An interview with Dr. Jack Bilmes

In this podcast, Dr. Jack Bilmes, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii, shares his recent research on the structure of meaning in talk (also known as Occasioned Semantics). He expands on sociologist Harvey Sacks’ (1992) earlier work on membership categorization by introducing new analytical insights, such as regrading, scaling, taxonomic structures, co-categorization and contrast–all of which are common practices speakers use to construct and negotiate meaning in everyday talk.

Dr. Bilmes’ work can be found here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jack_Bilmes

Interviewer: Yu-Han Lin

Transcript

Interviewer:
Thank you. Dr. Bilmes for having time with us for this multiolelo podcast series. So several quick questions for you. What motivated you to study meaning in talk?

Dr. Bilmes:
Well, my, my original interest that I tried to do my PhD on decision making, is actually in the first chapter of this course in behavior.

Dr. Bilmes:
You can sort of see this story. I did do my dissertation on decision making in a Thai village, but I was really struggling, I went through various kinds of psychological theories and at some point I think, after I started reading regarding Garfinkel and Sacks, I realized, the data that I had was, on one hand people made these decisions and on the other hand I talk to them about what the factors were and so forth. And I didn’t feel like I had any real handle on how they were making decisions. But at some point I realized that I had great data about how they talk about decisions.

Dr. Bilmes:
It’s kind of like that was the data. And it came to me, I guess gain through my reading of Garfinkel, Sacks, and some others, that the way that people talk about their decisions is not a trivial thing at all. In a way it’s just as important as how they make it decisions, except how they make the decisions tells you something about psychology, which I’m not qualified. I write something, I’m really not qualified, and I don’t think that psychologists have really worked it through either, but from a anthropological, sociological point of view, how they talk about decisions is quite crucial because this is the stuff of social structures, social interaction, and it also is an expression of their theory of mind. And of course our theories of mind are really important because that’s how we relate to one another.

Dr. Bilmes:
So that’s how I got from here to there, so far. And also I had some initial interests in symbolic logic and ethnosemantics, formal sorts of approaches to language, so that that sort of coalesced at some point.

Interviewer:
In terms of occasioned semantics, would you mind giving us a brief description of that?

Dr. Bilmes:
Okay. Occasioned semantics is, or has developed into anyway, the study of the structures of meaning that we discover in talk. And I want to underline that we discover them, in the sense that I don’t come, I didn’t come to this with the notion that I was going to, in this case apply a taxonomic analysis or scaling to the data, I found that the people I was looking at, the talk I was looking at actually developed taxonomical relations and structures of meaning in their talk, and that was what I was trying to get at.

Dr. Bilmes:
Now probably my graduate training in ethnosemantics, and taxonomical analysis in particular probably facilitated on getting where I did get with this. But it’s important to understand, it’s easy to misunderstand what is going on with occasioned semantics.

Dr. Bilmes:
I’m not I’m not eliciting taxonomies as you do with ethnosemantics where you deliberately ask questions to to elicit taxonomies, it’s not that kind of formal analysis at all.

Dr. Bilmes:
The taxonomies that I find, and the scales that I find in the talk, that structure the talk, and structure the meaning in the talk are- their occasion, they’re there for that moment. I don’t try to develop them, or claim them as having some sort of cross situational application. It’s just a representation of the meanings that are being developed in that time and space.

Dr. Bilmes:
In connection with the norm, what is occasioned semantics? as I said it, it consists in pretty much at this point of the study of first of all, taxonomical relations, and by that I mean co-categorization of things, how they go together but also contrast. And both of which have gotten attention from Harvey Sacks from those fellows. But what is largely missing is hierarchical kinds of relationships. And in Sacks’s work you have categories, and then a sort of super category which categorizes the categories.

Dr. Bilmes:
So you have family members, and then you have sons, daughter and so forth at that next level down. But that’s just a two level thing. But really taxonomical relations are multilevel, or at least can be, and frequently are. And so the degree of generalization, how far are you going to go in categorizing something, whether it’s going to be very specific or very general, is a kind of decision that you make. And a lot hangs on that. By going more general, in one way you may lose information, but in another- and people talk about that. They say don’t talk in vague generalities, but in other ways the particular generality that you choose makes all the difference. Whether you categorize somebody as a father, or as a soldier for instance, says something about where you’re going with this. And that’s what Harvey Sacks was sensitive to.

