Human Studies

, Volume 9, Issue 2–3, pp 219–229 | Cite as

Extreme case formulations: A way of legitimizing claims

  • Anita Pomerantz


This paper has described three uses of Extreme Case formulations

  1. (1)

    to assert the strongest case in anticipation of non-sympathetic hearings

  2. (2)

    to propose the cause of a phenomenon

  3. (3)

    to speak for the rightness (wrongness) of a practice.


The interactants in the illustrations were engaged in several types of activities, among which were complaining, accusing, justifying, and defending. As concluding remarks, a few comments will be made about why participants use Extreme Case formulations in these activities.

Part of the business of complaining involves portraying a situation as a legitimate complainable. This may take the form of protraying the offense committed and/or the suffering endured in a way such that it would not be dismissed as minor. So as to legitimize a complaint and portray the complainable situation as worthy of the complaint, a speaker may portray the offense and/or the suffering with Extreme Case formulations. In both accusing and defending, participants ofyen present their strongest cases, including specifying Extreme Cases of their claims.

Part of justifying a course of actions may involve portraying the precipitating circumstance as necessitating the action. The precipitating circumstance may be a problem circumstance which is portrayed as unfair, immoral, embarrassing, uncomfortable, or in some other way undesirable and/or intolerable. There is a shared assumption that the worse the problem, the more necessary it is to do something about it. In justifying, speakers use Extreme Case formulations to portray the circumstances that precipitated their actions as demanding their actions.

A problem that participants have when engaged in, or reflecting on, conflicts, complaints, criticism, compliments, praise, etc. is to attribute the cause of the phenomenon. Who or what is responsible for the conflictual, complainable, praise-worthy state of affairs? One method that is used to determine what or who is responsible, i.e. to make an attribution, involves comparing the case in question to other similar cases. Through this procedure, persons determine that they are (are not) responsible for the state of affairsin questions. Extreme Case proportional formulations (‘everyone,’ ‘all,’ ‘every time’) are used to indicate that any individual member of that category is not responsible for the state of affairs; that responsibility is to be attributed elsewhere.

The social order essentially is a moral order (Garfinkel, 1967). One of the ways of knowing what is acceptable and right is by finding out how people behave. There often is a shared assumption operating (one that is called into question on occasion): how people behave tells us what is the right way to behave. Proportional measures reporting the frequency or prevalence of practices are used to propose and substantiate the rightness and wrongness of those practices. Extreme Case formulations (‘all the time,’ ‘everybody,’ ‘no one’) propose behaviors are acceptable and right or unacceptable and wrong.


Extreme Case Similar Case Social Order Political Philosophy Individual Member 
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  3. Pomerantz, A. (Forthcoming). Descriptions in legal settings. In G. Button adn J.R.E. Lee (Eds.), Talk and social organization. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters Ltd.Google Scholar
  4. Sacks, H. (1964). Unpublished lectures delivered at U.C.L.A.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anita Pomerantz
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of SpeechTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaU.S.A.

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