Quoting God and the Prophet

I’ve recently been hacking at the final chapter of my PhD, which will (hopefully) be an analysis of the use of religious language on what I like to call “Islamic advice programmes” on Jordanian radio. These programmes involve a host, typically a scholar well-educated in the principles of religion and Islamic law, taking calls from listeners on a variety of questions – whether a certain course of action is religiously appropriate, for example, or how to interpret some obscure part in an Islamic religious text. (With the recent rise of the so-called Islamic State, for example, a few listeners called in as to whether their appearance may have been “predicted” by the Prophet Muhammad in one of his sayings (hadith). Judgments on this vary.)

What’s particularly striking to me is how the host-scholars talk about and quote the religious texts in which they’re supposed to be experts. Whenever the Qur’an or a hadith of the Prophet is quoted, it impeccably resembles the written form in terms of grammar and pronunciation – a standard which is rarely kept up in “fresh talk” on Arabic-language radio, even for hosts that do tend more towards the “formal” (or Classical/Modern Standard) pole of the Arabic linguistic spectrum (as opposed to being purely colloquial). Every Islamic scholar worth their salt should, of course, know such lines by heart – or at least be able to pretend well enough that they do. But quotations are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, usually pronounced in a different way than the talk which surrounds them. They are not merely said – not even read in the kind of droning, measured style typical of modern formal Arabic reading (see e.g. here). Rather, they are – more often than not – recited, in a way that sets them clearly apart from ordinary speech. Vowels are elongated, pitch is heightened, and there are relatively long pauses after each line (often lasting half a second or more).

So I rummaged a bit through literature in linguistics to see whether anything much has been written on this issue – that is, the distinct prosody of Standard or Classical Arabic phrases when recited or inserted into mostly colloquial talk. I turned up some quite interesting bits of research, including experiments claiming that native speakers of Arabic are able to distinguish between ‘Western’ (i.e. North African) and ‘Eastern’ (i.e. everything east of Egypt) dialects on the basis of accent and intonation alone, and explorations of patterns of poetic recitation on the Arabian peninsula shared beyond linguistic boundaries. There seems to be quite some work on prosody in Arabic going on, sometimes in quite interesting directions, such as the extent to which phenomena like contrastive emphasis (as in “wrote this article, not him”) might affect (or not) the way Arabic words are pronounced.

There are two issues, though, with this kind of research generally speaking. First, most look at ‘dialectal’ Arabic only. This makes sense for linguistics research that looks to examine ‘natural’ languages – that is, replicating conditions of normal communicative interaction, where formal/Classical Arabic is virtually never used wholesale – but doesn’t provide much to go on for the kind of context on which I’m currently working, where Classical and colloquial language is often used interchangeably. And second, they all tend to see prosody as a feature of linguistic production. That is, they approach dialects as ‘having’ (or maybe ‘exhibiting’) a certain kind of prosodic pattern under certain conditions. Again, this makes sense if you’re trying to describe language as a communicative system. But it tells us very little about how prosody may be manipulated, strategically, for specific ends – such as, for example, setting religious quotations apart from ‘normal’ talk.

It’s not a difficult thing to notice. In the recording below, for example, between 1:46 and 1:54, the Islamic advice host Ibrahim al-Jarmi (on his Fatawa programme, broadcast by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hayat FM) gives a religious quotation which involves a marked change in pace of speech (mostly, longer vowels) and intonation (heightened pitch) towards the end:

Researching the details of this phenomenon, though, may prove to be slightly more difficult. For one, the classical schemes of research in linguistics don’t do a very good job of capturing these kind of contrasts. Even sociolinguists, when talking about Arabic, tend to focus to a large extent on distinctions between “codes” – formal / Standard / Classical versus colloquial Arabic, for example, or different ‘dialects’ defined as distinct linguistic systems. But for al-Jarmi in the recording above, the “code” remains more or less the same throughout – i.e., ‘formal’ or ‘Classical’ (even as the standards are more strictly applied to actual quotations than to talk that accompanies them). The distinctions, rather, hinge on sociocultural factors in a much broader sense – including the way in which religious texts, in particular, are understood as ‘quotable’ or ‘recitable’ in ways that ‘normal’ speech may not be. (This is not just an Islamic religious issue either; it is also true to an extent of poetry, which in mediated communication in modern Arabic usage is often involved in many of the same prosodic strategies; see e.g. the recitation at the beginning of the programme here, from about 0:38.)

Classical linguistic categories have their place, of course, and can be a powerful tool when trying to analyse the intricacies of human communication. But occasionally, the lens does need to be broadened a bit; otherwise, certain potentially interesting and important phenomena – like the way radio personalities treat Islamic texts – might recede from view.

