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CONVERSATION / Vol. 65, No. 3 (Fall 1998)

Michael F. Schober, Guest Coeditor
Arien Mack, Editor

This issue of Social Research is organized around the theme of Conversation. Conversation is the glue of social life, the site where people construct relationships, negotiate their business, and test points of view, both through language and by nonverbal means. In this issue we have assembled papers that reflect various ways of thinking about conversation.

Presents excerpts from the poem "Conversation," by William Cowper.

This article explores the popularity of dialogical notions in political theory and the idea of deliberative democracy. Jürgen Habermas developed a dialogical rather than a contractarian picture of politics. He began from a modified Marxism, in which the "productivist" ethic that Karl Marx himself had espoused was reworked so as to rebut any narrowly industrial and utilitarian interpretation of social rationality and individual fulfillment. It is true that his concern has increasingly been with the search for valid social norms, whereas Marx had hoped to somehow transcend philosophical arguments about the validity of our moral and political ideals.

This article analyzes political conflicts in India in the context of contentious conversation. The Hindu/Muslim conversation engages multiple interlocutors in varied settings. It therefore takes place in many modes. The interchanges of Majid Khan, an influential local leader of Subzimandi, with his counterparts who mobilize their own wrestlers-thugs-activists on behalf of Hindu causes differ greatly from the initial angry conversation between Golam Fakir and Kumar Tarkhania in the Panipur of 1954, which differ in form from exchanges between high-caste Panipur resident Mr. Ghosh and the Muslim officials who came to Panipur when the local conflict started drawing in outsiders.

This article discusses how empirical examination of language use in conversation can help in rethinking the assumptions about the nature of meaning. Assumptions about meaning come into play in the design of intelligence tests, college placement exams, personality tests, computer interfaces, and tax forms. And a number of the thorniest public debates of recent years have turned on fundamental assumptions about the nature of meaning. When a boss calls his female secretary "Honey," has he sexually harassed her?

This article explores a type of postural configuration best described as body torque, the roughly divergent orientations of the body sectors above and below the neck and waist. Among the features of body torque that will be of interest are, first, its capacity to project postural instability and types of potential resolutions of this instability; second, its capacity to display engagement with multiple courses of action and interactional involvements, and differential ranking of those courses of action and involvements; third, some possible dispositions of conduct in this domain, such as one to "minimize torque"; and, fourth, the constraints and affordances that body torque, by virtue of these features provides.

This article presents a model of interpretation as conversation from Hans Georg Gadamer. Gadamer uses the analogy of the game. It consists of this: think of any game, and the whole point of the game is not the attitude of the players. That is what one has to get over in trying to understand the "phenomenon" of the game. Hermeneutics, after all, develops out of phenomenology. Gadamer is trying to describe the phenomenon of the game. Fundamental to that phenomenon is the back and forth movement of whatever the game is. The worst thing that can happen in the game are self-conscious players. They literally cannot let go to enter the interaction, the back and forth movement, of the game.

This article discusses the aspects of conversation inherent in the very structure of verbal interchange in small groups. The understanding of conversation adumbrated by this set of characteristics, however, in fact derives from time-bound social convention. For Samuel Johnson, in the mid-eighteenth century, and for his biographer, James Boswell, writing at that century's end, conversation constituted a mode of public display. Boswell defined his massive biographical enterprise (the Life of Johnson) as primarily focused on Johnson's conversation: "But his conversation alone, or what led to it, or was interwoven with it, is the business of this work.

This article examines the mesmerizing effect of spoken language in everyday conversation on literary discourse. Ordinary conversation is made up of linguistic strategies that have been thought quintessentially literary. These strategies, which are shaped and elaborated in literary discourse, are pervasive, spontaneous, and functional in ordinary conversation. These poetic linguistic elements drive both conversational and literary discourse by means of patterns of sound and sense. Sound patterns--the musical level of language, including rhythm, intonation, and prosody--involve the audience with the speaker or writer and the discourse by sweeping them along, much as music sweeps listeners along.

Scientists, like other people, talk to each other. Conversations that scientists entertain with one another, of which samples are provided, hover around discovery as a topic of fascination, attraction, and wonder. Little drawings, iconic representations of molecules, mere doodlings serve as an essential counterpoint to chemical conversations. The paper, illustrated, draws on actual samples for generalizations about speech amongst scientists and its relationship to creative ideas and to writing. Besides engaging thus in an attempt at description in a sociological vein, the paper (the result itself of numerous conversations between the co-authors, both chemists, one a theorist, the other an experimentalist) presents a typology of literary dialogs and discusses related issues in literature and philosophy.

This article deals with different kinds of switching dynamics that emerge in particular types of social settings by exploring how publics facilitate movement among the multiple sets of overlapping relations that constitute social life. The historical emergence of publics was essential to the development of conversation as a specific variety of social discourse. Conversations and situations are both born of intersections between multiple networks and cultural domains. Both are closely related to the development of publics as mediating devices for switches across complex sets of relations. Whereas conversations create relatively neutral spaces of cross-network exchange, situations mobilize action.


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