Rethinking context as a social construct

Journal of Pragmatics 32 (6):743-759 (2000)
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This paper argues that in addition to the familiar approach using formal contexts, there is now a need in artificial intelligence to study contexts as social constructs. As a successful example of the latter approach, I draw attention to 'interpretation' (in the sense of literary theory), viz. the reconstruction of the intended meaning of a literary text that takes into account the context in which the author assumed the reader would place the text. An important contribution here comes from Wendell Harris, enumerating the seven crucial dimensions of context: knowledge of reality, knowledge of language, and the authorial, generic, collective, specific, and textual dimensions. Finally, two recent approaches to interpretation, due to Jon Barwise and Jerry Hobbs, are analyzed as useful attempts which also come to grips with the notion of context. It must be noted that there has been a considerable body of contributions connecting linguistic structure with social context. For example, anthropological linguistics, from Bronislaw Malinowski onwards, has underlined the cultural context of discourse as essential to meaning. This viewpoint became prominent with the emergence of the ethnography of speaking in anthropology. Thus, conversation analysis represents a consistent formal effort to contribute to an analysis of the nature of context. While this paper emphasizes and reviews the literary theory approach, it makes various contacts with works of the latter kind (e.g., the landmark contributions of Erving Goffman, John Gumperz, William Hanks, John Heritage, Dell Hymes, et al.) in order to deliver a more balanced and complete study of the dimensions of context.

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Varol Akman
Bilkent University


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