Most Language and Social Interaction (LSI) researchers would agree that their findings about the social functionality of details of language use and social interaction have potential value for cognitive science. Schegloff (2006) cites evidence that people have cognitive capabilities for managing, detecting, and processing the socially consequential details of expressive acts whose complexity exceeds what cognitive science has recognized to date.
But LSI researchers are not concerned with the value of their findings for cognitive science. They are only concerned with cognition insofar as taking it into account helps us understand how language use and social interaction work. This involves an issue on which there are differing positions. At the one end, there is the position that opposes a concern with cognitive content, except for the way cognition-related talk functions in language use and social interaction. At the other end, there is the position that we can and should assess how cognitive content influences or is influenced by language use and social interaction – what people perceive, believe, value, want, or feel at the moment. In between these poles there is a concern with what people must “know” about language use and interaction to have a systematic basis for composing and interpreting socially functional expressive acts. From several recent publications in which these issues are addressed, four distinct approaches can be distilled regarding what aspects of cognition are relevant in LSI research, and for what purpose (Fitch & Sanders 2005; te Molder & Potter 2005; van Dijk 2006).
The Anti-Cognitivist Approach
The anti-cognitivist approach arises mainly in conversation analysis, discursive psychology, ethnomethodology, and sometimes ethnography of communication. This approach has roots in the work of sociologists in the 1960s, especially Herbert Blumer, Erving Goffman, and Harold Garfinkel. They attribute persons’ actions and the personal qualities they exhibit to external social demands exerted on them, not internal cognitive states – to what is required of persons in situations to achieve coordination with others and sustain social order. Empirical work associated with this approach emphasizes the postulate in LSI that expressive acts and interactions are co-constructed by the participants, rather than products of any one person’s cognitions.
An additional reason given for this anti-cognitivist approach is that – apart from what actors say – it is generally not possible for either analysts or interacting persons to detect any specific influence that someone’s actual cognitive content exerts. This ties to the observation of what happens when persons do publicly manifest actual cognitive events; for example, when someone utters the “change of state” token oh, or engages in self-repair, or reports uncertainty or confusion. It seems to be the social relevance and meaning of the indicated cognitive event that occasions such expressive acts, not the cognitive event itself.
Talk about cognition has been examined from two main perspectives. One perspective is that matters attributed to cognitive events are for all practical purposes matters of language use and interaction. For example, Lynch (2006) considers that what is nominally the cognitive activity of “looking for” something actually involves social coordination with others as to what to look for and how to look for it, as does “counting” things. He also considers that the nominally cognitive event of “failing to recall” something (as in court) often has a social basis and social meaning independent of any cognitive state.
The other perspective focuses on the fact that talk is the primary medium through which individuals’ cognitions are made known, whether in interviews, on questionnaires, or in interaction. Because of the inherent social functionality of such talk, it cannot provide a faithful record of cognition. Much attention has been given to the way our knowledge about another’s cognitions – what the other perceives or knows, or what his or her intentions are – depends on the accounting and interviewing practices used to present or obtain such knowledge, not interviewees’ actual cognitions. Attention has also been given to the way cognitive states are reported so as to justify an action that was taken. In addition, some research attributes practices in institutional settings to “distributed cognition,” where the basis for what people know and think about on a task depends on the social distribution of effort within a community of practice, rather than their independent cognitive states and content.
The “Competence” Approach
In contrast to the anti-cognitivist approach, analysts in language pragmatics, some in ethnography of communication, and others scattered across other LSI sub-fields are concerned with a different aspect of cognition. They are concerned with the “knowledge” that people must have about what makes situated expressive acts meaningful that enables them to achieve and to detect social functionality in the details of language use and interaction. Finding out what has to be known reveals the systematicity of language use and social interaction, as well as the basis for culture learning, children’s communication development, and the source of differences in individual proficiency.
One approach involves rules. For example, an early formulation of the concept of “communicative competence” by the sociolinguist Dell Hymes involves knowledge of “rules of speaking” within a speech community that enables speakers and hearers to produce socially meaningful acts and understand them as such. The conversation analysts Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schlegoff, and Gail Jefferson formulated procedural rules that people orient to in taking turns and selecting next speaker in conversations. In language pragmatics, John Searle proposed that persons know constitutive rules that specify what the content of an utterance must be, the social conditions of the utterance, and the speaker’s intention, for the utterance to count as a particular speech act.
Another approach involves formal relations between expressive acts by which they are interpreted and interconnected. H. P. Grice’s cooperative principle and associated conversational maxims specify ways utterances are presumed to be connected that guide the way people interpret (and are counted on to interpret) them. Politeness theory draws on Grice’s thinking to model how persons reason in composing expressive acts so as to reduce the face threat that the act poses to the hearer. Sanders (1987) has proposed principles by which utterances are relevant to each other on the basis of alternate possible interpretations. “Knowledge” of these principles would enable speakers to project the interactional consequences of their expressive acts. Such projections provide a basis for composing and interconnecting expressive acts to promote desired social results, and also a basis for inferring the social goals of others.
The Ethnography-Ideology Approach
This third approach is common to the sub-fields of the ethnography of communication and discourse analysis, with ties to critical theory and cultural studies. Work in these subfields has in common an interest in the cognitive content (beliefs and values) that is publicly expressed – presupposed and affirmed – by the texts and communal practices people produce, independent of the beliefs and values persons have privately. Ethnographies of communication start with communal or ritual practices that one finds community members engaged in regularly that are distinctive for the underlying beliefs and values they affirm for natives. These practices comprise not just texts but other materials of social expression and performance, including setting, participation structure, dress, nonverbal manner, equipment, and so forth. Discourse analysis starts with texts that individuals produce in relevant contexts, and inferentially specifies the underlying ideology that substantively interconnects the text’s components, In both cases, “native” informants may guide and correct inferences of the cognitions – the cultural code or ideology – underlying the materials of practices and texts.
