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Participants' Roles and the Co-construction of Culture


In addition to the institutional roles that speakers assume by virtue of their occupation or their status (for example, bank teller, customer, teacher, pupil), there are also local participant roles, or participation frameworks, according to the sociologist Erving Goffman, that all speakers and hearers must carve out for themselves through what they say and the way they say it. Through their register (informal, formal), their key or tone of voice (serious, jesting, sarcastic), the frequency of their interruptions, the way they take the floor, the feedback signals they give, their choice of lexical and grammatical structures, the distribution of their silences, participants in verbal exchanges play out various social roles that reveal a great deal about the social persona they wish to represent, and about the social personae they are thereby assigning to their interlocutors. For example, they may come across as confident or shy, interested or indifferent, close or distant, helpful or pushy; they may take on a friendly, competitive, bossy, motherly role.

They may take on various interactional roles as well. For example, consider the following interaction between A (male, husband), B (female, A's wife), and C (female, friend and neighbor);


A: Y'want a piece of candy?

B: No =

C: = She's on a diet

(Schiffrin, Deborah. Approaches to Discourse. London: Basil Blackwell 1994, page 107)


C is in a sense animating words that are not hers, but B's. By speaking for B, she might be perceived as either 'chipping in' in a helpful manner, or 'butting in' and not minding her own business. Her intervention at this point, latched on to B's rejection of A's offer, can be viewed as a cue to B and C's relationship and their relationship to A. C happens to be a long-time friend and neighbor of B; her utterance can therefore be understood as enacting B's role as helpful explainer of B's refusal, with the intention of minimizing the negative impact that B's rejection might have on A. In other contexts, speaking for another person might be viewed as signaling not solidarity, but, rather, an asymmetrical relationship of power and authority, such as when a mother speaks for her child, a husband for his wife, a teacher for a student.

Speaking for another or animating his/her words is one of the many roles participants can take vis-à-vis their words and those of others. Another role may be that of principal, i.e. talking by virtue of the institutional power granted the speaker by society. A third possible role is that of author, i.e. assuming responsibility for what one says. Speakers may often speak both as authors and as principals. In the example above, A offers B some candy both as a responsible user of the English language and as one who has the legitimate authority to offer candy to friends and family. Listeners in turn may be acknowledged or non-acknowledged participants playing a variety of roles: addressees, hearers, eavesdroppers, bystanders. Here B, A's wife, is the addressee; C, the visitor, is a ratified hearer.

It is through the enactment of these roles that culture is jointly constructed through language in action. For example, children are not only biological entities, but socially constituted roles, i.e. children are culturally constituted as children by parents who consistently 'speak for them', and by children who accept to be 'spoken for', as in the following well-known example:


Kathryn: Mommy sock. /de/ - dirty. Mother: Yes. They're all dirty. I know.

(Bloom, Lois M. One Word at a Time. The Hague: Mouton 1970, page 47).


The infant, who cannot speak properly yet (from the Latin in-fans: the one who does not speak), has to be spoken for by the mother, who speaks what she understands the child to mean. The same can be said of pupils whose words are animated and evaluated by teachers. Pupils' and teachers' membership in school culture is recognizable in part by the way teachers tend to animate pupils' utterances, as shown in the example below, where a teacher and her class are talking about apples:


Teacher: What color are the pips?

Child 1: Brown

Child 2: Black

Child 1: Brown

Child 2: Brown

Teacher: Yes they're dark brown that's right.

(Wells, Gordon Learning Through Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981, page 217)


Similarly, gender roles are not the natural result of biological makeup, but they, too, are socially constructed by males and females enacting different participant roles in conversation. These roles are achieved by a pattern of small cues that show either self-assertiveness or uncertainty, dominance or submissiveness, and that get attributed over time to one gender or another. Consider the following:


Husband: When will dinner be ready?

Wife: Oh ... around six o'clock ...?

(Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman's Place. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 1976, page 17)


The woman's rising intonation 'is often interpreted as signaling female uncertainty and lack of self-assertiveness (or, on the contrary, female considerateness). Compare the following:


Female: So uh you really can't bitch when you've got all those on the same day (4.2) but I uh asked my physics professor if l couldn't chan – ge that -

Male: - Don't - touch that

Female: What?

Male: I've got everything jus' how I want it in that notebook you'll screw it up leafin' through it like that

(West, Candace and Don H. Zimmerman. 'Small Insults: A study of interruptions in cross-sex conversations between unacquainted persons'. In B. Thorne, C. Kramarae, and N. Henley (Eds.) Language, Gender and Society. Newbury House 1983, page 105).


The male's interruption may be viewed as a sign of male dominance, his power to switch the topic to suit his own agenda. However, one may not automatically equate a participant's role with the gender of an individual before one has observed that individual behave in various contexts with various interlocutors of both similar and different gender.

Language use is a cultural act not only because it reflects the ways in which one individual acts on another individual through such speech acts as thanking, greeting, complimenting, that are variously accomplished in various cultures. Language use is a cultural act because its users co-construct the very social roles that define them as members of a discourse community.




The system of signs that constitute culture is actively constructed through the verbal actions taken by sign-makers in interaction with one another. In the construction of meaning, the interpretation of events is grounded in each person's experience and field of perception. The context of situation and the context of culture in which verbal actions take place are constitutive of these actions; they imbue them with the necessary pragmatic coherence. As they talk, speakers draw on frames of expectations they have in common with other members of the group who share the same life history and the same larger context of culture. Based on these expectations, speakers then position themselves vis-a-vis the situational context of a given exchange by means of contextualization cues. These contextualization cues are evidence of situated inferences that speakers make, based on their culturally shared frames of expectations and applied to the local situation of the exchange. These cues give the exchange pragmatic coherence. The participants maintain this verbal coherence by observing a principle of conversational cooperation, that prompts them to align their expectations onto those of others by playing various participant roles. All these actions by the participants are finely attuned to the cultural norms and conventions of the group they belong to and to its attitudes and beliefs.

However, the meanings of words are different if they are conveyed face-to-face in the close proximity of another fellow human being, or over a distance, through the technologized medium of writing and print. In the next two chapters we examine the features of orality and literacy in relation to language and culture.



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