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Review of Discursive approaches to politeness

posted February 4th, 2012

Discursive approaches to politeness. Ed. by Linguistic Politeness Research Group. (Mouton series in pragmatics 8.) Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2011. Pp. xii, 272. ISBN 9783110238662. $150.

Reviewed by Francesca Bargiela-Chiappini, University of Warwick

This is a commemorative book for a research group which, based in Europe but with an international mailing list of over 200 members, has been discussing, publishing, and contributing to politeness research for over a decade. It is also a landmark publication for a multidisciplinary field of studies that has commanded constant interest since the 1980s, and has grown ostensibly more vivacious and argumentative—not only in the Anglophone world.

As one of the founding members of the Linguistic Politeness Research Group (LPRG, http://research.shu.ac.uk/politeness/) in 1998, I inevitably hold an insider’s perspective on this volume, the group’s first collective effort and one that also marks a turning point in the evolution of Western politeness research. I should probably add that I was not involved in planning or reviewing the contents, and only read an early draft of the introduction; therefore I can look at this work with some detachment while still offering insights that are informed by a long-standing involvement in both the field and the group’s activities.

This volume is a timely, representative collection of advances in a field that has responded only quite recently to the ‘discursive turn’ of the 1980s in the social sciences but that in the last decade or so has striven to incorporate the best of the discursive analytic tradition into the interpretation of the elusive phenomenon of politeness.

Taken together, the introduction and the first chapter provide a lucid and comprehensive framing of Anglophone politeness research in its evolution towards embracing discursivity, its implications, and challenges. The influence of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and Etienne Wenger’s communities of practice are acknowledged tools in the theoretical baggage of politeness research, which also includes relevance theory, framework analysis, conversation analysis, and discursive psychology. The relationship between politeness and impoliteness is discussed, the latter now increasingly recognized as a distinct field.

The remaining seven chapters, authored by founding LPRG members as well as newer members, articulate recent debates within the field through the analysis of interactions in a range of social contexts and engage with contested notions such as first- and second-order politeness, listener’s evaluation, order and civility, and the universality of politeness. A reader new to the field will find in these essays cogently argued and illuminating examples of state of the art politeness research. Finally, neither bland nor self-congratulatory, these essays boldly confront the consequences of the discursive turn in politeness research, the ideological import of a widely used vocabulary that is too often taken for granted, and the unconscious debt to the universalism of current research, and urges self-reflexive reevaluation.

All in all, this is a collection of high-quality essays that reflect the maturity of the field without shying from past and recent theoretical and methodological challenges, especially those raised by the new discursive approaches to the analysis of polite behavior.