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Why there are no guarantees for interrogators

McHoul, A.W. (1987) Why there are no guarantees for interrogators. Journal of Pragmatics, 11 (4). pp. 455-471.

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A good deal of human communication, especially in formal or organisational context involves parties to discursive events asking and answering questions. This paper argues that such activities can be treated as interrogative work with macro-organisational consequences. For example, the way settings are variously produced and maintained as ‘interviews’, ‘surveys’, ‘helping with inquiries’, ‘eliciting information’, ‘carpeting’, ‘debating’, and so on can depend upon the exact ways in which producers and hearers of questions ‘work’ those questions and their answers. How a question and its answer will work may turn out to depend on how they are worked. This is not always prespecifiable, but resides instead in local features of particular settings.

The central focus of this paper is ‘the hearer's problem’: namely how to hear from a question what it is that is being questioned. This could be the matter in hand, the person addressed by the question, the answerer's competence, and so forth. It is argued that the bulk of the phenomena that we call ‘questions’ must be interpreted in this way by hearers before such questions' exact pragmatic status in the discourse can be fully known. In particular, questions must often be disambiguated as to whether they are straightforward elicitations of information (Q-types) or implied ‘negatives’ such as complaints, objections, warnings, threats and so on (N-types).

One discovery of the present paper is that such matters are much more in the hands of persons being interrogated than in those of their interrogators. To that end, the paper acts as an empirical reinvestigation of the often assumed idea that interrogators wield more ‘power’ than those they interrogate.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Humanities
Publisher: Elsevier
Copyright: 1987 Elsevier BV
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