Interviewer:
So for those who are the first time hearing the term of occasioned semantics, do you have any, like a simple example for them?

Dr. Bilmes:
There’s one which, I know you’re familiar with, because I know you’ve read it.

Dr. Bilmes:
It’s a re-analysis of a study that Harvey Sacks did, the situation is that a man has done something in relation to his wife, which caused his wife’s sister to call the police, and now he’s being interviewed subsequently by a social worker who is asking him what happened.

Dr. Bilmes:
And he’s, as I tried to, I didn’t do anything, I tried to move her out of the way. Right? And the social worker said, says you “slapped her, didn’t you?” and the guy denies that he slapped her, and social worker says, you’re not telling the story. And this is what was of interest to Sacks, the fact that the social worker says- recognizes in some sense that you’re not telling the story, and the guy answers by saying, well by slap you mean hit. So the perpetrator, the story teller, is also in a sense recognizing what is meant by saying you’re not telling the story. You know, that they’re both on the same page. And he relates this to cultural knowledge about what it takes to call the police. But I was interested in particular in that utterance “by slap you mean hit,” which it seems sort of odd because, well, yeah, of course that’s what you mean by slap.

Dr. Bilmes:
Why would he say that? And at first it didn’t seem like it had any particular meaning to it. It was just a thing that he said, and he was just denying again that he slapped her. But on further inspection what he was doing when he says slapp and hit, when he said “by slap you mean hit,”. He’s not saying that slap and hit are identical. What he’s saying is something more like, “by poodle you mean dog?” He’s talking about a category of stuff.

Dr. Bilmes:
So one thing that happens as a result and when you start to look at it taxonomically, is that he’s not only now denying that he slapped her, he’s denying that he hit her. So it would be inappropriate for the social worker then to say, “oh, then did you punch her?” That wouldn’t work anymore because he’s denied hitting her. And the social worker instead says, “oh, so you shoved her, is that it?” Which the guy agrees to. And one of the things, aside from the fact that punching and maybe other forms of hitting are ruled out, is that he only generalizes to the point of going from slap to hit, rather than generalizing all the way to, I didn’t do anything to her.

Dr. Bilmes:
And because he doesn’t, one might can then ask, why didn’t he go all the way with it? Why did he say I didn’t do anything? Or I did tell you the whole story. And so what he’s doing by saying by slapping you mean hit, is in effect saying, guess again, but don’t guess anything that counts as hitting. Plus if, if I didn’t want you to guess again, I would have denied it at a more general level. So he’s inviting this, and then a final observation on this is that he’s not simply, by admitting to shoving, he’s not simply- you know by admitting to something which perhaps is less violent than hitting.

Dr. Bilmes:
Well, not always, like the way you can shove somebody over a cliff. He is saying, okay, what you just said, accords with what I told you to begin with. Although in a way it’s, you know, I didn’t tell you, I didn’t tell you the whole story by saying I tried to move her. If I shoved her, I should’ve said I shoved her. Otherwise, the implication is that I didn’t do something that violent, but at least he didn’t lie. And so this is more acceptable than slapping her.

Dr. Bilmes:
So that’s an example of the taxonomic side. I know we have a limited amount of time so I’m not going to go into the scaling part of it, but basically I started with a realization of taxonomy and attention to generalization. And, and by the way, I view this all as development of Sacks’s approach to categorization.

Dr. Bilmes:
I think I just took it another step. But in thinking about it, I realized that there was something missing if you’re going to talk about this semantic skeleton of things. And I realized that what was missing was scaling. That is that the relationships are more or less, not just a matter of kind of, or part of kinds of relationships which what taxonomies are about.

Dr. Bilmes:
So, I added scaling to the conception of what occasioned semantics is about. Now, I don’t think that I’ve necessarily now have something which is complete. I think this remains to be developed further in whatever directions people want to take it. But this is what seemed to me, at least initially, to be the basic structures of a semantic meaning in talk. Now of course there’s all sorts of other things going on is causality and so forth.

