Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 6
Taking Turns

Easy Mastery vs. Difficult Touchy-Feely

Like creating context, taking turns is here performatively rekeyed as a speech act, as a series of speech acts. More specifically, I follow Garfinkel (1967) (and Heritage's 1984 expansion of Garfinkel's ethnomethodological model) in rekeying the "local management of social interaction" as speech acts—or what I call "conversational structuring acts."

In class my students always seem to gravitate toward Harvey Sacks' conversation analysis. They like the constative formalism of CA—the easy spatial mastery it gives them over a conversation. I keep pushing them toward Garfinkel's "trust," the notion that each participant in a conversation places trust in the other participants to know what s/he knows and help contribute to the collaborative creation of conversational meaning and structure, and puts moral pressure on the others to live up to that trust. They go "Oh, yeah, yeah, right, trust, yeah, that's good!" and then go back to opening sequences and insertion sequences and the rest. The CA spatialization of conversation is just overwhelmingly attractive, I guess. It gives the analyst an easy handle on conversational structure, conceived constatively not as an emergent and somewhat nebulous construct constantly being collaboratively shaped by the participants in the conversation but as a stable objective thing, lying there inert for all to study.

Ironically enough, as I say in the chapter, many sociologists (especially in the late sixties and early seventies, around the time Garfinkel's method was new) dismissed ethnomethodology as "sixties touchy-feely," because it was so attentive to people—what people do, how people see their role in a conversation, how they think and feel and trust. This seemed like the "easy" way out, then; it was much more complex (and therefore serious) an undertaking to reduce human social activity to a depersonalized objective science. But now, three-plus decades later, students find CA easier, precisely because it is so formalistic, such a light mobile analytical technology that yields easy mastery of complex conversational material; and ethnomethodology far more complex, because it is more person-oriented and thus less calmly certain about its results.


1. The important thing here isn't to lay down principles or research statistics, but to get students thinking and talking about their observations in this area. Your job should be to complicate the discussion (and keep it going), to make sure the students don't lock too early into uncritical stereotypes or generalizations—not to tell them the "truth" (if there even is one: the research findings in this area are, as one might expect from the complexity of the human animal, somewhat conflicting).

2. The advantage of CA's spatial approach is ease of analysis, of analytical mastery: the conversation analyst sees the entire conversation spread out on the page like a patient etherized on the table. The "big picture" is much easier to frame in this approach; tiny details are much easier to situate in that big picture. The advantages of ethnomethodology's temporal approach is realism: this is how we experience conversation, one utterance at a time, trying to decide how to respond. The temporal approach sacrifices analytical mastery in the interests of understanding conversation from the inside—not the inside of speakers' heads, but the inside of the conversation, the three-dimensional inside of talk, rather than CA's fourth-dimensional perspective from "above time." CA's spatial approach is constative in its focus on static structure; ethnomethodology's temporal approach is performative in its focus on each participant's conversational structuring act.

3. The answer to this overlaps with the answer to 2: Garfinkel gains realism, an inside perspective on conversation, and a focus on act, the act of managing interaction, structuring conversation. This is considered "touchy-feely" by hard-core scientists who believe that the only reliable knowledge comes from a rigorous exclusion of "the human factor"—turning not only the research subjects being studied but the research himself or herself into a post-human analyzing machine.

4/5/6. In all three of these, get the students to talk about their attitudes, experiences, opinions, observations.


1. a. From Jerry's point of view, he's probably trying to be funny about how silly George looks, and perhaps to keep trying to formulate exactly what's wrong with how George is dressed until he gets it just right—sort of like working on a bit for his stand-up comedy routine (Jerry is a stand-up comic). He's almost certainly not paying much attention to how George might be taking this.

b. George's "Are you through?" suggests that from his point of view, Jerry is going on and on and on about this thing, not just insulting him but insulting him repeatedly and at great length. The message he's sending is probably at least partly "Stop, already."

But "Are you through?" seems like it might be doing more than that as well. It sounds as if George might be trying to rise above the insults, to seize the moral high ground, partly humorously, perhaps, but from a position of superiority, not as the picked-on loser friend of the more successful Jerry. At least two more messages that George seems to be sending might be "This doesn't hurt my feelings in the slightest" and "You are so childish."

c. Jerry is still ignoring George's feelings, still not worrying whether he might be hurting George, still trying to work out just what is wrong with George—and, probably, still trying to be funny.

d. George's outburst is the kind of disruption of social calm that Garfinkel talks about, the outward sign that someone's trust is being abused, conversational morality is (from one person's point of view) being trampled. George is not just angry or hurt; judging from his exaggerated intonation, mixed in with those feelings is a deliberate attempt to stylize and thus soften or hide his anger a little, take the edge off it by half-pretending that he's more angry than he is. To some extent George's body language suggests that he's play-acting hurt and angry, perhaps play-acting the put-upon dorky loser friend that Jerry is always tearing down humorously—pretending to be the "true self" he always is with Jerry so as to make that "true self" seem like an "imaginary self" and thus distance himself from it somewhat.

e. Imitating a Senator at the Watergate hearings ("Oh, you don't recaaall ...") seems to be Jerry's attempt to lighten things up. Perhaps he suddenly realizes he's gone too far, he's walked on George's feelings just a bit too heartlessly, and so make a harmless joke out of it, directing his humor away from George's dorkiness and toward something that George can't possibly be hurt by, an imagined context that both can play with and laugh at together. This would almost certainly count as Jerry trying to reestablish his conversational morality after undermining it, rebuilding George's trust in him. And he does it not by apologizing or flattering George—both would almost certainly feel inauthentic to George—but by shifting humor gears from an imagined context where George is a dork to an imagined context where George is a fellow actor in a world-historical scene.

f. George gets it: he sees what Jerry is doing, and likes it. He's letting George off the hook. The imagined Watergate hearing context does restore his trust in Jerry, and he relaxes and settles back into easy play-acting banter.

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