Book proposals: two examples

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I quite regularly get questions about how to write a book proposal from colleagues. Given the importance of books as an often-required credential for tenure and/or promotion, such questions are to be taken seriously.

Writing a book proposal is a bit of work, comparable to writing a research paper. But two advantages are yours:

  1. You know what you’re writing about, as the research for the book is usually completed by the time you write the proposal. In fact, I usually only write a proposal when I have an almost-complete book manuscript that just needs some tweaking and polishing in view of publishing as a book.
  2. Most publishers offer a template that helps us write them in a fairly structured manner. Most of these templates are very much alike – publishers are generally interested in the same things.

Concretely, a book proposal usually needs to offer:

  • A rationale for the book: why is this book worth publishing now?
  • An outline of the book, preferably by means of an annotated table of contents or a chapter-by-chapter overview.
  • An analysis of competition: which other books cover more or less the same field?
  • A view of the potential readership: general public? Students (undergraduate or graduate)? Advanced scholars?
  • Practicals: length of the manuscript, illustrations, timeline, possible permissions to be cleared, contact address and so forth.

Remember, as a rule of thumb, that a proposal should not just be a factual description of what you intend to offer the publisher: you have to offer an argument in the proposal, and it needs to be written as an argument for (a) the intellectual case you intend to build; (b) its quality, originality etc. and (c) its value for the publisher, in terms of markets, competition and so forth. What you really need is what is usually referred to as a pitch: a precise idea of who might read your book and in which ways they will read it. You write your proposal (or “pitch” it) towards this audience.

A book proposal is usually peer-reviewed, so you’ll get feedback and suggestions for revisions if applicable. When it’s approved and your manuscript is submitted and approved as well, the marketing people of the publishing house will send you a dreadful questionnaire in view of for their publicity strategy. You’ll be asked to list possible journals interested in reviewing the book, scholars in the field who can write cover blurbs (“endorsements” in polite language), courses or programs you know of in which your book can be used as a coursebook, conferences you’ll attend and so on.

So here are two book proposals, one I submitted some years ago to Cambridge University Press, the second submitted to Multilingual Matters. Some of you may recognize the books and may also be able to spot the differences between the proposals and the final product.

Example 1.

C1

C2

C3

C4

C5

C6

C7

C8

C9

C 10

Example 2.

 

page 1

page 2

page 3

page 4

page 5page 6

page 7

 

 

 

Chronicles of Complexity: preface to the Czech edition

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This small book took me about a decade to pull together. Most of that time was spent trying to make sense of rapid change, and finding ways to imagine such rapid change theoretically and methodologically. Theoretical and methodological issues are, at the end of the day, always grounded in empirical problems, and my problem was quite simple: I had seen my own neighborhood continually transforming and had documented such transformations in a large corpus of photos. Every single one of these photos “froze time”, so to speak, in a synchronic representation of signs generating meanings: a status quo forcing descriptive and interpretive work into a synchronic frame which, if left undisturbed, would yield statements such as “my neighborhood is so-and-so”.

This usage of the “ethnographic present” – an atemporal statement, in effect – could never do justice to what I had observed. Social change is not a juxtaposed sequence of synchronies, a diachrony in other words, but a historical dynamic process in which nothing remains static and everything is continuously in motion, pushed on by social factors anchored in concrete timespace. This point was central to The Sociolinguistics of Globalization (2010) and prior to that, in Grassroots Literacy (2008), and the analysis of my own neighborhood was in many ways a sequel to them, an attempt to take the mobility paradigm defined in the earlier books to a concrete set of empirical-descriptive and interpretive problems.

I had some advantages. One advantage was that I could ride on the wave of a new trend in sociolinguistics, Linguistic Landscape Studies, an approach that offered a substantial potential for capturing the intrinsic superdiversity I witnessed in my neighborhood. At the same time, early Linguistic Landscape Studies were theoretically poorly developed, in terms of semiotic theory as well as in terms of sociological and historical theory. Historical processes were commonly reduced to diachronic differences; a Fishmanian sociology of language prevailed, in which languages were connected to speakers and groups in supposedly linear ways; and finally, serious social-semiotic and semiotic-anthropological analysis was rarely applied to public signs. So while the presence of Linguistic Landscape Studies as a resource to draw upon was a clear advantage, the field of Linguistic Landscape Studies required substantial re-engineering in order to satisfy my demands.

