Guest blog: Uwe Küttner’s report on “Grammar and Social Actions”

The beautiful hill city of Perugia in northern Italy was the site of a small but high-quality meeting in early April. In this guest blog, Uwe Küttner gives his reflections on the event.


Uwe Küttner, University of Potsdam

On April 4th-5th 2016, I had the pleasure of participating in a small-sized and informal one-and-a-half-day meeting on the topic of Grammar and Social Actions.

This event – inaugurated, and marvellously organized, by Piera Margutti – took place in Perugia (Italy) and brought together a handful of Conversation Analysts and Interactional Linguists from all over Europe (Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden) to address the issue of how speakers design their talk (e.g., lexico-synactically, prosodically) in a variety of settings to carry out certain actions in particular sequential environments.

The atmosphere of the event

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Perugia is a small Mediterranean town with a fascinating historical center in which narrow alleyways alternate with open piazzas. Here, the Perugians gather in the evenings to talk about the day’s happenings over a wine or a beer, which makes Perugia a perfect site for a small, informal meeting of researchers who study social interaction. Together with the finger-licking Italian food and the luscious wine that was served at the joint lunch breaks and dinners, this setting created an intimate, ‘la dolce vita’-esque atmosphere, which made it very easy for the participants to get to know each other better and to engage in conversations that extended well beyond a mere exchange of ‘networking stock phrases’.

The set-up

The program comprised data sessions on current projects as well as presentations of papers revolving around the abovementioned issue. The small number of participants made it possible to allocate generous time slots to every presenter, which allowed them to really develop their ideas in detail and to reflect upon their results from a methodological perspective. Moreover, this set-up left enough room for leading insightful discussions after the presentations.

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Elwys de Stefani, Piera Margutti and Marco Pino

The talks[1]

The diversity of the talks reflected the various ways in which aspects of the relationship between features of turn-design and (social) action(s) can be addressed. There were talks by:

  • Charles Antaki (Loughborough University) on how staff members in a residential home for people with intellectual disabilities occasionally use question-formatted turns for asking recipient-side test questions (i.e., questions addressing events and experiences that appear to fall into the recipient’s epistemic domain, but whose answers are nevertheless subsequently judged as correct or incorrect by the questioning staff member),
  • Elwys de Stefani (KU Leuven) on the relevance of turn-beginnings for action projection, illustrated with a study of how ‘left dislocations’ are used as a means to create joint attention to objects in grocery stores and of various formats for giving navigational instructions in driving lessons,

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    Elwys de Stefani, on left dislocation

  • Marco Pino (Loughborough University) on how professionals in therapeutic interactions use (fictional) anecdotes and analogies for morally sanctioning the clients’ inappropriate conduct,
  • myself, Uwe-Alexander Küttner (University of Potsdam), on how speakers use a specific turn-constructional format as a practice for constructing sequential junctures in ordinary conversation,
  • and again Marco Pino on how partial or fragmentary knowledge displays can be used as a practice for reconciling knowledge discrepancies in therapeutic interaction.

On a more personal note

On a personal level, I was extremely happy about the tremendous amount of positive feedback I received for my presentation. Since it originated from my Ph.D. thesis, which I had only submitted a few weeks earlier, I was quite unsure about how it would be received by other renowned scholars in the field. Their direct and personal feedback has not only encouraged me to begin drafting a publishable version of my talk; it also makes me feel much more confident about the upcoming defense of my thesis.

The merits of smaller events: A recommendation for Ph.D. students

As Ph.D. students, we often tend to be attracted by the allure of big conferences, and there are undoubtedly very good reasons to attend these. For me, however, this meeting has proven once more that attending informal, small-sized events has its own merits and can be just as valuable. I would therefore strongly encourage Ph.D. students to be on the lookout for, and (if possible) to participate in, smaller events like this one. More often than not, they confirm the old adage that good things come in small packages.

[1] Footnote: Since the data sessions were on current projects, I will not review them here.