Attributions and Actions

Critical approaches to the study of attributions also emphasise the constructive, action-oriented and rhetorical properties of discourse. In contrast to mainstream approaches that treat discourse as a means to study the explanations that people provide for actions elsewhere, critical approaches view attributions as actions in themselves. Thus, the explanations that speakers produce of others’ actions are themselves designed to accomplish certain outcomes, whether blaming or criticising others, justifying their own actions, refusing requests, or performing other actions. As Edwards and Potter (1992, 1993) noted, the explanatory accounts that speakers produce can be seen to be oriented towards the local contexts in which the attributions are being made. Accordingly, the issue of whether an outcome is attributed to a person’s inner dispositions or to contextual features will depend not on the outcomes of internal cognitive processing but on what the speaker is seeking to accomplish.

Of course, recipients of talk who hear the attributions that others make are aware of the action-oriented nature of such explanations, in particular, that people explain outcomes in ways that justify or legitimise their own actions and stances and blame or criticise others for what might be regarded as culpable. People are therefore regarded as having an interest or ‘stake’ (Edwards & Potter, 1992, 1993) in the explanations that they produce, and their claims consequently might be challenged on the grounds that ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they’. Attributions thus have to be managed carefully in order to be heard as grounded in reality or in clearly evident properties of other people, rather than being motivated by the personal interests of the person making the attribution and open to challenge or undermining on that basis.

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