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Review of  Play Frames and Social Identities

Reviewer: Irene Theodoropoulou
Book Title: Play Frames and Social Identities
Book Author: Vally Lytra
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Greek, Modern
Issue Number: 19.2105

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AUTHOR: Lytra, Vally
TITLE: Play Frames and Social Identities
SUBTITLE: Contact Encounters in a Greek Primary School
SERIES: Pragmatics and Beyond New Series 163
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2007

Irene Theodoropoulou, Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies Department, King's
College London

Vally Lytra's book is an ethnographically based sociolinguistic study of
children's interactions with their peers and teachers at a multiethnic primary
school in the multicultural neighborhood of Gazi in Athens, Greece. As part of
Benjamins' Pragmatics and Beyond New Series, this monograph aims at contributing
to the establishment of pragmatics as an interdisciplinary field, within
language sciences. Using as its point of departure playful talk and play frames
among ten-year-old minority and majority children who have been schoolmates for
at least four years, this study explores the processes of meaning making and
identity work in children's talk.

The book is structured into six chapters that move from the ethnographic
background of the context of the study to the micro-analysis of fine grained
moments of playful talk, against the backdrop of which social identities emerge
and are constantly negotiated among the participants.

Chapter 1 establishes the conceptual framework, in which playful talk and
identity work analysis are embedded. Lytra draws on sociolinguistics, discourse
analysis and ethnography, in order to create a flexible mechanism, which allows
her to investigate children's talk. More specifically, she treats playful talk
as 'performance' (Bauman 1986, 2000), an umbrella term, which encompasses
various verbal activities, such as teasing, joking, verbal play, music making
and chanting. This term is combined with Goffman's term of 'frames' (1974),
Gumperz's concept of 'contextualization cues' (1982) and Goffman's notions of
'participation framework' and 'footing' (1981), in order to construct a model,
which can capture the nuanced meanings of identities, as the latter develop in
the context of playful talk. The ethnographic dimension in the conceptual
framework used by the author in this book lies in her treatment of identity as
process and of culture as a system of practices, an idea which echoes Le Vine's
treatment of ethnography as ''a process of inquiry'' (1988). At the end of this
first chapter, the reader is provided with an ethnographic portrait of the
protagonists of the study, the pupils of the multicultural school.

Chapter 2 essentially comprises the ethnographic contextualization of the study.
A thorough account of the gentrified neighborhood of Gazi is provided along with
a description of the anthropological geography of the area, which is inhabited
by a variety of different ethnic backgrounds, including majority Greeks,
minority Turkish people, and recently arrived immigrants from the Balkans and
the Middle East. Their relationships are situated in the macro-historical
context of Modern Greek nation building. In addition, the peculiarities of the
intercultural school, which was the main research site for this study, are
presented. Finally, the researcher sets out her fieldwork and data collection
methods as well as some comments on transcription and translation. A significant
part of this chapter is devoted to Lytra's position as an ethnographer against
the backdrop of her data and the participants of her study. Her conclusion is
that her own positioning and her treatment by the people she researched were not
fixed but under constant negotiation. This lack of fixedness is further treated
as a salient feature of playful talk, as it is constructed by children across
contexts at school, which is the focus of the next chapter.

In chapter 3, which is the first analytical chapter in this monograph, Lytra
investigates the emergence and development of playful talk across the
instructional contexts, i.e. inside the classroom during lessons, and
recreational contexts, i.e. outside the classroom during breaks or before
lessons start. Through meticulous analyses of playful talk episodes (Rampton et
al. 2002), her basic claim is that boys' and girls' linguistic and other
semiotic resources used to construct their identities are closely linked to
Greek (and Turkish) TV, film and music. Nevertheless, the media-engagement turns
out to be gender-specific, as boys prefer chanting football cries and singing
snippets from rap and rock music, while girls like mocking and stylizing the
talk and conduct of popular artists. Another significant aspect investigated in
this chapter is children's linguistic repertoires and expertise in various
languages, mainly Greek and Turkish (including Standard Turkish and the Turkish
variety spoken in the area of Gazi). Based on the analysis of snippets
containing code-switching, the main argument made is that current dominant
language ideologies in Greece, which value Greek as the majority language of the
country, are reflected into the children's language choices and attitudes
towards their peers' respective repertoires and expertise. The final focus of
this chapter is on the contextualizing (emerging and ambiguous) and
contextualized (established and indexical) cues children are using, in order to
frame their playful talk. With respect to these devices, which have been found
to crop up frequently in children's playful talk, the main point made is that
nicknames are the most popular contextualized cues, whereas stock exchanges and
quoted set phrases from Greek and Turkish media are employed by children as more
fleeting, and hence more ambiguous, contextualizing cues.

