Explaining One's Self to Others: Reason-Giving in a Social Context

By Margaret L. McLaughlin; Michael J. Cody et al. | Go to book overview

A Conversation Approach to
Explanation, with Emphasis on
Politeness and Accounting

William Turnbull

Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada


INTRODUCTION

Everyday explanation is and should be a topic of considerable interest to social psychology. Explanation seeking and giving are activities people engage in strategically to attain personal and interpersonal goals. For example, an individual might ask for an explanation in an attempt to gain greater intimacy with someone or in order to understand. An explanation might be offered to make the self look better in the eyes of others or to fill a gap in someone's knowledge. In addition to its strategic nature, everyday explanation is an eminently social phenomenon in two important senses: Everyday explanation both structures and is structured by the social world.

The ways in which explanations structure social life have been explored extensively and predominantly from an attributional perspective, the central tenet of which is that the explanation given for a behavior influences the important processes of social perception and social interaction. By contrast, the ways in which conceptions of the social world structure everyday explanation have received comparatively little attention from psychologists. Yet, when an explanation is required, why it is required, and what would constitute an acceptable explanation crucially depend on the social relationship, social situation, and culture of the individuals involved. Consider in this regard how different the explanation of an event would be if one's goal were to clarify the event rather than excuse it, or if the explanation were given to a child rather than an adult. The importance of the social world for everyday explanation derives not only from its

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