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Review of  Discourse Constructions of Youth Identities

Reviewer: Janet M. Fuller
Book Title: Discourse Constructions of Youth Identities
Book Author: Jannis K. Androutsopoulos Alexandra Georgakopoulou
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 15.838

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Date: Wed, 10 Mar 2004 11:17:29 -0600
From: Janet Fuller <>
Subject: Discourse Construction of Youth Identities

EDITORS: Androutsopoulos, Jannis K. and Alexandra Georgakopoulou
TITLE: Discourse Construction of Youth Identities
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2003

Janet M. Fuller, Department of Linguistics, Southern Illinois University
at Carbondale.

The purpose of this volume is to apply major themes in research on the
construction of identity through language to youth culture. To this end,
it contains an introduction and twelve chapters on youth interactions in
a variety of European settings. The introduction frames the studies
included in the volume by discussing major themes in research on the
construction of identity in general and youth identity and language in
particular. The assumption for all of the chapters is that identity is
not a fixed characteristic, but something which is locally created in
interactions. Beyond this common thread, the research methods are many
and varied.

The editors address the use of the term 'youth', and state that in
these studies, it is operationalized not only through a comparison to
adult and child categories, but also by membership in certain group
activities. That is, the status of an individual as a 'youth' is
ethnographically derived, and/or based on their participation in situated
communities emerging from shared interests or activities, i.e.,
'communities of practice.'. These sub-cultures are viewed as important
practices in their own right, and not as a substitute, or practice, for
adult culture.

The chapters in this volume link these youth (sub)cultures to linguistic
choices or devices which they use to express their identities. While
youth culture often departs from the mainstream, it is also shaped by
macro-culture, and thus the youths use linguistic resources to position
themselves in relation to both societal norms and interactional
negotiations of self.

The book is comprised of three sections, each of which contains four
chapters. The studies in Part I all deal with children in face-to-face
interactions within a community of practice which provides them the
linguistic resources with which they create and display their
identities. The first, Werner Kallmeyer and Inken Keim's study titled
'Linguistic variation and the construction of social identity in a
German-Turkish setting: A case study of an immigrant youth group in
Mannheim, Germany', illustrates how teen-age girls in a youth center use
language choice to index various aspects of their identities. The codes
discussed are Turkish, German, Turkish-German codeswitching, and
'district talk', a simplified colloquial variety of German associated
with tough youth culture.

Vally Lytra's contribution, 'Nicknames and teasing: a case study of a
linguistically and culturally mixed peer-group', examines the linguistic
behavior of five Greek-Turkish bilingual 4th graders (two girls and three
boys) who are part of a larger peer group comprised largely of
monolingual Greek speakers. Teasing was used to indicate both alignment
and conflict with the recipient of the teasing. The most interesting
aspect of this work is how teasing -- which clearly functions to
negotiate group identity -- also functions to renegotiate gender roles.
In particular, the girls' behavior in teasing sequences positioned them
in a non-traditional, assertive female role, in which they proved
themselves to be as capable as boys in teasing interactions.

The third chapter, 'Looking back when looking ahead: On adolescents'
identity management in narrative practices', by Alexandra
Georgakopoulou, looks at spontaneously occurring personal experience
stories among four Greek 17-year-old women who are close friends. The
author links the roles in narration to social identities. In the main
sequence analyzed, one speaker is the 'teller', focused on relating
past events, and the other the 'assessor', who is focused on potential
future events. These roles in the narrative form part of their respective
identities as a young woman in a more traditional, passive female role
and a street-wise, assertive woman.

Anna-Brita Stenstrom's comparison of male and female same-sex
conversation, 'It's not that I really care about him personally you
know: The construction of gender identity in London teenage talk' is the
final chapter of Part I. This is an analysis of four conversations from
the Bergen Corpus of London Teenage Language. Gender differences were
found solely in the content of talk: girls talked about feelings and
people (especially boys), and boys talked about events and activities.
Previous findings on the tendency for male speakers to use more taboo
words, and female speakers to be more interactionally cooperative, were
not corroborated.

Part II addresses the tension between mainstream norms/rules and the
negotiation of personal identities. All of these articles show how
youths use language to carve out identities for themselves in ways that
transcend institutional or standard language restrictions.

Kuniyoshi Kataoka's chapter titled 'Emotion and youth identities in
personal letter writing: An analysis of pictorial signs and
unconventional punctuation' looks at letters of Japanese women aged
16-25 and claims that a diverse set of letter shapes and invented signs
are used by these women. The members of a community of practice using
these signs recognize them as affective markers which mark the discourse
as important for its own sake -- i.e., the main purpose of the letter
writing is not to convey important information, but to establish and
maintain relationships.

'Spelling Rebellion', Mark Sebba's contribution to the volume, looks
at English-language graffiti and the writing of a non-standardized
language, Jamaican Creole, used in a variety of media in urban Britain
(published poems, dub poetry, dialogue in prose, personal letters, and
graffiti). He shows how writers use non-conventionalized spellings to
create a symbolic distance from the mainstream. For adolescents, this is
one way of rebelling against adult norms, and expressing an 'inner
life' which is set apart from traditional forms of communication.

Anita Wilson's chapter, 'Nike trainers, my one true love -- without you
I am nothing: Youth, identity and the language of trainers for young men
in prison', focuses on how incarcerated young men use discourse to
create a 'third space', i.e., a world which sits between prison and
outside societies. In particular, messages associated with Nike trainers
are used by these young men to construct personal identities to hold on
to within the confines of prison -- specifically, it indexes their lives
as youths, not prisoners.

