Pointing out Perceived Monolingualism:  Citizen Sociolinguistics in Action

Citizen Sociolinguistics

No community is truly “monolingual”—even when they think they are!

Recently, language professionals have named a community’s illusion of language purity “perceived monolingualism” (Thank you @MCP718, mariacioe-pena.com, for this useful phrase!). Initially, this concept made me nervous about the role of citizen sociolinguistics.  The concept of “perceived monolingualism” raises the specter of a dark kind of citizen sociolinguist–one who propagates misunderstanding, eliminates language variety, and possibly worse.  Perhaps naïvely, I usually like to think of citizen sociolinguists as people happily championing the creative capacity of multilingualism and language variety,  busily spreading the word about how it works.   Once we recognize a type of citizen sociolinguist willfully lacking in awareness of the multilingualism all around, who can we call on  to set them straight?

Other citizen sociolinguists, of course!  In at least some cases, citizen sociolinguists are the best candidates to point out this misperception of monolingualism—and the most likely to…

View original post 873 more words


Context and its complications


Jan Blommaert, Laura Smits, Noura Yacoubi

Draft chapter, Handbook of Discourse Studies (eds. A. De Fina & A. Georgakopoulou). London: Routledge 2019.

Abstract: The point of departure for this chapter is the contention that the online-offline communicative economy in which we now live compels us to rethink some of the core vocabulary and assumptions underlying our thinking about ‘context’ and ‘contextualization’ in discourse studies. We formulate a set of proposals grounded in the interactionist tradition and focused on (inter)action rather than on participants and communities. Next, we propose to see contextualization as a process that takes us from chronotopes over frames to formats of action, situationally deployed.

Introduction: Online-offline action

In his classic Cognitive Sociology, Aaron Cicourel made the following general observation:

The problem of meaning for the anthropologist-sociologist can be stated as how members of a society or culture acquire a sense of social structure to enable them to negotiate everyday activities. (Cicourel 1974: PAGE)

This statement can serve as an extraordinarily accurate description of what was later called and methodologically developed as “contextualization” (Gumperz 1982, 1992; also Auer & DiLuzio 1992; Duranti & Goodwin 1992). Yet two components of the statement demand closer attention: “social structure” and “everyday activities”, for since the beginning of the 21st century the realities of social structure and the range and modes of everyday activities have been profoundly affected by the generalized introduction of a layer of online social life, complicating the offline social world on which these earlier formulations of contextualization were based. In this chapter, we intend to sketch the complications emerging from discourse produced interactionally in such an online-offline environment now serving as the backdrop for what Ron Scollon (2001) called “the nexus of practice”.

We must pay closer attention to the aspects of contextualization that have changed, we said, but that does not mean that we must do so from within a methodological tabula rasa. We believe the effort can be profitably made by means of some central insights and principles from within the interactional tradition of discourse studies. In fact, all the scholars already mentioned here belonged to that stream of ethnographically grounded studies of actual situated discursive practice, which has been the richest source of fundamental reflections on the notion of context and its role in social interaction. It is from that source that we can draw the general principles directing our discussion:

  1. Context should not be seen as an abstract, stable or latent presence; it is a resource deployed in concrete socially situated meaning-making action: context is always contextualization.In that sense, it is highly unpredictable, evolving, dynamic and unstable. Also, while contexts operate at various scale-levels and structures a multitude of concrete interactions, the analytical point of departure is their situated effects on making sense. To quote Herbert Blumer in this respect: “People (…) do not act toward culture, social structure or the like, they act toward situations” (Blumer 1969: PAGE)
  2. Contextualization is the key to making sense, because it consists of interactionally constructed indexical connections between actual discursive features and relevant chunks of sociocultural knowledge (Silverstein 1992; Hymes 1996; Gumperz 2003; Agha 2007).
  3. Such indexically deployed and invoked knowledge is never neutral but always evaluative and in that sense moral, and by extension identity-related (e.g. Goodwin 2007). Making sense is a moral judgment grounded in socioculturally available normative-behavioral scripts situationally projected onto persons. Goffman (1974) called such moralized scripts “frames”; the ways we implement them have been variously called (with distinctions not overly relevant here) “indexical order” (Silverstein 2003) and “orders of indexicality” (Blommaert 2005). The concepts are joined by their emphasis on (Bakhtinian) evaluative uptake and on the dimension of social order as part of meaning-making practices – recall Cicourel’s statement quoted above.
  4. The contextual resources that people draw upon in interaction have to be recognizable, but not necessarily shared (Garfinkel 2002; also Blommaert & Rampton 2016: 28-31). Sharedness is evolving as the interaction proceeds but can also evolve as a shared sense of misunderstanding, i.e. a shared sense that very little of substance is shared in the interaction. What needs to be recognizable is the broad outline of a format of interaction, a general script for social action.

We can see that these principles favor action over content and participants, and situated and evolving effects over a priori categories (such as speech acts, conversational maxims, “meaning” and “understanding”). The reason for these preferences is that, due to the changes described above, very little can be taken for granted with respect to what is “ordinary” and “normal” in communication. To name just a few of the widely used assumptions that need to be qualified: the assumption that communication is self-evidently a human-to-human activity has been challenged by human-machine interactions, and has thus become a variable rather than a stable feature. This, of course, has numerous knock-on effects on widely used criteria in theories of meaning: intentionality, agency, (human) rationality. Even more widespread is the assumption that the most “normal” or primitive form of communication – in the sense of: the kind of communication on which we base our fundamental theoretical imagination – is unmediated, spoken dyadic face-to-face interaction in shared physical timespace and between persons sharing massive amounts of knowledge, experience and sociocultural norms within a sedentary community (an offline conversation between similar people, in short). The online world has critically destabilized that assumption by inserting scripted, multimodal, non-simultaneous, translocally mobile, multiparty and technologically heavily mediated forms of everyday communication into the communicative economies of very large numbers of people, not as peripheral modes of interaction but as important, inevitable ones. We now communicate intensely with interlocutors with whom we do not share much (not even acquaintance as a natural person and a human subject), across space and time, and through complex modes of non-acoustic semiotic work.

Our core vocabulary and assumptions derive from an implicit sociological imagination of which we assume that it reflects the true state of things. Changes in the state of things often take some time before they translate into an alternative sociological imagination (cf. Mills 1959; also Blommaert 2018a). In the meantime, however, they render some of our core vocabulary for talking about language, interaction and meaning-making less salient and applicable, and invite a focus on the phenomena we can identify as constants. The constant feature, we would argue, is social action – a synonym, as Anselm Strauss (1993) among others emphasized, for interaction. Even if we now communicate with machines, with unknown mass audiences (as in mass online gaming), by means of delayed, asynchronous messages scripted in new forms of graphic visualization and design – we are still performing interactions in attempts to make sense of our world. Taking social action, defined in this sense, as our ontological point of departure enables us to start describing and understanding old and new patterns of interaction, how they intersect and how they structure our social lives.

With these principles established, we shall now engage with four different sets of issues, all of them inspired by the changes we noted earlier: the transition from an offline world of communication to an online-offline one. Some of these issues are not new – they have been constant features of debates on context and contextualization – but demand a renewed engagement in view of changes in the world of communication. In reviewing them, we will make proposals for reimagining aspects of them and for adopting another vocabulary in our descriptions of them.

Beyond the macro and micro: recognizability and formatting

A persistent feature of discussions of context and its uses in scholarship is the use of the “micro-macro” dichotomy (occasionally turned into a triad by inserting “meso” in between). “Micro”-contexts would then be the factors affecting and informing local, situated events: the timespace frame, the participants, the immediately and directly relevant social roles, the topic, and so forth. “Macro”, in turn, would stand for the nonlocal, broader factors in which the event can be situated and by which it is indirectly affected: the wider historical, sociocultural and political parts of the picture making (at least part of) the event understandable (see the discussion in e.g. Goffman 1964; Silverstein 1992;Cicourel 1992; Duranti 1997; Blommaert 2015a).

