vocabularies of motive

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vocabularies of motive A concept outlined by the literary critic Kenneth Burke as one of his five dramatistic terms: who, what, when, where, and why? The term was first developed sociologically by C. Wright Mills (in American Sociological Review. 1944) to capture the language by which people describe their motivations and account for their conduct. The important point is that Mills's idea is not rooted in a psychology of motivation: he was not interested here in needs, drives, or inner compulsions, as was (for example) Sigmund Freud. Rather, his concern was with the ways in which people talk about their motives, in particular social contexts. Motivational talk is usually part of a wider ideology, such that certain stated motives will be much more acceptable in given contexts than in others, and motivational statements are hence relative. For instance, irrespective of the underlying psychological motivation, a thief may make different motivational claims about his thieving behaviour to his peers, his family, the court-room, to a criminologist, or even to him-or herself. The contexts and significant others shift what will be said in the motivational account.

Sociologists have been concerned with the ways in which such talk helps interaction proceed smoothly. They have explored the sources of motivational statements, classified their different varieties, and examined the consequences of their acceptance or rejection. A cluster of linked terms have been developed. Gresham Sykes and David Matza have developed a theory of delinquency which depends upon the delinquent employing a vocabulary to neutralize the legitimacy of the dominant order. These ‘techniques of neutralization’ include denying the victim, condemning the condemners, denying injury, denying responsibility, and appealing to higher loyalties (American Sociological Review, 1957). Stanford M. Lyman and Marvin B. Scott have developed this idea into a more general theory of ‘accounts’, as part of their existential sociology (discussed in their A Sociology of the Absurd, 2nd edn., 1990
). They examine the patterning and consequences of different ‘excuses’ and ‘justifications’ that are offered when something untoward occurs and people are asked to explain what has happened. John P. Hewitt and Randall Stokes have also introduced the term ‘disclaimers’ to cover those situations in which people ‘want to ward off the negative implications of something they are about to do or say’. Such statements take the form ‘I'm not prejudiced, but…’ (American Sociological Review, 1975).

Analysing motivational talk in this way has become part of dramaturgical sociology, ethnomethodology, labelling theory, symbolic interactionism, and the sociologies of knowledge and language (all of which are treated separately elsewhere in this dictionary).