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When simple self-reference is too simple: Managing the categorical relevance of speaker self-presentation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2021

Kevin A. Whitehead
University of California, Santa Barbara, USA University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Gene H. Lerner
University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
E-mail address:


Membership categories such as ‘doctor’, ‘customer’, and ‘girl’ can form a set of alternative ways of referring to the same person. Moreover, speakers can select from this array of correct alternatives that term best fitted to what is getting done in their talk. In contrast, self-references alone ordinarily do not convey category membership, unless the speaker specifically employs some sort of category-conveying formulation. This report investigates how speakers manage the categorical relevance of these simplest self-references (e.g. ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’) as a practical means of self-presentation. We first describe how speakers forestall recipient attribution of membership categories. We then consider cases where simple self-references are subjected to subsequent elaboration—via self-categorization—in the face of possible recipient misreading of the speaker's category membership. Thereafter, we introduce the practice of contrastive entanglement, and describe how speakers employ it to fashion tacitly categorized self-references that serve the formation of action. (Person reference, conversation analysis, membership categorization devices, race, gender)*

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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We wish to acknowledge the crucial guidance we have received from Celia Kitzinger in undertaking this research. A report of this investigation was presented to the 114th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (2019), New York, NY.


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