While such distinctions might be discursively and heuristically helpful, they are methodologically unhelpful from the perspective we formulated above. They do point to a fundamental fact: the non-unified and complex nature of context – any context – but they do so in an inaccurate way. Certainly when we become aware of the ways in which they rest on a particular sociological imagination, and of the ways in which and structure an epistemological field. The sociological imagination on which the dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” rests is the one sketched earlier: a world in which we can separate and isolate specific aspects of social life as being the direct conditions for conduct – the local, sedentary, individual, variable and mundane aspects – while other aspects appear to only indirectly inflect such conditions for conduct, due to their remoteness and their stable, collective character. The first set of facts we could call “processual” factors, and they would always be unique, while they others would be “procedural”, and they would be general. The first set would index “community” – a specific small-scale group involved in shared practices, but diverse and changeable – while the latter would index “society” – the organized, stable, enduring, systemic large-scale group characterized by common institutional characteristics. Obviously, this imagination of the social world is far removed from what Castells (1996), in a visionary text, called the online-offline “network society” (cf. also Blommaert 2018a).

The dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” also structures an epistemological field in which “micro” would stand for the anecdotal, the concrete, the singular, the possible exception, the empirical and the “token”, while “macro” would point to the systemic, the abstract, the generalizable, the norm, the theoretical and the “type”. Thus, so-called “micro-sociologists” and ethnographers would be dismissed as scholars whose attention to the uniquely situated features of cases precludes any attempt towards valid generalization, because generalization can only be made at a “macro” level of analysis where analytical detail has to be surrendered to abstraction (see the discussions in e.g. Mills 1959, Blumer 1969, Giddens 1984).

From a viewpoint privileging social action, all of this is highly unproductive, and the acuteness of the problem was repeatedly emphasized by Pierre Bourdieu and others. Bourdieu – often seen as a “macro”-sociologist whose work speaks to society at large – would emphasize that concepts such as “habitus” (a general concept) could only emerge through ethnographic attention to actual situated practice, not by statistical surveys. It was by observing the struggles of Algerian farmers to come to terms with a new market economy that Bourdieu saw the actual working of capitalism as propelled into socioculturally inhabited modes of practice (Bourdieu 2000; cf Blommaert 2015b). The big things reside in the small things, and the most inconspicuous and uniquely situated social action is, in that sense, “systemic” and “typical”, as well as the source for theoretical generalization. Evidently, the same insight animated Goffman’s work on interactional ritual and frames (1967, 1974): even if all instances of human interaction are unique, they display general characteristics and patterns sufficient to lift them from “micro” to “macro” relevance (cf. also Rampton 2016).

This is the point where we can start formulating a proposal in line with the principles outlined above. And we can draw for inspiration on the authors just mentioned, as well as on Garfinkel’s (2002) uncompromising formulations of the issue. Garfinkel saw recognizability as the key to understanding the social nature of interaction, and as already mentioned above, recognizability should not be equated with sharedness of norms, assumptions and worldviews. It is a recognition of the joint potential for specific modes of action that gives such action the character of “congregational work”, he argued – work performed collectively because we are jointly involved in it. We enter jointly into an action of which we know very little outside its possible general features, and we jointly construct such actions as forms of social order. This order can be entirely ad hoc, temporary and ephemeral. But while it lasts, it is a firm order that generates roles and identities along with a range of moral codes controlling (mis)behavior.

It is this aspect of recognizability, generating congregational work and its social outcomes, that renders distinctions between the factors discriminating “micro” and “macro” aspects of the act meaningless. Since acts are social, they will draw on available and accessible social resources – from the different social positions from which we enter the action, the kinds of language and discourse we use, over the topic, to the actual things we say, hear, write or read (cf. also Briggs 2005). And even if we see that such resources are unevenly distributed, a degree of order will emerge from the action itself. The latter was exemplified in a magnificent study by Charles Goodwin (2004), in which a man who,following a stroke, had lost almost all of his linguistic capabilities was shown to engage in lengthy and complex interactions with his friends and relatives. Evidently, the absence of shared linguistic resources imposes constraints on what can happen in such forms of interaction – resources are crucial contexts for interaction (Blommaert 2005: 58-62); but when we intend to understand what is happening, recognizability is the key.

Recognizability, however, is not an empty and random container. We recognize particular social situations and their features as something specific – a quarrel, a lecture or a Facebook update – on the basis of perceived properties of the situation (what Garfinkel  called ”autochthonous order properties”, 2002: 245) associated with what Goffman called “frames”: the ways in which we organize our experience. Recognizing a situation means framing it along what we could call a general indexical vector, i.e. entering that situation as one that imposes and enables specific forms of interaction, one or different orders of indexicality. When we recognize something as a Facebook update, we recognize that it enables (among other actions) different forms of response, and that it imposes keyboard writing and a specific set of symbols (e.g. emoticons) as techniques for responding to it. When we recognize the particular update as an instance of trolling, we recognize it as enabling an unfriendly response, and so forth. This we can call, following Garfinkel, formatting: shaping the particular situated interaction in “typical” (i.e. generic, non-unique) ways and bringing the “sense of social structure” mentioned by Cicourel into the particular action we are engaged in with others.

A lot of what we do in the work of contextualization is moving from recognition through framing to formatting. We do so dialogically in congregational work with others, and we do so by drawing upon socioculturally marked – indexicalized – resources that acquire a general direction in such activities. This, we propose, is the cornerstone of the argument here. We can now proceed to elaborate it further.

Chronotopes, scales and synchronization

In every moment of interaction, contextualization draws upon specific and non-unified resources (cf. Cicourel 1967, 1974; Silverstein 1992). Both dimensions are crucial if we wish to avoid undue simplifications such as “the context for this utterance is X”. The contextual resources drawn upon in contextualizing concrete interactions are inevitably multiple and layered (cf. Blommaert 2005). But they are not infinite, and not without structure and pattern. If we draw upon Goffman’s frames, we see that social experience is organized into such structures and patterns, in which particular forms of interaction – with attributes to be discussed in a moment – are attached to specific social situations in forms comparable to what Bakhtin called “chronotopes”.

Bakhtin developed the notion of chronotope (literally “timespace”) as a way to describe the sociohistorical layering in novels, more precisely the ways in which invocations of particular sociohistorical frames structured “voices” in specific situations, infusing them with identity scripts, moral orientations, participation frameworks (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992), expected and unexpected normative modes of conduct and roles within the situation – in short, the full sociocultural value of otherwise random forms of action (see the discussion in Blommaert 2015a and Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Thus in a fairy tale, the Big Bad Wolf is exactly that: male, big and bad, a threat to the others, and someone to be defeated by the others. Chronotopes, seen from this rather orthodox Bakhtinian perspective, provide moralized behavioral scripts in specific social situations (we called them formats above), and the recognition of social situations as specific (e.g. as a formal meeting) will prompt such scripts: as soon as the chair announces the beginning of the meeting, we will all reorganize our conduct, assume a different set of body poses, discursive patterns and relations with the other participants (e.g. respecting the chair’s formal leadership and the differential allocation of speaking rights), and align with the congregational work performed by the others. As soon as the meeting is over, we can shift back into another register of conduct, and the opponent during the meeting can turn into an ally in the pub during the post-meeting drink. Chronotopes impose formats on those inhabiting them, and this means that from the potentially infinite aspects of context animating events, a specific subset will be invoked and deployed as the normative script for conduct within that chronotopic situation, as the specific bit of social order to be followed by all those involved. Violating or disrupting that order – Goffman called them frame breaking – comes with moral judgments: everyday notions such as inappropriateness, rudeness, insolence, being off-topic, or trolling come to mind (cf. Blommaert & De Fina 2016; see Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017 for social media examples).

