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Competitive co-operation

The intrepid explorer....

So week 1 of annual leave is done and dusted (Wales is an amazing country and well worth a visit by the way). This week, I tackle the second half of my annual leave wherein I’ll be stuck in Birmingham for the whole week. Alas, I’ve now come to terms with my current urban abode and I’m actually quite looking forward to mooching around the city and ‘chilling out’ (I think I’m now too old to be using this phrase…).

It’ll also give me a little bit of time to focus on getting some writing done, and I thought that since there’s been little in the way of ‘sociolinguistic’ chat thus far on the blog, I should try and remedy that somewhat (otherwise I should rename the blog to something like ‘doesnttalkmuchaboutlinguisticslinguist.com’.

One of my areas of research is urban adolescent male language use, specifically Glasgow (although I do have plans to move my research to Birmingham adolescent male speech). The bulk of my PhD thesis centered on providing an acoustic analysis of speech data and relating differential patterns of variation to particular group membership. I collected all my conversational data during a three-year ethnography of a high school in the south side of Glasgow and it was on this data I did the acoustic analysis. Since the data was conversational, though, the adolescents I recorded talked about a variety of things, including their home life, what they wanted to do when they finished school, what they thought about the local area and so on. One day we were talking about fights that had happened between them and whether it had affected their friendships or not. As we were talking, there was a fascinating exchange between two of the participants. I’ve included part of the excerpt below (‘translated’ into Standard English):

  1. Phil:               So I- I really really wasn’t crying.
  2. Nathan:        Aye, I wasn’t saying you were crying,
  3.                         but it did look like you were crying.
  4. Phil:               No, it’s think it’s just cause my eyes,
  5.                          it looks like I’m crying.
  6.                         Do I look as if I’m crying now?
  7. Nathan:        No, but I did see something.

At the time of writing my thesis (in 2009), this section of data formed about three pages of my ethnographic discussion, but it always stuck in my head because of its inherent contradictibility. In line 2, Nathan says ‘I wasn’t saying you were crying’ and then IN HIS NEXT TURN says the complete opposite thing (‘It did look like you were crying)! While we can argue as to whether there is an internal inconsistency here or not (in formal logic terms), I would argue that Nathan’s second turn here does something interesting in the context of the conversation which requires further investigation. This excerpt had always puzzled me and even though I wrote about it in my thesis, I didn’t have time to give it the attention it deserved. After I submitted, I put together a conference paper for a conference in Helsinki last year and over the past six months or so, I’ve been working this conference paper up into an article.

Basically, my argument (so far) goes like this:

In general folk-linguistic ideology, men’s speech is considered competitive and women’s speech co-operative (see Jennifer Coates’ work in this area for substantiation of this claim). Over the last 15 years or so, however, this dichotomy has come under increasing scrutiny for its lack of sophistication in accounting for the complexity of situated language use. Importantly, work from Penelope EckertJacqueline Guendouzi and Deborah Tannen has argued that speakers don’t simply draw on resources from one pole or another, but that utterances can be orientated simultaneously towards both (cf. co-operative competition in Eckert’s article). Much of the work in this area has been on female speakers, but very little attention has been paid to how male speakers might exploit strategies which cannot be easily correlated with competitive or cooperative.

If we take the data excerpt from above, it is very difficult to pin-point whether Nathan is being competitive or co-operative. On the one hand, he is offering a face-threatening act which calls into question Phil’s emotional fragility (cf. ‘crying’), but on the other, he immediately mitigates (and in some senses withdraws) his accusation. Before we get into why this particular pattern might exist, we have to take a slight detour through some background info.

One over-riding tendency in language and gender research is that the gender of the speaker tends to influence the kinds of interpretations offered on the data by the researcher. It’s often something (generally) unconscious, but researchers are only human and are influenced by their own assumptions and preconceptions of the world in which they live. Being aware of this goes some way towards reducing the impact of this, and an article by Deborah Tannen on gossip among male university undergraduates is an excellent example of the kind of analysis which can be done when ‘another set of eyes’ looks at the data (in this article, Tannen reanalyses some data originally collected and analysed by one of her students). With this in mind, we might be tempted to see Nathan’s contributions here as wholly competitive and face-threatening since this fits in with general ideologies surround male language use. He’s trying to get one up on Phil by calling into question his sense of ‘tough’ masculinity and his turns seem to suggest a rather competitive stance. The other alternative is that the turn is fully co-operative, but then why would Nathan say that it did look like Phil was crying? Surely if it was co-operative, Nathan would have framed this exchange differently? This is all fine and dandy, except that I don’t think that this is the full story.

The other other alternative is that (like the work of Eckert and Guendouzi), it is reductive to think of language use in terms of ‘competitive’ or ‘co-operative’ (why should it only be one or the other?). Instead, we should think of Nathan’s turns here as ‘polysemous’ (that is, meaning one thing and another simultaneously) in that it is ‘competitively-co-operative’. By doing so, Nathan achieves two aims at the same time: 1) challenge Phil’s claim to ‘tough’ masculinity and 2) mitigate his contribution in order to maintain the friendship. In some senses, the participants here are ‘playing a game’ and both are aware of it. We have to take into account the fact that the participants are friends and are unlikely to go the full way of competitive dialogue (it’s risky, it could escalate etc etc), and the exchange here is testament to this fact.

Competition works (on some level) by the individuals involved in the competition co-operating in the endeavour. If I’m playing a game of football or rugby with people (competitive) and I decide I don’t want to play or be involved any more (co-operative), then the game ceases to be (or at least, I stop being a part of that particular interaction). I reckon that something similar is happening in this excerpt.

My thinking still needs a bit of refinement before I hit the ‘submit to journal’ button, but I think I’m on the right track here. Now I just need to drag myself out of my post-Wales bliss and get cracking on trying to finish it this week!

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