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The Concept of Action


Part of New Departures in Anthropology

  • Date Published: October 2017
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521719650

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About the Authors
  • When people do things with words, how do we know what they are doing? Many scholars have assumed a category of things called actions: 'requests', 'proposals', 'complaints', 'excuses'. The idea is both convenient and intuitive, but as this book argues, it is a spurious concept of action. In interaction, a person's primary task is to decide how to respond, not to label what someone just did. The labeling of actions is a meta-level process, appropriate only when we wish to draw attention to others' behaviors in order to quiz, sanction, praise, blame, or otherwise hold them to account. This book develops a new account of action grounded in certain fundamental ideas about the nature of human sociality: that social conduct is naturally interpreted as purposeful; that human behavior is shaped under a tyranny of social accountability; and that language is our central resource for social action and reaction.

    • Proposes a view of social action with unprecedented commitment to empirical data, allowing readers to evaluate current views of action based on how language is actually used
    • Presents a new theory of social action through language, challenging long-held ideas of the nature of speech acts
    • Provides a rigorous analysis of the structure of language in a socio-cultural context, while emphasizing the central status of interpersonal relations, especially the notion of accountability
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'This book constitutes a brilliant and indispensable contribution to our understanding of language and agency.' Paul Kockelman, Yale University, Connecticut

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    Product details

    • Date Published: October 2017
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521719650
    • length: 242 pages
    • dimensions: 227 x 152 x 12 mm
    • weight: 0.41kg
    • contains: 14 b/w illus. 1 table
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Part I. Preliminaries to Action:
    1. Basics of action
    2. The study of action
    Part II. The Nature of Action:
    3. The distribution of action
    4. The ontology of action
    Part III. Action and Human Diversity:
    5. Collateral effects
    6. Natural meaning

  • Authors

    N. J. Enfield, University of Sydney
    N. J. Enfield is Professor and Chair in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. His work on language and human sociality is based on regular field work in mainland Southeast Asia, especially Laos. He has published more than a dozen books and over 100 academic articles. Among his more recent books are Relationship Thinking: Agency, Enchrony, and Human Sociality (2013), Natural Causes of Language (2014), The Utility of Meaning (2015), and The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology (Cambridge, 2014, co-edited with Paul Kockelman and Jack Sidnell).

    Jack Sidnell, University of Toronto
    Jack Sidnell is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the structures of talk and interaction. In addition to research in the Caribbean and Vietnam, he has examined talk in court and among young children. He is the author of Conversation Analysis: An Introduction (2010), the editor of Conversation Analysis: Comparative Perspectives (Cambridge, 2009) and co-editor of Conversational Repair and Human Understanding (Cambridge, 2013), The Handbook of Conversation Analysis (2012) and The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology (Cambridge, 2014).

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