Studying the Social Worlds of Children: Sociological Readings

By Frances Chaput Waksler | Go to book overview
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Chapter 14

On the Analysability of Stories by Children

Harvey Sacks


This article may well be the most complicated of those included in this book. It certainly requires careful and attentive reading. I provide a rather extended introduction to facilitate understanding of this most valuable article. Futhermore, in the course of the article I add, in brackets, explanatory notes to assist readers in staying on course.

Sacks is in fact only incidentally concerned with children here; his major focus is on how utterances (verbal statements) are understandable. Nonetheless, his article can move the sociological study of children to a new level of complexity and sophistication. Sacks’ work reinforces the claims of Mackay and other authors in this volume about children’s competence, for the ability to describe with words embodies extensive knowledge about how the world looks from the perspective of the language being used to describe it. In the Concluding Note I present some specific implications of Sacks’ ideas for the study of children.

This article displays both the insights and the problems inherent in a detailed and thoroughgoing analysis of that which is taken for granted. It is difficult to write about that which is not customarily written or talked about, and difficult to write about what ‘everyone knows,’ but it is of great sociological significance to recognize what and how much everyone knows and how much can be heard in the simplest of utterances and seen in the simplest of events. Sacks’ repetition may initially seem a stylistic drawback but each time he returns to the utterance under analysis he discovers and presents new aspects of it.

Sacks’ particular concern is with what people in everyday life can hear or understand when an utterance is made. He documents the extensive information that is implicit in even the simplest of utterances. His focus is not on what people mean or intend by what they say but rather on what can be inferred or gleaned by others from what is said. Through repeated examination of the same two sentences from a child’s ‘story’, he identifies a wealth of

From Directions in Sodolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication. Edited by John J. Gumperz and Dell Hymes (1972). Reprinted by permission of Basil Blackwell Inc. and Dell Hymes. Originally published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


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