Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.
Date: Fri, 8 Jul 2005 12:10:49 -0700 From: Susan Fiksdal Subject: Talk & Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life
AUTHOR: Erickson, Frederick TITLE: Talk and Social Theory SUBTITLE: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life PUBLISHER: Polity Press YEAR: 2004
Susan Fiksdal, Linguistics and French, The Evergreen State College
In this book Frederick Erickson presents a new approach to discourse theory by articulating the links between the microanalysis of conversation and discourse at the societal level. He begins with two assertions which form a paradox when held together, paraphrased here: (1) The conduct of talk in real time is unique, produced by social actors in a particular situation; (2) This conduct of talk is influenced by social factors beyond the situation and time of that talk. Rather than focusing on one or the other assertion, Erickson presents an argument linking the two.
Part I "Examples of the Conduct of Talk" (Chapters 1-5) examines four different conversations which could be seen as pedagogically oriented across the life cycle: children interacting at a family dinner, a kindergartner interacting with her teacher, a counselor interacting with a community college student, and a medical intern interacting with his supervisor. Although these examples have been previously published, they are reframed for this book.
Chapter One: "Sketching the Terrain" This chapter lays out Erickson's approach to conversation analysis which he describes as a social ecology of mutual attention taking place in a context of time. This notion of time is based on the Greek terms for time, "kronos" and "kairos." "Kronos" refers to the rhythmic cadence performed by prosody and body motion. The second aspect of time, "kairos," refers to the time of tactical appropriateness, the time that feels right for a particular purpose. It is this dual notion of time that enables the social organization of talk. Erickson proposes that to fully investigate the social practices within conversation, it is essential to examine the social practices within society. He does not see these as deterministic; instead, he argues that the social structure provides both constraints and enablement and social processes are both conventional and innovative.
In Chapter Two, "Seventy-Five Dollars Goes in a Day," Erickson presents an analysis of a family dinner table conversation within a rich context of setting, participants, and organization of talk. The transcription is designed to display the rhythmic organization, with parts of the talk transcribed a second time using musical notation. With eight speakers and a lively conversation with side conversations, contributions from everyone, passing of food, and eating, there was a lot going on. Erickson points out that all of this activity was rhythmically oriented so that the gestures and passing movements matched the cadence of the conversation measured using a metronome and machine analysis. Key information nouns received prominence in this structure by falling on the "beat" and receiving pitch and volume emphasis, making it easy for listeners to locate them. Erickson then situates the content of the talk within the family's socioeconomic situation at that time-1974. The topic in effect acted as a socializing feature: the children were learning about their family budget situation and they were learning ways of talking about it. Erickson argues that this must have taken place in many working class families and acted in synergy with political discourse producing a mass movement which was responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan as president.
Chapter 3, "I can Make a 'P'" focuses on the relative interactional success of two children in a combined first and second grade classroom. He describes the communicative competence of the first graders who had already spent a year in the same teacher's classroom which included both responding with the correct information and responding at the right time-during the "kairos" moment after a question and on the cadential beat. One of the children, Angie, did not respond appropriately in the first taping and this segment is carefully analyzed for the rhythmic organization of the talk. He reports that by February Angie had learned the conversational practices in the classroom. Another child did not achieve that competence and by the following year he had "faded into the woodwork." That is, he did not interact in the classroom conversation and was no longer expected to. Erickson points out that this interactional failure can follow children as it affects teachers' judgments of their academic ability and their motivation. These judgments are entered in the children's permanent records and they influence later teachers' perceptions of them. Whether this takes place in a school, a hospital, or periodic interviews with a parole officer, Erickson points out that an individual develops an identifiable deviant institutional career Cicourel (1967).
