From structures to constructures

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Jan Blommaert 

Sociolinguistics has over the past six decades provided a wealth of empirical evidence of great theoretical value, while it has quite consistently failed to formulate crucial insights as more generally valid social and cultural theories (cf. Williams 1992; Coupland 2016). In the “Durkheim and the internet” project, I extract and formulate theories from contemporary sociolinguistic research inflected, notably, by research on the connection between online and offline phenomena. The goal is to formulate social and cultural theories often fundamentally revising dominant ones, or, alternatively, lending support to views articulated earlier but left largely underexplored.

Several building blocks for the “Durkheim and the Internet” project are available in embryonic shape here. See, for instance, the essays on mobility, context and the chronotope, chronotopic identities, on conviviality and new social formations on social media, on the notion of culture, and several others. In what follows, I will offer some brief reflections on “structure” – as in “social structure” or “structuration theory”.

What I wish to avoid

Let me first sketch the field of arguments in which I shall situate my reflections. I wish to steer clear from two quite widespread frames of reference for discussing structure.

  • First, “structure”, certainly in a Lévi-Straussian variety of structuralism, has acquired strong suggestions of absoluteness, abstractness, predictability, anonymity, a-temporality and staticity. Structure, as the guiding value system of a society, is that which provides enduring stability to a social system and makes it resilient – as Parsons suggested – to the onslaught of cultural revolutions from within youth culture (Parsons 1964). And even if structure is the outcome of active structuration at a variety of scale levels in social life (Giddens 1984; Thompson 1984), most scholars would still use the term to describe dominant (if not determining) rules, values or principles driving the development of societies across spacetime. It is also quite often presented as a social force operating below the level of consciousness and agency of people, a set of tacit and not always “emicly” well-understood aspects of social life.
  • Two, “structure” is often seen as something antagonistic to “postmodernist” and “mobility/complexity” approaches to social life. While traditional (“modernist”) social science would be on the side of anonymous structure, “postmodernist” science would favor individual agency and thus become at once “poststructuralist” – in an unrealistic either/or frame in which methodological preferences appear to lead directly to ontological strictures. (Nik Coupland walks into the trap of such false antagonism: 2016: 440-442). It is rarely observed that scholars such as Bourdieu and Foucault do not just reject any concept of structure but reject a specific one: the Lévi-Straussian one referred to above. They reject a certain kind of structuralism (“poststructuralism” would be more accurately defined as “post-Lévi-Straussism”) but not “the structural” as a dimension of social systems. In general, this false antagonism often renders more nuanced understandings of structure impossible.

Since I am very much on the side of mobility/complexity in this debate, I am likely to be misread, given the lines of debate just sketched. Many fail to recognize that complexity is not the absence of order, but a different kind of order. I shall therefore use another term to make my point. Rather than using “structure”, I shall use “constructure” in what follows. New terms enable us to examine the validity of the older ones, and they also afford some measure of detachment from unwarranted intertextual readings. “Constructure” is not technically speaking a neologism – it is an archaic term that offers a nice collocation of “structure” and “construction” (and, if you wish, “conjuncture”). The term “construction”, as can be seen, can easily be changed into “agency”, and so we have a concept in which both dimensions, often seen as antagonistic, are heuristically and analytically joined.

Constructures

The baseline assumption – one that, I hope, is unproblematic – is that any social event is structured: there is always “order” in any observed social event. But from a complexity perspective on sociolinguistic phenomena and processes, this order is always:

  • dynamic and unstable: order is always a temporally contingent quality because systems are perpetually unfolding and changing; (E.g. describing language at one point in time will necessarily result in a description which is different from what was current a generation ago, as well as from what will be current in the next generation).
  • unfinished: given the perpetual change, any momentary observation of “order” will contain open-ended, quickly evolving features anticipating new forms of “order”; it will also contain features that are contested and conflictual, and features in the process of being eliminated or established; (E.g. archaisms and neologisms, short-lived as well as more lasting ones, are always part of any synchronic observation of language).
  • non-unified: any “order” consists of a mixture of different forces, developing at different speeds and with different scope and range; (E.g. the different registers and genres in anyone’s repertoire have different speeds of development, with “standard” registers usually slower in development than e.g. youth registers – hence our sense of “trendiness”).

In these different forces, we are used to reserve the term “structure” for the slower, more persistent forces, the durée. I suggest we avoid this distinction and consider the entire mix when we use the term “constructure”, because given the complexity perspective, there is no telling a priori which of the features in the mix will determine future developments – change often happens in the margins and begins a statistical minority or exception, often negatively qualified. Think of the spectacular rise of emoticons as part of several mainstream genres of writing nowadays. Emoticons have not replaced the conventional forms of alphabetic writing – we still write from left to right, and we still use the conventional “orthographic” symbols we associate with the written form of the language we are using. Emoticons have been added to the mix of contemporary writing, so to speak, they represent what we could call a “light” feature, blended with the “big” features of conventional orthography.

Constructures are, thus, a permanently unfolding mix of various separate “structures”, the momentary deployment of which in social practice grants the latter a degree of orderliness, recognizable and ratifiable for others.

Constructures as change

In constructures, we can unify traditional notions of “structure” and “agency”; slightly rephrased, we have a tool for recognizing two essential characteristics of social life – iterativity and performativity. Most of the behavior we deploy socially is overwhelmingly iterative, but slightly inflected by unique, creative and situated performativity – something Piia Varis and I earlier called “culture as acccent” (Blommaert & Varis 2015).

Observe that I do not equate iterativity with “stability” and performativity with “change”. The entire mix is continuously changing, including the “iterative” aspects of it. Detaching the performative “accent” from the iterative “structure” obscures the fact that, for people in everyday practice, the “accent” is often the essence of what they perceive as meaningful in social action. And it is by means of the performative “accent” that the iterative features of behavior are also transformed into unique and creative characteristics of specific social actions performed by specific people. To make a superficial comparison: every novel is a token of a genre-type “novel”; but we have our favorite novels as well as novels we can’t possibly enjoy because of the actual unique “accent” brought to each novel by its author. And the entire genre changes due to such unique, individual and innovative acts of creation, all of which develop within the genre of the novel.

Rather than as a concept that points towards the stability of social systems – the simplistic interpretation of “structure”, noted above – constructure thus points to the permanently changing nature of social systems. When we read Erving Goffman’s observations on social life in the US of the 1950s and 1960s, we can still recognize a great deal of it today, even if much of our social life these days is performed in a social space that didn’t exist in Goffman’s world: the virtual space of social media. Interaction in this virtual world is organized along different sets of norms many of which differ strongly from the ones Goffman detected in face-to-face engagements. Online sociality, however, has not replaced the Goffmanian world of social interaction – the mix has changed. Which is why we can still recognize ourselves in Goffman’s work, even if we realize that large chunks of our lives are led in very different ways. The constructures have changed.

References

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2015) Enoughness, Accent, and Light Communities: Essays on Contemporary Identities. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 139. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs/item-paper-139-tpcs.htm

Coupland, Nikolas (2016) Five Ms for sociolinguistic change. In Nikolas Coupland (ed.)Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates: 433-454. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, Anthony (1984) The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Parsons, Talcott (1964) Social Structure and Personality. New York: Free Press.

Thompson, John B. (1984) Studies in the Theory of Ideology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Williams, Glyn (1992) Sociolinguistics: A Sociological Critique. London: Longman.

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Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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