Language and social interaction (LSI) refers to the area of communication research that studies how language, gesture, voice, and other features of talk and written texts shape meaning-making. LSI includes a loosely bounded set of topics and intellectual commitments. In contrast to the domain-of-life approach (e.g., political, interpersonal, or organizational communication) that is the typical way of categorizing scholarly expertise areas in communication, LSI defines itself by how it investigates questions about communication. It is the commitment to qualitative study of social life in its culturally inflected, complex, and context-sensitive particularity that makes LSI work so distinctive and recognizable. To be sure, LSI has a space for other research approaches (e.g., laboratory studies, quantitative coding), but these approaches are minority voices in the LSI community.
In the International Communication Association, one of the major academic organizations in communication, LSI is one of a small set of divisions responsible for selecting the papers, panels, and workshops that will be programmed at annual conferences. On a practical level, then, LSI is a group of people who form an institutionally recognizable academic community. Most LSI scholars are housed in departments of communication, but a goodly number come from sociology, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics, as well as a smattering of other fields. This multidisciplinary character of LSI is reflected in its scholarship, with particular LSI sub-areas making ties with one or another of these contributing disciplines. As is true with any institutional category, the LSI community shapes decisions about appropriate content for college courses in its area; how university-level faculty positions should be defined and who should be hired into them; and what research should be published in journals and books.
To understand LSI as an area of communication research, including both its dominant and its minority voices, its scholarly work needs to be considered proceeding from both bottom-up and top-down directions. Reviews and handbooks of LSI research (e.g., Fitch & Sanders 2005), of which there are many, usually adopt a top-down approach, dividing LSI into its major theoretical–methodological camps. A top-down view of LSI, provided in the next section, draws attention to key theoretical concepts, intellectual commitments, and important scholars. The distinctive character of LSI work, however, would be obscured if explication were restricted to prominent theoretical approaches. The particulars of social interaction and language use are the very heart of LSI work. In the second section LSI research is examined from the bottom up. Scholarly activity is viewed from three complementary grounding points: (1) LSI research as focused on understanding the basic units of language and interaction; (2) LSI as committed to explicating functions that talk serves; and (3) LSI’s interest in identifying the discourse strategies and structures of particularly important sites of interaction.
Approaches to LSI
Sociologically Shaped Approaches
One particularly influential tradition in LSI is that of conversation analysis (CA). Developed by sociologists Harvey Sacks (1992), Emanuel Schegloff, and others in the 1960s, CA was committed to building an observational science of social life. Departing radically from sociological research of the time, CA’s first step was to go out and collect tapes of ordinary talk. Telephone calls between intimates or in institutions, dinner conversations, meetings of all kinds, courtroom interrogations, medical or business consultations: all became data for analysis. To study these taped exchanges, CA then creates a detailed transcript. Because it is impossible in advance to know which features of talk contribute to people’s meaning-making, CA has seen it as important to capture as many features of talk as possible. Toward this end, Gail Jefferson, another key CA scholar, developed a transcription system that captured how people actually speak. Jefferson’s system includes such features as whether a speaker breaks off mid-word; whether they utter uhs, ums, and interjections; the cadence of speech and whether it is markedly loud, soft, fast, or slow; and if one person’s talk overlaps with other participants’. Many different transcription systems have been developed; the CA transcription system (or a simplified version of it), however, has become the standard system used in most strands of LSI research.
In studying scenes of social interaction, CA works to describe the interactional machinery, identifying and naming sequences of action that cut across many social situations. An example of one influential CA idea is the notion of conversational preference. Conversational preference refers to a structural preference built into conversation for an utterance of one type to be followed by an utterance of a second type. For instance, a request (“Do you want to come to lunch?”) prefers an acceptance (done quickly with a brief remark such as “sure,” or “yep, where to?”) over a decline as the second utterance. Dispreferred second utterances will be performed by speakers in a much more elaborate fashion than preferred ones. In response to a request, for instance, communicators are likely to pause, preface what they say with “uhs” or “well,” and say “no,” while offering an account. Because dispreferred utterances are performed differently than preferred ones, conversationalists are often able to project that their partner is going to decline a request in the short pause that precedes a person’s response before a single word has been uttered.
