Many noted scholars have investigated the domain of practical knowledge, but they have failed to articulate how this tacit knowledge is structured. It was this lack of information on the structural nature of nonverbal communication that made the research on “Frame Analysis” by Erving Goffman (1974) so difficult to comprehend and it is this lack of a structural analysis of habitus that failed to provide the works of Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1984) with the theoretical richness that it deserves.  What makes social scripts different from frame analysis and social habitus theory is that it divulges the components of these tacit scenarios.  It enables one to not only know of the vocabulary associated with these scenarios, but their episodic functions. The reason why this articulation of the components of a social script is important is because these established patterns of social and cultural behavior provide pragmatic prototypes for other kinds of social actions.  The traditional restaurant scene one culture such as the United States, for example, can explain related innovations such as the fast food restaurant, the cafeteria system, and other kinds of public dining establishments.  How cultures differ in their patterns of public behavior can also be ascertained by comparing their social scripts.  The result of this use of social scripts is that it enables those in the cultural sciences to better describe the social patterns that constitute practical knowledge within a cultural domain.

KEYWORDS:  social scripts, tacit knowledge, sociology of knowledge, non-verbal communication.


Western cultures are concerned with rhetoric (Ong, 1982; Olson, 1996).  They have a long tradition of working with language as a framework for representing knowledge (St. Clair, 2002).  In a Western culture, what one says is more carefully investigated than what one does. With the advent of use of images in mass communication, pragmatism, postmodernism, and other studies in the cultural sciences, the has been an increasing interest in what people do with knowledge structures in the presence of each other. Garfinkel (1967) made this a central focus of his research in the study of human behavior.  Goffman (1959, 1967) used the dramaturgical metaphor as a framework for discussing life as a social drama in which individuals are playwrights who develop their own scripts, act them out, watch their own performances, and dress themselves for the roles that they are playing.  Goffman (1959) noted how these individuals also act as critics and judge their own performances in public.  In a later work, Goffman (1974) wanted to demonstrate how these behaviors are contextualized and embedded in different cultural spaces or frames.  Bourdieu (1977, 1984) also wrote about social drama but his focus was on the social and cultural rituals that are inherited by the citizenry of a cultural domain.  His study of habitus also dealt with practical knowledge in a social setting (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 19992).  The problem with these models is that they needed further articulation. 

The study of social scripts and how they work began with during the first generation of the cognitive sciences (Gardner, 1987) when Schank and Abelson (1977) openly discussed the significance of social scripts and how function within a social setting.  They used the restaurant schema as an example of how human beings spatially enact social scripts in life.  This early social script has been expanded and revised in this essay within the framework of the sociology of knowledge.  Minsky (1975, 1985) was very interest in how social scripts function because he wanted to be able to program his robots to function within the social and cultural milieu of human beings.  It was his work that inspired this investigation of the role of social scripts as a form of practical knowledge (St. Clair, Thomé-Williams, and Su, 2005).  

Social script theory provides an account of how social scripts are organized as forms of practical knowledge.  It recognizes from Goffman (1974) that social frames are performed as mini-dramas and these are represented as episodic functions.  It also recognizes that by means of analogical thinking, a social script may be used to create related scripts based on the original as the source and the new creations as praxiological metaphors.  Hence, one may establish structural similarities between restaurant science, the cafeteria, and the fast food restaurant.       


As noted earlier, the earlier cognitive scientists did not articulate the structure of these social scripts in sufficient detail.  The reason for this is simply the fact that they assumed that words were containers of meaning and that language was used to organize symbols and their associated meanings.  It was argued in their model of the mind as a machine, for example, that language functions as the software and the human brain functions as the hardware.  They did not fully consider how language is used to organize concepts and how words would evoke links to other concept, event, or actions.  What is missing from their account was the significant role that social script theory in the creation and organization of practical knowledge?  The reason for this can be found in the concept of “social recipes.”  They did not embrace this concept.  Within existential sociology, for example, it is argued that most human beings are not able to envision themselves in terms of grand theories or models of social thought. All that they know are their day-to-day existences and these are always highly contextualized (Douglas et al, 1985; chapter 6).  This is because for them, life is situated (Douglas and Johnson, 1977; Kotarba and Fontana, 1984).  Things may occur from one moment to the next and they must learn how to deal with these exigencies.  How do they deal with these problems?  Where did they learn how to cope with these problems?   They learned them as mini-dramas and intercalated social acts (Lyman and Scott, 1976, 1978).  They learned them by observing and experiencing similar problems in natural situations. What is a natural situation?  It is one that is not dictated by the kinds of laboratory conditions found in psychological testing.  It is not a situation that is taken out of context.  By natural, they mean the situations that are common to everyday life. These are situations in which individuals meet each other in face-to-face encounters. It is a common-sense world in which meanings refer to feelings, perceptions, emotions, moods, thoughts, values, and ideas shared with other members of society.  It is that internal connection with others that is referred to as the meaning of life.  Natural means that one is able to analyze and understand social situations from the standpoint of the members of a group or community. Natural situations depend on actual situations and circumstances.  It is by being-in-the-situation that one comes to recognize and know the social scripts within their own culture. 

