Toward an Ethnohistorical Approach to Multimodality

The dataset used for this study consists of 3,000 Edwardian book inscriptions that were collected over a period of nine months from two secondhand bookshops: an Oxfam online shop located in Cotham Hill, Bristol; and Bookbarn International (BBI), the largest second-hand bookseller in Britain, situated in I la Hat row, Somerset. A small number of inscriptions were also collected from the Janet Powney Collection (JPC) at Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives (see Appendix 1 for more details). The heavy focus on second-hand bookshops was driven by the fact that formal institutions tend to provide a biased view on book ownership and inscriptive practices because acquisitions and cataloging have historically been weighted in favor of upper-class, wealthy figures (Gillen and Hall, 2010, p. 170). Consequently, researchers must look outside of institutional archives to obtain a broader range of book inscriptions and develop a better understanding of class-based book ownership practices (O’Hagan, 2020a).

As, by their very nature, book inscriptions cross linguistic, historical, literary, and sociological boundaries, this study deploys a multimodal ethnohistorical methodology. This methodology builds upon the growing trend in literacy studies to coapply social semiotics and ethnography when exploring multimodal texts and artifacts (cf. Pahl and Rowsell, 2006, 2010; Rowsell, 2011; Martin, 2018), yet employs a historical lens, combining social semiotic analysis with archival evidence rather than first-hand observations and interviews. While similar approaches have been used by Gillen (2013) in her work on Edwardian postcards (under the name “historical approach to ethnography”), this study is its first large-scale application. Its unique methodology distinguishes this study from any previous research on book inscriptions and social class more generally in Edwardian Britain, bringing about new understandings of class-based ownership and literacy practices. Furthermore, its focus on a dataset of 3,000 Edwardian book inscriptions also brings a new perspective to multimodal studies, which still continue to focus predominantly on digital media and rely on small datasets that offer limited empirical evidence (Bezemer and Jewitt, 2010, p. 194). Figure 0.2 indicates the six stages that form part of a multimodal ethnohistorical approach, using the current study as an example.

The theory of social semiotics views sign-making as a social process and considers the full repertoire of meaning-making resources that are available to a person in a specific context, as well as the motivations that influence a person’s selection from these choices, how these choices are organized to create meaning, and the social effects that they may have. The theory was popularized by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen (1996), who proposed a “grammar of visual design” to analyze multimodal texts in their seminal book Reading Images. Since then, what has become

Stages of a Multimodal Ethnohistorical Approach. Source

Figure 0.2 Stages of a Multimodal Ethnohistorical Approach. Source: Developed by O'Hagan (2020a).

known as “visual social semiotics” has been further developed in relation to a particular semiotic mode, including music (van Leeuwen, 1999), color (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2002), typography (van Leeuwen, 2006), and texture (Djonov and van Leeuwen, 2011).

Ethnohistory, on the other hand, uses archival material and historical records to explore communities and practices that have long since disappeared and has its roots in anthropology, particularly the work of Fritz Rock on the claims of Native American tribes over land. In recent years, it has been employed as part of “New” History from Below to explore sources from ordinary' people, not merely about them (cf. Hitchcock, 2004; Lyons, 2013). It has also been used widely in francophone research on historical literacy practices, also known as the anthropology of writing (cf. Barton and Papen, 2010). My recent edited volume Rebellious Writing (2020b) was the first attempt to bring together social history and socio- linguistic research on Edwardian vernacular writing, but the current study goes further by codeploying ethnohistory and social semiotics rather than presenting the two methodologies separately from one another.

When investigating the social practices of reading and writing, ethnohistory and social semiotics should be seen as complementary frameworks because both share a view of texts as material and situated, and both use established research tools to trace social practices and contexts. Furthermore, both assert that texts can only be understood as part of a wider dialogue with the social world and, therefore, it is only through their detailed and contextual examination that we can understand how societies operate and are organized, how institutions communicate with the public, how individuals and social groups organize their lives and make sense of their experiences, and how culture and knowledge is produced and reproduced (Barton and Papen, 2010, p. 3). To this end, this study demonstrates how ethnohistory and social semiotics can be brought together to mutual advantage to learn about the setting that surrounds the creation of book inscriptions and unravel the link between their composition, their owners’ literacy practices, and their broader sociocultural meanings.

According to Dicks et al. (2011, p. 231), although social semiotics invokes and relies on the social, it does not in itself “provide a base of social evidence.” This can be addressed by ethnohistory, which embeds semiotic and material choices in archival documents about individuals (e.g. census returns, military records, vital certificates), thus enabling multimodal texts to be deconstructed in meaningful and predictive ways within the context of wider social and political forces rather than based on “interpretative, impressionistic, and subjective” assumptions (Hiippala, 2015, p. 3) or “post hoc rationalizations of design decisions” (Bateman, Delhi, and Henschel, 2004, p. 67). Furthermore, its use of primary evidence allows more flexibility in interpretation, as it acknowledges that texts do not have fixed meanings and are often influenced by the broader patterned practices, systems, institutions, and forces of the social world at work during their time of creation (cf. Ledin and Machin, 2018a). Ethnohistory also has the advantage of being able to move both forward and backward in time. This means that not only can cultural patterns be traced in their original historical context of use, but they can also be used to track how genre conventions and meanings change over time and thus inform current and future interpretations (O’Hagan, 2018b). Ethnohistory also incorporates a broad range of theory from sociolog)’, philosophy, and cultural studies that can provide multimodality with new ways in which to address problems. For the current study, the work of Bourdieu, Gramsci, Althusser, and de Certeau is particularly valuable in investigating contestations of power and performances of status. Many of these theorists also have a place in book history studies, which is a rapidly growing subject that analyses books as cultural artifacts and the various sociocultural factors that govern their production, dissemination, and reception (Finkelstein and Me Cl eery,

2006, p. 1).

Social semiotics, on the other hand, can offer ethnohistory a robust set of theorized analytical tools with established terminology to describe texts less anecdotally and reveal how the intricacies of sociocultural norms, relationships, and identities play out through semiotic and material resources (Rowsell and Chen, 2011, p. 466). Consequently, it can move historical research beyond text-centered analyses, which tend to reduce writing to a system or text rather than a social practice, and put materiality on a level footing with language and context (Heath and Street, 2008, p. 118; Lillis, 2013, p. 16). This is particularly important when exploring social class, since writing tools, surface material, images, typography, and color can reveal just as much about status and identity as terms of address, spelling mistakes, dialectical features, and grammatical errors.

Overall, a multimodal ethnohistorical approach can facilitate the accurate reconstruction of cultural practices by blending synchronic analysis with diachronic evidence. In doing so, it offers more human and individualized interpretations that are not clouded by biased judgments or suppositions (Faudree and Pharao Hansen, 2013, p. 240) and, therefore, “makes visible the lives of people whose lives are not normally told” (Erikson, quoted in Gregory and Williams, 2000, p. 16). When applied to the current context of study, a multimodal ethnohistorical approach leads to grounded, theorized, and detailed insights into book inscriptions as “active life presences” (Rowsell, 2011, p. 334) that signal elements of a person’s lived experiences that might otherwise be hidden by thinking of ethnography only in terms of participant observation (Feldman, 2011). This approach can be beneficial for semioticians, ethnographers, historians, sociologists, and literacy scholars.

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