An especially important commitment of CA research is to make visible people’s sensemaking practices. This commitment can be traced to the influence of Harold Garfinkel (1967), the father of ethnomethodology and one of Sacks’s teachers. CA is the most visible strand of research emanating from what can be thought of as a larger ethnomethodological enterprise. A second scholar who strongly influenced CA scholarship was another of Sacks’s teachers – Erving Goffman. Goffman, a scholar responsible for developing a large set of influential LSI concepts (e.g., face, footing, frame, interaction order, frontstage/backstage) contributed to CA by modeling and legitimating study of ordinary exchanges in their messy particularity. Until Goffman, ordinary interaction had been seen as an undeserving object for communication study.
As video-taping technology became widespread and accessible, more and more LSI scholars opted to video-tape interaction rather than just audio-tape. Related to this change, one school of LSI researchers extended CA work to address distinct research questions about social life that become apparent when one starts looking as well as listening. Video-taping makes visible the fact that social actions are not merely audible talk, but are embodied actions in material environments that contain particular artifacts. Understanding how meanings are made, where the contributions of gaze, gesture, and artifacts are given their due, is what microethnography, the name for this new approach, is all about. Microethnography has been especially useful in studying interaction in classrooms and in a range of workplace settings.
A second set of influential LSI approaches is composed of those approaches that draw upon and extend some combination of ideas from anthropology and linguistics. Ethnography of communication (EOC), the name for the most visible tradition, extends the anthropological work of Dell Hymes (1972), using his SPEAKING mnemonic (setting, participants, end, act, key, instrumentalities, norms, genre) as a central interpretive tool to guide inquiry. EOC studies work to show how a community of people speak, interpret others’ actions, and, more broadly, understand what it means to be a person and have relationships. EOC studies combine analysis of transcripts of interaction with participant observation and informant interviews, and have primarily focused on studying ethnic and national communities (e.g., Colombian, Mexican, American).
A key figure in EOC scholarship is Gerry Philipsen (1975), whose study of Teamsterville, a white working-class American community, brought the EOC tradition into communication research. In the last decade and a half, Philipsen has extended EOC to develop the idea that sets of people have speech codes. Speech codes theory draws attention to the systematic nature of the symbols that communities use to talk with each other and to comment on the communicative conduct of self and others.
In addition to the EOC tradition, there are two other anthropologically inflected traditions influential in LSI work. The first, interactional sociolinguistics, developed by John Gumperz (1982), is centrally interested in making sense of why miscommunication occurs between people from different cultures. His idea of contextualization cue – the notion that vocal intonation and other low-awareness features of talk cue important aspects of social meaning – has been especially useful in explaining interactional trouble. A second and more recent tradition is the idea of a community of practice that has been developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (Wenger 1998). In contrast to the national/ethnic group focus in most EOC research, communities-of-practice studies focus on interaction among people sharing pursuit of an activity, such as is to be found in schools, workplaces, and recreational groups. The idea of community of practice is also shaped by cognitive theorizing.
Psychologically Inflected Approaches
If one were to offer a generalization about LSI research, it would be fair to say that much of it is anti-cognitive. LSI work is interested in what happens in interaction among people – not what goes on in their minds. This anti-cognitive thread is particularly visible in a tradition developed by British psychologists Jonathan Potter and Derek Edwards (Edwards 2005). Discursive psychology explores how everyday psychological terms are used in discourse and how psychological matters are managed rhetorically. A person’s remark that she can’t remember, for instance, is treated not as a straightforward account of a mental state, but rather, an utterance designed to manage an interactional sensitivity.
Although much LSI work eschews cognitive explanations of meaning, not all does. Recently the debate about cognition’s role in studying social interaction has become especially lively. One particularly novel idea, put forward by Stephen Levinson (2006), is that of the interaction engine, which is a “very special kind of cognition” underlying talk “on which discourse is built” (p. 86). The interaction engine explains universals, such as people’s ability to “mind-read” (i.e., interpret actions in terms of people’s intentions) and culture-spanning rituals such as greetings and leave-taking.
