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Attitudes and Attributions in Action

Within a critical approach, then, attention is focused on how individuals produce and use evaluations and attributions in everyday life. We begin by examining how speakers manage evaluations.

Evaluations in Context

In order to examine how evaluations function in context, we begin with an example taken from a study of family mealtime conversations (Wiggins & Potter, 2003). This extract comes from a conversation involving Beth (aged 11 years), her mother (Laura), and her uncle (Bill).

  • 1. Beth: can I try some f wi:ne
  • 2. Laura: °oh::: (0.2) (f mm-hm) °
  • 3. (2.0)
  • 4. Beth: don’t [f like red really
  • 5. Laura: [its very nice:
  • 6. (1.0)
  • 7. Laura fwell=
  • 8. Bill: =how d’you know (0.8) have you fever tried it
  • 9. Beth: I’ve tried it about a tmillion times 10. I hate all red (.) it’s too strong[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]
  • (Wiggins & Potter, 2003, p. 520) As we see this extract begins with Beth, the daughter, making a request to ‘try some twi:ne’. Her mother Laura, after some initial hesitation, agrees to this request. In the subsequent silence at line 3, Laura begins to pour Beth some wine. However, at line 4, Beth then refuses Laura’s offer by producing a negative evaluation of red wine which functions as a refusal of the wine. This

[ ]

Overlapping talk is shown by square brackets, with ‘[’ indicating where the overlap begins and ‘]’ indicating where the overlapped utterance (or part of an utterance) stops.


An ‘equal to’ sign ‘=’ at the end of one line and another at the end of the succeeding line indicates that there is no gap between the two lines.

(.) (dot)

A dot in parentheses ‘(.)’ indicates a very slight gap.

: (colon)

A colon ‘:’ indicates that the sound immediately preceding the colon has been elongated, with the lengthening of the sound indicated by the number of colons.


An upwards pointing arrow ‘t’ indicates that the speaker is raising pitch.


A downwards pointing arrow ‘4’ indicates the speaker is lowering pitch.


Numbers in parentheses, for example, (0.3) indicate time elapsed in tenths of a second.


Underlining of letters or words (e.g. ‘ah’) indicates that the speaker is stressing that part of the speech by increasing volume or raising or lowering pitch.

Upper case

Upper case indicates that the speaker’s utterance is produced with a particularly high volume (e.g. ‘AH’).


Punctuation markers indicate the speaker’s intonation. For example, the question mark ‘?’ indicates a ‘questioning’ intonation.

° (degree sign)

The superscripted degree sign ‘°’ indicates unvoiced production.

< (left caret)

Placed before a word, a left caret ‘<’ indicates a hurried start. Placed after a word it, indicates that the word stopped suddenly.

> < (right/left carets)

Right/left carets ‘> <’ surrounding an utterance (or part of an utterance) indicate the speech is speeding up.

< > (left/right carets)

Left/right carets < > surrounding an utterance (or part of an utterance) indicate the speech is slowing down.

- (dash)

A dash ‘-’ indicates that an utterance is ‘cut off[7].


A row of instances of the letter ‘h’ ‘hhh’ indicates an out-breath.


A row of instances of the letter ‘h’ prefixed by a dot, ‘.hhh’ indicates an in-breath.

( )

Empty parentheses ( ) indicate that the transcriber could not make out what was said or, alternatively, who was speaking.

(ah) (word in parenthesis)

Placing parentheses around a word indicates that the transcription is uncertain.

negative evaluation is countered by alternative, positive evaluation at line 5 where Laura argues that ‘its very nice’. Following a pause, Laura’s ‘dwell’ at line 7 suggests that Laura is attempting to persuade Beth to have some wine. This indicates the topic of how the wine is to be evaluated is not concluded and is still a matter of negotiation. Thereafter, at line 8, Beth’s uncle, Bill, takes up the topic of the evaluation in challenging Beth’s earlier evaluation and asking for the grounds for her claim. In response, at lines 9 and 10, Beth provides an extreme formulation of her previous experience in stating that she has tried red wine about ‘a dmillion times’. She follows this at line 10 with an even stronger negative evaluation to justify her refusal of the wine.

