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Review of  Talk and Social Theory

Reviewer: Susan Fiksdal
Book Title: Talk and Social Theory
Book Author: Frederick Erickson
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Anthropological Linguistics
Book Announcement: 16.2177

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Date: Fri, 8 Jul 2005 12:10:49 -0700
From: Susan Fiksdal <>
Subject: Talk & Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in
Everyday Life

AUTHOR: Erickson, Frederick
TITLE: Talk and Social Theory
SUBTITLE: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life
PUBLISHER: Polity Press
YEAR: 2004

Susan Fiksdal, Linguistics and French, The Evergreen State College


In this book Frederick Erickson presents a new approach to discourse
theory by articulating the links between the microanalysis of
conversation and discourse at the societal level. He begins with two
assertions which form a paradox when held together, paraphrased
here: (1) The conduct of talk in real time is unique, produced by social
actors in a particular situation; (2) This conduct of talk is influenced by
social factors beyond the situation and time of that talk. Rather than
focusing on one or the other assertion, Erickson presents an
argument linking the two.

Part I "Examples of the Conduct of Talk" (Chapters 1-5) examines four
different conversations which could be seen as pedagogically oriented
across the life cycle: children interacting at a family dinner, a
kindergartner interacting with her teacher, a counselor interacting with
a community college student, and a medical intern interacting with his
supervisor. Although these examples have been previously
published, they are reframed for this book.

Chapter One: "Sketching the Terrain"
This chapter lays out Erickson's approach to conversation analysis
which he describes as a social ecology of mutual attention taking
place in a context of time. This notion of time is based on the Greek
terms for time, "kronos" and "kairos." "Kronos" refers to the rhythmic
cadence performed by prosody and body motion. The second aspect
of time, "kairos," refers to the time of tactical appropriateness, the time
that feels right for a particular purpose. It is this dual notion of time
that enables the social organization of talk. Erickson proposes that to
fully investigate the social practices within conversation, it is essential
to examine the social practices within society. He does not see these
as deterministic; instead, he argues that the social structure provides
both constraints and enablement and social processes are both
conventional and innovative.

In Chapter Two, "Seventy-Five Dollars Goes in a Day," Erickson
presents an analysis of a family dinner table conversation within a rich
context of setting, participants, and organization of talk. The
transcription is designed to display the rhythmic organization, with
parts of the talk transcribed a second time using musical notation.
With eight speakers and a lively conversation with side conversations,
contributions from everyone, passing of food, and eating, there was a
lot going on. Erickson points out that all of this activity was
rhythmically oriented so that the gestures and passing movements
matched the cadence of the conversation measured using a
metronome and machine analysis. Key information nouns received
prominence in this structure by falling on the "beat" and receiving pitch
and volume emphasis, making it easy for listeners to locate them.
Erickson then situates the content of the talk within the family's
socioeconomic situation at that time-1974. The topic in effect acted as
a socializing feature: the children were learning about their family
budget situation and they were learning ways of talking about it.
Erickson argues that this must have taken place in many working class
families and acted in synergy with political discourse producing a mass
movement which was responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan
as president.

Chapter 3, "I can Make a 'P'" focuses on the relative interactional
success of two children in a combined first and second grade
classroom. He describes the communicative competence of the first
graders who had already spent a year in the same teacher's
classroom which included both responding with the correct information
and responding at the right time-during the "kairos" moment after a
question and on the cadential beat. One of the children, Angie, did
not respond appropriately in the first taping and this segment is
carefully analyzed for the rhythmic organization of the talk. He reports
that by February Angie had learned the conversational practices in
the classroom. Another child did not achieve that competence and by
the following year he had "faded into the woodwork." That is, he did
not interact in the classroom conversation and was no longer
expected to. Erickson points out that this interactional failure can
follow children as it affects teachers' judgments of their academic
ability and their motivation. These judgments are entered in the
children's permanent records and they influence later teachers'
perceptions of them. Whether this takes place in a school, a hospital,
or periodic interviews with a parole officer, Erickson points out that an
individual develops an identifiable deviant institutional career Cicourel

Chapter 4 "You Wrestlin'?" presents a conversation between an
academic counselor at a community college with a long-term student.
Erickson's analysis of the conversation and the playback interview
demonstrates the ways in which co-membership in a group is
established through talk. In this case, the advisor revealed that he
knew the student's family and they shared the same ethnicity.
Erickson points out that the collusion between the advisor and
student, which was not explicitly addressed by either, helped the
student avoid the draft and serving in the military during the Vietnam
War. For example, although the community college normally
graduated students in four semesters, this student was in his eighth.
Erickson reports on the way he also helped students when he first
became a professor.

