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Cognition as context (whose cognition?)

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journal contribution
posted on 23.03.2012 by Jonathan Potter
In a series of papers Emanuel Schegloff (1987, 1989, 1991, 1992a, b, 1997) has developed arguments concerning the coherence of analytic procedures for addressing entities that would traditionally have been glossed as ‘social structure’ or ‘social context’. He argues that ‘social context’ should be treated as relevant to analysis only insofar as it features as a participants’ concern; that is, only insofar as it is invoked, formulated, oriented to, or displayed in actual interaction. Research conclusions should be disciplined by attending to the procedural consequentiality of any claimed contextual particular. This paper will briefly review Schegloff’s argument and pick out some themes that have been highlighted by recent work in discursive psychology (Edwards and Potter, 1992, 1993; Edwards, 1997; Potter, 1996). In particular, it will emphasise the way that cognition, in some form or other, is often treated as a taken-for-granted background in discussions of context. In effect, cognition is treated as the inner stuff of perception, storage and inferences and it is set over against an outer reality of context, which might be events, settings and social structures. However, that reality is typically seen as having its effect via its cognitive perception, representations and processing. The paper will argue that cognition can be subject to some of the same analytic moves as context and that, indeed, in participants’ discourse things that analysts have traditionally glossed under the categories ‘cognition’ and ‘context’ often blur together. My suggestion is that ‘cognition’ and ‘reality’, conventionally the inner and the outer, can be treated in the same way as things which are formulated, attended to, and oriented to in discourse. In this way cognition becomes a topic of discursive study, but is respecified in the process. In the title of a recent paper, Schegloff (1997) asks the rhetorical question Whose Context? This highlights the questionable status of analysts versions of context vis a vis 3 those of participants. My subtitle – Whose Cognition? – raises a parallel question with respect to cognition.



  • Social Sciences


  • Communication, Media, Social and Policy Studies


POTTER, J., 1998. Cognition as context (whose cognition?). Research on Language and Social Interaction, 31 pp. 29 - 44


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This is an electronic version of an article published in POTTER, J., 1998. Cognition as context (whose cognition?). Research on Language and Social Interaction, 31 pp. 29 - 44. Research on Language and Social Interaction is available online at:






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