Identity refers to the social positioning of oneself and other. In his early work, Harvey Sacks emphasised the importance of the membership categorisation device, which contributes to organising knowledge of categories in order to generate social inferences about them. From this, there are two domains in interaction and these relate to knowledge and authority, demonstrating how they might be used as resources to invoke categorical relevances in interaction. Previous work that has been carried out to analyse the epistemics of interaction has successfully clarified the means in which participants go about mobilising grammatical resources in sequential positions that make claims of authority, and consequently, identifies categories. To reciprocate, this has displayed how it is that epistemic domains are implicated in recognising action.




An aspect of conversational description which was examined very closely by Sacks was the use of membership categories (Sacks, 1972a; 1972c; 1979). There are a variety of categories that are used by people on a daily basis, which describe, as well as refer to people, and these can range from everyday descriptions such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’, descriptions used for referring to family members ‘husband’ and ‘daughter’ and descriptions used in order to convey a nationality of someone ‘English’ and ‘Spanish’ for example. The categories are resources which aid people in identifying people and referring to other people and they are not exclusive – somebody is not limited to only falling into the description of one category. For example, somebody can be a mother, daughter and a nurse. Sacks (1992, Vol. 1:40-9) described categories as being inference rich, meaning that there are certain conventions and expectations which derive from them. There is a particular example which was used by Sacks ‘The baby cried. The mommy picked it up’. (Sacks, 1972a:330). He suggested that the mommy will commonly be perceived as being the baby’s mum and that she picked the baby up because of the fact that he or she was crying, but truthfully, there is no additional information or explanation expressed in the sentences so there is no valid reason to arrive at such a conclusion. Sacks states that it is because of usual expectations and categories that people make conclusions. There are what are known as ‘category-bound activities’ which are associated with certain membership categories, in this instance, it would be the mother, and that the general expectation of a mother is that they nurture their children, including comforting them when they are upset, whereas the expectation of a baby is that crying is their way of signalling when they need to be attended to.


Sacks, 1992 Vol. 1:44


1          A:         Corliss, the g- this chick I’m hanging around with now she’s real nice she’s got 2              a real good personality

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3                      she’s not – y’know she’s just a real cute kid

4          B:         mm hm

5          A:         And last night we went to the Mardi Gras together and we were both well

6                      well we were both pooped

7                      because I I ran in the track meet yesterday. And she-

8                      she’s in the girls’ tumbling team. I mean she

9                      doesn’t like it she’s just on it for the credits.


In line 1, Speaker A says ‘Corliss, the g- this chick I’m hanging around with’. In this context, it can be presumed that Speaker A was going to refer to the ‘chick’ as a ‘girl’ but decided against it midway through the utterance and instead, he calls her a ‘chick’. One possible explanation for this is made by the inferences which are non-equivalent and made available from the membership categories of the words ‘girl’ and ‘chick’. The word ‘girl’ is usually used to refer to a female child, therefore ‘chick’ seems more of an appropriate word to use in the context. The connotations of the word ‘chick’ are largely informal and the word is commonly used when a man is discussing a woman whom they are sexually attracted to. ‘Chick’ also has got a casual tone to it as opposed to the word ‘girl’. Speaker A has chosen to refer to the girl as ‘chick’ because the word gives the impression that the girl is physically attractive and would be the kind of girl that his friends may be interested in. This also shows that he is a cool person that a ‘chick’ would want to date.


Sacks asserted that in order to apply the principle of membership categories to an individual, there has got to be an economy rule. The intelligibility of single category descriptions presents this. This is supported by the example ‘The baby cried. The mommy picked it up’ because it was a story which came from a child who was aged only two years old, demonstrating the fact that children as young as age two might have the understanding that it is possible for categories to be grouped into collections. The baby’s gender nor age are included in the sentence and this did not cause a problem when the conclusion was reached that the mommy picked the baby up because he or she was crying, because picking the baby up conforms to the expectation of a ‘mommy’. However, single category descriptions are not limited to children’s stories but it addresses just how the socialisation of children occurs. From this example it suggests that children appear to acquire single names, such as ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ before they learn how single categories manage to fit into collections such as ‘family’.


In addition to this, there is a second rule to applying the membership category devices. This second rule gives the implication that one category from a named collection has been used in order to categorise one member of the population, then it is possible for other categories from that same collection to be used on the other members of the population. An example of this consistency rule can be seen in the following example: if Speaker A uses an unkind, abusive word to describe Speaker B, Speaker A will know that a term from the same collection can be used to describe them, which is why many people may refrain resulting to name-calling during a verbal argument with someone else. However, it is feasible for any category to belong in multiple collections. Sacks observed that the word ‘baby can be placed in the collection ‘stage of life’ along with the words ‘baby’ ‘child’ ‘teenager’ and ‘adult’ in addition to the ‘family collection’, alongside its possible placement in a ‘romance’ collection, because now more, frequently, the term ‘baby’ used as a term of endearment between couples and mainly in films. Sacks also suggested what is known as a consistency rule corollary which has the function of resolving ambiguities in conversation. This is particularly useful when a speaker uses more than to categories in an attempt at describing at least two members of a population because it is possible to receive the categories as belonging to the same collection. The consistency rule has given an explanation for why many people hear the words ‘mommy’ and ‘baby’ to be part of the same collection, which is the ‘family’ collection, but it is still seen as ‘the mommy’ being ‘the mommy of the baby’ (LC1:247). The account given for this is that the family comes from a collection that implies a team. An example that is given to illustrate this analogy is that of a football team. The ‘mommy’ and the ‘baby’ belong in the same semantic field, similarly to the way that in a football team, the ‘defender’ and ‘striker’ belong in the same category. The specific label that Sacks gave to this was duplicative organisation. Duplicative organisation assists in showing that the words ‘mommy’ and ‘baby’ are words that are usually heard as being in the same ‘unit’, however, there is a further rule which shows that this is not likely, it is in fact required. 


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