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Review of  The Discourse of Negotiation: Studies of Language in the Workplace

Reviewer: Hilton Hubbard
Book Title: The Discourse of Negotiation: Studies of Language in the Workplace
Book Author: Alan Firth
Publisher: Elsevier Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 6.1559

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LINGUIST Book Review:

Firth, A. (ed.) 1995 The Discourse of Negotiation: Studies of Language in the
Workplace. New York: Pergamon (436 pp.).

Reviewd by Hilton Hubbard [email protected]

This volume contains a selection of 15 papers from a conference
on negotiation in the workplace held at the University of Aalborg, Denmark
in 1992. About half of the contributors are from linguistics and language
departments but communications specialists, sociologists, anthropologists
and political scientists are also represented in this attempt to throw more
light on what is a necessarily cross-disciplinary area of interest.
Negotiation - as the editor acknowledges - is often referred to in
publications, but mostly these references are incidental. The focus in this
collection is on neither the rather vaguely conceived notion of "negotiation of
meaning" often used in sociolinguistic and pragmatic research, nor on
negotiation as a relatively formal problem-solving speech event (as in
diplomacy), but rather as a discourse-based activity that is part and parcel
of various kinds of workplace encounters such as meetings, consultations or
In an introductory chapter that constitutes an excellent overview of
the field, the editor identifies five different approaches to negotiation as
revealed in the published literature: prescriptive (popular works of the "How
to clinch a deal" variety); abstract (game theory and bargaining theory);
ethnographic (characterised by a search for phases and interaction sequences);
experimental (research on simulated encounters to test hypotheses about the
role of contextual variables and of certain types of behaviour in negotiation);
and discourse-based approaches. The papers in this volume all fall, broadly
speaking, into the latter category, with particular emphasis on studies that
involve fine-grained, micro-analytic scrutiny of transcripts, highlighting
interactive processes in negotiation: nearly all of them thus owe a debt to the
methodology of conversation analysis.
The first of this volume's four sections, "Theoretical
Considerations", has besides the introduction a paper that examines key
concepts such as `the workplace', `negotiation' and `context' and the
methodology of conversation analysis and explores the role of three of the
central notions of political linguistics - power, influence and authority -
in the discourse of negotiation.
The second section, "Negotiation in Intraorganizational Encounters",
provides papers on negotiation amongst employees in a wide variety of
setting, such as a U.S. Federal Trade Commission meeting, a discussion
about hospital budgeting, a union-management meeting and interaction between
members of a software development team. Some of the insights that emerge
include the very dynamic manner in which interlocutors interact to shape
compromises; the importance in wage bargaining of "formulations" or
summaries of the upshot of negotiations immediately prior to the making
of substantial proposals; and the influence of cultural factors such as
role expectations on the nature of negotiation, such that in one study
of an encounter between higher-status and lower-status Japanese academics
the interlocutors use various strategies to mask the fact that they
are actually negotiating, because it would otherwise be unseemly.
The three papers in the third section, "Negotiation in Commodity
Trading", all involve discourse across cultures, though cultural factors
are not the main concern of the first two. The data in these two papers
is telephone negotiation and the first in particular ("Talking for a change:
commodity negotiating by telephone") throws light on the ways in which the
telephonic channel of communication can affect discourse. In contrast to
most earlier work on the structural organization of telephone calls, which
tended to focus on openings or closings, this paper analyses an entire
business call into component sequences and also places the call within the
larger context, in which written communications both precede and follow the
relatively intense telephonic negotiations. The second paper that uses
telephone calls as a data base presents a rather different construal
of "negotiation", focusing on the kinds of problem-solving sequences
that become apparent when production engineers of a Danish company contact
their counterparts in a British company that has supplied them with a
certain machine that is causing difficulty.
The third paper in this section deals more closely with problems in
cross-cultural negotiation, focusing particularly on differences in the
discourse expectations of an Australian seller and Japanese buyer on such
matters as how quickly business decisions should be made, how explicit the
seller should be about detail and what role written communication should play
in the overall negotiation. This paper also demonstrates the value of
follow-up interviews with each participant, a technique that is all too
infrequent in conversation analysis and negotiation research.
The final section of this volume, "Negotiation in Professional-Lay
Interactions", features five papers that deal with negotiation encounters
between clients and a variety of professionals: travel agents, social welfare
officers, general practitioners, consumer advisers and advertising executives.
Again, the predominant analytical framework behind these studies is that of
conversation analysis, though one ("Local negotiation activity within document
design presentations") uses modifications of the Birmingham School's approach
to good effect.
In his introduction to the volume Firth notes that amongst
negotiation scholars the largely conversation analysis based transcript
studies might "appear inconsequential, piecemeal and lacking in overall
coherence" and he acknowledges that such studies "do not (yet?) aspire
to the construction of an overall `theory' of negotiation" (p.24). The
selection of papers he has compiled here manifests this weakness too:
one's first impression is of a rather disparate set of research problems,
analytical foci and findings. It can be argued, however, that a better
understanding of the discourse of authentic negotiation can for the
moment best be served by the sort of intensive analyses that characterise
these papers. We have so far had too little of this in the negotiation
literature and although this compilation leaves us still a long way short
of an overall perspective, it does provide some insights for the more
theoretically inclined and a number of pointers toward future
directions in the field.

Hilton Hubbard email: [email protected]
Department of Linguistics
University of South Africa
PO Box 392
Pretoria 0001
South Africa