Are chronotopes helpful?


Jan Blommaert

Why do we need another word for context?

I get this question repeatedly whenever I use the term “chronotope”: do we really, truly need yet another word for context? Don’t the current terms we have do the job satisfactorily? What’s new about chronotopes?[1]

I usually give not one but several answers to that question. One answer is general and refers to a practice that is at the core of scientific work. We need new terms, or renewed terms, often for no other reason than to check the validity of old ones. Neologisms, from that angle, are crucial critical Gedankenspiele that remind us of the duty of continuous quality control of our analytical vocabulary. And if the Gedankenspiel is played well, it often enables us to see how the existing concepts they critically interrogate have become flattened, turned into a passe-partout or a rather uninformative routine gesture in talk and writing. Chronotope invites us to critically check the ways in which we use the term “context” in a wide range of disciplines within the study of language in society. If, in the end, the community of peers in this discipline decide that “context” is still more useful and valuable than “chronotope”, it will be a much more accurate, precise and analytically transparent notion of “context” that will prevail, and “chronotope” will have done what it had to do.

A second answer is a disclaimer. One concept should never be expected to do all of the work in theory and analysis. It should do a bit of work, in conjunction with several others. And the point is to find the precise bit of work that can be done satisfactorily by that concept within a broader conceptual structure.

A third answer follows onto the previous one. It is of a different nature and also responds to the “what’s new” question. One should point out that the particular conceptualizations of context for which we can now use the term “chronotope” are not new at all, and that, in fact, the use of “chronotope” may help us to precisely capture that particular trend of studies of text-and-context. I could refer here to a large body of existing literature, but three clear instances can suffice: Aaron Cicourel’s (1992) classic paper on the “interpenetration” of contexts in medical encounters; Michael Silverstein’s (1997) analysis of the “improvisational” nature of realtime discursive practice; and Charles Goodwin’s (2002) discussion of “time in action”, in which specific temporalities, realtime as well as invoked, pattern and co-organize the interactional work done by participants. What brings these examples together is:

  • A view of context as a specific set of features both affecting and producing specific modes of social action;
  • in which such features have very clear and empirically demonstrable timespace characteristics – the actual timespace constellation is the determining feature for understanding the actual text-context patterns we observe;
  • in which some of these features can be carried over, so to speak, into different timespace constellations while others are non-exportable.
  • and in which a precise understanding of timespace configurations is essential to account for a great deal of the sociocultural work performed in interaction.

I shall briefly elaborate this particular view of context in what follows. Chronotope, I shall argue, can play a role within the broader conceptual structure developed within that tradition.

From situation to chronotope

It should not be hard to grasp the specific nature of the conceptualization of context I outlined above in contradistinction with several other trends of usage. In earlier work (Blommaert 2005, chapter 3) I surveyed some of the various ways in which context is used in analysis, pointing out flaws in mainstream usages of the notions in Conversation Analysis and Critical Discourse Analysis. Of the former, I argued that a conception of context reduced to the intra-interactional forms of demonstrable inference was untenable; of the latter I said that a priori statements about contextual “influences” on discourse, for which discourse analysis would merely provide a symptomatic demonstration, would not do either. We can add to this that restrictions of context to purely cognitive universes for inference or to the inferential material that ensures text cohesion and coherence are equally inadequate (for discussions, see Duranti & Goodwin 1992).

All of them, I would suggest, fail to take into account “the situation” as defined in the linguistic-ethnographic tradition (for a classic statement, see Goffman 1964; also Hymes 1974; Silverstein 1992; Scollon 2001; Scollon & Scollon 2004). Let us recall how Goffman stated the problem.

A student interested in the properties of speech may find himself having to look at the physical setting in which the speaker performs his gestures, simply because you cannot describe a gesture fully without reference to the extra-bodily in which it occurs. And someone interested in the linguistic correlates of social structure may find that he must attend to the social occasion when someone of given social attributes makes his appearance before others. Both kinds of students must therefore look at what we vaguely call the social situation. And that is what has been neglected. (Goffman 1964: 134)

Goffman connects two elements here, both of which appear as compelling contextual factors in analysis. First, there is the “physical setting” within which interaction occurs – the actual timespace constellation within which people encounter each other, in other words.[2] Goffman adds to this a second element: “the social occasion”. The latter is defined (with an oblique reference to Durkheim’s “social fact”) as “a reality sui generis” within any social system, and it stands for the rules of participation and communicative behavior that provide “scripts”(if you wish) ordering concrete communicative events between people who carry “given social attributes”. Both elements – note – are coordinated in actual interactional events. It is this dialectic of mutual influences between settings and social scripts that shapes the “joint social orientation” characterizing social interaction, which enables Goffman (id: 135) to provide his own, interactional, definition of the social situation:

I would define a social situation as an environment of mutual monitoring possibilities, anywhere within which an individual will find himself accessible to the naked senses of all others who are “present” and similarly find them accessible to him.

