Kerrison: Ulster seminar talk: Cheering for make-believe

Our newest team member, Adrian Kerrison, presented a talk at the Linguistics Research Seminar at Ulster University, Belfast, Apr 14/22:

Nothing to Shout About: Mutual understanding, response relevance, and cheering for make-believe


How does a wild squirrel “score a touchdown” at a game of American Football? How do two invisible, imaginary wrestlers engage in a violent brawl? And how does a crowd react to any of it?

This talk examines the production of cheering by large crowds from an Ethnomethodology/Conversation Analysis (EM/CA) perspective, focusing on Garfinkel’s consideration of “common sense”: how a shared understanding among participants (making sense) is dependent upon resources which must be commonly available to all involved. Specifically, what are the practical resources that crowd participants orient to in order to know when to cheer and what to cheer in order to cheer together?

Early EM research pursued this sort of question through ‘breaching experiments’ (Garfinkel, 1967) where researchers purposefully withheld or warped the resources necessary for sensemaking in an interaction. The hope was that participants would then mark what was most vital for accomplishing mutual understanding by either demanding it from the withholding researcher or attempting to provide it themselves as a form of repair. This talk takes a similar approach by focusing on instances of collective make-believe by large crowds. With the central focus being a professional wrestling match between two ‘invisible’ (non-existent) wrestlers and what the referee and crowd use to make mutual sense of what is meant to be occurring, to the point that the crowd can genuinely react to the invisible contest. The crowd’s knowledge of wrestling sequences and the referee’s performance of his reactions are discussed as the resources which allow for necessary understandings to be achieved. This also raises questions around response relevance in instances of make-believe, which may reveal yet more structural complexity in even the silliest of human interactions.

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