Language as Social Action: Social Psychology and Language Use
Thomas M. Holtgraves
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
US $29.95 Paper
In the introduction to his new book, Language as Social Action, Thomas Holtgraves, a social psychologist at Ball State University, accurately points out that while "language is truly an multidisciplinary topic, it is unfortunately not often an interdisciplinary topic (p. 1)." Holtgraves' book represents an attempt to change the situation. For the purpose of the book is an "attempt to provide an interdisciplinary review of language use as a social action (p. 1)." His goal is to explain "what people are doing when they use language, with the actions they are performing as they speak. People use language to accomplish various things--they request and compliment and criticize, and so on. But it is not only an action, it is also a social action, an action involving other people. This fact both shapes the nature of the activity and its consequences (p. 1-2)." Language is viewed as use rather than simply as a symbolic, abstract system.
The different research fields Holtgraves draws upon includes anthropology, social psychology, linguistics, pragmatics, philosophy, sociolinguistics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive psychology. But his main approach is social psychological in that he sees language as a behavior that is affected by other people and a means for influencing the behavior of others. As he puts it, "Understanding what we are doing when we use language can aid our understanding of what it means to be a social being (p. 8)."
Holtgraves states that there are five major themes in the book: Language use as action, as interpersonal action, as contextualized action, as coordinated action, and language use as thoughtful action. These themes form the topics for each of the chapters. Chapter one, 'Speech Actions and Intentions: the Things We do with Words,' discusses how language can be viewed as an important tool. "To use language is to perform an action, and it is a meaningful action, with consequences for the speaker, the hearer, and the conversation of which it is part (p. 5)." Holtgraves draws a sharp distinction between this approach and that of the traditional orientation in linguistics of the past 40 years, which, under the influence of Chomsky, attempted to understand how an ideal hearer/speaker comprehends and produces utterances, devoid from language use and the reason for its use.
In order to help explain this action quality of language, he relies upon work that has been done on the topic of speech acts. Speech acts are acts which are performed when words are uttered. It attempts to explain how language is used as intentional action. The theory was first developed by the Oxford 'ordinary language' philosopher J.L. Austin (and later expanded upon by John Searle) in the 1950's in the hope that a clarification in distinctions between these acts would either eliminate or make understandable many intractable philosophical problems. Holtgraves considers the work done by Austin (as well as the later Wittgenstein) as marking an important and new turn in the way language is viewed. "The emphasis on language as action rather than as an abstract system for describing reality marked a fundamental shift. It raised new issues and posed new questions (p. 12)."
Holtgraves is attracted to speech theory because of its central idea "that in using a language one is performing various actions . . . And one of the virtues of this approach--although it has not been emphasized--is the placement of language within the context of social activities. This can be seen most clearly, of course, with declaratives (p. 33)." In this chapter, he also discusses such topics as indirect speech acts, Grice's famous theory of conversational implicature, the psycholinguistic evidence for comprehending indirect speech acts, and conventionality.
Chapter two, 'The Interpersonal Underpinnings of Talk: Face Management and Politeness,' continues with speech acts, and is a consideration of the interpersonal implications of this theory. The chapter focuses primarily on what is called by social psychologists 'politeness theory.' Holtgraves believes that politeness theory is important because it can contribute to "our understanding of the effectiveness of communication patterns in small group interactions. . .(and) provide a wedge into the role that language plays in these processes (p. 62)." Furthermore, "It has the advantage of postulating links between interpersonal variables and numerous aspects of language use; it is truly a social psychological approach to language use (p. 6)." [-1-]
The third chapter is called 'The Interpersonal Consequence of Talk: Impression of Management and Person Perception.' It is about the role language use plays in how others perceive us and we perceive them (person perception) as well as the topic of impression management--the way we adjust our talk to achieve special results. Holtgraves also discusses accommodation theory, language styles or registers, and how linguistic variables influence people perception.
The next chapter is 'Conversational Structure.' Here he writes about the way conversations are structured. The topic is a complex one for as he notes "how this structure comes about is something of a mystery. Capturing the manner in which conversation turns are sequentially related has proved to be a very difficult task. Currently there does not exist a grammar of conversation in the sense that there exists a grammar for individual sentences (p. 116)." Relying upon conversational analysis and speech act theory, Holtgraves tries to answer such perplexing questions as 'What is the nature of conversational orderliness and structure? How is this accomplished? What are the mechanisms that allow it to be accomplished? (p.89)."
Chapter five, 'Conversational Perspective Taking,' concerns the topic of perspective taking--the problem of how people go about "coordinating their relative perspectives to have some sense of how their conversational partners will interpret their utterances. Perspective taking is important for many levels of language use, from the sense and reference of an utterance, to the specific speech act that is performed, to the interpersonal consequences of an utterance (p. 7)." Holtgraves looks at how accurate people are at taking other's perspectives and the relationship between this knowledge and mutual knowledge, and the role feedback and collaboration play in this activity. In this chapter, he also presents the results of recent empirical research that has been done on perspective taking. Throughout this analysis, he freely acknowledges that ultimately "Perspective taking is best viewed as being imperfect, tentative, and hypothetical (p.147)."
In chapter six, 'Language and Social Thought,' the controversial issue of the connection between language and thought and perception is discussed. Holtgraves starts by explaining the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, which famously argued for linguistic determinism, and then moves on to discussions of the tie in to language use, notions regarding implicit causality, reasoning, conversational pragmatics and cognition. One of the interesting conclusions he draws relates to the important subject of attribution theory (the way people explain causes) : "Because languages differ in the terms they provide, person perception may vary over cultures. In much the same way, basic attributional processes may be constrained by the perceiver's language. A language that provides a multitude of dispositional terms may increase the likelihood of those dispositional terms will be used, and hence that internal rather than internal attributions for behavior will be made. The most obvious attributional effect related to language is implicit causality; the verbs used for describing actions can convey information regarding the presumed causes of those actions. Although this may not reflect linguistic determinism in an absolute sense, there is an asymmetry in the causal locus of many verbs, and this may bias the attributions that people make (p.174)."
The final chapter, "Summary: Language as social action," is a recapitulation of the main ideas of the book. He ends the book on the note that "What is clear is that an understanding of how people produce and hearers understand conversation turns will require a consideration of the factors discussed in this book. It is quite possible that this may alter our view of the nature of linguistic competence (p. 200)."
In conclusion, Language as Social Action, is a brisk and informative introduction to the topic of the social psychological aspects of language use. Holtgraves is to be commended for taking the big (and rare) step of incorporating insights and experimental findings from a wide variety of disciplines to support his thesis. This book stands as a good model for how interdisciplinary studies can be done. It does suffer slightly from the classic methodological problem inherent in any interdisciplinary enterprise, namely that of oversimplification. Because Holtgraves is dealing with a great deal of complicated and technical material from different fields, he is forced, at times, to greatly simplify complicated issues and conclusions. But this problem is not major enough or too distracting to mar the book. Also, it would have been interesting if he had included some findings from the field of cross-cultural social psychology to highlight some of his points and if he had discussed the relationship between culture and language use in greater detail.
Beijing Language and Culture University
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