As we know, much of Goffman’s work was focused on the precise description of specific social situations – think of the poker game in Encounters (1961) and the lecture in Forms of Talk (1981) In each of these situations, Goffman emphatically pointed to the ways in which situations came with sets of conditions on participation, rules of engagement and forms of communicative action. Concrete and socioculturally recognizable timespace configurations involve nonrandom modes of social action and lead to specific social effects – that is the major insight we can get from Goffman’s oeuvre, and which resonates with the work of scholars inscribed in the same lines of inquiry (e.g. Garfinkel 2002; Goodwin & Goodwin 1992; Scollon & Scollon 2004). It is this insight for which I believe chronotopes to be a helpful gloss.

Bakhtin’s chronotope

The concept of chronotope used here has, as we know, its origins in the work of Bahktin (1981, 1986), and it is good to pause and consider some crucial aspects of the way in which Bakhtin designed it.[3]

A first observation, often overlooked, is that Bakhtin’s chronotope is grounded in a profoundly sociolinguistic concept of language: it is not an autonomous or separate object (as in mainstream linguistics), but entirely entangled with concrete aspects of the social world. Bakhtin sees language in its actual deployment (as e.g. in a novel) as a repository of “internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its historical existence” (Bakhtin 1981: 263; see the discussion in Agha 2007b). At any moment of performance, the language (or discourse, as Bakhtin qualifies it) actually used will enable an historical-sociological analysis of different “voices” within the social stratigraphy of language of that moment: Bakhtin’s key notion of heteroglossia – the delicate “dialogical” interplay of socially (ideologically, we would now say) positioned voices in e.g. a novel – is the building block of a “sociological stylistics” (id. 300).

Two important points are attached to this. First, this sociological stylistics is necessarily historical,and note that the notion of “historical” in Bakhtin’s work is never a purely chronological one, but a timespace one. In actual analysis, the historical aspect operates via a principle of indexicality, in which a genre feature such as “common language (…) is taken by the author precisely as the common view, as the verbal approach to people and things normal for a given sphere of society” (id. 301; cf. also Rampton 2003). Form is used to project socially stratified meaning (“verbal-ideological belief systems”, id. 311), and this indexical nexus creates what we call “style”, for it can be played out, always hybridized, in ways that shape recognizable meaning effects “created by history and society” (id. 323).

Two: this historical aspect is tied to what we can call “valuation”. The historically specific heteroglossic structure of actual forms of language means that understandingthem is never a linear “parsing” process; it is an evaluative one. When Bakhtin talks about understanding, he speaks of “integrated meaning that relates to value – to truth, beauty and so forth – and requires a responsive understanding, one that includes evaluation” (Bakhtin 1986: 125). The dialogical principle evidently applies to uptake of speech as well, and such uptake involves the interlocutor’s own historically specific “verbal-ideological belief systems” and can only be done from within the interlocutor’s own specific position in a stratified sociolinguistic system. Nothing, consequently, is neutral in this process – not even time and space, as his discussion of chronotope illustrates.

Bakhtin designed chronotope to express the inseparability of time and space in historical social action. The “literary artistic chronotope”, where “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole”, could be seen as “a formally constitutive category of literature” (1981: 84), as the thing that could enable us to actually and precisely understand works of literature as socio-historically situated acts of communication. Bakhtin saw chronotopes as an important aspect of the novel’s heteroglossia, part of the different “verbal-ideological belief systems” that were in dialogue in a novel and gave the novel the historical meaning potential with which readers had to engage.

Moralized behavioral scripts

We can now look at how Bakhtin’s chronotope can assist us in giving a more precise analytical orientation to Goffman’s social situation. I want to highlight two major points.

A first and obvious step forward is that we can see the social situation as intrinsically historical and therefore loaded with language-ideological affordances – “orders of indexicality”, we can say (Silverstein 2003; Blommaert 2005; also Scollon & Scollon 2004). It is the historicity of situations that accounts for the defining trigger of communication: recognizability (cf. Garfinkel 2002). It is when a situation emerges of which we can recognize (or believe to recognize) the sociocultural status that we can shift into the modes of interactional behavior that “make sense” in and of such a situation. We do so, as e.g. Bourdieu (1991) and Hymes (1996) emphasized, under conditions and constraints generated by (equally historical) sociolinguistic inequalities – it is wise to remind ourselves of the fact that we rarely enter social situations as perfectly finished products of smooth socialization (cf. Blommaert 2008).

