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AUTHOR: Sigrid Norris TITLE: Identity in (Inter)action SUBTITLE: Introducing Multimodal (Inter)action Analysis SERIES: Trends in Applied Linguistics 4 YEAR: 2011 PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
Maria Rieder, Centre for Language and Communication Studies, Trinity College Dublin
This work introduces Multimodal Identity Analysis (MIA), a new theoretical and methodological framework for the holistic analysis of identity production and context, which has been developed by the author on the basis of an extensive ethnographic study. As the title suggests, the framework equally considers verbal, non-verbal, visual modes, frozen actions and objects as modes of communication and sees identity as being produced in interaction with the historical body and social forces.
This review follows a horizontal approach in order to pay tribute to the wealth of newly introduced concepts within this rich and comprehensive framework of identity analysis.
The book contains a preface and 9 chapters, and spans over 298 pages.
The Preface explains the purpose of the book and introduces the reader to the participants of the case study, which will play a big part in the illumination and illustration of the different concepts of MIA in the subsequent chapters. Also, the types of data and the range of communicative modes that are incorporated in the analysis are presented here in the preface.
Chapter 1, “Multimodal (Inter)action Analysis”, introduces central terms used throughout the book, and presents an overview of the framework. The necessity for a broad multi-modal framework is demonstrated by a comparison of a mono-modal analysis of an audio-tape transcript with a multi-modal analysis of a video recording of the same interaction. This juxtaposition plausibly reveals the likelihood of misinterpretations and other shortcomings of a mono-modal (verbal) discourse and identity analysis that disregards various modes of interaction, and therefore, the complexity of identity production.
Chapter 2, “Identity in (Inter)action: Theoretical Concepts”, starts out with a presentation of the theoretical background of identity production analysis. By first citing Goffman (1959) and Scollon (1998), the author presents an overview of various definitions and conventional uses of identity as well as ways in which identity production has been analyzed historically. Thereafter, the author explains her own view of identity as being composed of different identity elements, as something that is dynamic, and as something that is (co)produced in a certain social-time-place together with societal networks, cultural tools and the environment.
Before going into detail, the author introduces all analytical terms and units of analysis: The different kinds of actions, such as lower-level actions (i.e. smallest unit of meaning of a particular communicative mode, e.g., a hand stroke is a unit of the mode of gesture), higher-level actions (i.e. multiple chained lower-level actions that construct, e.g., a dinner, a class, a conversation, etc.) and frozen actions (e.g. objects or the environment, which have previous social and meaningful action imprinted on them); mediational means and cultural tools; the site of engagement as the psychological, spatial and temporal window opening on an action; the heuristic notion of foreground-background continuum of awareness/attention; the intentionality of identity production hinting at discrepancies between self-perceived and from the outside observed identity; and the tension between agency and societal prescription in the production of identity elements.
The following chapters each elaborate on one of these concepts or aspects of identity production and gradually build a complex framework of analysis.
In Chapter 3, “Collecting and Transcribing Ethnographic Data: A Case Study of Two Women Living in Germany”, the author first gives background information on the case study and the participants and presents the different types of data that were collected for the study. In order to allow for triangulation checks, a variety of data, ranging from audio- and video-recordings of naturally occurring action and informal interviews, field notes, still photos, as well as pieces of creative writing, were collected during an extended period in which the researcher lived with the participants. Ethnographic research of this type is held to be necessary in order to allow for an all-encompassing analysis of identity production. The author also describes a typical day of a researcher in the field and the difficulties an ethnographer is met with in juggling several different roles.
For the purpose of multimodal analysis, Norris has designed and presents here a flexible transcription system, which takes a higher-level action, made up of several lower-level actions, as the unit of analysis and includes images, different fonts and various signs to illustrate the hierarchies, configurations and relationships of different modes in identity construction.
Chapter 4, “Modal Density, Actions, and Identity”, starts out with the question of how social actors know which identity element to attend to when several elements are produced at the same time. Examples from the case study illustrate the term “modal density”, which depicts the concentration of different modes in a higher-level action. The density of an action can be characterized by intensity and/or complexity of multiple modes, which determines whether actions and elements are produced and observed in the foreground, mid-ground or background of attention/awareness. Modal density is a relational notion and diminishes proportionately to the amount of attention and phenomenological perception.
In a second block, the author gives practical tips on how to jot down non-verbal behavior of different modes in field notes with the help of signs, arrows, abbreviations, etc. Following the analyses of informal interviews on self-perceived identity element production, by which the use of these practical tips is demonstrated, the author explains the term “site of engagement” as the social, historical, psychological, temporal and spatial window opening on an action, which, besides the employment of different modes of communication, needs to be considered in the analysis of a particular action and identity element.
