Theory and Method in Understanding the Experiences of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers
In the excerpt above, taken from the well-known children’s story Through the Looking Glass, we see a debate between Alice and Humpty Dumpty as to how words are to be understood. Alice’s argument, as we see, is that words have recognizable meanings and are not available for individuals to use in any way of their choosing; should they attempt to do so, the meaning is lost. The counter-argument, advanced by Humpty Dumpty, is that words do not have meanings that are pre-determined: what they mean derives from how people use them. At first sight, Alice’s argument is one that is familiar to us and that might appear self-evident, in that, without some shared sense of meaning, language does not function effectively as a means of communication. Yet, as we look more closely, Humpty Dumpty’s position, however counter-intuitive, comes to offer a richer and potentially more useful view of how people do use language in communicating with each other. In everyday talk, we do not ordinarily consult dictionaries or rules of English grammar in order to check the meanings of words that are uttered. And, in everyday conversation, there is continually scope for people to ask questions such as ‘what do you mean by that?’ Questions of this sort would have little purpose if the meanings of words were always pre-determined and clear. Meanings, then, do not inevitably follow from the actual words used but rather from how people respond to them, whether accepting or perhaps querying terms such as ‘glory’ as Alice does above. On closer inspection, it appears that often the meanings of the words that people utter are possibly uncertain and that words can mean different things, as Humpty Dumpty argues. The value of approaching language in this way will become all the more apparent when we turn to studying talk of asylum.
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