A second advantage we can draw from Bakhtin’s insights and add to Goffman’s, is that understanding – “making sense” of interaction in actual situations – is evaluative and refers not just to the linguistic codes of expression but to a broader complex of rules for social conduct. In social situations, we make evaluative judgments of the participants (including ourselves); such judgments are indexically grounded and project identities onto concrete modes of conduct. Goffman’s work is replete with such moments of situated identity judgment, in which an interactional move can be swiftly turned into a perception of awkwardness – which is a judgment of the person through the lens of his/her interactional conduct. Indexicality, we can see here, is entirely tied up with identity (a thing we already know: Agha 2007a), and is entirely moral whenever it takes the shape of what is called “appropriateness”, “felicity” or “adequacy” in the literature on pragmatics (e.g. Austin 1962).

We can now be far more precise and specific with respect to what Goffman called the social situation. Specific timespace configurations (think of Goffman’s lecture hall) demand and impose specific moralized behavioral scripts offering affordances and imposing constraints on what can be recognized as “meaningful” interaction in such situations. Scripts include participation frameworks – not everyone is a ratified participant in, e.g., a lecture, and the specific roles of participants are quite compellingly defined. They also sketch a plot or event structure, as well as the “adequate” semiotic resources to be deployed in an order of indexicality we will recognize as “appropriate” within the specific chronotope. A lecturer, thus, is expected to lecture in a lecture hall during a time slot defined as a “lecture”, and members of the audience are expected to attend in silence, listen, perhaps make notes or recordings, and react appropriately to discursive prompts given by the lecturer. As soon as the lecture is over, the entire script changes, identities and participant roles are redefined, and an entirely different set of rules for social conduct replaces that of the lecture.

Chronotopes and social life

I hope that I have given arguments demonstrating the usefulness of chronotope as a way of summarizing, and making more accurate, the tradition of approaching context sketched at the outset of this chapter. The notion of chronotope invites us to treat aspects of context often dismissed or summarily taken into account in branches of scholarship, and to treat them with utmost precision as nonrandom elements of social situations that may account for much of how people make sense of social structure in actual moments of social action (to paraphrase Cicourel’s 1974: 46 words). Everyday social life can be seen, from this perspective, as a sequence of such chronotopically defined situations through which we continuously move, adapting and adjusting in the process our identities and modes of conduct in interaction with others.

A sequence, thus, of “environments of mutual monitoring possibilities” as Goffman expressed it, each of which comes with specific sets of norms – the moralized behavioral scripts mentioned above. This is why a dinner table conversation has a particular character (e.g. Ochs & Shohet 2006) fundamentally different from that of  a social media interaction session (Tagg et al 2017), interactions in a hospital operation theater (Bezemer et al. 2014), during a court hearing (Stygall 1994) or during a session in which an archaeology instructor explains minute differences between kinds of soil to students (Goodwin 1994). This is also why we can instantly shift from a quiet, withdrawn and “mind-my-own-business” mode of conduct on a public bus into a chatty and engaged one when a friend gets on and sits next to us, and why we know that we cannot (or at least should not) talk to our children the way we talk to our colleagues at work. Each situation in which we find ourselves in everyday social life involves such shifts in normative-behavioral orientation. If we fail to make such shifts, we are swiftly categorized by others in categories ranging from “awkward” to “antisocial” or “abnormal”.

So, yes indeed, I do think chronotope is helpful as a tool in our analytical toolkit. The least we can say is that it satisfies the first function of new terms, specified in the introductory part of this chapter: it provides a critical check of the validity and analytical power of the term “context”. It allows us to observe the many superficial and inadequate ways in which that older term is being used, and to suggest more precise understandings of it. The latter may take the shape of a new collocation: “chronotopic contexts”.


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[1]I am grateful to Sjaak Kroon and Jos Swanenberg for stimulating discussions on this topic over the past number of years, and for asking me to contribute them to this book. Anna De Fina greatly helped me in my attempts to formulate chronotopic context and its effects, see Blommaert & De Fina (2016).

[2]The “physical setting” of interaction, one can note, is often relegated to the “S” in disastrously simplistic usages of Hymes’ SPEAKING framework for ethnographic-comparative description – “Setting and Scene”. It is then confined to a quick-and-easy sketch of the material layout and physical circumstances under which interaction takes place, overlooking the “scene” in Hymes’ framework – the actual ways in which material environments condition and enable the forms of action occurring. Lots of examples could be given here; the reader can refer to those given in Blommaert (2005: chapter 3). For a far more sophisticated discussion, see e.g. Bezemer et al. (2014).

[3]The following paragraphs draw on Blommaert (2015), and I refer the reader to that paper for more extensive discussion. Blommaert (2018) adds to the discussion by focusing on cross-chronotope connections.



Author: jmeblommaert

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

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