Sociolinguistic scales in retrospect

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Jan Blommaert

Productive ambivalence

The idea of sociolinguistic scales points towards the non-unified nature of sociolinguistic phenomena, and it contains a productive ambivalence. It refers to what we could call scope of communicability, which is, if you wish, a horizontal image of spread, dimension, degree; but it refers simultaneously to value, distinction, quality in the sociolinguistic field, which is a vertical image of stratification. This is the ambivalence. What ‘scale’ does, is to express an intersection of scope and value, and this is why the ambivalence is productive. It generates a heuristic in which we interrogate sociolinguistic facts as simultaneously scoped and valued, subject to forces and effects that have to do with issues of resource distribution, availability and access, as well as with issues of sociocultural and political uptake – of size and importance, of quantity and quality, one can say. And distinctions observable along those two axes explain the dynamics of sociolinguistic life and the main features of concrete sociolinguistic economies. Every difference in scope is likely to be accompanied by a difference in value, and this essential non-neutrality of sociolinguistic resources (in the broadest sense of the term) is at the heart of concrete meaning-making practices.

Scales have become a topic of considerable interest in the last decade among scholars of language-in-society. It is a conceptual cornerstone of any sociolinguistics of globalization, and it has helped scholars reimagine crucial notions such as ‘context’. The present collection of essays is testimony to the ongoing productivity of the concept and to the many ways in which it enables creative analysis, precisely articulating the ambivalence I sketched above: analysis of scope of communicability, of the ‘reach’ of resources, technologies and infrastructures, joined with analysis of metalinguistic – sociocultural and political – valuation and its effects on the attribution of meaning and identity in interaction. Many scholars (and I include myself) currently view scales as an indispensable concept, but articulate an uneasiness about it – it is precise and clumsy at the same time, it creates useful lines of argument but instantly complicates such arguments, and while it has an immediate resonance of transparency (we know what it indicates), it also is hard to define with some precision.

In what follows, I will suggest that we need a concept of sociolinguistic scales, but we also need more than that; and I will suggest that we need scales as an imaginative concept, a loosely descriptive one that generates a number of other issues, to be addressed with more precise tools. I shall do so by reviewing my own motives for using sociolinguistic scales.

Three problems

In the early 2000s, the topic that consumed most of my energy was that of voice and globalization. I was intensively working on problems of communication in asylum applications, mainly by asylum seekers from Africa in Western Europe. Gradually, I began to identify the core issue as one of resources and mobility. African asylum seekers brought sociolinguistic resources to the procedural interviews in Europe; and while such resources – think of African varieties of English or French – were perfectly adequate in Africa, they were very often dismissed as inadequate in Europe and their users remained voiceless in the asylum procedure. It appeared that in globalization contexts such as those of asylum, some resources afforded mobile voice, in the sense that they were valued as meaningful across entirely different timespaces, while others didn’t – something that could be reformulated in terms of different scale affordances, differences at the intersection of scope and value.

This insight – the scaled character of sociolinguistic phenomena in contexts of globalization – enabled me to start addressing three substantive problems:

  1. The problem of meaning: what goes on in actual meaning-making processes?
  2. The problem of situatedness, or more broadly formulated, of context.
  3. The problem of indexicality: a logical extension of the two first problems given the locus of indexicality in text-context relationships.

Let me turn to these problems now and indicate how sociolinguistic scales, as an imaginative concept, enabled me to come up with solutions for these problems.

The problem of meaning

The work on asylum seekers became the empirical basis for a book called Discourse (2005). The book offered a theory of sociolinguistic inequality related to voice and globalization, the core of which was a view of meaning as layered and composed of different historically loaded elements (from slow-and-big things such as ‘English’ to infinitely small aspects of interactional deployment), synchronized in interaction.

I glossed this view as ‘layered simultaneity’ and it merits some explanation. The point to it is that whenever we communicate, we deploy a variety of intertextual resources, such as topics, interlocutors, language, accent, technologies, registers and so forth. While all of these resources will be simultaneously deployed, we must realize that they are of a different order – here comes scale. English, for instance, is of a different order in interactions than the actual interlocutor with whom we interact in English or the topic we address with that interlocutor in English (English transcends the specificity of interlocutor and topic). And these different orders will generate different effects in communication: shifting from English into Swahili, for instance, will exclude more interlocutors than switching from a Cockney into an RP accent in English. So scope and value walk hand in hand: the value of resources in interaction is often tied to their scope of deployment, to their affordance to include or exclude interlocutors, topics and communication practices. I elaborated the latter issue in Grassroots Literacy (2008).

The concept of scales enabled me here to imagine meaning as non-unified and stratified, as an object the different layers of which could not be imagined as equivalent, even if they co-occurred in moments of synchronization. Such synchronizations had to be seen as complex processes in which very different forces co-occur, and in which the differences between such forces mattered very much in view of the outcome of communication. But this was merely one step in a longer argument, just one of several problems solved, and more was needed.

The problem of situatedness

Meaning emerges in contexts – actual, concretely situated contexts. And context, as we know, is a notoriously elusive notion in analysis. I was deeply influenced by Aaron Cicourel’s views of context (1967; 1992) as multiple, layered and stacked, and access to contexts as unevenly distributed – a medical doctor has access to contextual resources not accessible for the patient, very much like security services having access to contexts not open to inspection by their suspects. Scale once more provided a useful prism through which we could contemplate such non-unified contexts.

The fundamental given of non-unified contexts, of course, called into question what we mean by the notion of ‘the local’ in the analysis of interaction. ‘The local’ (as in ‘locally performed’) is often used as an equivalent for the qualification of ‘situated’ when we decode communicative events: a synchronized here-and-now that operates as a self-contained and self-sufficient reservoir of inferential meaning (codified, for instance, in Conversation Analysis in the Schegloffian tradition, see Blommaert 2001). From the work on asylum seekers, I had understood that these self-contained and self-sufficient dimensions of situatedness made no sense, for we were continually confronted with an interplay of ‘local’ and ‘translocal’ features of contexts of globalized mobility, and with uniquely relevant and situationally contingent inferences operating alongside generic inferences. Narrative patterns performed by African asylum seekers clashed with institutional expectations about narrativity in a European bureaucratic and forensic tradition; they did so situationally of course, an each time in partly unique ways; but the uniqueness of such cases was overrun by generic differences in production and uptake of narratives (something also documented with respect to written stories in Blommaert 2008). So we encounter two kinds of situatedness synchronically operating in concrete events: unique situatedness as well as generic situatedness – the latter containing actualizations of the genres, frames, formats that generate the moralized behavioral scripts for meaning-making we usually qualify as ‘cultural’ (cf. Blommaert 2018). It is useful to underscore that both dimensions of situatedness are of a different order.

Which is why a further step was needed at this point. The layering of contexts-for-inferencing entailed, in actual moments of deployment, the layering of norms. Norms, too, are non-unified and scaled phenomena in communication, and we must assume that (given the layering) that at any moment of communication, different sets of norms are present in the situation, and all of them can be invoked by participants. I called this layered-normative dimension of communication ‘polycentricity’, and this concept became, along with scales, one of the key terms in The Sociolinguistics of Globalization (2010). And norms take us straight into the third problem.

The problem of indexicality

Given the treatment of the two previous problems, the third one is relatively simple. Indexicality stands for the meaning effects generated from text-context relationships, and if texts as well as contexts are non-unified, we need to make similar distinctions in the field of indexicality. In a polycentric situation, thus, various differently scoped and valued orders of indexicality are simultaneously at play, as emic regulators of meaning-making. Orders of indexicality – a concept obviously influenced by Foucault’s ‘orders of discourse’ – was the notion that completed the conceptual triad of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, alongside scales and polycentricity. What I intended to express through that notion were general forms of ‘normalcy’ in social interaction, the available (but not evenly accessible) scripts for ‘normal’ meaning-making in situated communicative events.

As I said, such orders of indexicality are deployed as emic regulators of meaning-making; in less convoluted terms, they are the patterns of communicative conduct that generate recognizability in interaction: particular actions are recognizable as something specific, as, for instance, a joke, a lecture, flirting, a friendly response, the purchase of a railway ticket, and so forth. As in the discussions of the previous problems, we must assume that orders of indexicality are – literally – of a different order and regulate, at once, the aspects of meaning that are given and those that are new, the generic ones as well as the uniquely creative ones. The same imagery of scales applies here, and as before, it enables us to make more specific distinctions.

Always important, never by itself

In reviewing the line of argument I applied in solving the problems of meaning, situatedness and indexicality, I hope that one things has become clear. Scale was always a starting point, because it was the imagination of scaled phenomena that transformed them into objects that could be differently addressed. In my (admittedly idiosyncratic) development, scale has been extraordinarily productive as an imaginative concept, an instrument enabling a fundamental revision of what we believe certain facts to be – a tool for the creation of ideas, one could say.

Once these ideas were there, however, the scaled characteristics of sociolinguistic phenomena demanded more fine-tuned and accurate conceptual instruments and analytic strategies. The idea of sociolinguistic scales inevitably leads to a sociolinguistic phenomenology in which instability, plurality, indeterminacy and low presupposability feature – it leads to a sociolinguistics of complexity, in sum (Blommaert 2016). And for addressing complexity, notions such as scales carry too much of a suggestion of stable, static and clear-cut distinctions (as when we speak of ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ in relation to scales) and risk being too blunt an object for making the microsurgical distinctions we need to be able to make in actual analysis.

This was certainly how I experienced working with sociolinguistic scales: they were always indispensable in preparing the canvass and sketching the outlines of analysis; but once the analysis itself had to be done, scales were merely the parameters within which I operated, and the operation itself demanded a more elaborate, systematic and complex set of conceptual and methodological tools.



Blommaert, Jan (2001) Context is/as critique. Critique of Anthropology 21/1: 13-32.

Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2008) Grassroots Literacy: Writing, Identity and Voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2016) From mobility to complexity in sociolinguistic theory and method. In Nikolas Coupland (ed.) Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates: 242-259. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

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.

See also this video.



When your field goes online


When your field goes online:

Ethnographic fieldwork in the online-offline nexus

Jan Blommaert & Dong Jie

(Draft postscript to Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner’s Guide. Second and enlarged edition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, in press)

When we wrote the first edition of Ethnographic Fieldwork in 2008-2010, social life was still very much seen as an offline affair. People used to refer to the digital world as the virtual one, implying that it was in some way not part of the real world. As for new media, Facebook was an infant and the iPhone was a toddler when we wrote the book, and social media activities were widely seen as a relatively irrelevant add-on of ‘real’ (read: offline) social life.

The online-offline nexus

A decade later, this can obviously no longer be maintained. The online world is now fully integrated with the offline one, in the sense that very few of our ordinary, everyday activities proceed without being in some way affected by online infrastructures; and very many of such activities can only proceed due to the existence of such online dimensions of life. From making photographs with our smartphones to checking the weather app, the traffic app, or our daily fitness routine app, and from online shopping, travel booking, banking and reading to quick searches (aptly called, in many places, “Googling”), to TV-on-demand binging, vloggers and influencers, livestreamed events and commercial as well as political campaigns waged on social media – our social, cultural, economic and political lives have changed dramatically. The widespread use of social media has transformed the media and popular culture landscapes globally and has shifted the boundaries between the private and the public spheres. And each action we perform online, however minute, generates data that are aggregated into new systems of surveillance and control and affect our lives in mostly invisible ways. Note that while such developments are spread unevenly across the globe, there are few places in the world where they are not experienced to some degree.