Chronotopes are, we believe, a useful gloss to address the specific nature of context and contextualization, one that forces us to examine with utmost precision what is elsewhere simply called “the context” of actual interactions. The notion also offers us a view of context as active, something that structures action and makes it socially recognizable and, thence, socially valued. The demand for precision will almost inevitably lead to outcomes in which particular chronotopes are

  • composed of several different actions and types of actions, as when someone checks his/her email or takes orders for sandwiches during a formal meeting – where each of these will have to proceed along the specific formats for such actions. Goffman (1974: 561) clearly pointed to that (using the term “realm statuses” for what we call formats here), and see e.g. Goodwin (2013) for excellent discussions.
  • Connected to other chronotopes, as when the relations between participants in a formal meeting are affected by already existing interpersonal relationships specific to other areas of social life or when the history of a particular issue is invoked as a frame for discussing its present status, or even when quoted or indirect speech is introduced into interaction embedding one chronotope and its actual voices into another one (e.g. Voloshinov 1973; Goodwin 2003).

Both outcomes are particularly interesting, for they take us to the issue of the non-unified nature of context and bring issues of scale into view (cf. Blommaert 2015a). Scale can best be understood as reflections and expressions of how social beings experience dimensions of sociocultural reality as indexical vectors, as informing the general normative patterns that shape formats of action (cf. Das  2016; Carr & Lempert 2016). Scales, thus, are interpretive and normative-evaluative, suggesting distinctions between what is general and what is specific, what is important and what is not, what is widely known and what isn’t, what is valid and what is not, what can be widely communicated and what cannot, what can be widely recognized and understood and what cannot. There is nothing stable, absolute or a priori about scales – we can obliquely recall our discussion of the “micro-macro” distinction here – for what we see in actual discursive work are scalar effects. To give a simple example: when the history of a particular issue is invoked as a decisive argument in discussing its present status, then that history is presented as a way of upscaling the current issue to normative levels immune to contemporary petty or personal concerns (“We already discussed and decided this point in January, there is no point in returning to it now!”) Conversely, when someone raises a point which is not seen by others as belonging to the most general normative layer of what goes on, it can be downscaled (“This is a detail” or “This is just your personal opinion”). In their actual deployment, scalar effects are indexically ordered degrees of moralization in social actions.

The presence of such non-unified (plural and scaled) contexts in concrete situations brings us to a third notion: synchronization (cf. Blommaert 2005: 131-137, 2018b). The scalar effects we just mentioned occur in real-time and on-the-spot moments of interaction, in a sort of evolving “synchrony” which hides layers of non-synchronous resources and folds them together into momentary and situated instances of making sense. We call this process synchronization because the highly diverse resources that are deployed as context are focused, so to speak, onto one single point in social action. In other branches of scholarship this process would be called “decision making”, with strong undertones of individual rational calibration. From an action-centered perspective, synchronization is a collaborative social act in which the format, not the rational calculation of its actors, is predominant (cf. Goodwin 2013).

Within such formats, synchronization ensures the degree of coherence we expect to find in interactions as an essential component in making sense of situations.

Formatting and nonlinear outcomes

Coherence, however, must not be imagined as a straight line from premises to conclusion. Neither can formats be imagined as closed boxes with extraordinarily transparent orders of indexicality, generally known to all participant. As said earlier, order is evolving and contingent upon the congregational work performed by participants. Recognizing a situation, we explained, proceeds through perceived order properties of such situations that can be framed into formats, then guiding the actions of participants. But outcomes cannot be linearly predicted from the starting conditions, because multiple forms of action can emerge within the same format, and be coherent to the participants. In other words, different kinds of actions can be ratified as properly within the format; formats allow nonlinear actions, and when it comes to normativity in connection to formats, we see a relatively open and relaxed form of normativity there.

This violates several older assumptions about communication. In speech act theory, J.L. Austin famously distinguished clear “felicity” conditions for smooth and “correct” interaction, while deviations of them (even a violation of one of them) would make the interaction “unhappy”, or “infelicitous”.  Equally famous are Grice’s (1975) “maxims” for conversation – conditions for maintaining a well-ordered mode of interaction with any other interlocutor. Both (and many others) grounded their theories into widely shared folk views of the strong normative order required for interaction. Another set of assumptions that is violated by the nonlinearity-within-the-format we mentioned is that underlying the kind of naïve survey methodology devastatingly criticized by Cicourel (1964) and others. In such survey enterprises, the stability of the format is used as an argument for the stability of its outcomes. Concretely, it is assumed that as long as we ask the same questions in the same format to large numbers of respondents, the answers will be commensurable because each respondent was addressed identically. Converted into the terms we are using here, stable formats will generate linear actions, since every action will be an identical response to an identical prompt. Cicourel’s penetrating critique targeted the impressive amount of ignorance about actual forms of communication buried inside this methodological assumption, leading to the incredible suggestion that hundreds of different people would all have identical understandings of a question (and its meanings for the analyst) and that the actual (and highly diverse) conditions of the question-and-answer events would not have any effects on the respondents.

The fallacies of such assumptions can be shown through the following example, involving the present authors. In late 2017 Jan Blommaert set up a small practical exercise in research interviewing for MA students including Laura Smits and Noura Yacoubi. The instructions were clear: pairs needed to be formed and the roles of interviewer versus interviewee needed to be assigned; the interview was to proceed in English and (unbeknownst to the interviewees), the interview had to contain some potentially frame-disturbing elements. One of these elements was the opening question: “who are you really?” The format, we can see, was entirely scripted and uniform for all the teams.

Laura and Noura were both interviewees and were interviewed by classmates with whom both had a history of friendly personal encounters and lengthy conversations – in Dutch. All of them – interviewers and interviewees – were also students in the same year of the same program track at Tilburg University. Thus we can suppose other elements of potential stability to be there: shared membership of a clearly defined community, a shared history of interaction making all participants familiar with each other’s speech habits and idiosyncrasies, and also enabling all to know quite well who the other “really” was. Laura and Noura, however, responded to this question in radically different ways. Let us look at the sequences following the question; in the transcript “I” stands for “interviewer” and “R” for “respondent”.

Laura’s answer

I:          SO Laura*, who are you REALLY?

R:        Who are I (am) really.. Eu::hm. What do you want to know of me. What is–what is really?

I:          TELL me something about yourself

R:        Okay. I’m Laura .. Laura Smits .. I a::m twenty-three years old .. eu::hm.. I study Global Communication here at Tilburg university I play volleyba::ll I have a little sister, I have a boyfriend, and I live in Tilburg eu::hm furthermore<1> I think<1> I am very happy at the mome::nt in the situation I live in .. eu::hm ja* enjoying life/ …

I:          Okay.


Noura’s answer

I:          Uhm .. who are you really?

R:        Who I am?

I:          Yes

R:        Well.. what do you mean? What do you want to know?//

I:          Yeahh who are you?//

R:        That is a.. difficult question [Laughing]/

I:          Why is it difficult?//

R:        Because you are asking *a lot* at the same time. Do you want to know my characteristics, my name, my birth, my hobbies, do you want to know my study?

I:         Tell me what *you think* who you really are//

R:        *Dude* [Laughing] well I am a… Dutch, well Moroccan-Dutch girl, born here, I’m uuhh 22 years old. Uuhm who I am? <2> Well I am a student that is part of my identity, I *feel* as a student, I am.. living the life of a student. Uhmm.. I am studying global communication/

I:         Ohh

R:        What a coincidence [Laughing]

I:         Me too [Laughing]

R:        Can you ask.. can you ask the question more specific?//

I:         Is this really who you really are?