In Chapter 5, "He has no history of IVDA," Erickson analyzes the
interaction of an attending physician and preceptor with an intern in
his first year of residency. In contrast to the co-membership solidarity
described in the previous chapter, in this one co-membership is
complicated by race. Both the intern and patient are young African-
American males while the preceptor is older and white. The hospital
served adjacent inner-city neighborhoods where mostly African-
Americans lived, and the patient came from one of these
neighborhoods. Erickson finds several places in the discourse where
co-membership is established in the intern's use of an informal
register rather than specific medical terminology. This practice
establishes the young intern as a doctor like the preceptor as this
informal register is often used between doctors. In two places in the
interaction, however, the intern responds to the informal register of
the preceptor with a hyperformal response. Erickson surmises that he
wishes to distance himself from the street-wise patient. By distancing
himself from the patient and what the patient knows, the intern also
distances himself from the preceptor in his hyperformal response.
Erickson sees this momentary chill in the two doctor's relationship as a
consequence of the history of race relations in the US.

Prior to the beginning of Part II, Erickson offers a summation of the
findings in the first four chapters in "Excursus: The Cases in Synoptic
Review." He points out that in all cases there were various subtexts
being expressed as well as the main topics. While some particular
features are specific only to individual cases, there is potential for
what he calls "ethnographic generalization."

Part II, "Thinking About Talk and Social Theory," reiterates the thesis
of the book stated as a paradox in the introduction: talk is both a local
process and a global one. Erickson indicates the difficulties in
addressing this paradox given the disciplinary divisions in academia
and the importance of bridging the gulf between local practices and
social theory.

In Chapter 6, "General Perspectives on Talk and Social Theory,"
Erickson describes and critiques social theories which he believes do
not adequately explain both the local and global ecologies of talk. He
first sketches two major approaches to social processes-voluntarism
or the result of individual effort and will; and social determinism.
Neither can account for the ways in which local and global processes
interact. He then describes various explanations for the existence of
social order including socialization, conflict theory, ethnomethodology,
and post-structuralist accounts found in Foucault's, Bourdieu's and
Bakhtin's writings. These he associates with capital D "Discourse"
approaches (Gee, 1990), which do not take into account local
discourse practices as much as larger practices labeled as general
workings of society. He also examines Fairclough's notion of critical
discourse analysis, which is concerned with language as social
practice determined by social structure. Erickson seeks to underscore
the multivalence in everyday talk and to create a theoretical stance in
which to study it.

In Chapter 7, "Toward a more Practical theory of Practices in Talk,"
Erickson extends his critique from the previous chapter arguing that
both Foucault and Bourdieu treat the relationship of culture,
discourse, and power in a deterministic way. In Foucault's theory he
finds no place for the human agent and no gradation in the flow of
power. He reveals an analogous problem in Bourdieu's formulation of
the relationship between "habitus" and field. Bourdieu describes
social reproduction in a variety of settings, but he does not describe a
particular habitus or practice in the field-as-experienced. Erickson
argues that speakers as social actors in real time constitute the field-
as-experience and that this field is penetrable by local practice-it does
not determine what can occur. Erickson acknowledges Goffman's
approach to face-work as an opening to the in depth work of
understanding talk in interaction, and his notion of footings or
alignments in which speakers adopt to indicate to others the stance
they are taking towards the talk as contributions to his own notion of a
theory of practicing.