Along the same lines of children's playful talk, the focal point of chapter 4 is
teasing in recreational contexts, which has been identified as the most salient
practice in children's talk. Teasing is analyzed in terms of its sequencing
rules in contrast with ritual insulting and verbal dueling, verbal phenomena
which share the same agonistic quality with teasing. The main finding with
respect to its sequencing structure is that teasing seems to have more flexible
and less formulaic rules both in terms of participation rights and
contextualization cues compared to the rules of verbal dueling and ritual
insulting. By the same token, in the framework of its inherent competitive
quality, teasing is viewed as the interactional arena, where children navigate
different agonistic positions. On the basis of data stemming from teasing
encounters, the emphasis is put on multi-party teasing, which has been found to
be the norm in peer talk. The analysis of respective teasing episodes shows a
high degree of joint construction and participant collusion. In other words,
children tend to maneuver in different participant positions (Goffman 1981),
like for example teasers, co-teasers, targets etc., through a series of shifting
alignments which occur in quick succession. This fluidity renders teasing a
resourceful and flexible mechanism, whereby children can socialize with each
other by making full use of the various participant positions available to them.
The discussion of sequencing rules and participant positions points to the
preponderance of children's responses to teasing which include the following:
(1) the playful response, (2) keeping silent, (3) responding seriously and (4)
calling an adult third party to intervene. With the exception of serious
responses, Lytra's findings for the rest of the responses seem to go along with
the relevant literature. Through extensive analyses of playful talk episodes,
the researcher illustrates that in contrast with previous research serious
responses to teasing tend to be rather limited, a fact which is interpreted in
the light of the children's long peer socialization at school, which in return
has resulted in their strong peer group ties and in their creation of teasing

From the recreational context of chapter 4, in chapter 5 the focus is shifted to
institutional context, namely to the forms of talk that take place inside the
classroom either between teachers and pupils or informal talk among peers. In
particular, the framing of playful talk during whole-class teacher fronted
instruction and small group instruction is of interest here. Playful talk is
explored as a means exploited by both children and teachers to affirm or
challenge power relations as well as to negotiate multiple and usually
conflicting roles and identities across instructional contexts. Drawing upon
Goffman's (1971) dramaturgical metaphors of ''backstage'' and ''frontstage'', two
types of informal talk are investigated: the backstage (i.e. talk among peers in
the margins of the classroom) and the frontstage talk (i.e. the talk taking
place in the very center of the classroom). The basic finding in this chapter is
that notwithstanding its tolerance on behalf of the teachers, children's
frontstage playful talk, which is constructed in parallel with instructional
frames, rarely criss-crosses the latter due to children's propensity to revert
back to ''doing work'', whenever they see their teachers glaring at them. In a
similar vein, backstage playful talk has been also shown to be embedded in
instructional frames, but in contrast with frontstage talk, where teachers also
participate in children's playful talk, in backstage talk children are more
willing to slot in playful talk, maybe because of the fact that they do not feel
the pressure and power of their teachers. Regardless of whether it is backstage
or frontstage, playful talk is argued to make available opportunities for the
children to experiment themselves or try out new social identities, and thus to
allow them to become creators of their roles and positions during instruction in
the classroom.

