Why do we need another word for context?
I get this question repeatedly whenever I use the term “chronotope”: do we really, truly need yet another word for context? Don’t the current terms we have do the job satisfactorily? What’s new about chronotopes?
I usually give not one but several answers to that question. One answer is general and refers to a practice that is at the core of scientific work. We need new terms, or renewed terms, often for no other reason than to check the validity of old ones. Neologisms, from that angle, are crucial critical Gedankenspiele that remind us of the duty of continuous quality control of our analytical vocabulary. And if the Gedankenspiel is played well, it often enables us to see how the existing concepts they critically interrogate have become flattened, turned into a passe-partout or a rather uninformative routine gesture in talk and writing. Chronotope invites us to critically check the ways in which we use the term “context” in a wide range of disciplines within the study of language in society. If, in the end, the community of peers in this discipline decide that “context” is still more useful and valuable than “chronotope”, it will be a much more accurate, precise and analytically transparent notion of “context” that will prevail, and “chronotope” will have done what it had to do.
A second answer is a disclaimer. One concept should never be expected to do all of the work in theory and analysis. It should do a bit of work, in conjunction with several others. And the point is to find the precise bit of work that can be done satisfactorily by that concept within a broader conceptual structure.
A third answer follows onto the previous one. It is of a different nature and also responds to the “what’s new” question. One should point out that the particular conceptualizations of context for which we can now use the term “chronotope” are not new at all, and that, in fact, the use of “chronotope” may help us to precisely capture that particular trend of studies of text-and-context. I could refer here to a large body of existing literature, but three clear instances can suffice: Aaron Cicourel’s (1992) classic paper on the “interpenetration” of contexts in medical encounters; Michael Silverstein’s (1997) analysis of the “improvisational” nature of realtime discursive practice; and Charles Goodwin’s (2002) discussion of “time in action”, in which specific temporalities, realtime as well as invoked, pattern and co-organize the interactional work done by participants. What brings these examples together is:
- A view of context as a specific set of features both affecting and producing specific modes of social action;
- in which such features have very clear and empirically demonstrable timespace characteristics – the actual timespace constellation is the determining feature for understanding the actual text-context patterns we observe;
- in which some of these features can be carried over, so to speak, into different timespace constellations while others are non-exportable.
- and in which a precise understanding of timespace configurations is essential to account for a great deal of the sociocultural work performed in interaction.
I shall briefly elaborate this particular view of context in what follows. Chronotope, I shall argue, can play a role within the broader conceptual structure developed within that tradition.
From situation to chronotope
It should not be hard to grasp the specific nature of the conceptualization of context I outlined above in contradistinction with several other trends of usage. In earlier work (Blommaert 2005, chapter 3) I surveyed some of the various ways in which context is used in analysis, pointing out flaws in mainstream usages of the notions in Conversation Analysis and Critical Discourse Analysis. Of the former, I argued that a conception of context reduced to the intra-interactional forms of demonstrable inference was untenable; of the latter I said that a priori statements about contextual “influences” on discourse, for which discourse analysis would merely provide a symptomatic demonstration, would not do either. We can add to this that restrictions of context to purely cognitive universes for inference or to the inferential material that ensures text cohesion and coherence are equally inadequate (for discussions, see Duranti & Goodwin 1992).
All of them, I would suggest, fail to take into account “the situation” as defined in the linguistic-ethnographic tradition (for a classic statement, see Goffman 1964; also Hymes 1974; Silverstein 1992; Scollon 2001; Scollon & Scollon 2004). Let us recall how Goffman stated the problem.
A student interested in the properties of speech may find himself having to look at the physical setting in which the speaker performs his gestures, simply because you cannot describe a gesture fully without reference to the extra-bodily in which it occurs. And someone interested in the linguistic correlates of social structure may find that he must attend to the social occasion when someone of given social attributes makes his appearance before others. Both kinds of students must therefore look at what we vaguely call the social situation. And that is what has been neglected. (Goffman 1964: 134)
Goffman connects two elements here, both of which appear as compelling contextual factors in analysis. First, there is the “physical setting” within which interaction occurs – the actual timespace constellation within which people encounter each other, in other words. Goffman adds to this a second element: “the social occasion”. The latter is defined (with an oblique reference to Durkheim’s “social fact”) as “a reality sui generis” within any social system, and it stands for the rules of participation and communicative behavior that provide “scripts”(if you wish) ordering concrete communicative events between people who carry “given social attributes”. Both elements – note – are coordinated in actual interactional events. It is this dialectic of mutual influences between settings and social scripts that shapes the “joint social orientation” characterizing social interaction, which enables Goffman (id: 135) to provide his own, interactional, definition of the social situation:
I would define a social situation as an environment of mutual monitoring possibilities, anywhere within which an individual will find himself accessible to the naked senses of all others who are “present” and similarly find them accessible to him.
As we know, much of Goffman’s work was focused on the precise description of specific social situations – think of the poker game in Encounters (1961) and the lecture in Forms of Talk (1981) In each of these situations, Goffman emphatically pointed to the ways in which situations came with sets of conditions on participation, rules of engagement and forms of communicative action. Concrete and socioculturally recognizable timespace configurations involve nonrandom modes of social action and lead to specific social effects – that is the major insight we can get from Goffman’s oeuvre, and which resonates with the work of scholars inscribed in the same lines of inquiry (e.g. Garfinkel 2002; Goodwin & Goodwin 1992; Scollon & Scollon 2004). It is this insight for which I believe chronotopes to be a helpful gloss.
The concept of chronotope used here has, as we know, its origins in the work of Bahktin (1981, 1986), and it is good to pause and consider some crucial aspects of the way in which Bakhtin designed it.
A first observation, often overlooked, is that Bakhtin’s chronotope is grounded in a profoundly sociolinguistic concept of language: it is not an autonomous or separate object (as in mainstream linguistics), but entirely entangled with concrete aspects of the social world. Bakhtin sees language in its actual deployment (as e.g. in a novel) as a repository of “internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its historical existence” (Bakhtin 1981: 263; see the discussion in Agha 2007b). At any moment of performance, the language (or discourse, as Bakhtin qualifies it) actually used will enable an historical-sociological analysis of different “voices” within the social stratigraphy of language of that moment: Bakhtin’s key notion of heteroglossia – the delicate “dialogical” interplay of socially (ideologically, we would now say) positioned voices in e.g. a novel – is the building block of a “sociological stylistics” (id. 300).
Two important points are attached to this. First, this sociological stylistics is necessarily historical,and note that the notion of “historical” in Bakhtin’s work is never a purely chronological one, but a timespace one. In actual analysis, the historical aspect operates via a principle of indexicality, in which a genre feature such as “common language (…) is taken by the author precisely as the common view, as the verbal approach to people and things normal for a given sphere of society” (id. 301; cf. also Rampton 2003). Form is used to project socially stratified meaning (“verbal-ideological belief systems”, id. 311), and this indexical nexus creates what we call “style”, for it can be played out, always hybridized, in ways that shape recognizable meaning effects “created by history and society” (id. 323).
Two: this historical aspect is tied to what we can call “valuation”. The historically specific heteroglossic structure of actual forms of language means that understandingthem is never a linear “parsing” process; it is an evaluative one. When Bakhtin talks about understanding, he speaks of “integrated meaning that relates to value – to truth, beauty and so forth – and requires a responsive understanding, one that includes evaluation” (Bakhtin 1986: 125). The dialogical principle evidently applies to uptake of speech as well, and such uptake involves the interlocutor’s own historically specific “verbal-ideological belief systems” and can only be done from within the interlocutor’s own specific position in a stratified sociolinguistic system. Nothing, consequently, is neutral in this process – not even time and space, as his discussion of chronotope illustrates.
Bakhtin designed chronotope to express the inseparability of time and space in historical social action. The “literary artistic chronotope”, where “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole”, could be seen as “a formally constitutive category of literature” (1981: 84), as the thing that could enable us to actually and precisely understand works of literature as socio-historically situated acts of communication. Bakhtin saw chronotopes as an important aspect of the novel’s heteroglossia, part of the different “verbal-ideological belief systems” that were in dialogue in a novel and gave the novel the historical meaning potential with which readers had to engage.
Moralized behavioral scripts
We can now look at how Bakhtin’s chronotope can assist us in giving a more precise analytical orientation to Goffman’s social situation. I want to highlight two major points.
A first and obvious step forward is that we can see the social situation as intrinsically historical and therefore loaded with language-ideological affordances – “orders of indexicality”, we can say (Silverstein 2003; Blommaert 2005; also Scollon & Scollon 2004). It is the historicity of situations that accounts for the defining trigger of communication: recognizability (cf. Garfinkel 2002). It is when a situation emerges of which we can recognize (or believe to recognize) the sociocultural status that we can shift into the modes of interactional behavior that “make sense” in and of such a situation. We do so, as e.g. Bourdieu (1991) and Hymes (1996) emphasized, under conditions and constraints generated by (equally historical) sociolinguistic inequalities – it is wise to remind ourselves of the fact that we rarely enter social situations as perfectly finished products of smooth socialization (cf. Blommaert 2008).
A second advantage we can draw from Bakhtin’s insights and add to Goffman’s, is that understanding – “making sense” of interaction in actual situations – is evaluative and refers not just to the linguistic codes of expression but to a broader complex of rules for social conduct. In social situations, we make evaluative judgments of the participants (including ourselves); such judgments are indexically grounded and project identities onto concrete modes of conduct. Goffman’s work is replete with such moments of situated identity judgment, in which an interactional move can be swiftly turned into a perception of awkwardness – which is a judgment of the person through the lens of his/her interactional conduct. Indexicality, we can see here, is entirely tied up with identity (a thing we already know: Agha 2007a), and is entirely moral whenever it takes the shape of what is called “appropriateness”, “felicity” or “adequacy” in the literature on pragmatics (e.g. Austin 1962).
We can now be far more precise and specific with respect to what Goffman called the social situation. Specific timespace configurations (think of Goffman’s lecture hall) demand and impose specific moralized behavioral scripts offering affordances and imposing constraints on what can be recognized as “meaningful” interaction in such situations. Scripts include participation frameworks – not everyone is a ratified participant in, e.g., a lecture, and the specific roles of participants are quite compellingly defined. They also sketch a plot or event structure, as well as the “adequate” semiotic resources to be deployed in an order of indexicality we will recognize as “appropriate” within the specific chronotope. A lecturer, thus, is expected to lecture in a lecture hall during a time slot defined as a “lecture”, and members of the audience are expected to attend in silence, listen, perhaps make notes or recordings, and react appropriately to discursive prompts given by the lecturer. As soon as the lecture is over, the entire script changes, identities and participant roles are redefined, and an entirely different set of rules for social conduct replaces that of the lecture.