This exchange shows how evaluations can in themselves become topics of negotiation, challenge, and counter-argument. We see also how evaluations such as these perform specific actions in conversational contexts, involving issues of refusal, justification, and attempted persuasion. We can also note, however, that these actions are bound up with the particular ways in which the evaluations are constructed. In this extract, Beth’s evaluations have a subjective character, in that Beth refers to her own personal preferences, in particular, her dislike of red wine. This stands in contrast to Laura’s evaluation ‘its very nice’ which is an objective evaluation in referring to a property of the wine and not her own preferences. The difference in the construction of these evaluations allows Beth to evaluate the wine negatively but without suggesting that her mother’s evaluation is incorrect. Her subjective evaluation of the wine, therefore, functions as a justification for refusal but one that does not invite challenge on grounds of accuracy.

In the next extract, we see the speaker producing evaluations that instead of being based on personal preferences are based on properties of what is being evaluated. This extract comes from a study of myalgic encephalomyelitis (MS)/ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) sufferers’ descriptions of their experiences of interacting with medical professionals. Prior to this description, Lesley, an ME sufferer, had been highly critical of her own interactions with medical professionals and she is now describing her sister-in-law’s experiences.


  • 17 My sister-in-law who also has me in [city name] has had far worse
  • 18 treatment and when she moved house had to go through no less than 9 GPs
  • 19 before she found one who was sympathetic to ME. She also had a horrendous
  • 20 time with an ENT* consultant she was referred to when she had bad earache
  • 21 for several months. Below is what I wrote to the list about the
  • 22 consultant’s letter recently in case you missed it. He wrote to her GP
  • 23 who also did not believe in ME and wrote in her referral letter to the
  • 24 consultant ‘she claims to have ME’.
  • *Ear, Nose and Throat
  • (Guise, McVittie, & McKinlay, 2010, pp. 430-431)

Here, we see Lesley describing her sister-in-law’s experiences of consulting GPs and an ENT consultant. Lesley evaluates all of these experiences very negatively, describing the treatment overall as ‘far worse’ (than her own negatively evaluated treatment) and as ‘horrendous’. What is interesting to note here is that these evaluations are described not in terms of her own views or her sister-in-law’s views of the experiences but instead by reference to the experiences themselves. Thus, we see at lines 18 to 19 and 22 to 24 Lesley offer warrants for these evaluations, grounded, respectively, in the unsympathetic dispositions of GPs and in the actions of the consultant. Thus, the negative evaluations that Lesley provides comprise criticisms of the medical professionals involved.

Lesley’s evaluations here are provided in objective terms not subjective terms as seen in Beth’s descriptions in the first extract. This functions to indicate that what she is describing constitutes a complainable matter. Were Lesley to provide these evaluations in subjective terms, then she would be treated as accountable for these complaints and thereby run the risk of either being heard as ‘whingeing’ (Edwards, 2005) or having them challenged on the grounds that she has a personal stake in criticising the treatment provided to ME sufferers such as herself. Providing objective evaluations, by contrast, suggests that these evaluations are not based simply on personal views or preferences but instead reflect properties of the treatment that was provided which falls to be evaluated in highly negative terms.

In these extracts, we see how evaluations are produced and used towards accomplishing certain actions within local discursive contexts. At the same time, we see how those who produce evaluations orient to the issue that they can be treated as accountable for the evaluations that they produce. In the first extract, Beth’s subjective evaluations allow her to refuse the wine without challenging counter-evaluations, while in the second extract Lesley’s objective evaluations of her sister-in-law’s treatment allow her to criticise that treatment without being held as accountable for unreasonably whingeing. Accountability is a recurring concern in talk, with speakers commonly managing subjective and objective evaluations to deal with their accountability. There are however some forms of evaluation that are extremely difficult to bring off either through subjective or through objective formulations. For example, people who make negative evaluations of members of social groups run the risk of challenge on grounds of prejudice, regardless of whether they frame their evaluations subjectively or objectively (Billig, 1988). Certain instances, however, suggest that individuals are unconcerned with accountability for the views they express, no matter how negative those views might be. We return to such instances below.

  • [1] Note on transcription notation
  • [2] The transcription symbols included in extracts in this chapter form part of a system devised by Gail
  • [3] Jefferson (2004) for transcribing talk. The aim of transcribing talk in this way is to make available to the
  • [4] reader information about how the speaker delivered the talk, by, for example, indicating points of empha
  • [5] sis, pitch and intonation, and length of pauses between utterances. This level of transcription is designed
  • [6] to reproduce the talk in a form that reasonably reflects actual speech. Details of the transcription symbols
  • [7] found in these extracts are given below.
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