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”.
Agha Asif (2007a) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Agha Asif (2007b) Recombinant selves in mass-mediated spacetime. Language & Communication 27: 320-337
Auer, Peter & Aldo Di Luzio (eds.) (1992) The Contextualization of Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
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Bezemer, Jeff, Alexandra Cope, Gunther Kress & Roger Kneebone (2014) Holding the scalpel: Achieving surgical care in a learning environment. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 43/1: 38-63.
Blommaert Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Blommaert, Jan (2008) Bernstein and poetics revisited: Voice, globalization and education. Discourse & Society 19/4: 421-447
Blommaert, Jan (2015) Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language in society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116
Blommaert, Jan (2018) Chronotopes, synchronization and formats. Tilburg papers in Culture Studies paper 207. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/e11f2ecf-b338-4a53-b6ae-310768649fb3_TPCS_207_Blommaert.pdf
Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2016) Chronotopic identities: On the spacetime organization of who we are. In Anna De Fina, Didem Ikizoglu & Jeremy Wegner (eds.) Diversity and Superdiversity: Sociocultural Linguistic Perspectives: 1-15 Washington: Georgetown University Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity.
Cicourel, Aaron (1974) Cognitive Sociology: Language and Meaning in Social Interaction. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.
Cicourel, Aaron (1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Duranti, Alessandro & Charles Goodwin (eds.) (1992) Rethinking Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Goffman, Erving (1961), Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction, New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Goffman Erving (1964) The neglected situation. American Anthropologist 66/2 (Part 2):133-136
Goffman, Erving (1981), Forms of Talk, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
Goodwin, Charles (1994) Professional Vision, American Anthropologist, 96: 606–33.
Goodwin, Charles (2002) Time in action. Current Anthropology 43/supplement August-September: S19-S35.
Goodwin, Charles & Marjorie Harness Goodwin (1992) Context, activity and participation. In Peter Auer & Aldo Di Luzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 77-99. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Hymes, Dell (1974) Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hymes Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis
Ochs, Elinor & Merat Shohet (2006) The cultural structuring of mealtime socialization. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 111: 35-49.
Rampton Ben (2003) Hegemony, social class and stylization. Pragmatics 13:49–83
Scollon, Ron (2001) Mediated Discourse: The nexus of Practice. London: Routledge
Scollon, Ron & Suzie Wong Scollon (2004) Nexus Analysis: Language and the Emerging Internet. London: Routledge
Silverstein, Michael (1992). The indeterminacy of contextualization: When is enough enough? In Peter Auer & Aldo Di Luzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Silverstein, Michael (1997) The improvisational performance of culture in realtime discursive practice. In Keith Sawyer (ed.) Creativity in Performance: 265-312. Greenwich CT: Ablex.
Silverstein Michael (2003) Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23:193-229
Stygall, Gail (1994) Trial Language: Differential Discourse Processing and Discursive Formation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
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.
CHRISTIAN W. CHUN, The discourses of capitalism: Everyday economists and the production of common sense. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. Pp 159. Pb. £29.99
Reviewed by Jan Blommaert
For several years now, the Routledge series Language, Society and Political Economy edited by David Block has consistently turned out interesting studies in which Marx-inflected theoretical frameworks are blended with actual concrete issues in sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and applied linguistics, giving such studies a critical bite along with constant reminders of the power of “big” political-economic issues to seemingly small language-related ones. Chun’s short and elegant study fits well into that tradition. In The discourses of capitalism, we get a thoroughly informed discussion of ideology in the Gramscian tradition combined with an innovative sociolinguistic and discourse-analytic methodology.