Chronotopes and social life
I hope that I have given arguments demonstrating the usefulness of chronotope as a way of summarizing, and making more accurate, the tradition of approaching context sketched at the outset of this chapter. The notion of chronotope invites us to treat aspects of context often dismissed or summarily taken into account in branches of scholarship, and to treat them with utmost precision as nonrandom elements of social situations that may account for much of how people make sense of social structure in actual moments of social action (to paraphrase Cicourel’s 1974: 46 words). Everyday social life can be seen, from this perspective, as a sequence of such chronotopically defined situations through which we continuously move, adapting and adjusting in the process our identities and modes of conduct in interaction with others.
A sequence, thus, of “environments of mutual monitoring possibilities” as Goffman expressed it, each of which comes with specific sets of norms – the moralized behavioral scripts mentioned above. This is why a dinner table conversation has a particular character (e.g. Ochs & Shohet 2006) fundamentally different from that of a social media interaction session (Tagg et al 2017), interactions in a hospital operation theater (Bezemer et al. 2014), during a court hearing (Stygall 1994) or during a session in which an archaeology instructor explains minute differences between kinds of soil to students (Goodwin 1994). This is also why we can instantly shift from a quiet, withdrawn and “mind-my-own-business” mode of conduct on a public bus into a chatty and engaged one when a friend gets on and sits next to us, and why we know that we cannot (or at least should not) talk to our children the way we talk to our colleagues at work. Each situation in which we find ourselves in everyday social life involves such shifts in normative-behavioral orientation. If we fail to make such shifts, we are swiftly categorized by others in categories ranging from “awkward” to “antisocial” or “abnormal”.
So, yes indeed, I do think chronotope is helpful as a tool in our analytical toolkit. The least we can say is that it satisfies the first function of new terms, specified in the introductory part of this chapter: it provides a critical check of the validity and analytical power of the term “context”. It allows us to observe the many superficial and inadequate ways in which that older term is being used, and to suggest more precise understandings of it. The latter may take the shape of a new collocation: “chronotopic contexts”.
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I am grateful to Sjaak Kroon and Jos Swanenberg for stimulating discussions on this topic over the past number of years, and for asking me to contribute them to this book. Anna De Fina greatly helped me in my attempts to formulate chronotopic context and its effects, see Blommaert & De Fina (2016).
The “physical setting” of interaction, one can note, is often relegated to the “S” in disastrously simplistic usages of Hymes’ SPEAKING framework for ethnographic-comparative description – “Setting and Scene”. It is then confined to a quick-and-easy sketch of the material layout and physical circumstances under which interaction takes place, overlooking the “scene” in Hymes’ framework – the actual ways in which material environments condition and enable the forms of action occurring. Lots of examples could be given here; the reader can refer to those given in Blommaert (2005: chapter 3). For a far more sophisticated discussion, see e.g. Bezemer et al. (2014).
The following paragraphs draw on Blommaert (2015), and I refer the reader to that paper for more extensive discussion. Blommaert (2018) adds to the discussion by focusing on cross-chronotope connections.
Jan Blommaert, Laura Smits, Noura Yacoubi
Draft chapter, Handbook of Discourse Studies (eds. A. De Fina & A. Georgakopoulou). London: Routledge 2019.
Abstract: The point of departure for this chapter is the contention that the online-offline communicative economy in which we now live compels us to rethink some of the core vocabulary and assumptions underlying our thinking about ‘context’ and ‘contextualization’ in discourse studies. We formulate a set of proposals grounded in the interactionist tradition and focused on (inter)action rather than on participants and communities. Next, we propose to see contextualization as a process that takes us from chronotopes over frames to formats of action, situationally deployed.
Introduction: Online-offline action
In his classic Cognitive Sociology, Aaron Cicourel made the following general observation:
The problem of meaning for the anthropologist-sociologist can be stated as how members of a society or culture acquire a sense of social structure to enable them to negotiate everyday activities. (Cicourel 1974: PAGE)
This statement can serve as an extraordinarily accurate description of what was later called and methodologically developed as “contextualization” (Gumperz 1982, 1992; also Auer & DiLuzio 1992; Duranti & Goodwin 1992). Yet two components of the statement demand closer attention: “social structure” and “everyday activities”, for since the beginning of the 21st century the realities of social structure and the range and modes of everyday activities have been profoundly affected by the generalized introduction of a layer of online social life, complicating the offline social world on which these earlier formulations of contextualization were based. In this chapter, we intend to sketch the complications emerging from discourse produced interactionally in such an online-offline environment now serving as the backdrop for what Ron Scollon (2001) called “the nexus of practice”.
We must pay closer attention to the aspects of contextualization that have changed, we said, but that does not mean that we must do so from within a methodological tabula rasa. We believe the effort can be profitably made by means of some central insights and principles from within the interactional tradition of discourse studies. In fact, all the scholars already mentioned here belonged to that stream of ethnographically grounded studies of actual situated discursive practice, which has been the richest source of fundamental reflections on the notion of context and its role in social interaction. It is from that source that we can draw the general principles directing our discussion:
- Context should not be seen as an abstract, stable or latent presence; it is a resource deployed in concrete socially situated meaning-making action: context is always contextualization.In that sense, it is highly unpredictable, evolving, dynamic and unstable. Also, while contexts operate at various scale-levels and structures a multitude of concrete interactions, the analytical point of departure is their situated effects on making sense. To quote Herbert Blumer in this respect: “People (…) do not act toward culture, social structure or the like, they act toward situations” (Blumer 1969: PAGE)
- Contextualization is the key to making sense, because it consists of interactionally constructed indexical connections between actual discursive features and relevant chunks of sociocultural knowledge (Silverstein 1992; Hymes 1996; Gumperz 2003; Agha 2007).
- Such indexically deployed and invoked knowledge is never neutral but always evaluative and in that sense moral, and by extension identity-related (e.g. Goodwin 2007). Making sense is a moral judgment grounded in socioculturally available normative-behavioral scripts situationally projected onto persons. Goffman (1974) called such moralized scripts “frames”; the ways we implement them have been variously called (with distinctions not overly relevant here) “indexical order” (Silverstein 2003) and “orders of indexicality” (Blommaert 2005). The concepts are joined by their emphasis on (Bakhtinian) evaluative uptake and on the dimension of social order as part of meaning-making practices – recall Cicourel’s statement quoted above.
- The contextual resources that people draw upon in interaction have to be recognizable, but not necessarily shared (Garfinkel 2002; also Blommaert & Rampton 2016: 28-31). Sharedness is evolving as the interaction proceeds but can also evolve as a shared sense of misunderstanding, i.e. a shared sense that very little of substance is shared in the interaction. What needs to be recognizable is the broad outline of a format of interaction, a general script for social action.
We can see that these principles favor action over content and participants, and situated and evolving effects over a priori categories (such as speech acts, conversational maxims, “meaning” and “understanding”). The reason for these preferences is that, due to the changes described above, very little can be taken for granted with respect to what is “ordinary” and “normal” in communication. To name just a few of the widely used assumptions that need to be qualified: the assumption that communication is self-evidently a human-to-human activity has been challenged by human-machine interactions, and has thus become a variable rather than a stable feature. This, of course, has numerous knock-on effects on widely used criteria in theories of meaning: intentionality, agency, (human) rationality. Even more widespread is the assumption that the most “normal” or primitive form of communication – in the sense of: the kind of communication on which we base our fundamental theoretical imagination – is unmediated, spoken dyadic face-to-face interaction in shared physical timespace and between persons sharing massive amounts of knowledge, experience and sociocultural norms within a sedentary community (an offline conversation between similar people, in short). The online world has critically destabilized that assumption by inserting scripted, multimodal, non-simultaneous, translocally mobile, multiparty and technologically heavily mediated forms of everyday communication into the communicative economies of very large numbers of people, not as peripheral modes of interaction but as important, inevitable ones. We now communicate intensely with interlocutors with whom we do not share much (not even acquaintance as a natural person and a human subject), across space and time, and through complex modes of non-acoustic semiotic work.
Our core vocabulary and assumptions derive from an implicit sociological imagination of which we assume that it reflects the true state of things. Changes in the state of things often take some time before they translate into an alternative sociological imagination (cf. Mills 1959; also Blommaert 2018a). In the meantime, however, they render some of our core vocabulary for talking about language, interaction and meaning-making less salient and applicable, and invite a focus on the phenomena we can identify as constants. The constant feature, we would argue, is social action – a synonym, as Anselm Strauss (1993) among others emphasized, for interaction. Even if we now communicate with machines, with unknown mass audiences (as in mass online gaming), by means of delayed, asynchronous messages scripted in new forms of graphic visualization and design – we are still performing interactions in attempts to make sense of our world. Taking social action, defined in this sense, as our ontological point of departure enables us to start describing and understanding old and new patterns of interaction, how they intersect and how they structure our social lives.
With these principles established, we shall now engage with four different sets of issues, all of them inspired by the changes we noted earlier: the transition from an offline world of communication to an online-offline one. Some of these issues are not new – they have been constant features of debates on context and contextualization – but demand a renewed engagement in view of changes in the world of communication. In reviewing them, we will make proposals for reimagining aspects of them and for adopting another vocabulary in our descriptions of them.
Beyond the macro and micro: recognizability and formatting
A persistent feature of discussions of context and its uses in scholarship is the use of the “micro-macro” dichotomy (occasionally turned into a triad by inserting “meso” in between). “Micro”-contexts would then be the factors affecting and informing local, situated events: the timespace frame, the participants, the immediately and directly relevant social roles, the topic, and so forth. “Macro”, in turn, would stand for the nonlocal, broader factors in which the event can be situated and by which it is indirectly affected: the wider historical, sociocultural and political parts of the picture making (at least part of) the event understandable (see the discussion in e.g. Goffman 1964; Silverstein 1992;Cicourel 1992; Duranti 1997; Blommaert 2015a).