A longstanding tradition of LSI research, currently in the methodological minority because of its use of quantitative methods, is Language and Social Psychology (LSP). LSP has worked to make language an important topic for social psychologists – something not typically so – and to bring issues of strategy and motivation to language research. Communication Accommodation Theory, developed by Howard Giles, accounts for the subtle, largely out-of-awareness ways communicators quickly adapt to each other. In a short conversation, for instance, communicators often become more similar to each other in speaking rate, pause length, and dialect features.
Linguistically Flavored Hybrid Approaches
Unsurprisingly, the field of language and social interaction has been shaped by ideas about language and meaning-making from philosophy and linguistics, two academic disciplines in which language is a focus. Several enduring starting points come from work in the philosophy of language. Philosophy of language theories, while generally not foci of current communication scholarship, infuse LSI’s intellectual landscape, shaping contemporary research in a myriad of ways. Two particularly important ideas are that of the cooperative principle and of speech acts.
The philosopher H. P. Grice proposed that the purpose of talk is to share information efficiently. Conveying information, Grice argued, is facilitated by all parties orienting to a cooperative principle whose meaning rests on four accompanying maxims (quality, quantity, relevance, and manner). Importantly, the cooperative principle does not so much govern what people do, as speakers routinely say too much or too little or make offtopic remarks, as it explains how interpreters make sense of what speakers must mean by saying what they do.
A second family of ideas that has been influential, that of speech acts, was developed by language philosophers John Austin and his student John Searle. Reacting to other philosophers who treated the purpose of language as primarily geared to making representational statements about the world, Austin argued that speech always, and often centrally, is performing actions in social life. Searle went on to propose the main categories of action that speech can perform, with two speech act categories being directives (to direct others’ actions) and expressives. Grice, Austin, and Searle’s ideas have shaped thinking in LSI study. In addition, they form the backbone of the area in linguistics that studies language in use, which in turn shapes multiple strands of current LSI research (Arundale 2005).
Politeness theories, of which Brown and Levinson’s (1987) is the most well known in the field of communication, begins with Grice’s analysis of communication’s purpose as being information exchange and Searle’s speech act units. This theoretical framework is then integrated with Goffman’s notion of face (the public image each person claims in interaction) to explain why communicators deviate from maximally efficient communication, frequently speaking indirectly, including small comments such as “I hate to ask you but,” and “Wow, great haircut, could you give me a ride to . . .” Politeness theory, which claims to be universally applicable, has been strongly criticized by communication and linguistic scholars. The breadth of politeness theory’s claims and the parts of the theory that have been strongly supported, however, maintain it as a much-used frame in communication research.
Action-Implicative Discourse Analysis (AIDA), an approach to discourse study developed by communication scholar Karen Tracy, reflects multiple intellectual influences, including politeness theory. Similar to other LSI traditions, AIDA foregrounds talk as its central data. What distinguishes it from other approaches is its rhetorical spirit. Centrally interested in describing discourse strategies that are used in identifiable communicative practices, AIDA research takes as a goal developing ideas about better and worse ways to talk in the practices it studies. AIDA studies typically focus on explicating the problems of a practice, the conversational strategies of key kinds of participants, and participants’ normative beliefs about good conduct in that site. Practices studied have included emergency calls, public community meetings, and consultations between doctors and patients.
Another hybrid approach that brings a normative commitment to theorizing is that of Design Theory. Developed by Mark Aakhus and Sally Jackson, Design Theory draws on linguistic pragmatic ideas in conjunction with ideas from argument theory to consider how participation and conduct in a range of communicative practices, for example mediation for divorcing couples or groups using decision-support systems, ought to be designed.