A second advantage was that I had a clear direction ready for the re-engineering work: what was needed was an ethnographic perspective in which signs were seen as traces of historically situated social action, in which the latter brought indexical order and its recognizability effects to signs. And this ethnographic perspective could easily be blended with a complexity-theoretical approach, in which the spatial aggregation of historically and indexically different signs, deriving from different conditions of production and addressing different audiences while being arranged in a simultaneous field of perception, could point to nonlinear, unstable and unfinished structures and stochastic effects. Thus ELLA, Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis was conceived, and this book represents the first stage in its development (see also Blommaert & Maly 2016).

What I missed in this first stage, was the online dimension of linguistic landscapes: the fact that, increasingly, offline signs in public space contain links, web addresses, QR-codes and other items connecting offline and online sites. Following such online gateways in offline signs brings another perspective on things such as participants, audiences and forms of social action. To give an example: one of the recent evangelical churches in my neighborhood is run by a Nigerian pastor, and is housed in one of the least appealing premises in the area. The services attract just a couple of dozen faithful during the weekends, so the whole enterprise looks rather underwhelming. But when we follow the links on the posters displayed on the church window, we discover a very different reality. The pastor appears to run a YouTube channel with almost 200,000 subscribers, and it features videos viewed up to 100,000 times. He also broadcasts services held in a wide variety of places in Africa, Europe, Asia and North America (Blommaert & Maly 2019a). Thus, we begin to see another aspect of social reality in the neighborhood: the fact that what goes on there is profoundly connected, as a node in a globalized network, with actions, participants and audiences elsewhere. And what looks small and shabby locally can, actually, be just an instance of a big and impressive translocal phenomenon (Blommaert & Maly 2019b).

I overlooked this online dimension of linguistic landscapes and urge readers of this book to include it into their research. I can invoke two excuses or attenuating circumstances explaining this obvious lack in the book. One is the fact that the data I worked on when composing the book did contain very few online pointers. They were not absent, but the full and regular integration of such online features is a more recent phenomenon. The other one is the fact that I wrote this book very much in a dialogue with early Linguistic Landscape Studies, and I adopted the outspoken offline bias of that line of inquiry. Even so, looking back at the book I cannot but be dissatisfied about the absence of a feature which I now consider essential in understanding the patterns of globalization and superdiversity we can “read” off the publicly displayed signs in my neighborhood and elsewhere.

I need to mention another issue, an inevitable one this time, and one I had anticipated and announced when I offered the book to its readers in 2013. Given the fact that I described and analyzed a neighborhood subject to permanent and rapid change, most of the facilities and inscriptions shown in my illustrations are no longer present in the neighborhood. As I explained in the final chapter of the book, the infrastructures of superdiversity are highly flexible, dynamic and volatile, and small changes in the population of the neighborhood have immediate effects on the linguistic landscape. Yet there is no point trying to update the images in the book, for by the time the book is printed, several of these new illustrations will be obsolete as well. In addition, the essence of the book is the opposite of the kind of “snapshot” offered in its illustrations: it is the ethnographic analysis of patterns of change – a sociological and social-semiotic narrative couched in a theoretical and methodological one, the major points of which remain, I believe, relevant. The book is best read as an invitation for new research performed by others and elsewhere. If it continues to inspire scholars and prompt such new research, I can be a happy author.

I am also happy to gratefully acknowledge the input, enthusiasm and efforts of colleagues involved in this Czech edition. I am deeply aware that, in my writings, I offer discursive and conceptual idiosyncrasies that make it hard for me, at times, to explain my own English prose in my native language Dutch. Therefore, I’m not one who views translation of my work as a relatively straightforward conversion of expressions in language A into expressions in language B – it is work that demands substantial intellectual effort, careful calibration and loads of tough decisions. I am deeply grateful to Marian Sloboda and his team at Charles University, and to Ondrej Prochazka, for the great care they gave to this project, which I prefer to call an “edition” rather than a translation.