While such distinctions might be discursively and heuristically helpful, they are methodologically unhelpful from the perspective we formulated above. They do point to a fundamental fact: the non-unified and complex nature of context – any context – but they do so in an inaccurate way. Certainly when we become aware of the ways in which they rest on a particular sociological imagination, and of the ways in which and structure an epistemological field. The sociological imagination on which the dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” rests is the one sketched earlier: a world in which we can separate and isolate specific aspects of social life as being the direct conditions for conduct – the local, sedentary, individual, variable and mundane aspects – while other aspects appear to only indirectly inflect such conditions for conduct, due to their remoteness and their stable, collective character. The first set of facts we could call “processual” factors, and they would always be unique, while they others would be “procedural”, and they would be general. The first set would index “community” – a specific small-scale group involved in shared practices, but diverse and changeable – while the latter would index “society” – the organized, stable, enduring, systemic large-scale group characterized by common institutional characteristics. Obviously, this imagination of the social world is far removed from what Castells (1996), in a visionary text, called the online-offline “network society” (cf. also Blommaert 2018a).
The dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” also structures an epistemological field in which “micro” would stand for the anecdotal, the concrete, the singular, the possible exception, the empirical and the “token”, while “macro” would point to the systemic, the abstract, the generalizable, the norm, the theoretical and the “type”. Thus, so-called “micro-sociologists” and ethnographers would be dismissed as scholars whose attention to the uniquely situated features of cases precludes any attempt towards valid generalization, because generalization can only be made at a “macro” level of analysis where analytical detail has to be surrendered to abstraction (see the discussions in e.g. Mills 1959, Blumer 1969, Giddens 1984).
From a viewpoint privileging social action, all of this is highly unproductive, and the acuteness of the problem was repeatedly emphasized by Pierre Bourdieu and others. Bourdieu – often seen as a “macro”-sociologist whose work speaks to society at large – would emphasize that concepts such as “habitus” (a general concept) could only emerge through ethnographic attention to actual situated practice, not by statistical surveys. It was by observing the struggles of Algerian farmers to come to terms with a new market economy that Bourdieu saw the actual working of capitalism as propelled into socioculturally inhabited modes of practice (Bourdieu 2000; cf Blommaert 2015b). The big things reside in the small things, and the most inconspicuous and uniquely situated social action is, in that sense, “systemic” and “typical”, as well as the source for theoretical generalization. Evidently, the same insight animated Goffman’s work on interactional ritual and frames (1967, 1974): even if all instances of human interaction are unique, they display general characteristics and patterns sufficient to lift them from “micro” to “macro” relevance (cf. also Rampton 2016).
This is the point where we can start formulating a proposal in line with the principles outlined above. And we can draw for inspiration on the authors just mentioned, as well as on Garfinkel’s (2002) uncompromising formulations of the issue. Garfinkel saw recognizability as the key to understanding the social nature of interaction, and as already mentioned above, recognizability should not be equated with sharedness of norms, assumptions and worldviews. It is a recognition of the joint potential for specific modes of action that gives such action the character of “congregational work”, he argued – work performed collectively because we are jointly involved in it. We enter jointly into an action of which we know very little outside its possible general features, and we jointly construct such actions as forms of social order. This order can be entirely ad hoc, temporary and ephemeral. But while it lasts, it is a firm order that generates roles and identities along with a range of moral codes controlling (mis)behavior.
It is this aspect of recognizability, generating congregational work and its social outcomes, that renders distinctions between the factors discriminating “micro” and “macro” aspects of the act meaningless. Since acts are social, they will draw on available and accessible social resources – from the different social positions from which we enter the action, the kinds of language and discourse we use, over the topic, to the actual things we say, hear, write or read (cf. also Briggs 2005). And even if we see that such resources are unevenly distributed, a degree of order will emerge from the action itself. The latter was exemplified in a magnificent study by Charles Goodwin (2004), in which a man who,following a stroke, had lost almost all of his linguistic capabilities was shown to engage in lengthy and complex interactions with his friends and relatives. Evidently, the absence of shared linguistic resources imposes constraints on what can happen in such forms of interaction – resources are crucial contexts for interaction (Blommaert 2005: 58-62); but when we intend to understand what is happening, recognizability is the key.
Recognizability, however, is not an empty and random container. We recognize particular social situations and their features as something specific – a quarrel, a lecture or a Facebook update – on the basis of perceived properties of the situation (what Garfinkel called ”autochthonous order properties”, 2002: 245) associated with what Goffman called “frames”: the ways in which we organize our experience. Recognizing a situation means framing it along what we could call a general indexical vector, i.e. entering that situation as one that imposes and enables specific forms of interaction, one or different orders of indexicality. When we recognize something as a Facebook update, we recognize that it enables (among other actions) different forms of response, and that it imposes keyboard writing and a specific set of symbols (e.g. emoticons) as techniques for responding to it. When we recognize the particular update as an instance of trolling, we recognize it as enabling an unfriendly response, and so forth. This we can call, following Garfinkel, formatting: shaping the particular situated interaction in “typical” (i.e. generic, non-unique) ways and bringing the “sense of social structure” mentioned by Cicourel into the particular action we are engaged in with others.
A lot of what we do in the work of contextualization is moving from recognition through framing to formatting. We do so dialogically in congregational work with others, and we do so by drawing upon socioculturally marked – indexicalized – resources that acquire a general direction in such activities. This, we propose, is the cornerstone of the argument here. We can now proceed to elaborate it further.
Chronotopes, scales and synchronization
In every moment of interaction, contextualization draws upon specific and non-unified resources (cf. Cicourel 1967, 1974; Silverstein 1992). Both dimensions are crucial if we wish to avoid undue simplifications such as “the context for this utterance is X”. The contextual resources drawn upon in contextualizing concrete interactions are inevitably multiple and layered (cf. Blommaert 2005). But they are not infinite, and not without structure and pattern. If we draw upon Goffman’s frames, we see that social experience is organized into such structures and patterns, in which particular forms of interaction – with attributes to be discussed in a moment – are attached to specific social situations in forms comparable to what Bakhtin called “chronotopes”.
Bakhtin developed the notion of chronotope (literally “timespace”) as a way to describe the sociohistorical layering in novels, more precisely the ways in which invocations of particular sociohistorical frames structured “voices” in specific situations, infusing them with identity scripts, moral orientations, participation frameworks (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992), expected and unexpected normative modes of conduct and roles within the situation – in short, the full sociocultural value of otherwise random forms of action (see the discussion in Blommaert 2015a and Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Thus in a fairy tale, the Big Bad Wolf is exactly that: male, big and bad, a threat to the others, and someone to be defeated by the others. Chronotopes, seen from this rather orthodox Bakhtinian perspective, provide moralized behavioral scripts in specific social situations (we called them formats above), and the recognition of social situations as specific (e.g. as a formal meeting) will prompt such scripts: as soon as the chair announces the beginning of the meeting, we will all reorganize our conduct, assume a different set of body poses, discursive patterns and relations with the other participants (e.g. respecting the chair’s formal leadership and the differential allocation of speaking rights), and align with the congregational work performed by the others. As soon as the meeting is over, we can shift back into another register of conduct, and the opponent during the meeting can turn into an ally in the pub during the post-meeting drink. Chronotopes impose formats on those inhabiting them, and this means that from the potentially infinite aspects of context animating events, a specific subset will be invoked and deployed as the normative script for conduct within that chronotopic situation, as the specific bit of social order to be followed by all those involved. Violating or disrupting that order – Goffman called them frame breaking – comes with moral judgments: everyday notions such as inappropriateness, rudeness, insolence, being off-topic, or trolling come to mind (cf. Blommaert & De Fina 2016; see Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017 for social media examples).
Chronotopes are, we believe, a useful gloss to address the specific nature of context and contextualization, one that forces us to examine with utmost precision what is elsewhere simply called “the context” of actual interactions. The notion also offers us a view of context as active, something that structures action and makes it socially recognizable and, thence, socially valued. The demand for precision will almost inevitably lead to outcomes in which particular chronotopes are
- composed of several different actions and types of actions, as when someone checks his/her email or takes orders for sandwiches during a formal meeting – where each of these will have to proceed along the specific formats for such actions. Goffman (1974: 561) clearly pointed to that (using the term “realm statuses” for what we call formats here), and see e.g. Goodwin (2013) for excellent discussions.
- Connected to other chronotopes, as when the relations between participants in a formal meeting are affected by already existing interpersonal relationships specific to other areas of social life or when the history of a particular issue is invoked as a frame for discussing its present status, or even when quoted or indirect speech is introduced into interaction embedding one chronotope and its actual voices into another one (e.g. Voloshinov 1973; Goodwin 2003).
Both outcomes are particularly interesting, for they take us to the issue of the non-unified nature of context and bring issues of scale into view (cf. Blommaert 2015a). Scale can best be understood as reflections and expressions of how social beings experience dimensions of sociocultural reality as indexical vectors, as informing the general normative patterns that shape formats of action (cf. Das 2016; Carr & Lempert 2016). Scales, thus, are interpretive and normative-evaluative, suggesting distinctions between what is general and what is specific, what is important and what is not, what is widely known and what isn’t, what is valid and what is not, what can be widely communicated and what cannot, what can be widely recognized and understood and what cannot. There is nothing stable, absolute or a priori about scales – we can obliquely recall our discussion of the “micro-macro” distinction here – for what we see in actual discursive work are scalar effects. To give a simple example: when the history of a particular issue is invoked as a decisive argument in discussing its present status, then that history is presented as a way of upscaling the current issue to normative levels immune to contemporary petty or personal concerns (“We already discussed and decided this point in January, there is no point in returning to it now!”) Conversely, when someone raises a point which is not seen by others as belonging to the most general normative layer of what goes on, it can be downscaled (“This is a detail” or “This is just your personal opinion”). In their actual deployment, scalar effects are indexically ordered degrees of moralization in social actions.
The presence of such non-unified (plural and scaled) contexts in concrete situations brings us to a third notion: synchronization (cf. Blommaert 2005: 131-137, 2018b). The scalar effects we just mentioned occur in real-time and on-the-spot moments of interaction, in a sort of evolving “synchrony” which hides layers of non-synchronous resources and folds them together into momentary and situated instances of making sense. We call this process synchronization because the highly diverse resources that are deployed as context are focused, so to speak, onto one single point in social action. In other branches of scholarship this process would be called “decision making”, with strong undertones of individual rational calibration. From an action-centered perspective, synchronization is a collaborative social act in which the format, not the rational calculation of its actors, is predominant (cf. Goodwin 2013).
