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Review of  Accountability in Social Interaction

Reviewer: Marine Riou
Book Title: Accountability in Social Interaction
Book Author: Jeffrey D. Robinson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 30.2502

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In Ch. 1, “Accountability in Social Interaction”, Jeffrey D. Robinson provides dense theoretical background on accountability in social interaction, tracing the notion back to the very beginnings of Conversation Analysis. Robinson provides a rich definition of accountability and details the different meanings and shapes it can take, showing that “accountability and accounting are integral parts of the reputation economy of everyday life in social interaction” (p.34). He details how participants “form and ascribe actions (i.e. recognize and understand) possible actions” (p.10) as well as how participants have “omnirelevant, moral responsibility or adhering to relevance rules during the formation and ascription of action, and how people manage, or account for, accountable conduct, or that which breaches relevance rules” (p.33). In this chapter, Robinson also defines accounts and argues for a preference for self-accounting.

In Ch. 2, “On Failure to Understand What the Other is Saying: Accountability, Incongruity, and Miscommunication”, Paul Drew and Claire Penn offer the case study of one sequence of atypical interaction in which a person with aphasia (Jess) and her speech therapist (Rose) fail to understand each other. Jess tells something about her younger days to Rose. This attempted telling is presented as humorous by Jess, but Rose does not understand the content and the point of what Jess is trying to tell her. The authors analyze how this instance of a major communication breakdown develops in the conversation. They analyze the features of Jess’ telling which render meaning obscure, such as the difficulties that Jess experiences with reference to persons and self, as well as the ways in which Rose fails to understand what Jess is saying and the point of the story (the “tellable”, p.59). The authors show that “understanding is something of a two-way street, in which the accountability of talk is not solely the speaker’s responsibility” (p.52).

In Ch. 3, “Defending solidarity. Self-Repair on Behalf of Other-Attentiveness”, Douglas W. Maynard analyzes approximately 200 instances of utterances prefaced with I mean (I-mean-prefaced utterances, IMPUs). Certain social actions, such as praise, invitations and offers to help, are typically preferred actions because they are prosocial and enhance solidarity. However, they can become inapposite under certain circumstances. For example, an invitation to go shopping together can be too self-attentive, rather than other-attentive, when one’s co-participant has just stated that walking is painful for her because of a toe injury (pp. 79-83). When participants realize that the action they have initiated is inapposite and self-attentive, they can revise it with an IMPU. In the example mentioned above, the speaker revised her invitation to go shopping together with a turn offering to get something for her injured friend instead (“I mean er can I get you something?” p.82). Maynard analyses how IMPUs can be used to pre-empt the problematic self-attentive character of a previous action, and defend it by revising it in a more other-attentive way.

In Ch. 4, “Delicate Matters: Embedded Self-Correction as a Method for Adjusting Possibly Available Inapposite Hearings”, Jenny Mandelbaum focuses on embedded self-correction as a strategy to revise an inapposite action without making it the overt main business of talk, in the form of an increment. Upon realization that something they have said may be hearable as “rude, offensive, or in some other way threatening to social solidarity” (p.126), participants may pre-emptively produce an increment correcting the problematic hearing. In one of the extracts shown, the following self-correction by participant Jim is analyzed: “I jus’ got u:p. off the cou:ch.” (p.127). The increment “off the couch” corrects the potential understanding that Jim was lying in bed and/or just woke up, which could give a negative impression of him as being lazy. Mandelbaum argues that embedded self-correction allows participants to “tacitly remov[e] an inapposite hearing […] without making its producer accountable for it” (p.134). She argues that such a strategy shows that correction should be kept analytically distinct from repair.

In Ch. 5, “Political Positioning Sequences: The Nexus of Politicians, Issue Positions, and the Sociopolitical Landscape”, Steven E. Clayman analyzes positioning questions in the context of broadcast news interviews: a practice by which journalists can hold politicians accountable for their views and “geared to the task of locating where the politician stands on a salient political issue” (p.145). One of the examples analyzed comes from an interview held before the 2008 presidential election in the United States, and in which Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmanm was asked the following question: “So you believe that Barack Obama may have anti-American views” (p.166). Clayman analyses how positioning questions sequences are used by journalists and politicians to position the latter on the political landscape, conceptualized as a series of concentric circles whose centre represents consensus and the outer circle corresponds to deviant opinions and beliefs. Politicians can endorse the viewpoint expressed by the positioning or resist it. The fact that journalists pursue such sequences is a way to make politicians accountable by explicitly positioning themselves with respect to a specific viewpoint.

