Robert E. Sanders

Children's Development of Strategic Communication

Based on theoretical and empirical work in several of my past publications, it seems that an adult competence in social interaction is to be able to anticipate how their pending utterances might affect the future course of the interaction, and to strategically adjust the content, style, and/or sequential placement of their turns at speaking to foster a desired course for the interaction (I term this "neo-rhetorical participation in interaction"). This competence to speak so as to influence anticipated interactional development must be something children learn, and it is a question for future research how its acquisition affects a person's social effectiveness and attractiveness. This project is aimed at finding out what kinds of strategic adjustments children can and do make in interactions with peers, at what ages children exhibit such a competence, how children of 6 years and younger differ by age in this regard, and whether there are individual differences among children, and the influence of children's social and family environments on acquiring and using this competence. The project has begun with examination of recorded interactions between pairs of children 4-5 years old, and 5-7 years old, who were given a set of Lego Building Blocks to play with, and were asked to construct one thing working together. Initial findings are that 5-7 year old children make frequent, complex adjustments in the wording and placement of their utterances for strategic purposes, and that gender is not a factor in this. The project is currently focused on conflict avoidance and conflict resolution among these same children.

A Theory of the Interpretation of Language in Context

It is well understood in the communication field, as well as language pragmatics, conversation analysis, sociolinguistics, and the ethnography of speaking that what a sentence means out of context, based on its word meanings and grammar, is not necessarily the same as what that sentence means in specific instances when it is spoken or written as part of an interaction or text. This project carries forward my earlier efforts to formulate how it is that people figure out what language means right now, in the context in which they find it. This cannot be a matter of guesswork, the process of interpretation has to be systematic enough and shared by people sufficiently to make mutual understanding -- communication itself -- possible. This project replaces my original theory that linked these interpretations to what would make the language in question relevant to other language in the surrounding interaction or text. Now I am working on evidence and arguments that these interpretations depend on how to make the language relevant to the ongoing activity in which the speaker and/or interpreter are engaged. This approach makes it possible to explain both occasional differences as well as frequent concurrence between speakers and their interpreters regarding an utterance's interpretation, why and how shared cultural knowledge plays a key role in making such interpretations, and how it is possible for language in context to have novel interpretations in specific circumstances.

Interaction Strategy in a Decision-Making Context

This project is a "real world" case study that applies and tests my past work on persuasion and compliance-seeking, specifically how people influence what others say and do in interpersonal interactions. The datum is a documentary film of several meetings of a company's management team as they debated whether to develop a more formal organizational structure in anticipation of the retirement and succession of the company's founder and CEO. The project is to analyze the interaction among managers on this issue, showing strategic aspects of the way each side stated its case so as to make it harder for the opposition to disagree without seeming to either miss the point or for their response to be interpretable in undesirable ways. The analysis shows the strategic mistake that the losing side made, and also shows that neither side engaged in the debate in such a way as to find out whose ideas were better for the company, but rather so as to hinder the ability of the opposition to state its views without seeming irrelevant or unreasonable.

Handbook of Language and Social Interaction

Kristine Fitch and I are co-editing a handbook that follows up on an article in Communication Yearbook 24 (2000) by Sanders, Fitch, and Pomerantz in which we provided an overview of scholarship in the Language and Social Interaction Divisions of the International Communication Association, and National Communication Association. The handbook project has three goals. First, to give the disciplinary subarea of language and social interaction greater definition and visibility; second, to promote greater understanding and cross-fertilization among graduate students and scholars within the subareas of language and social interaction; third, to familiarize scholars from outside the communication field with trends and current thinking about research on language and social interaction, and to recruit them to share their work in our professional meetings and journals.