Within such formats, synchronization ensures the degree of coherence we expect to find in interactions as an essential component in making sense of situations.
Formatting and nonlinear outcomes
Coherence, however, must not be imagined as a straight line from premises to conclusion. Neither can formats be imagined as closed boxes with extraordinarily transparent orders of indexicality, generally known to all participant. As said earlier, order is evolving and contingent upon the congregational work performed by participants. Recognizing a situation, we explained, proceeds through perceived order properties of such situations that can be framed into formats, then guiding the actions of participants. But outcomes cannot be linearly predicted from the starting conditions, because multiple forms of action can emerge within the same format, and be coherent to the participants. In other words, different kinds of actions can be ratified as properly within the format; formats allow nonlinear actions, and when it comes to normativity in connection to formats, we see a relatively open and relaxed form of normativity there.
This violates several older assumptions about communication. In speech act theory, J.L. Austin famously distinguished clear “felicity” conditions for smooth and “correct” interaction, while deviations of them (even a violation of one of them) would make the interaction “unhappy”, or “infelicitous”. Equally famous are Grice’s (1975) “maxims” for conversation – conditions for maintaining a well-ordered mode of interaction with any other interlocutor. Both (and many others) grounded their theories into widely shared folk views of the strong normative order required for interaction. Another set of assumptions that is violated by the nonlinearity-within-the-format we mentioned is that underlying the kind of naïve survey methodology devastatingly criticized by Cicourel (1964) and others. In such survey enterprises, the stability of the format is used as an argument for the stability of its outcomes. Concretely, it is assumed that as long as we ask the same questions in the same format to large numbers of respondents, the answers will be commensurable because each respondent was addressed identically. Converted into the terms we are using here, stable formats will generate linear actions, since every action will be an identical response to an identical prompt. Cicourel’s penetrating critique targeted the impressive amount of ignorance about actual forms of communication buried inside this methodological assumption, leading to the incredible suggestion that hundreds of different people would all have identical understandings of a question (and its meanings for the analyst) and that the actual (and highly diverse) conditions of the question-and-answer events would not have any effects on the respondents.
The fallacies of such assumptions can be shown through the following example, involving the present authors. In late 2017 Jan Blommaert set up a small practical exercise in research interviewing for MA students including Laura Smits and Noura Yacoubi. The instructions were clear: pairs needed to be formed and the roles of interviewer versus interviewee needed to be assigned; the interview was to proceed in English and (unbeknownst to the interviewees), the interview had to contain some potentially frame-disturbing elements. One of these elements was the opening question: “who are you really?” The format, we can see, was entirely scripted and uniform for all the teams.
Laura and Noura were both interviewees and were interviewed by classmates with whom both had a history of friendly personal encounters and lengthy conversations – in Dutch. All of them – interviewers and interviewees – were also students in the same year of the same program track at Tilburg University. Thus we can suppose other elements of potential stability to be there: shared membership of a clearly defined community, a shared history of interaction making all participants familiar with each other’s speech habits and idiosyncrasies, and also enabling all to know quite well who the other “really” was. Laura and Noura, however, responded to this question in radically different ways. Let us look at the sequences following the question; in the transcript “I” stands for “interviewer” and “R” for “respondent”.
I: SO Laura*, who are you REALLY?
R: Who are I (am) really.. Eu::hm. What do you want to know of me. What is–what is really?
I: TELL me something about yourself
R: Okay. I’m Laura .. Laura Smits .. I a::m twenty-three years old .. eu::hm.. I study Global Communication here at Tilburg university I play volleyba::ll I have a little sister, I have a boyfriend, and I live in Tilburg eu::hm furthermore<1> I think<1> I am very happy at the mome::nt in the situation I live in .. eu::hm ja* enjoying life/ …
I: Uhm .. who are you really?
R: Who I am?
R: Well.. what do you mean? What do you want to know?//
I: Yeahh who are you?//
R: That is a.. difficult question [Laughing]/
I: Why is it difficult?//
R: Because you are asking *a lot* at the same time. Do you want to know my characteristics, my name, my birth, my hobbies, do you want to know my study?
I: Tell me what *you think* who you really are//
R: *Dude* [Laughing] well I am a… Dutch, well Moroccan-Dutch girl, born here, I’m uuhh 22 years old. Uuhm who I am? <2> Well I am a student that is part of my identity, I *feel* as a student, I am.. living the life of a student. Uhmm.. I am studying global communication/
R: What a coincidence [Laughing]
I: Me too [Laughing]
R: Can you ask.. can you ask the question more specific?//
I: Is this really who you really are?
R: Well it’s uhm.. it is quite a lot who I am I mean.. also history comes into pla::y, also family comes into pla::y uuh who I am yeah I am a human being//
I: Okay but/
We see that Laura and Noura are both initially looking for the right frame, as both ask for clarification of their interviewers’ actions (“what do you want to know”?). Both, consequently, receive a reiteration of the question (part of the instructions given by Jan to the interviewers). But what follows are two entirely different courses of action. Laura instantly aligns with the perceived frame and gives what we could call a “profile answer” – the kind of clearly organized factual and affective information offered on social media profiles and in short introductory “pitches” to unknown people. She “neutralizes”, so to speak, the interviewer whom she considered to be a close friend, and addresses her in her role as an interviewer performing an unusual kind of interaction, which in the same move is “normalized”: this is an interview, it’s strange, but we’ll do it the way it should be done. The synchronization towards the format is complete in Laura’s case. Noura, by contrast, does not exit the interpersonal and intertextual frame, but engages in several turns of metapragmatic negotiation with the interviewer (also someone with whom she maintained a very friendly personal relationship), expressing discomfort and resistance to align with the format in utterances such as “dude” and “punt” (meaning “period”, “that’s it”). And while she does offer a kind of “profile answer” at some point, the answer is followed by a repeated request for clarification of what goes on. The chronotope of interpersonal friendship sits uncomfortably with that of the training interview, and synchronization is a process that demands quite a bit of construction work here. Note, however, that later in the interview Noura offers long and detailed autobiographical-narrative answers; the synchronization demands more work but happens eventually.
If Austin’s felicity conditions would be rigorously applied here, Noura’s initial response would perhaps be called “unhappy”, a “misfire”. Laura’s response would, from a similar perspective, be “correct” and “happy”, as it articulates the linear uptake of the interviewer’s action. From the viewpoint of making sense of the particular situation, however, Noura’s actions and those of Laura are equivalent and fit the format in spite of their substantial differences. What we can take from this is that uniformity in format does not guarantee uniformity in actions – a confirmation of Cicourel’s critique of assumptions to the contrary – and that diverse lines of action can occur within the same format, even if some actions are not linear responses to what preceded. Formats are not one-size-fits-all and linear–normative units.
Context collapse versus expansion
At this point, our action-centered proposal is complete: we see contextualization as the recognition of a situation through perceived order properties of such situations, that can be framed into formats, then guiding the actions of participants. We submit that it is applicable to interaction online and offline, since it avoids many of the core assumptions (and vocabulary) that are challenged by features of online interaction.
In studies of online interaction, “there are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized” (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992: 96). The advantages of that tactic can be illustrated by looking at an issue widely debated in the world of social media research: “context collapse”, i.e.
“the flattening out of multiple distinct audiences in one’s social network, such that people from different contexts become part of a singular group of message recipients”. (Vitak 2012: 541)
The theoretical and empirical validity of the concept of context collapse has been criticized by several discourse analysts (Georgakopoulou 2017a, 2017b; Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017; Szabla & Blommaert 2018). Indeed, online technology “complicates our metaphors of space and place, including the belief that audiences are separate from each other” (Marwick & boyd 2010: 115) and has taken us from a world of relatively transparent audiences to that of far less transparent “networked publics” (boyd 2011). But such complications cannot be solved by drawing on the sociological imagination we sketched earlier: that of “normal” dyadic face-to-face communication with well-known similar people in a tight community – which is what happens in the literature on context collapse. Such an anachronistic imagination spawns an abstract conceptualization of context as something which is only transparent when we situate humans in transparent situations in transparent communities, where “audiences” are known and trusted and people have full control over what they do in social action. When we move into the online world of online audiences and inconspicuous overhearers, of lurkers, aliases and bots, and of algorithms regulating the traffic and distribution of messages, such theoretical and analytic instruments obviously cease to be useful and have to be replaced by more flexible and precise ones.
In a case study of a long and highly complex discussion on a large Facebook group for Polish people living in The Netherlands, we used the action-centered perspective described here (Szabla & Blommaert 2018). At first glance, the case would be eminently qualified for context collapse: we had an enormous community of effective and potential participants, large enough to speak of a “networked audience” consisting of people who did not know each other. The lengthy nature of the online discussion may have disturbed our “metaphors of space and place” and the particular rudimentary platform affordances of Facebook may have complicated our expectations of coherence and sequentiality in dialogue, as responses to a prompt may not appear in adjacency but be separated by several intervening responses from others – a practical problem of synchronization, in fact. Facebook formats interactions in a curious way, and people may lose their bearings in such formats.
Our first empirical observation obviously complicated things further: the general activity of a “discussion” was, in actual fact, a mosaic of different actions, some linear and connected to the initial action (a request from a Polish-origin journalist for assistance in the making of a documentary on the labor conditions of Polish workers in The Netherlands) and many nonlinear, embedded and parallel to the initial action. People would indeed respond to the journalist’s request (and be redirected to the private messaging section of Facebook) but would also attack the orthographic errors in het Polish writing, discuss linguistic correctness in relation to Polish identity; they would accuse and scold each other on specific statements they had made, venture conspiracy theories about journalists and Polish émigrés, offer general observations about the work ethos of Polish and Dutch workers, and so forth. Each of these different lines of actions was normatively recognizable as a different chronotopic unit of participants, topics, orders of indexicality and moral codes, and was formatted accordingly.
The second observation, however, was that people found their way around this terrifically complex web of actions. The non-sequentiality of scripted Facebook interaction, the meandering of topics and participants and the generally confusing character of what went on did not appear as an obstacle for participants to participate in the specific parts of the event in which they got involved. We saw participation frameworks shift along with topic shifts, in such a way that just handfuls of people would be involved in an action, and know quite well who their actual addressees were and how they should proceed, and how they could migrate to another participation framework or exit the discussion when lines actions were closed. In other words: we saw plenty of congregational work shaping formats and subformats and connecting or disconnecting parts of the discussion from other parts. Participants made sense of the specific actions in which they were involved – they performed adequate contextualization work throughout, even if that included self- and other-correction and rectification, necessitated by the awkward Facebook discussion affordances. They recognized the specific situations, framed and formatted them into indexically ordered discursive actions. No contexts appeared to collapse; instead we saw an amazing density and intensity of contextualization work – context expansion, if you wish.
