My research focuses on integrating the social with the linguistic aspects of communication and miscommunication. To do this, I use and adapt resources from semantics and pragmatics to understand social linguistic phenomena and explore what norms govern these phenomena. I am particularly interested in exploring how social relations and structures can influence how communication takes place. For instance, what are the communicative effects of power differentials in an exchange? Does systematic racism or sexism influence the communicative processes that take place within those systems? My methodology in answering these questions can be understood as a non-ideal theoretic approach to philosophy of language: I consider whether common tools, assumptions, and conclusions in philosophy of language give us the right results when applied to messy real-world cases. In pursuing this approach, I draw new connections between philosophy of language and social, political, moral, and feminist philosophy.
In my dissertation, I establish a framework for investigating miscommunication. Philosophers of language are often focused on successful communication. As a result, these views are significantly limited in their ability to say much about what happens when communication goes wrong. My dissertation makes two contributions in an effort to fill this gap: first, I defend a new account of communicative context according to which contexts are relativized to individual conversational participants. This account of context can capture both idealized, successful cases of communication, as well as cases of partial or full miscommunication. Second, I argue that there are prescriptive communicative norms that govern the formation of these individualized contexts. These norms distinguish innocent miscommunications–such as the miscommunication that results when someone asks for directions to the store, but I mishear, thinking they asked for directions to the “shore”–and those miscommunications that strike us as legitimately criticizable–such as the miscommunication that occurs when a man interprets a woman’s refusal of his sexual advances as lacking linguistic content, or as expressing sexual interest.
In a paper under review, “Misattributed Consent and Interpretive Context,” I apply these notions that I develop in my dissertation to the phenomenon I call “misattributed consent.” Misattributed consent occurs when someone takes another person’s utterance to constitute an act of consent, despite that the speaker does not take themselves to have consented to anything with that utterance. I am also interested in the role power plays in our ability to communicate with one another, as well as the role it plays in determining what we can communicate with one another. In a paper in progress, “Power and (Mis)Communication,” I draw from standpoint epistemology to argue that those in positions of power are sometimes notably worse at communicating, compared with those in relatively underprivileged positions. In another paper in progress, “Cooperation and Context,” I argue that power enables the powerful to set the terms and goals of a conversation, so that they have the ability to exercise greater control over what counts as the success of a communicative exchange.