In Ch. 6, “Epistemic Asymmetry and Accountability in Service Interaction”, Seung-Hee Lee focuses on a corpus of service calls in Korean, analyzed with respect to the participants’ institutional roles and identities. Lee analyzes telephone calls between customers and an airline service, with a focus on 16 instances in which the usual epistemic asymmetry found in service interactions is tilted: customers have pre-existing knowledge on a matter, and such knowledge is incongruent which what agents know and say. Lee shows that customers deploy the following strategy so as not to undermine agents’ epistemic authority: they ask a question that can be translated in English as a yes-no question, not disclosing their own knowledge at first. This gives them the opportunity to check that there is indeed a knowledge incongruity. Customers can then disclose their knowledge to resolve the knowledge incongruity, for example by referring to the third party from whom they acquired that knowledge. Lee shows how, through such a conduct, “customers display caution and avoid being held accountable for correctness of their knowledge” (p.194), all the while displaying “an orientation to the accountable, institutionalized epistemic asymmetry, deferring to the agent’s epistemic authority on the matter” (p.182).

In Ch. 7, “Subjective Assessments: Managing Territories of Experience in Conversation”, Kaoru Hayano compares subjective assessments (“I love tha:t” p.208) to objective assessments (“it was s:::so: goo:d”p.208) in Japanese interaction. The author draws from a collection of 171 tokens and argues that objective assessments are more basic. By contrast, subjective assessments are used to manage specific issues of personal knowledge and experience with the referent being assessed. The data suggests that subjective assessment are employed to claim that an opinion was formed independently (epistemic independence), which can be used when participants hold a diverging opinion.

Ch. 8, “Increments”, is the edited version of previously unpublished but influential material by Emanuel A. Schegloff. This chapter offers a much welcome theoretically informed view of increments and where they might fit among the “infra-structures of talk-in-interaction – those organization of practices, such as turn taking, action formation, sequence organization, repair […] through which the very constitutive possibilities of orderly and meaningful talk-in-interaction are implemented” (p.247). Increments are a practice by which participants fit further talk to a previous turn which has just been brought to completion. The additional material is grammatically fitted (“symbiotic”, p.241) to the previous turn. In one of the numerous examples analyzed in the chapter, Bonnie is inviting her friend Marina to a party. She asks “A:nd (3.0) okay d’you think you c’d come? Pretty much for sure?” (p.241). Schegloff analyses the increment “pretty much for sure?” as re-completing the question, so as to diminish the possibility of being answered with “maybe” – something that several other invitees have already replied to Bonnie. Schegloff reviews the typical features of increments. He identifies three main grammatical formats they can take (lexical, phrasal, clausal), their sequential environment (next-beat, post-gap, and post-other-talk positions), and the form that their host unit can take (mostly sentential). Schegloff also considers a less typical scenario, in which the increment is produced by a different speaker than the turn being completed past its initial completion point.

In Ch. 9, “The Accountability of Proposing (vs. Soliciting Proposals of) Arrangements”, Jeffrey D. Robinson and Heidi Kevoe-Feldman investigate one type of proposal action, namely, when participants “propos[e] to engage in a future, concrete, joint action (e.g., How about I meet you at seven?)” (p.286). Basing their analysis on 29 tokens taken from 6 different corpora, the authors argue that there is a preference for soliciting a proposal for an arrangement (“so what time are you gunna pick me up” p.283) rather than proposing an arrangement (“oka:y. I’m=’nna pick you:p ‘bout nine=a” p.269). They explain that proposals for arrangements are especially delicate and accountable, for example because their recipients might be unwilling or unable to accept them, and yet, the preferred action after a proposal is acceptance. To manage this nexus of potentially cross-cutting constraints, the authors argue that participants use two main strategies. They can work on the design of their turn to mitigate it with various forms such as interrogatives (“How about…”) and turn-prefaces (“I was thinking that…”). Participants can also manipulate sequence organization so that instead of proposing an arrangement, they ask their recipient to propose one.