The example of context collapse versus context expansion brings us back to our point of departure: the need to rethink our commonly used notions of context and contextualization so as to make them useful and accurate for addressing a world of communication in which ordinary dyadic face-to-face conversation is no longer the Archimedian point and foundation for theory. Contemporary discourse analysts must be aware that the sociological imagination balancing on this Archimedian point is anachronistic, and that we cannot accurately address the phenomenology of contemporary communication without sacrificing that imagination. Doing that does not mean that we are left empty-handed to the task of analysis. We can fall back on reasonably robust tools and approaches that do not carry that bias of anachronism or can be refashioned so as to be free of it. In this chapter, we have made some proposals in that direction. Let they be a prompt for others to think along.
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Plenary lecture, conference Communication in the Multilingual City, Birmingham, 28-29 March 2018.
In today’s multilingual city, a lot of communication is done in online environments. In fact, even in places that do not, perhaps, see themselves as multilingual, it is online communication that makes them multilingual (as much of the work on rural provinces in The Netherlands performed by my good Tilburg colleague Jos Swanenberg has demonstrated). The argument is not new, I know, and it has been reiterated at this conference as well. But let me nonetheless repeat it, for it underlies what follows: contemporary sociolinguistic environments are defined by the online-offline nexus, and this propels us towards two analytical directions: complexity and multimodality. I shall engage with both in this talk.
My engagement with these phenomena has pushed me, of late, to reflect on a very broad social-theoretical topic. That topic is: “what are groups”? Who actually lives in these multilingual cities?, and how do people whose social lives are continually dispersed over offline and online context arrive at forms of collective action?
Note that the question “what are groups” has been a recurrent one in social thought throughout the past century and a half. It always accompanies major technological and infrastructural transformations of societies: the breakthrough and spread of printed newspapers, the telegraph, cinema, telephone, television kept Weber, Durkheim and Simmel busy, as well as the Frankfurt School, Dewey, Lippman and later Giddens, Habermas, Bourdieu and Castells. New technologies each time called into question the very nature of what it meant to be social. That is: what it meant to form communities and collective action, using instruments not previously available. The question “what are groups” is, thus, inevitable when we consider the online-offline nexus that characterizes our societies at present.
In addressing the question, I take my cues from Garfinkel and other Symbolic Interactionists (including the Goodwins, I must underscore), for reasons that will be made clear in due course. Let me say at this point that contemporary social and sociolinguistic complexity creates a serious degree of unpredictability, in that we cannot presuppose, let alone take for granted, much of what mainstream social theory has offered us to conceptualize communities, identities and social life. What Garfinkel offers is a rigorous, even radical, action-focused perspective on society, in which groups are seen as EFFECTS of specific forms of social interactions.
EFFECTS, not GIVENS that determine and define the interactions. I underscore this for it isn’t what we normally do: we tend to take groups and group identities as pre-given when we consider interaction, and then observe what such groups and identities “do” in interaction. For Garfinkel this is not an option. He argues that social collectives are the product of collective social action – which is always interaction of course. And when is such action collective? When the activities deployed by participants are RECOGNIZABLE to others in terms of available cultural material. It is as soon as we recognize someone else’s actions as meaningful in terms of available (and thus recognizable) resources for meaning, that we engage in collective social action, display and enact the formats we know as characterizing the specific social relationships possibly at play, and operate as a group.
In the online space, we have no access to the embodied cues that offer us pointers to the interloctors’ identities in offline talk, but we can still observe social interaction and the ways in which it points us to groups. Groups cannot be an a priori, but they can be an a posteriori of analysis.
Methodologically, this is how I reformulate Garfinkel’s focus on action. I use a very simple, four-line set of principles. ONE: whenever we see forms of communication we can safely assume that they involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome. TWO, such relationships will involve modes of identity categorization. THREE, observing modes of interaction, thus, brings us at the very hard of what it is to be social. And FOUR, we must be specific and avoid quick generalizations, for differences in action will lead to different outcomes.
In what follows, I will take these simple principles to a typical online phenomenon: memic hasthtag activism. Memic hashtag activism has become, rather quickly in fact, a major new format of political activism, certainly where Twitter is concerned. And even if it is by definition an online form of action mobilizing the now-typical online multimodal resources for interaction, there are clear offline effects too.
The particular case I have chosen here is Dutch, and it revolves around the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, mister Halbe Zijlstra. Let us quickly provide some general informative points.
Zijlstra was until very recently a rising star in Dutch politics, climbing fast through the ranks of the ruling liberal party VVD due to a very close relationship with Prime Minister Rutte. When the most recent Dutch government was formed, Zijlstra got the plum job of Minister of Foreign Affairs. So far so good.
Now, Halbe Zijlstra had for years been telling a story. The story was that, in a pre-political capacity, he was present at a party at Vladimir Putin’s datcha, where he overheard Putin saying that Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet stations should become part of a future Greater Russia. He had heard Putin saying something that could, in other words, be an indication of Russian imperialist ambitions.
In February 2018, while Zijlstra was preparing to meet his Russian counterpart Lavrov, a newspaper reported that all of this was a lie. Now, you must know that the relations between The Netherlands and Russia are delicate due to the incident with a Malaysian airliner shot down in 2014 over the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine, killing 193 Dutch nationals. Zijlstra’s talks with Lavrov were announced to be tough, and just as that was about to happen, Halbe Zijlstra’s credibility got shot to pieces.
There were two problems. ONE, it was shown that Zijlstra was never present at that party. A top executive of oil company Shell was there, and Zijlstra had heard the account second hand, from him. The SECOND problem, however, was that this Shell guy came out saying that Putin had actually argued something else: Ukraine, Georgia and so on were past of Greater Russia’s past, not its future. Halbe Zijlstra, in short, had been caught “pants down”, lying quite nastily about the people he now had to do business with.
Social media went bananas, and on Twitter a meme-storm started, which lasted for 24 hours and operated under the hashtag #HalbeWasErbij – in English “Halbe was there”. A hashtag, by the way, is a framing device that ties large numbers of individual messages thematically, pragmatically and metapragmatically together within a common broad indexical vector. And in this function, it is of course an online innovation.
Let’s now have a look at the meme-storm.
Obviously, Halbe’s claim that he WAS THERE with Putin became a meme theme. Hilarious parodies of this theme, preposterously suggesting intimacy between both, started circulating. Zijlstra was with Putin on a trip into the woods.
His photo dominates the Kremlin.
And Putin supports Zijlstra in the Dutch Parliament.
Those are straightforward memes, even to some extent logical and expected permutations of Zijlstra’s claims. But “Halbe Was There” can of course be made more productive as a motif. And this is what happens in meme-storms: the productivity of the theme is exploited, leading to ever more absurd extensions of “Halbe Was There”.
Halbe was there when Napoleon marched his victorious troops through Europe.
He was in Dallas in 1963
He was there when Martin Luther King had his dream.
There cannot be any doubt that Halbe was one of the Beatles.
Whenever history was made, Halbe was there. So when Charles and Diana got married, guess who stood next to them.
And since this guy is now the biggest maker of history, he too must be connected to Halbe.
The meme-storm went on, relentlessly, for hours on end. And in this new information economy of ours, new and old media do not operate in entirely separate spaces but are profoundly networked. So what is “trending” on Twitter tends to become headline news in the traditional mass media too.
Such a scale jump from small levels of new media circulation to larger mass media ones generates a tremendous impact. Soon, the Dutch national broadcasting system made an item of the #HalbeWasErbij phenomenon, substantially adding to the public pressure on Zijlstra by complementing more strictly political arguments against him with ludic ones ridiculing him, entirely undercutting his credibility and, consequently, his political reliability.
And so, by the time Halbe Zijlstra was forced to resignation about a day after the start of the meme-storm, this was world news. Memic hasthtag activism is effective because of the impact it has on mass media.
This impact has not necessarily to do with the masses carrying so-called “public opinion”. I mentioned “trending” here. Now, usually when we say “trending” we imply “viral”. And “viral”, in turn, is somehow strongly associated with large numbers. (Think of Trumps tweets which get hundreds of thousands of “likes” and retweets.)
In this case, however, “viral” is in actual fact “LOW VIRALITY”. Consider the images on this slide. On the left, we see the most popular meme of the entire meme-storm. Yes, it received almost 900 retweets, but compared to the heavy artillery of, for instance, Trump, Taylor Swift, or your average Premier League star, this is peanuts. The virality in the #HalbeWasErbij in effect amounted to a handful to a few dozen of retweets. That’s strange, isn’t it?
Unless we consider the kind of community behind it. This community is, whenever we count heads, small. But it is relentless and profoundly committed to what it practices. The memes were used as instruments in dialogue, in the form of ludic replies to wordy statements as well as to other memes – causing genre shifts in Twitter threads from one type of debate format into another one. And above all, what we saw was unending creativity, with continuous transformations of memes in a kind of saturation bombardment on the topic of Zijlstra’s politically consequential lies.
And the latter point is very interesting, for what characterizes memic hashtag activism is that it occurs not necessarily on the basis of a pre-existing community of experienced activists, but in an ephemeral, open, “light” community tied together by a set of formatted practices. I mean by that: the idea is to make more memes and new ones, and anyone joining the community is welcome as long as he or she steps into this format.
It’s an easy and cheap format in addition. The skills needed are widely available – you just need inspiration and some photoshopping technique, and you will have the time of your life. And for those who lack the photoshopping skills, other members step in. At one point during the afternoon, someone tweeted this image:
This is a photoshopped section of this picture, where we see Halbe Zijlstra athletically jumping over a fence.
And the photoshopped section is offered, in a sort of ludic instruction mode, as raw material to people lacking some necessary skills but desiring to enter into the #HalbeWasErbij meming activities.
Now, this actual, slightly awkward pose of Zijlstra’s became the most popular one in the meme-storm.
Berlin 1989: Halbe Was There, each and every time, in this photoshopped capacity.
He was even there when Leonardo painted La Gioconda. And of course, Halbe was on the pitch when Holland had its finest moment:
When they won the European Cup in 1988: Yes sir, Halbe Was There.