Jan Blommaert

Berchem, February 2020

References

Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2016) Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis and social change: A case study. In Karel Arnaut, Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti (eds.) Language and Superdiversity: 191-211. New York: Routledge.

Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2019a) Invisible lines in the online-offline linguistic landscape. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 223.

Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2019b) Digital ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis (ELLA 2.0). Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 233.

Gentlemanly sexism

language: a feminist guide

Writing in the Law Society Gazette this week, Joshua Rozenberg asked why Lady (Brenda) Hale, who was president of the Supreme Court of the UK from 2017 until her retirement last month, did not get the job in 2012 when she first put herself forward. He draws on the account given by an insider, Lord Hope, who retired in 2013 and has since published his diaries. What he says is revealing, not just about the workings of the Supreme Court, but about a particular kind of sexism and the language that goes with it.

Below are some of the statements Rozenberg quotes from the parts of Lord Hope’s  diaries where he talks about Lady Hale. Most date from 2012, the year when she put herself forward for the presidency of the court but was not selected, and 2013, when she succeeded Lord Hope as deputy president.

  1. [She is] a…

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The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, preface to the Chinese edition

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Jan Blommaert

In a straightforward sense, this Chinese edition of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization is an illustration of what the book is about: the effective globalization of discourses, and the arguments and ideas they express. It also illustrates another crucial dimension of the sociolinguistics of globalization: the fact that such forms of globalization are never processes of uniformization, but of vernacularization. The same discourses, arguments and ideas are shared, but in the process they are converted into another discursive structure, grounded in local or regional universes of contextualization. Which is why I see this book not as just a ‘translation’ of the English original, but as a new ‘edition’, a Chinese edition addressing Chinese audiences – many of which may have been able to read the English version of the book – in a different way.

The core theme of the book is mobility: the fact that in an era of intense globalization, a study of language as an immobile, ‘fixed’ and sedentary object is entirely inadequate. Again, this Chinese edition illustrates this point. It is mobility – of people, objects and ideas – that brought the book to the attention of Chinese scholars, and the conversion of the book into a Chinese edition is another step in such patterns of mobility: it can now be integrated locally into existing intellectual and academic cultures. In so doing it will change such cultures, as well as the book itself. I expect new kinds of uptake and interpretation of the ideas articulated in The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, new forms of dialogue and new forms of follow-up research.

Another crucial point in the book is that globalization processes are real, situated historical processes. And this point enables me to elaborate the expectations of uptake, dialogue and follow-up research mentioned above.

The Chinese edition of this book appears a decade after the original version. The ideas articulated in it are even older. I started working in this direction in the late 1990s, and produced a steady flow of papers on topics related to the sociolinguistics of globalization, appearing throughout the first decade of the 21st century. The draft of the book was completed in 2008 and summarized this earlier work. If I look back at the real historical situatedness of the book, it was largely written in a world in which the Web 2.0 became an acquired thing, but in which social media, as we now know them, were new and relatively marginal. To mention the social media currently dominant in my part of the world, Facebook was created in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010. Smartphones were rare, and the first iPhone entered the market while I was working on the draft of this book. So when I wrote the book, I could only refer to a world which was globally connected through email, accessed through desktops or laptops (the iPad was launched in 2010), and in which average mobile phone owners used their phones for making calls and sending texts. Traditional mass media – printed press, radio and network TV – were still dominant and hardly challenged by the emerging online blogs or first-generation micromedia.

This world has vanished, of course, and this Chinese edition of my book now enters into a world in which online and offline dimensions of social (and sociolinguistic) life have become intertwined and define our everyday experiences of social and cultural reality. The People’s Republic of China, in particular, has rapidly developed into a society in which social media are immensely popular, in which online entertainment, shopping and banking have become everyday commodities, and in which behavioral digitization and data-driven analysis have reached unmatched levels of sophistication. Several of my own students have been able to document this development in great detail in their doctoral work, and the development is momentous. The infrastructures of globalization, including sociolinguistic globalization, have profoundly changed since I wrote the original version of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. They have changed everywhere, and certainly in China, and this profoundly changed globalization context guarantees a new universe of interpretation for my book, new questions and topics of research to be tagged onto it, new kinds of relevance (or irrelevance) to be attributed to it. I am looking forward to that.