From these actual situations, one is able to develop social scripts of the events and the actions. These are best described as episodic events.  One does not just enter a restaurant, he must follow a script.  That script already exists.  It is one that he has seen many times as a child and has participated in frequently in life.  These scripts refer to social functions.  They dictate what one should be doing at a particular time and in a particular place if one is to play the role characteristically associated with that script. There may be several people involved in the same situation, but they may differ in the roles that they have been given or have chosen to enact.  Hence, the following is a revision of the Restaurant Schema under Social Script Theory.


The Restaurant Schema under Social Script Theory

Event Frame

Dining at a restaurant

Social Roles

Waiter, customer, cashier, busboy, manager, cook.

Episodic Functions

Enter a restaurant.
Approach the host.
Have someone direct the customer to a table.
Have someone bring a menu to the customer.
The customer peruses the menu.
Have the waiter approach the customer and ask for an order.
The customer puts in his order
The water leaves and eventually returns with the food.
The waiter signals the end of the main meal by asking about deserts.
The waiter customer signals the end of the meal by asking for the bill.
The waiter brings the bill or the check.
The customer either pays the waiter or pays the cashier.
The customer pays the cashier.
The customer may leave a tip.
The customer leaves the restaurant.


Waiter, customer, table, main meal, deserts, tip, cashier, restaurant, the bill, the check, the menu, etc.


Enter a restaurant, approach the cashier, get assigned to a waiter, go to your assigned table, accept the menus, read them, make an order, wait for the meal, eat your meal, discuss the topic of conversation during the meal, wait for the waiter to ask if you want to have a dessert, order the dessert (optional), receive the bill, leave a tip, pay the cashier, leave the establishment.


How does one come to internalize these social scripts?  This has been one of the unanswered aspects of theory building within sociolinguistics and within the sociology of language.  Most of these models discussed can readily account for behavioral patterns, but they cannot explain how these patterns are internalized.  What has been missing in these theoretical accounts is Activity Theory (Ratner, 1996) which explains how social models are socially constructed. According to Activity Theory, a child learns by doing things, by following others, by trying to emulate them, and by trying to make his world similar to their world. There is agency involved in these events. The agency comes from the child, but it is an attempt to emulate the social world and the cultural world that he is immersed in. He uses social scripts and language as learning tools and experiential devices to navigate within that milieu. Co-constructionist models of cultural psychology separate the production of social relations from the ways in which individuals utilize and consume them. One learns a social script by participating in a socially constructed event. In many cultures (Hicks and Gwynne, 1996) a child is not considered to be a functioning social being until he has mastered a certain level of secondary socialization.  One of the functions of secondary education is to provide children with the social scripts that they need in order to fully be accepted as social individuals. Education is compulsory because society demands that they master these social scripts. They come to learn most of their higher mental functions through social learning (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978). 


As noted earlier under Activity Theory, social actions are motivated. One of these actions involves dinning out either as an individual or as a family.  Under social script theory, one of the procedures for dining out a restaurant was articulated as a chain of mini-procedures that comprise a mega-event.  The restaurant social script may well be the ideal scenario upon which others in mini-dramas in some rather interesting ways. It is the prototypical restaurant script. What need to be discussed are the other scenarios for dinning out. Many of these are discussed below.  Consider, for example, the situation in which one enters a cafeteria in order to purchase a meal.


The Cafeteria Schema under Social Script Theory

Event Frame

Dinning at a Cafeteria, a self-serve establishment.

Social Roles

No Waiters, customer, cashier, busboy, manager, cook and many servers.