These phenomena are by now well documented, so we don’t think that a full survey of them is warranted here. The fundamental fact we have to take on board is: we live our lives largely in an online-offline nexus, in which both dimensions are equally vital and indispensable. Yet, when it comes to social theory and method, we still very much continue to approach these lives from within frameworks developed to describe and analyze an offline world – and ethnography is no exception to this (Kaur-Gill & Dutta 2017; Blommaert 2018; Varis & Hou 2019). This is not unusual: theory is always slow to catch up with changing realities, and theories that incorporate change as a fundamental given are few and far between. The same goes for method: scholars are usually reluctant to surrender tools of investigation of which they believe that they worked adequately in the past.

When it comes to ethnographic fieldwork, however, we cannot avoid issues of theoretical and methodical adequacy, for a very simple reason: in the online-offline nexus, the field where we do our fieldwork has gone online, and we need to follow that route if we wish to adequately address what it is we observe and analyze.

In what follows, we will offer three reflections on this new field and show how they complicate matters for ethnographers (and others). To be sure, things were complicated enough in an offline field; when we incorporate the online field, however, several new things require focused attention. We need to add some question marks to three seemingly unproblematic things: what do we see? Who is there? And where are we in an online-offline fieldwork site.

What do we see? The compelling bubble

The first complication is caused by what is known as the ‘bubble effect’: whenever we go online, we find ourselves in a space the structure and composition of which has been configured algorithmically, on the basis of data profiles for specific users, machines and software tools. And this is an absolute given: there is no actual PC or smartphone in the world that offers its user an unrestricted view of the online world. Not to put too fine a point of it: whenever you go online on any device, anywhere and anytime, you will encounter bias, and there is simply no neutral and unbiased position of observation possible in the online world. This is worth remembering: using the PC of, say, your local public library to do online research doesn’t remove the bubble effect. It merely (largely) removes your own particular bubble effect, the one affecting actions on your usual devices due to your particular history of use of these devices; but it replaces it with the bubble of the other specific computer, network and community of users who worked on it before you logged on.

Now, we did spent quite a good amount of time in the previous chapters explaining that bias is a normal and altogether not too problematic feature of any ethnographic fieldwork, and that the response to it must be awareness of bias. Remember: ethnographic knowledge is inter-subjective knowledge, co-constructed by all participants in the Seen from that perspective, the bubble effects are mere extensions of the inevitable bias inscribed in our fieldwork practices. But let’s remove the word ‘mere’ from the previous sentence, for the extension we see is an extension in another direction – a shift, in other words. And the shift has to do with the meaning of inter-subjective in what preceded. When you interact with an online device, you’re not interacting with a particular person whose subjectivity (and, of course, bias) can be to some extent explained and understood in terms of one’s social, cultural, personal backgrounds – the ‘context’ as we know it from the literature. You’re interacting with a machine that incorporates and creates contexts that require very different modes of interpretation.

In a moment, we shall be more specific – and constructive – about this problem of online contexts. But for the moment, let’s take this on board: going online takes your field in a direction which is not in any way a direct reflection of the offline contexts you, as an ethnographic fieldworker, got accustomed to through intense interactions with the people you work with; it sends you into a different sociocultural realm and confronts you with modes of bias that are sometimes impossible to understand, let alone anticipate or predict in research. The social facts we can observe online are mediated and curated by technologies in complex synergies with their users. Overlooking this point (and it is compelling) can cause you some trouble in making sense of what goes on in the lives of the people you work with in fieldwork.

But there is more.

Who is there?

In the tradition of social research, one thing used to be quite straightforward: the identity of the people one did research with or about – the ‘population’ in one’s research. People’s identities were known, and researchers could believe that they knew them well. So well, in fact, that we could anonymize them in our research outcomes, and that we felt compelled to do so because our research had actually revealed so much about them that they could be construed as identifiable individuals. Anthropological ‘informants’ were only useful, so to speak, when a measure of intimacy had been established between the anthropologist and the ‘informant’ allowing more than mere superficial knowledge to be exchanged.

This knowledge of the population was grounded, as Michel Foucault (2008) described, in some of the great structures of modernity: nation-state bureaucracy and its elaborate inventories of people residing on the state’s territory. From birth certificates through school reports, hospital records, police files and intelligence reports, passports, tax returns, occupational, demographic and income data and the cyclical census: one of the purposes (indeed, needs) of the modern state was comprehensive knowledge of its population. An elaborate bureaucratic infrastructure served that purpose and statistics emerged as the science that could answer questions evolving from all that. As the name itself reveals, statistics was the science of the state. And statistics came up with methodologically refined tools such as the sample to turn knowledge of the population into measurable, user-friendly units with almost infinite opportunities for application.

All of this was achieved in an offline world; the present online-offline nexus offers some serious problems. The first one is infrastructural. Whereas states used to be unchallenged when it came to gathering and elaborating knowledge at a very high scale-level – that of the entire population, this monopoly has vanished. The state now competes with (and often relies upon) private corporate actors when it comes to such high-scale level knowledge. It is the likes of Google, Microsoft, Huawei, Facebook, Weibo who are the great data collectors and analysts presently: companies who collaborate with the state but who are formally independent from it, and who have the capacity to independently develop (as well as own and sell for profit) big data handling and machine learning tools and products. Knowledge of populations nowadays is distributed over more actors, many of which fall outside the raison d’état which Foucault saw as the engine behind modern population studies.

Such private actors can and do impose rules of their own – the scale level we used to define as ‘public’ is now governed by a range of different and sometimes conflicting modes of governance. And such new modes of governance deeply affect this self-evident part of social studies: knowledge about who is involved in social action.

As all of us know, the online world is populated by people operating through an alias. Trolls and members of obscure debating groups in the darker corners of the Web instantly come to mind; we also know that some online platforms are very vulnerable to interventions by automated bots and hired clickfarm operators sending out updates and responding to them; but in many cases there are also strong social and political incentives to remain anonymous when engaging in online activities. One’s employer may not be amused when an employee regularly posts social media updates criticizing the company or articulating views that can be perceived as damaging to the company’s interests; security forces may be alerted by strong political criticism voiced by people online; or one’s spouse would not appreciate one’s active presence on dating sites. In online environments where people are aware of surveillance and censorship, one’s mere presence on a forum can be experienced as risky, and participants will adjust their behavior accordingly – primarily by hiding identity features that might lead to easy identification (cf. Du 2016). The effect is: billions of online ‘profiles’ about whom interlocutors cannot assume any identity feature with any degree of certainty: the exciting 24-year old woman with whom one flirts on a dating site might actually be a 55-year old, married and quite boring man. And the revolutionary activist who eagerly invites and endorses your politically inflammatory updates might actually be a state security agent.

At the frontstage of the online world, identity uncertainty rules. The real identities of online actors are, as a rule, only known backstage by institutional actors: by internet and platform providers, the authorities and the security services. But hackers prove on a daily basis that even that level of certainty about who is online is not entirely bulletproof.

As said before, the online world provides entirely new contexts for all of us. The effects for fieldwork are momentous. While, in offline fieldwork, you can ask friends and neighbors, or colleagues and bystanders for information about particular individuals, your opportunities for doing so in online research are extremely limited – you can never be sure that the neighbor you invite to offer background information about someone is not, in effect, a neighbor at all. So as a rule, you can only observe what you see people do in online fieldwork sites. Getting feedback about who did what, however, is terribly difficult and – to add to the mess – not very reliable. For the online sources you’d approach for such feedback are almost by definition as elusive as the target of your inquiry with them. The fieldworker, consequently, is often reduced to the role of witness rather than that of investigator, and left with very few tools for upgrading one’s role from witness to investigator. So take this as a given: in online fieldwork it is immensely difficult to establish the intimate knowledge one can construct about offline respondents.

But there is more, and we need to return to the bubble effects we discussed earlier. Recall what we said there: the bubble shapes a context for social action on the basis of ‘profiles’ created by data aggregations. So here is yet another level of backstage identity construction: one not directly performed by ourselves but imposed on us by machines and influencing what we can do and effectively do online. Obviously, this also affects what a fieldworker can observe online.

Let us make this a bit clearer. The bubble brings people into your orbit whose profiles have been constructed by algorithms. These people are, also in official parlance, ‘data subjects’ constructed out of hypothetically common features based on aggregations of users’ data. As we said before, the criteria by means of which people are connected to aggregations of data are very difficult to get access to – it is safe to assume that we cannot know the grounds on which algorithms judge that certain people are similar to us, share interests, behavioral or character traits sensed to be compatible with ours, and could be brought into some kind of community alongside us. We can provide educated guesses, no more. But since bubble effects are inevitable, the upshot of all of this is that we observe very peculiar, curated social facts, full of uncertainties about who is involved in their performance. And note that the uncertainty about who is there in your online fieldwork site is individual as well as collective; it applies to the actual interlocutors whose online actions you observe, as well as to the communities that fill the bubble in which you roam.

Imagine now that you’d wish to run a survey online, using a platform such as Twitter. How will you construct a reliable sample in which sociological diacritics such as gender, age, location, education background and religion are adequately spread – when none of this can be established with certainty? How can you reach ‘everyone’ whenever you attempt to speak about a population – when you are mindful of the bubble effect? How can you even identify individual actors when the same person can have eight different Twitter accounts? And how can you be sure that ‘@EddieJones1991’ is not the 28-year old Welsh accountant he claims to be, living in Liverpool with his wife and two young kids and enthusiastically endorsing the Tories, but in fact an automated bot or a clickfarm account operated from Bangalore, India?

All of these issues about who is who online dislodge the certainties used as baseline assumptions in more than a decade of social research, and they render forms of research still hanging on to such assumptions very doubtful indeed. In a moment, we shall offer some hope for ethnographically inclined researchers. But first we need to address a third major complication of the online-offline nexus.

Where are we? Invisible lines

Let us briefly recapitulate. We have seen that the online-offline nexus seriously complicates two things we used to consider rather unproblematic in offline fieldwork: what we (can) observe, and who is involved in what we observe. The bubble effect and the uncertainty about participants in social action online render both highly problematic now, and they must serve as a critical check on the kinds of claims we believe we can make in our research. There is a third obvious dimension of social action which is profoundly distorted by the online-offline nexus: the site where we perform our research.

For evident reasons, the site of fieldwork used to be perhaps its least problematic aspect. As outlined in the previous chapters, we used to choose a place for our research based on prior knowledge and a round of thorough preparatory study. Next, we would pack our gear and head off to that place. Yes, we emphasized, the actual meaning of that place would change during fieldwork as a result of accumulated knowledge – the school we chose as our site would gradually transform into a more complex habitat for those involved in the activities in that school, including the fieldworker. But in many ways, our choice of fieldwork site would define and constrict our assumptions about participants and the actions they engage in. We knew that, to stick to the example of a school, some transcontextual analysis was required, for many of the actions performed locally (and offline) by teachers, pupils and other local stakeholders would be inflected by things such as education policy, management principles and other forms of external pressure and influence. In the online-offline nexus, however, the meaning of ‘transcontextual’ has changed quite profoundly.

Two dimensions of this change need to be identified. In both instances, the guiding question is: how can we understand what goes on in our chosen fieldwork site?

The first dimension has to do with the nature of the activities we observe locally. Let us start with an anecdote. A little while ago, one of us was required to check attendances at the start of a class. The usual signup form started moving slowly through the lecture theater, and after a few minutes, suddenly two students came hurrying into the hall – alerted by their colleagues’ hastily written smartphone messages telling them that their presence was mandatory. A local action – taking attendances – was ‘exported’, so to speak, to different places elsewhere by means of online connections, and resulted in a reconfiguration of the local activity – two students joining the class.

