Describing the elements interacting in communication

In the preface to their 1972 collection, Gumperz and Hymes took the view that the 'ready currency of the term sociolinguistics ... does not reflect fundamental agreement on common problems, sources of data, or methods of analysis ... [R]ecent publications ... have, so far, not been integrated into any general theory of language and society' (pp. vi-vii). Since 1972, however, the study of language, culture and society has undergone a huge process of disciplinary consolidation and refinement, especially in linguistic anthropology in North America (cf. Duranti 2003), and these developments have provided invaluable theoretical resources for contemporary linguistic ethnography, certainly in the UK and Europe. Following in Gumperz and Hymes' path, scholars such as Ochs, Silverstein, Bauman, the Goodwins, Hanks, Briggs, Blommaert and Agha have produced a remarkably coherent vocabulary that is not only congruent with ethnography but is also capable of producing detailed descriptions of the processes that are of central concern to theories of social practice, with practice understood as the 'production and reproduction of society ... as a skilled [but by no means wholly conscious] performance on the part of its members' (Giddens 1976: 160; Bourdieu 1977; Ortner 2006).

Blommaert provides an encapsulation of the perspective, tracing it back once again to Gumperz and Hymes. In sociolinguistics, he says, there is 'a very long tradition in which language, along with other social and cultural features of people, was primarily imagined relatively fixed in time and space ... Gumperz and Hymes (1972: 15), however ... destabilized these assumptions ... they defined social and linguistic features not as separate-but-connected, but as dialectic, i.e. co-constructive and, hence, dynamic' (Blommaert 2012: 11-12). This emphasis on the dynamic co-construction of social order and linguistic meaning can be found in Gumperz's call for 'closer understanding of how linguistic signs interact with social knowledge in discourse' (Gumperz 1982: 29 [emphasis added]), and it also matches Silverstein's succinct formulation of the 'total linguistic fact': '[t]he total linguistic fact, the datum for a science of language is irreducibly dialectic in nature. It is an unstable mutual interaction of meaningful sign forms, contextualised to situations of interested human use and mediated by the fact of cultural ideology' (1985: 220; see also Hanks 1996: 230). This contrasts sharply with structuralist linguistics, in which the formal properties of language are treated independently of their use (as in Saussure's 'langue' and Chomsky's 'competence'). But there is no surrender in analytic precision, and a flourishing linguistic anthropological literature has done much to achieve another of the goals outlined in 1972: 'to explain the meaning of language in human life ... and not in the abstract, not in the superficial phrases one may encounter in essays and textbooks, but in the concrete, in actual human lives' (Hymes 1972: 41).

So what are the central concepts and perspectives in the 'general theory of language and society' that has now emerged? Fuller exposition of a much wider range of ideas can be found in textbooks such as Duranti (1997), Blommaert (2005), Agha (2007) or Ahearn (2012), but to give an indication of the scope and tenor of this apparatus, it is worth outlining three sets of concepts, which in turn illustrate or engage with:

  • • dynamic contingency, reckoning with human agency and interpretation - the concepts of inferencing, indexicality and reflexivity;
  • • convention, structure and the building blocks of institutions, pointing to patterns and expectations of regularity ingrained in our practical consciousness and everyday activity - the notions of genre and register; and
  • • histories, outcomes and material processes beyond, before and after specific communicative encounters, expanding the spatio-temporal horizons of empirical description - multimodality, textual trajectories and contextual processes of different scales.

'Inferencing' refers to the interpretive work that people perform in trying to reconcile the stuff that they encounter in any given situation with their prior understanding. It refers to the normally effortless sensemaking that occurs when people work out the significance of a word, an utterance, an action or an object by matching it against their past experience, against their expectations of what's coming up, their perceptions of the material setting and so forth. The term 'indexicality' is complementary, though it shifts the focus from sense-making to the utterances, things and actions that are treated as signs, and it refers to the fact that these signs are always taken as pointing beyond themselves, to something else in the past, the future or the surrounding environment. So for example, when a word, phrase or sentence is used in communication, it is always taken as a lot more than just its dictionary definition or literal meaning, important though these are. In addition, it will be assessed for, for example, its fit to the visible location, its stylistic elegance, its consistency with the speaker's usual ways of talking etc.

