Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp

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Laura Nader
University of California, Berkeley

In 1984 Susan Ervin-Tripp and her collaborators published an article called "Language and Power in the Family". This paper was based on research among four middle-class Berkeley, California families and concentrated on forms of requesting, or how children make requests of their primary caretaker. It was a paper about deference, demeanor, and mothering. The findings were intriguing and raised many questions about the relative distribution of power at least in four U. S. nuclear families. Dr. Ervin-Tripp and colleagues asserted that the children internalized gender rankings by using less polite forms to their mothers, and more mitigating expressions with their fathers. Specifically they found:

The mothers in our sample were an important exception to the pattern of power and esteem correlating with age. In their role as care givers, they received non-deferent orders, suggesting that the children expected compliance and believed their desires to be justification . . . Though based on a small sample, these findings suggest many areas of family interaction that provide the training ground for later patterns of social behavior. In many respects, the structure of power and deference in adult life is prefigured in the families. ( Ervin-Tripp, O'Connor, & Rosenberg, 1984, p. 135)

The paper stimulated many heated conversations about the significance of relative positions of mothers and their children in societies characterized by male dogma. Anthropologists who had completed long research stays in cultures as far from each other as Saudi Arabia and Mexico indicated to me that there was more variability in male dogma and how children spoke to their mothers as a result of same than we had previously thought. Somehow the results from the Ervin-Tripp et al. paper seemed counterintuitive because of the ranking accorded family members. From my work in Mexico and Lebanon it seemed "right" to expect father dominance to be followed by mother dominance with last place falling to children.

Discussions over the findings in "Language and Power in the Family" inspired me to write a paper titled "The Subordination of Women in Comparative Perspective" ( 1987)

I am grateful to my students in Anthropology 3 class of 1985 for allowing me to study and utilize their Household Papers, to A. Khachadoorian for help in coding the data and discussing with me the significance of what was in the materials, and to T. Milleron, R. Milleron, and P. Dohlinow for perceptive critiques.


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Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp
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