The psychological and social dynamics of topic performance in family dinnertime conversation

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This paper examines the interactional and psychological dynamics involved in introducing, sustaining, reintroducing, shifting, discontinuing, and ending a topic, as well as the underlying factors that govern topic dynamics during family dinnertime conversations. For this study I used a single 2-h video-recorded dinnertime conversation of an English-speaking, Caucasian-American family. During dinnertime conversations, only a small number of the attempted topic nominations actually get accepted and developed. To introduce a new topic, discontinue a topic, etc., participants seem to use certain explicit cues such as the introduction of new locative, temporal and participant coordinates, and implicit cues such as speakers assuming that the conversational participants have the background or frame of reference to interpret what has been said. Speakers may or may not explicitly state what is being talked about, and these judgments are done on a case by case basis. The main underlying factors that govern the dynamics of topic performance are rooted in the psychological and social theories underlying conversation. The data suggest that sustained topics appear to be a function of the psychological and social impacts these topics bear on the participants. More specifically, power-relations and gender roles in the structure of Caucasian-American families seem to organize topic development during dinnertime conversation. Topics that have an effect on the human agenda of the participants are likely to be sustained.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1787-1806
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number12
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Discourse
  • Family dinnertime conversation
  • Interaction
  • Power relations
  • Psychological dynamics
  • Topic

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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