We can conclude now.
It is through paying attention to what people DO that we can get to what and who they ARE – this is what Garfinkel and his associates emphasized.
We have seen how the hashtag #HalbeWasErbij connected a very large set of transformed, morphed, memes in what Anselm Strauss famously called “the continual permutation of action”. This continual permutation is the core of interaction here: we see on this slide how three different memes refer to the same moment in history, a World Cup game between Spain and Holland, which Holland won. Those involved in the meming activities interact through small but profoundly creative and ludic transformations of particular signs, all of them connected and all of them separate. Those involved in it are form a loose, rhizomatic community without fixed boundaries, but with – surprisingly perhaps – a pretty robust structure revolving around shared expectations, shared cultural material and shared norms of engagement. It’s all about learning, showing, trying, sharing, and having politically informed good laughs. And it proceeds within the constraints of what Twitter affords (the so-called platform affordances) as well as within the boundaries of what is recognizable in terms of the formats of action.
This explains the “low virality” issue: not MEMES go viral, but MEMING as an activity goes viral and shapes a viral community (another term for “rhizomatic”, perhaps). We can say here that “virality” is not a quantitative matter, but a qualitative one that has to do with the intensity of interaction within particular formats of social action. This interaction, we have seen, is characterized by tremendous variability, yet it is tied together by a hashtag, which gives it a specific INDEXICAL VECTOR: any and all individual tokens of the hashtag point towards the same thematic complex, connect a community in the activity, and shape networks of communicability to other actors in the field of the shaping of public opinion. The national broadcasting system in The Netherlands, let alone Reuters, has a much wider audience than the individual hashtag activists. But the latter’s relentlessness and intensity became the stuff of higher-scale political expression by so-called “influencers” and mass media.
This evidently complicates our understanding of “public opinion”. We see that small and “light” but nonetheless structured communities can, through networked upscaling effects, become tremendously influential in the public sphere. Those involved in various forms of local urban activism are doubtlessly already familiar with such unexpected high-scale effects of small-scale action. Such effects shape forces of collective meaning-making and understanding in our societies, in ways that we still largely need to find out. But while doing so I would propose to start from action, not from groups. Because as I hope to have demonstrated here, the effects of the actions cannot be predicted from the features of pre-existing groups, however we wish to imagine them.
Commentary, AAAL 2018, panel “Chronotopes and Chronotopic Relations” (convenors: Anna De Fina & Sabina Perrino).
- Anna De Fina, Guiseppe Paternostro & Marcello Amoruso, “Odysseus the traveler: appropriation of a chronotope in a community of practice”
- Zane Goebel & Howard Manns, “Chronotopic Relations and Scalar Shifters”
- Farzad Karimzad, “Metapragmatics of Normalcy: Mobility, Context, and Language Choice”
- Sabina Perrino & Gregory Kohler, “Chronotopic Identities in Northern Italian Executives’ Narratives”
- Paul Prior, “Becoming a biologist: A lifespan case study of chronotopic lamination, disciplinarity and semiosis”
- Kristina Wirtz, “Mourning as political action: Chronotopes of encounter with the dead”
All of us, at some point in our training, must have been told that sociolinguistics is the study of who can say what to whom, when, where, how and why. For decades, this set of variables was loosely categorized under the label of ‘context’ in actual research, usually as part of a synchronic and local (i.e. situated) descriptive analysis of bits of real-live language-in-situ.
This did not do justice to the handful of scholars who saw context (and situation) as a dynamic, scaled and practice-based evolving feature of meaning-making – think of Gumperz, Hymes, the Goodwins and Cicourel. But this snapshot view of context took some time to be replaced by a laminated and complex one. Language ideologies made us realize that the formal structures of language-in-situ were always pervaded by informal, implicit ones providing layers of historicity to moments of communication, and turning Gumperz’s notion of contextualization into what Silverstein called an ‘indexical metric’ not just organizing talk, but dynamically and dialogically organizing (‘constructing’ in the sense of social constructivism) the situation (i.e. the context) and the participants’ roles and identities as well, in a world of indeterminacy and mobility of people, the resources they could draw on, and the situations they could become involved in.
I see chronotopes and scales as potentially useful instruments for adding accuracy to this laminated and complex understanding of the old sociolinguistic question. Of fundamental importance to Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope, in my view, is the social-historical dimension of social action he inscribes into it – an effect of his dialogue with Marxism, and something that underlies almost any other of his key concepts (think of heteroglossia). Utterances always ‘come from somewhere’, they draw on histories of use and abuse in a way that marks them (indexically) as potentially configuring chronotopes, activating them as represented, embodied and inscribed meaning potential, and enabling heteroglossic ‘lamination’, as Paul Prior beautifully illustrates in his paper.
Prior also gestures towards one of the Catch-22’s of Bakhtin’s social-historical approach in his paper: reading texts as embodying history and historically configured social positions always risks a certain degree of determinism – something we see, for instance, in Bourdieu’s La Misère du Monde. The stories that make up and define a life can, certainly for a discourse analyst, historian or biographer but also for a judge in a criminal court and an immigration officer, be given a dimension of linear continuity, consistency, coherence and ‘logic’, if you wish, absent from the experiential world of the narrator whose accounting practices travel through (as Prior points out) multiple semiotic remediations, including rescaling work – from stories to lives, from moment to history, from individuals to communities.
I found the presence of coherence, continuity and consistency both as a chronotope in its own right, and as a cross-chronotopic connection, strikingly present in the papers of this panel. And before I move into a closer discussion of this issue, let me just point out one thing. It would be quite stimulating, I suppose, to reread for instance Goebel & Manns’ paper using a vocabulary drawn from sentence- and text-grammatical or -pragmatic work on coherence and cohesion (one could try Halliday & Hasan). Such work, needless to repeat, is having a revival of sorts currently due to the automated use of big data corpora. This rereading exercise should show us the different games we are playing. While big data analysts robustly stick to language as a linguistic system, Goebel & Manns (and the others in this panel) approach it as a sociolinguistic system. In so doing, we have taken fundamentally different epistemological and ontological positions. Chronotopes and scales can only occur in a sociolinguistic paradigm, not a linguistic one. And it is good to remind ourselves that this is the universe we are operating in.
But this was a mere footnote situating what we discuss here in a larger frame of intellectual development. I now return to the point about consistency, coherence, continuity.
The idea of consistency, coherence and continuity is of course most clearly present in the papers of Wirtz, Perrino & Kohler and Prior. Wirtz’s description of rituals of commemoration all include – even literally, as in Raul Castro’s speech about his brother’s speech – cross-chronotopic continuity as a trope. The dead can be made present by invoking their ‘legacy’ as part of contemporary lived history. Not just the dead can be present, but the DNA of a metaphysical Italian society can be turned into the currency of today’s identity work, as Perrino & Kohler’s case showed. In both papers, we see how such invocations of continuity, coherence and consistency have powerful political effects: both manage to carve out, isolate and appropriate specific layers and chunks of history presented as theirs and unique to them, and in that sense as a denial or reversal of the hegemonic histories imposed on them.
Consistency, coherence and continuity are the stuff of a chronotope here, while of course in so doing several chronotopes are diachronically (and/or metaphysically) connected as one. Grandfather’s pioneering efforts of the 1920s are inseparable from those of the present leader of the family enterprise in Italy, just like Fidel’s speeches from the late 1950s are elementary ingredients of today’s political soundtrack for all Cubans. Of course, invoking the 1920s and 1950s involves chronotopic displacement – an imagination of a past and of dead people – but such chronotopes are, one could say, synchronized as a new one, valid for the present. I called this phenomenon ‘layered simultaneity’ a while ago.
In Prior’s analysis of Nora’s becoming a biologist, we see the layering in such simultaneity. Sequencing work needs to be done in which episodes are connected. Formulated differently, we see elaborate accounting practices stretching from the present towards the past, semiotically remediating stuff that can – only from the present – be seen as a prefiguration of what followed. A ‘logic of action’ (to borrow Bourdieu’s words for a moment) that is produced and articulated in the present but is in effect timeless: a chronotope of tradition, authenticity or (as Karimzad writes) ‘normalcy’ appears here as a cross-chronotopic synchronized bricolage of signs all made to point in a general direction: the present, me/us, and the future of me/us. The indexical vectors of diffuse chronotopic fragments have been discursively reoriented towards meaningfulness in a here-and-now.
I would think that any moment of synchronization involves such indexical vector reorientations, and I will try to elaborate that a bit in what follows. But before I can do that, I need to make another small side-step.
I used the term ‘accounting practices’ just now, and I used it in as ‘making meaningful in the here-and-now of social action’, much in the sense of Garfinkel. I should mention two things now that have kept me busy lately in my own rethinking of chronotopes and scales: (1) an action-theoretical perspective, and (2) continuous moralization.
To start with the first: a quite radical action-theoretical perspective appears inescapable, I believe, if we wish to avoid the degree of determinism mentioned earlier when we mentioned Bakhtin’s sociohistorical view of chronotope. There is much in the moment-to-moment evolving of social action that defies a prioris about identity, community and action itself, and the Goodwins reminded us two decades ago that “there are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized”. They themselves were inspired by Garfinkel’s radically action-centered approach in which (following George Herbert Mead and in line with e.g. Strauss and Goffman) whatever we consider to be identity in interaction cannot be formulated in terms of stuff that is already there – resources, social categories, opportunities and constraints on action – but needs to be seen as concrete, actual social effects of such situated interactions. I believe this is a sound principle, but it needs to be handled with care.
The reason for that is my second concern: moralization. We see that such effects are invariably constructed and construed interactionally by invocations of available and accessible moral criteria, projected onto equally available and accessible behavioral scripts. So, one could say that there are a priori’s (and in fact, this was a bone of contention between e.g. Cicourel and conversation analysts in the Schegloffian school), but at the same time only as a latent, potential and unequally distributed interpretive resource, which needs to be dialogically co-constructed in social action. So: it’s a priori and not a priori; a resource but also an action; a given and a created thing. Karimzad’s paper captures this excellently by using the term ‘chronotopization’, referring to the way in which people do not just ‘step into’ existing chronotopes but build them anew while drawing on existing, intertextual and pretextual moral indexical arrangements. Identity judgments are – here, I borrow older pragmatic terminology once again – judgments of appropriateness, of things that fit a script and are seen as enabling the social enactment of such scripts. And appropriateness is a moral judgment with its feet firmly planted into social history (variously labeled as ‘tradition’, ‘customs’ or – Karimzad – ‘normalcy’). Such patterns of chronotopization, thus, involve what Perrino & Kohler call ‘solidification’: chronotopically organized social action needs to be ratified in order to be made consequential, and this is done on the basis of ‘solid’ invokable intertexts and pretexts.