In the past decade or two, the ideas of the Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, who had been writing in the early years of the twentieth century but has only recently been translated, have gained attention. Bakhtin proposed that: (1) the utterance is the basic unit of social life; (2) heteroglossic (multiple, fragmented) meanings are part of all talk and texts; because (3) all words and utterances have a dialogic character, invariably carrying meaning traces from earlier uses, as well as generating in-the-moment, novel meanings. Bakhtin’s ideas have been adopted in communication and blended with ideas from other traditions to understand particular discursive contexts.
A final linguistically inflected LSI approach that deserves mention – Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) – is actually a family of approaches, with key scholars in the different schools (e.g., Deborah Cameron, Norman Fairclough, Teun van Dijk, Ruth Wodak) combining linguistic pragmatic traditions with a variety of other influences. Shared by all CDA programs are the practice of close study of social interaction or written texts, and a political commitment to expose how power gets naturalized. Because scholarship can never be politically neutral, CDA researchers work to show how language and discourse practices are marshaled to suggest objectivity while all the time systematically advantaging those who have power at the expense of parties who do not. An example of CDA is Thurlow and Jaworski’s (2006) analysis of how airlines create “elite” identities through frequent-flyer programs, and in so doing solidify notions of good taste and social class ideologies that further privilege moneyed, traveling people.
Basic Concepts and Findings
LSI examines people talking with others in a range of social occasions to accomplish complementary and antagonistic purposes. LSI studies of people interacting generally accomplish three things: (1) they identify distinctive features of language and/or interaction; (2) they describe the interpersonal, organizational, or political functions that talk is serving; and (3) they show how the particulars of (1) and (2) come together to create interactional sites that are communicatively distinctive. Particular research studies often foreground one feature over the others, but it is important to keep in mind that the three are intertwined, not actually separable.
Basic Units of Language or Interaction
When people speak a language, they always speak a particular dialect or variety of it, whether the language be Spanish, Korean, or English. These varieties of a language differ in many ways and connect to speakers’ social identities. Features of pronunciation (“going” vs “goin”) and grammar (“she is attractive” vs “she be attractive”), for instance, are used differently by communicators of different social classes, geographic regions, and genders. In addition, all speakers vary how they talk based on the relative formality of a situation. A feature of talk that is especially sensitive to the relationship between parties, as well as the newness of a topic, is that of discourse markers. These little tokens (“yeah,” “wow,” “anyway”) are crucial devices for creating smooth, well-functioning stretches of interaction.
Another small bit of talk that is ubiquitous and especially likely to appear at interactionally sensitive moments is the meta-discursive comment. Meta-discourse labels the communicative acts (e.g., “an argument,” “gossip”) or assessments (e.g., “He’s just giving you constructive criticism”) of oneself and others, and makes visible everyday speakers’ beliefs about how communication is working.
If one were to tally what aspects of talk have been studied particularly extensively, the most researched talk unit would undoubtedly be the question. Questions, and the responses that follow them, are bread-and-butter actions of institutional encounters. Questioning is the central vehicle in health-care exchanges, policing and the courts, and numerous other sites in which professionals work with clients. Besides the rather obvious goal of gaining information, questions serve a range of other functions. How questions are designed and sequenced with other questions is part of how speakers claim status for self or give deference to the conversational partner. LSI research documents these particulars.
Another interesting, multipurpose unit of talk is the narrative or story. Narratives are extended units of talk in which a person recounts a memorable event. Stories can be told to entertain or they may be in the service of doing sensitive actions such as disagreeing. In a study of an organ transplant support group in a hospital, Hsieh (2004) found that support-group members told stories of their experiences with hospital personnel both as a way to endorse the views of others and as a way to disagree with other group members’ assertions. Bamberg (1997) underscores that stories have multiple purposes: besides a story’s “very referential and informative functioning it may entertain, be a piece of moral advice, extend an offer to become more intimate, seek audience alignment for the purpose of joint revenge, and serve as a claim as to ‘who I really am’ – and all that at the same time” (p. 341).