In Ch. 10, “When Speakers Account for Their Questions: Ani-prefaced Accounts in Korean Conversation”, Stephanie Hyeri Kim analyzes a practice in Korean interaction by which speakers retroactively account for a question they asked by prefacing a third-turn (after the other participant’s answer) with the token ani. Ani is a negative response particle which can be translated by “no” in some contexts, such as in response to a polar question. The chapter investigates two contexts: when participants volunteer an account for their own question, and when an account is solicited by their co-participant. Ani-prefacing is identified as “a practice for ‘claiming’ responsibility for a question being accountable, and thus is deployed to manage such issues of responsibilities” (p.314). The author discusses the discourse-pragmatic properties of ani and how this token may be undergoing a process of grammaticalization into a discourse marker. Interesting questions are raised about the intricacies of sequential position and the semantic/pragmatic meaning of linguistic forms.

In Ch. 11, “The Omnirelevance of Accountability: Off-Record Account Solicitations” Chase Wesley Raymond and Tanya Stivers analyze known-answer questions. They show that known-answer questions can be used by participants to solicit an account, i.e. asking a question whose answer has already been made obvious in the conversation, in order to nudge one’s co-participant into providing an account explaining something they have said. In one of the examples analyzed, Deborah says “Oh do I.” after Jim asserted that she has to try a specific type of red wine – when she has just said that she does not like the taste of alcohol (p.325). The authors mention the practice of asking the question “why?” (Bolden and Robinson, 2011), with which the request for an account is “on-record”. They build on these previous findings by focusing on “off-record” requests for accounts. They argue that when participants request for confirmation by asking a known-answer question, “the normative response is to provide an account” (p.346).


The book is a tribute to the invaluable contribution of John Heritage to research on human interaction. More specifically, it aims to build on Heritage’s influential work on accounts in interaction (Heritage, 1988), and more generally, how participants “treat one another as morally and socially accountable for their actions” (Heritage 1988: 144). The focus of the book is primarily on accountability as a social phenomenon.

One of the main strengths of the book is the variety of angles through which the topic of accountability is investigated. The reader will enjoy the different types of data analyzed – casual conversation, service interaction, news interviews, atypical interaction – as well as the inclusion of data in Korean and Japanese along with different varieties of English – American English, British English, and South African English. As series editor N. J. Enfield observes in his preface, “the concept of social accountability is seldom foregrounded in research on social and cultural life, and it plays little if any role at all in linguistics” (p.viii). While the book provides a great cornerstone on which to direct further research, the different chapters diverge in how much they foreground the notion of accountability – which in itself shows how such a crucial notion is in need of explicit, targeted effort to understand its complex ramifications.

One might regret that many chapters describe their data only cursorily. Even though conversation analysts are well used to reading transcripts featuring Emma, Lottie, and Nancy, the reader is often left wondering when and where the recordings were made, where to find the corpus, etc. Another point about which we need to be cautious is the use of numbers. Focusing on a small number of occurrences is not a problem in itself. In that respect, Ch. 1 shows how much the detailed analysis of a single case can bring to the table. Conversation Analysis has advanced knowledge on social interaction to an unprecedented degree precisely because of its attentions to the specificity of each case (Schegloff, 1993). However, when conversation analysts do choose to use numbers, it is important that this is done with the rigor habitually shown to other aspects of methodology. Without entering the on-going debate (Stivers, 2015; Steensig & Heinemann, 2015), it is important to consider whether percentages are the best way to represent data when the collection of occurrences is smaller than 100 and/or not compared with another collection.

Overall, the book is an interesting read on a topic in want of further investigation. It provides very rich theoretical grounding for the study of accountability in interaction, based on various types of interaction, practices, and three different languages.


Bolden, Galina B. & Jeffrey D. Robinson. 2011. Soliciting accounts with why-interrogatives in conversation. Journal of Communication 61(1). 94–119.

Heritage, John. 1988. Explanations as Accounts: A Conversation Analytic Perspective. In Charles Antaki (Ed.), Analyzing Lay Explanation: A Case Book of Methods (p. 127 144). London: Sage.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1993. Reflections on quantification in the study of conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction 26(1). 99–128.

Steensig, Jakob, & Trine Heinemann. 2015. Opening Up Codings? Research on Language and Social Interaction 48(1). 20 25.

Stivers, Tanya. 2015. Coding Social Interaction: A Heretical Approach in Conversation Analysis? Research on Language and Social Interaction 48(1). 1 19.
Marine Riou completed a PhD at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and Paris Diderot universities (Paris, France) in 2015 on topic transition in American English conversation. She is a postdoctoral Research Fellow at Curtin University (Perth, Australia) where she analyzes emergency ambulance calls for patients in cardiac arrest. Her main areas of research interests include grammar and prosody in interaction, corpus linguistics, linguistics applied to health, and mixed-methods analysis.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780190210557
Pages: 376
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