This anecdote shows us that in the online-offline nexus, there are invisible lines connecting offline spaces with translocal ones; and that local activities are almost invariably influenced and shaped by translocal ones. Converted into the vocabulary we used above, we see how offline activities are almost invariably influenced and shaped by online ones. Such influences can be material, as in our anecdote in which a material space as well as its population get reconfigured due to online signals given by students. But even more frequent are immaterial effects of online activities on offline ones: knowledge effects, as when we cook a curry after having read several online recipes and watched some YouTube tutorials, or as when our car’s GPS system directs us to take another route due to dense traffic on the normal one. The internet is primarily a learning environment from which we extract (and on which we upload) tons of bits of information, instructions and normative judgments about how certain things should best be done (Blommaert & Varis 2015). In a formal sense also, the online world is a learning environment. Try to imagine studying without access to online resources these days, from online downloadable research publications over Wikipedia to simple Google searches – the contemporary world of learning is an online-offline one.

These learning environments have immediate effects on locally performed actions, as we have seen in the anecdote above. And these effects are inflected by the features we discussed earlier; bubble effects and algorithmically configured profiles creating peculiar forms of ‘truth’ and norms within often elusive online communities and with immediate feedback effects. To illustrate the latter: if you want to cook a Thai dish and choose, out of dozens of options, an online recipe using dried red chili rather than fresh one, this preference will be recorded in your algorithm and have an effect on your bubble. Later searches might show you more recipes using dried chili and let you interact with people who show the same preferences (unless the algorithm decides you’ve made the wrong choice and will try to rectify you in the future). In that sense, online knowledge effects may be qualitatively different from the more traditional ones. Yes, reading a book or having a conversation in a pub may have similar effects on what we think and do, but such effects were usually slower and perhaps less pervasive than the ones we currently notice in the online-offline nexus.

This is the first dimension we had to address: online resources infusing local actions and changing them due to immediate translocal involvement. The second dimension extends this somewhat and raises the question: who is involved in local actions – who belongs to the ‘personnel’ of things we observe in online life. And here, too, an anecdote can be useful as a point of departure.

Oud-Berchem is an inner-city working class and immigrant district in Antwerp, Belgium. One of the remarkable features of the neighborhood is the density of new evangelical churches, usually of the charismatic branch of protestant Christianity and run by pastors from Africa, Asia and Latin America (see Blommaert 2013). The churches are what is known as ‘storefront churches’, renting relatively cheap vacant commercial premises in an old shopping street and usually displaying a health and safety permit for 49 people. Local congregations can be slightly larger though, but some of the churches also cater for smaller congregations. Churches often change premises, denominations and constituencies – a reflex of the rapidly shifting demographics of the neighborhood.

One of the most recent arrivals in this religious industry in Oud-Berchem is a church run by a Nigerian pastor. Let us nickname the church the ‘True Religion Church of Christ’. The church rented what is probably the grottiest location in the neighborhood: a former interior decoration shop closed down a handful of years back, quite badly affected by years of vacancy and exposure to the elements. The church has a permit for 49 attendants, and this is about the size of the congregation attending Saturday and Sunday services there. It’s a small, hardly remarkable and even less prestigious enterprise.

Our initial research on the neighborhood and its churches was based on traditional – read: offline – ethnographic linguistic landscape analysis. From that perspective, indeed, the True Religion Church of Christ is a small local phenomenon, eclipsed by other churches with more attractive premises and a larger congregation. At a given moment, however, we started paying more attention to an often overlooked feature of the linguistic landscape: website addresses and social media signs of the ‘Follow us on Facebook’ type (Blommaert & Maly 2019). When we followed such pointers for the True Religion Church of Christ, we bumped into a few surprises. Its pastor turns out to be a modest global celebrity in the domain of charismatic protestant religion. He runs a YouTube channel with over 125,000 subscribers; the main feature video there is one in which the pastor brings a dead boy back to life during a service in Nigeria, attended by many hundreds of faithful. This video was watched over 85,000 times. The pastor also runs a website in which he announces services all over the world – North America, Europe and Africa – and through which items and services can be booked and ordered using standard e-payment methods such as Paypal.

Suddenly, the grotty premises in which the local congregation gathers on Saturdays and Sundays appear in a different light: as a mere node in a global network of religious activities connected by advanced online infrastructures. This global network is big and prestigious, and stands in sharp contrast to the smallness and shabbiness of what goes on in Oud-Berchem. Many more people, places and resources are involved in what goes on in Oud-Berchem than those that can be locally observed. And we can reasonably assume that what goes on locally in the True Religion Church of Christ derives a lot of its meaning and impact from the translocal, prestigious and well-resourced network in which it is one local node and to which it is permanently connected by online infrastructures. In fact, what happens locally is probably possible only because of the existence of this larger network and its online resources. And so, when we observe the local activities of the church’s congregation, we need to be aware of the fact we see just a very small part of the total social fact we need to understand, and which we can engage with by following the pointers that take us online.

So here are the two dimensions we needed to bring up: the fact that offline practices are almost invariably influenced, formatted and enabled by online ones; and the fact that locally performed social actions can involve far more people than those actually present locally – the effective personnel of lots of current social actions can only be gauged by connecting the offline local phenomena with the online translocal ones. Our field has effectively become an online-offline field; doing fieldwork requires presence in and attention to both, and the blissful simplicity of ‘the local’ has been traded for a far more complex reality of connected fieldwork sites. The notion of ‘participant observation’ needs to be literally in the online-offline nexus: ethnographers are participating in exactly the same contextualized processes they are studying, and there is no privileged vantage point that gives us and edge over other, ‘ordinary’ participants.

More complexity? More ethnography please!

All of this is bad news of course. In the online-offline nexus, we are forced to surrender some of the things we long thought were relatively simply: the things our field had to offer in the way of observable facts and information, the people with whom we engaged in fieldwork, and the actual sites of fieldwork. In other words: we need to reconsider the what, how and where of fieldwork. The online-offline nexus, we can see, is quite a bit more complex than the good old traditional offline fieldwork arena.

The bad news, however, is mainly for those branches of science that rely heavily on the assumptions we questioned above. And there are several reasons why ethnography, while needing to be cautious and more than just aware of these changes, is best equipped to deal with them. In chapter 2, we explained that ethnography is a scholarly approach which, in contrast to many other approaches, does not attempt to simplify and reduce complexity; it takes complexity as a point of departure and tries to provide a full and detailed account of it. Ethnography is not about removing the chaotic nature of social practices performed in real, concrete contexts – it is about making sense of that chaos. The fact that the chaos appears to become denser in the online-offline nexus should not deter us: it’s still just chaos, and we must make sense of it.

And we have inroads into it. Even if the what, who and where of fieldwork are getting more complicated, there are things we can reliably observe. We can still observe what people do, the social actions they perform. In fact – and we emphasized that as well in the opening chapters of the book – ethnography is focused on making sense of social action, of concrete social action performed in concrete contexts, and it belongs to that broad tradition in social research captured under the umbrella of the ‘action perspective’ (cf. Blumer 1969; Goodwin & Goodwin 1992; Strauss 1993; Rawls 2002). So we can observe people watching online stuff, doing online searches, asking and responding to questions, telling stories, making an argument, insulting or responding to insults, expressing joy, appreciation and gratefulness, grief, anger, uneasiness, concern, irony and humor, thanking others; we can observe them liking, sharing and reposting, commenting and endorsing or distancing themselves; we can observe them incorporating online material produced by others in their own online interventions; we can see them logging on and logging off; subscribing to channels and profiles and blocking or ignoring others. And we can observe the (largely visual, literate) resources they deploy in doing all that: different forms of language, jargon and slang, different forms of writing, emojis, memes, GIFs, selfies, profile and banner images, video chats and livestreams on a variety of apps – name it. All of this, we know, is done in interaction with others, frontstage as well as backstage – one is never alone on the Web – and mediated by the specifics of the online contexts we laid out above.

That’s a lot. In fact, it’s exactly the stuff needed for ethnographic work, as we explained in chapter 2 of the book. And it is by looking at the intricate interplay between actions and resources that we are able – in ethnographic analysis – to see how people navigate the contextual opacity and the identity uncertainties that characterize online interactions and make sense of that chaotic reality (cf. Szabla & Blommaert 2017), how they engage in the learning processes for which the online world offers such infinite opportunities, and construct identities and communities within their bubbles, and often beyond them (Varis & Blommaert 2015; Prochazka & Blommaert 2019).

So it is not because we cannot observe everything in online contexts that we can observe nothing. We cannot observe the algorithms and surveillance systems that create bubbles and profiles, true. But we can observe the ways in which people engage with them and operate within their confines – how they adjust their social conduct to the complex and largely invisible contexts within which they interact with others. This is an eminently adequate ethnographic object of inquiry.

But we need to address it carefully. Whenever the phrase ‘participant observation’ was used in discussions of fieldwork, the focus used to be on ‘observation’, and it carried the suggestion that, while participating in social processes, ethnographers did something special and did that from a privileged position – they ‘observed’. We believe that fieldwork in the online-offline nexus shifts that focus towards ‘participant’, and that we must forget the possibility of a privileged position of observation. Whatever we observe is observed as a participant in a new field in which breaking out of the contexts of ordinary participation is near-impossible, for important aspects of such contexts are impossible to inspect – the backstage aspects we discussed above. Perhaps this was never possible, even in traditional offline fieldwork, and perhaps it was just (in Johannes Fabian’s (1983) famous view) the conventional arrogance of academia that created the claim towards privileged knowledge positions. In that case, the online-offline nexus confronts us with an unpleasant truth – one which renders our work more complex but equally more interesting.



Blommaert, Jan (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

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

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

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 139.

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

Du Caixia (2016) The Birth of Social Class Online: The Chinese Precariat on the Internet. PhD diss., Tilburg University.

Fabian, Johannes (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Foucault, Michel (2008) Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978. London: Palgrave Macmillan

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.

Kaur-Gill, Satveer & Mohan Dutta (2017) Digital ethnography. In Christine Davis & Robert Potter (eds.) The International Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods: 1-11. New York: Wiley.

Prochazka, Ondrej & Jan Blommaert (2019) Ergoic framing in New Right online groups: Q, the MAGA kid, and the Deep State Theory. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 224.

Rawls, Anne Warfield (1987) The Interaction order sui generis: Goffman’s contribution to social theory. Sociological Theory 5/2: 136-149.

Rawls, Anne Warfield (2002) Editor’s introduction. In Harold Garfinkel, Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism (ed. Anne Warfield Rawls): 1-64. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Strauss, Anselm (1993) Continual Permutations of Action. New Brunswick: Aldine Transactions

Szabla, Malgorzata & Jan Blommaert (2017) Does context really collapse in social media interaction? Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 201.

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2015) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual Margins 2: 31-45.

Varis, Piia & Mingyi Hou (2019) Digital approaches in linguistic ethnography. In Karin Tusting (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Linguistic Ethnography. Abingdon: Routledge (in press).



Invisible lines in the online-offline linguistic landscape


Jan Blommaert & Ico Maly


Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis (ELLA) was developed as a way of addressing in a more satisfactory way the structure and significance of linguistic landscapes as an object in the study of sociolinguistic superdiversity (Blommaert & Maly 2016). The effort was inspired by a refusal to perform ‘snapshot’ linguistic landscape analysis based on hit-and-run fieldwork and yielding a Saussurean synchrony as analytical outcome. Instead, we wanted to emphasize the dynamic, processual character of superdiverse linguistic landscapes through a combination of longitudinal fieldwork, detailed observations of changes in the landscape, and an ethnographic-theoretical framework in which landscape signs are seen as traces of (and instruments for) social action (cf. Blommaert 2013).