This process of assessment, calibrating the words you hear with your sense of the (dynamically evolving) situation, is referred to as 'meta-pragmatic' reflexivity, and it is a feature of speaking as well as listening. When someone formulates an utterance, it is more than just the semantic proposition that they construct. They also produce a whole host of small vocal signs that evoke, for example, a certain level of formality (selecting 'request' rather than 'ask'), or that point to the presence of bystanders (talking quietly), and this non-stop process of contextualisation may either reassure their listener that they're operating with a broadly shared understanding of the situation, or it can nudge the recipient's inferences in another direction. A lot of this processing is relatively tacit, with participants constantly engaged in low-key monitoring of how all the details of verbal communication fit with their grasp of the propositions being expressed, with their sense of the speaker's intent, with their understanding of the activity they are in and how it should proceed etc. But it only takes a slight deviation from the habitual, a small move beyond expected patterns of variation in the way that somebody speaks or acts, to send recipients into inferential over-drive, wondering what's going on when a sound, a word, a grammatical pattern, a discourse move or bodily gesture doesn't quite match: should I ignore or respond to this? Is it a joke or serious? What ties these apparently unconnected ideas together? Does the speaker still have their institutional hat on or are they now suddenly claiming solidarity with a particular group? (cf. E.M. Forster: 'A pause in the wrong place, an intonation misunderstood, and a whole conversation went awry' [1924] 1973: 267).

There are two general points to draw out from this account. The first concerns the relationship between language and context. As we have seen, word denotation, the formal structures of grammar and the propositional meaning of sentences still count, but they lose their traditional supremacy in linguistic study, and instead become just one among a large array of semiotic resources available for the local production and interpretation of meaning (cf. Hanks 1996; Verschueren 1999). At the same time, the conceptualisation of 'context' also changes. Rather than being 'separate-but-connected' as the relatively static, external and determining reference point traditionally added to language analysis as something of an afterthought - what Drew and Heritage call the 'bucket' theory of context (1992: 19) - context is conceived as dynamic, interactively accomplished, and intrinsic to communication. Language is pervasively indexical, continuously pointing to persons, practices, settings, objects and ideas that never get explicitly expressed. As people try to make sense to each other, contexts are constantly invoked, ratified and shifted by semiotic signs.

Second, context here is an understanding of the social world activated in the midst of things, an understanding of the social world that is also interactionally ratified or undermined from one moment to the next as the participants in an encounter respond to one another. In fact, when people engage with one another, there is considerable scope for social difference in the norms and expectations that individuals orient to, as well as in the kinds of thing they notice as discrepant, and there can also be a great range in the indexical interpretations that they bring to bear ('good' or 'bad', 'right' or 'wrong', 'art' or 'error', 'call it out' or 'let it pass', 'typical of this or that'). But the normative expectations and explanatory accounts activated like this in the interactional present seldom come from nowhere. Instead, they instantiate discourses that the participants have picked up through prior involvement in sociocommunicative networks that can range in scale from intimate relationships and friendship groups to national education systems and global media. In this way, the notions of inferencing, indexicality and reflexive evaluation offer us a way of seeing how more widely circulating ideologies infuse the quick of activity in the here-and-now, even though this is integrated with an acute sensitivity of the participants' skilled agency.

With inference, indexicality and reflexivity, analytic attention leans towards agency in the ceaseless interplay of agency and structure, even though normative expectations and their social currency and origins follow very closely in the account. With genre, the balance tilts towards stability, structure and convention, though here too, there is an inextricable role for both agentive action and unpredictable contingency.

