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Review of  Conversational Dominance and Gender. A study of Japanese speakers in first and second language contexts

Reviewer: Guido Josef Oebel
Book Title: Conversational Dominance and Gender. A study of Japanese speakers in first and second language contexts
Book Author: Hiroko Itakura
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Japanese
Issue Number: 13.3

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Review: Itakura, Hiroko (2001) Conversational Dominance and
Gender: A study of Japanese speakers in first and second
language contexts. John Benjamins Publishing Company,
hardback ISBN 1-58811-057-5, xviii+231pp, $77.00, Pragmatics
and Beyond New Series 89.

Reviewed by: Guido Oebel, Faculty of Culture and Education,
Saga (Japan) National University

Synopsis in brief:

Hiroko Itakura's empirical study on 'Conversational Dominance
and Gender' is the 89th volume published thus far within the
'Pragmatics and Beyond New Series'. According to the author, her
book explores the notion of dominance in conversation,
particularly gender dominance and its pragmatic transfer in
Japanese as L1 and English as L2 conversation. Despite the
importance of dominance in research areas Itakura notes so far
scholars have failed to develop a systematic approach to the
analysis of dominance in conversation as only then it was possible
to test the credibility of the prevalent view that Japanese men
dominate Japanese women in sociolinguistic terms. She considers
her claim pertinently relevant in view of the present context
where traditional gender realtionships between Japanese males
and females are going through a rapid change. Likewise, without
a comprehensive operational analysis of dominance, research in
SLA would not be able to explain how patterns of dominance in L1
and L2 are related.

In order to investigate relationships between gender and
conversation dominance and for the purpose of pragmatically
transferring such patterns, Itakura considers it necessary to
operationalize the notion of dominance in such a way facilitating
the comparison of speakers' interactional behaviour in a
conversation on the basis of recorded data. That is why the
objective of Itakura's book is -at the theoretical level- to outline
a framework for the analysis of conversational dominance based
on a critical synthesis of insights from Conversational Analysis,
the Birmingham school of discourse analysis, and dialogical
analysis. Within this framework, conversational dominance refers
to an overall pattern of asymmetry measured in terms of the
distribution of controlling actions between speakers over the
course of an interaction along (1) sequential, (2) participatory and
(3) quantitative dimensions.

This analytical framework is developed in Cpaters 2 and 3 while
Chapter 2 reviews previous studies of gender dominance within as
well as outside Japan. Chapter 3 then deals with exploring the
notion of conversational dominance on the basis of different
approaches to oral interaction, proposing a framework for
analysing it.

Chapter 4 describes the research methods for providing empirical
evidence regarding the influence of gender on dominance in L1
Japanese and on L1-to-L2 pragmatic transfer of dominance
patterns among L1 native Japanese speakers. In Chapter 5
Itakura tries to establish whether theoretical assumptions that
sequential dominance is the most important dimension of
conversational dominance are justified. Chapters 6 and 7 pursue
the implications of the quantitative analysis presented in Chapter
4 by examining selected dyadic interactions qualitatively. The
final chapter draws conclusions regarding the three core
questions addressed in the study while simultaneously proposing
directions for future research:

(1) How can conversational dominance be analysed?
Investigation of this question aims to provide systematic methods
for the analysis of conversational dominance.

(2) Do Japanese men tend to dominate Japanese women in L1
Investigating this question aims to enhance one's understanding
of the role of gender in conversational dominance in Japanese
among L1 Japanese speakers.

(3) Are patterns of gender dominance in Japanese L2 (English)
conversation similar to those found in L1 (Japanese)

By addressing this question, Itakura hopes to deepen one's
understanding of L1-to-L2 transfer at the interactional level,
especially in terms of sociocultural norms of conversation.

Synopsis in detail:

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Gender, dominance and pragmatic transfer

- in this chapter, Itakura reviews the literature in order to gain
insights into (1) whether research evidence is to be found to
support the widely held assumption that Japanese men dominate
their female compatriots during their L1 conversation, (2) how
gender dominance has been investigated in contexts outside
Japan, and (3) whether patterns of gender dominance in L1
conversation are also observed in L2 conversation. These
questions are discussed under the headings of language and
gender in Japanese culture, conversational dominance and gender
as well as pragmatic transfer of intercultural norms.

The language of Japanese women in non-traditional roles seems to
differ both from stereotypes of feminine language and also from
powerful male language. Thus, the status of women in Japanese
society appears to be changing, albeit slowly and these changes
seem to be reflected in women's language. Mizutani (1981) and
Mizutani and Mizutani (1987), for example, remark that the
modernisation of Japan and its society should eventually lead to
linguistic unification between male and female speech. They
observe an increasing number of Japanese male speakers placing
the honorific 'o' in front of nouns which has traditionally regarded
a feature of female speech. On the other hand, even an increasing
trend towards masculization of language among young Japanese
girls can be noted, too, for instance using 'boku' when referring to
the first person 'I', a term traditionally categorised as exclusively
male speech. That is why women are gradually becoming more
assertive and increasingly participate in situations previously
recognised as sole male domains.