It is the latter point that we seek to examine more profoundly in this paper. The aspect of social action remains, in general, an underdeveloped aspect of Linguistic Landscape research (LL), and here, too, the Saussurean synchrony can be identified as an underlying sociological imagination in much work. Social action, it seems, is located within a geographical circumscription – a neighborhood, a street, a town – which is seen as the locus of action of a sedentary community. LL signs are routinely interpreted as reflecting, in some way, the linguistic repertoires of those who live in the area where the signs have been emplaced. This, then, enables LL researchers to make statements about the demographic composition of such areas of emplacement, projected into statements about the sociolinguistic structures in that area.

The concept of social action, thus interpreted, remains highly superficial and deserves and demands far more attention. The question that needs to be raised is: who is involved in social action in such areas? And what is the locus of such actions? Linguistic landscapes in superdiverse areas often offer clues that significantly complicate the assumptions about sedentary populations mentioned above. A simple example can be seen in Figure 1.


Figure 1: Antwerpse Algemene Dakwerken. © Jan Blommaert 2018

This picture was taken in the inner-city district of Oud-Berchem, Antwerp (Belgium) in the summer of 2018; we see a van with a Dutch-language inscription “Antwerpse Algemene Dakwerken” (“Antwerp General Roofing Works”), but with a Polish license plate locating the van in the area of Poznan. While the inscription suggests locality – a reference to Antwerp on a van emplaced in Antwerp – the license plate suggests translocality. Thus, building work performed in Antwerp appears to be connected to actions performed in Poznan – recruiting a workforce, manufacturing bespoke materials, warehousing heavy equipment and so forth. In an era of transnational mobility, such things are evident, but they raise the fundamental questions outlined above.

Such questions, we believe, are becoming even more pressing and compelling as soon as we adjust our baseline sociological assumptions and accept that contemporary social life is not only played out in an ‘offline’ physical arena of copresent participants encountering each other in public space (the focus of Goffman 1963), but also in online spaces crosscutting the online ones in complex ways (cf. Blommaert 2018). We live our lives in an online-offline nexus. This simple observation renders us aware of the fact that social actions can be organized, set up, “staffed” and distributed in online as well as offline spaces; and it helps us realize that much of what we observe in the way of social action in superdiverse (offline, geographical) areas has, at least, been conditioned and perhaps even made possible by online infrastructures, in terms both of actors and of topography. This point we intend to illustrate in what follows.

A focus on action

Before moving on towards these illustrations, we must briefly clarify the focus on action we shall bring to this analysis. Our own view of action is deeply influenced by an older tradition of action-centered sociology, of which Goffman (1961, 1963), Cicourel (1972), Blumer (1969) Strauss (1993) and Garfinkel (1967, 2002) can be seen as co-architects (see Blommaert, Lu & Li 2019 for a discussion).

A number of principles characterize this tradition.

  1. The first and most important principle is that of interactional co-construction of social facts – the assumption that whatever we do in social life is done in collaboration, response or conflict with others. In fact, the people mentioned above argue that one can only talk of social action when it is interaction (e.g. Strauss 1993: 21), and for Blumer (1969: 7) “a society consists of individuals interacting with one another”.
  2. Interaction, in turn, is “making sense” of social order in concrete situations – this is the second principle. For the scholars mentioned, social order and social structure does not exist in an abstract sense but is enacted constantly by people in contextualized, situated moments of interaction. In Garfinkel’s famous words (1967: 9), in each such moment we perform and co-construct social order “for another first time”. The social is concrete, ongoing and evolving, in other words.
  3. The third principle is derived straight from Mead and can be summarized as follows: “we see ourselves through the way in which others see and define us” (Blumer 1969: 13). Somewhat more precisely, “organisms in interaction are observing each other’s ongoing activity, with each using portions of the developing action of the other as pivots for the redirection of his or her own action” (Blumer 2004: 18). This is the essence of Mead’s understanding of the Self: it is greatly influenced by anticipated responses from the others, and adjusted accordingly. The Self can thus never be an essence, a fixed characteristic, an a priori attribute of people: it is a situationally co-constructed performance ratified by others. Of course, Goffman’s work has greatly contributed to our understanding of this.
  4. Fourth, we do this interactional monitoring and anticipating of the others’ responses on the basis of an assumption of recognizability. When we experience something as meaningful, as something that “makes sense” to us, by recognizing it as something specific (cf. Garfinkel 1967: 9), a token of a type of meaningful acts which we can ratify as such. These types of acts can be called “genres” (Blommaert 2018: 51); Garfinkel called them “formats” (2002: 245), and Goffman (1974) theorized them as “frames”.
  5. Fifth, all of the preceding has a major implication for how we see the Self, how we theorize it and address it in research. Rawls’ (2002: 60) comment on Garfinkel nicely captures it, and the point can be extended to almost all the work in the tradition addressed here. Individual subjectivity, she writes, “which had originally been thought of as belonging to the actor, [was relocated] in the regularities of social practices. (…) [A] population is constituted not by a set of individuals with something in common but by a set of practices common to particular situations or events”.

The latter point is of crucial importance here. It emphasizes that actions generate those who are involved in them, or to quote Rawls again, we see “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (2002: 46), and not vice versa. Converted into the vocabulary of this book: identities, individual and collective, are effects of social actions and not their ontological and methodological point of departure. They constitute, as it were, the “personnel” of social actions, and in an online-offline nexus, identifying this “personnel” is the challenge: who is actually and concretely involved in social action as actor? Who actually contributes to the actual form and structure of social actions? To these questions we can now turn, and we shall use ELLA as our tool.

Invisible lines

The method we employ in ELLA is very simple: we observe everything we notice in the way of publicly displayed language material. But we do not stop at the level of language – even if that language is, evidently, an important clue for locating e.g. diasporic audiences – but we look at what is actually contained in the signs. And one feature of a great number of publicly displayed signs nowadays is online information: references to websites, social media accounts and so forth. This already directs us towards a highly relevant insight: that “public” as a feature of sign emplacement now has at least two dimensions: the local public emplacement of signs – the concrete place where signs are put and shown to potential audiences – as well as a translocal, online public sphere with which the local signs are profoundly connected. This insight, in our view, forces us out of the local area and out of the customary modes of LL fieldwork: we have to move from the street to the computer, and we follow the online information displayed in the signs.

The superdiverse area of Oud-Berchem counts a large number of new shop-window evangelical churches catering for specific diaspora audiences from Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia (Blommaert 2013). One such church is located in premises previously occupied by a Chinese restaurant. A couple of posters are affixed to the austere front of the building; Figure 2 displays one of them.

Figure 2

Figure 2: services at the Latin-American church. © Jan Blommaert 2018

The poster offers mundane information: the weekly organization of services in the church. We notice that the information is bilingual, in Dutch and Spanish (here is the level of language), and we already know from previous fieldwork that the church is run by pastors from Peru and caters for a relatively small congregation of faithful hailing from several parts of Latin America.

At the very bottom of the poster, however, we notice a web address: When we follow that link, we enter a very different sphere (Figure 3).

figure 3

Figure 3: Experience Bethel.

Bethel TV is a globally active religious enterprise, based in California, and offering for-money religious services and commodities to a very wide audience of customers around the world. The Bethel TV website contains all the features of commercial websites, including the “free trial” offer, preferably followed by the “premium” subscription (Figure 4).

figuur 4b

Figure 4: Bethel Premium

Note the implications of this. We have moved from a sociolinguistics of offline areas and communities into a sociolinguistics of digital culture, and both are inextricably connected in a locally emplaced sign. That we find ourselves fully in the realm of digital culture becomes clear when we follow some more links. Bethel TV is active on a great number of social media platforms, and prominently on YouTube, where its channel has almost 150,000 subscribers (figure 5).

Figure 4

Figure 5: Bethel TV YouTube channel

YouTube channels along with other social media activities, let us note, are a frequent feature of the new evangelical churches in Oud-Berchem. Thus, Apostle Johnson Suleman, the pastor of a church serving a small West-African congregation in Oud-Berchem, is far bigger online than offline. His YouTube channel has over 106,000 subscribers and shows footage of services held in Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and several other countries (Figure 6).

Figuur 6

Figure 6: Apostle Johnson Suleman online

The case of Apostle Johnson Suleman suggests a slightly different analysis than the ones we provided in earlier work: the church in Oud-Berchem is not connected with the “homeland” of its founders (Nigeria in this case), as a kind of “station” in a network of diasporic community members seeking to worship. It is a node in a transnational network of actions, performed by an itinerant pastor-entrepreneur. The center of this network is not Lagos or Abuja: its center is online, it is the YouTube channel that ties together a range of activities and actors dispersed over several countries. And the case of Bethel TV shows how local churches are resourced by religious multinationals also connecting a multitude of small local nodes in a global network.

We see now, through this online-offline ELLA, how lots of invisible lines run to and from a local area – Oud-Berchem – and how explaining what goes on in this local area demands attention to what the invisible lines bring and take in the way of resources and “personnel” to concrete, situated actions such as Sunday churches, and to concrete, situated modes of community-making. Members of the congregation have 24/7 access to some services of “the church”, regardless of where they are physically stationed. Figure 7, from the website of yet another evangelical church located in Oud-Berchem, illustrates this.

Figuur 7

Figure 7: Web testimonials

The website offers a page for “testimonials”, and apart from two Antwerp-based members, we also see a testimonial from a member based in Manchester, UK. Members not present in the actual physical locale of the church can watch the services on YouTube and draw similar spiritual satisfaction from it.

Conclusion: ELLA 2.0

When we follow the leads from locally emplaced signs towards the online sphere they point towards, we begin to see vastly more. This move from offline to online and back, we consider to be of major importance for ELLA, for it directs us towards a far more precise view of actors and topography of action. As for actors, the actions performed in specific offline places are dispersed and operate locally as well as translocally. The “personnel” of locally performed actions, thus, is far broader and more diverse than what an exclusively offline LL analysis would show. As for topography, we see invisible lines connecting places as far apart as Oud-Berchem and California, and resources, formats and personnel are provided in all these places and made available for local enactment.

We thus find ourselves in an ELLA 2.0, an online-offline ethnography starting from linguistic landscapes and taking us to the structure of social actions in superdiverse neighborhoods. Its findings inevitably distort the acquired imagery of sedentary diaspora demographics as the cornerstone of superdiversity studies: “multi-ethnic” neighborhoods as the locale within which social actions by their populations must be confined, or privileged analytically. The online-offline nexus no longer affords such views.


Blommaert, Jan (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

—– (2018) Durkheim and the Internet; On Sociolinguistics and the Sociolinguistic Imagination. London: Bloomsbury

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

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

Cicourel, Aaron (1973) Cognitive Sociology: Language and Meaning in Social Interactions. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.

Garfinkel, Harold (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. New York: Prentice Hall

—– (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Goffman, Erving (1961) Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill.

