Charles Goodwin’s Reflections on Retirement

SLA Interview with Charles Goodwin

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What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with?  Could you talk about the story behind writing it?

While “Professional Vision” is perhaps the article that anthropologists know best, what pleases me most in my career is my work on the social life of Aphasia. With that, I (and others) have been able to change the way that people encounter and think about not only people with aphasia, but, more generally, others who differ from themselves.

The person whom I write about is my father who had a stroke in his early 60’s that left him with a three-word vocabulary: Yes, No and And. He nonetheless remained for the rest of his life an incredibly powerful speaker. Because of my interest in the embodied actions of hearers I immediately saw that while he could not speak, he understood in fine detail what others were saying. For several years I avoided taping him, because I felt I did not want to take advantage of his tragic situation for research. However, at a certain point I realized that it was incredibly important that others see what he could do, rather than assuming someone with a three word vocabulary was almost mute and incapable of complex ideas and language use. He was very enthusiastic about this. I began to videotape his daily interactions whenever I visited him. I feel that, independently of analysis, vividly showing audiences who he was actually was, and what he could do, has been incredibly important for opening people’s minds to the varieties of ways of being human. It has also been important theoretically. First, this work (and that of colleagues) opened a social, rather than psychological or neurological, perspective on aphasia, and brain damage more generally, as something manifested moment by moment in the lived world. Seeing aphasia in this light has consequences for not only the aphasic person, but also those share their lives with him or her. My mother’s life was changed by my father’s stroke at least as much as his. With our continuing state of war, aphasia and other severe consequences of injury to the brain affect not only those at the end of the life cycle, but also our soldiers who frequently return to families, as well as young spouses and partners, with a lifelong condition. Research on the social life of aphasia has led to important changes in therapy. Instead of trying to change what is a chronic condition, one can focus on patterns of interaction.

Basically my father became a powerful speaker by guiding others to produce the words he needed. This radically changed my view of human language, forcing me to see sentences, utterances, and speakers as distributed phenomena. We inhabit each other’s actions. This insight is central to my current work on co-operative action.


What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

“Action and Embodiment.” Here I show formal similarities in the work of archaeologists classifying color, and preadolescent girls playing hopscotch. The hopscotch sequence is less than 15 seconds long, but it took me years to analyze and describe it. Slowly I came to see how human action is built by bringing together different kinds of semiotic materials — language structure, prosody, gesture, embodied postures, frameworks of mutual orientation constituted through the alignment of multiple bodies, etc., and material structure in the environment, such as the hopscotch grid (or the Munsell chart for the archaeologists), sedimented history as we re-use with transformation what we have inherited from our predecessors, etc. The boundaries between the interests of linguistic anthropologists, social anthropologists and archaeologists begin to disappear. It is impossible to analyze what is occurring from any of these perspectives in isolation. It took me a long time to figure out how to conceptualize this.


Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

My absolute joy throughout forty years of teaching has been my seminars, these are really chances to explore analysis with whole cohorts of incredibly interesting people — both students and years of visitors. I have learned so much from all of these colleagues and it has really led to important changes in my thinking (for example being introduced to biosemiotics), and the kinds of phenomena I investigate. This applies as well to those who have invited me to enter their worlds though fieldwork. I see being a professor as one moment in a long chain of intergenerational exchanges, in which I gain much from my mentors, while having my mind continuously opened by new students, while, I hope, helping to stimulate them. In the current economic and political climate it is hopeful to recognize that forms of life that are both profoundly ethical, and genuinely exciting, continue to exist, at least for the moment.

Charles Goodwin is a professor of applied linguistics at UCLA.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA contributing editors Anna Babel ( or Ilana Gershon (

Cite as: Gershon, Ilana and Charles Goodwin. 2017. “Charles Goodwin’s Reflections upon Retirement.” Anthropology News website, April 7. 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.400

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