Episodic Functions

Enter a Cafeteria.
There is no host. One encounters a hallway or a series of roped areas that guide the customer towards the serving area.
The customer goes along a row of food selections and chooses what he wants to eat. He either pays for his food when he exits this area or when he is ready to leave the premises.
No one directs the customer to his table. He carries his own tray and finds himself a table.
There are no menus. One sees what is available before him.
There is no waiter.  One acts as his or her own waiter.
Contrary to a restaurant, one does puts in his order for food by pointing to selections along the food line.
The customer is his own waiter.
The main meal and the desserts are not separated from the main meal. One purchases them together and puts them on his own tray.
At the end of the mail, there is no waiter to remind one to pay his bill. The customer simply walks up to the cashier with his cash register receipt and pays the stipulated amount plus taxes.
The customer pays the cashier.
The customer is not expected to leave a tip.
The customer leaves the restaurant.


Waiter, customer, table, main meal, servers, desserts, tip, cashier, restaurant, the cash-register receipt, the check, the menu, etc.


Enter a cafeteria, approach the hallway, move towards the food line, pick up a tray, ask for servings from a wide range of meals (salads, desserts, main meal, etc.).  There are no waiters. One serves himself. There are no menus. The menu is a visual array along the food line. The customer leaves when he is ready. In some cafeterias, one must bus his own tray.  In others, one may leave the remaining food on the table and quietly leave the establishment.

Another kind of dinning scenario can be found among fast food restaurants.


The Fast Food Restaurant Schema under Social Script Theory

Event Frame

Dinning at a fast food establishment.

Social Roles

No Waiter, customer, cashier, busboy, no visible manager, several cooks visible in the background.

Episodic Functions

Enter a Fast Food restaurant.
There is no host.
There is no one to direct the customer to a table. One finds his own table after he has purchased a meal.
The menu is visible to all in big letters and with pictures on the wall behind the many cashiers. One orders by numbers.
The customer peruses the menu.
He approaches the cashier and just states the number.
There is a small dialogue about dining in or carrying out. In the first case, one receives his food on a tray; otherwise it is given to him in a paper bag.
After the customer gives his order to the cashier, he waits for his food.  
The order is filled and handed over to the customer.
He is given an empty cup so that he can pour his own drinks.
The customer leaves the cashier with his food and finds himself a table. 
There is no waiter.
The customer finishes his meal, empties his tray and leaves the restaurant.
There are no tips.
There is no final meal to pay for as that was purchased before receiving the meal. 
The customer leaves the restaurant


Customer, table, main meal, deserts, cashiers, fast-food establishment, waiting lines, order food by the number, and the bill is prepaid.


Enter a fast food establishment, approach the cashier, order a meal from the menu on the wall, pay for the food before receiving it, take the food and serve your own drinks, napkins, etc. Find a table, command it, sit down, and finish the meal. Clear the table and return the tray and deposit the garbage before leaving the establishment. 


Since social practices are goal-oriented, it should be noted that the rationale behind “dining out” was to seek food for consumption. It could easily have other motives such as celebrating an event, a business meeting, or the site of a dating scene. In the case of seeking food, one other scenario needs to be articulated, and that is the one that includes eating at home. What differs in this scenario is the pattern is a familial one. It is based on primary socialization.  When one tries to orchestrate a formal dinner at home, s/he attempts to imitate the restaurant script. In such a case, the payment for the meal as some kind of social obligation is implied.


The Eating at Traditional Home Schema under Social Script Theory

Event Frame

Dining at home at the kitchen table or dining room table

Social Roles

Food preparer,  family as customers, no cashier, wife as busboy, wife as dishwasher, wife as manager, wife as cook, wife as server, etc.

Episodic Functions

Call for dinner begins the episode. Everyone moves to the dinning site.
The wife acts as the hostess.
If there are seating arrangement problems, she manages the situation. 
There is not menu. If one is asked a question, the interaction is verbal.
The server brings in the prepared food. She sets pots and dishes of food on the table and may even personally serve each person.
The menu is set; there are no special orders.
If a customer puts in an order it may be ignored.
The server frequently  leaves and returns with more food
The server signals the end of the main meal by asking about desserts.
The customer signals the end of the meal by leaving the table.
The only gratuity is a comment about the food. Often this is not made by directly addressing the cook.
There is no direct payment for the meal.
There are no tips.
Everyone leaves the table except for the wife who is the busboy, the dishwasher, and the maintenance crew at the kitchen site.