—– (1963) Behavior in Public Places. New York: The Free Press

Rawls, Anne Warfield (2002) Editor’s introduction. In Harold Garfinkel, Ethnomethodology’s Program: 1-64. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Strauss, Anselm (1993) Continual Permutations of Action. New Brunswick: Aldine Transactions

From the Self to the Selfie


Jan Blommaert, Lu Ying, Li Kunming

[Draft chapter, in Byron Adams & Fons van de Vijver (eds.) Contributions to Identity: Identity in Non-Western Contexts, 2019]


The central thesis of this chapter is that, since the beginning of the 21st century, we live in a social and cultural environment that has undergone fundamental and unprecedented changes due to the integration of online infrastructures in the patterns of everyday life conduct.[1] Since then, we inhabit the online-offline nexus, and while both zones have characteristics of their own, both have deeply influenced each other and must be seen as one sociocultural, economic and political habitat. This habitat is as yet poorly theorized, since we continue to rely largely on social theories and methodologies developed to account for patterns and structures characterizing offline conduct: theories of the Self. Such theories now need to be complemented by theories of the “Selfie” – the online configurations and performances of identity observable as normal, default modes of identity work in the online-offline nexus.

In what follows, we shall present a number of proposals for addressing the Selfie. These proposals will be grounded in an action-centered perspective on identity – to be explained at length in the next section – which, in our view, is necessitated by a fundamental feature of online social life: the absence of physical copresence in interaction situations, leading to a lack of the mutual monitoring work which was so central in, for instance, Goffman’s work as a means to achieve knowledge of the other (e.g. Goffman 1966). The other appears online, as all of us know, as a technologically-mediated avatar of which the “real” features cannot be established through the cues we so generously display in offline interactions. In examining online social conduct, consequently, knowledge of who the interlocutor is never an a priori but an effect of concrete social action, and while performing such actions knowledge of the other is presumptive or even speculative. Such action – interaction, to be precise – needs to be central in any methodologically safe approach to online identity.

We shall illustrate these proposals by means of two analytical vignettes, both taken from research on online identity practices on the Chinese internet. China, it must be underscored, offers the student of digital culture perhaps the richest panorama of phenomena and processes presently available. This is due to the massive spread of online (and mobile) online applications, the highly integrated and powerful nature of such applications, and the extraordinarily intense usage of these applications by a very large population. Details on this will be offered below. There is another advantage to working on online data from China: the advanced surveillance culture that pervades the Chinese internet and which has often been critically commented upon by outside observers  But while this surveillance culture is known and visible in the case of China, it is not exceptional at all. Surveillance culture is omnipresent in the online sphere wherever it occurs, to the extent that Zuboff (2019) speaks of “surveillance capitalism” as the system which we now inhabit.

This omnipresent surveillance culture has an important effect for what follows, since online identities – Selfies – always have two major dimensions: an “inside” one, referring to the identity work performed and inhabited by participants in online social action; and an “outside” one performed and ascribed by algorithmically configured data fed into user profiles. While all of us perform intense identity work whenever we operate online, all of us are simultaneously identified – through data aggregations – by surveillance operators active on a metalevel. There, we get an inversion: while the other is often unknown to everyday actors in everyday online interaction, the data-generated metaconstructions of profiles are all about full knowledge of the actor. While in what follows we shall be concerned mainly with the “inside” dimension, one should keep in mind that both dimensions of identity need to be addressed in order to get a comprehensive picture of the Selfie.

An action-centered perspective

Let us reiterate the main reason why we opt for an action-centered perspective on online identity work, for it is of great significance methodologically.  In online social environments, the “true” identity of actors involved in some form of social action is, by default, a matter of presumption. We assume that we are having a “discussion” with our “online friends”, and we notice comments from online friends X, Y and Z. X, Y and Z may not (and very often are not) be people we encounter in the offline sphere; consequently, the only identity we can attribute to them is based on what they themselves show and display to us while we engage in interaction with them.

Such online interaction, as we know,

  • is mostly scripted-designed and multimodal interaction;
  • performed by people we can identify only on the basis of what their profile information reveals; this information can be restricted by privacy settings, it can be misleading or outright fake;
  • it is curated in the sense that the actor can modify, edit, reorganize and even remove the messages deployed in the interaction and
  • technologically mediated through the algorithms of the application we are using, ensuring continuously adjusted “bubbles” of participants selected for involvement on data-analytical grounds. So even if we wish to direct our message to, say, all 2536 of my “friends”, we can never be sure that all of them will see that message, and we ourselves (the “senders” of the message in traditional communication theory) cannot see who can see our message. Thus, while we are directly chatting with X, Y and Z, a few hundred others – whom we do not (and cannot) know – may be witnessing the exchanges.
  • It is archivable in several ways: one, as part of our own archive of stored interactions; two, converted into user data gathered, ordered, kept and transformed by app providers, network owners, hardware manufacturers and security agencies; and dispatched to a market of customers interested in what Zuboff (2019: 8) calls “behavioral futures”.The latter form of “recycling”, note, is constant: all online actions are converted into behavioral-predictive data.

Online interaction, seen from that angle, is nonlinear and defies common models of communication dependent on the transparency of the communication and its resources, including the participants’ identities (individual and collective), the nature of the interaction and the message and their trajectories as consequential or inconsequential communicative events. Online interaction, we can see, is characterized by complexity, uncertainty and low predictability, which makes it hard to squeeze into ideal-type theoretical models.

Online interaction, however, remains observable as social action. And while we can say very little with any degree of a priori certainty about the nature of the interactions, the resources deployed in them and the individuals and collectives involved in them, the actions themselves can be used as a lead into all of this enabling post hoc statements on these aspects of action. Put simply: if we want to know online identities, we need to closely examine online actions.

This heuristic puts us firmly within a long lineage of interactionalist work – a tradition of social thought and methodology with roots in American Pragmatism and Phenomenology, mediated by George Herbert Mead (1934) and Alfred Schütz (1967), and developed by scholars such as Erving Goffman (e.g. 1966, 1974), Herbert Blumer (1969, 2004), Aaron Cicourel (1973), Anselm Strauss (1993), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966), Harold Garfinkel (1967, 2002) and many others.[2]

A number of principles characterize this tradition.

  1. The first and most important principle is that of interactional co-construction of social facts – the assumption that whatever we do in social life is done in collaboration, response or conflict with others. In fact, the people mentioned above argue that one can only talk of social action when it is interaction (e.g. Strauss 1993: 21), and for Blumer (1969: 7) “a society consists of individuals interacting with one another”.
  2. Interaction, in turn, is “making sense” of social order in concrete situations – this is the second principle. For the scholars mentioned, social order and social structure does not exist in an abstract sense but is enacted constantly by people in contextualized, situated moments of interaction. In Garfinkel’s famous words (1967: 9), in each such moment we perform and co-construct social order “for another first time”. The social is concrete, ongoing and evolving, in other words.
  3. The third principle is derived straight from Mead and can be summarized as follows: “we see ourselves through the way in which others see and define us” (Blumer 1969: 13). Somewhat more precisely, “organisms in interaction are observing each other’s ongoing activity, with each using portions of the developing action of the other as pivots for the redirection of his or her own action” (Blumer 2004: 18). This is the essence of Mead’s understanding of the Self: it is greatly influenced by anticipated responses from the others, and adjusted accordingly. The Self can thus never be an essence, a fixed characteristic, an a priori attribute of people: it is a situationally co-constructed performance ratified by others. Of course, Goffman’s work has greatly contributed to our understanding of this.
  4. Fourth, we do this interactional monitoring and anticipating of the others’ responses on the basis of an assumption of recognizability. When we experience something as meaningful, as something that “makes sense” to us, by recognizing it as something specific (cf. Garfinkel 1967: 9), a token of a type of meaningful acts which we can ratify as such. These types of acts can be called “genres” (Blommaert 2018: 51); Garfinkel called them “formats” (2002: 245), and Goffman (1974) theorized them as “frames”.
  5. Fifth, all of the preceding has a major implication for how we see the Self, how we theorize it and address it in research. Rawls’ (2002: 60) comment on Garfinkel nicely captures it, and the point can be extended to almost all the work in the tradition addressed here. Individual subjectivity, she writes,

“which had originally been thought of as belonging to the actor, [was relocated] in the regularities of social practices. (…) [A] population is constituted not by a set of individuals with something in common but by a set of practices common to particular situations or events”.

That means that actions generate those who are involved in them, or to quote Rawls again, we see “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (2002: 46), and not vice versa. Converted into the vocabulary of this book: identities, individual and collective, are effects of social actions and not their ontological and methodological point of departure. They constitute, as it were, the “personnel” of social actions.[3]

Having sketched the main principles of the action-centered approach we shall use here, our task is now to link it to the specific characteristics of online interactions, as reviewed earlier. Specific forms of interaction will demand and afford specific forms of identity work and yield specific identities; the specific nature of online interactions, thus, may compel us to focus on identities that are not often seen as essential, “thick” or enduring. But they are identities, to be sure – Selfies rather than Selves. That means: they are concrete, interactionally ratified (and thus relational) inhabited-and-ascribed roles in online social action, recognizable as such by others and constituted out of a number of specific identity dimensions.

Our analytic vignettes will provide arguments.

Becoming an expert user of memes.

The internet is a mammoth informal learning environment, and learning practices, broadly taken, are among the most frequently performed online social actions. Search engine commands are of course cases in point, but even when people engage in discussions, chats or other forms of “ludic” activities, learning appears as one of the main dimension of action. Since online environments are also sites of extremely rapid innovation and change, continuous learning needs to be done in order to enter specific groups of users or remain a ratified member of such communities.

We enter the realm here of so-called “light” relationships, identities and communities, carried along and given substance by means of “light”, ludic practices of the kind so often described by Goffman (e.g. 1961, 1966) – practices not often attributed too much importance when seen from the outside, but often experienced as highly salient by participants and worthy of very considerable efforts (Blommaert & Varis 2015). Attention to such light phenomena is not a mainstream tactic in disciplines explicitly interested in identities. Yet it connects with the interactionist tradition we chose to align our approach with, and in which there was an outspoken interest in the mundane, routine phenomena in which social order could be observed and made palpable. We adopt from this tradition the view that the big things in society can be observed and understood in seemingly small and innocuous events.

Let us now turn to some data gathered from Sina Weibo and WeChat, China’s largest social media providers. As mentioned earlier, China’s online infrastructure offers a fertile terrain for the study of digital culture, unmatched perhaps by any other area in the contemporary world. The reasons for this are manifold and range from the sheer scale of the infrastructure (with nearly a billion people using online tools); the level of sophistication of social media platforms in which functions elsewhere requiring dozens of separate apps are integrated into one platform; the intensity of use of online infrastructures, notably of social media; and the specific features of Chinese language and culture played out in online activities (Du Caixia 2016; Li Kunming 2018; Wang Xuan 2018; Hua Nie 2018; Lu Ying 2018). The latter is of special interest when we feed it back to one of the core features of online interactions: their scripted-designed multimodal nature. The specific characteristics of Chinese script constitute tremendous affordances for wordplay, neologisms and graphic design based on scriptural elements (Hua Nie 2018).

Several such affordances are played out in what is known elsewhere as “memes”, and as “Biaoqingbao” in online China.[4] Biaoqingbao are (like memes) compound signs consisting of an image and – usually – a caption. Images can be summary, like line drawings, but also intricate and manipulated, as when a celebrity’s face is pasted upon a panda bear’s head; in every instance, such doctored images convey interactionally recognizable and ratified emotive meanings – anger, surprise, laughter, aggression, but also more finely tuned emotive responses. Captions often use existing Chinese characters with a twist – playing into the homophony of characters to produce sarcastic or ironic wordplay, obscenities or covert sociopolitical critique, and they sometimes acquire a long and fruitful life as constantly morphing, multifunctional signs (cf. Du Caixia 2016; Hua Nie 2018). Memes can become extraordinarily popular with millions of shares and instances of use, and Biaoqingbao designers can become minor online celebrities with a large cohort of followers whose electronically transmitted cash donations turn Biaoqingbao design into a profitable business venture (Lu Ying 2018). One specific mode of usage of Biaoqingbao is in what is known as “emoticon fights”, in which interactions are organized around the exchange of Biaoqingbao, each time trying to trump (or “defeat”) the opponent.