It is exactly this agentive process of constructing social relations across
school contexts that forms the basic focus of chapter 6. This chapter probes
further into the interplay among playful talk, play frames and social
identities, which are attuned to local recreational and institutional contexts.
The analytical gaze is shifted to cross-sex teasing episodes, in which the
negotiation of gendered identities and their peer group membership are
considered along with the children's exhibiting of their knowledge of and tuning
into the media Greek popular culture. This form of engagement affords children
indispensable social capital and organizes peer group inclusion and exclusion:
majority Greek children question their minority peers' access to popular media
knowledge and expertise, and as a result the former appear to be contesting the
latter's claims to a bicultural (Greek-Turkish) identity. Regarding the
construction of a peer group identity on the basis of language use, i.e. Greek
or Turkish, Lytra's analysis shows that while the majority children of the study
experiment themselves through the appropriation of Turkish cues for play, e.g.
in cases of 'crossing' (Rampton 1995), the minority ones behave ambivalently
when it comes to the use of Turkish. Such ambivalence is reflected on the
children's silence or serious responses to the use of Turkish cues by their
Greek peers or their refusal to explain the Turkish word meaning to the Greeks.
Therefore, it becomes obvious that processes of conversion to and diversion from
the mixed peer group identity are at play. The final focus of chapter 6 is on
the ways children and teachers exploit playful talk as a discursive resource to
negotiate alternative identities and authoritative knowledge in the very center
of classroom discourse. As it turns out, both parties, namely pupils and
teachers, treat playful talk as a means of overriding their institutional roles
and preferred forms of curriculum focused knowledge: the pupils construct the
''expert'' identity with respect to Greek popular culture and the knowledge of
Turkish language and by expansion culture, and in this way they tend to
undermine the traditional role of the teacher as 'transmitter' and 'explainer'
of curriculum content. By the same token, teachers shift into playful talk in
order to create a non-institutional identity, which will allow them to improve
their relationship with the children, in the sense that play frame shifts
contribute towards an ambient atmosphere inside the classroom, where chances are
that there is intimacy and not such a sharp hierarchy between the teacher and

The concluding chapter of the book pulls the main findings of the study
together, and it links them up with the new educational reality of urban Greek
schools and classrooms. It is highlighted that playful talk could be seen as an
essential tool for both teaching and learning. In addition, the awareness of the
peculiarities of different languages and cultures in the framework of a
multicultural school, such as the one researched upon, can contribute towards
the dissolution of stereotypes and would be able to weaken the marginalization
of minority and immigrant languages and cultures within a given society.

Finally, the postscript offers a snapshot of the protagonists', i.e. the
children's, rich and complex personal, social and educational itineraries and
life choices six years after the initial fieldwork.

The book reads well and it is clearly structured - with the exception of chapter
6, which could follow chapter 3 instead of being the last one, given that it
deals with playful talk and social identities across contexts, as is also the
case in chapter 3. Therefore, it could be treated as an expansion of chapter 3
and placed accordingly as chapter 4.

One of the main assets of the study is the literature list, which contains many
useful recent references with respect to Greek minority language and culture
issues. Along the same lines are also the references with respect to ethnography
as a method in sociolinguistically-oriented research.

On the other hand, there are a series of typographical errors in both English
and Greek and the index of the book does not contain some of the key notions
used in the analysis and the discussion, like for example 'ideology' or 'gender'.

Overall, Lytra's painstaking analysis of play frames and social identities
provides a welcome contribution to the nascent literature on Greek multilingual,
multicultural school settings, whose pupil population composition has changed
dramatically over the last decade. In addition, this work could be seen as a
good example of how ethnography could inform micro-analyses of interactional
data and, hence, could be treated as an example of how to bridge the micro with
the macro level of identity construction and negotiation in interaction among
peers. As such, it is highly recommended to scholars working in
sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, linguistic anthropology as well as to
people, both scholars and policy makers, working in multicultural education.

Bauman, Richard (1986) _Story, Performance and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral
Narrative_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bauman, Richard (2000) Language, identity, performance. In _Pragmatics_ 10(1): 1-5.

Goffman, Erving (1971) _The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life_.
Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Goffman, Erving (1974) _Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of
Experience_. Boston: Northeastern University.

Goffman, Erving (1981) _Forms of Talk_. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania

Gumperz, John J., ed. (1982) _Language and Social Identity_. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Le Vine, Robert A. (1988) Properties of culture: An ethnographic view. In
Shweder & Le Vine, eds., _Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self and Emotion_.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 67-87.

Rampton, Ben (1995) _Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents_.
London: Longman.

Rampton, Ben, Roxy Harris & Caroline Dover (2002) Interaction, media culture,
and adolescents at school. End-of-project report. In _Working Papers in Urban
Language & Literacies_ 20.

Irene Theodoropoulou is a PhD student at the Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies
Department, King's College London, working on the construction of social class
identity through speech style by people, who live in suburban Athens, Greece.
Drawing on ethnography, interactional and variationist sociolinguistics, she
investigates how people from the stereotypically middle and upper class northern
suburbs and people from the conventionally working class western suburbs
construct themselves and each other.