Chapter 3: Analysing conversational dominance

- outlines an analytical framework for conversational dominance
based on a critical synthesis of insights from the fields of
Conversation Analysis, the so-called Birmingham school of
discourse analysis and dialogical analysis. Itakura discusses how
dominance in conversation can be identified along three
dimensions: sequential, participatory and quantitative. On the
dimensions of sequential and participatory dominance, local
instances of controlling action are identified in terms of
controlling actions, which are followed by complying actions, i.e.
successful actions, or non-complying actions, i.e. attempted
controlling action. In sequential dominance, controlling actions
are identified at the level of turns. Quantitative dominance is
analysed by comparing the total number of words uttered by each
speaker. In cases where the results from these three dimensions
differ, Itakura considers sequential dominance the strongest
indicator of conversational dominance as it is most closely related
to topic development.

The analytical framework proposed in this chapter allows
following Itakura the investigation whether a speaker dominates
the other speaker during a conversation, however, it is designed
exclusively to capture broad patterns based on quantifiable
features. That is why it is Itakura stresses the importance that
the results of quantitative analysis based on the presented
framework are interpreted in the light of qualitative analysis.

Chapter 4: Empirical study: Gender dominance and pragmatic
transfer among Japanese speakers

- in this chapter Itakura uses the analytical framework to
investigate (1) whether Japanese men dominate Japanese women
in L1 and (2) whether patterns of gender and dominance are
similar in L1 and L2. The results indicate that the two
aforementioned hypotheses are not supported by the results from
the conversational data set. There is no evidence that the male
speakers in this data set dominate the female speakers in L1 or
L2. Nevertheless, it can be observed that there is some
inconsistency between the results for sequential dominance and
those for quantitative dominance. However, there is a consistent
pattern that males tend to speak more words relative to females in
L2 than in L1. With regard to the comparison across the three
dimensions (sequential, participatory and quantitative dominance
respectively), there is a discrepancy between the results in
sequential and quantitative dominance, a similar discrepancy
applies to the results between sequential and participatory
dominance in both L1 and L2. The results show that the
relationship between males and females may or may not be the
same across L1 and L2 depending on the males-females dyad.

These results raise the following questions which are discussed
more detailed in the following chapters:

(1) What is the relationship among the three dimensions of
conversational dominance?
(2) How can one explain the fact that speakers behave differently
in L1 and L2, and that male speakers are less dominant in L2
than in L1?
(3) Does the fact that the three hypotheses are not supported for
this data set mean that the validity of the analytical framework is
to be questioned?

Chapter 5: Dimensions of conversational dominance

- in this chapter Itakura establishes whether the treatment of
sequential dominance as the most essential dimension of
conversational dominance is justified on the basis of a detailed
descriptive analysis of part of the data furnished. Furthermore
she discusses how consistencies and inconsistencies between
sequential and quantitative dominance can be explained as well
as the validity of treating participatory dominance as an
independent dimension from sequential dominance. This analysis
is based on the L1 data, which is translated semantically into
English. As a result, Itakura's assumption that sequential
dominance is a stronger indicator of conversational dominance
than participatory one and quantitative dominance is proves to be
supported by qualitative analysis of the data.

Chapter 6: Conversational dominance, styles, strategies and
pragmatic transfer: Informatives

- in this chapter Itakura examines the relationship between
conversational styles (self-oriented vs. other-oriented) by focusing
on how male speakers and female speakers develop topic by using
initiations. She does so by sub-categorising the initiations
observed in the two dyads as different initiation types may be
related to different conversational styles and strategies. Thus
Itakura uses Tsui's system which she regards currently the most
refined categorisation of interactional moves. In Tsui's system,
initiation moves are divided into four classes of acts: elicitations,
requestives, directives and informatives. These are further
divided into sub-classes, e.g., the class of elicitation is subdivided
into elicit:agree, elicit:inform and so on. Itakura follows the
initiation types informative, elicit:agree and elicit:inform.

Chapter 7: Conversational dominance, styles, strategies and
pragmatic transfer: Elicitations

- following the examination of L1 to L2 transfer of informative
moves, in this chapter Itakura analyses how types of elicitations,
elicit:agree and elicit:inform, are used differently by male
speakers and female speakers in L1 and L2 conversations.

