Wooffit’s argument in Conversation Analysis and Power seems to adhere to the following structure:

Main claim: Conversation analysis offers a distinctive perspective on issues of power and social control.

Ground I: Selling is an interactional achievement; market pitchers’ communicative skills [enable them to] manage the expectations, obligations, and potential hostile responses of the argument.

Ground II: Through a number of practices and devices (e.g. unequal distribution of argumentative resources) radio show hosts can maintain an argumentative advantage over the caller.

Ground III: CA techniques can illuminate the contingent and socially accomplished nature of gender and gendered social interactions (e.g. rhetoric of date rape campaigns, the interactional basis of sexual harassment)

I’m certainly convinced that Wooffit has made a decent rebuttal to the CA critics who he calls out at the very beginning of the chapter as arguing that “[conversation analysis] does not try to make links between micro-phenomena of interaction and what might be called macro-level order, in which relations of power… are said to operate.” What’s interesting is the position I’m in as a reader, which is really the same position anyone is in as a reader. I’m in the position of the critic. The attacker. The offense. I’m going second and, following Wooffit’s section on power in institutional settings, maybe that means I have the power. I say “maybe” purposively, because I’m just not too sure. I’m just not too sure in part because of Wooffit’s recapitulation of Hutchby’s work, which he summarizes in the Turn-taking and power in institutional settings sub-section.

Hutchby’s main argument is that “the sequential structures out of which the differential distributions of resources emerge are not natural but an oriented-to feature of the interaction.” I’m re-wording this argument as something like: turn-taking orients discussants to particular distribution of (in the following case) argumentative resources. To ground this claim, Hutchby analyzes interactions on radio talk shows.

Wooffit starts with a rhetorical question: Who has the power in [radio talk show] confrontations? The short answer is: the host

Wooffit writes that because “callers are expected to set the topical agenda they are, in fact, paradoxically, in a vulnerable and relatively powerless position.” The “relatively” qualifier is important. Maybe it demonstrates Wooffit’s anticipation of a critique like the one I’m about to make. I will list Wooffit’s grounds (actually Hutchby’s grounds, I guess) and then offer some responses to each.

Callers are in a vulnerable and powerless position because:

  • Callers go first, and those who go first must “make” an argument as opposed to simply taking one apart.
  • Hosts can reformulate the callers’ position to set a different agenda for the argument.
  • Hosts can attribute a position to the caller and then challenge that position even if it is not a position asserted by the caller.

There are some unstated warrants with each of these grounds. In the first, the one who goes first is only on the offense until they making their initial argument. After that act of making, they necessarily adopt a defensive posture, which according to Wooffit (and Hutchby) is disempowering in the radio show examples. Defending an argument requires more work from callers who perhaps do not have access to the same “argumentative resources” as the hosts. I say perhaps just to draw attention to the micro-ness of the analysis under consideration. Anecdotally, and outside the context of radio show call-ins, I have seen speakers who go first who don’t seem to me to be disempowered by their occupation of the first position. These speakers seemingly defend their claims with the same mastery and fluency as they construct their initial arguments. I watched this happen last week in a doctoral student seminar. It was really cool.

On to the second point. It’s true that a host (or any listener for that matter) can reformulate a caller’s (or speaker’s) position to set a different agenda. I would guess that we’d see examples of this all the time on a variety of programs on Fox News. But the caller doesn’t have to assent to the host’s bid for a new agenda. Wooffit’s example has a radio host making a much more extreme claim out of a caller’s initial argument against telethons. The host amplifies the claim to charity in general. “You’re going back to the original argument that we shouldn’t have charity,” the host says. This “places the caller in a disadvantageous position of having to clarify what exactly his argument is, rather than elaborating it, or offering a more forceful defense.” The claim being made here is that elaborating argument and/or offering a more forceful defense of one’s position is more advantageous than having to clarify one’s argument. In an extemporaneous debate, which is how I’d characterize a radio call in show, I’m not sure I agree.

Couldn’t clarifying one’s argument be seen as a kind of elaboration if we understand elaboration as developing or presenting something in detail? Clarifying argument fleshes out the details doesn’t it? Even if that clarification is a response to a host’s attempt to hi-jack the discussion? When the host (mis) characterizes the caller’s argument about telethons to apply to charity writ large, the caller has an opportunity to amplify his original claim. Amplifying the original claim in my mind can also be seen as offering a more forceful defense where the forcefulness of it is partly a function of its clarity.

Ok, the last point. Hosts can attribute a position to a caller and then challenge that position even if it’s one that the caller didn’t assert. I guess the unstated warrant here is that defending a claim one wasn’t prepared to defend in the first place is disempowering in the sense that it potentially asks the caller to “call upon” knowledge of a different argument. In Hutchby’s third example, the caller has made an argument for legislation that would give “people the choice to shop on Sundays if they want.” The radio host ascribed to the caller a different argument: Shop workers should not have a choice about working on Sundays. The two arguments are tightly connected. And in fact I’d think that someone who makes the former argument could rightly accept the latter as a rebuttal/critique of their position.

But even as I read it I thought that the host was just as vulnerable as the caller to the same set of “argumentative resources.” The caller could point out that trade offs will be made. They might attempt to reformulate the host’s counterargument to a more extreme position: so you would only support legislation that favors workers to the detriment of consumers? Or they could even attribute a different claim as the host just did. I think these thoughts align with Hutchby’s ultimate(?) claims. “Power is contestable… there are resources available to the callers by which they can resist the host’s argumentative strategies.”

My original interpretation (re-wording) of Hutchby’s main argument as presented by Wooffitt was: turn-taking orients discussants to particular distributions of (in the following case) argumentative resources. When faced with Hutchby’s ultimate claims, it strikes me that “orients” in my re-wording and “oriented to” in Hutchby’s original text are really important words. I think what’s wrong about my use of the term “orients” is its ascription of action to “turn-taking” itself rather than the person taking the turn. Hutchby’s original wording, while it doesn’t explicitly say that the discussants “orient to the sequential structure out of which the differential distribution of resources emerge,” seems to me to imply human agency. Human agents “orient to” sequential structures that lead to differential distribution of “resources.” Perhaps this this comes through in the way I talked about making and/or assenting to bids and callers accessing and leveraging the same argumentative resources as the host. They can orient to (or not) the normative sequential structures that purportedly empower the host and disempower the caller. Power is contestable.

As the reader, I’m only in a position of power if both I and the writer orient to the sequential structures out of which an asymmetrical distribution of argumentative resources empower me and disempower him. At the end of this entry, I guess I’m no longer “not sure.” I’m sure I’m not necessarily in a power position because I’m subject to the same argumentative resources as Wooffit.

**As an after-thought, all of this really made me think of the following viral video of a fellow named Jeremy Glick on Bill O’Reilly’s television program: http://youtu.be/2IwIRNM5noY?t=35s.**

One thought on “2-23-2015

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  1. Love this post! Your reanalysis is powerful. I just watched the YouTube clip with Jeremy Glick. I loved when he said he basically studied the rhetorical practices of B. O’Reilly. What a great example!

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