Dr. Bilmes:
But I’m just trying to get at the sort of what do things mean? What do expressions mean? And more crucially in terms of occasioned semantics, how are those meetings related to one another? And of course, you can trace this all the way back to, Saussure who says that meanings are developed in relation to one another in language.

Dr. Bilmes:
So in a sense, if we’re talking about what I’m building on, I’m not only building on Sacks, I’m building on Saussure as well, and like many others.

Interviewer:
So a recent amazing work that your colleagues have been doing is regrading?

Dr. Bilmes:
Regrading and scaling in general, has been the the thing that so far most people have latched on to.

Dr. Bilmes:
There’s a special edition, a special issue of the journal of pragmatics, which is pretty much, with the exception of one paper out of the seven plus the introduction, it’s just one paper, which is not the University of Hawaii associated. All the rest are by a University of Hawaii former students, in one case a current students, and this paper by me. So it’s really pretty much a University of Hawaii production, which I’m proud of.

Dr. Bilmes:
I think that it helps to put the University of Hawaii graduate program in conversation analysis related kinds of stuff and on the map. As those a couple of other productions by Gabi, largely under the guidance of Gabi Kasper.

Interviewer:
So what does regrading mean?

Dr. Bilmes:
Oh, regrading is just upgrading and downgrading. It’s just the cover term for both. Interestingly, it shows how we’ve used that term. You can find hundreds of examples in conversation analysis, where people talk about upgrading and downgrading as well as in linguistics and linguistic pragmatics.

Dr. Bilmes:
It’s very, very common. But it’s interesting, I think, that we don’t seem to have a term that covers both upgrading and downgrading because sometimes it’s more useful to just talk about regrading where you’re talking about something could be upgraded or downgraded, whichever. So, as far as I know I coined that term, although I would imagine, there’s really nothing new under the sun, I would imagine at some point somebody else used it as well. But in CA, conversation analysis, I can’t speak for other fields as well. And see, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any covered term for upgrading and downgrading even though people talk about upgrading and downgrading all the time.

Interviewer:
So why do you think is important to study occasioned semantics and scaling?

Dr. Bilmes:
Basically you’re asking me why is it important to study the structure of meaning in talk? Because that’s what occasioned semantics is about. And my first reply would be that I don’t agonize over that. One of the advantages of being a sort of privileged academic is that one doesn’t have to necessarily worry about the kind of usefulness of what you’re doing. If it is deemed intellectually important and engaging, that’s the reason for doing it.

Dr. Bilmes:
And certainly it’s the study of meaning, has been something which philosophers and linguists and social scientists in general have all considered absolutely central to understanding human behavior.

Dr. Bilmes:
I mean, yes I could work on, there is such a thing, for instance, as applied CA, and I suppose there could be such a thing as applied occasioned semantics, but um, you know, I leave that for somebody else to develop. I’m not engaged with the applied side of the thing. I think it’s ultimately one could simply say, well you know, this is a well established kind of endeavor, intellectual endeavor. This is just one part of that.

Interviewer:
So in addition to the intellectual engagement, what have you benefited from studying occasioned semantics, or meaning in talk?

Dr. Bilmes:
What have I benefited from?

Interviewer:
Yeah, personally or [inaudible], in any case.

Dr. Bilmes:
The way that I’ve benefited from it is by having students like you guys, who take some interest in it and occasionally publish about it. And now I don’t can’t say that anybody else has benefited from it, although I guess students occasionally show interest in it.

Dr. Bilmes:
But that’s it. You know, I don’t get any material benefits from it. Other than that, it’s a way of doing my job, but since I’m retired, I don’t even get that.

Interviewer:
Well, looking forward to our future publications, thank you Dr. Bilmes. Mahalo.

Dr. Bilmes:
You’re welcome, thank you for attending to me.

Interviewer:
Thank you.

Credits:
Interviewer: Yu-Han Lin
Cinematographer: Ann Choe
Post-production editors: Raquel Reinagel & Ann Choe

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