Lecture by William Hanks, October 13, 2006

Joint Commitment and Common Ground in a Maya Ritual Event

by William Hanks, Professor of Social, Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

Social interaction both presupposes and produces common ground between interactants, in the form of knowledge and perceptual access that the participants share, or come to share, in the course of co-engaging. As Clark (2006) and Enfield (2006) have argued, common ground goes a long way towards defining context and giving it coherence for the parties at talk. But ordinary interaction relies on more than shared knowledge and perceptual access; it relies on joint commitments which bind the parties to talk as a kind of activity, or what some would call a “language game.” These commitments are of two main sorts, convictions (what the participants are convinced of, beyond what they can or do know) and co-engagements (the participatory co-attunements and interactions in which the parties engage with one another). The combination of shared knowledge and joint commitments provides a sort of armature for interaction.

This paper examines the interplay between shared knowledge and joint commitments in a single episode of interaction in Yucatec Maya. The episode takes place in the course of a divination in which an adult man, accompanied by his wife, has come to a shaman requesting a diagnosis of his illness. The diagnosis takes place at the shaman’s altar and with the aid of divining crystals with which the shaman ‘illuminates’ the patient. There are critical gaps between the shaman and the patient in terms of what they know and can perceive. The shaman uses these gaps to induce the patient to commit himself to the validity of a process he can neither understand nor verify. Using transcripts and short video clips, we will explore that process, in which joint commitment ultimately takes over where shared knowledge leaves off. Thus while it is usually assumed that common ground is a requisite to successful interaction, the paper shows that in some kinds of talk, gaps in common ground are productive: they are a critical resource for inducing commitments far beyond what interactants can know.

Friday, October 13, 2006
3-5pm, 370 Dwinelle Hall