Interactional sociolinguistics and discourse analysis

Authored by: Jürgen Jaspers

The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis

Print publication date:  November  2011
Online publication date:  June  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415551076
eBook ISBN: 9780203809068
Adobe ISBN: 9781136672927


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Interactional sociolinguistics (IS) studies the language use of people in face-to-face interaction. It is a theoretical and methodological perspective on language use with eclectic roots in a wide variety of disciplines such as dialectology, ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, pragmatics, linguistic anthropology, microethnography and sociology. Basically IS starts from the finding that, when people talk, they are unable to say explicitly enough everything they mean. As a result, to appreciate what is meant, they cannot simply rely on the words that are used but must also depend on background knowledge, to discover what others assumed the relevant context was for producing words in. In fact people can get very angry when they are put to the test and asked to explain precisely what they meant. Imagine telling a colleague that you had a flat tire while driving to work, after which that colleague replies: ‘What do you mean, you had a flat tire?’ Or suppose you ask an acquaintance: ‘How are you?’, and you are being asked in return: ‘How am I in regard to what? My health, my finance, my school work, my piece of mind, my …’. In both cases you might experience surprise or confusion because you feel no extra explanation is necessary. You may even consider such questions improper and angrily retort: ‘Look! I was just trying to be polite. Frankly, I don’t give a damn how you are!’ (see, for these examples, Garfinkel, 1963: 221–222). Such reactions indicate that people expect each other to treat talk as incomplete and to fill in what is left unsaid; but also that people trust each other to provide a suitable interpretation of their words, that is, they expect one another to be aware of the social world that extends beyond the actual setting and of the norms for the use of words that apply there.

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