Waitress or server, family as customers, table and chairs, table cloth, utensils, dishes, pots and pans, main meal, desserts, verbal gratuity, verbal menu, individual servings, seconds, wife as hostess, wife as cook, wife as server, wife as dish-washer, wife as chef, wife as food planner, leaving the table  and the clean up.    


Call to dinner. Enter the dining site (kitchen or dining room), sit down at selected places, the food is brought in and served, banal conversation or group watching of television, go to one’s assigned table, accept the menus, read them, make an order, wait for the meal, eat one’s meal, discuss the topic of conversation during the meal, wait for the server to provide seconds, wait for server to announce the dessert, provide a verbal gratuity (optional), and leave the table. 


Within a dining scene, certain roles and functions may go completely unnoticed. In a formal restaurant, for example, one does not see what is happening in the kitchen, for one is not allowed in that section of the restaurant.  Each person has a definite role and function, but the guests may be completely unaware of the depth of those roles.  S/He does not know what the busboy does after he leaves his station.  S/He does not know what the waiters and waitresses are doing when they are not near his table.  S/He does not know what the cashier does at the end of the day or how she tallies the accounts when she is ready to leave.  S/He does not know who really owns the restaurant and what kind of financial obligation that they may have towards it or its customers. What they know is limited by the social spaces in the restaurant that have been provided to them. They know the entrance, the cashier’s booth, the hostess station, the path towards their table, their waiter or waitress, the restroom area, the décor and the ambience in the staging area, and the orchestrated items of doing business at a restaurant (the bill, charge card, the tip, the account statement, etc.). 
This same kind of unnoticed activity occurs in eating at home. The members of the family may never know how much time was spent planning the meal.  They do not know how many trips were made to the grocery store to prepare for the meal.  They do not know how much time was spent on food preparation (cutting, dicing, roasting, frying, and freezing the food).  They do not know how much time was spent in setting up the table for dinner, preparing the seating arrangements, organizing the table, timing the food preparations, and serving the food. After all of the work has been done and the food is quickly eaten, they do not know what reaction the person who organized and orchestrated all of this feels about the event. They are oblivious to his/her emotions.  They see him/her as a function and not a person. 

Some of the different senses of the Dining Schema can be compared and contrasted below:



Formal Restaurant


Fast-Food Place

Eating at Home





Traditionally, wife serves as hostess






Dining Site





Waiter or Waitress




Traditionally, wife serves as waitress



Visual array along the tray line

Located on the wall

Visual, pots and pans on the table




Customer is the bus boy

Traditionally, wife is the bus boy. She does the clean up


Near the end of the meal

Before leaving the tray line

After ordering and before leaving the cashier

Implied obligations





Verbal gratuity (optional)

Conclusion of the scene

Leave the restaurant

Leave the Cafeteria

Leave the fast-food site

Change room locations


First, how does one go about constructing these activities?  One feasible answer is that one constructs these activities by socially participating in them.  This idea was discussed under Activity Theory, and contemplates what Leontiev attempted to account for (Kozulin, 1990: 257) in his articulation of the Vygotsky’s model of social learning.  Both Leontiev and Vygotsky wanted to account for the next step of taking this repeated event and turning it into a concept.  When a person participates in such scenarios, s/he is doing it for his/her significant other. What is needed, according to Vygotsky (1978) is for that individual to do something for himself, thereby utilizing the concept as his own.  S/He needs to generalize his/her experience and to construct its ideal form and experiment with it. Kozulin (1990: 259) argues that this is the task of the educator and psychologist. It is his/her purpose to design special scenarios of learning activity that can lead to theoretical reasoning.  This reasoning is structured. It is embedded within a goal structure, a zone of proximal distance. It is the job of the mentor to orient the student to his stipulated goal.  The mediator who guides the student constitutes a part of his own social world. 

Social behavior is scripted.  The scene has already been socially constructed and individuals learn to play different roles within the theater of life (Lyman and Scott, 1976, 1978).  Those who know how to perform in the theater of life (Goffman, 1959, 1967, and 1974) will be in character and have success in following the script that they have been handed.  They who fail at these tasks will be out of character or will be performing the wrong role at the wrong time or in the wrong place.  Social Script Theory articulates those roles as social functions and they do so within the context of a situation as witnessed by others (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978; Ratner, 1996; Kozulin, 1998).  Hence, these scripts have a social function. They are performed on front stage before others.  Consider a situation in which two different announcers are watching an international soccer game.  Each comes from a different culture and each has learned different scripts on how to evaluate the life performance.  They will perform to these scripts. They are performing for their audiences which may be thousands of miles away watching television or listening to the radio. Even though they are witnessing the same scene, they do not describe the scene in the same way.  They are on different stages before different audiences. Consequently, they are defining the contexts of the situation in very different ways.