We have, in this brief survey of Biaoqingbao, already identified identity effects. Highly talented Biaoqingbao designers can acquire celebrity status and function as the recognized leaders of a community of followers. In addition, such success can move them into a more prosperous socio-economic position in Chinese society, outside of the formal economy and labor market. Manufacturing complex, witty and appealing Biaoqingbao is, thus, an activity that can shift positions in a field (to use Bourdieu’s 1993 well-known terms here), and such position shifts are, in effect, identity shifts as well.

But there is more. The relationship between Biaoqingbao makers and their followers, and among members of the users’ community as well, is characterized by hierarchies within a learning community. An example can make this clear.

In 2016, a complex and composite meme appeared on Weibo, displaying fragments of nine classic paintings in a certain sequence (figure 1).

ScreenHunter_03 Feb. 19 14.28

Figure 1: “posh” Biaoqing

The captions added to the painting fragments describe the emotional value attached to them, in phrases such as “Rembrandt style fright” and “Dutch mannerism onlooking”. And in her post, the maker of the Biaoqingbao wrote “please help yourself to Biaoqingbao” – an explicit invitation to start using the memes in the ways she had described.

What followed was a stampede towards these “posh Biaoqingbao”, with many thousands of people expressing an interest in them and inquiring about specific ways to use them. Such ways, the Biaoqing maker explained, would bespeak a cultured and sophisticated stance: using them in online exchanges would suggest an advanced level of education, erudition and taste. People quickly followed, reposting the original meme, designing and submitting some of their own making, and commenting extensively on the qualities and defects of all of them and offering informed suggestions as to their interpretation and potential of use in emoticon fights. In Garfinkel’s (2002) terms, we were observing “instructed action”, in which people tried, explored and implemented each other’s suggestions – and most prominently those of the Biaoqingbao maker – in discussions, negotiations and trials.

Let us rephrase some of what we have encountered so far. We observe how, around the new Biaoqingbao, a knowledge community is formed in which different levels of knowledge define the relationships between members. The Biaoqingbao maker is the instructor, so to speak, and within the community of followers definite differences could be noted between more and less “experienced” commentators. Newcomers in the rapidly expanding community had to submit to processes of learning-from-scratch or acquire a place as a competent member by displaying relevant experiences with similar signs and practices. Rules were made, learned, deployed and modified throughout the process of community formation and consolidation. And an online practice that had no previous history of usage quickly became a normatively ordered, mutually ratified and regulated mode of interaction. This process of normative ordering and mutual ratification, in addition, enabled the display of a sophisticated, cultured and educated persona in online interactions. The hierarchical internal structure of the learning community, thus, enabled new forms of outward identity work in confrontations with non-members.

The amount of energy used in this process of formation and consolidation of an online learning community are tremendous, and the magnitude of the efforts can be measured by the money donations offered by grateful followers to Biaoqingbao makers. Thus, even if what we observe here is easy to dismiss as mere entertainment and innocent just-for-fun interaction, elementary processes of social ordering, identity formation and group construction are being shown in the process. This process, let us note and emphasize, is a process of action construction – the joint construction of a specific genre of online social action – and the way in which the process develops is through a wide and layered variety of learning practices, of which individual and collective identities are an outcome. Such identities, note, are exclusively online identities, and their construction, elaboration and development require the specific infrastructures of online social spaces.

The care of the Selfie

The same goes for the phenomena we now turn to. One of the features offered on Chinese social media platforms is a live streaming app called Zhibo, and this function has become widely used for the development of new, informal forms of online economy. Goods and services are traded via online streaming platforms, and mobile money transfer (another function of the platforms we consider here) enables swift and safe transactions.[5] Li Kunming (2018: 129) reports more than 200 livestreaming platforms, with an audience estimated, in 2016, to have reached 325 million – half of the Chinese online population.

One particular commodity has become widely popular on Zhibo: female beauty. Women open online chat rooms where they entertain a male audience; income is generated by “gifts” that can be purchased through the app and sent in real time to the chatroom host. Chat room apps would offer a range of such gifts in various price categories, from a relatively cheap “kiss” to an awfully expensive “Ferrari” or “diamond”. Before we move to consider some aspects of identity construction in such chat rooms, a more general observation has to be made with respect to the characterization of online interaction we provided earlier.

In Goffman’s terms, much of what we observe in the way of online interaction would be disembodied communication (1966: 14), and scripted messages or memes, such as the ones we surveyed in the previous section, would be typical instances of such disembodied communication. Obviously, interaction through livestreaming is not disembodied, and there is even copresence enabling the kind of give-and-take of visual clues in realtime that Goffman described in such detail. In livestreaming events, we can speak of real encounters in the sense of Goffman (1961). There is a twist, however, and the twist is significant. First, while we obviously observe embodied interactions here, the communicating body is technologically mediated, and the same goes for the aspect of copresence. The women in the chat rooms appear on a screen – usually that of a handheld device – and they usually are visible only from the waist up. And their bodies are just part of what is displayed on the screen, as we can see from Figure 2. Next to the woman’s face, icons and message balloons constantly appear, and they are crucial parts of the interaction.


Fig. 2: Yizhibo chat room. © YouTube 2017.[6]

The embodied interaction, thus, is scripted, edited and curated, and it is multimodal and asymmetrical: while the woman can be heard by her audience members, the latter can only communicate to her by means of scripted messages; and while the woman is visible, her audience members remain invisible – their presence is attested through the messaging and the sending of gifts. The broad genre in these interactions can be described as flirting. The women show themselves, they move, talk, sing and respond to messages and icons of their audience, by expressing affection and gratitude. Thus, the woman in figure 2 kisses her webcam as a reward for a gift just received from one of her audience members. And this is the point where we see a tremendous amount of identity work being performed.

The women do not come online unprepared. There are certain normative templates for expressing femininity, and Li (2018) elaborates on the template called Baifumei – a Chinese term composed of “white-attractive-wealthy” and widely used to describe a particular ideal of feminine beauty. Baifumei are women with a pale skin, an oval-shaped face, eyes somewhat bigger than average, and “Western” in looks and preferences. Such looks can be acquired by elaborate and detailed make-up schemes, using specific brand creams, lipstick shades, eyeliner and mascara; and also by using electronic filters contained in the app for making the eyes look somewhat bigger and for adjusting the outline of the woman’s face. What audiences see in such chat rooms is clearly a Selfie – an electronically mediated and configured self-representation, necessitating great care whenever we refer to “embodiment” as a feature of these interactions.

Intricate behavioral scripts also need to be deployed and followed in interacting with the audiences as well. While a degree of vulgarity – expressed, for instance, in jokes, songs or wordplay – is not discouraged, obscenity clearly is. Women can present themselves as erotic, but they should not, and do not, undress in front of the camera, and too overtly sexualized moves or utterances would also be discouraged. The point is to be attractive to the men with whom they interact, to show attention and affection to them, to even express love to them – but all of this in ways that steer clear of associations with pornography and prostitution. The latter, of course, are criminal offences in China, and it is vital for the women to remain within the boundaries of what is politically, culturally, socially and legally acceptable.

This is important for several reasons. One – the obvious one – is that no one searches for trouble with the Law. But two aspects are equally important. There is the economic aspect, enabling the women to earn very considerable amounts of money (and to become financially independent that way) as long as their online performance satisfies the various normative expectations articulated and imposed by audiences, providers and authorities. And there is a social aspect to it as well: women can be free to flirt with men online in ways that, in offline China, could be perceived as deviant or offensive, and could have a range of undesired consequences. In other words: it is crucial that the women only perform their flirtatious practices online, as it keeps them safe and autonomous socially as well as economically. No wonder, then, that almost all women operate under an artist name: what they do online has to be and remain exclusively online.[7]

Let us summarize what we have covered in this vignette. The self-presentation of women in Zhibo chat rooms is governed by an elaborate “care of the Selfie” (a term obviously inspired by Foucault 1986, 2003). This care of the Selfie consists of a very wide range of normatively ordered actions aimed at creating and performing an identity exclusively designed for the online environment in which it is played out. It is proleptic identity work, anticipating the criteria of one’s audience and adjusting one’s appearance accordingly prior to seeking the audience’s uptake. The actions consist of preparatory practices organizing the presentation of the body online, as well as of interactional practices aimed at successfully performing the identity for which men are ready to present gifts. All of them combined are very real forms of identity – critical identities that enable women to acquire an income and a degree of autonomy hard to acquire elsewhere in society.


Our two vignettes showed how specific online actions generate specific online identities. These identities bear similarities, naturally, with other known forms of identity, especially when we compare them with the “light” but socially important identities described by Goffman, Garfinkel and others. At the same time, when we look at the details of identity construction in the cases we discussed, the influence of the online technological infrastructure is compelling. We are facing identity work here that is partly recognizable in terms of older established categories of identity, but which is at the same time entirely new in its loci and conditions for production.

The scale of such phenomena, and the pace of their production, circulation and change are tremendous, and this was one reason why we chose to illustrate our general points with examples from online China. Both the routine and ritualized exchange of Biaoqingbao, and the Zhibo chat rooms where female beauty is played out for male audiences, are very widespread phenomena involving hundreds of millions of individuals. These, in other words, are not marginal phenomena, they are structural ones.

Addressing them, however, demands an action-oriented approach in which the specific forms of online social action are examined in a search for their “personnel”, for the identities they allow, invite, enable and ratify. An approach in which we start from what is known about offline life risks bypassing the crucial effects of the online infrastructures on what is possible in the way of social action. It so risks to overlook the most important insight to be gathered from cases such as these: the fact that people have integrated online environments into their everyday social worlds, and that they have become fully competent members of a changed society that way, doing and being different things than before, and attaching great value to those things.


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[2] The work of scholars listed here has become known under a variety of labels, from ‘grounded theory’ (Strauss) and ‘social constructivism’ (Berger &Luckmann) to ‘symbolic interactionism’ (Blumer), ‘cognitive sociology’ (Cicourel) and ‘ethnomethodology’ (Garfinkel). To all of them, the label ‘ethnography’ can equally be applied. By using the term ‘interactionist’ we point to the fact that these disparate efforts are tied together by the shared basic-theoretical principles to be discussed next. The work of Anne Warfield Rawls (e.g. 2002; 2004) is exceptionally insightful in sketching the bigger picture of action-centered epistemologies connecting such different schools.

[3]To make this point very clear, observe that all of this evidently excludes methodological individualism from the theoretical repertoire of the interactionist tradition. See Blommaert (2018: 36-37) for a discussion.

[4]What follows is based on Lu Ying’s online fieldwork, part of her ongoing doctoral research on Biaoqingbao, its modes of usage and community of users.

[5] What follows is largely based on Li Kunming’s (2018) PhD research (cf. also Li & Blommaert 2017). Additional information was obtained from Lin Jie through her ongoing fieldwork, and we gratefully acknowledge her input.

[6] This image is a still from a YouTube clip:

[7] Li Kunming (2018) observes that many of the women who run such chat rooms hail from remote and socio-economically marginal areas in China. They very often lack the qualifications for upward mobility in the formal labor market, and their online economic activities are one way of compensating for such disadvantages. Note that successful women in this business can make millions and acquire the status of celebrity in online China.

