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Review of  The Interactional Accomplishment of Action


Reviewer: Geraldine Bengsch
Book Title: The Interactional Accomplishment of Action
Book Author: Lucas Seuren
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 30.1680

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Review:
With “The interactional accomplishment of action”, Lucas M. Seuren, a postdoctoral researcher at the Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, Netherlands, presents his doctoral research thesis at The Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics. Seuren uses Conversation Analysis (CA) as key method to focus on how interactants utilize the grammar of their language to design social actions. He argues that analyzing what people do in conversations should take precedence over how they achieve it. Building on substantial literature in linguistics and related fields that have addressed conventionalized turns at talk, the author proposes that action ascription follows a similar pattern and is supported by grammar.

SUMMARY

The introduction not only demonstrates a firm grasp of relevant literature, but also recognizes and effectively organizes the provenance of different schools of thought. The introductory chapter constitutes a substantial piece of theoretical work that shows great engagement with, and in depth knowledge of, the literature. It is by far the longest chapter in the book and with 60 pages occupies nearly a third of the dissertation. Notably, Seuren writes in a conversational and accessible tone while maintaining the strict use of technical terminology expected in Conversation Analysis. He utilizes illustrative, if made up, examples to further explain concepts from the literature. Seuren clearly identifies a focus on declarative questions in Dutch in the piece of work and attempts to position it within the literature. Writing from a linguistics perspective, Seuren struggles somewhat to integrate some of the classical sociology literature which acquaints the reader with the problematic, often contradictory concepts and motivates the study. While the chapter makes for an interesting read that provides the reader with some insights on Seuren’s thought processes, the relevance for the dissertation is sometimes unclear and the overall lengthiness leads to arguments being unnecessarily repeated in places, and a “rehashing” of information. For example, he introduces Interactional Linguistics as a separate field and while it appears that he is promoting a combination of this and CA as a frame for his own research, this approach does not seem to be followed through in the studies included where a preference for CA prevails.

Chapters Two, Four, Five and Six consist of modified versions of (mainly co-authored) articles utilizing the same corpus, with varying sets of data thereof. The corpus comprises 21.5 hours of phone and Skype recordings in Dutch of students at Utrecht University recorded a couple of years prior to Seuren’s beginning his PhD studies at the University of Groningen. As such, it demonstrates clearly the value and re-usability of a data corpus for studies in CA. A brief summary of each chapter/study is provided below.

Chapter Two: Confirmation or elaboration: what do yes/no declaratives want? (co-authored with M. Huiskes)

The authors demonstrate that declarative word order can make both confirmation and elaboration relevant as a next action.

The authors note that English and Dutch share structural sequences. However, while in English inversion of subject and verb promotes a condition for a yes/no-interrogative, they observe that this is not true in Dutch. For speakers of Germanic languages, this is apparent, since inversions occur to keep the finite verb in second position in a main clause, which seems to make a CA based argument in this case redundant and not particularly useful to illustrate how this affects the analysis (Koster, 1975; De Vogelaer, 2007). The following examples contrast excerpts used to elicit confirmation or elaboration. The authors find that there is no difference in the morphosyntactic design of the turns, but that they can be distinguished by sequential placement and epistemic context.

Chapter Three: Getting into topic talk: a classification of topic proffers

The chapter seamlessly continues the importance of sequence in action formation from the previous chapter (the latter part already introduces the notion of topic proffers) and introduces additional functions of YNDs: challenging a prior turn or developing a new topic. Seuren presents an overview of previous work on topic transitions in the literature and concludes that there is still little known on how topics are initiated. Seuren presents examples introduced with misplacement markers, yes/no-type interrogatives/declaratives and completed/upcoming activities, finding that they are associated with specific syntactic practices.

Chapter Four: Remembering and understanding with oh-prefaced yes/no declaratives in Dutch (co-authored with T. Koole)

The authors move to issues of epistemic access as a further function of YND declaratives that become available to participations through a preface, here, “oh”. The authors find that “Oh”-prefaced yes/no declaratives orient to independent epistemic access, whereas an “Oh ja”-preface claims dependent epistemic access, as has also been demonstrated for the similar German prefaces “ach/ach ja”.

Chapter Five: Resolving knowledge-discrepancies in informing sequences (co-authored with M. Huiskes and T. Koole)

The chapter continues “oh”-prefaced responses and contrasts them to cases that lack such a preface, showing that the practices are utilized to implement different and distinctive actions, which the authors refer to as counter expectation remarks. They note that actions are achieved not merely through isolated practices, but a combination of them and their placement within a sequence.

Chapter Six: Assessing answers: Action ascription in third position.

In this sole-authored paper, Seuren moves from adjacency pairs to evaluative and deontic assessments found in third positions, finding that interactants may mark both understanding and ascribe an action. He argues that an evaluative assessment is often specifically fitted to the sequential context; proposals are often marked by a specific practice.

In the concluding chapter, Seuren reflects on the main findings: the importance of sequence, but also grammar and turn design for action formation and ascription. He notes that participants in interactions can use both declarative and interrogative formats to ask questions, which makes it relevant to utilize a different approach to a designated format to understand how speakers design social actions. Seuren concludes that CA is a suitable method for researching interaction -

EVALUATION

Seuren concludes his dissertation by calling for “a radical rethinking of linguistic theorizing” (p. 209) - while citing a plethora of prominent authors who have at least begun to address the role of language and action in interactions, which weakens the argument somewhat. Focusing on Dutch, Seuren’s work constitutes a much needed contribution to often English dominated research in CA. The author provides readers with a theoretical introduction to action accomplishment and a collection of studies to illustrate various aspects of the topic.

The voice and style of writing differs notably in the co-authored papers to the remainder of the text. As noted earlier, the introduction and conclusion especially are marked by Seuren’s reflexive writing style, which allows the reader insights into the author’s thought process, making it a potentially very useful text for researchers and students not yet familiar with the methodological procedures distinctive to CA. Appropriately, the published articles are presented much more concisely and targeted for the particular audiences of the journals. This may make for a slightly unbalanced reading of the overall piece of work: however, as a dissertation it is presented very successfully and reflects both the development of the work and the individual studies as examples of finished research products.

With this dissertation, Seuren presents a cohesive piece of work showing that a prevailing assumption that lays claim to a relationship between linguistic form and its pragmatic function assuming causal implications that often do not exist as he demonstrates in the case of the category questions. Seuren emphasizes that speakers rely on sequential context and environment to design turns to formulate their actions. The combination of reflexive writing, in-depth understanding and engagement with relevant literature and the well-executed individual studies make this dissertation a comprehensive read on contemporary issues around action-formation, promoting some potential solutions and also providing researchers interested in the subject with, if you will, a clear sequential position for action.

REFERENCES

Koster, J. (1975). Dutch as an SOV language. Linguistic Analysis, 1(2), 111-136.

De Vogelaer, G. (2007). Extending Hawkins’ comparative typology: Case, word order, and verb agreement in the Germanic languages. Nordlyd, 34(1).
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Géraldine Bengsch is a postdoctoral research associate at the School of Education, Communication and Society at King’s College London. She is interested in how language is used to create engagement in interpersonal and intercultural conversations. Her work currently focuses on asymmetric interactions between an expert and a lay person.