Among the very many reactions I received to the book since its appearance, the ones that I experienced as most gratifying were those in which colleagues and students expressed that the book had inspired them, and prompted them to develop new forms of research taking the proposals I made in the book much further. “Inspiration”, as we know, is not the same as “following” some kind of doctrine or tradition. It is its opposite: it is a form of intellectual liberation in which previously held (and often constraining) frameworks and ideas can be abandoned and new ones can be critically explored. I can say, with a mixture of pride and humility, that the book appears to have inspired large numbers of colleagues and students over the past decade, and has offered them the liberty to explore new directions in their intellectual and academic development.

Thus, there has been substantial and significant research both at the conceptual level – rethinking what “language” may mean within a paradigm of mobile resources, for instance, or coming to grips with the intrinsic instability and complexity that follows from that paradigm, giving concepts such as “(trans)languaging” considerable traction. There has been significant research on sociolinguistic “superdiversity” as a means to describe a new ontology for the study of language in society; on the online globalization of semiotic and other cultural forms and the communities that contribute to their global spread; on new forms of language and forms of language usage no longer seen as linearly connected to a “source” such as English, but seen as forms of vernacular globalization and inflection; on the changing connections between diasporas and their nation-state communities of origin; on the changing nature of translation and interpreting in a globalized world, and so forth. I am not saying that none of this would not have been possible without The Sociolinguistics of Globalization; but the book perhaps offered a timely historical benchmark, a useful anchoring point from which such developments could evolve more swiftly and smoothly, simply because there was a vocabulary, a tentative framework and an ambition in the book that facilitated such developments.

The ambition was, in a way, to think big while addressing the very small details of language and its usage, and to think theoretically while we were doing empirical, clinically analytic work. Theoretically, two issues animated my effort. The first issue was methodological nationalism: the fact that much of sociolinguistic and related research still took the nation-state as an unquestioned unit of analysis, and – by extension – had developed excellent tools for examining local, sedentary and ultimately bureaucratically defined sociolinguistic circumscriptions, but only offered clumsy tools for addressing translocal, mobile phenomena associated with unstable populations dispersed over various sites in the world. In an age of globalization, this national and local theoretical horizon obviously demanded destabilization.

Observe, however, that the nation-state should not be dismissed as a unit of analysis: it had to be precisely located in a range of other scale-levels in any adequate analysis. To give a simple but clear example supporting the argument; the Wuhan corona virus crisis of early 2020 was obviously a local issue in Wuhan, where the first victims fell; but it was also a national issue because of the intersection of the danger of contagion and the hypermobility of Chinese citizens during the Chinese New Year period. This called for stringent measures at the national scale. But it quickly also became a global problem, affecting air traffic between China and the rest of the world and affecting various aspects of the world economy. A Volvo car plant in Belgium, for instance, had to reduce production because the transfer of parts from China had been disrupted by the Wuhan coronavirus crisis. What we see in this example is globalization in its purest form: a phenomenon spreads globally over various scale-levels (the local, the national, and the transnational), and at each scale level it becomes a different thing. The managers of the car manufacturing plant in Belgium did not experience the public health crisis experienced by the inhabitants of Wuhan – they experienced a local economic effect of this transnational phenomenon, largely caused by measures not taken by the people of Wuhan, nor by medical staff or virologists, but by the central government of the People’s Republic. Here, we can see how the nation-state operates as a switchboard between different scale levels in globalization processes, and how what happens at the national level can only be adequately understood when we consider what happened at the other scale-levels. Methodological nationalism is of no assistance here.

