Citizens getting help: Interactions at the constituency office
Abstract: This thesis examines a previously unstudied site of interaction: the constituency office. At the constituency office, Members of Parliament (MPs) hold MP surgeries , during which they help constituents to solve their personal difficulties. This thesis provides the first analysis of interactions at the constituency office. It is the only place where ordinary citizens can meet their MP; as such, it also provides the first analysis of face-to-face, unmediated interactions between politicians and their constituents. For this study, 12.5 hours of interactional data were recorded at the office of an MP in the United Kingdom, comprising over 80 encounters between office staff, the MP, and their constituents. The MP was of the majority ( government ) party at the time of recording. The data were analyzed using conversation analysis (CA), in order to investigate how the social activities of the constituency office were accomplished through interaction.The first analytic chapter reveals the overall structure of constituency office encounters, as well as examining what constituents say when they call or visit the office, and how they express that they are in need of assistance. This chapter finds that constituents avoid making direct requests of their MP, and instead use narrative descriptions. These descriptions manage interactional challenges including the unknown nature of the institution (Stokoe, 2013b), contingency and entitlement (Drew & Curl, 2008), reasonableness and legitimacy (Edwards & Stokoe, 2007; Heritage & Robinson, 2006), and recruitment (Kendrick & Drew, 2016). The second analytic chapter examines the action of offering, and finds it to be the central mechanism for transacting service. The staff use different offer designs to index different nuances in the offering action, such as asking permission or confirming an activity. Both the first and second analytic chapters show that systematic deployment of offers help control the direction of the encounters and tacitly instruct constituents as to what services are available. Furthermore, both of these chapters show the flexibility participants employed in turn design and action ascription, which extends previous descriptions of how requests and offers are constructed (Couper-Kuhlen, 2014; Curl, 2006) and supports recent calls for a more nuanced approach to action description from conversation analysts (Kendrick & Drew, 2014; Sidnell & Enfield, 2014).The third analytic chapter investigates the ostensibly political context of the constituency office, and how the MP and constituents raise political topics in conversation. The chapter finds that the term political is challenging to define in live interactions, and relies on the concept of politicizing (Hay, 2007) statements that upgrade (or downgrade) a topic into greater (or lesser) public and governmental concern. Both the MP and constituents were found to initiate political topics, but in different ways. The MP initiated political topics in explicit references to government, in order to provide evidence that the government was aligned with constituents interests. The constituents initiated political topics in vague and indirect references to recent policy changes, and avoided implicating the MP in any criticisms. The findings suggest that constituents privilege interactional norms (such as not criticizing a co-present interlocutor) over any potential interest in making political critiques. The chapter also discusses what impact these findings may have on concepts such as power and evasion . The final analytic chapter assesses the concept of rapport , finding that it is difficult for both participants and analysts to determine long-term outcomes from local, interactional occurrences in interaction. Rapport is important for MPs who may be attempting to build a personal vote relationship with constituents, but this chapter also finds that constituents have a stake in building rapport in order to receive the best (or any) service. The chapter finds that while traditional practices for building rapport , such as doing small talk or finding common ground, are problematic to employ and assess from an interactional perspective, other local outcomes such as progressivity (Fogarty, Augoustinos & Kettler, 2013) and affiliation (Clark, Drew & Pinch, 2003) may be more useful indicators of positive interactions. This chapter concludes that we need a more nuanced, and interactionally-based, framework to train practitioners (and clients) in effective communication practices.This thesis challenges the conversation analytic literature by finding that the constituency office setting revolves around a more flexible ascription of requests than many studies have previously accepted, and that we can analyze actions as if on a spectrum, rather than in bounded categories. The thesis also contributes to the political discourse literature by finding that constituents activities at the constituency office are strongly influenced by interactional norms, rather than political attitudes. Finally, this thesis provides a basis from which to study the constituency office, as a site of service interaction.
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