While I apologize to my audience for the overly technical tone of my comments at this point, I shall continue along this line for a brief moment. For now, I need to fold my two concerns together and apply them to what has been presented in this panel.
The solid invokable intertexts and pretexts are, I would suggest, indexical vectors: general indexical valuations attached to sets of indexicals, turning them into positive, negative or anything in-between evaluative pointers. This is the mechanism of what Bakhtin called ‘evaluative response’, and it brings us, I believe, to the heart of what Garfinkel saw as the essence of social order: recognizability.
There is a long tradition, of course, of using recognizability as linguistic identifiability (‘I recognize your words as English’; ‘this is [recognizable as] 11th century Swahili’); I suggest we see it as a primarily moral concept capturing (1) the relative stability of judgments about social and cultural appropriateness, combined with and in spite of (2) the tremendous variability in which such appropriateness can be actually encoded semiotically. In an older (Whorfian) jargon, it’s about stability of functions and diversity of linguistic structures, but (as Hymes told us) this form of relativity is bidirectional. We are talking here about specific sets of sociolinguistic resources tying (dialogically) the practice of communicative action to moral judgments, creating what Garfinkel called ‘autochtonous order properties’ of behavioral scripts or ‘formats’ – where ‘order’ is a moral notion. In a very vulgar rewording, we’re talking about the moral economy of communicative practice.
When I now turn to the papers in this panel, I begin to see examples of this almost everywhere, most emphatically in the papers by De Fina, Paternostro & Amoruso; by Goebel & Manns and by Karimzad.
In the paper by De Fina, Paternostro & Amoruso, the Odyssey is used as the input for creating ‘order’, if you wish, in the narratives of young refugees in Italy. The key phrase here, expressed by one of the subjects, is ‘practically everybody knows it’. By using this widely known (and thus recognizable) frame into the moments of narrative production, these moments get ‘autochtonous order properties’, they are ‘formatted’; more precisely they are given clear indexical vectors organizing the valuations in the narratives. It is no surprise that one of the subjects identifies the warm and hospitable Nausicaa as a ‘good’ figure in the story, and identifies with her. Like Fidel Castro for contemporary Cubans and the Italian DNA for contemporary fashion entrepreneurs, cross-chronotopic synchronization is enabled here and it involves an indexical vector reorientation of almost everything, in ‘figures’ of good, bad, and anything-in-between. The power of the paper by Anna and her colleagues lies in the demonstration of how exactly such a cross-chronotopic synchronization can trigger substantial pedagogical, therapeutic and healing effects. We already saw that it provokes or enables political effects too, and taken together, what we see is that such forms of synchronization – remoralization, so to speak – could prove to be massively important for our understanding of social life.
Like Karimzad, Goebel & Manns emphasize the emerging and contingent nature of chronotopes – ‘chronotopes are always under construction’ – and perhaps more so than in other papers, we can observe the step-by-step construction work of synchronized cross-chronotope constructures in Goebel & Manns’ paper. There is no hocus-pocus to chronotopic solidification, no mental map suddenly unfolding: it is hard interactional work to be performed by participants in social actions. Which is why it is often strongly ritualized, as in Wirtz’s examples: yes, the dead can be present perpetually in someone’s life, but their actual co-presence in social events requires a ritualized platform and ritually ratified participants.
It is significant, in Goebel & Manns’ paper, that metapragmatic commentary on language choice is a locus of scale-shifting. We can reformulate this slightly: it is a locus of the renegotiation of indexical vectors attached to specific sociolinguistic resources in such a way that they enable specific chronotopic work to be done. In Karimzad’s examples, I also noted how language shifts accompany topical moves: a densely moralized person, moment or account is surrounded by careful metapragmatic work, organizing the moral universe in which this specific piece of information needs to be set. In Perrino & Kohler’s examples, I observed the ethnopoetic patterning – repetitions, parallelisms – surrounding the cross-scale moves and the foregrounding of core motifs such as tradition and authenticity. And briefly returning to another topic: a closer look at the examples presented in the papers would, I anticipate, show that the crucial actions in the search for continuity, coherence and consistency would all be marked by significant discursive-formal and narrative-structural features. If we need examples of the moral economy of communicative practices and the specific moral load interactionally attached to specific sociolinguistic resources, look no further: the papers from this panel are replete with them.
What these papers jointly demonstrate, I believe, is the power of profound ethnographic and case-based analysis of ‘big’ issues. Chronotopes and chronotopic relations are big issues connecting situated moments of interaction to the very large patterns of social order. I already mentioned the way in which an obsolete notion of coherence and cohesion currently regains momentum due to the deployment of hi-tech onto colossal textual corpora. I have heard people in that field predict that they will soon make predictions – predictions about human social behavior, interactionally established social order, and of course human nature. My confidence about predictions of predictions is generally speaking quite low; I tend to attach more value to a mode of analysis in which one assumes that – to paraphrase Cicourel – people make sense of society by making sense of situations. A mode of analysis, in other words, in which we assume that the big things can be found in a much more accurate way in very small things. The papers in this panel demonstrate the lasting value of this approach.
And so I can conclude. I believe that I have tried to formulate two substantive points in these comments. One was about chronotope as a primarily moral notion; the other was about chronotopic relations as forms of synchronization, where the latter was understood as revolving around indexical vector reorientation towards ‘formats’. None of what I formulated here was formulated before I saw the papers of this panel. I am deeply grateful to the presenters and the convenors for offering me the thing that makes every academic happy: an opportunity to think new things.
Ari Sherris (Texas A&M University) submitted a series of questions to a number of colleagues, to be answered in brief statements. Here are my replies.
How would you introduce your current thinking/theoretical stance?
In a few words: encompassing, exploratory and radical. I embarked some years ago on the project of critically evaluating and, whenever required, reformulating (or formulating, if you wish) social theory for a society in which social lives now continually cross from online into offline spaces and back. This new online infrastructure, in my view, is a fundamental shift in the basic “operating system” of society, comparable to the mass circulation of printed book and newspapers, of the telegraph and telephone, of radio, cinema and TV, and of computers. There are entirely new ways in which people engage and interact with knowledge, artifacts, timespace, groups and ultimately with themselves – all of which demand new forms of social imagination, I base the exploratory theorizing on recent insights into sociolinguistics (very broadly taken here), using (and radically implementing) the assumption that every form of social action is a form of interaction, and that insights into forms of interaction can provide us with a reliable foundation for social theory.
Your current take on meaning/meaning-making?
Meaning in its traditional (linguistic) sense is one of the many effects of social (inter)action, and quite often a nonlinear one (an outcome that cannot be predicted from initial conditions). I have replaced “meaning” almost entirely by “effect”, and I attempt to examine specific kinds of effects emerging from specific kinds of (online-offline) actions. Meaning-as-effect is grounded in (some degree of) recognizability, and this recognizability is usually not a feature of the resources we use alone, but more of the practices we deploy them in. Which is why “yes” can mean “no” and “darling” can sound like a threat depending on what happens in the interaction in which these words are being used.
How do humans communicate?
Hymes gave us the answer long time ago: “use all there is to be used”. There is hardly a limit to the resources that can be turned into signs, and the range of resources thus made useful is continuously changing. This could suggest infinite creativity. I must qualify that: there is infinite creativity within sets of very strict constraints. There is the constraint of accessibility/availability of resources – not everyone has access to possibly the “best” resources for specific forms of communication – and there is the constraint of communicability, i.e. interactionally established recognizability of signs as valid, or, if you wish, the inevitable genre-requirement of any form of communication. The latter involves uptake, and here is the most crucial constraint: we need others for us to be communicating beings.
Your current take on language?
Since a lot of what I presently do is reformulating established concepts, the question is hard to answer with any conventional reference to what “language” means. I can only say what it stands for in my current thinking. It stands for just one of the many resources that can be deployed in social interaction. And of all these resources, it is the most overrated one. It is overrated because popular beliefs equate “communication” and “language”, and so attribute way too much weight to the role of language (as “correct” mapping of form over denotational content) in meaning-making. Which is why, for instance, we keep bumping into the idea that multilingualism might be detrimental to social cohesion because people “can’t communicate unless they share a language”. People have to share a mutually ratified set of communicative resources, and if no such resources are readily available, they will construct them ad hoc. How to change these views? By explaining (over and over again) to the people around you how they effectively communicate, here and now.
What value do you place on culture in your thinking?
We’re having the same problem here as with “language” above: what does “culture” actually mean in this question? In my current thinking, “culture” in any traditional understanding of it has very little place. It can be used to describe the specific sets of microhegemonies valid and operating within a community of people engaging in specific forms of social action. “Culture”, there, would just be shorthand for the stuff that makes such forms of action mutually and collectively understandable.
Your current take on power?
Every bit of online-offline research I have done or have been confronted with lately confirms the Foucaultian vision of power as normative and moralized, infinitely fractal, reflexive, and visible only after having executed it. Foucault spoke of the care of the self, the fact that we subject ourselves to elaborate procedures of normative control and micro-regimentation. In the online world, this has now been complemented with the care of the selfie: infinitely detailed normative complexes (microhegemonies) are made available for the regimenting of almost every aspect of online self-presentation. Let it be said in this context that power, thus understood, is dialogical and operates, notably, through ratification by others.
What is the relationship of individual agency and society?
Individual agency is an “accent”, a small inflection, of largely formatted moralized behavioral templates. I combine several sources here: Foucault (the individual as an effect, an artifact of power), Mead (individuals as the residue of the totality of social interactions they were involved in) and Garfinkel (individuals as concretely configured outcomes of social action). The fact that agency is “accent” implies that its range is small, but not that it is unimportant. In actual fact, we engage with others largely through formats, but the actual ways in which we engage with actual individuals is a factor of their specific “accents” (which is why we like certain colleagues and dislike some others, while most of our lives are shared with them, engaging in pretty well formatted actions).
How might your thinking be used by teachers?
Much of what I now express as theory is actual common sense. In talking to teachers and other people who might benefit from these efforts, I often try to “peel off” the layers of language-ideological beliefs, trying to get to a pretty simple bottom-line understanding of communicative practices online and offline, for which a handful of structuring terms and arguments can then be offered in reconstructing a more accurate understanding of what “language” (the term they mostly use) actually is.