In an engaging first chapter, Chun starts from where he must start in Gramsci’s view: a precise and detailed reflection on his own background and social position as someone living in a capitalist system, gradually realizing the ideological nature of something that is presented as simple fact. The latter is usually done by professional economists, but it saturates popular beliefs and perceived experience. And that is the theme of the book: Chun will examine the discourses of “everyday economists” (15). And he will do so by analyzing recorded street interviews with people engaging with a piece of publicly displayed art. The artwork is a large neon-lit construction with the proposition “Capitalism works for me!” designed by artist Steve Lambert and displayed in several cities. Passers-by can vote “true” or “false”, and this, then, is the point of departure for impromptu interviews on capitalism and how such people experience it: its ideological character, the connection with common sense and with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony.
The latter is the topic of chapter 2, which engages at considerable length with the conceptual apparatus guiding the study. How do particular structured ideas become “common sense”? How do they saturate the life world of people, even in the face of manifest factual inconsistencies? How do we explain such obvious contradictions, as the one expressed by a woman who wrote Obama saying “I don’t want government-run health care. I don’t want socialized medicine. And don’t touch my Medicare” (37). This question, obviously, has kept social scientists busy during the entire 20th century. It animated the work of scholars ranging from Durkheim, Weber and Mannheim to Bourdieu, Foucault, Williams and Hall. What Chun brings to this issue – sketched in chapter 3 – is a sophisticated discourse analysis inspired by Bakhtin and – importantly – by the kind of nexus analysis developed by the Scollons. We get a fully “social” form of discourse analysis here.
This methodological instrument is next deployed on powerful empirical material presented in three well-structured empirical chapters. In chapters 4, 5 and 6, we meet the 50 participants from different places whose reactions to “Capitalism works for me!” were recorded by Lambert and his associates and subsequently selected for analysis by Chun. Roughly, three large discourse formats emerge. The first one can be summarized with the proposition “The only system that ever does work” (chapter 4); the second with “Nothing is perfect” and the third with “who gets all the money?”. While the former two can be seen as subscribing to and legitimating capitalism, the last one is counter-hegemonic, or at least strongly critical of the system that has no name.
In the analyses, we begin to see a clear conceptual structure surrounding and underpinning capitalism in the US. It is instantly associated with adjacent concepts such as democracy, freedom, markets, opportunity, choice and individual agency in a master narrative widely known as the American Dream. Capitalism provides a space of freedom and opportunity where individuals (all of them) can “make it” in society by hard work and commitment to freedom and democracy. The latter – in the US as elsewhere – increasingly stands for minimal government and maximum freedom of enterprise. This conceptual structure, one could argue, is the hegemonic US ideology of capitalism. As an economic system it is inextricably woven into a broader view of (wo)man and society, of “the good life”, in ways in which challenging one element (capitalism, e.g.) would involve attacking the others too (“democracy”, “freedom”, etc.). Manifest flaws in capitalist economies (think of the 2008 meltdown) are rationalized as temporary and never beyond repair. And repair is necessary, for “there is no alternative”. This is the apex of hegemony.
Hegemonies, however, produce counter-hegemonies, and chapter 6 engages with those. While respondents in chapters 4 and 5 largely stuck within a range of what we could call “conditional acceptance” of capitalism, respondents in chapter 6 stand out by often pointed and acerbic factual rebuttals of “Capitalism works for me!”. Here Gramsci’s “good sense” (as opposed to “common sense”) comes in: people have done the analytical balancing of lived reality versus commonsensical ideological framing, and reject the latter. The “everyday economists” in this chapter privilege cool facts over dogmatic assumptions and logic over slogans: if my mother works weekdays and weekends for a meager salary while her boss never works during weekends and gets vastly more, what’s fair about capitalism? (cf p 130). This grassroots critique is the hopeful potential discerned by Chun and elaborated in an eloquent concluding chapter 7. Chun (again, in line with the Marxian tradition) calls for a public pedagogy on discourses of capitalism, a mode of public learning and emancipatory education in which ideology is seen as ideology, not as fact or fate.