The final chapter of Part II is by Jan Berns and Peter Schlobinski:
'Construction of identity in German hip-hop culture'. This selection
deals with the expression of group membership for hip-hop performers.
Primarily, these performers stress 'being real', which means being
part of the underground, as opposed to the commercial, hip-hop movement;
being relevant for their (German) audience; and showing knowledge of
former hip-hop artists. If performers -- and fans -- succeed in
conveying their allegiance to 'being real', then and only then do they
belong to the culture. The demands of membership to this youth culture
index its importance to its members as part of their socio-political

Part III of the volume includes four chapters which look at the
multiplicity of meanings of code choices. Peter Auer and Inci Dirim's
contribution, 'Socio-cultural orientation, urban youth styles and the
spontaneous acquisition of Turkish by non-Turkish adolescents in
Germany' describes how youths in Hamburg use Turkish to index youth
culture, ethnic or cultural affiliation with Turks, or 'street'
culture. The particularly interesting finding in this study is that some
speakers embrace one of these aspects of identity, but reject the
others. Thus, the same code can be used to mark very different
identities, which overlap only in that they are alternatives to
mainstream culture.

Catrin Norrby and Karolina Wirdenas' chapter, 'Swedish youth discourse:
On performing relevant selves in interaction' examines the use of
pragmatic devices in mixed-sex informal interviews. They find that the
use of certain pragmatic devices can be linked to particular discourse
roles (particularly, Mitigator and Supporter) taken on by the
participants, while those who put themselves in the roles of Expert and
Contradictor use few of these pragmatic devices. In addition, certain
pragmatic devices, as markers of adolescent speech, are used to establish
group solidarity when a topic dealing with youth culture is discussed.
Thus, both individual and group identities are constructed through the
use of the same pragmatic devices.

In Tore Kristiansen's, 'The youth and the gatekeepers: Reproduction and
change in language norm and variation', the attitudes and use of three
varieties of Danish are examined. The three varieties are a 'high'
Copenhagen variety, a 'low' Copenhagen variety, and a local variety.
It is shown that while youths assign covert prestige to their local
variety, they accept that this way of speaking does not have high social
status. They are much more open to use of the 'low' version of the
Copenhagan dialect. However, this reflects their participation in the
national re-evaluation of this variety across Danish society, and thus
the overall picture is one of loyalty to, and not challenge of, standard
language ideology.

The final chapter, 'Mediated experience and youth identities in a
post-traditional order', by Lilie Chouliaraki, is a critical discourse
analysis of two group interviews with Greek youths. She examines how
they position themselves in relation to a political event based on media
representations of that event. She finds that they construct identities
for themselves which include both traditional and post-traditional
stances, which both accept and reject nationalist media discourses.

Overall, the volume is thematically coherent while covering a broad range
of perspectives and methodologies. As is to be expected, along with this
diversity in approaches comes variation in the strength of the
contributions. While several of the articles are based on comprehensive
ethnographic fieldwork which indicates a clear understanding of the
micro- and macro-issues the speakers face when making choices about how
to use their linguistic resources (e.g., Kallmeyre and Keim, Wilson),
some chapters are much less ambitious in its both their analyses and
claims (e.g., Stenstrom, Kataoka). This is not to say that ethnographic
studies are, overall, to be more highly valued; some of the best chapters
of the volume are those which assess public discourse (Berns and
Schlobinski), present results of task-based studies (Kristiansen, Norrby
and Wirdenas), and use both observation and interviews to assess acts of
identity (Auer and Dirim, Georgakopoulou). The variety of methods
employed by the researchers is a strength of the volume, although overall
I would prefer more explicit discussion of the research methodologies
used, and their goals and limitations.

A minor criticism of the volume is that the organization of the articles
into three neat sections of four is somewhat artificial, and the internal
coherence of the sections is not complete. The first section ('Peer
Group Identities') deals with discourse between intimates in peer
groups, but since this could be said for several of the articles in the
other two sections, it is not a feature which clearly unites these
chapters. Nonetheless, these four chapters do complement each other in
their approaches and start the book off well.

Part II ('Recasting Literacy Practices') is also somewhat inaptly
named, as only the first two articles truly deal with an analysis of
literary practices. While Wilson's analysis does involve written
communication, its real focus transcends this aspect of the analysis, and
Berns and Schlobinski's article has little if anything to do with
literacy. In addition, Kataoka's article, which analyzes letters and
thus clearly fits the title of the section, unfortunately only minimally
addresses the issue of youth identity, simply linking the symbols used to
youth culture because they are part of youth practices.

Finally, the last four articles are introduced with the title,
'Representation and Positionings', a title which seems to be missing a
valuable perspective. In my opinion, the fascinating thread which links
these four studies is that they all deal with the different meanings of
particular code choices or linguistic devices. Viewed from this
perspective, these last four chapters complement each other admirably
well, and leave the reader well satisfied.

These organizational issues are relatively minor, however, and overall
the volume reads well, has a clear focus, and treats youth identities
seriously and as an important part of the cultures in which they develop.
It should be required reading for scholars with interests in language and
identity and those who focus on youth culture.
Janet M. Fuller is an Associate Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology
at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Her research interests
include bilingualism and language contact, discourse analysis, and
language and gender. She is currently involved in a project examining the
language choices and identity negotiation of Mexican-American youths.