Family language planning as sociolinguistic biopower


Jan Blommaert

[Foreword to Shahzaman Haque & Françoise Le Lièvre (eds. 2019) Politique Linguistique familiale / Family language policy: Enjeux dynamiques de la transmission linguistique dans un contexte migratoire / Dynamics in language transmission under a migratory context.]


Language policy and planning research used to be, in the sociolinguistic tradition, an outspoken macro-affair focused on examining the rationality of (usually) state-based governance in the field of language (e.g. Eastman 1983). This form of state-based linguistic governance was in turn often seen as an element of nation-building, for the languages in need of policy and planning were usually the languages that defined, or could and should define, the nation. The particular rationality applied in such governance was at once romantic and modernist: romantic since it was deployed in view of the creation of the kind of nation imagined in the European romantic tradition; modernist since it strongly relied on principles of efficiency, parsimony, singularity and linearity, usually leading to “oligolingualism” – the reduction, through conscious policy and planning, of sociolinguistic complexity in the state by promoting specific languages to the status of “national” and/or “official” language – the standardized languages normatively used in the public sphere, notably in politics, education and media – and relegating most other languages to the domain of the private sphere (Blommaert 1996; Spolsky, this volume).  The terrain on which such efforts were set was usually that of relatively new postcolonial states, turning the latter into a laboratory for what Eastman (1983: 4) called an “applied sociolinguistics” committed to social change (for a survey, see Ricento 2006).[1]

Three problems

In spite of the tremendous enthusiasm for such sociolinguistic engineering among scholars of language, the laboratory cannot be said to have produced a long list of successes. As observed by Bernard Spolsky (this volume), some assumptions about how language could work in social environments turned out to be fundamentally flawed and several aspects of sociolinguistic reality turned out to “talk back” to the carefully designed and energetically enforced policies. I shall highlight three major problems.

The first problem was that language policy, certainly when insisting on maintaining former colonial-metropolitan languages as part of the institutional sociolinguistic hierarchy, was quickly identified as just another mechanism of oppression, a form of linguistic imperialism potentially endangering minority languages to the point of extinction. Issues of language rights emerged as a counterpoint to top-down language policies (Phillipson 1992; Nettle & Romaine 2000; May, 2001; for a discussion see Freeland & Patrick 2004). Even where former colonial-metropolitan languages were not overtly promoted, the newly hegemonic national language could be shown to create or consolidate sociolinguistic inequalities, mainly through the exclusionary effects of language standardization (as in Tanzania, see Blommaert 2014).

The second problem was that language policy analysis could be seen, from the early 1990s onwards, as a particular instance of language-ideological structuring. As soon as language ideologies emerged as a theoretically and empirically developed aspect of any sociolinguistic object, language-ideological analyses of language policy became inevitable and provided a critical deconstruction of – notably – the notion of ‘language’ as a standardized artifact itself (see Kroskrity, Schieffelin & Woolard 1992; Silverstein & Urban 1996; Kroskrity 2000). This fundamentally undercut the top-down approach to language policy and planning studies, because language ideologies were distributed and pervaded every aspect of production, circulation and uptake of linguistic artifacts and processes such as textbooks, media discourses and policy papers, as well as degrees of fluency in enregistering standard varieties of language (Silverstein 1996; Agha 2007). In other words, what language ideologies did was to redefine the nature of the sociolinguistic arena in which language policies were being played out, prompting very different forms of inquiry and analysis (e.g. Jaffe 1999). We were now facing a layered, scaled and fragmented complex of sociolinguistic phenomena in which overt and institutional politics represented one form of structuration, while the everyday politics of interaction and uptake represented quite another one.

This problem led to the third one. A language-ideological critique of linguistic regimes (the term used by Kroskrity 2000) necessarily led to a far more nuanced and dispersed, less linear conceptualization of power in the sociolinguistic field. Part of the sociological imagination animating early language planning efforts contained a profound, but misguided, belief in the exclusive power of institutions as effective agents of change in the sociolinguistic field and of modernist rationality regarding the construction of a ‘correct’ standardized set of languages within an oligolinguistic landscape. James C. Scott (1998) called this imagination “seeing like a state”, and language planning officers often saw sociolinguistic realities from the viewpoint of the state as the prime mover in matters of language. With language ideologies as part of the theoretical and methodological toolkit, such a totalizing view of power had to be replaced by a far more layered and fragmented one, involving actors at several scale levels and activities across the entire realm of social life, and an analysis zooming in on the smallness of situated practices rather than on policy papers, international treaties and constitutional amendments (cf. McCarty 2011; Blommaert 2013; also Tollefson & Perez-Milans 2018; Spolsky, this volume).

Sociolinguistic biopower

This is where Family Language Policy finds its rationale and legitimacy: as a response to the three problems outlined above, and as a way of engaging with far more delicate and less linear modes of rationalizing language ideologies at scale levels below those of the state, and between those sub-state scale-levels and higher ones. In his chapter on “Why family language policy is crucial”, Haque (this volume) argues that family language policy addresses the link between the private and the public spheres of social life, between the scale of everyday family life and that of life as a citizen, and between orientations towards intimacy and family-bound affection on the one hand, and orientations towards trajectories of success and mobility reflecting the perceived requirements of the state, the labor market, and ultimately the world on the other hand. Reflecting on the chapters in this book, four separate but connected remarks are in order.

One: it is hard to miss the relevance of the fact that the chapters of this book document family language planning in contexts of migration and diaspora – contexts of globalization, in other words. The subjects animating the case descriptions all face the task of – conventionally called – multilingual maneuvering in a social network which is at once local and translocal, demanding the mobilization of complex repertoires made up of functionally specialized resources.

This means that family language policy, in the cases discussed here, is not a low-scale phenomenon but something which is dispersed over several scale-levels, including (prominently) the global one from within which biographies of migration, displacement and relocation emerge. We are facing cross-scalar complexity here, a stratified and polycentric language-ideological construction enveloping multiple resources and scripts for their deployment across scales.

Two: given this cross-scalar complexity, we can see how family language policy is a form of rationality, a reasoned organization of a sociolinguistic regime at the scale-level of the family. Rules are negotiated, established and enforced, on the basis of what we can best call ‘estimates’ of the value of sociolinguistic-communicative resources stretching from language to language variety, dialect and script, to accent and degrees of fluency and pragmatic-metapragmatic appropriateness, to the regulation of specific modes of communication. In Bourdieu’s (1982, 1991) terms, a field is locally shaped, enveloping the totality of sociolinguistic-communicative resources in mutually calibrated – that is, measured and evaluated – relations.

The value of such resources is overwhelmingly language-ideological and is determined by perceived (ideological) connections between specific resources and aspects of identity and belonging, social mobility and achievement, and affective-moral attachment to the kernel community of family, relatives and people identified as belonging to kindred communities – all of which become sociolinguistically conveyable through the structures of the sociolinguistic regime.

The previous remark might suggest that the sociolinguistic regimes we observe here are profoundly irrational, given their roots in affect, imagination and language-ideological sensitivities. But the rationality of the regime lies in the non-arbitrariness of selection and preference: resources are explicitly marked (and explained, argued) as non-equivalent to each other – the ‘heritage language’ must be used in social conditions x, y, z – and such rules of selection are learned (i.e. socialized) and policed as compelling aspects of behavioral regulation (cf. Moore 2016). The rationality, in other words, resides in the normative transparency of the sociolinguistic regime.

Three: in spite of the elaborate metapragmatic narratives, explanations and accounts we encounter in the studies in this book, we should remember that we are essentially facing a regime of social action, the metapragmatic reflections on which provide us with an inroad into the rationality governing it, the perceived patterns of order in a complex sociolinguistic universe – the things Garfinkel (2002) captured under the label of “accountability”.

I emphasize this because a focus on action forces us to think beyond traditional categorizations of (Fishmanian) domains, as well as beyond binaries such as “ingroup versus outgroup code” or “dominant versus subordinate language”. If this book brings one point home, it is that there is nothing abstract to family language policies – they are concrete, situated modes of social practice involving both the deployment of sociolinguistic-communicative resources as well as their rationalization through practices of accountability. And the one thing we have learned from language ideologies is that metapragmatic reflections cannot be separated from the practices they are tied to – they are joined as a composite object in social action. This, I suggest, has far-reaching methodological implications. Looking at family language policy as a particular organization of social action will involve a perpetual critical appraisal of the terms “family”, “language” and “policy”, since none of them can be presupposed or predefined, and all of them need continually to be grounded in observations of action – which is where the boundaries of these concepts will be established, as well as their validity.

Four: most of what was contained in the previous three points can now be anchored in a more appropriate theory of power than the top-down and linear one often applied in language policy and planning research in the past. We have the comfort that we can take such a theory off the shelf: Foucault’s biopower (e.g. Foucault 2007). Biopower, recall, was described as an infinitely dispersed and fractioned system of ideologically informed action covering all aspects of life and ordering them according to perceived norms of normalcy at all possible scale levels. It was, according to Foucault, the way in which the raison d’état could be converted in a generalized rationality, prominently including the raison de famille.

While the raison d’état was enforced by the police force, the raison de famille was very much policed by the families themselves, precisely by means of the kinds of reasoned organization of action we find in the family language policies documented in this book. Family language policies are, ultimately, self-induced and self-policed modes of ‘order’ in social action, infused by polycentric and scaled language ideologies, accumulated and learned during biographically phased processes of socialization. It is good to remember Foucault’s sobering take on socialization: yes, it always involves the handling and reproduction of (seemingly soft) Durkheimian norms of social conduct, but such norms constitute a field of power more formidable and effective than anything Durkheim anticipated. In cases discussed in this book, they define the diacritics of ‘normal’ subjectivity itself – are you still ‘one of us’ when you do not use language x when talking to person y? Are you still recognizable as a member of a clear-cut social category (‘us’) or are you an outsider whose social conduct cannot be tolerated as meaningful to us?

Such issues, generously demonstrated throughout this book, should make it clear to anyone that family language planning research is not a study of families; it is a study of society in its very complex concreteness. I welcome such studies.


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Phillipson, Robert (1992) Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Ricento, Thomas (ed.) (2006) Language Policy: Theory and Method. London: Blackwell.

Scott, James C. (1998) Seeing like a State. New Haven: Yale University Press

Silverstein, Michael (1996) Monoglot ‘standard’ in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Donald Brenneis & Ronal Macaulay (eds.) The Matrix of Language: 284-306. Boulder: Westview Press.

Silverstein, Michael & Greg Urban (eds.) (1996) Natural Histories of Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tollefson, James & Miguel Perez-Milans (eds.) (2018) The Oxford Handbook of Language Policy and Planning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] Thomas Ricento’s landmark 2006 book, it can be noted, was the first volume in a series edited by Jennifer Coates, Jenny Cheshire and Euan Reid called “Language and Social Change”.


Globalization (in a nutshell)


Jan Blommaert

Globalization refers to the process of increasing interconnectedness between different parts of the world, creating global modes of organization and conduct. This interconnectedness has ‘hard’ dimensions (economic, political, demographic, military etc.) as well as ‘soft’ ones (culture, language, religion etc.), and the key to the entire process is mutual influencing through borrowing, transfer, or power. This, we can say, is globalization-as-phenomenon.

Globalization also refers to a scientific awareness of these factual processes, which functions in that sense as a corrective to approaches privileging single states or regions in research, grouped under the label of ‘methodological nationalism. It is because of this awareness that we now refer to our societies as ‘globalized’. This, we can say, is globalization-as-paradigm. And while globalization-as-phenomenon is very old, globalization-as-paradigm is quite recent. The latter demands explanation.