By and large communication researchers have been especially interested in understanding how people design and vary speech acts that are sensitive in some way (Tracy 2001). Studied acts have included: (1) directives, where one person seeks to direct the actions of another, whether it be done forcefully, as in commanding, or gently, as in hinting; (2) apologies, in which a communicator admits to doing a wrong or hurtful act; and (3) accounts, in which a speaker seeks to make reasonable his or her choices, often to another who is questioning whether those choices are reasonable or not.
In addition to language-based units of discourse that are relatively discrete and easy to name, talk always has a particular sound, and is carried out in conjunction with eye gaze and facial and bodily gestures. All of these aspects of language and interaction function together to create the particular situated meanings that participants actually arrive at. Mirivel (in press), for instance, examined how a cosmetic plastic surgeon used his gazing and aversion of gaze, along with a tape measure and very particular kinds of touches to persuade a woman during a physical examination that her entering assessment of her breasts being problematic and in need of (expensive) surgery was, in fact, an accurate judgment.
Functions of Talk
Information-giving is recognized by ordinary speakers, as well as LSI scholars, as being an important function of talk. There is, however, a whole range of less immediately apparent functions. It is to these less visible functions that LSI scholars have given the lion’s share of attention. One function of talk is to strengthen bonds of connection and affection between people. Originally described by the anthropologist Malinowski as phatic communion, it is now more often referred to as small talk. Small talk occurs in hallways, at the beginning of meetings, and around coffee pots in workplaces. The content of small talk is weather, sports, and a whole host of other routine life topics.
In contrast to the largely below-the-radar status of small talk are conversations that occur when a person is experiencing significant trouble. Breakups, illness, negative evaluations at work: all of these are occasions when it is common to seek social support, either from friends and family or from crisis centers and helping professionals. Talk that gives a person support is ideally designed in ways to avoid offending the party to whom it is offered. LSI scholars have been interested in these design features. In addition, the role of talk in conveying what speakers are feeling about a topic, another person, or the situation is an ongoing function of talk that communicators regularly monitor. What features of talk and interaction people use to infer that an observed person is experiencing certain feelings is a question that LSI scholars have pursued.
Another function of talk is to enact who the conversing parties are (Tracy 2002). Talk does identity-work. Every time a person speaks, her talk presents the kind of person she is and altercasts the other (i.e., presents how the other is seen). For instance, the greeting “Wazup?” suggests that a speaker sees the other differently than if he had said, “Good morning, Ms Kim, how are you today?” The kinds of identities that talk implicates include personal, idiosyncratic ones (e.g., being serious, mean-spirited, funny, sharp-tongued, articulate), role- and performance-related ones (e.g., a fair referee or a disorganized meeting participant), and those related to what are assumed to be more enduring features of personhood (race, ethnicity, age, gender, nationality). A controversy about the link between identity and talk that has become especially heated in English-speaking countries, and the US in particular, concerns the language people speak (e.g., English or Spanish) and their national identity. To frame the issue as a question, we could ask: “What is or should be the link between speaking English and being American?”
Of all the kinds of identity that have been examined, none has received as much attention as what it means to talk like a woman or a man. Gender is constructed through how people talk. LSI researchers have investigated the degree to which men and women talk similarly and in what ways they communicate differently. Much recent work has identified that the performance of gender is strongly shaped by a speaker’s social class, race, and national culture, as well as situation-specific factors. There is no single female or male communicative style. Gender differences, many scholars have argued, are more a result of the power relations among people than of a person’s gender. A female expert witness in a courtroom will talk more like her male counterpart than another female who is a lay witness. Similarly, male lay witnesses speak more like females of that status than male experts.
A claim that power affects how people talk is not particularly newsworthy because it is so self-evident, but how to observe the expression of power in interaction is not at all straightforward. It is difficult to know which differences, among the vast number of talk features that can be found to vary in situations, should actually be attributed to power differences. LSI scholars see it as important to problematize the many generalizations about power and talk that are taken for granted. Generalizations that people with more power speak more often and for longer time periods, that they interrupt, and that they change the topic frequently are sometimes true. But at other times they are not. LSI sees it as crucial to specify carefully the contextual boundaries of power’s working and identity-talk claims.