What are the most crucial issues to be investigated today?
Inequality. By analytically expanding the range of communicative resources we intend to investigate, we necessarily find more objects of potential and effective inequality beyond “language” in the sense used, e.g., in sociolinguistic work on minority languages. Think, for instance, of all that is required to successfully launch an online petition for the removal of a corrupt bureaucrat in the South of China: such a complex online action is only “simple” and “easy” for those who have full access to the totality of the resources required for it – including knowledge and experience. This is one of the reasons why I tend to attach great importance to online-offline sites as informal learning environments, where such resources are being made available, distributed, learned and practiced.
The Durkheim and the Internet project (DAI in what follows) being completed, I now move on towards a more radical exercise: using some of Harold Garfinkel’s central intuitions as a lead into forms of online analysis. This exercise, I should underscore, builds onto DAI and does not replace or qualify it – it extends it. For a summary of DAI, see Blommaert (2018).
This extension is warranted, I believe, because of one methodological outcome of the project: the “four lines of sociolinguistic methodology” that I designed as a way to investigate new forms of collectivities in online-offline contexts. Here they are:
- Patterns of communication necessarily involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome;
- Such relationships will always, similarly, involve identities and categorizations, interactionally established;
- Thus, when observing patterns of communication, we are observing the very essence of sociation and “groupness” – regardless of how we call the “groups”.
- And specific patterns of interaction shape specific forms of “groups.
I added the following reflection to these four lines:
“Groups, then, are not collections of human beings but patterned sets of communicative behaviors and the relationships with which they are dialectically related. Whenever we see such ordered forms of communicative behavior, there is an assumption of active and evolving groupness – sociation – but the analytical issue is not the nature of the group (or the label we need to choose for it) but the specific social relationships observable through and in communication. All other aspects of sociation can be related to this. So if one needs the definition of a group: a group is a communicatively organized and ratified set of social relationships.”
This analytical point pushed me to a re-examination of Garfinkel’s work, notably Garfinkel (2002). I shall not follow Garfinkel in any canonical way, however. The nature of the exercise I undertake here would prevent it, and the fact that Garfinkel’s incredible methodological idiosyncrasy makes much of his book barely readable further supports that decision. Fortunately, Anne Rawls does a great service to Garfinkel in her introductory essay to the book (Rawls 2002 and other contextualizing essays, 1987, 1989). And finally, I reject several of Garfinkel’s assumptions and principles. But there remains much that can be profitably reformulated and redeployed as well. Let me summarize these reformulated elements.
Let me start by listing what I see as productive fundamental intuitions in Garfinkel’s work. The connecctions with the “four lines” above should be clear at once.
- Garfinkel focuses on social order as a locally accomplished social fact. In this, he is entirely empirical, in the sense that he rejects any conceptual a prioris and prioritizes the actual, observable social actions as a site of “structure” and “theory”. That naturally implies that Garfinkel rejects the old binaries of “micro vs macro” or “structure vs agency”, as well as an ethos of scientific practice in which conceptual and theoretical “implementation” is sought.
- Rather than to take (predefined and “known”) individuals and groups as a starting point in his analysis, he takes situated actions as the point of departure; the people acting within such situations are merely the “local staff, its local production cohort” (Garfinkel 2002: 247). And in line with G.H. Mead, action is interaction.
- Actions can be shown to have “autochthonous order properties”, i.e. “empirically observable properties of the congregational work of producing social facts” (id. 245). Rawls (ibid, FN) further clarifies: “Congregational refers not only to to the idea that these social facts are made collaboratively by a group, but that the population cohort has its cohort or congregation by virtue of being engaged in doing just this thing”.
- In other words: groups are made by the actions they are involved in, and Garfinkel emphasizes “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (Rawls 2002: 46).
- Such involvement is predicated on the recognizability of actions and their properties of order. Social actions occur as formats, the characteristic features of which are recognizable to others and, thus, intelligible as action x, y or z. Garfinkel’s example of a queue (2002, chapter 8) is telling: it is the queue itself that organizes the behavior of people as a queue. The queue has a set of “properties of order without which the phenomenon ceases to be recognizable as what it is” (Rawls 2002: 45).
- This aspect of formatting is reflexive: there is no “external” or explicitly stated rule for action, but its execution “must work and be seen to work by others” (Rawls 2002: 41). Thus, rules become reflexively apparent after their implementation in social action. It’s when a queue has been formed that people can tell you that there is a queue, and that it starts thère, not here. Social actions “have a [normative] coherence when one is finished with them that they did not have at the outset” (ibid).
- Recognizability and reflexivity as features of social action involve and presuppose at least two things: (a) that no social action is “individual” in any sense of the term but always interactional; (2) that the formats of social action need to be learned, acquired.
It is clear that Grafinkel attributes a sui generis character to situated social action and its forms of order: its characteristics cannot be reduced to individuals’ intentions and interests, nor to external (“institutional”) constraints. In fact, the sui generis character of situated social action is an echo of Durkheim’s qualification of “social facts” as having a sui generis quality – the very foundation of Durkheim’s sociology. And just like Durkheim’s statement, Garfinkel’s is easily (and widely) misconstrued. So we must be precise here. The sui generis character of situated social action involves – contra methodological individualism – that individual social beings are constrained in their choices of action; people rather “enter into” the ordeliness of situated social action, as soon as such an order is recognizable, and attribute intelligibility to their own actions in that way. Their actions become meaningful to others by entering into the orderly procedures that make such actions recognizable as specific actions.
Garfinkel joins Goffman here, and Rawls attributes the same sui generis character to Goffman’s notion of interaction order: “the interacion order has an existence independent of either structures or individuals” (Rawls 1987: 139). This point, too, has often been overlooked, and Goffman’s concept of self, consequently, has often been misrepresented as strategically performed identity, central to his social theory. In actual fact, Goffman’s self is “a dramaturgical effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented” (Goffman 1959: 253, in Rawls 1987: 139; italics added). So it is not just “performed” but interactionally ratified – morally sanctioned – by others: “both in its capacity as performer and performed, the self ultimately depends upon interaction” (ibid.). Such interactions require a scene – an orderly and recognizable situation that makes the dramaturgical effect (the particular, enacted and ratified self) an intelligible outcome of social action. In Rawls’ (ibid) terms:
“The self is therefore not the ontological starting point for a theory of social order. For Goffman it is an end product, the existence of which depends upon a presentation order which is the primary constraint of situations of co-presence”.
This presentation order is replete with reciprocally exchanged moral expectations – “involvement obligations” – providing a degree of security in social encounters (cf. Rawls 1987: 140). There is slightly more space for empathy and anxiety in Goffman’s view of order than there is in Garfinkel’s, and Goffman’s “ground rules of interaction” are moral ones (id.: 142). Goffman’s insistence on the ritual character of interaction (often seen as an insistence on communicative routine) is in actual fact an insistence on the maintenance of a moral order in social action. And this is done in view of the interaction order itself (sui generis), “and not directed toward the reproduction of social structure at all” (id. 145).
Rawls here brings Goffman and Garfinkel together once again: both rejected “micro vs macro” and “agency vs structure” distinctions, since for both, whatever we understand by “structure” should be empirically observable in the orderly features of actual, situated social action; the former actually coincides and identifies with the latter. And in both, the self is an outcome, a product, an effect of the orderliness of situated social action – which, consequently, should be attended to in full detail. In most work, situated social action would be seen as a building block or a reflection of “larger” social-structural phenomena (power, class, gender, race, etc.). What we have here is a radical refusal to treat situated social action as “just” the small stuff that relates to bigger stuff. Instead, we get a view in which the big things are right there, in and through situated social action – which is, consequently, a big thing. Social order in any form is interactional.
Garfinkel’s radicalism is certainly appealing because it refutes most of mainstream social theory, with a particular vehemence reserved for deductive theory-internal analysis, concepts-as-realities and simplistic interpretations of “micro vs macro” and “agency vs structure”. Aspects of this refutation are compelling and inescapable, while others are potentially fertile as a heuristic, and still others are probably nonsense. Thus, I will adopt the elements I sketched above and add two important qualifications to them.
- I maintain the theoretical framework designed in DAI, with its emphasis on complexity, mobility, scalarity and polycentricity. The “social order” and its “autochthonous order properties” that Garfinkel was after (and Goffman’s “interacion order” and its “involvement obligations”) are, consequently, made more precise and accurate when we see them as ordered indexicalities occurring in social arenas that are by definition polynomic, dynamic and flexible.
- Garfinkel’s view of situated social action as necessarily recognizable presupposes a mutually assumed sharedness of expectations (which he confirms), and of resources. The latter remains unaddressed, while it is precisely the sociolinguistic dimension of DAI. While situated social action may be a form of order sui generis, the stuff that enters into such actions isn’t: it is conditioned historically and assumes its concrete shape in interactions in the form of entextualizations, the nature and valuations of which need to be learned and acquired. So here is the second qualification to Garfinkel’s intuitions: we need to add to them an awareness of the concrete historical conditions enabling certain forms of action to assume certain kinds of order not others. This, I underscore, does not mean that we need to revert to an older vocabulary of institutionalization, routinization or even “macro” or “structural” aspects of action. What we need to do is to see situated social action as historically conditioned (and we can take some cues here from Bourdieu, for instance). This, I believe, is crucial if one wishes to maintain the claim about the sui generis character of the orderliness of such situated social action.
The historical conditions for action include infrastructural conditions as well. I underscore this because we intend to go online with Garfinkel – entering into a world not just of queues in front of the Starbucks counter at LAX, but of virality, memes and social media profiles. And a world not just of presenting and presented selves but of selfies – new technologically mediated modes of self-presentation for which Garfinkel, Goffman and others provides necessary, but insufficient, analytical frames. Such infrastructures have changed the “order” of social actions, and we must take them on board.
Blommaert, Jan (2018) Durkheim and the Internet: Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London: Bloomsbury.
Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism (ed. Anne Warfield Rawls). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday Anchor.
Rawls, Anne Warfield (1987) The Interaction order sui generis: Goffman’s contribution to social theory. Sociological Theory 5/2: 136-149.
—– (1989) Simmel, Parsons and the interaction order. Sociological Theory 7/1: 124-129.
—– (2002) Editor’s introduction. In Garfinkel (2002): 1-64.