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Sociolinguistics from the Periphery "presents a fascinating book about change: shifting political, economic and cultural conditions; ephemeral, sometimes even seasonal, multilingualism; and altered imaginaries for minority and indigenous languages and their users"
Date: Fri, 29 Oct 2004 09:23:37 +1000 From: Michael Haugh Subject: Politeness
AUTHOR: Watts, Richard J. TITLE: Politeness SERIES: Key Topics in Sociolinguistics PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2003
Michael Haugh, School of Languages and Linguistics, Griffith University.
INTRODUCTION Politeness by Richard J. Watts is the first book in a new series entitled Key Topics in Sociolinguistics being published by Cambridge University Press. It presents an alternative approach to politeness based on the notion that 'politeness' is contested discursively in interactions. It is, therefore, not so much an introductory textbook as an attempt to continue the theoretical dialogue stimulated by Eelen's (2001) radical appraisal of current models of politeness. The first half of this book is an introduction to the field of politeness research and a critical overview of various theories of politeness. In the second half of the book, the discursive model of politeness proposed by Watts is outlined in greater detail.
SUMMARY In Chapter One, Watts begins with the issue of what constitutes politeness. He frames this question in terms of the distinction between first-order and second-order politeness. Watts argues that first-order politeness (or politeness1) is that subject of discursive dispute (p.9), a theme that becomes increasingly important during the course of this book. The way in which the lexemes 'polite' and 'politeness' are open to negotiation is demonstrated by Watts in his discussion of the various ways in which politeness is defined by native (and non-native) speakers of English. He then goes on to show how equivalent terms in other languages such as Greek ('Evgenia'), Russian ('vezhlivost'), Chinese ('limao'), Hebrew ('nimus', 'adivut'), and Japanese ('teinei') are also the subject of discursive dispute amongst speakers of those languages. A second theme introduced in this chapter is the distinction between 'politic behaviour', defined as "linguistic behaviour which is perceived to be appropriate to the social constraints of the ongoing interaction" (p.19), and 'politeness', defined as "linguistic behaviour which is perceived to be beyond what is expectable" (p.19). This distinction proves crucial in later chapters of this book.
In Chapter Two, the way in which the term politeness has evolved to encompass different understandings over the past five hundred years is discussed. Watts begins with an outline of the etymological origins of the terms 'polite' and 'politeness' (which is the past participle form of the Latin verb 'polir', to polish), before discussing how politeness was associated with the nobility, and later the ruling gentry of Britain until quite recently. This discussion demonstrates that lay evaluations of politeness (that is, first- order politeness) need to be taken seriously, since the terms 'polite' and 'politeness' involve an enormous amount of relativity, both cultural and historical.
Chapter Three gives an overview of some of the more widely known models of politeness in the field, but rather than simply describing these models, this chapter also involves a fairly critical appraisal of current approaches to politeness. In this chapter, Watts shows that these models fail to give a comprehensive account of the second-order concept of politeness. However, rather than modifying these theories in an attempt to address this issue, it later becomes clear that Watts proposes abandoning these theories altogether in favour of his discursive model.
In Chapter Four, Brown and Levinson's (1987) face-saving model of politeness is discussed in detail, since it still remains the dominant theory in politeness research to date. As pointed out by Watts, attempts to develop new approaches to politeness have been only sporadic, with the vast majority of politeness research focused on either applying Brown and Levinson's model to empirical studies (of particular speech acts or across cultures), or criticising it (pp.98-99). After giving a brief overview of the major tenets of Brown and Levinson's model, Watts goes on to consider some of the major criticisms of their model. Two key areas that emerge for further consideration are the need to revise Brown and Levinson's notion of 'face' (which is addressed further in Chapter Five), and the useful analogy that can be drawn between the power of politeness in society and the power of money in the economy (which is elaborated upon further in Chapter Six).
In Chapter Five, the assumption that facework underlies politeness is challenged by Watts. He gives a number of examples to show that while facework in some form or other is fairly pervasive in social interaction, facework is not always associated with politeness. The move to make a clear distinction between facework and politeness is based on the argument that should acknowledge the terms 'polite' and 'impolite' have meanings in their own right, which are ignored if one equates politeness with facework. Watts also suggests in this chapter that the dual notions of positive and negative face proposed by Brown and Levinson be abandoned in favour of Goffman's original conceptualisation of face as "the socially attributed aspect of self that is temporarily on loan for the duration of the interaction in accordance with the line or lines that the individual has adopted" (p.125), something that has also been recently proposed by Bargiela-Chiappini (2003).