R:        Well it’s uhm.. it is quite a lot who I am I mean.. also history comes into pla::y, also family comes into pla::y uuh who I am yeah I am a human being//

I:         Okay but/

R:        Punt

We see that Laura and Noura are both initially looking for the right frame, as both ask for clarification of their interviewers’ actions (“what do you want to know”?). Both, consequently, receive a reiteration of the question (part of the instructions given by Jan to the interviewers). But what follows are two entirely different courses of action. Laura instantly aligns with the perceived frame and gives what we could call a “profile answer” – the kind of clearly organized factual and affective information offered on social media profiles and in short introductory “pitches” to unknown people. She “neutralizes”, so to speak, the interviewer whom she considered to be a close friend, and addresses her in her role as an interviewer performing an unusual kind of interaction, which in the same move is “normalized”: this is an interview, it’s strange, but we’ll do it the way it should be done. The synchronization towards the format is complete in Laura’s case. Noura, by contrast, does not exit the interpersonal and intertextual frame, but engages in several turns of metapragmatic negotiation with the interviewer (also someone with whom she maintained a very friendly personal relationship), expressing discomfort and resistance to align with the format in utterances such as “dude” and “punt” (meaning “period”, “that’s it”). And while she does offer a kind of “profile answer” at some point, the answer is followed by a repeated request for clarification of what goes on. The chronotope of interpersonal friendship sits uncomfortably with that of the training interview, and synchronization is a process that demands quite a bit of construction work here. Note, however, that later in the interview Noura offers long and detailed autobiographical-narrative answers; the synchronization demands more work but happens eventually.

If Austin’s felicity conditions would be rigorously applied here, Noura’s initial response would perhaps be called “unhappy”, a “misfire”. Laura’s response would, from a similar perspective, be “correct” and “happy”, as it articulates the linear uptake of the interviewer’s action. From the viewpoint of making sense of the particular situation, however, Noura’s actions and those of Laura are equivalent and fit the format in spite of their substantial differences. What we can take from this is that uniformity in format does not guarantee uniformity in actions – a confirmation of Cicourel’s critique of assumptions to the contrary – and that diverse lines of action can occur within the same format, even if some actions are not linear responses to what preceded. Formats are not one-size-fits-all and linear–normative units.

Context collapse versus expansion

At this point, our action-centered proposal is complete: we see contextualization as the recognition of a situation through perceived order properties of such situations, that can be framed into formats, then guiding the actions of participants. We submit that it is applicable to interaction online and offline, since it avoids many of the core assumptions (and vocabulary) that are challenged by features of online interaction.

In studies of online interaction, “there are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized” (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992: 96). The advantages of that tactic can be illustrated by looking at an issue widely debated in the world of social media research: “context collapse”, i.e.

“the flattening out of multiple distinct audiences in one’s social network, such that people from different contexts become part of a singular group of message recipients”. (Vitak 2012: 541)

The theoretical and empirical validity of the concept of context collapse has been criticized by several discourse analysts (Georgakopoulou 2017a, 2017b; Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017; Szabla & Blommaert 2018). Indeed, online technology “complicates our metaphors of space and place, including the belief that audiences are separate from each other” (Marwick & boyd 2010: 115) and has taken us from a world of relatively transparent audiences to that of far less transparent “networked publics” (boyd 2011). But such complications cannot be solved by drawing on the sociological imagination we sketched earlier: that of “normal” dyadic face-to-face communication with well-known similar people in a tight community – which is what happens in the literature on context collapse. Such an anachronistic imagination spawns an abstract conceptualization of context as something which is only transparent when we situate humans in transparent situations in transparent communities, where “audiences” are known and trusted and people have full control over what they do in social action. When we move into the online world of online audiences and inconspicuous overhearers, of lurkers, aliases and bots, and of algorithms regulating the traffic and distribution of messages, such theoretical and analytic instruments obviously cease to be useful and have to be replaced by more flexible and precise ones.

In a case study of a long and highly complex discussion on a large Facebook group for Polish people living in The Netherlands, we used the action-centered perspective described here (Szabla & Blommaert 2018). At first glance, the case would be eminently qualified for context collapse: we had an enormous community of effective and potential participants, large enough to speak of a “networked audience” consisting of people who did not know each other. The lengthy nature of the online discussion may have disturbed our “metaphors of space and place” and the particular rudimentary platform affordances of Facebook may have complicated our expectations of coherence and sequentiality in dialogue, as responses to a prompt may not appear in adjacency but be separated by several intervening responses from others – a practical problem of synchronization, in fact. Facebook formats interactions in a curious way, and people may lose their bearings in such formats.

Our first empirical observation obviously complicated things further: the general activity of a “discussion” was, in actual fact, a mosaic of different actions, some linear and connected to the initial action (a request from a Polish-origin journalist for assistance in the making of a documentary on the labor conditions of Polish workers in The Netherlands) and many nonlinear, embedded and parallel to the initial action. People would indeed respond to the journalist’s request (and be redirected to the private messaging section of Facebook) but would also attack the orthographic errors in het Polish writing, discuss linguistic correctness in relation to Polish identity; they would accuse and scold each other on specific statements they had made, venture conspiracy theories about journalists and Polish émigrés, offer general observations about the work ethos of Polish and Dutch workers, and so forth. Each of these different lines of actions was normatively recognizable as a different chronotopic unit of participants, topics, orders of indexicality and moral codes, and was formatted accordingly.

The second observation, however, was that people found their way around this terrifically complex web of actions. The non-sequentiality of scripted Facebook interaction, the meandering of topics and participants and the generally confusing character of what went on did not appear as an obstacle for participants to participate in the specific parts of the event in which they got involved. We saw participation frameworks shift along with topic shifts, in such a way that just handfuls of people would be involved in an action, and know quite well who their actual addressees were and how they should proceed, and how they could migrate to another participation framework or exit the discussion when lines actions were closed. In other words: we saw plenty of congregational work shaping formats and subformats and connecting or disconnecting parts of the discussion from other parts. Participants made sense of the specific actions in which they were involved – they performed adequate contextualization work throughout, even if that included self- and other-correction and rectification, necessitated by the awkward Facebook discussion affordances. They recognized the specific situations, framed and formatted them into indexically ordered discursive actions. No contexts appeared to collapse; instead we saw an amazing density and intensity of contextualization work – context expansion, if you wish.


The example of context collapse versus context expansion brings us back to our point of departure: the need to rethink our commonly used notions of context and contextualization so as to make them useful and accurate for addressing a world of communication in which ordinary dyadic face-to-face conversation is no longer the Archimedian point and foundation for theory. Contemporary discourse analysts must be aware that the sociological imagination balancing on this Archimedian point is anachronistic, and that we cannot accurately address the phenomenology of contemporary communication without sacrificing that imagination. Doing that does not mean that we are left empty-handed to the task of analysis. We can fall back on reasonably robust tools and approaches that do not carry that bias of anachronism or can be refashioned so as to be free of it. In this chapter, we have made some proposals in that direction. Let they be a prompt for others to think along.


Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Auer, Peter & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) (1992) The Contextualization of Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Austin, John L. (1962) How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2015a) Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language in society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116

Blommaert, Jan (2015b) Pierre Bourdieu: Perspectives on language in society. In Jan-Ola Östman & Jef Verschueren (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics (2015): 1-16. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Blommaert, Jan (2018a) Durkheim and the Internet: Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London: Bloomsbury.

Blommaert, Jan (2018b) Chronotopes, synchronization and formats. Tilburg papers in Culture Studies paper  207. URL

Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2016) Chronotopic identities: On the spacetime organization of who we are. In Anna De Fina, Didem Ikizoglu & Jeremy Wegner (eds.) Diversity and Superdiversity: Sociocultural Linguistic Perspectives (GURT Series): 1-15 Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton (2016) Language and superdiversity. In Karel Arnaut, Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti (eds.) Language and Superdiversity: 21-48. New York: Routledge.

