The Contribution of Speech Act Theory to the Analysis of Conversation

Topics: Speech act, Pragmatics, Illocutionary act Pages: 11 (3459 words) Published: April 15, 2013

The Contribution of Speech Act Theory
to the Analysis of Conversation: How
Pre-sequences Work
Francois Cooren
Universite de Montreal

Language and Social Interaction scholars (whether ethnomethodologists, ethnographers, or conversation analysts) often criticize speech act theorists for using invented sentences and fictional situations to illustrate their points, a practice which, according to these detractors, fails to capture the complexity and sequentiality of human interactions. In contrast, speech act theorists tend to accuse their opponents of falling into empiricism by collecting and analyzing naturally occurring pieces of interaction without truly explaining the inferential mechanisms by which interlocutors succeed or fail to coordinate their activities. In what follows, I will show how these two approaches to Language and Social Interaction could actually benefit from each other. Contrary to what even Searle (2002) claims, speech act theory can contribute to our better understanding of some important interactional phenomena that have been discovered and highlighted by conversation analysts for the last thirty years.

More precisely, I propose a reconsideration of the critique Schegloff (1988) addressed to Searle in his analysis of pre-sequences and indirection. Contrary to what Schegloff contends, speech act theory can explain the inferential mechanisms by which inter­ locutors come not only to produce and understand pre-sequences, but also to mistake them for requests for information. Although Schegloff is right to point out that the phenomenon of pre-sequences has not been anticipated by Searle's (1969, 1979) theory, he is wrong to think that this model is ill equipped to explain the logic of the produc­ tion and (mis)comprehension of this conversational phenomenon. Interestingly enough, speech act theory—and this is the analytical power of this theory—could even help us anticipate forms of pre-sequences that have not yet been identified by conversation analysts.




Before directly addressing the differences between Schegloff and Searle, I will first present briefly Searle's model of speech act theory through his analysis of indirections, as proposed in his 1979 book, Expression and Meaning. Contrary to what nonspecialists usually think, speech act theorists do not limit their analyses to performative utterances like "I order you to come here" or "I declare that the session is open." Although these utterances can indeed be produced in some specific circumstances, it is taken for granted that people tend not to speak so formally and to use more direct or indirect forms of speech act. Performative verbs like "order," "declare," or "promise" have been identified to name specific speech acts that can be performed in many different ways. For instance, in order to suggest something to somebody, one can certainly use the performative verb "suggest," as in "I'd suggest that you come with me to dinner to discuss those matters," but one could more indirectly say, "Perhaps you could come with me to dinner" or even "What about coming with me to dinner... ?" What gives speech act theory its analytical power is its capacity to explain the inferential rules by which people come to understand these different types of utterance as each being the act of suggesting. How does this work? Searle (1979) first noticed that each category of speech act— assertives, directives, commissives, declarations, and expressives—can be identified according to specific components of its illocutionary force, which determine its con­ ditions of success and satisfaction. Although up to six components have been identified (Vanderveken, 1990-1991), we will focus on just two of them—the preparatory con­ dition and the sincerity condition—to simplify the exposition of the model. Whereas the preparatory condition determines what is presupposed when one performs an illo­ cutionary act, the...
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