I find this an engaging and convincing book, offering insights and substance for further reflection in a range of domains. One domain was perhaps not intended by Chun, but I find it particularly inspiring. Chun’s data, as said, were interviews with people passing by and responding to a publicly displayed piece of art, and more in particular a “language object” in Adam Jaworski’s (2015) terms: a publicly shown and highlighted proposition. Seen from that perspective, Chun’s book offers us a fine and sophisticated example of linguistic landscape analysis in which the landscape is used as a prompt to elicit discourses from those inhabiting the landscape. In other words, the linguistic landscape is turned into an interactional site, a nexus of practice according to the Scollons. And this, I suggest, may show us an often-forgotten function and effect of linguistic landscapes: they exist as sites of social interaction, they “talk”, and people “talk back” to them.
Jaworski, Adam (2015) Word cities and language objects: ‘Love sculptures’ and signs as shifters. Linguistic Landscape 1/1-2: 75-94.
No community is truly “monolingual”—even when they think they are!
Recently, language professionals have named a community’s illusion of language purity “perceived monolingualism” (Thank you @MCP718, mariacioe-pena.com, for this useful phrase!). Initially, this concept made me nervous about the role of citizen sociolinguistics. The concept of “perceived monolingualism” raises the specter of a dark kind of citizen sociolinguist–one who propagates misunderstanding, eliminates language variety, and possibly worse. Perhaps naïvely, I usually like to think of citizen sociolinguists as people happily championing the creative capacity of multilingualism and language variety, busily spreading the word about how it works. Once we recognize a type of citizen sociolinguist willfully lacking in awareness of the multilingualism all around, who can we call on to set them straight?
Other citizen sociolinguists, of course! In at least some cases, citizen sociolinguists are the best candidates to point out this misperception of monolingualism—and the most likely to…
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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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As of May 25, 2018, the new European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will be enforced. This new regulation took a long time to prepare and implement, for its scope is vast and its effects will be huge. Reading the voluminous documentation about the GDPR, especially when done with a moderate dose of critical discourse analysis, yields some puzzling and potentially disconcerting insights.
What is the GDPR about?
On the EU website dedicated to the GDPR, the aims of the regulation are described as follows: the GDPR “was designed to harmonize data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and empower all EU citizens data privacy and to reshape the way organizations across the region approach data privacy.” Even if the term “data privacy” is used as the element of coherence, we can anticipate something very complex here. We get a regulation that (a) creates legal uniformity regarding data privacy throughout the EU (and beyond); (b) in some way defines and delineates (and so presumably “empowers”) the data privacy rights of EU citizens, and (c) regulates and streamlines the ways in which data privacy is currently handled by “organizations”. The latter can be almost anything, from a boy scouts troupe to a multinational corporation, from a badminton club to a newspaper, from a university to a government department and internet provider. Knowing how the EU proceeds in its legislative work, one can only imagine the density of lobbying work that has preceded the GDPR, for almost anyone is affected by it.
Surely, data privacy is one of the most pressing concerns these days. The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook data leaks scandal is still being rolled out to the public, cybercrime (including identity theft, hacking and copyright violations) has become a top security priority, and all of us have had the pleasure of receiving emails from extraordinarily friendly people inviting us to re-activate our bank accounts or social security numbers by sending all our personal details over. So it is clear that something needed to be done about such new forms of risk in an online-offline world. And yes, in the GDPR there are long and carefully worded sections “empowering” citizens when it comes to data privacy.
But much more attention is given to the transactional aspects of personal data: the conditions and rights to acquire, store and use such data in commercial, security, research and other contexts. The GDPR codifies the age of the Internet of Things, of Big Data and of the many ways in which Big Data generates social, economic, cultural and political effects, most of them entirely new and, consequently, poorly regulated. The citizen’s rights to privacy are defined in a regulated world in which such data are traded, exchanged, merged, and analyzed by a tremendous range of other actors. And that is where things become intriguing.
From citizen to data subject
The text is what we would now call “posthuman”: human beings are not central in them. This becomes clear from the standard use of the term “data subject” in the GDPR rather than, for instance, “citizen”. To understand the implications of that, we need to take one step back and consider the most fundamental definition in the GDPR, that of “personal data”. Personal data stands for “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person”.