Blumer, Herbert (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Program and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (2000) “Making the economic habitus: Algerian workers revisited.” Ethnography 1(1): 17–41.

boyd, dana (2011), ‘White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook’, in Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (eds), Race after the Internet, 203–22, New York: Routledge.

Briggs, Charles (2005) Communicability, racial discourse and disease. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 269-291.

Carr, E. Sumerson & Michael Lempert (2016) Introduction: the pragmatics of scale. In E. Sumerson Carr & Michael Lempert (eds.) Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life: 1-23. Oakland: University of California Press.

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London: Blackwell.

Cicourel, Aaron (1964) Method and Measurement in Sociology. New York: The Free Press.

Cicourel, Aaron (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

Cicourel, Aaron (1974) Cognitive Sociology: Language and Meaning in Social Interaction. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.

Cicourel, Aaron(1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Das, Sonia (2016) Linguistic Rivalries: Tamil Migrants and Anglo-Franco Conflicts. New TYork: Oxford University Press.

Duranti, Alessandro (1997) Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Duranti, Alessandro & Charles Goodwin (eds.) (1992) Rethinking Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Georgakopoulou, Alexandra (2017a) ‘Whose context collapse?’ Ethical clashes in the study of language and social media in context. Applied Linguistics Review 8/2-3: 1-32.

Georgakopoulou, Alexandra (2017b) Small stories research: A narrative paradigm for the analysis of social media. In Anabel Quan-Haase & Luke Sloan (eds.) The Sage Handbook of Social Media Research Methods: 266-281. London: Sage.

Giddens, Anthony (1984) The Constitution of Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goodwin, Charles (2003) Embedded context. Research on Language and Social Interaction 36/4: 323-350.

Goodwin, Charles (2004) A competent speaker who can’t speak: The social life of aphasia. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14/2: 151-170.

Goodwin, Charles (2007), Participation, Stance and Affect in the Organization of Practice, Discourse and Society, 18 (1): 53–73.

Goodwin, Charles (2013) The co-operative, transformative organization of human action and knowledge. Journal of Pragmatics 46/1: 8-23.

Goodwin, Charles & Marjorie Harness Goodwin (1992) Context, activity and participation. In Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 77-99. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Goffman, Erving (1964)The neglected situation. American Anthropologist 66/6 (part 2): 133-136.

Goffman, Erving (1967 [1982]) Interactional Ritual. New York: Pantheon Books.

Goffman, Erving (1974 [1975]) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Grice, H. Paul (1975) Logic and conversation. In Peter Cole & Jerry Morgan (eds.) Syntax and semantics. 3: Speech acts: 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gumperz, John (1992) Contextualization revisited. In Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 39-53. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Gumperz, John (2003) Response essay. In Susan Eerdmans, Carlo Previgniano & Paul Thibault (eds.) Language and Interaction: Discussions with John J. Gumperz: 105-126. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Marwick, Alice &danah boyd (2010) I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media and Society 13/1: 114-133.

Mills, C. Wright (1959 [2000])The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rampton, Ben (2016) Foucault, Gumperz and Governmentality: Interaction, power and subjectivity in the 21st century. In Nikolas Coupland (ed.) Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates: 303-328. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scollon, Ron (2001) Mediated Discourse: The nexus of Practice. London: Routledge

Silverstein, Michael (1992). The indeterminacy of contextualization: When is enough enough? In Peter Auer & Aldo Di Luzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Silverstein, M. 2003.Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life.Language & Communication 23: 193-229

Strauss, Anselm (1993) Continual Permutations of Action. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Szabla, Malgorzata & jan Blommaert (2018) Does context really collapse in social media interaction? Applied Linguistics Review 9/2, https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2017-0119.

Tagg, Caroline, Philip Seargeant, Philip & Amy Brown (2017). Taking Offence on Social Media: Conviviality and Communication on Facebook. London: Palgrave Pivot.

Vitak, Jessica (2012) The impact of context collapse and privacy on social network site disclosures. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 56/4: 451-470.

Voloshinov, Valentin (1973) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.



The citizen in the European GDPR: We’re all data subjects now


Jan Blommaert

As of May 25, 2018, the new European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will be enforced. This new regulation took a long time to prepare and implement, for its scope is vast and its effects will be huge. Reading the voluminous documentation about the GDPR, especially when done with a moderate dose of critical discourse analysis, yields some puzzling and potentially disconcerting insights.

What is the GDPR about?

On the EU website dedicated to the GDPR, the aims of the regulation are described as follows: the GDPR “was designed to harmonize data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and empower all EU citizens data privacy and to reshape the way organizations across the region approach data privacy.” Even if the term “data privacy” is used as the element of coherence, we can anticipate something very complex here. We get a regulation that (a) creates legal uniformity regarding data privacy throughout the EU (and beyond); (b) in some way defines and delineates (and so presumably “empowers”) the data privacy rights of EU citizens, and (c) regulates and streamlines the ways in which data privacy is currently handled by “organizations”. The latter can be almost anything, from a boy scouts troupe to a multinational corporation, from a badminton club to a newspaper, from a university to a government department and internet provider. Knowing how the EU proceeds in its legislative work, one can only imagine the density of lobbying work that has preceded the GDPR, for almost anyone is affected by it.

Surely, data privacy is one of the most pressing concerns these days. The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook data leaks scandal is still being rolled out to the public, cybercrime (including identity theft, hacking and copyright violations) has become a top security priority, and all of us have had the pleasure of receiving emails from extraordinarily friendly people inviting us to re-activate our bank accounts or social security numbers by sending all our personal details over. So it is clear that something needed to be done about such new forms of risk in an online-offline world. And yes, in the GDPR there are long and carefully worded sections “empowering” citizens when it comes to data privacy.

But much more attention is given to the transactional aspects of personal data: the conditions and rights to acquire, store and use such data in commercial, security, research and other contexts. The GDPR codifies the age of the Internet of Things, of Big Data and of the many ways in which Big Data generates social, economic, cultural and political effects, most of them entirely new and, consequently, poorly regulated. The citizen’s rights to privacy are defined in a regulated world in which such data are traded, exchanged, merged, and analyzed by a tremendous range of other actors. And that is where things become intriguing.

From citizen to data subject

The text is what we would now call “posthuman”: human beings are not central in them. This becomes clear from the standard use of the term “data subject” in the GDPR rather than, for instance, “citizen”.  To understand the implications of that, we need to take one step back and consider the most fundamental definition in the GDPR, that of “personal data”. Personal data stands for “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person”. 

The “identifiable natural person” is equated with “data subject”. This is not self-evident, but the reason lies in the small phrase “directly or indirectly” when it comes to being identified. Such innocuous-looking frases always look crucial to the critical discourse analyst, for they are deliberately vague while tremendously inclusive. They create an almost infinite scope for what counts as “identification” and, by extension, “identity”.

For here is the thing: one can be “identified” not just by anything directly leading to the “natural person” but even more by aggregations of indirect data gathered by others and within others’ range of legitimate agency through almost every instrument currently in place. The GPS data of your mobile phone, the algorithms of your social media profiles and your Amazon.com shopping routines, the IP address of your computer, records of medical check-ups and footage from surveillance cameras or drones placing you somewhere: all of these are “identifiers” that generate personal dataBut without the “natural person” as an active, intentional agent – it is not the “natural person” who creates and controls these traces of identity. We are in the world of “profiling” here and, indeed, I can be “implicit in the algorithm” and identified as a bundle of correlated features only indirectly suggesting particular actions – to which actions I can be held accountable nonetheless.

