Anaphoric processes and the sequential organization of social interaction


This project explores some of the ways in which social interaction structures the linguistic forms that are put to work in discourse activities. It studies anaphoric choices from a recently developed socio-interactionist view of grammar, strongly inspired by conversation analysis. Its aim is to challenge the idea according to which the thematic (i.e. informational) structure of discourse, and in particular the organization of referents, can fully account for the discourse functions of the linguistic coding of reference. It is argued that a more comprehensive understanding of these functions needs to take into account both the information structure of discourse and its socio-interactional organization. Consequences are drawn with regard to the way we conceptualize and analyze the relation between grammatical form and the dynamics of social interaction.

Keywords: anaphora, reference, grammar and interaction, interactional linguistics, conversation analysi

The problem

It has become widely accepted that the functioning of anaphora in discourse is not directly rooted in the text itself but pertains to the mental representations of the speaker and the addressee. The speaker's selection of the linguistic means for expressing reference is understood as essentially grounded in his or her assessment of the recoverability or mental accessibility of the referent to the addressee. According to this principle, speakers tend to use pronouns for highly accessible entities and fuller nominal expressions for less accessible ones.

This project aims at showing that the way speakers code discourse objects cannot be limited to a pure referential functionality. It explores anaphoric processes from an alternative view, focusing on the relation between linguistic resources and the social co-ordination of discourse activities. This view is based on three fundamental assumptions:

  1. discourse objects are not pre-established entities influencing the way speakers talk or the linguistic resources they select to do so, but are themselves emerging from talk as a social activity;
  2. referential processes are crucially involved in the social-interactional organization of this activity and cannot be reduced to the transmission or structuring of informational content;
  3. the cognitive correlates of these processes, such as the accessibility or identifiability of referents, are themselves locally contingent socially co-ordinated processes.


The project aims to show that

  • speakers' choices of referential expression fulfil a number of socio-interactional functions, beyond their purely referential functionality;
  • these choices are motivated not only by information flow but also by the social action structure of talk;
  • these choices are part of the means by which speakers manifest (as indexicals) and establish (as regulative devices) various types of discourse organization and frames for interpretation.

Attempting to combine insights from functionalist approaches to grammar and interaction-oriented approaches to discourse, the project argues that a better understanding of referential processes in face-to-face interaction presupposes that we integrate the question of formal choices and of accessibility conditions into a consistent understanding of the functioning of interaction as social action.

Objects studied and procedures

The project is based on close analysis of face-to-face interactions in French (mostly) and English of various types (research interviews, radio talk-shows, ordinary conversation). Two types of anaphoric phenomena are mainly focused, both constituting a challenge for current models of reference: Uses of informationally minimal referential codings (i.e. pronominal expressions) for long distance anaphora and uses of apparently overspecified referential expressions (e.g. lexical NP for immediate coreference). Besides these, some aspects of person deixis are also analyzed.

General results

The analyses show that referential processes rely not merely on the interlocutors' shared knowledge about referents, but also - and in some cases essentially - on shared assumptions about the dominant organizational principles of a segment of talk (e.g. the structure of turns at talk, the sequential organization of activities such as questions and answers, preference organization, etc.). These processes are crucially linked to the way talk is co-ordinated as a social-interactional undertaking: choices of the linguistic means for expressing reference are both motivated by and contributing to organizing the structure of activities deployed in talk.

Implications result from the analyses with regard to

  • an understanding of referential processes as situated, reciprocally configured socio-cognitive activities;
  • an understanding of linguistic forms - grammar - as emergent and locally configured resources for accomplishing social activities.


This project is the basis for Simona Pekarek Doehler's habilitation. Work related to the issues described above is ongoing.

Equipe de projet


  • Pekarek, Simona (1998): "Deixis and the interactional construction of context". in: University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, vol. 5.1, 127-138.
  • Pekarek, Simona (1998): ""on parle pas tellement maintenant je parle pas de médias hein": pronoms déictiques et dynamiques de l'interaction". in: Acta Romanica Basiliensia (ARBA), no. 8. Bâle: Séminaire des Langues et Littératures Romanes, 97-112.
  • Pekarek, Simona (1999): "Linguistic forms and social interaction: why do we specify referents more than is necessary for their identification?". in: Verschueren, Jef (ed.): Pragmatics in 1998 (vol. 2). Antwerp: International Pragmatics Association, 427-448.
  • Pekarek Doehler, Simona (2000): "Anaphora in conversation: Grammatical coding and preference organization". In: University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics vol. 7.1, 183-196.
  • Pekarek Doehler, Simona (2000): "Long distance pronominal anaphora: a grammar-in-interaction account". In: Proceedings of the Discourse Anaphora and Reference Resolution Conference (DAARC2000). Lancaster: University Centre for Computer Corpus Research on Language Technical Papers, vol. 12, 185-196.
  • Pekarek Doehler, Simona (2001): "Referential processes as situated cognition: pronominal expressions and the social co-ordination of talk. In: Cognition in Language Use: Selected Papers from the 7th International Pragmatics Conference, vol. 1. ed. Enikö Németh T., Antwerp: International Pragmatics Association, 302-317.
  • (see also): Pekarek Doehler, Simona (2001): "Dislocation à gauche et organisation interactionnelle" in Marges Linguistiques , vol. 2, 177-194. www.marges-linguistiques.com