Quoting God and the Prophet

Swearwords and Racism in Slovenian Football

Yesterday (18 April), the ranks of those who follow (willingly or unwillingly) Slovenian domestic football league news have been ‘shaken’ by the announcement that Ljubljana’s major club, Olimpija, is firing its coach, Marko Nikolić, following a racist slur he’d directed against one of the players on his team, Blessing Eleke, after he’d celebrated a goal perhaps a bit too enthusiastically in a match on 10 April. International football organisations spoke up; Nikolić was suspended for 7 matches, i.e. until the end of the season; all culminating in his sacking, announced by Olimpija’s president at a press conference yesterday. A strong message, it would seem, that racism can’t be tolerated.

There’s absolutely nothing to excuse Nikolić’s behaviour, but what raised my eyebrows just as much were some of the responses to what has been going on in the endlessly exciting arena of Slovenian professional football. Specifically, there’s been article published this morning on the Slovenian state TV’s website, which aggregates a few local sports pundits’ opinion on the Eleke incident – together with another recent one in which Zlatko Zahovič, the sports director of Slovenia’s other major club, Maribor, insulted one of his club’s players, Agim Ibraimi (who just so happens to be a Macedonian Muslim) via text messages. Ibraimi came forward with these and had them published in a local newspaper, but apparently things were smoothed over internally. All forgiven – except that one of the pundits in said article, Andrej Stare, called Zahovič (who is of Serbian descent) for being, essentially, a cultural impostor:

“I wouldn’t take a side here, though there seem to be some hitches in communication, since people from outside the Slovenian athletic-cultural environment use combinations of words and adjectives [SIC] in a different way than our norms would require [them] to. In Serbia, “jebemtimater” [“I fuck your mother”] means “how are you, you look well,” but here among us it’s an inexcusable swearword.”

Obligatory screenshot:

stare quote

Stare is called out, and rightly so, in the article’s comments. Kicking your greetings off with “I fuck your mother” – phonetically almost identical, by the way, in both Slovene and Serbian –  wouldn’t win you many friends in any corner of the former Yugoslav world. But Stare’s statement is just one symptom of a more widespread phenomenon that I’ve written about before: the ease with which discourse in Slovenia slips towards assigning a greater leniency towards swearwords among those South Slavs of non-Slovenian descent – most frequently, Serbs and Bosnians (though others, in the fumbling fuzzy reaches of the ideology, are certainly not exempt).

There are many reasons for why this ideology persists, some of which I explore in the article linked to above. But what I find intriguing about Stare’s comment is that he does not use this ideology to ‘explain’ Nikolić’s behaviour. Nikolić had, similarly, used a swearword to insult Eleke – but in his case, the racist dimension is seemingly amplified enough to block any kind of quasi-culturalist explanations. These are as equally available for Nikolić as they are for Zahovič, given that Nikolić is himself Serbian. But not, it seems, once the publicly fronted line of racism is crossed.

Why is Zahovič different? Well, for one, he’s culturally and nationally much more ambiguous than Nikolić. He was born in Maribor, Slovenia; he has played (and very well) for the Slovenian national team; Slovene is his mother tongue. And yet, still, he is, really, a Serb. ‘Euphemistically,’ a južnjak (‘southerner’). The -ič at the end of his name fools nobody; everyone knows it’s really just a hidden -ić (the ć/č distinction is probably the most highly contentious orthographic shibboleth between Slovene and other South Slavic languages written in the Latin script). That is why, for Stare, Zahovič is so much more pernicious: an impostor, a hidden Balkan-born brute who, no matter how hard he tries to fit in, will always remain from “outside the Slovenian… environment.” Nikolić went against the rules; he has to go. Zahovič, on the other hand… well, that’s just how they talk, isn’t it? What can you do? Shrug it away cynically, and move on, and mutter to yourself, oh but of course a real Slovene would never say something like this. Of course it’s just the crypto-Serbs polluting our nice, pure, polite athletic-cultural environment. Et cetera, et cetera.

Having to deal with stuff like this is tiring, because the prejudices are so deeply rooted and so entangled with a host of other things – linguistic nationalism, migrant xenophobia, anxieties about Yugoslav history, post-socialist politics, and so on and so on – that it’s difficult to diagnose clearly what’s involved. Be that as it may, outbursts of linguistic ethnicism such as Stare’s are deeply, utterly wrong. A person speaking in the name of a state television outlet (Stare works for Slovenian state TV) should really know better.

There’s still a long, long way to go before such issues are resolved. But we shouldn’t lose sight of them. Idiocies like these should be called out; and maybe, by doing so, we can chip away at least a bit at the deep inequalities in public discourse hiding behind the Balkanist ideology of swearing-prone Serbs.

Swearwords and Racism in Slovenian Football

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

There are very few people looking at language on radio in Arabic-speaking contexts, so in attempting to find scholarly parallels I’ve necessarily had to look further afield. Linguistic anthropology, especially, provides a lot of comparative fodder, and one intriguing piece of work in this tradition I’ve come across recently is this article by Paul Garrett, on the use of the local creole language Kwéyòl (or “Antillean Creole French”) on radio in St. Lucia.

