Numbers in (inter)action: How the number of participants matters for the organization of talk-in-interaction

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Research in conversation analysis, anthropology, linguistics and sociology has shown that participants in interaction orient to group size through the use of language and communicative practices, and that in groups of varying size diverse kinds and degrees of participation are possible (Simmel 1902; Goffman 1961, to name the pioneers). Many researchers will agree with Goffman’s (1972, p. 63) definition of a situation is “an environment of mutual monitoring possibilities, anywhere within which an individual will find himself accessible to the naked senses of all others who are ‘present’, and similarly find them accessible to him”, thus conceiving of participation as a coordinated and co-constructed achievement with a countable number of participants.
This paper deliberates that there may not be an absolute conceptualization of ‘number’, ‘person’, ‘participant’, and ‘participation framework’ and discusses how these notions are based on beliefs which are influenced by history and culture. Since from an emic (endogenous) perspective the number of participants may be different than from an etic (exogenous) stance, the goal of this paper is to find an answer to the research question of how different researchers have resolved this tension. This issue is discussed based on naturally-occurring interactional data examined using conversation analysis.
In conversation analysis it is the members’ understanding which is the focus of the analysis. In other words, the “ resources intrinsic to the data themselves” are object of investigation (Sacks, Schegloff & Jefferson 1974, p. 729). In taking this desideratum seriously it needs to be considered that there are limitations to how far the researcher has access to the community being studied, such as to a groups of people whose hearing skills are more advanced than of the researcher (Ochs 1988), where participants being studied conceive of the researcher as a spirit (Everett (2009, 20:15), or in detecting moments of telepathy (Schegloff 2003). At a deeper theoretical level the issue of conceptualizations of number of participants will be related to different conceptualizations of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’.

Everett, Daniel L. (2009) Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge. Presentation to The Long Now Foundation. [Accessed May 2, 2010]

Goffman, E. (1961). Encounters. Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of Talk.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Ochs, E. (1988) Culture and language development: Language acquisition and language socialization in a Samoan village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A. & Jefferson, G. (1974) "A Simplest Systematics for the Organisation of Turn-Taking for Conversation," in Language, 50:696–735.

Schegloff, E. A. (2003) On ESP Puns. In P. Glenn, C. LeBaron and J. Mandelbaum (eds.) Studies in language and social interaction: A festschrift in honor of Robert Hopper. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Simmel, G. (1902). The number of members as determining the sociological form of the group. American Journal of Sociology 8, 1-46 and 158-196.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Pragmatics Association - Abstracts
Pages (from-to)131
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 2011

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