Rhetorical intentionality attribution: Its ontogenesis in ordinary conversation

Marino Bonaiuto*, Alessandra Fasulo

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper addresses the assumption that the epistemological dichotomy between reality and its construction is an everyday rhetorical tool children and adults use in their explanations and arguments. Within a discursive psychology perspective, the phenomenon of attribution of rhetorical intentionality (AIR) is theoretically defined developing the notion of 'prepackaged interest attribution technique' (Edwards & Potter, 1992). AIR consists in an explanation of others' discursive moves in terms of a rhetorical-argumentative activity; that is, in terms of a deliberate attempt aimed at construing and presenting reality as a function of the speaker's point of view, perspective and interests, in order to affect the listener's mental state (belief, knowledge, intention) or action. Theoretical links are made to the theory of mind paradigm in the study of intentionality attribution, particularly to the 'form of life' approach which defines intentionality attribution in terms of language games. On this basis, the present study examines the structures and functions of AIR used by children and their parents in everyday conversation. Qualitative discourse analysis of transcripts of 22 dinner conversations from eight Italian families shows explicit and implicit AIR in children from three and a half to seven years of age. Moreover, parents attribute rhetorical intentionality to their children, contributing to their social construction as rhetorical speakers. AIR is used as a rhetorical strategy within disputes and argumentative contexts, often achieving topic closure. Results are discussed with reference to the ontological status of intentionalist talk.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)511-536
Number of pages26
JournalBritish Journal of Social Psychology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1997


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