The second issue animating my effort was to definitively distance myself from the legacies of structuralism – the scientific paradigm defining the era of the modern nation-state. More in particular, I wanted to offer an alternative to the Saussurean “synchrony” in our fields of study: the emphasis on static, timeless and immobile features of language, and on abstract descriptions of “underlying” principles in understanding language and what it does in the real lives of real people. Language and its users, to me, are concrete things observable in real time and space; they are changeable, dynamic and only relatively predictable in their features, actions and effects. The study of language as flexible sets of mobile resources, unequally distributed over its users and subject to scale-sensitive contextual influences, was my alternative to the Saussurean synchrony. This alternative is paradigmatic, as it has numerous theoretical and empirical knock-on effects on the theory and practice of sociolinguistics. To return to the example of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis, for instance, we must be able to explain the differences between phenomena at different scale-levels in the same globalization process, as well as the nature of its local appearances. Turning to language, we must be able to explain why an accent in English that is seen as an indicator of middle-class belonging in, say, Nairobi or Karachi, becomes an indicator of marginality and inarticulateness in, say, London or Chicago.

While many of the issues I raised here are being creatively addressed in work-in-progress, much of the work remains to be done. It is work to be done by people who are deeply familiar with the new forms of globalization characterizing our social systems nowadays, and adjusted to the extremely rapid changes characterizing these systems. It needs to be done by “globalization natives”, people for whom globalization, including its digital infrastructures, are simple facts of life. Which is why I expect a lot from the readers of this Chinese edition of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. I expect this book to be relatively easy and straightforward reading for them, and I invite them to see it as an invitation to fact-check the claims and arguments in the book against their own lived experiences as members of communities that have witnessed tremendous changes over the past decades, most of them defined by the emerging prominence of China in a globalized world. Perhaps the answers I provided in the book will have to be rejected or amended. But I like to think that the questions I raised remain relevant and valid, for globalization and the patterns of sociolinguistic mobility it involves will not end soon – they will intensify.

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Book note: Charles Goodwin (2018) “Co-Operative action”

Goodwin

Charles Goodwin passed away last year, and I suppose this book was pulled together while he was already critically ill – there are some traces of careless editing in the book, very uncharacteristic of Goodwin.

But boy, what a book it is. Goodwin develops and elaborates the concept of co-operative action, which he defines as “the process of building something new through decomposition and reuse with transformation of resources placed in a public environment by an earlier actor” (p3). Concretely: it stands for those forms of action in which we take already existing cultural material (think of words as the simplest example) and reuse them in doing something different with them – e.g. challenging or confirming the meaning of these words.

Goodwin always was a shy and reluctant theorist, and the book is a collection of extraordinarily detailed empirical analyses of social interaction in a variety of contexts.For those familiar with his work, all the classic papers are there. They offer us a range of reflections of fundamental theoretical importance. In his own unmatched way, Goodwin builds theory from analysis.

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This theory is an action theory, and an important one. It draws on a tradition of action-centered interactional research instantiated by people such as Garfinkel, Goffman, Strauss and Cicourel. And while he often refers to Conversation Analysis as a productive field, he rejects (or better: refutes) several essential principles of orthodox CA, such as the primacy of talk – the verbal kind of talk – and the unity of “conversation” as an object in its own right. Instead he breaks it down in inter-actions, i.e. in concrete and precise semiotic co-constructive moves performed by participants, whose roles shift continuously on the basis of the actual concrete micro-actions they perform.

Goodwin was, of course, one of the first to use video-recordings of interactions as his basis for analysis, and his attention to the semiotics of body activities and material objects involved in communication as essential sources and instruments of meaning-making is a matter of record. But this heterodox approach to CA is often overlooked by people using his work. Goodwin reconnects with the interactionists mentioned above – a tradition of immense value currently often downplayed and reduced to superficial readings. I can only hope that this book will draw people back to the work of e.g. Aaron Cicourel, Anselm Strauss and Harold Garfinkel, for Goodwin has made the relevance of this work pretty clear, and he has facilitated our re-reading of these earlier and dust-covered classics.

(Charles Goodwin, “Co-Operative Action”. Cambridge University Press 2018. 521pp)

Did Brexaustion kill Corbyn’s media strategy?

