Constructing and consolidating chronotopes

A man dressed in traditional Ukrainian Cossack clothes smokes in a phonebooth during a rally to support EU integration in Kiev

Jan Blommaert

(Discussant’s comments, panel on Mobility, marginality and meaning: A chronotopic approach, convenors Lydia Catedral and Farzad Karimzad. IPrA Conference, Hong Kong, June 2019)

There are several things that I find extraordinarily inspiring about this panel and in what follows, I shall unfortunately have to restrict myself to comments on a small selection of themes only. I will formulate my comments from the position of a participant in an ongoing conversation, and not from that of a critical reviewer. The latter position would presuppose an authority I cannot, and do not wish to claim for myself. Even if many papers in the panel draw on aspects of my work, that work is merely an input in far more productive and sophisticated exercises than the ones I was able to offer. I am deeply grateful to the panel organizers and its presenters for having the opportunity to engage with a wave of very advanced work on topics that are central to my own concerns. My comments, consequently, will reflect things that I have learned from the presentations in this panel – insights I find valuable for my own development.


I must start at the most trivial level, by observing that conceptual work on chronotopes is unfinished but that several important developments can be noted. The fact that work is unfinished is translated in a degree of messiness in the use of chronotope as a notion in the various papers. There are authors who seek refinement to the notion by returning to the canonical formulations of Bakhtin and consequently arrive at a more restricted, somewhat ‘closed’ analytical notion of chronotope referring to invokable historicities (e.g. Rampton & Sankaran, Rowlett & King); there are authors who use it as a more open and flexible heuristic notion, capable of being tested as a tool for enriching existing approaches (e.g. Bhatt); and in need of further conceptual refinement (e.g. Karimzad, Bolonyai). In the latter papers, chronotope is used as a potentially productive and more precise gloss for what Goffman called ‘the situation’ (a thing we tended to neglect, as Goffman explained).

Both directions are useful and compatible – under certain conditions to which I shall turn in a moment. For now, let me briefly refer to what Goffman actually wrote on ‘the situation’.

“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. This timespace constellation, we can add, is infrastructural and, thus, material – a point often clearly ‘neglected’ (in Goffman’s terms), but inevitable as a feature of online communication where the sociotechnological infrastructures for communication pre-inscribe chronotopic affordances for their users (see the papers by Prochazka and Lyons, Tagg & Hu).

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 (think of Garfinkel, Cicourel, the Goodwins and the Scollons). It is this insight for which chronotopes can be a helpful gloss.


So there is a messiness to chronotope in the panel. And that is fine, for it points towards an older problem for which new solutions are being explored. That older problem is the problem of ‘context’; or more precisely, the way in which problems of contexts have tended to be subdivided into issues about ‘what is context’ and issues about ‘what happens in context’. Chronotope, I believe, compels us to merge both issues. And now I must engage with some of the conditions for compatibility to which I hinted earlier.

The conceptual messiness in the panel should not obscure some extremely useful points of agreement across different papers, articulated explicitly in some and implicitly in others.

  1. A first, and major point of agreement I observe is: chronotopes are not just there as a priori ‘structures’ which one can walk into and out; they are made by participants in concrete social action. Karimzad used ‘chronotopization’ as a term reflecting this action-centered perspective. In order to illustrate it, we can go back to one of Garfinkel’s (2002) classic examples: the queue. A queue is (and few would dispute this) a chronotope. Garfinkel describes the ways in which people form queues in a seemingly unprompted way as congregational work (social work done collectively, for no reason other than the fact that there is a collective present or in formation) in which recognizable forms of social order are constructed – a ‘format’ as he calls it, with ‘autochtonous order properties’ i.e. “empirically observable properties of the congregational work of producing social facts” (2002: 245). Converted into the vocabulary of ‘context’, we see how Garfinkel (like many others) views contexts as evolving out of social action. But he does not stop there. As soon as a queue has been formed, it becomes an extremely normative and policed timespace configuration. The ‘personnel’ in the queue have a very strong awareness of the order it embodies, and will react strongly whenever people attempt to violate that order (e.g. by jumping the queue or abusing the physical proximity in the queue for transgressive talk or conduct). The queue generates a temporary (but quite robust) community tied together by the ‘authochtonous order properties’ of the queue. Returning now to the main point here, what we see is that contexts are evolving out of action, and consolidated through action as well. What context is and what happens in context can no longer be separated – they have merged. (We see excellent examples of this dynamic of context construction and consolidation in Prochazka’s paper.)
  2. If we adopt this action perspective, let’s look more closely at the kinds of actions people perform. In the data shown in all the papers (Lyons, Tagg & Hu; Prochazka; Rowlett & King; Karimzad; Choi & Lo; Djuraeva & Catedral; Bolonyai; Bhatt; Rampton & Sankaran) we see that chronotopic congregational work is argumentative, it is done by people in order to make a point. It is, when seen from these examples, a resource for constructing ‘facts’, telling ‘the truth’ and convincing others of this truth. The how of such argumentative usage depends on what specific chronotopes afford – it is part of the work of consolidation, we can say. The what of such usages are specific forms and bits of invokable historicities deployed in specific discursive-argumentative actions. I think there might be an area here of particular interest for further and more detailed research, and my final two points will offer some suggestions for that.
  3. It is entirely possible that these specific forms of argumentative usage explain, at least partly, some other things about which several presenters in this panel appear to agree. There is such agreement, for instance, on the non-unified nature of chronotopes – their scaled character; on their unstable, unfinished and porous character observable through cross-chronotopic shifts and connections and through the occurrence of ‘chronotopes within chronotopes’; on the particular ways in which ‘big’ chronotopes such as those of Modernity and colonialism (or of contemporary globalization and nationalism) pervade and organize ‘small’ situational chronotopes of semiotic deployment (much in the way of Goffman’s frames, I would suggest); and how narrative voices from the margins inevitably orient towards polycentric and scaled chronotopes; and so forth. I used the term ‘synchronization’ as a way to capture how such complexly layered forms of semiosis collapsed into (chronotopically) situated moments of performance and uptake. I would now add the suggestion that we see such phenomena as part of particular forms of argumentation.
  4. Another dimension might evolve more clearly from such an exercise. And here too, I can refer to something that struck me in almost all the papers when I was reviewing the data used. They were replete with moralizations. Now, of course we know that there is something inherently moral about ‘knowledge’, ‘facts’ and ‘the truth’ (the Goodwins never stopped reminding us of that fact). But what we can see now, is how the argumentative work done in the construction and consolidation of chronotopes strongly revolves around making legitimate points – references to war and genocide, of displacement, traditions, the general gender, race and class relations prevailing in specific social environments, are offered as the moral truth that others should be persuaded by. We find ourselves here in a different metalinguistic realm: one in which the deployment of specific semiotic resources indexes fundamental moral stances blended with epistemic and affective ones and with identity projections. Here, too, I anticipate very stimulating areas for further inquiry.


Which takes me to my conclusion. The comments I have made are testimony to the exceptionally creative and inspiring work done in this panel. I do believe that the work presented here takes our field forward, and that it does so in a way which is increasingly disfavored in science: by exploring, unthinking, reimagining, testing and toying – the fundamental work of coming up with ideas which all of us need so badly in order to re-search, to search again for what we think we already know. To the panel organizers and presenters: mes hommages.


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

Goffman, Erving (1961), Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction, New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

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

Goffman, Erving (1981), Forms of Talk, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press


Author: jmeblommaert

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

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