In the tradition associated with Bakhtin ([1953] 1986; Hanks 1987; Bauman 2001), a genre is a distinct set of conventionalised expectations about a recognisable type of activity that is also often named - for instance, an argument, a sales transaction, a committee meeting, a game of poker, reading the newspaper. These expectations include a sense of the goals and possible tasks on hand, the roles and relationships typically involved, the ways the activity is organised, and the kinds of resource suited to carrying it out. Genres help us construe what is happening in interaction and to work out the direction of activity from one moment to the next, and they channel the kind of inferences we make (e.g. laughing or being alarmed by some drastic report, depending on whether or not it's told in a joke): 'Genres guide us through the social world of communication: they allow us to distinguish between very different communicative events, create expectations for each of them, and adjust our communicative behaviour accordingly' (Blommaert nd; Gumperz 1972: 16-18).

In their potential for stability, genres are one of the building blocks of institutions - think of lessons, detentions, and assemblies in a school, or consultations and ward rounds in a hospital. While genres provide the larger bearings that orient our moment-to-moment micro-scale actions on the one hand, they also constitute some of the smallest units in the structural organisation of large-scale institutions on the other. Indeed Bakhtin saw genres as 'the drive belts from the history of society to the history of language' (1986:65). But the stability of genres is only ever temporary: '[a] genre ... [cannot] be viewed as a finished product unto itself, but remain[s] partial and transitional ... Because they are at least partly created in their enactment, ... genres are schematic and incomplete resources on which speakers necessarily improvise in practice' (Hanks 1987: 681,687). Genres have to be 'accomplished' or 'brought off' in interaction, and participants have to keep checking that they're all tuning to the same stage in the activity, giving and noting indexical signs that, for example, an event should now be moving to a close. There is plenty of scope for failures in generic coordination, and for the participants to be judged as socially insensitive, awkward or incompetent (or maybe just as the unlucky victims of disruptive intrusions from outside). Knowledge and expertise in different genres is of course very unevenly spread among individuals and across social groups, and properly genred performance is a central concern in socialisation throughout the lifespan, whether this involves learning to 'behave nicely at the dinner table' or to 'write a history essay'. As encapsulated visions of the social world tuned to practical action in recurrent situations, projecting particular kinds of conduct and relationship, promising the participants with particular types of personhood, genres are crucial to social reproduction, and they can become the focus of intense struggle as people and institutions try to fix or change their own and others' practice or potential (as can be seen, for example, in repeated UK government attempts to reformat classroom pedagogy and interaction [Rampton & Harris 2010]). But because there is no 'timeless closure' or 'unlimited replication' intrinsic to any genre (Bauman 2001: 81), a great deal of ideological work (for instance, training, publicity, penalties, consultant advice) is often needed if the preferred genres are to remain steadily in place.

With 'register' (or 'style'), we move from the conventionalisation of situations and the arrangements for communicative interaction in genre to relatively stable patterning among the signs in speech and discourse (Gumperz & Hymes 1972: 21; Agha 2007; Auer 2007; Eckert 2008). Among other things, register covers accent and dialect, which are very commonly seen as reflections of social structure, marking differences in ethnicity, class, region, generation and/or gender. Conceptually, register is quite close to the well-established sociolinguistic notion of 'variety', but whereas sociolinguistics has traditionally treated the relationship between varieties and social structure as a 'separate-but-connected' correlation, the linguistic anthropological notion of register or style is once again aligned with the interaction of form, ideology and situated action identified in Silverstein's total linguistic fact.

Registers are distinctive sets of linguistic and other semiotic signs that get indexically associated with different types of person, group, activity or situation (they can also contribute to the differentiation of genres). The typification process that is crucial to the recognition of a register involves inferring e.g. that someone's from the north of England because of the way they pronounce 'bath' and 'one', that they've had an expensive private education when they say 'yaaa' rather than 'yeh' or 'yes', or that they've got a medical background because of the words they use to talk about bodies. Of course this linkage depends on our perceptions of stratified and segmented social space, which are themselves an aspect of ideology (Bourdieu 1991; Irvine 2001: 23-4). So whenever we make a spontaneous link between a speech sound and a social type, ideology is once again integral to locally situated sense-making, often with subsequent interactional effects (maybe increasing the participants' rapport, or alternatively undermining their self-confidence). The 'language ideological' practices that forge or reproduce these links between ways of speaking and social types can vary a great deal in their scale, explicitness and intensity, ranging from curriculum instruction and mass-mediated impersonations to fleeting self-corrections in conversations face-to-face. And register is often a resource for agentive action, as when, for example, pupils in a working-class urban school respond to being patronised by their teacher with a very exaggerated upper-class accent, even though they hardly ever refer to social class explicitly (Rampton 2006: Part III). More generally, though, register draws our attention to the fact that in the stream of linguistic expression that people produce together, they are continuously vulnerable to a reflexive process of low-key socio-ideological observation and coding, in ways that are far more enacted than declared (cf. G. B. Shaw's '[i]t is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him' [1916: Preface]).

