Guest blog: How do we get others to help us?

The current issue of the journal has a very thoughtful debate about how we should conceptualise that family of actions that end up getting others to help us. Kobin Kendrick and Paul Drew make the bold claim that these all fall under the rubric of ‘recruitment”, and set out the terms in which they can all be analysed*. It is a fascinating argument, with commentaries by John Heritage, Jörg Zinken and Giovanni Rossi; here, Kobin gives an account of the paper and its genesis.

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Kobin Kendrick, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

One of the greatest mysteries in the social and biological sciences is the evolution of altruism. Given that natural selection favours the survival of the fittest, how did the tendency for humans to help one another evolve?

Our altruistic nature can be seen in the selfless acts, both large and small, that pervade our everyday lives. Consider, at one extreme, the ‘real life heroes’ who voluntarily risk their lives to save the lives of others. Or, at the other, children as young as 14 months of age who voluntarily help strangers in need. It’s clear from such examples that ‘altruism’ is in fact a product of interactional practices.

Yet the methods developed to discover, describe, and understand interactional phenomena – conversation analytic methods – have scarcely been applied in this area. In our article in ROLSI, Paul Drew and I have begun to do just that. We argue that conversation analysts should move beyond studies of ‘requesting’ to examine the full range of methods that participants use to recognize and resolve troubles in everyday activities.

How people ‘recruit’ others

Using conversation analysis, we identify and describe a set of methods that participants use to ‘recruit’ others to assist them. These methods of recruitment, we argue, form a continuum from explicit requests for assistance, on one end, to anticipations of troubles or needs, on the other.

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The recruitment continuum, from Kendrick and Drew (2016)

Our analysis shows that the recruitment of assistance involves

  1. displaying and recognizing a trouble, difficulty, or need that has impeded or could impede a practical course of action;
  2. generating and implementing a possible resolution to the trouble; and
  3. initiating an interactional sequence designed to resolve it.

Each participant contributes


We show that the practical work involved in recruitment can be distributed across participants in various ways. If a participant encounters a difficulty in a practical course of action (e.g., she’s rolled a cigarette but has nothing to light it with), she can select among alternative methods to resolve the difficulty. With a request for assistance, she generates a possible solution to the trouble on her own (e.g., by spotting a book of matches in front of a friend) and initiates a sequence in which another implements the solution for her (e.g., “Daniel, can you pass me those matches?”). With an alternative method, the she reports the trouble or need (e.g., “I need to light my cigarette”) and thereby creates an opportunity for another participant to generate a possible solution and initiate a sequence to resolve the trouble (e.g., by offering the matches to her). With still other methods, she alerts those around her of the trouble (e.g., “damn it”) or embodies it in her visible actions (e.g., visibly searching the local environment).

Each method embodies a discrete social relationship

These alternative methods invoke different social relations between Self and Other, differing systematically in who generates a solution, who puts it into practice, and who initiates a sequence to resolve the trouble. In this way, our analysis suggests that the recruitment of assistance constitutes a social organization in which Self and Other cooperate to resolve troubles in the realization of practical courses of action.

While conversation analytic studies of how participants help one another in face-to-face interaction may not speak to the origins of altruism directly, they can discover and describe the rich set of practices that participants use to recognize and resolve troubles in everyday activities, grounding the very notion of altruism in the observable conduct of participants and showing it to be not an individual tendency but an interactional achievement. Such studies promise to put ‘requesting’ into its proper place, as one method among many in the organization of assistance in interaction.

* Kendrick, K. H.  and Drew, P.  (2016) Recruitment: Offers, requests and the organisation of assistance in interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 49 (1), 1-19

For a debate on Kendrick and Drew’s argument, please see Volume 49 issue 1 of Research on Language and Social Interaction, where their paper has commentaries by John Heritage, and by Jörg Zinken and Giovanni Rossi, with a reply from the authors.