Human agency and the infrastructure for requests

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This chapter discusses some of the elements of human sociality that serve as the social and cognitive infrastructure or preconditions for the use of requests and other kinds of recruitments in interaction. The notion of an agent with goals is a canonical starting point, though importantly agency tends not to be wholly located in individuals, but rather is socially distributed. This is well illustrated in the case of requests, in which the person or group that has a certain goal is not necessarily the one who carries out the behavior towards that goal. The chapter focuses on the role of semiotic (mostly linguistic) resources in negotiating the distribution of agency with request-like actions, with examples from video-recorded interaction in Lao, a language spoken in Laos and nearby countries. The examples illustrate five hallmarks of requesting in human interaction, which show some ways in which our ‘manipulation’ of other people is quite unlike our manipulation of tools: (1) that even though B is being manipulated, B wants to help, (2) that while A is manipulating B now, A may be manipulated in return later; (3) that the goal of the behavior may be shared between A and B, (4) that B may not comply, or may comply differently than requested, due to actual or potential contingencies, and (5) that A and B are accountable to one another; reasons may be asked for, and/or given, for the request. These hallmarks of requesting are grounded in a prosocial framework of human agency.


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