When other social scientists read sociolinguistic accounts of interactional practice, they are sometimes struck by the agility and speed with which participants adjust or shift their stance, position or self-projection, and this sometimes leads to talk of identities being 'multiple, fluid and ambiguous'. There is at least some justification for this if these accounts of interactional positioning are compared with static demographic identity ascriptions of the kind often used in studies which treat language and society as separate-but-connected, and plainly, the production, interpretation and reflexive monitoring are all agentive processes. But communication entails close and continual attunement among the participants, calibrating what's produced with the range of patterns one has hitherto come to expect, and there is often considerable socio-ideological investment in these expectations. This was clear in the discussion of genre and register, referring to the patterns of expectation for, respectively, the arrangements of activity and the stream of signs, and the proprieties regimenting communicative conduct reach much further. Yes, the normative expectations orienting our interaction certainly do shift as we move from one scene to another in our daily routine, and the opportunities for individual innovation can certainly be greater in some than in others. But there are pressures and constraints all the same, reaching right down into the way we formulate the smallest pieces of language. Rather than exemplifying the inherent fluidity of identity production, creativity is more aptly seen as the fleeting exploitation of what Erickson (2001) calls 'wiggle-room' - just a little bit of space for innovation within what's otherwise experienced as the compelling weight of social expectation (see also Rampton 2009).

It should be clear by now that although the perspective we are outlining offers an exceptionally sharp view of activity 'on-line' in the present, it also implies longer temporalities. Nevertheless, Gumperz and Hymes' early research programme centred on the 'speech event', and expansion in the spatio-temporal horizons of theory and analysis has been one of the most important developments since Gumperz and Hymes (1972).

Following scholars like Goffman and the Goodwins, there has been systematic attention to non-linguistic sign systems and to the fact that communication is always 'multimodal' with bodies, places and visual perception playing a major part. As C. Goodwin explains, 'the [human] body [is] an unfolding locus for the display of meaning and action' (2000: 1517), and eye gaze, hand gestures, head movement and the posture, movement and positioning of bodies all contribute to this. Obviously, these are themselves affected by material objects and the natural and built environment - compare the scope for expression in a cinema and a dinner table or a park bench - and although the material substance and surround is often treated as irrelevant (as when e.g. the readers of this chapter take the font and paper quality for granted), there are innumerable occasions when our level of attention to it increases (referring to objects, changing location, getting dressed, cleaning, clearing away). In addition, even though we are often only dimly aware of them (if that!), much of our material environment bears the traces of past designs, efforts and resource expenditures (Blommaert 2013).

When the relative durability of physical matter is combined with our capacity to inscribe it with meaning, individual events are positioned within much longer spans of time. The production and interpretation of meaning in the here-and-now becomes just one stage in the mobility of signs and texts, and participants are seen as themselves actively orienting backwards and forwards to the 'trajectories' through which their semiotic products travel (Briggs 2005). Whereas event-centred sociolinguistics had earlier focused on the local use-value of a particular communicative sign or practice, studying its effect within a given encounter, the 'exchange value' of a sign, text or semiotic object now enters the reckoning, and 'entextualisation' and 'recontextualisation' become key terms, addressing (a) the (potentially multiple) people and processes involved in the design or selection of textual 'projectiles' which have some hope of travelling into subsequent settings, and (b) the alteration and revaluation of semiotic objects as they are subsequently taken up in different settings (Bauman and Briggs 1990; Silverstein and Urban 1996; Agha and Wortham 2005).