The “identifiable natural person” is equated with “data subject”. This is not self-evident, but the reason lies in the small phrase “directly or indirectly” when it comes to being identified. Such innocuous-looking frases always look crucial to the critical discourse analyst, for they are deliberately vague while tremendously inclusive. They create an almost infinite scope for what counts as “identification” and, by extension, “identity”.
For here is the thing: one can be “identified” not just by anything directly leading to the “natural person” but even more by aggregations of indirect data gathered by others and within others’ range of legitimate agency through almost every instrument currently in place. The GPS data of your mobile phone, the algorithms of your social media profiles and your Amazon.com shopping routines, the IP address of your computer, records of medical check-ups and footage from surveillance cameras or drones placing you somewhere: all of these are “identifiers” that generate personal data. But without the “natural person” as an active, intentional agent – it is not the “natural person” who creates and controls these traces of identity. We are in the world of “profiling” here and, indeed, I can be “implicit in the algorithm” and identified as a bundle of correlated features only indirectly suggesting particular actions – to which actions I can be held accountable nonetheless.
Are such data still “personal”? Can they be reasonably used as “identifiers” not just of people but of their individual character, behavior and actual (intentional) actions? In a 2015 interview, European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli was clear: no. Butarelli saw a post-personal (or posthuman, as I called it) future ahead: “the concept of ‘personal data protection’ will disappear in the near future, as will the concept of ‘personal data’. We will all be easier to predict and identify even without data about our individual identities, it will be easier to reuse the information and group it together with other information and interpret it accordingly”. He went on: “The concept of ‘data-subject’ and therefore of the individual will in all likelihood disappear too, as we will be grouped together according to segments of information (…) The difference between ‘personal’ and ‘non-personal’ will then be blurred”. We are, in the most literal sense of the term, the profiles constructed of us by Big Data. And since, in the views of the European Data Protection Supervisor, we are facing the end of the individual, one should wonder what’s left of privacy?
Who owns “me”?
Most of the identifiers discussed in the GDPR are not created by the “natural persons” they index, I said. I must add: many of them are not even owned by these “natural persons.” We return to the core purpose of the GDPR here: it should enable and regulate the trading, exchange, storage and use of data about “natural persons” but by other commercial and noncommercial actors. Yes of course, the GDPR now stipulates that when personal data leading to an identifiable “natural person” are being used, these persons have to be informed and consent must be asked and obtained. The latter, however, is far from an absolute rule in the GDPR. There are several exceptions and there is a gigantic loophole under the label of “anonymized data” – the thing Butarelli alluded to when he spoke of people being grouped according to “segments of information” rather than anything properly “personal”. This, in actual fact, is what the term “data subjects” actually means: people grouped and identified as “type” or “category” X, Y, Z on the basis of Big Data aggregations, of specific combinations of data leading to specific profiles for people. Such constructions can sometimes lead to “individual identities”, as Butarelli said. But they need not.
The thing is that even if data are not properly “personal”, in the end they still are about, and from, “natural persons”, no matter what the degree of privacy protection is. After all, the entire thing revolves around identifiability, and even if the data gathered on me are used in “non-personal” ways, what is being done with such data can still have an impact on me. So there is a very wide space left for constructions of “me”, for which I can be held accountable in variable ways, but which have not been made by me, nor are they owned by me – profiles of me are creations and commodities made by others about me, and what the GDPR does well and in detail is to organize a firm legal footing for trading and exchanging such items in a Big Data market. Data subjects, in the sense just described, are the product in that market; if the specific data subject is me, I am a product, not an actor in the deal. Not much citizen empowerment can be observed in the process.
