An Online Journal of Modern Philology ISSN 1214-5505

A Critique of Politeness Theories (Book Review)


Silvie Válková


The article reviews the book A Critique of Politeness Theories by Gino Eelen, a study based on detailed explanation of the existing politeness theories with suggestions for further research.

EELEN, G. A Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 2001. ISBN 1-9006-5040-1, 280 pp.

Although politeness as a research area of pragmatics and sociolinguistics was initiated by Brown and Levinson more than 30 years ago, it seems to be a topic which still offers enough space for new definitions and theoretical frameworks within which researchers concentrate on various politeness strategies and also language devices used for their manifestations, often in different languages and cultures.

The already established theories reflect different scope of coverage of the multifaceted notion of politeness, the diversity of models by which to approach this cognitive space by linguistic or rather socio-linguistic means, and the consequent diversity of a partly redundant and partly overlapping terminological apparatus, very often giving the impression of adding the air of newness to the already existing terms. The diversity of theoretical frameworks contributes to the gradient of their acceptance: while some of the theories - namely those promising dynamic and flexible tools for applicability, and operating within clines or scales rather than binary yes/no decisions - have become good theoretical tools for a wide spectrum of application, those, prescribing fixed, single-culture-based generalisations, are accepted, or rather approached, with mixed feelings, if not subjected to apparent criticism. In this climate of partly inherited and partly innovative conceptions, a book critically surveying the status quo of politeness theories is a promising invitation to a guided quality-based selection, namely if its very title explicitly offers a critical standpoint.

What makes Eelen´s critique of politeness theories different from other studies is his ability to capture the nexus of the existing theories which he considers representative and foreground their distinctive aspects as well as their common characteristic features. The critique, based on very detailed explanation of the existing theories, enables readers to get effortlessly a detailed overview.

Chapter 1 introduces an overview of theories whose universal connections are conceptualizing politeness as strategic conflict-avoidance and politeness as social indexing, i.e. “…what is socially appropriate depends on the speaker’s social position (in relation to hearer).” (Eelen 2001: 21). The core theories studied are those of R. Lakoff, P. Brown and S.C. Levinson, G. Leech, Y. Gu, S. Ide, S. Blum-Kulka, B. Fraser and W. Nolen, H. Arndt and R. Janney, and R. Watts. Although other names and theories are mentioned, the author considers the above listed scholars representative of current scientific thinking about politeness.

In Chapter 2 the author stresses the importance of distinguishing between the commonsense notion of politeness and its scientific conceptualization, in other words distinguishing between politeness 1 and politeness 2. The clear distinction between the two is confused by most of the theorists, their position in relation to the distinction is often ambiguous, implicitly present but not explicitly stated. According to Eelen, the main features of politeness 1 are evaluativity (both politeness and impoliteness are evaluative in nature – impoliteness involves negative evaluation, while politeness can be both positive and negative); argumentativity (politeness 1 is aimed at some social effect, associated with situations where there is something to lose or gain); polite-ness (politeness refers to the polite end of the polite-impolite continuum, it does not cover impolite behaviour); normativity (it involves social norms, the normativity of politeness 1 is connected to its association with ´appropriateness´); modality and reflexivity (refers to the optionality of polite interactional strategies for the actor). Politeness 2 as a scientific conceptualization should describe how politeness 1 works, what it does for people. Politeness 2 should avoid being evaluative in nature, should be non-normative and should cover the whole range of the polite-impolite continuum.

Chapter 3 deals with the distinction between politeness and impoliteness. While the current theories remain centred on the polite side of the distinction (only four of them explicitly incorporate impoliteness), Eelen argues that the theory of politeness should take into account both sides of the coin – politeness and impoliteness. Another critique is that the theories in their conceptualizations of politeness are biased towards the speaker in the interactional speaker-hearer dyad and towards the production of behaviour rather than its evaluation.

Chapter 4 focuses on normativity as one of the politeness 1 features. According to Eelen, norms in some form appear in various politeness theories and their common features are appropriateness, sharedness and norm-ality. “The commonsense idea that politeness is a matter of socially shared norms is retained in the scientific models, where those norms are translated into social/cultural principles that guide language behaviour. Norms are thus not relative to the individual, but become absolute, objective entities operating on the level of society/culture. Politeness is seen as a system of such absolute norms that needs to be internalized by the individual through socialization.” (Eelen 2001: 187). The critique of the theories concerning the inclusion of norms into politeness conceptualization is based on a sociological theory, although culture is not theoretically defined in terms of particular social characteristics. (Eelen 2001: 164).

In Chapter 5 the author, influenced by the works of sociologists Talcott Parsons and Pierre Bourdieu, presents a social-psychological model of human reality underlying the politeness theories, stressing the fact that in all the theoretical frameworks the social level is “prior to the individual, which leads to the unidirectional determination of the individual by the social level…” (Eelen 2001: 246) – an obvious reminiscence of Halliday’s (1978) conception of language as social semiotic. Based on Bourdieu´s notion of “habitus”, Eelen introduces suggestions for an approach in which the social and the individual are more in balance. To reach such balance, researchers should concentrate on the processes of social production rather than on the product of these processes. The main characteristic features of politeness perceived from this perspective are variability, evaluativity, argumentativity, and discursiveness. The suggested approach enables researchers to capture both politeness and impoliteness by the same concepts; empowers the hearer and the individual in general; covers more data as it also includes statistically marginal and contradictory data and gives a richer view on politeness itself.

The last chapter of the book summarizes the findings of previous chapters together with the consequences that the findings can have for the conceptualization of politeness. The shortcomings of the theories under investigation can be generalized by the author´s own words “By taking many aspects of politeness 1 at face value, generally mimicking its procedures and unquestioningly accepting its representation of reality, politeness theory becomes largely based on the very commonsense commonplaces it sets out to examine, and thus fails to provide any original insights beyond those already available on the intuitive level.” (Eelen 2001: 246). However excellent the book seemed to be at the beginning, showing impressive knowledge and insight into politeness theories, it became rather breathless towards the end, offering no balance between criticism and Eelen’s own contribution by which to push the research forward and provide a workable model of analysis. His own definition of politeness is missing, giving politeness the status of a nowhere defined but everywhere present assumption. The vagueness of this status is amplified by the vagueness of some of the terms he suggests. What Eelen, however, gives us at the end of his book is a battery of suggestions for further discussion and research in the field of politeness.

In spite of the above mentioned shortcomings, the book should definitely become an inseparable part of a bookcase of those interested in pragmatics and sociolinguistics, namely those focusing on linguistic politeness.

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