7/12 Universality and Empirical Validity in Pragmatics

July 12, 2013
2353 Mason Hall

Organizer contact: Marina Terkourafi (mt217@illinois.edu)

Click here for workshop website.

See Workshop Description


Marina Terkourafi* (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign),

Philippe De Brabanter (UniversitéLibre de Bruxelles) and

Yoshiko Matsumoto (Stanford University)

*Primary workshop contact; email: mt217@illinois.edu


In a recent article (“The weirdest people in the world?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2010), 61–135), Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan argued that a disproportionate amount of behavioral research is conducted using subjects from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) populations, who are frequent outliers even within their own societies and not representative of humanity at large. This is said to seriously undercut the generalizability of the conclusions reached based on the behavior of these subjects and the universality of the theoretical explanations ultimately proposed. This workshop will address the implications of these claims for the field of linguistic pragmatics. Linguistic pragmatics is especially interesting in this regard because, although it is a field where socio-cultural variability is prevalent, it is also one where universalist frameworks have often endured despite frequent and early criticism of cultural bias (two well-known examples are E. O. Keenan’s (1978) critique of Grice’s maxims based on her fieldwork in Madagascar and M. Rosaldo’s (1982) critique of Searle’s speech act theory based on her research among the Ilongot).Our aim is to bring together experts working on different pragmatic phenomena (including but not limited to: implicature, deixis, presupposition, reference resolution, speech acts, conversational structure, and information structure), to address a set of related questions such as:


  • In your view, has research in your area of pragmatics been limited by a bias toward WEIRD populations of researchers and populations studied?
  • If so, how has this bias affected the topics studied and the conclusions reached?
  • What phenomena, if any, have been left out in your particular area of pragmatics, and, conversely, when non-WEIRD populations have been studied, what (new) phenomena have potentially been discovered?
  • If a bias is indeed present, how do you think it could be methodologically and institutionally addressed?


We find these questions to be extremely topical for the discipline at large, as new paradigms such as Experimental Pragmatics are becoming increasingly popular. While those paradigms may themselves be prone to the above limitations, it is precisely empirical work along these lines that could also begin to address them — and may even be said to have begun to do so to a small extent, by deliberately focusing on, among others, subjects with neuro-developmental disorders (notably Autism Spectrum Disorders), and the pragmatics of sign languages.