial role in constituting –not
merely reflecting– everyday life has seldom been explored in any depth.''
Sidnell's publication is an exception to this generalization. Refreshing is that
this work is a book-length study based largely on fieldwork and that, unlike
most monographs of this sort, its language of focus is a Creole language.
Particularly impressive for their ethnographic content are chapters three,
eight, and nine, which investigate patterns of language use integral to social
life. They show that even within a single speech community the relationships
between language use and social relations are diverse, shifting, and variant,
confirming scenarios suggested by Cicourel (1993) and Woolard (1985). These
chapters make it clear that the study of narratives and how they interface with
social organization has been pursued in a wide range of disciplines. Given the
ubiquity of narratives in the lives of speech communities generally, and the
relative diversity of sociohistorical and cultural settings in which Creole
languages are spoken, it is rather surprising that more creolists with interests
in sociolinguistic phenomena have not shown systematic interest in investigating
An added bonus in the text is the appendix. It includes a glossary of eleven key
concepts that are helpful in understanding CA. Each entry is defined in detail
and includes references to relevant secondary literature. However, the appendix
does not refer the reader to pages of the text in which examples of the concepts
it defines can be located. Some examples can be identified through the use of
the index; however, a number of the terms found in the glossary do not appear in
the index, thus complicating efforts to quickly locate examples of given
phenomena. In addition, the appendix includes neither any examples of language
from Callander nor specific narrative references to phenomena that Sidnell
I have two remaining critical remarks about the book; however, neither of these
would prevent me from recommending it to potential readers. The first of these
relates to chapter two. The chapter explores how a focus on conversation can
strengthen the analysis and description of the social organization of knowledge;
it does so, however, without any substantial reference or allusion to
conversations from Callander (Chapter one included vivid passages from such
conversations). Various concepts and works (e.g., coding, Chafe and Nichols
1986; epistemic stance, Mushin 2001; zero-marked utterances, Fox 2001; footing,
Goffman 1981; and knowledge in interaction, Goodwin 1979 and Heritage 1984) are
reviewed and detailed examples from the relevant literature are provided. As I
proceeded through these, I was eager to learn more about the village that
Sidnell offers some information about in chapter one, but distracted by (and
somewhat suspicious of) the cultural specificity of the examples cited from
other works and the absence of remarks about Creolese. Given that several of
these concepts are addressed only minimally or indirectly in the chapters that
follow, I suggest that this section would have been strengthened by the
inclusion of some questions about or glimpses of (or preliminary comparisons to)
data from Guyana.
My second critical comment concerns parts of the text that discusses ideology
and its relationship to ethnography. Following a provocative discussion of
excerpts from Geertz (1973) and Foucault and Gordon (1980), Sidnell asserts:
''All notions of ideology crucially invoke a distinction between belief based on
appearance and some actual set of facts – they insist upon a contrast between
appearance and some non-ideological reality which is variably intelligible and
visible to those held captive by the ideological formation'' (205). He adds: ''My
criticism is rather that ideology imposes our standards of truth and, by
extension, knowledge upon others and fails to recognize that the people so
characterized have their own methods for deciding such matters of truth and
falsity, etc.'' (205). As a solution to these problems, Sidnell advocates a focus
on knowledge that uses ethnography to describe what people know (not believe);
one that reveals organization that ''[…] the natives themselves are concerned
with and which they themselves institute within and through the situated
activities of everyday life'' (201); one that recognizes how people rationalize
their own actions and those of others, how statements are excused, explained,
justified and challenged; one that ''[…] is located in the organized set of
practices that are constitutive of the particular scenes which make up the life
An emphasis on practice usefully encourages and facilitates the critical
analysis of structural-determinist social theories and individualist accounts,
but what insights unfold in the wake of such a critique? What happens in the
shift from knowledge and ideology to belief and practice to ensure that the
researcher's standards of truth will not be imposed on the situations and
practices that he or she describes? The author holds that ''[…] practices fit
together to make up the accountably organized, coherent and orderly activities
or language games of everyday life […]'' (206). But might an ethnographic
analysis which insists that the formulation of a corrective (what might be an
insistence on a ''tighter'' or ''better'' fit or a more perfect explanation) also
risk reinforcing ideas that uphold ethnocentrism, dualism (appearance vs. actual
facts), and the imposition of truth? In Clifford's (1986:100) opinion,
ethnography is always allegorical; he argues that it ''prompts us to say of any
cultural description not 'this represents, or symbolizes, […]' but rather, 'this
is a (morally charged) story about that.'' Sidnell's inspiring study of how
different types of knowledge are reconstituted in talk shows that story-tellers'
narratives become all the more fascinating when careful attention is paid to the
details of conversation. It reminds me that the practices of linguists and
story-tellers alike are mediated by aspects of knowledge that are speculative,
contradictory, and disjunctive. For this reason I suggest that even an
ethnography centered on practice should acknowledge and explore the interplay
between linguists' modes of evocation, explanation, and exegesis and the
crafting and deployment of coherent and orderly scientific explanations.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Don E. Walicek is a Ph.D. candidate in English linguistics at the University of
Puerto Rico at Río Piedras. His academic interests are in the areas of
sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, and anthropological linguistics. His
dissertation examines Anguillian, the English-lexifier Creole spoken on the
Caribbean island of Anguilla.