While the previous chapters concentrate on the analysis of identity elements separately, Chapter 5, “Horizontal Identity Production; and Mastery and Appropriation of Identity Elements”, looks at the horizontal piece (i.e. simultaneous identity production) and shows how different elements and different higher-level actions are juggled at the same time by the employment of different modes of communication. The foreground-background continuum posits that actions carried out with full awareness are located in the foreground, whereas lessening awareness (shown by less modal density) places actions in the mid- and background. The foreground-background continuum shows that identity elements can be produced sequentially (verbally) and non-sequentially or simultaneously (other modes, such as layout, posture, gestures, gaze, cultural tools, etc.). Meaning is made by each mode separately, which produces several identity elements simultaneously.
Examples from the case study illustrate how focused-on higher-level actions, and thereby produced identity elements, can be either parallel or mismatched in terms of awareness for two interlocutors. The latter is plausibly shown to be a common sign of high confidence and deep understanding between two communicating social actors, whereas paralleled focused attention is needed when such deep understanding needs to be built or repaired.
A second subchapter deals with the notions of mastery and appropriation. Ethnographic fieldwork and the observation of how social actors handle cultural tools illuminate to what extent they master or appropriate identity elements. When elements are fully appropriated, the social actor is often not aware of them anymore, and may even reject them, which explains why self-perception, actual action and perception from the outside can diverge considerably. The case studies reveal that elements that are emphasized are often not appropriated yet, which should make researchers aware of things that are not mentioned by social actors. In order to gain such deep understanding of the social actors being studied and to explore their mastery and appropriation of identity elements, long-term ethnographic fieldwork is indispensable.
After looking at the horizontal production of different identity elements at the same time, Chapter 6, “Vertical Identity Production”, examines the composition of single identity elements. Each element is shown to be influenced by, and produced through, three layers of discourse. The outer layer of discourse refers to societal and institutional forces generating the general layer of identity elements. The intermediary layer is created by the social actor’s immediate networks and gives way to long-term or “continuous” identity elements, highlighted by long-term, focused-on higher-level actions. Finally, the central layers of discourse are formed by the social actor’s immediate actions and therefore produce immediate identity elements. The extent to which these layers become visible and apparent depends on the social actor’s compliance with the norms of the discourse.
In a second step, the dialogism between coercion and agency is discussed for all three different layers. While the outer and intermediary layers of discourse and the consequential identity elements seem to be forced upon a social actor, a social actor does have a certain amount of agency in regard to what he or she takes on for her/himself and in regard to the free choice of network participation. In turn, while agency seems to be highest in the production of immediate identity elements, a social actor is nevertheless constrained by the environment, cultural tools, situational circumstances and culturally learned ways of doing things. The different discourses, even though they can be looked at separately, have to be seen as intertwined and overlapping, creating a complex interplay between agency and coercion.
In a concluding step, the chapter integrates both horizontal and vertical identity production in one chart, illustrating the production of different layers and elements in the foreground- background and attention continuum.
Chapter 7, “Shifting Identity, Saliency of Identity, and Identity Change”, is concerned with the ways a social actor uses to shifts the focus between different higher-level actions that he or she performs simultaneously in horizontal or vertical senses. The author introduces the notion of semantic/pragmatic means, a signaling system of pronounced lower-level actions produced before a shift in order to mark the end of a foregrounded action and the beginning of a new higher-level action. After providing the theoretical background, the signaling system is exemplified by the presentation of two categories of means (i.e. beats, defined as a gesture with only two movement phases, e.g., hand/finger beat or head toss; and deictics, e.g., gaze and talk or motion and talk), whose use is illustrated with examples from the case study.
Even though the focus of action and identity elements may shift frequently, one can observe the saliency of those elements that are valued in one’s network and that are therefore kept continuously on some level of awareness. The author emphasizes here that the saliency of an identity element can be enjoyed if it can be incorporated in the overall sense of self, while a discord among the identity layers can cause great distress. Therefore, it seems plausible that social actors strive for normative identity elements and often take on forced general and continuous layers of identity.
Identity change can come about as an agentively driven decision by the social actor, or as a forced change coerced from the outside. Mostly, a change of identity is facilitated by the development of an auxiliary element, which fills the void after an element has been given up, and helps people to cope with changes. A change of an identity element is ethnographically illustrated as encompassing a successful change of all three layers of the identity element. Social actors tend to be more aware of an identity element during a period of change, and awareness can accelerate a change. Identity elements also change in an unreflected state through habituated actions, but the change then usually does not become obvious to the social actor and the outside world.