Interest in the projection and circulation of texts and signs across different events and settings invites comparative analysis of the scale of the networks, media, materials and processes in which these signs travel - their spatial scope, temporal durability and social reach (Scollon & Scollon 2004; Pennycook 2007, 2010; Blommaert 2008, 2010a). Earlier, we discussed the shift away from context-as-'bucket' to context- as-process, but this itself now needs to be conceptualised as layered and 'multi-scalar' (Hymes 1972: 53; Cicourel 1992; Blommaert 2010a). The contexts in which people communicate are partly local and emergent, continuously readjusted to the contingencies of action unfolding from one moment to the next, but they are also infused with information, resources, expectations and experiences that originate in, circulate through, and/or are destined for networks, media and processes that can be very different in their reach and duration. This is vividly illustrated in Tusting's account of a few minutes in the work of a nursery nurse in an nursery, attending to small children while also trying to fill in a form she has been given for recording her observations of individuals:

The process of writing the observation integrates the immediate activities in the room into broader social systems, and to systems at longer timescales. These broader and longer-term systems include (among others) the interpersonal relationships in the room; the Early Years Centre and its planning procedures; Thea's lifespan, career and training; and government policy and inspection. Each of these is associated with different goals and plays out at different timescales. This is an example of a situated activity which locally produces and reproduces broader social orders.

(Tusting 2010: 85)

Gumperz emphasised the importance of embedding interactional encounters within broader spatio-temporal processes when he called for a 'dynamic view of social environments where history, economic forces and interactive processes ... combine to create or to eliminate social distinctions' (1982: 29). Notions like multimodality, textual trajectory and multi-scalar context increase our capacity to provide this. Admittedly, the job of describing the processes at play in any layered notion of context is challenging, requiring engagement with, if not expertise in, not just linguistics but potentially also history, economics, sociology, cultural studies, international relations and so forth. But it is worth reflecting on the account of ideology that this apparatus can bring to interdisciplinary research. In a great deal of policy and interview discourse analysis, ideology gets treated only as sets of explicitly articulated statements, but compare this with our portrait of tacit power emerging from ideology's links to inference and indexicality, or of ideological investment and struggle over genres and registers, both of them potentially inscribed in practical consciousness. Equally, if we take up the notion of textual trajectories and study what actually gets entextualised and what subsequently succeeds in carrying forward - or even translates into higher scale processes - then we can bring considerable empirical precision to political notions of 'hearability' and 'voice' (Hymes 1996; Mehan 1996; Briggs 1997; Blommaert 2005). In short, the apparatus developed in linguistic anthropology allows us to trace the palpable mundane reality of wide-spread societal ideologies through close scrutiny of discursive and contextual processes, and there is a good case for saying that this layered, multi-scalar and empirically grounded understanding of ideology is one of the most sophisticated in current social science (Blommaert & Rampton 2011: 13).

So that is a glimpse of the instrumentarium of contemporary linguistic anthropology, and it immediately gives rise to a question about our own disciplinary positioning: if linguistic anthropology is such a rich resource for the theory and description of communication in contemporary conditions, how come this book and chapter refer to linguistic ethnography, not anthropology, in their titles? There are two reasons. First, because for the most part, we are not anthropologists ourselves (and there hasn't been a great deal of interest in the details of communication in British or European anthropology [cf. Rampton 2007: 586]). Second, like Hymes, Gumperz and many others, we are convinced that the concepts and methods we are describing have potential relevance that reaches much further than anthropology - relevance both for other disciplines such as sociology, psychology or management studies, and for engagement with professionals such as teachers, doctors and social workers.

We will address this relevance in the next two sections. The section titled 'Linguistic ethnography in interdisciplinary training' discusses linguistic ethnography's interdisciplinary relevance, using the example of an interdisciplinary training programme to show that this is much more than only a token claim. And then the section titled 'Linguistic ethnography and non-academic professions' reflects on the encounter between linguistic ethnography and non-academic professionals, considering processes of re-socialisation and collaborative research in educational and medical settings.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >