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American Speech 79.3 (2004) 323-328

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The Deconstruction of Identity in Everyday Talk

North Carolina State University
Everyday Talk: Building and Reflecting Identities By Karen Tracy New York: Guilford, 2002. Pp. x + 230.

Everyday Talk is intended to be an introductory text that familiarizes undergraduates in the field of communication studies with the scope and techniques of discourse analysis. The book, which has as its central theme exploring how identity work and relationship building are accomplished through discourse, is divided into four parts: "The Argument," "Talk's Building Blocks," "Complex Discourse Practices," and "The Conclusion."

Chapter 1, "Building and Reflecting Identities," defines identity as "stable features of persons that exist prior to any particular situation, and are dynamic and situated accomplishments, enacted through talk, changing from one occasion to the next" (17). A mini-discourse analysis of an exchange between doctors illustrates the fluidity with which speakers position themselves in conversation. The concept of identity is then broken down into four categories: master identities (demographic aspects, such as gender), interactional identities (assumed roles, such as being a husband), personal identities (attitudinal aspects, such as being a sports fan), and relational identities (aspects of relationship status, such as equality). Although Tracy notes that a speaker may form expectations based on an interlocutor's preexisting identities—for example, the "hotheaded Latino" or the "nurturing female"—she does not mention that these expectations may lead to typologizing or stereotyping [End Page 323] interlocutors, though she alludes to such cognitive processes in later chapters. The chapter concludes with a more formal delineation of how identities are constructed in interaction through several types of discursive practices.

Chapter 2, "Two Perspectives," identifies the rhetorical and the cultural perspectives as frameworks for examining how speakers' preexisting identities shape discursive practices and expectations of others. The rhetorical perspective views speakers as strategic choicemakers who consciously or unconsciously select certain ways of talking to create or avoid specific identities. Two examples—of university advisors unfairly building rapport with select students (Erikson and Schultz 1982) and of divorce mediators constructing themselves as unbiased referees (Jacobs et al. 1991)—emphasize this point. The cultural perspective focuses on how speakers' master identities shape their communicative choices. As members not only of race-, class-, and gender-based groups but also of speech communities, speakers acquire beliefs about what constitutes appropriate everyday talk. One consequence of culturally situated talk is that interactional differences can become problematic, and the text offers in-depth examples of intercultural miscommunication. A summary of the strengths and weaknesses of, and the similarities between, the rhetorical and cultural perspectives completes the chapter and part 1 of the book.

Part 2 of the book begins with chapter 3, "Person-Referencing Practices." It covers several societal controversies, such as choices in the use of marital names, and it establishes that not only are names cultural resources used to signal identity, but they are interactionally consequential as well. With respect to gender-linked references, the text covers sexist language, arguments for and against the use of male generics in language, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. With respect to ethnicity, it centers around ethnic group labels, the lack of a label for white Americans, and the problems inherent in categorizing others. One topic left unmentioned is the politics of naming dialects spoken by stigmatized groups (cf. Green 2002; Fought 2003), which is strangely absent in a book on everyday talk and identity-building. The chapter underscores the power of labels with a brief explanation of Sacks' (1992) membership categorization device.

"Speech Acts," chapter 4, reviews speech act theory from Austin to Searle to Hymes. It emphasizes the coconstruction of the relationship between language and identity, and four principles are identified as linking speech acts with identities. First, preexisting identities constrain and shape which speech acts are expected and allowed. Second, speech acts build relational and personal identities, particularly in intimate and status-linked relationships. Third, speech acts are distinctive to speech communities and therefore help distinguish cultures from one another. Fourth, speech acts may differ in form and function; for example, an apology can...


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pp. 323-328
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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