Chapter 4 "You Wrestlin'?" presents a conversation between an academic counselor at a community college with a long-term student. Erickson's analysis of the conversation and the playback interview demonstrates the ways in which co-membership in a group is established through talk. In this case, the advisor revealed that he knew the student's family and they shared the same ethnicity. Erickson points out that the collusion between the advisor and student, which was not explicitly addressed by either, helped the student avoid the draft and serving in the military during the Vietnam War. For example, although the community college normally graduated students in four semesters, this student was in his eighth. Erickson reports on the way he also helped students when he first became a professor.
In Chapter 5, "He has no history of IVDA," Erickson analyzes the interaction of an attending physician and preceptor with an intern in his first year of residency. In contrast to the co-membership solidarity described in the previous chapter, in this one co-membership is complicated by race. Both the intern and patient are young African- American males while the preceptor is older and white. The hospital served adjacent inner-city neighborhoods where mostly African- Americans lived, and the patient came from one of these neighborhoods. Erickson finds several places in the discourse where co-membership is established in the intern's use of an informal register rather than specific medical terminology. This practice establishes the young intern as a doctor like the preceptor as this informal register is often used between doctors. In two places in the interaction, however, the intern responds to the informal register of the preceptor with a hyperformal response. Erickson surmises that he wishes to distance himself from the street-wise patient. By distancing himself from the patient and what the patient knows, the intern also distances himself from the preceptor in his hyperformal response. Erickson sees this momentary chill in the two doctor's relationship as a consequence of the history of race relations in the US.
Prior to the beginning of Part II, Erickson offers a summation of the findings in the first four chapters in "Excursus: The Cases in Synoptic Review." He points out that in all cases there were various subtexts being expressed as well as the main topics. While some particular features are specific only to individual cases, there is potential for what he calls "ethnographic generalization."
Part II, "Thinking About Talk and Social Theory," reiterates the thesis of the book stated as a paradox in the introduction: talk is both a local process and a global one. Erickson indicates the difficulties in addressing this paradox given the disciplinary divisions in academia and the importance of bridging the gulf between local practices and social theory.
In Chapter 6, "General Perspectives on Talk and Social Theory," Erickson describes and critiques social theories which he believes do not adequately explain both the local and global ecologies of talk. He first sketches two major approaches to social processes-voluntarism or the result of individual effort and will; and social determinism. Neither can account for the ways in which local and global processes interact. He then describes various explanations for the existence of social order including socialization, conflict theory, ethnomethodology, and post-structuralist accounts found in Foucault's, Bourdieu's and Bakhtin's writings. These he associates with capital D "Discourse" approaches (Gee, 1990), which do not take into account local discourse practices as much as larger practices labeled as general workings of society. He also examines Fairclough's notion of critical discourse analysis, which is concerned with language as social practice determined by social structure. Erickson seeks to underscore the multivalence in everyday talk and to create a theoretical stance in which to study it.
In Chapter 7, "Toward a more Practical theory of Practices in Talk," Erickson extends his critique from the previous chapter arguing that both Foucault and Bourdieu treat the relationship of culture, discourse, and power in a deterministic way. In Foucault's theory he finds no place for the human agent and no gradation in the flow of power. He reveals an analogous problem in Bourdieu's formulation of the relationship between "habitus" and field. Bourdieu describes social reproduction in a variety of settings, but he does not describe a particular habitus or practice in the field-as-experienced. Erickson argues that speakers as social actors in real time constitute the field- as-experience and that this field is penetrable by local practice-it does not determine what can occur. Erickson acknowledges Goffman's approach to face-work as an opening to the in depth work of understanding talk in interaction, and his notion of footings or alignments in which speakers adopt to indicate to others the stance they are taking towards the talk as contributions to his own notion of a theory of practicing.