The clever play of words in EU texts such as the GDPR has, on many previous occasions, had the tactical advantage of silencing or delaying public debate. Public declarations on the GDPR will continue to foreground the phrase in which EU citizens are said to be empowered with respect to data privacy. A careful reading of this text, however, raises several large and pretty fundamental questions left unaddressed by the decision makers – and for that, too, precedents are plenty in the history of EU decision making.
For more information on GDPR, see here.
Half a century ago, a wave of revolt hit countries as far apart as Japan and Czechoslovakia, Germany and the US, Mexico and France. Certainly due to its high profile around the Parisian Quartier Latin, where students confronted the regime of the legendary General De Gaulle during riots in May and June of that year, the events were nicknamed “May 68”. And under that name, the events became the object of heated controversy. The 50th anniversary of May 68 will be no exception to that.
Nothing has happened
As we know, May 68 in France ended when De Gaulle rallied his supporters and won the elections of June 1968 by a landslide. And it was the great French conservative thinker Raymond Aron who proclaimed shortly after the end of the revolt that rien ne s’est passé – nothing really happened in May 68. The order of De Gaulle’s republic had been restored, after all, and the bourgeoisie as well as the police state that were the joint targets of the revolt were still firmly in power.
While this version of the events became mainstream, another one was addded to this. May 68, claimed the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy, was a moral and culturalcrisis, a vague counterculture with unspecified values, nothing more. It was a revolt against the cultural patriarchism, the traditional (masculine) structures of authority and the puritan morality of a conservative society, and it was above all a movement of individual empowerment and liberation. Young kids just wanted to be free, free to listen to rock music, grow their hair and wear blue jeans, make love not war, and tell their fathers to mind their own business.
This, in the eyes of more radically conservative thinkers, had led to a moral anarchy, a radical relativism of identities, values and norms and an over-the-top rejection of what was stable, good and true. May 68 has since become a bête noire for the New Right, and for half a century now it has been consistently blamed for almost everything that went wrong in Western societies since the 1960s: immigration and multiculturalism, feminism, sexual promiscuity, the liberal use of drugs, the normalization of homosexuality, the attacks on what is seen as robust masculinity – in short, May 68 destroyed all that was normal in societies such as ours. But other than that, nothing had really happened. Nothing politically at least.
May 68 was a decade long
Well, I’m not so sure about that, because in such acccounts of what happened in May 68 only a fraction of the events is discussed. A decade of worldwide turmoil – the 1960s – is reduced to a couple of weeks in which students (and only students) threw bricks at the police and painted funny slogans on the walls of their university halls. Why they did that, and why in so many places and in this way, is conveniently deleted from the narrative. So let us look at some elements that surrounded May 68. We shall see that it was actually a decade long.
The students did not just paint funny slogans on walls; they openly, loudly and relentlessly criticized the system of power characterizing their societies: the power incorporated by De Gaulle in France, Johnson and Nixon in the US and the Communist Party in Prague. In all of these cases, the power regime was connected – openly, loudly and relentlessly – with the Cold War which had led to increasing militarization and more agressive policing, with millions of young men drafted into national military service on their respective sides of the Cold War divide, and with powerfully developed surveillance and repression resources aimed at (even moderate) public dissidence. In the West and elsewhere, the Vietnam war became the iconic object of protest; but it wasn’t the only issue.
Vietnam became iconic because it was part of the huge wave of decolonization that characterized the 1960s, and because it showed how decolonization had been swept up in the power play of the Cold War. The 1960s started with Fidel Castro proclaiming the end of US imperialism in Cuba, soon followed by the failed US-backed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs, and by the Cuban Missile Crisis that rendered the possibility of a nuclear apocalyps part palpable everywhere. The colonial empires were rapidly replaced by independent states, the leaders of which often proved reluctant to enter into neocolonial relations with their former rulers. Mao Zedong theorized the “Third World” as a catchword to define the refusal of newly independent states to choose sides in the Cold War; the US intervention in Vietnam, as well as several other interventions against the rulers of the newly independent states, proved that the the Cold War protagonists didn’t like such forms of non-alignment. This kind of intervention was called imperialism by the May 68 activists, and they rejected it. In their eyes, alternative (read: socialist) roads to development and sovereignty should be, at least, allowed.