Even though the last chapter showed how identity elements are constantly subject to change and negotiation, Chapter 8, “Stabilizing Identity”, points to a “person identity”, (i.e. a person’s overall identity). With “stabilization” the author does not mean the production of static identity, but rather a coherent production of identity in the social actor’s social/time/place and habitus (i.e. set of socially learned dispositions accumulated as a consequence of social action), therefore linking micro analysis with macro identity frames. Again, this chapter stresses the necessity of ethnographic study in order to avoid misinterpretation, as identity cannot be determined through a social actor’s actions only, but rather has to be interpreted from the background of his/her habitus and historical body. A person’s habitus can therefore be taken as a stabilizing aspect in identity production and narratives often help social actors make sense of their actions by linking present actions to past actions and imagined future actions. The continual presence of an identity element somewhere on the attention continuum and the interweaving of multiple identity elements also have a stabilizing effect.
Stabilization of person identity is seen as closely linked to a person’s network. Different person identities may emerge or overlap when a person is linked to more than one very distinct network, and in such a case, a person will be perceived differently by different social actors.
Chapter 9, “Investigating Identity in (Inter)action”, presents a summary of the framework with its newly introduced concepts and provides some guidance to students studying identity.
This work presents a comprehensive exploration of identity in all aspects. Identity elements are discussed separately as well as in sequential and synchronic combination with others. They are also examined in a minute-by-minute micro analysis as well as observed in their long-term development and within macro aspects of identity change and stability. The data is not only fully integrated in the presentation of analytical elements, but encompasses a wide range of different data types, including creative writing, in order to catch the feel of the moment. It is found to be very convenient, if not even necessary, for a study of this kind, that the author uses one ethnographic case study throughout the book to illuminate different aspects of identity production. This allows the reader to form a clear picture of the personality of the social actors in question and to engage actively in the process of discovery of the framework.
The book reminds linguists and other analysts of two very important analytical facts. Firstly, the exclusive concentration on verbal data not only disregards what is communicated through other modes of communication and objects surrounding social actors, but also is often misleading and can yield misinterpretation of the data. A second reminder refers to the high importance of the historical and cultural background (“historical body”) of social actors when researching their actions and identity production.
The biggest contribution of the book is, however, the developed framework of multimodal identity analysis, which is new in regard to the introduction of multimodal transcription methods and central concepts such as the foreground-background continuum, analysis of horizontal and vertical identity production, and many more elements, that together form one framework of analysis. Different from earlier contributions to identity analysis, this work incorporates not only verbal and conventional non-verbal modes, but also frozen actions, objects, environment and habitus into a holistic analysis of action and identity production. The framework is presented in an easily accessible and narrative manner, supported by accounts, different types of transcripts, creative work and valuable practical tips (e.g. field note taking, transcription, analysis) from the field. It gradually broadens the analysis, with the introduction of new concepts of analysis in every chapter, and concludes in a summary (Chapter 9), in which all the different aspects of identity analysis are brought together. The complexity of identity production is very evident; however, the book provides good guidance to those wishing to study identity production in a comprehensive way.
On the organizational side, the author has made a great effort to keep different aspects of analysis apart in separate chapters. This is certainly not easily manageable when writing about a topic as complex as identity analysis, in which all aspects are interwoven and interdependent. At times, the reader may detect that theoretical reasonings and interpretations are raised repetitively and do get mixed up in some chapters. For example, it seems that the matter of saliency (Chapter 7) would be better located, or at least introduced, in the chapters on vertical or horizontal identity production, rather than being placed with aspects of identity change.
Occasionally, transcript and field note interpretations considering the enactment of identity elements suggested by the author seem to be rather subjective (e.g. p.13; p. 107). This may be a result of the author’s better understanding of the social actors she studied, in contrast to a naturally more limited and fragmented presentation of a case study in an academic work.
As the author suggests, a more detailed exploration of how social actors stabilize their person identity could be a potential topic of future ethnographic research.
In conclusion, the book presents a fascinating, practical, methodologically sound and well thought out framework of identity analysis that will be valuable and appealing to a wide range of students and scholars, such as discourse analysts, scholars engaging in qualitative research and the analysis of identity production, linguists and ethnographers.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.
Scollon, Ronald. 1998. Mediated Discourse as Social Interaction: A Study of News Discourse. New York: Longman.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Maria Rieder is currently a PhD student in the Centre for Language and
Communication Studies at Trinity College Dublin, where she is carrying out
a sociolinguistic and ethnographic study of Irish Traveller language and
culture. Her research interests include contact linguistics, applied
linguistics, linguistic anthropology, discourse analysis, ethnography and
identity and cultural studies. In the past, she has worked as a student
assistant and tutor for undergraduate students of English linguistics. At
Trinity College Dublin she teaches German as a foreign language.