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Jan Blommaert

The outcome of the UK elections of December 2019 led some observers to state that social media campaigns are not really decisive. Sure! But that doesn’t mean that more traditional forms of campaigning and media coverage are decisive either. Something else is going on: we should look carefully at the interaction of mainstream and social media in contemporary political campaigns if we want to figure that out.

Brexaustion & Corbyn’s defeat

The UK elections of 12 December 2019 were, to say the least, hard-fought. Unprecedented levels of agression and hyperbole were displayed by all parties during the entire campaign, which ultimately ran on two sets of issues: the Brexit issue with its polarized camps on the one hand, and the end to austerity and the comeback of an equitable welfare state in Britain on the other. While Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour focused on the second issue – a new post-Tory Britain – Boris Johnson’s Tories exclusively addressed the first one. And the Tories won, they won big. For Corbyn, a disastrous defeat concluded an intensive campaign.

This campaign “won the argument but not the battle” according to Corbyn. It was a big gamble for Labour to try and develop a campaign agenda in which Brexit only played a secondary role – Labour, if returned to power, would roll back the Tory austerity policies of the past decade, and then submit Brexit to a second referendum.

But Brexit, obviously, was the dominant theme. Or rather “Brexaustion”, the widespread sense that the Brexit discussion had been dragging on, annoyingly, for far too long and needed to be concluded here and now. It was Brexaustion that informed and triggered the Tories’ central slogan in their campaign: “Get Brexit Done”.

The fact that the themes brought forward by Labour were of minor importance to Johnson’s party is illustrated by the numerous misrepresentations, lies and manipulations produced by Tory campaigners on such topics. Publicly displayed awkwardness or embarrassment, as when Johnson snatched a reporter’s phone when a picture of a sick child was shown to him, did not matter as long as the central topic – Brexaustion – remained safe and solid.

Occasionally, and in the last days of the campaign, Johnson would adopt some key demands from his opponents in his own campaign rhetoric – investments in the NHS’s public health provision, for instance – so as to infuse his Brexit message with a message projecting a better future after Brexit. The campaign was great in its simplicity (or simplism, some would argue). And it won the day for Boris Johnson.

Superficial analyses

Of course, there was no shortage of interpretations and analyses of the Labour defeat in the hours and days following the dramatic election night. Several such analyses articulated a sense of betrayal by Corbyn and put the blame for Labour’s catastrophic result squarely on him, his leadership style, his lack of clarity on Brexit, and his stubborn insistence on different campaign themes.

Others argued that the defeat of Corbyn’s electoral program heralded the end of ‘the Left’ in its current form in Britain. And of course, all observers agreed that Corbyn had to step down as party leader, and that Labour would have to change its ‘Left’ direction to a more ‘centrist’ one or vice versa.

In the same breath, these observers claimed that Johnson’s Brexit agenda had commanded overwhelming support in Britain and that opponents of Brexit needed to come to terms with that fact. Note in passing that, while such demolition jobs of the Corbyn campaign were plenty, lionized film-script like accounts of Johnson’s victorious campaign also flourished.

Analyses so shortly after a political drama of historic proportions are evidently prone to overgeneralization, partiality and simplification. It’s a genre of political commentary which we should approach with much reserve. The clarity of the Brexit issue, for instance, and the fact that it’s Johnson’s understanding of what Brexit meant in the elections that now defines the parameters of the debate – both these points are deeply flawed. For the SNP (Scottish National Party) also ran on the theme of Brexit but blended it with several other themes.

The point made here is: Scotland doesn’t want Brexit, and certainly not on the terms defined by the Tories. Scotland needs an end to austerity and demands protection of the NHS (here are the key campaign points of Labour). If Tories wish to push their agenda through, Scotland will demand independence. The SNP was able, by means of this blended and more complex platform, to carry Scotland in a landslide victory. We see here how the Labour pro-welfare state agenda points did work electorally, when blended with a strong regionalism and a clear anti-Brexit (and anti-Johnson) stance. Boris Johnson won Westminster, but the SNP won Scotland.

The social media issue

One of the issues emerging in reactions to the election results was, unsurprisingly, the role of the media. During the campaign, Labour supporters very frequently complained about the mainstream media bias in favor of the Tories.

