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Reviewed by:
  • Approaches to Discourse
  • David Herman
Approaches to Discourse, by Deborah Schiffrin; x & 470 pp. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1994, $24.95.

Surveying and implementing six approaches to discourse analysis—speech-act theory, interactional sociolinguistics, ethnography of communication, pragmatics, conversation analysis, and variation analysis—this book affords new perspectives on both formalist and functionalist paradigms for studying units of language beyond the sentence. Although written primarily for specialists in linguistics, Schiffrin’s book will also be of interest to a wider audience, from rhetoricans and philosophers of language to cognitive scientists and literary and narrative theorists. To this reviewer’s knowledge, no other book so comprehensively and so skillfully summarizes the major issues facing analysts of discourse. Grounding each of the six approaches in the philosophical and disciplinary contexts from which it emerged, Schiffrin shows that no single approach can typify, let alone exhaustively characterize, multisentential segments [End Page 396] of language. Rather, the approaches are good for highlighting different—and differently salient—properties of discourse. What approach we should choose in a given instance depends largely on the kind of question that we are asking about discourse itself.

One of the assumptions underlying and unifying Schiffrin’s analyses of discourse is that, above and beyond competence in the grammar of a language, human beings display broadly communicative competence. Humans traffic not in sentences but rather in utterances, i.e., sentence-tokens paired with the contexts in which those tokens are produced and interpreted. Utterances, not sentences, support inferences, license implicatures, such that we and our interlocutors are able to communicate far more than what we actually say to one another. (As Schiffrin notes on pp. 39–41, however, there is a lack of consensus about how best to characterize the notion of “utterance” itself.) Accordingly, discourse analysts should study “the way the communicative content of an utterance contributes to our understanding of relationships across utterances, or, alternatively, . . . the way relationships across utterances help us understand the form, function, or meaning of a single utterance” (p. 89). Schiffrin herself studies the communicative functions of utterances by isolating two common discourse phenomena—question-answer sequences and sequences of referring expressions—and then organizes her presentation of the six approaches around these phenomena. Thus speech-act theory, interactional sociolinguistics, and ethnography of communication prove especially useful for the study of questions and answers; meanwhile, (Gricean) pragmatics, conversation analysis, and variation analysis yield insights into the distribution of referring expressions across utterances.

Particularly illuminating are the sample analyses that highlight the possibilities and limits of each of the six approaches. For example, in the chapter on speech-act theory and discourse (pp. 49–91), Schiffrin discusses the “multiple response options” made available by a given utterance. An utterance functioning as a question can be interpreted, and responded to, either as a request for information or as an offer (p. 75). Because speech acts perform more than one discourse function at a time, the illocutionary force of a given speech act is “sequentially emergent,” arising “only in relation to another prior act” (p. 78). Yet as Schiffrin demonstrates, what allows us to make decisions about the “sequential appropriateness” (p. 89) of a given response to a prior utterance has less to do with the constitutive rules of speech acts than the social meanings attaching to those acts. Speech-act theory has little to say about such meanings; at best, then, it provides a skeletal account of the configurations of utterances we intuitively identify as question-answer sequences. By contrast, interactional sociolinguistics, which Schiffrin traces back to the work of Erving Goffman and John J. Gumperz, affords a more “richly textured view of the contexts in which inferences about speakers’ meaning are situated” (p. 106). In speech-act theoretical terms, a response included in Schiffrin’s sample analysis figures [End Page 397] (ambiguously) both as a mere expansion of a prior utterance and also as an account explaining the very occurrence of that previous utterance (pp. 78–84). An interactional sociolinguistic approach more productively describes this same response in terms of a participant alignment that Schiffrin labels “speaking for another.” For Schiffrin, in comparison with the Austin-Searle tradition of speech-act analysis, the...

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