They also rejected it because the Cold War overseas imperialism was mirrored by what they identified as the return of “fascism” at home. The Cold War imposed anticommunism as a state doctrine in all NATO member states, and this had concrete consequences. It meant, for instance, that after the post-War “denazification” purges, military and security staff recruitment in countries such as Germany and France now displayed a preference for people with strong right-wing sympathies (including actual ex-nazis and collaborators) over people favoring socialism or communism. Maurice Papon, the powerful police prefect of Paris in the first half of the 1960s, was such a former collaborator, but it took until 1981 before he was convicted for direct involvement in the death of Jewish subjects under the Vichy regime.
With chiefs such as Papon, the police assumed the shape of a military and intelligence outfit outspokenly aimed at crushing any form of action that could be seen as pro-Soviet, however far-fetched. In other countries, similar processes occurred, and the targets of heavy-handed police interventions often included trade unions and striking workers, suspected of (directly or indirectly) assisting the socialist cause and destabilizing society. In the UK, an Emergency Powers Act was introduced in 1964; in Germany, similar laws were voted in 1968 to quell the widespread political and labor protests. The general current was to increase the power of the forces of order while reducing the civil rights of citizens (certainly when they were organized), and to increase the use of police violence in cases of unrest. The 1960s ended with TV-footage of Chicago police forces brutally beating young demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and with National Guardsmen shooting at students on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio, killing four.
TV-footage in that decade also included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shooting of student leader Rüdi Dutschke in Germany and of two miners during a strike in Belgium, the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach and several Vietnamese Buddhist monks, and endless reports on bombings by American B52s in North Vietnam. The entire decade was one of unrest, large-scale dissidence and extreme violence. May 1968 was one moment in which much of this crystallized into a remarkable form of protest and rebellion, characterized by alliances between students and workers, men and women, urban and rural activists, black and white ones, intellectuals, artists, journalists, workers and lay people.
Everyone saw May 68
The 1960s ended also with another piece of historic TV-footage, seen across the world: the landing on the moon. And here is one dimension we should not overlook: the 1960s were the decade of television, of a new global mass media culture. And this, too, had an impact. TV-sets became a normal item in the homes of middle class and working class people alike all over the West, and with literacy levels rising, newspapers and magazines thrived. Jointly, the expansion of the new mass media created a globalized scale of image and content distribution which conclusively transformed the culture of the 20th century. Nothing remained outside the scope of the media now, even if it came from the exotic peripheries or from otherwise obscure corners of the world.
In the 1960s, not just the Beatles became global icons. Mao, Castro, Che, Nehru, Nasser, the Shah and the Negus, Nkrumah, Boumedienne and Kenyatta also rose to stardom. So did the North Vietnamese warriors Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong and General Giap, and so did the Czech anti-Soviet activists Jan Palach and Alexander Dubchek; so too did Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Among the most iconic images of the decade is that of the black US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in antiracist protest during the medals ceremony at the Mexico 68 Olympic Games. In the small Belgian village where I spent my childhood, my primary school teacher pinned the photo, cut from the local newspaper, on the wall of our classroom; it was there for months.
Vietnam and the Cold War imperialism it bespoke became a worldwide focus of protest and mass mobilization not just because the Cold War affected (and infected) large parts of the world. It became iconic because these parts of the world were now effectively connected by streams of media information and imageries. Vietnam was the first truly global mediatized war, which is why it became the object of effectively globalized protest and resistance and why such protest assumed similar shapes in very different places. Vietnam was the moment when the Cold War became a globalized object of reflection, analysis and popular imagination, affecting global as well as local issues. “Vietnam is in our factories” was a popular slogan among the French workers during the enormous strike that accompanied the student protests in May 68.
