Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

Vocabularies of Happiness

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

Vocabularies of Happiness

Article excerpt


This paper seeks to explore through interviews the vocabularies of happiness that interviewees invoke in face-to-face interactions to account for their happiness or lack thereof and, especially, for the (un)happiness of others. In other words, how do respondents present their own or others' happiness - be they close or distant acquaintances, or people in general, in an interview conversation? Also, what understanding of others do these accounts make visible? This work embraces a discursive psychological (DP) perspective, focusing on how different versions of happiness are being put together by respondents presenting themselves as competent and credible individuals, while at the same time positioning themselves in a moral order of happiness.


Happiness, discourse analysis, discursive psychology, vocabularies of motive


The paper's aim is to explore the variety of vocabularies that interviewees use to talk about their happiness and, especially, the happiness or unhappiness of others. In other words, how do respondents know other people as being happy or unhappy, and what traits, situations or actions are invoked as signs of happiness?

This paper embraces a discursive perspective, looking at how, through descriptions of one's own or others (un)happiness, speakers position themselves and manage issues such as agency and accountability. In this understanding, the accounts are not an expression of a fixed construction in the minds of individuals, but a culturally available resource on which individuals can draw to build different versions of the world and to achieve interactional goals such as undermining alternative or counter versions and managing blame and responsibility (Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Potter and Edwards, 2001, 2005, Potter and Hepburn, 2008). Thus, drawing on Mills' concept of vocabularies of motives (Mills, 1940), the accounts of happiness can be seen as vocabularies of happiness that make appeal, in a discussion with one or more interlocutors, to personal or assumedly shared common knowledge about what it means and what it takes to be happy.

Vocabularies of motives and common knowledge

From a discursive and broader constructionist approach, the social world is constructed and reproduced in and through discourse (Potter, 1996). According to Nikander (2006), what different discursive approaches having common is "a strong social constructionist epistemologythe idea of language as much more than a mere mirror of the world and phenomena 'out-there', and the conviction that discourse is of central importance in constructing the ideas, social processes, and phenomena that make up our social world" (Nikander, 2006:1)

Therefore, the discursive perspective states that accounts understood as "forms of talk that provide descriptions, explanations or justifications of activities, people, events and so forth" (Housley & Fitzgerald, 2008: 242) does not reflect reality, but constitutes the reality-at-hand, whose version is formulated in accordance with interactional stakes such as self-positioning. As skilled negotiators of reality (Potter and Wetherell 1987:43), individuals use what they say to propose and, in turn, to undermine accounts constituting reality-in-the-making. In other words, individuals are seen as competent cultural members who have specific interactional purposes. What is said varies depending on the task-at-hand and while "the meaning changes as expressed, moment by moment changes the lived reality" (Rogers, 2003:209).

Following this line of thought, Potter and Hepburn (2008) propose an approach to common sense knowledge by focusing attention on how different rhetorical moves are made to confirm or refute knowledge claims (Potter and Hepburn, 2008:22). Likewise, Edwards (1999) redefines the notion of common knowledge, rejecting the idea that there is a consensus regarding mental representations. Consensus is something that is done, displayed, and invoked, while being open to reformulation and challenged in and through discourse (Edwards, 1999, as cited in Potter and Hepburn, 2008:23). …

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