Are such data still “personal”? Can they be reasonably used as “identifiers” not just of people but of their individual character, behavior and actual (intentional) actions? In a 2015 interview, European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli was clear: no. Butarelli saw a post-personal (or posthuman, as I called it) future ahead: “the concept of ‘personal data protection’ will disappear in the near future, as will the concept of ‘personal data’. We will all be easier to predict and identify even without data about our individual identities, it will be easier to reuse the information and group it together with other information and interpret it accordingly”. He went on: “The concept of ‘data-subject’ and therefore of the individual will in all likelihood disappear too, as we will be grouped together according to segments of information (…) The difference between ‘personal’ and ‘non-personal’ will then be blurred”. We are, in the most literal sense of the term, the profiles constructed of us by Big Data. And since, in the views of the European Data Protection Supervisor, we are facing the end of the individual, one should wonder what’s left of privacy?

Who owns “me”?

Most of the identifiers discussed in the GDPR are not created by the “natural persons” they index, I said. I must add: many of them are not even owned by these “natural persons.” We return to the core purpose of the GDPR here: it should enable and regulate the trading, exchange, storage and use of data about “natural persons” but by other commercial and noncommercial actors. Yes of course, the GDPR now stipulates that when personal data leading to an identifiable “natural person” are being used, these persons have to be informed and consent must be asked and obtained. The latter, however, is far from an absolute rule in the GDPR. There are several exceptions and there is a gigantic loophole under the label of “anonymized data” – the thing Butarelli alluded to when he spoke of people being grouped according to “segments of information” rather than anything properly “personal”. This, in actual fact, is what the term “data subjects” actually means: people grouped and identified as “type” or “category” X, Y, Z on the basis of Big Data aggregations, of specific combinations of data leading to specific profiles for people. Such constructions can sometimes lead to “individual identities”, as Butarelli said. But they need not.

The thing is that even if data are not properly “personal”, in the end they still are about, and from, “natural persons”, no matter what the degree of privacy protection is. After all, the entire thing revolves around identifiability, and even if the data gathered on me are used in “non-personal” ways, what is being done with such data can still have an impact on me. So there is a very wide space left for constructions of “me”, for which I can be held accountable in variable ways, but which have not been made by me, nor are they owned by me – profiles of me are creations and commodities made by others about me, and what the GDPR does well and in detail is to organize a firm legal footing for trading and exchanging such items in a Big Data market. Data subjects, in the sense just described, are the product in that market; if the specific data subject is me, I am a product, not an actor in the deal. Not much citizen empowerment can be observed in the process.

The clever play of words in EU texts such as the GDPR has, on many previous occasions, had the tactical advantage of silencing or delaying public debate. Public declarations on the GDPR will continue to foreground the phrase in which EU citizens are said to be empowered with respect to data privacy. A careful reading of this text, however, raises several large and pretty fundamental questions left unaddressed by the decision makers – and for that, too, precedents are plenty in the history of EU decision making.


Did anything happen in May 68?


Jan Blommaert

Half a century ago, a wave of revolt hit countries as far apart as Japan and Czechoslovakia, Germany and the US, Mexico and France. Certainly due to its high profile around the Parisian Quartier Latin, where students confronted the regime of the legendary General De Gaulle during riots in May and June of that year, the events were nicknamed “May 68”.  And under that name, the events became the object of heated controversy. The 50th anniversary of May 68 will be no exception to that.

Nothing has happened

As we know, May 68 in France ended when De Gaulle rallied his supporters and won the elections of June 1968 by a landslide. And it was the great French conservative thinker Raymond Aron who proclaimed shortly after the end of the revolt that rien ne s’est passé – nothing really happened in May 68. The order of De Gaulle’s republic had been restored, after all, and the bourgeoisie as well as the police state that were the joint targets of the revolt were still firmly in power.

While this version of the events became mainstream, another one was addded to this. May 68, claimed the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy, was a moral and culturalcrisis, a vague counterculture with unspecified values, nothing more. It was a revolt against the cultural patriarchism, the traditional (masculine) structures of authority and the puritan morality of a conservative society, and it was above all a movement of individual empowerment and liberation. Young kids just wanted to be free, free to listen to rock music, grow their hair and wear blue jeans, make love not war, and tell their fathers to mind their own business.

This, in the eyes of more radically conservative thinkers, had led to a moral anarchy, a radical relativism of identities, values and norms and an over-the-top rejection of what was stable, good and true. May 68 has since become a bête noire for the New Right, and for half a century now it has been consistently blamed for almost everything that went wrong in Western societies since the 1960s: immigration and multiculturalism, feminism, sexual promiscuity, the liberal use of drugs, the normalization of homosexuality, the attacks on what is seen as robust masculinity – in short, May 68 destroyed all that was normal in societies such as ours. But other than that, nothing had really happened. Nothing politically at least.

May 68 was a decade long

Well, I’m not so sure about that, because in such acccounts of what happened in May 68 only a fraction of the events is discussed. A decade of worldwide turmoil – the 1960s – is reduced to a couple of weeks in which students (and only students) threw bricks at the police and painted funny slogans on the walls of their university halls. Why they did that, and why in so many places and in this way, is conveniently deleted from the narrative. So let us look at some elements that surrounded May 68. We shall see that it was actually a decade long.

The students did not just paint funny slogans on walls; they openly, loudly and relentlessly criticized the system of power characterizing their societies: the power incorporated by De Gaulle in France, Johnson and Nixon in the US and the Communist Party in Prague. In all of these cases, the power regime was connected – openly, loudly and relentlessly – with the Cold War which had led to increasing militarization and more agressive policing, with millions of young men drafted into national military service on their respective sides of the Cold War divide, and with powerfully developed surveillance and repression resources aimed at (even moderate) public dissidence. In the West and elsewhere, the Vietnam war became the iconic object of protest; but it wasn’t the only issue.

Vietnam became iconic because it was part of the huge wave of decolonization that characterized the 1960s, and because it showed how decolonization had been swept up in the power play of the Cold War. The 1960s started with Fidel Castro proclaiming the end of US imperialism in Cuba, soon followed by the failed US-backed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs, and by the Cuban Missile Crisis that rendered the possibility of a nuclear apocalyps part palpable everywhere. The colonial empires were rapidly replaced by independent states, the leaders of which often proved reluctant to enter into neocolonial relations with their former rulers. Mao Zedong theorized the “Third World” as a catchword to define the refusal of newly independent states to choose sides in the Cold War; the US intervention in Vietnam, as well as several other interventions against the rulers of the newly independent states, proved that the the Cold War protagonists didn’t like such forms of non-alignment. This kind of intervention was called imperialism by the May 68 activists, and they rejected it. In their eyes, alternative (read: socialist) roads to development and sovereignty should be, at least, allowed.

They also rejected it because the Cold War overseas imperialism was mirrored by what they identified as the return of “fascism” at home. The Cold War imposed anticommunism as a state doctrine in all NATO member states, and this had concrete consequences. It meant, for instance, that after the post-War “denazification” purges, military and security staff recruitment in countries such as Germany and France now displayed a preference for people with strong right-wing sympathies (including actual ex-nazis and collaborators) over people favoring socialism or communism. Maurice Papon, the powerful police prefect of Paris in the first half of the 1960s, was such a former collaborator, but it took until 1981 before he was convicted for direct involvement in the death of Jewish subjects under the Vichy regime.

With chiefs such as Papon, the police assumed the shape of a military and intelligence outfit outspokenly aimed at crushing any form of action that could be seen as pro-Soviet, however far-fetched. In other countries, similar processes occurred, and the targets of heavy-handed police interventions often included trade unions and striking workers, suspected of (directly or indirectly) assisting the socialist cause and destabilizing society. In the UK, an Emergency Powers Act was introduced in 1964; in Germany, similar laws were voted in 1968 to quell the widespread political and labor protests. The general current was to increase the power of the forces of order while reducing the civil rights of citizens (certainly when they were organized), and to increase the use of police violence in cases of unrest. The 1960s ended with TV-footage of Chicago police forces brutally beating young demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and with National Guardsmen shooting at students on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio, killing four.

