Journal of Applied Linguistics and Professional Practice, Vol 9, No 2 (2012)

Somewhere between evil and normal: Traces of morality in a child-protection helpline

Jonathan Potter, Alexa Hepburn
Issued Date: 25 Mar 2015


This article considers the way commonplace moral actions such as expressing disapproval and offering sympathy are managed in interaction on a child protection helpline. Although the helpline routinely engages with callers’ reports of traumatic events such as child neglect and abuse, overt moral assessments by call takers such as expressions of disapproval and displays of sympathy are much less common. We argue that this resistance to displays of sympathy and disapproval by call takers relates to key institutional tasks of (a) gathering information for referral to other services and offering advice; (b) avoiding actions that could disrupt the necessary interrogation of reports; and (c) holding off alignment with precise versions of events and responsibility that are often the very thing at stake in the call. Nevertheless, call takers may use more indirect traces of morality such as prosodic inflections or precisely positioned ‘tut’ particles to acknowledge the relevance or moral evaluations while not disrupting the trajectory of the report and its assessment. More broadly, this illustrates some of the complex ways in which moral practices are refined and transformed in institutional settings.

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DOI: 10.1558/japl.v9i2.25732


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