Inherent in the theory of praxis is the concept of dramaturgy. An excellent explication of this framework can be found in the works of Erving Goffman. In his earliest book (Goffman, 1959) on The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, he argued that people cast themselves into roles that they play with others.  His theory is based on the metaphor of the stage.  People, he noted, are playwrights because they create their own social scripts in life.  They are actors, because they act out these scripts.  They are part of the audience because they watch themselves perform; and, they are critics because they are always judging their own behaviors (cf., the looking glass self). The self, Goffman notes, is expressed through forms.  Hence, he is intent on studying these forms of social behavior in order to ascertain their social meanings.  Goffman wants to know how people manage their impressions before others (impression management).  People are not free to merely act the way that they want.  Society is hard on individuals because it only allows a person to play certain roles and not others.  Hence, people must foster personal impressions that will be seen as normal by others.  They must know how to present a social self (the presentation of self).  They must learn how to present different personas (social masks) in the proper contexts.  Hence, the attainment of self is a social process.  It is also part of an ongoing social drama. People must be performers.  They must present a front (being on front stage as opposed to back stage) before others. They must do these things within a prescribed (stage) setting.  They must give credible appearances.  They must also perform in accordance to the expectations of others. They must know when to take roles and when to release them.  If they fail to do these things, they may fail because they appear to be “out of character.”  They may also fail because they are performing to the wrong scripts.  They may even fail because they do not know their roles (role failure). 


The Dramaturgical Metaphor in Sociology


One performs before others on the social stage of life. 


The person on stage has written his/her own script.  He/She has created his/her own role. 


One performs the role that he/she has written for him/herself. He/She acts out the part on stage, the front stage.  He/She may be a very different person off stage (back stage).  He/She presents himself to others (the presentation of self).  The stage is his/her environment (the setting). The significant others in his/her life are on stage with him during the performance.

Role failure may occur due to several factors. The performance is at the wrong place at the wrong time; the actor is playing the wrong role; and he/she may have the wrong script.


The performer must also have a sense of the audience. He/She must be sensitive to the performances on stage and how they are being received by others.


There are two kinds of critics.  One of them is assigned the task by a newspaper of other form of public media. These individuals may or may not know how to judge a play. The other kind of critic is one who is internal to the production of the play. This is the playwright himself who knows what he is judging and why he is judging it. The person on stage is also the theatrical critic of his own social drama.

The setting

There are people who professionally dress up the stage for the ongoing performances at the theater.  Each individual does this in his/her own life. He/She sets his/her own scene by the way that he/she dresses, the way that he/she walks, and the way that he/she presents himself to others in proxemic expression.

The dramaturgical framework can be found in the various models of praxis. In Goffman’s model (1959), there is clear an agent who performs before others in the stage of life.  In the performance theory of Turner (1968), the stage is communal.  One performs with others on stage.  In Vygotsky’s model (1963), as evidenced in the Zone of Proximal Development, there is a mentor who guides the young actor through the social drama that exists before him.  In the St. Clair model of social scripts (2004), the stage is also communal.  Not only do the participants in that social drama know their scripts, but so do the others who work in the establishment that he is visiting. In addition, they have their own social scripts that are known as roles.  Some of these roles are open and others remain tacit or even invisible.  The influence of these roles may be direct as in the case of face-to-face communication, or indirect such as when the manager of a grocery store orders his workers to physically arrange the products in the store so that they will entice the shoppers to buy more products.

Social scripts are everywhere.  They play an important role in the social construction of reality (Berger and Luckmann, 1966).  For example, just as words enable people to create metaphors (Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980), social scripts can also be used as the source for different social scripts (St. Clair, 2004). Within ethnomethodology (Mehan and Wood, 1975), it is through the use of these social scripts that people are able to function in the activities of everyday life.  They are grounded in their rituals of social and cultural behavior.  They are able to negotiate their surroundings within the social mindscapes of life (Zerubavel, 1999).  In essence, more research needs to be done on social scripts and how they are manifested within the sociology of everyday life.


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