Erickson believes that to account for change in a theory of social
reproduction, we must look within the conduct of talk. He finds the
notion of the "bricoleur" (Lévi-Strauss, 1966) useful for explaining how
change occurs at this level. The "bricoleur" is the handyman who
makes use of what is at hand to solve a problem. In talk, a speaker
as "bricoleur" may bring the same strategy as in another conversation
in response to a particular situation; but, crucially, this speaker may
also innovate at the appropriate moment. Erickson thus expands and
deepens this notion of timing, from the Greek notion of kairos or the
appropriate moment which he has developed in earlier work (see
especially Erickson and Shultz 1982). Erickson demonstrates the
actions of a "bricoleur," his son at age 2, who routinely ended his
made-up stories: "And they lived happily ever after...amen." His son
had acquired prestructured speech through different experiences and
combined them in an innovative way, indicating that preexisting
structures do allow for change

In Chapter 8, "Summing Up," Erickson makes the crucial point that
post-structuralists have extended the notion of discourse to semiotic
systems beyond face-to-face talk such as writing, dress, food,
architecture, systems of power/knowledge and that this breadth
obscures the fundamental constitutive importance of local social
ecology for the real-time production of talk. He finds a neglect of the
particular situation because the units of analysis are temporally and
spatially distant. On the other hand, the analysis of talk affords an in
depth view of a particular situation and the ways in which that situation
constrains the speakers. In order to illustrate why these particular
situations matter in the overall social system, he reviews each of the
chapters presenting a particular conversation analysis and illustrates
the ways in which each contributes to historical change. He argues
that looking at change from the bottom up, the work social actors do in
real time in conversation, reveals innovation. Although he cannot say
for sure what happened to the specific social actors he investigated in
the conversations presented in this volume, Erickson does insist upon
the importance of social theory for conversation analysts. If, for
example, researchers are working within a theory in which social
actors are essential rule-followers, products of prior socialization, they
may overlook evidence of speech genres that do not fit.


Erickson has proposed an intriguing argument, linking local
conversations in real time with the theory of discourse at a societal
level. It offers students of sociolinguistics and discourse analysis a
way of understanding the importance of ethnographic microanalysis in
the context of social change. The discussion of four conversations in
the first part of the book carefully lays the groundwork for the
theoretical discussion in the second, by presenting a close analysis of
verbal and nonverbal behavior and tying the talk to the social forces of
the time. Erickson thus reinforces his argument for the importance of
talk in real time. For those familiar with Erickson's work, this argument
extends his work on the notion of "kairos," the right time or
appropriate time in talk. He proposes the "bricoleur" as agent, an
agent that can exercise power and create change at the local level.

I find Erickson's argument intriguing. Certainly in the eyes of many
historians it is local practice that creates and sustains change, and
this text provides a window into how change may occur through the
actions of the "bricoleur." Erickson also draws upon social theorists of
big "D" discourse. I am left with several questions. Much of what
occurs in conversation is not considered at a conscious level; for
example, speakers may experience an uncomfortable moment, but
may not analyze it in its verbal, nonverbal, and rhythmic context
(Fiksdal, 1990). Would they recognize "bricolage" and use it to the
same effect in later conversations? If talk constitutes the power
relationships and identities projected in conversation, does "bricolage"
need to be recognized by interlocutors to create change in local
practice? While at a microanalytic level in a conversation, one might
recognize innovative practice, how does that practice lead to change
across speakers and across situations at more macro levels? How
does socialization in certain practices such as the classroom fit into
this argument? Despite these questions, it is certain that societal
change does take place and conversational practices change.
Erickson's argument proposes an argument that links the two.

This text would serve well as an introduction to ethnographic
microanalysis and, for those of us who have been working in this area,
it presents a way of connecting this work to broader social forces in its
emphasis on "bricolage" and avoidance of deterministic theories. Part
II requires careful reading because Erickson not only critiques major
theorists, but also examines critiques of those theorists. For that
reason, the text may be best used in graduate studies, but some
advanced undergraduates may also find it useful.


Cicourel, Aaron V. (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice.
NY: John Wiley.

Erickson, Frederick and Shultz, Jeffrey (1982) The Counselor as
Gatekeeper: Social Interaction in Interviews. NY: Academic Press.

Fiksdal, Susan (1990). The Right Time and Pace: A Microanalysis of
Cross-Cultural Gatekeeping Interviews. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Gee, James P. (1990) Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in
Discourses. London: Falmer.


Susan Fiksdal teaches linguistics and French to undergraduates at
The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her current
research interests are in metaphor in conversation, gender, the
rhythmic organization of talk, and classroom discourse.

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