When genres collide

11 07 2008

ELC’s fifth and final training day showed how ‘unresearchable’, ‘flawed’ or otherwise ‘incomplete’ data speak to social tragedies such as asylum applications, murder cases and disabled learning. Drawing on Charles Briggs’ (1997) mind-blowing paper, Jan Blommaert and Adam Lefstein illustrated how institutional talk is, in the words of Storyseeds, socially funneled to fit genre requirements. Indeed, permeating chains of entextualizations and historical discursive trajectories is the (anthropological) concept of genre. For example, the institutional translation of an asylum seeker’s written representation of “what he knows about his country” shapes and – crucially – constrains the applicant’s credibility by channeling his autobiographic narrative into a legal discourse.

Theoretical omnivore Jan Blommaert then plunged into a whirlwind overview of theories of power, which led to an illuminating discussion on the ethnographic research experience, ranging from methodology over ethics, to critical distance and reflexivity. Projecting all this onto my own research made me realize that I lack critical distance vis-à-vis my own data and ‘informants’, some of whom I now consider friends. Adam Lefstein commented that ethnography, like any other social scientific research method, involves trade-offs which enable access but also taint your critical gaze.

In hindsight, this week has been intellectually stimulating and professionally rewarding, in large part due to the efforts put in by the lead tutors: Carey Jewitt, Celia Roberts, Ben Rampton, Jeff Bezemer, Adam Lefstein and Jan Blommaert. Also, as I make the transition from writing blog posts to the prospect of writing up my PhD, this ELC summerschool could not have come at a better time. If all you have is a hammer, then every problem becomes a nail said Jayson Seaman at the start of the training course. I now feel I have an all-purpose powertool. Move over, MacGyver.

Picture by giveawayboy

  • Briggs, C. L. (1997). Notes on a “confession”: on the construction of gender, sexuality, and violence in an infanticide case. Pragmatics 7 (4): 519-46.

Counting starfish arms

10 07 2008

Day 4 of ELC training saw the move from micro-analytical approaches to naturally occurring interaction to – deep breaths – multimodal and social semiotic approaches to texts. In an attempt to rethink what interaction is/does – and hence to move away from the written or spoken text as the nexus of analysis – multimodality studies how people orchestrate meaning through their configuration of modes. Modes (speech, gestures) are socially shaped media and material which, over time, have become meaning making resources and practices. Is that theoretical enough for you?

Semiotics by Bittercox

Picture by Bittercox

Lurking and soaking

8 07 2008

Day 2 of ELC training rocked. A quick morning swim at beautiful Rosenblatt pool (more on that later) got me in just the right mindset for three eminently fascinating lectures which drove the analytical purchase of the concept of ‘genre’ home:

  • Jan Blommaert surveyed applied linguistic & anthropological notions of genre and made the very convincing argument that genre is “about big things in society”. For instance, learning to write academic essays can be seen as the transmission of a culture of learning;
  • Ben Rampton talked about activity types, intertextual gaps and genre politics and showed how theoretical orthodoxies of classroom talk can be used as “directions along which to look rather than prescriptions telling what to see”. He then tied his empirical observations on classroom talk to cultural change;
  • Celia Roberts brilliantly argued how Gumperz’ notions of conversational inference and contextualization cues in interactional sociolinguistics can begin to answer the ‘so what’ question in ethnography by illustrating how linguistic features in the minutest of transcribed detail link to cultural knowledge and processes of inequality, ethnicity and discrimination.

Another run at Oxford University Parks, this time with fellow participant Jayson Seaman, led to more debates over a spicy Indian supper dinner. Let’s see what Goffman has to say tomorrow.

contextualisation by Project 404

Picture by Project 404.

Small and slow does it

7 07 2008

Aloxe is now live from Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall, Benazir Bhutto’s alma mater. It is so pretty here that only the poshest of registers suffice. I was surprised to learn that most of the participants have backgrounds in social science (health, education) rather than linguistics. Anyway, it’s a wonderfully diverse, international (from Cameroon to New Zealand) and mature audience, with widely varying research interests. This makes for a very stimulating intellectual environment.

The first day of the training course kicked off with a very engaging lecture on linguistic ethnography by intellectual heavyweight Ben Rampton. The afternoon session, led by Ben Rampton, Jan “Discourse” Blommaert, Celia Roberts, Adam Lefstein and Jeff Bezemer kept the momentum going with a three-pronged analytical preview of what’s to come. A job interview data session glanced over the ins and outs of

  • micro-analysis (go “small and slow”)
  • multimodal analysis (think gaze, gesture, body position)
  • transcontextual analysis (hello, translocal social relations)

Following small-group discussions, I checked out my new surroundings with a hard run in the lovely Oxford University Parks. Oh, the grandeur.

Oxford University Parks by Jeremy Johns

Picture by Jeremy Johns