Corbyn himself had repeatedly insisted on the perverse role of “billionaire media tycoons” in the public campaigns against him and his party. And when the results of the election became clear, the UK’s mass media – and not just its tabloid section, as we saw above – were blamed for their contribution to the outcome. In the same breath, it was said that social media campaigns had failed.

Let me start by noting that Labour ran an amazing, intense social media campaign in which nearly all platforms were saturated with high-quality messages, and which drew large audiences towards Labour’s social media channels. Judged from social media only, Labour had succeeded at re-setting the agenda and direction of the election campaign, and polls suggested that Labour had managed to seriously narrow the lead of the Conservatives in the polls. Clearly and convincingly, Labour had won the elections on social media.

Of course, all of that proved to be pointless on December 12. Labour’s dominance and brilliance on social media may have “won the argument” as Corbyn said, but not the election. It succeeded in a few things – winning hearts and minds, and more votes than Blair’s Labour in 2005 – but not in winning seats.  So fingers were pointed at Britain’s mainstream media and their anti-Corbyn bias.

Some Corbyn supporters concluded from this that the massive investments made in social media campaigning had been futile, given the substantial predominance of traditional media in the UK.

A weaponized hybrid media system

We are stuck in an either-or argument here: one has to choose between either mainstream media or social media. And superficial analyses add to this: it’s Johnson’s mainstream media dominance that defeated Corbyn’s social media dominance. Obviously, such an either-or argument does not hold water. Here are some points to consider.

One: most of what can be read in the way of analyses focuses exclusively on the campaigns, i.e. the messages directly emerging from the political actors themselves during the relatively short period leading up to the elections. Seen from that perspective, things are clear: the quality and intensity of Corbyn’s social media campaign were unmatched by that of any of his competitors. Yet he lost.

Looking at the campaigns alone, however, reduces contemporary political discourse to discourse produced by professional politicians and party staff alone. While we know that most political discourse today is produced and circulated by a multitude of actors – people like us. So rather than just looking at campaigns, one should look at the totality of exposure in contemporary mass-communication.

Two: that is where mainstream media come in. As observed by BBC’s Amol Rajan (in an exceptionally perceptive post-election analysis), “It is very interesting that many of the most viral clips on social media from the past few weeks were initially broadcast on traditional media.” Such mainstream media materials, in other words, became crucial objects in the social media campaigns. This effectively sinks the either-or imagery of mainstream versus social media: we see a hybrid media system at work in which (a) the different media types coexist and sometimes coincide while they diverge on other moments; and (b) a very broad range of actors ensures the production, circulation and uptake of political messages, most of whom are just rank-and-file citizens.

Three: contemporary advanced political campaigning involves the coordination of actions on very different media, not a properly segmented specialized division between social media work and mainstream media. One needs to generate precisely the kinds of intense interactions between different parts of the media system described by Amol Rajan in which elements from mainstream media are integrated in social media strategies and vice versa, creating a totalized ‘bubble’ of well-organized messages. We can call this the weaponization of the hybrid media systemthe creation, planning and coordination of a ‘total’ media strategy aimed at saturating the entire media system and exploiting the algorithmic environment in which the media system operates. And let it be the case that Boris Johnson’s campaign was run by the undisputed master of this game, Dominic Cummings (one of the architects of the successful pro-Brexit campaign in 2016).

Four: such advanced political campaigns are not aimed at converting ‘the public’ (i.e. the so-called ‘masses’) but at converting specific publics, usually the voters in ‘swing constituencies’. It’s micromarketing targeting specific groups with specific messages so as to create the ‘bubble’ mentioned above, not mass marketing targeting everyone with generic messages. The ultimate objective of such campaigns is not the population but the electoral system: it’s okay if the opponent gets more votes, as long as s/he loses the battle for elected representatives, and a series of small but significant victories is to be preferred over a bigger but ineffective one. This explains why Corbyn’s Labour obtained more votes than Blair’s team in 2005 but significantly less seats (and why Hilary Clinton won the popular vote while Trump won the White House in 2016). We should look at total exposure, as said above, but also at distribution when examining communication strategies.