Erickson believes that to account for change in a theory of social reproduction, we must look within the conduct of talk. He finds the notion of the "bricoleur" (Lévi-Strauss, 1966) useful for explaining how change occurs at this level. The "bricoleur" is the handyman who makes use of what is at hand to solve a problem. In talk, a speaker as "bricoleur" may bring the same strategy as in another conversation in response to a particular situation; but, crucially, this speaker may also innovate at the appropriate moment. Erickson thus expands and deepens this notion of timing, from the Greek notion of kairos or the appropriate moment which he has developed in earlier work (see especially Erickson and Shultz 1982). Erickson demonstrates the actions of a "bricoleur," his son at age 2, who routinely ended his made-up stories: "And they lived happily ever after...amen." His son had acquired prestructured speech through different experiences and combined them in an innovative way, indicating that preexisting structures do allow for change
In Chapter 8, "Summing Up," Erickson makes the crucial point that post-structuralists have extended the notion of discourse to semiotic systems beyond face-to-face talk such as writing, dress, food, architecture, systems of power/knowledge and that this breadth obscures the fundamental constitutive importance of local social ecology for the real-time production of talk. He finds a neglect of the particular situation because the units of analysis are temporally and spatially distant. On the other hand, the analysis of talk affords an in depth view of a particular situation and the ways in which that situation constrains the speakers. In order to illustrate why these particular situations matter in the overall social system, he reviews each of the chapters presenting a particular conversation analysis and illustrates the ways in which each contributes to historical change. He argues that looking at change from the bottom up, the work social actors do in real time in conversation, reveals innovation. Although he cannot say for sure what happened to the specific social actors he investigated in the conversations presented in this volume, Erickson does insist upon the importance of social theory for conversation analysts. If, for example, researchers are working within a theory in which social actors are essential rule-followers, products of prior socialization, they may overlook evidence of speech genres that do not fit.
Erickson has proposed an intriguing argument, linking local conversations in real time with the theory of discourse at a societal level. It offers students of sociolinguistics and discourse analysis a way of understanding the importance of ethnographic microanalysis in the context of social change. The discussion of four conversations in the first part of the book carefully lays the groundwork for the theoretical discussion in the second, by presenting a close analysis of verbal and nonverbal behavior and tying the talk to the social forces of the time. Erickson thus reinforces his argument for the importance of talk in real time. For those familiar with Erickson's work, this argument extends his work on the notion of "kairos," the right time or appropriate time in talk. He proposes the "bricoleur" as agent, an agent that can exercise power and create change at the local level.
I find Erickson's argument intriguing. Certainly in the eyes of many historians it is local practice that creates and sustains change, and this text provides a window into how change may occur through the actions of the "bricoleur." Erickson also draws upon social theorists of big "D" discourse. I am left with several questions. Much of what occurs in conversation is not considered at a conscious level; for example, speakers may experience an uncomfortable moment, but may not analyze it in its verbal, nonverbal, and rhythmic context (Fiksdal, 1990). Would they recognize "bricolage" and use it to the same effect in later conversations? If talk constitutes the power relationships and identities projected in conversation, does "bricolage" need to be recognized by interlocutors to create change in local practice? While at a microanalytic level in a conversation, one might recognize innovative practice, how does that practice lead to change across speakers and across situations at more macro levels? How does socialization in certain practices such as the classroom fit into this argument? Despite these questions, it is certain that societal change does take place and conversational practices change. Erickson's argument proposes an argument that links the two.
This text would serve well as an introduction to ethnographic microanalysis and, for those of us who have been working in this area, it presents a way of connecting this work to broader social forces in its emphasis on "bricolage" and avoidance of deterministic theories. Part II requires careful reading because Erickson not only critiques major theorists, but also examines critiques of those theorists. For that reason, the text may be best used in graduate studies, but some advanced undergraduates may also find it useful.
Cicourel, Aaron V. (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. NY: John Wiley.
Erickson, Frederick and Shultz, Jeffrey (1982) The Counselor as Gatekeeper: Social Interaction in Interviews. NY: Academic Press.
Fiksdal, Susan (1990). The Right Time and Pace: A Microanalysis of Cross-Cultural Gatekeeping Interviews. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Gee, James P. (1990) Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. London: Falmer.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Susan Fiksdal teaches linguistics and French to undergraduates at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her current research interests are in metaphor in conversation, gender, the rhythmic organization of talk, and classroom discourse.