one person has authority to give orders to another, they presuppose differences in
social status, and their effectiveness depends not only on language but also on
mutual acknowledgement of particular orderings of society. They operate under
social conditions (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 73). Likewise, commissive acts such as
promises require an understanding of socially-constructed notions of obligation
(Hume, 1740) as well as compliance with linguistic practice.
Declaratives are perhaps the most complex acts in terms of the social conditions
they presuppose. Naming ships seems to require little more than an understanding
that names can be conferred on physical entities; but most declaratives operate only
in societies whose members assent to intangible human institutions such as
corporations, congresses, treaties, and governments, and deontic phenomena
such as rights, obligations, and ownership of property. As Searle (1979, p. 18) noted,
'it is only given such institutions that one can bequeath one's possessions or
The range of speech acts in use, and the extent to which employing words in
particular ways counts as performing such acts, can be expected to vary from one
society to another. An oft-quoted example of this diversity is the Ilongot people in
the Philippines, among whom directive speech acts are commonplace, but acts of
promising are unknown (Rosaldo, 1982). To a considerable degree, the contexts
deemed necessary for the successful performance of a speech act may also be locally
The work of genre scholars can help to elucidate many of these points. Bakhtin and
members of his circle observed that each sphere of human activity and each
historical period has its own repertoire of speech forms (Bakhtin, 1986, pp. 60, 64;
Gardiner, 1992, p. 14), and other genre theorists have followed them in affirming
the attachment of genre to time and place. Bazerman (2002, p. 342; 2004, p. 318)
argued that the conditions for the genres within which speech acts are employed are
likely to be far more local than Searle suggested, and that people who work together
can be expected to employ distinctive sets of genres. Recognition that, within a given
time period, some genres are likely to be 'widely accepted in industrial nations'
while others are specific to particular groups of people (Yates Orlikowski, 1992,
p. 304) has led genre theorists to the view that genres are enacted to realise social
purposes within communities (Orlikowski Yates, 1994, p. 542). Tacit
understandings of generic forms are acquired through community membership
(Gardiner, 1992, p. 82), and it is in communities that genre conventions are
constructed, provisionally stabilised, and intermittently amended.
Although the notion of 'community' has not been immune from criticism
(Foscarini, 2014, pp. 8-9; Muehlmann, 2014, pp. 582-583), it has been widely
adopted. Scholarly literature abounds with references to discourse communities
(Rafoth, 1988), rhetorical communities (Miller, 1994), interpretive communities
(Fish, 1980), or speech communities (Gumperz, 2009). Besides genre theorists,
scholars in other disciplines have adopted these terms with varying nuances of
meaning and varying degrees of indebtedness to writings about genre. Ideas about
communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) have been associated with genre theory
(Weldon, 2008) and occasionally with speech act theory (Wiliam, 2001). Archival
scholars have written about workplace communities (Foscarini, 2014) and, with a
rather different focus, communities of records or communities of memory (Bastian,
2003, pp.3-6; McKemmish, Gilliland-Swetland, Ketelaar, 2005). Depending on
the emphasis we seek, it seems that we can take our pick of the term we prefer.12
From a record-keeping perspective, writings about communities serve as a reminder
that the contexts of records lie in localised practices as well as general rules, and that
the forms invoked when actions are performed through writing are likely to depend
on tacit understandings of what constitutes a social act within a given community
as well as on explicit mandates or standards. However, studies of discourse
communities and the like often fail to recognise that communities can endow
written documents with the ability to generate and transfer rights, duties,
obligations, and other deontic phenomena. Additional perspectives are needed to
supply a fuller account of records and their roles in society.
Because many deontic phenomena have a legal or quasi-legal position, there should
be a place here for notions of a juridical system, as diplomatists insist. The
connections between records and the law are of long standing in Europe, and legal
considerations must not be overlooked. However, we must be wary of attributing
universal validity to concepts derived from a particular European tradition. Writing
can be used to convey obligations and permissions in societies beyond the ambit of
Euro-centric law; in Western societies, written promises and instructions are
commonly honoured even when the law does not acknowledge or enforce them.
By incorporating aspects of speech act theory, it should be possible to recognise that
not all deontic phenomena are rooted in law, and that some are simply admitted by
members of local communities who accept that obligations can be brought into
existence through writing.13 The theory of speech acts could thus help unite
communitarian perspectives with diplomatic explanations of legal or juridical
systems. A multidisciplinary approach is required if we are to develop rich
intellectual frameworks for understanding records, their contexts of origin, and the
ways in which they establish and underwrite social relationships.
archives in liquid times
geoffrey yeo information, records, and the philosophy of speech acts
12 Some scholars emphasise the role of the community in creating resources; others stress its role in using or
interpreting them. Some (e.g., Brown Duguid, 1996, p. 6) also note that resources can be deployed across
community boundaries. There are surprisingly few scholarly references to 'speech act communities', but a
few can be found (Eppinger, 2013; Fish, 1980, p. 244). In other fields, particularly those closer to the 'hard'
sciences, broadly similar concepts have sometimes been expressed using the word 'domain' rather than
'community': biologist Humberto Maturana's notion of a consensual domain has been applied to linguistic
activity (Winograd Flores, 1986, p. 49), and writers influenced by ideas about information systems or
computer-science ontologies often refer to domains of discourse (Beynon-Davies, 2009, pp. 80-81; cf.
Lemieux, 2014, pp. 76-77).
13 Notions of (what diplomatists call) competence - 'the authority and capacity of accomplishing an act'
(Duranti, 1998, p. 89) - are also found in speech act theory, where they are variously known as entitlement
(Austin, 1962, pp. 34-3 5), capacity (Austin, 1962, p. 23), or status (Searle, 1979, pp. 5-7). A captain can
issue instructions to a sergeant, but not to a colonel; I can bequeath my possessions, but cannot bequeath
yours. Duranti (1998, pp. 90-91) noted that, where written acts are concerned, a number of different
competences may be involved; for example, competence to act and competence to issue or establish the
forms of a document may rest with different persons. But whereas diplomatic restricts the competence to act
to physical and juridical persons (i.e., 'persons' formally recognised by the law), speech act theory imposes
no such restriction. Informal groups of people, ad-hoc teams, and unincorporated associations without legal
status can ask and answer questions; in many communities, they can also make promises and agreements.
If they perform these acts in writing, they create records.