In Chapter Six, Watts begins the task of introducing his discursive model of politeness in more detail. He starts his exposition with two very important caveats: a discursive model of politeness is neither a predictive nor a descriptive approach to politeness (p.142). Instead, this approach proposes "ways to recognise when a linguistic utterance might be open to interpretation by interactants as (im)polite", and thus "allows us to see how social members themselves define the term [politeness]" (p.143). Politeness is defined as behaviour in excess of 'politic behaviour', thereby promoting the latter notion to a key position in politeness theory. Bordieu's theory of practice forms the springboard for Watts' theorizing, as he draws upon Bordieu's concepts of 'habitus' and 'capital', in addition to the notions of power and 'emergent networks'. Politeness is viewed as a kind of "payment" in excess of what is ordinarily required by the politic behaviour of a social interaction (p.152). In this approach, then, evaluations of politeness depend crucially on the linguistic habitus of the interactant and the linguistic capital s/he is able to manipulate (p.160). There are two main implications of this approach for the theorizing of politeness. First, the evaluation of linguistic structures as politic or polite behaviour is a subjective process and cannot be objectively verified. In other words, individuals do not always agree on what counts as polite behaviour (a key claim of the discursive model of politeness). Second, politeness can be evaluated both positively ('genuine' politeness) and negatively ('insincere'/'ironic' politeness or 'abusive' politeness).
Chapter Seven examines linguistic structures that are often considered to be typical examples of politeness in the literature. The key claim made in this chapter is that no linguistic structures can be considered to be inherently polite. There are, of course, certain structures that are more open to interpretation as indicators of politeness, such as various formulaic utterances (for example, 'please', 'thank you') or particular semi-formulaic indirect speech acts (for example, 'Would you mind...?', 'I couldn't...could I?'), but none of these structures can be said to automatically convey politeness in all contexts. Watts goes on to review various taxonomies or politeness structures and illustrates that these taxonomies are inevitably heterogeneous in nature, meaning that the categorisation of polite structures in an ordered manner is an almost impossible task. He thus proposes so-called polite linguistic structures are actually pragmaticalised expressions of procedural meaning (EPMs) that indicate how the propositions in an utterance are to be interpreted (p.174), as opposed to conveying propositional or ideational meaning.
In Chapter Eight, Watts argues that the Gricean approach to pragmatics underlying Brown and Levinson's theory is problematic as it is not able to adequately account for the on-line negotiation of meaning and appropriateness occurring in real-life interactions (p.207). This stems partly from the fact that the Gricean approach, and consequently Brown and Levinson's model of politeness, is focused on how the speaker frames an utterance, with less attention paid to how the addressee interprets that utterance. Watts proposes that Relevance Theory constitutes a useful alternative, although he stresses that Relevance Theory does not, and indeed cannot, underlie a theory of first-order politeness (p.203). In essence, Watts uses Relevance Theory as a tool to analyse instances of politeness. The notion of 'power' is also explicated in this chapter, as it prominently features in the analysis of examples of politeness in discourse in the following chapter.
Chapter Nine features an analysis of two fairly extended pieces of naturally occurring discourse, one involving a fairly confrontational verbal interaction (a televised debate between politicians lead by an interviewer), and the other being an example of public, cooperative discourse (a radio talkback broadcast). Unsurprisingly, there are more instances of politeness1 to be found in the later interaction, although a small number of examples of politeness1 are found in the confrontational discourse. Through this analysis Watts shows how the discursive approach can be applied to explicating examples of politeness1, how these are often related to the negotiation of power, and the ways in which politeness can be seen to be quite distinct from face-work in interactions.
Chapter Ten reviews the discursive theory of politeness, and explains how it offers a real alternative to current theories of politeness, the most prominent of these being, of course Brown and Levinson's model. Watts then goes on to suggest possible future lines of inquiry, while at the same time placing the discursive theory of politeness into the wider context of a general theory of social behaviour. The book concludes with a restatement of its central thesis, namely that there needs to be a radical re-thinking of our approach to research about politeness, and a shift towards seeing that what counts as polite is something that is almost always negotiated by interactants.
EVALUATION At first glance this book might appear to be an introductory textbook to a field of a research that has been rapidly expanding over the past twenty- five years. However, Watts' book goes beyond an overview of current politeness research, in proposing a new approach to theorizing politeness. This discursive approach to politeness theory represents a significant challenge to the current theoretical hegemony of Brown and Levinson's (1987) model of politeness. This book thus stimulates theoretical debate in a field where the dominant model has been repeatedly criticised, and even rejected, but where no practical successor has yet emerged.