TV-footage in that decade also included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shooting of student leader Rüdi Dutschke in Germany and of two miners during a strike in Belgium, the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach and several Vietnamese Buddhist monks, and endless reports on bombings by American B52s in North Vietnam. The entire decade was one of unrest, large-scale dissidence and extreme violence. May 1968 was one moment in which much of this crystallized into a remarkable form of protest and rebellion, characterized by alliances between students and workers, men and women, urban and rural activists, black and white ones, intellectuals, artists, journalists, workers and lay people.

Everyone saw May 68

The 1960s ended also with another piece of historic TV-footage, seen across the world: the landing on the moon. And here is one dimension we should not overlook: the 1960s were the decade of television, of a new global mass media culture. And this, too, had an impact. TV-sets became a normal item in the homes of middle class and working class people alike all over the West, and with literacy levels rising, newspapers and magazines thrived. Jointly, the expansion of the new mass media created a globalized scale of image and content distribution which conclusively transformed the culture of the 20th century. Nothing remained outside the scope of the media now, even if it came from the exotic peripheries or from otherwise obscure corners of the world.

In the 1960s, not just the Beatles became global icons. Mao, Castro, Che, Nehru, Nasser, the Shah and the Negus, Nkrumah, Boumedienne and Kenyatta also rose to stardom. So did the North Vietnamese warriors Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong and General Giap, and so did the Czech anti-Soviet activists Jan Palach and Alexander Dubchek; so too did Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Among the most iconic images of the decade is that of the black US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in antiracist protest during the medals ceremony at the Mexico 68 Olympic Games. In the small Belgian village where I spent my childhood, my primary school teacher pinned the photo, cut from the local newspaper, on the wall of our classroom; it was there for months.

Vietnam and the Cold War imperialism it bespoke became a worldwide focus of protest and mass mobilization not just because the Cold War affected (and infected) large parts of the world. It became iconic because these parts of the world were now effectively connected by streams of media information and imageries. Vietnam was the first truly global mediatized war, which is why it became the object of effectively globalized protest and resistance and why such protest assumed similar shapes in very different places. Vietnam was the moment when the Cold War became a globalized object of reflection, analysis and popular imagination, affecting global as well as local issues. “Vietnam is in our factories” was a popular slogan among the French workers during the enormous strike that accompanied the student protests in May 68.

May 68, consequently, was a global mediatized event as well – perhaps the very first globally shown instance of popular mass protest in the West, and like Vietnam, a moment in which previously separate dots were connected. The protests were not parochial; people openly, loudly and relentlessly proclaimed international solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, in the factories as well as in the ex-colonies and in the jungles of Vietnam, with women, immigrants and the victims of institutional racism in South Africa and the US. Intellectually, the events accelerated the recognition of voices “from below” or “from the margins” (advocated by Sartre, but also by historians such as E.P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Carlo Ginzburg and sociologists such as Howard Becker). It also provoked a new critical study of power – with Foucault as its main architect – and it kickstarted the study of globalization processes (think of Immanuel Wallerstein) and worldwide structural inequalities (André Gunder Frank, for instance). It also laid the foundations for the international peace movement, the movement against nuclear weapons and movements for sustainable development and environmental awareness. In many ways, the world as we presently know it was shaped in the late 1960s. The effect of May 68 was massive, and it was above anything else, political.

Everything happened in May 68

The world as we presently know it is of course largely neoliberal and conservative. And this, too, can be partly attributed to May 68. I already mentioned the conservative backlash against the events of 1968 – the reduction of the events to a moral and cultural crisis, a loss of traditional values, a counterculture and so forth. But there is a more complex part to that story, which I can only briefly sketch here.

The focus on Vietnam in May 68, and the intellectual work that surrounded and followed it, marked the end of classical imperialism as a viable doctrine. It was effectively destroyed by the challenge of tiers-mondist (“Third-World-ist”) worldwide solidarity, framed initially by Mao Zedong’s theory of Third World non-alignment. But this challenge, in turn, caused old-style imperialism to be transformed into an amalgamation of neoliberalism and ethnocentrism. Both took another decade to enter into full force, and the end of the Cold War turned them into the cornerstones of a new world order.

Through neoliberalism, the neocolonial ties between the First and the Third Worlds could be rationalized, depoliticized and made “objective” in the form of purely economic, financial and monetary transactional relationships. At the same time, domestic social unrest could be equally turned anodyne, by reducing the political reading of class antagonisms to a depoliticized reading of balance sheets, efficiency and human resources management. The politics of inequality was converted into the economics of equal opportunities and free enterprise.

The political dimension of imperialism morphed into a heavily moralized ethnocentrism, in which “objective” racial, class and civilizational superiority was replaced by individualized, case-based judgments of moral compatibility. People in, say, Congo or Sierra Leone should no longer be seen as victims of extremely disadvantageous rates of exchange in the world markets and of exploitation by multinational corporations extracting surplus value without fair return. They were victims of corrupt leaders and warlords, and the latter – the Third World leaders – should “take responsibility” for their people’s well being. Worldwide solidarity was replaced by “we cannot solve all their problems”. And as for immigrants from such countries, they could always be accused of refusing to contribute to their country’s progress, and of not fitting in the codes of norms and values of their host societies. As Balibar and Wallerstein outlined in the early 1990s, class struggle and race theory had been replaced by softer, but equally effective discourses of cultural and moral compatibility. Similar discourses of moral and cultural compatibility can be (and are) deployed with respect to “domestic” issues of deviance and marginalization. “Hard” political analysis has been replaced by a rhetoric of blame, responsibility and character.

Raymond Aron was quite wrong in his appraisal of May 68. Those who now try to reduce its scope and impact to rock and roll, LSD, and flowers in one’s hair are quite wrong as well, as are those who rant against the “May 68 generation” as the architects of a society of hedonistic individualists devoid of any respect for values, traditions and norms. May 68 was above all else a political event in which a lot was reimagined and redefined. The worldwide protests laid bare some of the major fissures and contradictions of the post-war world; they shaped modes of globalized social, political and intellectual action that marked the end of that part of the 20th century and the beginning of the part that spilled over into the 21st century. May 68 was big, very big.



The pleasures of an alias on social media.


Jan Blommaert

One of the intriguing things I keep hearing from people who are active on social media is that they use an alias there, because the use of their real name would prevent them from ‘being myself’. This always triggers a critical question from me: isn’t your real name part of your core identity? And how can you be really yourself when you avoid using that absolute and primary identity label of yours – your real name?

While the point might seem trivial to some, it is quite a challenge to widespread perceptions of what it is to be ‘real’. In his classic Seeing like a state, James Scott explained at great length how important the use of fixed and structured personal names was for the emerging nation-states of Modernity. The names we got (often somewhere in the 18th-19th century) became the alfa and omega of the bureaucratic system of governance: when a name could be conclusively stuck onto an individual, that individual was ‘known’ and could be treated as a subject with rights, entitlements, duties and obligations derived from bureaucratically administered laws and rules. We carry our names, consequently, on a range of identity documents: passport, social security or health insurance card, driver’s license, staff card, library card, and so forth; we write and read our names on the top of thousands of official documents that regulate our everyday lives. Why? Because our names identify us as real, as really existing persons that can be identified, held responsible, involved or excluded from social and political processes. In view of that, avoiding to use your real name, hiding it from others or giving a false name when asked for it, is strongly associated with deviance, abnormality, transgression, crime.

On social media, however, the practice is widespread. Very large numbers of otherwise decent and upstanding citizens operate ‘undercover’, if you wish, hiding behind the mask of a bogus name and arguing that it is this mask that enables them to be ‘real’ in interactions with others on social media. It shows us how different the rules and codes of social media interaction are, and how these technologies have shaped a different area of social action operating alongside those of the ‘real’ world of nation-state bureaucratic and social life.