May 68, consequently, was a global mediatized event as well – perhaps the very first globally shown instance of popular mass protest in the West, and like Vietnam, a moment in which previously separate dots were connected. The protests were not parochial; people openly, loudly and relentlessly proclaimed international solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, in the factories as well as in the ex-colonies and in the jungles of Vietnam, with women, immigrants and the victims of institutional racism in South Africa and the US. Intellectually, the events accelerated the recognition of voices “from below” or “from the margins” (advocated by Sartre, but also by historians such as E.P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Carlo Ginzburg and sociologists such as Howard Becker). It also provoked a new critical study of power – with Foucault as its main architect – and it kickstarted the study of globalization processes (think of Immanuel Wallerstein) and worldwide structural inequalities (André Gunder Frank, for instance). It also laid the foundations for the international peace movement, the movement against nuclear weapons and movements for sustainable development and environmental awareness. In many ways, the world as we presently know it was shaped in the late 1960s. The effect of May 68 was massive, and it was above anything else, political.
Everything happened in May 68
The world as we presently know it is of course largely neoliberal and conservative. And this, too, can be partly attributed to May 68. I already mentioned the conservative backlash against the events of 1968 – the reduction of the events to a moral and cultural crisis, a loss of traditional values, a counterculture and so forth. But there is a more complex part to that story, which I can only briefly sketch here.
The focus on Vietnam in May 68, and the intellectual work that surrounded and followed it, marked the end of classical imperialism as a viable doctrine. It was effectively destroyed by the challenge of tiers-mondist (“Third-World-ist”) worldwide solidarity, framed initially by Mao Zedong’s theory of Third World non-alignment. But this challenge, in turn, caused old-style imperialism to be transformed into an amalgamation of neoliberalism and ethnocentrism. Both took another decade to enter into full force, and the end of the Cold War turned them into the cornerstones of a new world order.
Through neoliberalism, the neocolonial ties between the First and the Third Worlds could be rationalized, depoliticized and made “objective” in the form of purely economic, financial and monetary transactional relationships. At the same time, domestic social unrest could be equally turned anodyne, by reducing the political reading of class antagonisms to a depoliticized reading of balance sheets, efficiency and human resources management. The politics of inequality was converted into the economics of equal opportunities and free enterprise.
The political dimension of imperialism morphed into a heavily moralized ethnocentrism, in which “objective” racial, class and civilizational superiority was replaced by individualized, case-based judgments of moral compatibility. People in, say, Congo or Sierra Leone should no longer be seen as victims of extremely disadvantageous rates of exchange in the world markets and of exploitation by multinational corporations extracting surplus value without fair return. They were victims of corrupt leaders and warlords, and the latter – the Third World leaders – should “take responsibility” for their people’s well being. Worldwide solidarity was replaced by “we cannot solve all their problems”. And as for immigrants from such countries, they could always be accused of refusing to contribute to their country’s progress, and of not fitting in the codes of norms and values of their host societies. As Balibar and Wallerstein outlined in the early 1990s, class struggle and race theory had been replaced by softer, but equally effective discourses of cultural and moral compatibility. Similar discourses of moral and cultural compatibility can be (and are) deployed with respect to “domestic” issues of deviance and marginalization. “Hard” political analysis has been replaced by a rhetoric of blame, responsibility and character.
Raymond Aron was quite wrong in his appraisal of May 68. Those who now try to reduce its scope and impact to rock and roll, LSD, and flowers in one’s hair are quite wrong as well, as are those who rant against the “May 68 generation” as the architects of a society of hedonistic individualists devoid of any respect for values, traditions and norms. May 68 was above all else a political event in which a lot was reimagined and redefined. The worldwide protests laid bare some of the major fissures and contradictions of the post-war world; they shaped modes of globalized social, political and intellectual action that marked the end of that part of the 20th century and the beginning of the part that spilled over into the 21st century. May 68 was big, very big.