The distinction between first-order and second-order politeness is indeed a very important one, as convincingly argued first by Eelen (2001), and now by Watts (2003). As briefly illustrated by Watts in Chapter One, and as can be seen in greater detail in Haugh (2004), there are indeed significant differences in the way in which people from different cultures conceptualise politeness, and these differences impinge upon the way in which politeness arises in each culture. If these distinctions are not acknowledged, then theories lose much of their power to explain politeness across cultures.
However, while the discursive theory of politeness involves the assumption that politeness is conceptualized differently, not only across cultures, but also between individuals within that culture, it is not made clear that it can provide a solid framework in which to undertake cross-cultural research. This weakness stems from the fact that no cross-cultural comparisons are made within this book, despite so much of the research to date on politeness being cross-cultural in nature, or at least in intent. Indeed, it would be fair to note that this book is not really about politeness in general (that is, across cultures), but is in fact an exposition about 'politeness' in English. The focus of the book is thus somewhat narrower than its title might suggest.
In addition, while the focus of the book is almost exclusively on politeness in English, there is little reference made to the fact that there are now a number of different varieties of English that exist throughout the world (the exact number depending upon how one wishes to count them), and that these different varieties of English are important elements of arguably quite different cultures. Any detailed exposition of politeness in English must therefore include at least some acknowledgement of possible differences between the politeness systems of different varieties of English. The notion of shared 'habitus' would, of course, be useful in explicating those differences.
A further possible weakness of this book is that Watts focuses almost exclusively on linguistic forms in his discussion of various examples of politeness1, with little mention of pragmatic strategies. One of the most significant achievements of Brown and Levinson's work was to bring politeness strategies to the forefront of research on politeness, as studies prior to Brown and Levinson tended to be more focused on polite forms. Watts analysis thus suffers from an undue focus on linguistic forms, and neglects to explain how the discursive approach could be applied to the analysis of politeness strategies. While he states quite explicitly that he focuses upon linguistic politeness in his book, this does not necessarily preclude discussion of politeness strategies (since they are clearly not non- verbal aspects of politeness). This focus upon linguistic forms is thus another example of how the focus of this book is somewhat narrower than its title might suggest.
There are other issues touched upon in this book that perhaps require further explanation, such as the implied categorization of different types of politeness1, which included 'genuine' politeness, 'insincere/ironic' politeness, and 'abusive' politeness. This is certainly an area that has received little attention thus far, and Watts provides new insights, but he does not, unfortunately, develop this categorization in any great detail. There is also little consideration of the distinction between politeness and implicature, despite the notion of implicature being discussed in some detail in Chapter Eight, although it can perhaps be inferred that Watts adheres to the view that politeness is not an implicature, as he argues it arises from procedural rather than conceptual meaning.
In the discursive model of politeness there are no inherently polite utterances, only utterances that are more open to interpretation as polite than others. Although, to be fair, Brown and Levinson most likely did not intend their taxonomy of politeness strategies to be used to label certain structures or strategies as polite, it has often been the case that the inherently contextual nature of politeness has been brushed over, or even ignored, in studies of politeness. Watts' book is thus a timely reminder of the fact politeness is not attached to particular forms or strategies, but rather is something that emerges from evaluations of particular behaviour as 'polite' by interactants.
"Politeness" is an extremely important contribution to the field of politeness research. It not only gives a measured overview of theoretical work thus far, but also proposes a plausible starting point for the development of a genuine alternative to Brown and Levinson's model of politeness. It is, therefore, a book that all who are studying or researching about politeness would benefit from reading.
REFERENCES Bargiela-Chiappini, Francesca (2003). 'Face and politeness' new (insights) for old (concepts),' "Journal of Pragmatics" 35: 1453-1469.
Brown, Penelope and Stephen Levinson (1987). "Politeness. Some Universals in Language Usage." Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Eelen, Gino (2001). "A Critique of Politeness Theories." St. Jerome, Manchester.
Haugh, Michael (2004). 'Revisiting the conceptualization of politeness in English and Japanese,' "Multilingua" 23: 85-109.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Michael Haugh is a lecturer in the School of Languages and Linguistics at Griffith University. He is currently teaching English as a Second Language as well as Japanese. His main research interests include pragmatics, intercultural communication, and the relationship between language and identity.