1.9 Discursive practices continued
1.9.1 ‘I dunno’
In his analysis of Extract 5, Potter focuses on the phrase ‘I dunno’, which appears at the beginning and at the end of Diana's last turn above. This phrase seems throwaway, just one fragment, yet perhaps it illustrates something about people's methods or discursive practices more widely. Why is that phrase there? What work does it do? Given the point made in the previous section that events can always be described differently, why this description of this kind of mental state at this point in the conversation?
Potter proceeds by looking through various corpora of discursive data for other examples of the use of ‘I don't know’ and he argues on the basis of this that ‘I don't know’ appearing at particular points in conversations can be a method for doing what he calls stake innoculation. Potter suggests that questions of stake are key concerns of participants in an interaction. People treat each other as having vested interests, desires, motives and allegiances (as having a stake in some position or other) and this is a problem if one wants one's version of events to be heard as authoritative and persuasive, factual, not interested or biased but the simple, plain, unvarnished truth. I noted earlier how Diana manages to do indirect criticisms attentive to the ways in which such criticism might be heard. People have developed ways, then, of managing stake, inoculating against the appearance of having some interest.
Potter suggests that Diana's use of ‘I dunno’ works in this way. He argues that the topic of the conversation in the extract above – Diana's participation in Morton's book – is a controversial issue for her where her motives (was she just trying to get back at Charles?) have been frequently discussed in the media. Further
the placement of the ‘I dunno's’ in the Princess's talk is precisely where the issue of motive is most acute. For the Princess to accept that the book was part of a planned and strategic campaign to present a particular view of the royal marriage and her role in it would be potentially culpable. The ‘I dunno's’ present her as not sure of the role of the book, perhaps thinking it fully over for the first time . . . the vagueness here is rather neatly in tune with both the ‘on the hoof’ quality presented by the ‘I dunno's'; and the non-verbal finessing of the phrase with a look into the distance as though searching for the answer (in the first instance), and then shaking her head as though it is a difficult question which she did not have a ready or clear answer for (in the second instance).
(Potter, 1997: 157)