A function of talk that occurs frequently in decision-making groups as well as arenas of public life is that of argument. Argumentative talk is discourse in which people dispute each other’s claims. These claims could be internationally consequential, as can be seen in disputes between Sunnis and Shiite Muslims in Iraq, or they could be relatively routine and minor, as is the case in many sibling spats.
A final function of talk worth mentioning, and one that is almost always presumed to be negative, is talk as a vehicle to purposefully deceive others. Researchers have extensively studied where this happens and how it is done. Admittedly, deception is usually problematic, but a study by Mattson and Roberts (2001) found an interactional site in which deception became a desirable and promoted action. In counseling patients about safe-sex practices, health-care professionals suggested deception as a reasonable discourse strategy to certain clients. When clients were adamant about not revealing to their long-term partner a sexual encounter they had had with another – and hence why they needed to use condoms – the health-care professionals would suggest that clients lie to their partner about why they now needed to use condoms. Mattson and Roberts’ study illustrates how looking carefully at talk can make visible places in social life where the usual generalizations about good and bad conduct need to be tempered with attention to situational particulars.
Discourse Sites: Their Strategies and Structures
Interaction in health-care settings where nurses, doctors, or counselors are talking with each other or with patients, either face-to-face or on the telephone, is one institutional site to which LSI researchers have given a lot of attention. Advice about how patients should talk with their doctors or how doctors should communicate with patients is easy to find. LSI studies often lead to a more complicated picture about how talk happens and ways patients and doctors could try talking differently than one gets from advice guidebooks.
Although not every kind of interaction has been studied, many have. LSI studies reveal particulars of what is going on in consequential communicative contexts that would not have been noticed if the careful looking and listening that characterizes LSI work had not happened. One example of this is Tracy and Durfy’s (2007) study of an American community’s contentious school board meetings. In these public meetings, citizens used a variety of discourse strategies to convey negative sentiment. The strategies included describing community events limned with negative feeling, straightforward avowal of feelings, rhetorical questions, reported speech, and an argumentative discourse strategy (use of god terms) that implied that the proposal a speaker was advocating was concerned about “the children,” whereas those who were against it had no concern about the district’s children. In community school-board meetings, “children” functioned as a god term. Everyone agreed that the good of the children was what school districts should be all about; no one ever explicitly argued against “the children.” In this context, then, speakers’ appeals to the good of the children, or characterizing others as not having this concern, were how participants sought to advance the proposals they favored and hinder those they did not.
Discourse sites that LSI scholars have most extensively studied include:
- intimate exchanges among family members and friends from a variety of national cultures;
- courtroom interaction, including attorney–witness exchanges and judge communication;
- exchanges that occur in a range of alternative dispute-resolution practices, but especially mediation;
- the talk that occurs in business, including meetings of all types and sales exchanges;
- conversations on the telephone between intimates and for institutional services such as emergency calls;
- television chat shows and call-in radio; and
- old as well as new forms of technologically mediated discourse.
Language and social interaction is a distinctive area of communication study. Its trademark is the use of excerpts of talk to make claims about important units of talk or interaction, the structure of social action, how identities and institutions are constructed through interactional moves, how culture is displayed discursively, and so on. As Tracy and Haspel (2004, 807) conclude in a journal review of LSI research:
Whatever the particular issues are that LSI scholars tackle, our main mission is to render the “small” or mundane features of talk (such as conversational routines) large, to make the invisible (such as background knowledge or expectancies) visible, to make abstract concepts (such as “agency” or “strategy”) observable, and to make what matters most to communicators (such as “respect”) understandable to those who study and teach communication.
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- Mirivel, J. (in press). The physical examination in cosmetic surgery: Communication strategies to promote the desirability of surgery. Health Communication.
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- Tracy, K., & Durfy, M. (2007). Speaking out in public: Citizen participation in contentious school board meetings. Discourse and Communication, 1, 223 –249.
- Tracy, K., & Haspel, K. (2004). Language and social interaction: Its institutional identity, intellectual landscape, and discipline-shifting agenda. Journal of Communication, 54, 788 – 816.
- Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.