In Japanese, utterances seeking agreement are typically made by
attaching the particle 'nee' to the end of an utterance or by
appending the clipped verb forms 'janai' or 'jan' -these are clipped
verb forms of 'dewa nai', which can be translated as 'isn't it' or
'don't you think'. Like elicit:agree in English, moves appended
with 'nee', 'janai' or 'jan' can be used to seek agreement when the
topic and information are already shared between the two
speakers. Apart from syntactic characteristics, Japanese
elicit:agrees also differ from English elicit:agrees in that
agreement may be sought for propositions that are not self-
evidently true. 'Nee' is frequently uesd by japanese speakrers for
this purpose and this seems to be related to a characteristic of
Japanese communication, emphasizing the creation of shared
feelings and empathy. Japanese speakers even tend to use 'nee' to
seek agreement, engagement or empathy token and to check
whether what they say is mutually shared and agreed upon by the
other speaker/listener, even when propositions are not obvious to
the interlocutor. By doing so, 'nee' communicates explicitly the
speaker's desire to establish a shared opinion/idea with the
respective hearer.

English elicit:agree and Japanese elicit:agree are similar in that
both can be thought of as consisting essentially of an informative,
where the speaker makes some proposition, and an additional
syntactic element (tag question or word order change in English)
or interactional particle ('nee' or 'jan' in Japanese). However, they
differ in that English elicit:agree moves involve syntactically more
complicated production mechanisms than Japanese and in that
Japanese elicit:agree may seek agreement or solicit empathy for
or involvement in a proposition which cannot be assumed to be
self-evident to the interlocutor.

Concerning L1 to L2 transfer of elicit:agrees and informatives are
similar in that both express the speaker's proposition and prospect
an appropriate response. While the male speakers as well as the
female speakers in Itakura's study differ with respect to their use
of elicit:agrees in L1 in terms of frequency and interactional style,
they are similar in that neither speaker makes elicit:agrees in L2.

As the study furthermore shows that, on the one hand, the total
number of informatives and elicit:agrees is smaller in L2 than in
L1, and on the other hand, the difference ins larger for the male
speakers than for the female speakers, this suggests that it may
be more difficult to make chains of these two types of moves to
control topic in L2 conversations than in L1 conversation.

Eventually, the fact that the male speakers' drop in the total
number of informatives and elicit:agrees from L1 to L2 is greater
that that for the female speakers supports the Itakura's
hypothesis that the male speakers' dominance in L1 is related to
their self-oriented interactional style, since their informatives and
elicit:agrees tend to be used as strategies for creating stories about

As a conclusion from the aforementioned findings, the female
speakers' other-oriented interactional styles account for their
dominance in L2. This appears to be related to the male speakers'
failure to use informatives strategically thus creating a need for
the female speakers to do facilitatory work so that the male
interlocutors' topics will be developed. That is why the analysis
supports the point made by Coates (1996) and others that men
tend to talk about themselves and use questions to seek
information, while women tend to show concern for what other
speakers have to say and use questions to invite the others to talk
and expand the other speaker's story.

Chapter 8: Conclusion

Itakura's empirical study does not find any clear pattern of male
dominance, maybe due to the fact that the male and female
speakers participating in the study are students in the same
academic year of the same Japanese university attending the
same course. Besides, they are not related to each other through
hierarchical working relationships. That is why the absence of
male dominance among the subjects suggests that the traditional
view on gender dominance in Japanese language and society
should be questioned.

Critical evaluation:

Itakura's study addresses the implication of the interaction of
gender dominance and pragmatic transfer for Japanese speakers
on the basis of developing and applying a framework for analysing
conversational dominance. In my humble opinion, her book does
absolutely contribute to one's understanding of gender and
interaction in - as she herself describes - in three main ways:

(1) Quantitative data in regard to conversational dominance needs
to be interpreted in the light of qualitative analysis concerned
with the speakers' conversational styles, goals and strategies and
with social and cultural aspects of the mutual construction of
meanings in everyday conversation.

(2) Her study provides empirical evidence on gender and
interaction on the basis of recorded conversation that is -
according to Itakura - lacking in studies of Japanese women's
language to date. The results call into question the widely held
assumption that Japanese women's language is indicative of their
lower social status and suggests an alternative view that gender is
a social variable leading to dominance only when it is compounded
with other social variables such as social position and age.

By adopting the integrated approach within her study, Itakura
proves to demonstrate that the construct of conversational
dominance is in fact closely related to the notion of conversational
styles, even though the two concepts are often seen as in

(3) Last but not least, Itakura's study contributes to research on
pragmatic transfer in two respects: (1) investigating the transfer
of interactional norms, in particular, patterns of dominance; (2)
investigating pragmatic transfer on the basis of direct comparison
of L1 and L2 conversations involving the same pairs of speakers,
which, according to Ellis (1994) 'is the only reliable way to
determine the extent of L1 to L2 transfer'.


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Reviewer's Bio: Guido Oebel (PhD in linguistics) is a native
German and currently employed as an associate professor for
German as a Foreign Language and FLL with Saga
National University and as a visiting professor with Kurume
University, both on the Southern island of Kyushu/Japan. His
main areas of research are: comparative language studies (inter
alia Indo-European - Japanese), German as a Foreign Language
(DaF), FLL, sociolinguistics (inter alia German dialects),
bilinguism, and adult language education (action-orientation,learner-
centeredness, learning by teaching).