Five: analyses based on the campaign alone are also restricted in time and tend to address just what went on from the moment a campaign officially starts until the moment of the elections. While in the weaponization strategy just mentioned, infrastructures, messages and target audiences need to be identified and prepared long before such campaigns start, and algorithms need to be made sensitive to items deployed en masse much later.

There is ample evidence that the Tories have been doing just that: creating social media and algorithmic infrastructures in which anti-Corbyn and anti-Labour campaign messages could be tested and disseminated long before elections came in sight, and in which specific target audiences could be identified and ‘bubbled’. This might explain the rather lacklustre social media performance of Johnson and the Tories during the campaign: most of the work had already been done long before the campaign had started.

It also shows how wrong it is to suggest that Boris Johnson only benefited from his support in the mainstream media. While there is no doubt that some “billionaire media tycoons” clearly preferred a Conservative victory over a Labour one, support structures had been installed across the entire media system before things really took off. When Jeremy Corbyn tried to insert a different line of arguments into the campaign, most of the space there had already been taken by the “Get Brexit Done” of the Tories, certainly in the ‘swing constituencies’ that were sensed to determine the result.

Johnson, or Cummings behind him, may not have designed a specialized social media campaign (while Labour clearly did). But they designed a hybrid media weaponization campaign in which the entire field of media exposure was attacked and in which specific game-changing audiences were relentlessly addressed. So while Corbyn won the battle on social media, he lost the war on this broader media exposure front.

How to analyze this?

The point is that most of this weaponization strategy remains invisible during a campaign. Like in war, one thinks of guns only when they start firing; the question of how such weapons got into place and were supplied with ammunition, personnel and directions of fire is usually a matter only addressed by military historians. By the time the campaign really starts, the weaponization strategy has shaped its ‘structure’, its ecosystem. And this means that analyses of the communication effects in elections now need to be longitudinal, pay attention to events in the background as well as to those in the spotlights, that they need to address the entire media system rather than segments of it, and look carefully at the distribution of communicative actions over specific audiences.

This approach has implications: three very widespread assumptions need to be critically reassessed.

One, the idea of ‘campaigns’ as self-standing and all-decisive periods of communication has become an anachronism. Campaigns are permanent these days and accurate analysis of the political process will need to be able to spot the seemingly unrelated and innocuous little signs, the significance of which can now only be judged in retrospect. This significance is, note, electoral rather than related to, say, popularity or legitimacy in the eyes of ‘the people’.

Two, the idea of the individual politician or party as the core actor in political communication is equally an anachronism. We need to address and identify the various specific collectivities that ensure production, circulation and uptake of political messages, as well as the algorithmic infrastructures used in the process.

Three: the idea of political communication as a process evolving between politicians and ‘the people’ (in clear and stable relationships) equally needs to be revisited. Sophisticated campaigners appear not to worry too much about what ‘the people’ think and how they react, and they have no difficulties explicitly antagonizing segments of ‘the people’. They are targeting specific segments of the population and keep electoral effects in mind, rather the thing we like to call ‘public opinion’. In addition, the uptake expected of specific audiences is active and productive – commenting, reposting, liking, and so forth, creating new political messages within and beyond the bubble – and not just ‘listening’ or other forms of passive uptake. Audience selection, audience design and active audience involvement are crucial in any analysis.

Apart from offering obvious analytical benefits these points will, incidentally, help overcome one of the nastiest aspects of current poor campaign-focused analysis: the (often heard) claim that people ‘out there’ – usually those belonging to the working class or otherwise stigmatized groups – are passive receivers of messages and just ‘believe’ the rubbish they are being fed by the tabloids. Much more complex things are going on, and it is high time for us to start getting our heads around them.

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English in the world today: a BBC World podcast

Blog | Research Centre for Multilingual Practices and Language Learning in Society

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I was interviewed recently by BBC World for a program on English and globalization. Here is the podcast, and my “mind-bending” remarks start around minute 12.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3csy78p?fbclid=IwAR3XOpIn6OXd_z693IXuWcmBxK8r1lWhe-E9TeE6itq6DYsxHDXjiFfF_po

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