Action formation and ascription

Levinson, S. C. (2013). Action formation and ascription. In T. Stivers, & J. Sidnell (Eds.), The handbook of conversation analysis (pp. 103-130). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. doi:10.1002/9781118325001.ch6.
Since the core matrix for language use is interaction, the main job of language
is not to express propositions or abstract meanings, but to deliver actions.
For in order to respond in interaction we have to ascribe to the prior turn
a primary ‘action’ – variously thought of as an ‘illocution’, ‘speech act’, ‘move’,
etc. – to which we then respond. The analysis of interaction also relies heavily
on attributing actions to turns, so that, e.g., sequences can be characterized in
terms of actions and responses. Yet the process of action ascription remains way
understudied. We don’t know much about how it is done, when it is done, nor even
what kind of inventory of possible actions might exist, or the degree to which they
are culturally variable.
The study of action ascription remains perhaps the primary unfulfilled task in
the study of language use, and it needs to be tackled from conversationanalytic,
psycholinguistic, cross-linguistic and anthropological perspectives.
In this talk I try to take stock of what we know, and derive a set of goals for and
constraints on an adequate theory. Such a theory is likely to employ, I will suggest,
a top-down plus bottom-up account of action perception, and a multi-level notion
of action which may resolve some of the puzzles that have repeatedly arisen.
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