The people I know and with whom I had the occasion to talk to about this practice argued that an alias grants them a modicum of freedom of speech on social media. In that sense, it offered them some degree of freedom to speak freely, without the obstacles and restrictions generated by offline life. Their real names, as said above, connect them to the rights and entitlements, but also the restrictions of offline existence, and such restrictions might be compelling. Their employers, for instance, might not be amused by some of the Tweets posted by known employees; such expressions of individual opinion and subjectivity could get them into trouble with political patrons, relatives or other members of the offline communities in which they function. The structures of their ‘real’ offline social existence, in short, prevent them from speaking freely in the public sphere generated by social media.

The use of an alias, thus, is usually an effect of conscious and calibrated decisions in which the opportunities of the online public culture are weighed against the conventional restrictions of offline public culture. Different sets of norms and codes of conduct are measured against each other, and the conclusion for these people is that you can only be uniquely and really yourself on social media when you delete or mask your real name – when you become someone else or remain an anonymous voice, in other words.

I see this as part of ‘the care of the selfie’. We are familiar with the argument developed by a range of scholars, from Foucault to Goffman, that our social existence in Modernity is dependent on large and infinitely detailed sets of norms and regulations for impression management, aimed at appearing as a ‘normal’ subject in the eyes of others. These norms and regulations are socially sanctioned, and all of us are invited to internalize and incorporate them through self-regulation and self-censorship – the things Foucault called ‘the care of the self’. What the use of aliases on social media demonstrates, I think, is how this offline care of the self is now complemented by similar sets of norms and regulations governing our online social lives. The use of aliases, along with a range of other practices, is part of a constructed ‘selfie’, an identity designed solely for online presence.

When meticulously constructed, maintained and applied, this selfie offers us the pleasures of aspects of social life not attainable elsewhere. Or, if you wish, it offers us membership into a community culture that runs in conjunction with the cultures of offline communities but can no longer be detached from it. Which is why we can be truly ourselves there in very different ways from those we practice elsewhere.

ScreenHunter_1182 Apr. 21 10.30





Take care of your CV!!


Jan Blommaert

On contemporary identity asset management

My university offers students a range of tools and tips for a particular genre of autobiography: the curriculum vitae or CV. The CV is considered of great importance in view of future careers, and in view of that, students are encouraged to start hoarding valuable CV elements, which then need to be handled very much in the ways asset managers handle real capital.

Surely, my university is not the odd one out. In fact, a brief search on the internet yields enormous numbers of CV-supporting resources, from standard CV templates and “best practice” examples  to “how to” sites and online courses or training packages suggesting ways to brush up, polish or customize the potentially less appealing aspects of your CV and turn you into the best product on the labor market.

The CV and who you really are

I often ask my students the following question. Imagine you fancy someone and want to date him or her; imagine you manage to get a date, and during that first encounter your interlocutor hands you his or her CV, saying: “it’s all in there”. Would you go on dating him or her? Would you accept a CV as an adequate way to really get to know that person? And if not, why not? Isn’t your CV supposed to be a truthful account of the curriculum of your vita? Or is the CV a lie?

Students usually dismiss the question with arguments such as “hey, I don’t want to employ that person, I want to date him or her”. And dating, naturally, demands an identity presentation which is very different from the one you would offer a potential employer. In dating, you want to meet the real person, while when you apply for a job, it’s about what you have to offer to do that job. A CV is a selection, let’s say, of one’s autobiography. A selection specifically tailored to the demands of an economic role. And sure, you should not lie in your CV. But no, you should equally not tell everything to your potential employer. With someone you date you equally should not lie, but there should be a measure of completeness in your identity presentation: you’re also not supposed to hold back things from each other.  In dating, you must see the entire person. This is common sense.

Or is it? There are studies pointing out that finding employment in a liberalized and flexible labor market involves vastly more than just displaying and accounting for “professional” qualifications, and that employers increasingly emphasize personality features as elements for employability: dynamism, natural leadership, optimism, energy, eagerness and determination. So there too, we see that withholding the entire person from the potential employer’s gaze can play against you. The potential employer, for instance, may find additional, contradictory or qualifying information on you through your social media accounts, and such information can jeopardize your career chances. So while the CV is, indeed, a selection of your autobiography, other parts of it also play a role. The division between a work-oriented identity presentation and one intended for personal relationships is no longer that clear cut.

Identity asset management

This is, in fact, stressed by my university’s career center.

“Your CV will not stand out if you did not undertake any extracurricular activities. Therefore you should start building up a good CV during your student days. The most useful strategy is to gear your extracurricular activities to the job you are envisaging after your graduation.”

Such extracurricular activities include serving on a student board, promoting student participation and taking extra courses. Elsewhere in my university, posters and flyers tell me that joining the student union on foreign trips is a “boost to your CV”, that spending a term in a foreign university equally provides extra CV dash, and that learning foreign languages is a highly valuable asset for your CV. Employers – so one suggests – will be able to read precisely these non-formal identity features off your CV when they see such extracurricular points there. That is when your CV will “stand out”.

The logic behind all of this is an economic logic. It has been described by numerous scholars, including Michel Foucault, as a neoliberal logic in which individuals are strongly encouraged to “privatize” themselves, turn themselves into a micro-enterprise in a competitive market where one has to “stand out” in order to win. They must do so by means of a permanent autobiography, a continuously reorganized and enriched story about who they are. And they must do the latter by a form of hoarding – by accumulating and amalgamating separate items of identity, judged to be valuable in the terms of the market, and perpetually performing what can best be called identity asset management to it. The valuable identity items – identity assets – need to be accumulated, invested, maximized as to return-on-investment, traded and submitted to the value estimations of numerous others.

Take care of your CV

Foucault uses the term “veridiction” for such phenomena. We have strong beliefs that particular forms of identity presentation are “the truth” – which is why you cannot lie in your CV. Your identity assets, seen from that angle, are small chunks of “truth” about yourself. Yes, you did obtain an MA degree in 2016, and yes, you also did take Intermediate Italian evening classes in your graduation year. But, Foucault underscores, this “truth” is, in actual fact, a social truth, a truth fashioned according to the formats proposed by others. Yes, most of us have internalized the criteria of others, believing that they are our own (and, thus, absolute as a truth). But support infrastructures such as my university’s career center show that these criteria are very much out there, and that internalizing them requires a learning and socialization process.

Which is why your assets have to be managed. You have to constantly upgrade and rearrange them, expand and reconfigure them, withdraw them from low-yield investments and reinvest them in high-yield ones, so as to “stand out” whenever you have to stand out. Your identity is your real and lasting private assets fund, and you need to manage it well – carefully when needed, aggressively when possible. And you need to do this because the social criteria for identity asset value are unstable, fluctuating and volatile – like “the markets” in general – and your identity capital’s value depends on such fluctuating valuations.

Identity asset management is the format of truth

I now have to return to the dating-and-CV example above. Students made a distinction between the specific and selective character of the CV as a genre tailored for an economic context, and the completeness of the person we seek in dating. I gave one qualification already: also in the economic context we see the expectation of completeness when it comes to identity presentation. You need to be more than just labor force, you need to be the most interesting and fabulous person on earth in order to get the job we offer.

There is a second qualification as well. When we examine dating apps – and there are many of them, and tens of millions of people use them – we see how the logic of identity asset management is played out on these platforms as well. Profiles on dating sites are equally a highly selective and specific composition of identity assets, not made for the labor market but for the market of friendship, love and sex. And these identity assets are managed whenever anyone swipes the screen or adds a comment to someone else’s profile or messages.

As zones of social activity, dating and employment may have more in common than what common sense suggests. What we can see is that both are affected by the same economic logic of identity asset management, even if the particular “fund” of assets might be very different. In this online-offline world of ours, this form of identity presentation may have become a format of truth. Or at least, it may be well underway to becoming such a format.