There are two kinds of cognitive content that these sub-fields cite. Although not usually put this way, one of these is schemas of the whole that are the basis for the interconnections and functionality of particular component acts. Another kind of cognitive content is the ideological value placed on specific acts by which they are hierarchically ordered, sometimes expressed in terms of rules. At times this approach merges with the anti-cognitivist approach when the public expression of cognitions is regarded as a separate matter from the cognitions persons actually have. At other times, it merges with the “competence” approach in identifying “knowledge” that speakers and hearers must have to produce socially functional expressive acts and interpret them as such. And at other times, this approach merges with the social psychology approach (below) that is concerned with the way actual cognitive states in the moment shape expressive acts and the response to them.
Philipsen and Coutu (2005) and Leeds-Hurwitz (2005) survey diverse studies by ethnographers that have identified beliefs and values about reciprocal entitlements and obligations among neighbors, married couples, public officials, and the like that rationalize diverse communal practices. These include conceptions of masculinity inferred from men’s speaking practices in a blue collar, urban US neighborhood; the value given to social connections in such practices as seeking favors, issuing and complying with directives, and managing social asymmetries in urban Colombian society; the cultural codes underlying wedding rituals that intercultural couples try to preserve in hybrid wedding rituals they devise; the value placed on symmetry and directness in conflicts by native Israelis evident from a ritual practice for setting aside social asymmetries during disputes with one’s superiors; the knowledge that is needed to be considered a member and to participate in the reviving culture of Osage Indians; and conceptions of self that are codified and enacted in diverse activities, ranging from being a spectator at a sporting event to an advocate in a community dispute.
Tracy (2005) and Edwards (2005) have surveyed current thinking about discourse analysis in particular institutional and social contexts. This work owes a debt to Michel Foucault’s thinking about the way institutional ideologies are embedded in the presuppositions of lexical categories and their interconnections in discourse. However, LSI analysts do not generally take a critical stance. Some work focuses on presuppositions embedded in members’ discourse about the institution’s and members’ goals and how those guide and constrain practical action, for example in discourse about the research colloquia of an academic department, or in coordination problems in interactions between 911 emergency call-takers and callers. Other work has focused on the details of persons’ reports of personal experience that represent their perceptions and biases, for example the descriptions of the conduct of members of a stigmatized ethnic group, or descriptions of the appearance and conduct of a passing stranger that made him seem “suspicious” and justified reporting him to the police.
The Social Psychology Approach
There is consensus in the sub-field of language and social psychology that aspects of actual cognition (perceptions and attitudes) are directly relevant to certain details of language use and social interaction. Researchers investigate either what details of language use and bodily action have particular effects on cognition (principally, perceptions of and attitudes toward the other) and what details of language use and interaction result from certain cognitions (attitudes) regarding the other.
Much of the research in this tradition has been done on phonological, lexical, and syntactic aspects of speakers’ style that are evaluatively (attitudinally) differentiated, as well as their nonverbal expression. These elements have been found to affect evaluative perceptions of the speaker including perceptions of speaker power, and perceptions of gender difference. In addition, a substantial body of research has been done in relation to the central tenet of communication accommodation theory that the language spoken, accent, lexical choices, and rate of persons will converge or diverge, depending on whether they have positive or negative attitudes toward the other (Bradac & Giles 2005). This general pattern of convergence and divergence and its consequences have also been investigated in the context of interviewing in organizations, and in doctor–patient interactions.
The differences among sub-groups within LSI about what aspects of cognition are relevant to examining the way language use and social interaction work do not indicate conflicting ideas about language use and social interaction. There is general agreement in LSI that the phenomena of interest are not the conduct of individuals except with reference to their coordinated interaction and the discursive practices that achieve that. When attention is given to one aspect of cognition or another, it is always in terms of the part that cognition (or talk about cognition) plays in the social functionality of expressive acts in social interactions.
- Bradac, J. J., & Giles, H. (2005). Language and social psychology: Conceptual niceties, complexities, curiosities, monstrosities, and how it all works. In K. L. Fitch & R. E. Sanders (eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 201–230.
- Edwards, D. (2005). Discursive psychology. In K. L. Fitch & R. E. Sanders (eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 257–273.
- Fitch, K. L., & Sanders, R. E. (eds.) (2005). Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (2005). Ethnography. In K. L. Fitch & R. E. Sanders (eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 327–353.
- Lynch, M. (2006). Cognitive activities without cognition? Ethnomethodological investigations of selected “cognitive” topics. Discourse Studies, 8(1), 95–104.
- Philipsen, G., & Coutu, L. M. (2005). The ethnography of speaking. In K. L. Fitch & R. E. Sanders (eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 355–379.
- Sanders, R. E. (1987). Cognitive foundations of calculated speech: Controlling understandings in conversation and persuasion. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
- Schegloff, E. A. (2006). On possibles. Discourse Studies, 8(1), 141–157.
- te Molder, H., & Potter, J. (eds.) (2005). Conversation and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Tracy, K. (2005). Reconstructing communicative practices: Action-implicative discourse analysis. In K. L. Fitch & R. E. Sanders (eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 301–319.
- van Dijk, T. A. (ed.) (2006). Special issue on cognition. Discourse Studies, 8(1).