The lens of methodological nationalism

The birth of modern science coincides with that of the modern nation-state, and the development of science was, for a long time, part of the development of the modern nation-state infrastructure. Historians would write the histories of their countries and leaders; sociologists would study the social organization of their countries, linguists would study and contribute to the standardization of the national language, ethnologists and folklorists would focus on the traditions and customs of the people living within the boundaries of the nation-state, and so forth. The modern nation-state was seen as the foundational and autonomous unit for studying and understanding society, and scientific tools such as statistics emerged (literally) as ‘the science of the state’ – a key tool for documenting and following developments within a country, as seen and judged by the state.

This focus on the nation-state was methodological also beccause it shaped deep-theoretical assumptions about the nature of societies. Certainly in the wake of the Romantic movement, nations were essentialized as sedentary communities of people joined by bonds of tradition and shared ancestry. The people currently living in, say, France, were defined as ‘French’ not purely on grounds of administrative belonging, but on grounds of shared essential characteristics – culture, ‘civilization’ , language, lineage and genealogy, religion, traditions, folklore and so forth. A similar sociological imagination was projected onto others as well, and early anthropology adopted it as the elementary frame for describing the ‘exotic’ Other.

To some extent, what emerged was a self-fulfilling prophecy: the stronger the nation-state became in terms of administrative and infrastructural integration – think of national education systems and compulsory national military service as examples – the more such countries became identifiable through things such as language and script, shared symbols and universes of knowledge (such as knowledge of the line of succession within the monrachy, knowledge of crucial victories in battles as moments in the history of the state, or knowledge of a national artistic and literary canon). In other words, the stronger state power became, the more the inhabitants of that state started resembling each other.

At the same time, evidently, such shared features were constructed – standard national languages certainly were – and imposed by the system of state governance, and much of what was proposed as essential sharedness rested on what Hobsbawm and Ranger called‘invented traditions‘. The supposed homogeneity and stability of the nation-state always covered a vastly more diverse and volatile reality. In addition, there was something profoundly paradoxical about the emergence of methodological nationalism: it occurred precisely at the time of rapid and vast globalization called, by Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, contradicting almost everything contained in the methodological-nationalist imagination. In spite of that, methodological nationalism remained influential throughout the 20th century. Globalization-as-phenomenon was, for a very long time, not accompanied by globalization-as-paradigm, but by exactly its opposite.

A quick history of globalization

Globalization-as-phenomenon is a very old process and any informed survey should include prehistorical migrations of populations across parts of the globe, spreading technologies, sociocultural practices and languages across vast spaces. We can recommend, as an example of work documenting such prehistorical movements and their effects, Jan Vansina’s study of the spread of Bantu languages across a large region in Africa. Historical processes of globalization should also include the formation of large empires through conquest and/or migration, such as the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan, the empire of Alexander the Great as well as that of Persia, the Roman empire and the Visigoth migration in Late Antiquity, and the Muslim conquests after the 7th century. They should also include premodern large trade networks such as the Silk Roads, the Indian Ocean Trade and the Viking network, all of which involved huge geographical scope and intensity of technological, sociocultural, political and religious influence and exchange. Observe that such trade networks usually involved aspects of military power as well – wealth and weaponry quite systematically went hand in hand in the history of globalization. And when weaponry is mentioned, technology becomes a topic demanding attention.

The early-modern European expansion and early colonialism (often called ‘discoveries’, as in ‘Columbus discovering America’ and ‘Captain Cook discovering Australia’) must be seen in that light, as an extension of worldwide trade networks to which some military power was added. In fact, much of the early Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch trade expansion made use of existing routes, centers and networks, and added new ones due to superior technology – improvements in ship building, navigation, cartography and gunnery enabled the Westward expansion towards the Americas as well as the sea route around the Cape towards the Indian Ocean trade area. This, then, led to the genesis of modern capitalism in Europe along with that of an embryonic global trader class and trading companies such as the Dutch East-India Company VOC, who laid the foundations of global capitalist expansion in the late 18th and 19th century.

This latter period is the beginning of high-modern globalization, culminating in Hobsbawm’s Age of Empire (1875-1914) in which huge territories were incorporated into European nation-state systems as colonial properties, of crucial importance for the growth and development of industrial capitalism in Europe. We shall return to this later. But we must remember that the world around the beginning of the 20th century was ruled by just a handful of nation-states, and there are very few present-day non-European countries that were never formally ruled as colonies, protectorates or mandate territories. When we see globalization as the increased interconnectedness between different parts of the world, the colonial era was definitely a rarely matched high point of globalization. But as mentioned before, it also led to the paradox of methodological (and, of course, political and military) nationalism.

This Age of Empire ended with the First World War (1914-1918), which, as the term indicates, was a global conflict with battlefields stretching from East Asia and East Africa to the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Western Europe and the Atlantic Ocean; and with a worldwide mobilization of military and economic forces in view of the war efforts. Soldiers from New Zealand, the USA, India and Senegal died in Flanders and Northern France and wheat imported from Argentina helped the British and French populations survive 1918. This world war heralded another stage in the history of globalization, that of global inter-state organizations such as the League of Nations and, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, 1917, the COMINTERN. The failure of such early attempts at global political governance became clear in the 1930s with the rise of Japanese imperialism in East Asia and that of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain.

The World War that ensued was even more global in scope than the first one, now with vastly more involvement from the two emerging superpowers, the US and the USSR, and including the Pacific Ocean as a major theater of operations. It led to the foundation of the United Nations as well as to that of the EU and postwar (and Cold War) military alliances with a global reach: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It led to a flurry of international treaties, organizations, conventions and agreements, and it led to the end of the colonial system. The Age of Empire was followed by an era of Global Alliances, and the latter was marked by an endless sequence of local wars that were never considered as constituting another ‘World War’, but that were all connected by similar drivers, actors and forces: Korea, Vietnam, Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Middle East, Central America, and so forth. It was also marked by chronic political instability across the globe, with rebellions, contestation movements and military coups, brutal dictatorships, civil wars and famines. This stage of the history of globalization came to an end in 1989-1991, when the Soviet system in the USSR and its satellites collapsed and the global superpower binary of the Cold World vanished.

While technological developments marked and deeply influenced each stage of globalization in this very brief and sketchy history, the end of the Cold War coincided with a major technological innovation, the Internet. Prior to that, the rise of audiovisual mass media throughout the 20th century (and certainly that of TV from the 1960s on) had turned local events into global news and had created a new, global level of sociocultural and political circulation. Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first cosmonaut, became a global celebrity in 1961 on black-and-white TV screens; the Beatles soon followed him; and the first landing on the moon in 1969 can be said to be the first worldwide live television event, watched in real time by people in places scattered across the world. The Vietnam War caused animosity worldwide (and fuelled rebellion and counterculture in very many places) because of spectacular global news reporting in the printed press and on radio and TV, and the famine in Ethiopia (with shocking images televised across the world) triggered the first global music charity event – Live Aid in 1985.

Nothing, however, could compare with what the Internet started offering in the early 1990s: a global system of information technology allowing a collossal increase of speed, volume and intensity, soon converted from a high-brow commodity into a mass-marketed one through the development of small computers and, in the 21st century, mobile and handheld devices enabling Internet access and content production. The present stage of globalization can therefore be described as the stage of digital globalization. It extended, deepened and made far more effective the previous layers of globalization – those of global trade networks, interstate organizations and empires. The present world maintains features of all these previous layers, now enveloped, connected and framed by a global infrastructure of digital technology.


As mentioned, globalization-as-paradigm came long after globalization-as-phenomenon. While the world was effectively globalized in the late 19th century, that didn’t mean that ‘the world’ was an live concept for those living in that globalized world, On the contrary. People lived in a world of nations, and even if such nations were global empires – think of the UK and France around the beginning of the 20th century – they were still seen as a nation and the rest of world was seen from that nation. It isn’t until mass media enabled the global and almost instant circulation of information, images and foci of attention, that the world became imaginable as a world rather than as a list of countries. And this required a World War as well as a transnational live mass media infrastructure.

The tipping point lies somewhere in the turbulent 1960s – the heyday of the Cold War, of decolonization, of Vietnam and the Beatles, and the beginning of television as the focus of cultural and knowledge circulation. Marshall McLuhan‘s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) described, early in the day, the phenomenon of global interconnectedness through new mass media technologies (and already predicted something like the Internet). And it was in the 1960s that issues from far away became ‘repatriated’ into the sociocultural and political lives of people elsewhere. The Vietnam war as well as the struggles for independence in the colonies became objects of protest and countercultural rebellion all over Western Europe, feeding into the intensity of the near-revolutionary May 1968 uprisings; nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and Nova Zembla led to the formation of an international peace movement crossing the lines of the Cold War and with prominent intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell and E.P. Thompson as its spokespersons; the American Civil Rights Movement, with Martin Luther King as its icon, became an inspiration for peaceful antiracist movements globally; Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China inspired and influenced rebels and left-wing intellectuals worldwide including leaders of newly independent states such as Tanzania’s Julius K. Nyerere; and Viernam’s Ho Chi Minh as well as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became global heroes of a new youth counterculture, for whom the soundtrack was provided by the likes of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez,

It was only when this wave of experienced globalization was set in motion that theories of globalization emerged, and the most formative one was (and remains) World-Systems Analysis developed by Immanuel Wallerstein and his associates. Wallerstein started from a problem that emerged in the wake of decolonization: the problem of development and underdevelopment of so-called Third-World countries and the new forms of economic and geopolitical dependency that appeared due to this problem. Wallerstein’s theory sees the world as a system of interconnected states and regions, within a global division labor characterizing globalized capitalism. Thus, we get centers, semiperipheries and peripheries in a dynamic, constantly shifting and layered global system. To give an example of the layering and instability of that system: in the field of automobile production, Japan is definitely a center in the world system, while it is a periphery in the field of English. And while China is a world center for the production of electronic and Hi-Tech commodities, it is a semiperiphery in the field of automobile manufacturing. Wallerstein argued that, in the age of advanced capitalist globalization, nation-states are more important than ever, because global capitalism needs individual governments to (de)regulate and enable what other governments do not allow or tolerate.

The end of the Cold War, and the advent of the worldwide web, triggered another wave of globalization theories. Here the most influential authors include Manuel Castells and Arjun Appadurai. Castells and Appadurai both produced extraordinarily accurate predictions of the kinds of societies that would emerge from this new era of intensified online-offline globalization. In The Rise of the Network Society (1996) Castells described the impact of new information and communications technologies on fields as widely divergent as economic production, labor relations, community life and identity construction. In Modernity at Large (1996), Appadurai in turn theorized global flows enabled by the new online technologies as a set of ‘scapes’ – think of ‘mediascapes’ – within which global formats and scripts circulate, to be realized locally through what he calls ‘vernacular globalization’: global formats turned into locally enacted formats of conduct, action and thought. Cultural forms are at once deterritorialized, and reterritorialized, ‘englobalized’ as well as ‘deglobalized’.

The lens of globalization

Globalization-as-paradigm, we can see, represents a fundamental rupture with the methodological nationalism of an earlier era. It is very hard now to think of any sociocultural phenomenon that is exclusively ‘local’ and not to any degree influenced by outside, nonlocal forces – an effect of the tremendous mobility of people, resources and symbolic representations characterizing this stage of globalization. This paradigm also enables us to look back now, and to recognize that mobility was always there. What is special about the current stage of globalization is not the fact that we are mobile now; but that we are more mobile, and more frequently so, and more intensely so, than our predecessors. And the fact that we are aware of that.