Language in Society


How children start arguments*

Douglas W. Maynarda1

a1 Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin


Previous research on children's arguments has neglected their initial phases, particularly how they arise out of children's ongoing practical activities. This paper examines how any utterance or activity can be opposed, the concept of opposition being at the center of any definition of argument. However, once opposition has occurred, it can be treated in a variety of ways, and a full-blown argument or dispute is only one possible and contingent outcome. Children analyze others's moves not only verbally, but nonverbally as well. Thus, bodily actions and presupposition are necessary components in the analysis of how arguments are started. Nonverbal oppositional moves may be at the base of semantically constructed disputes. When opposition occurs, it is to be taken to imply the violation of some rule or value. The meaning of that rule or value relative to children's culture is taken to have to do not with its content, but its usage in promoting a local social organization. (Conversational analysis, child language, social organization, presupposition, dispute genres, American English [middle class, Caucasian])


* I would like to express my gratitude to Louise Cherry Wilkinson, who provided a large body of videotapes from which argument episodes were selected. Kathy McKinney aided in copying the original tapes and in transcription. Part of the research was supported by a grant from the royalty fund at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Previous versions of the paper were delivered at the International Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis, Boston. August 1983; the Sociolinguistics Seminar. Department of Sociology, Indiana University. November 1983; and the Seminar on Face to Face Interaction. Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, January 1984. Comments and suggestions helpful to the paper were made on all occasions.