In brief, Garrett argues that the use of Kwéyòl as opposed to the official language of St. Lucia, English, provides for a more accessible, colloquial style, as well as being suggestive of a particularly St. Lucian identity. He links the on-air use of conversational Kwéyòl, further, to what he calls strategies of “reappropriation” of language: a basically traditionalist nationalist orientation in which “local” forms of culture, communication, etc. are celebrated. This is contrasted to strategies of “instrumentalisation,” in which Kwéyòl is performed – for instance, in news bulletins – in a way reminiscent of (formal) English.

The goal of instrumentalisation is national uplift via linguistic ‘development,’ in which the intelligentsia takes on the role of educators by providing a full spectrum of communicative roles for the vernacular – including formal contexts such as news broadcasts. By contrast, reappropriation – and the use of Kwéyòl in ‘conversational’ radio talk shows falls into this category – is in part a reaction to such formal uplifting of language. Rather than formalise Kwéyòl, it seeks to preserve an impression of the ‘original,’ everyday, face-to-face contexts in which it would be used, such as discussions at home or in “rumshops.”

Guadeloupe creole 2010-03-30

“Slow down, children at play.” A sign in Guadeloupean Creole, a Caribbean creole variety related to St. Lucian Kwéyòl. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The concern here is that Kwéyòl, if formalised, would become too alienated from everyday life – too like the official, colonial language (for St. Lucia, English; note that the parent language for Kwéyòl is French), and hence too associated with social contexts in which inauthenticity, mistrust, and dissimulation prevail. As Garrett explains it (p. 150; emphasis mine):

[This] reflect[s] an ideologically-based sentiment that is prevalent and widely noted in creolophone Caribbean societies and has strong affinities to reappropriation approaches: the notion that the creole language is intrinsically more honest, direct, and straightforward than the official-standard language... The creole is thought of as being qualitatively and essentially different from the official-standard language in that it does not dissemble, does not obscure the speaker’s meanings and intentions. The creole, and by extension, he or she who speaks it, simply “tells it like it is.” In contrast, anyone speaking the official-standard language – particularly a speaker who could be using the creole but has chosen not to do so – is never entirely to be trusted. His or her words instantiate and uphold the persistent hierarchies, based in no small part on sociolinguistic stratification and “gatekeeping,” that pervade creole societies. Such a speaker’s words always have the potential to carry hidden meanings, to conceal hidden motives, and ultimately to disrupt (or at least taint) local solidarities…

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Reading all this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Ferguson’s classic article on diglossia. Ferguson’s reflections on the Arabic language situation – that is, a system where a language is believed to be divided into two related yet distinct codes, ‘High’ and ‘Low,’ or ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ appropriate to particular communicative contexts – put it in parallel with a number of other comparative cases – including Haiti, where Haitian Creole is spoken (according to Ferguson) as a vernacular code alongside standard French. Haitians, or at least those who can in fact speak and write French, are thus diglossic.

In St. Lucia, the situation is probably more accurately described as bilingual, rather than diglossic, since the French basis of Kwéyòl doesn’t exactly make it possible to (ideologically) argue that Kwéyòl and the ‘High’ official code (in St. Lucia, English) are varieties of the same language. But even in Haiti, the diglossia claim has been contested – primarily because such a high proportion of the population is effectively monolingual in Creole. Whatever the case may be, the attitudes Garrett describes towards the ‘High’ code seem to be broadly shared. In order to speak in a ‘true,’ ‘genuine’ manner to one’s co-locals, one should speak the creole language; the ‘High’ idiom is always potentially tainted as a compromised code of hierarchy and collaboration. Hence why, in St. Lucian radio broadcasting, Kwéyòl is the natural choice for the kind of simulation of spontaneous everyday conversation that talk radio programmes aim for.

Creoles are, in the Caribbean, also national vernaculars; markers of a distinct national identity – Haitian, St. Lucian, Guadeloupean – that further enhance their meanings of solidarity. Contrast this with the Arabic-speaking context, where calls for using the ‘Low’ form in mediatised settings have traditionally been associated with precisely the opposite sort of ideals: collaboration, colonialist conspiracies, the undermining of shared ageless Arab values, and so on. But reading somebody like Niloofar Haeri, with her descriptions of the alienation her Egyptian informants felt towards Standard Arabic, the parallels between the Arabic-speaking and Caribbean creole-speaking contexts become quite striking. There are certain hierarchies – social, educational, regional, political, religious – that use of Standard Arabic inevitably implies, and which makes it highly inappropriate for use in the informality-simulating context of talk radio broadcasts.

“The romance of first winter rain.” Transcription of song lyrics (actual or imaginary / satirical) is one limited, though ubiquitously necessary, context of use of colloquial Arabic in writing, as the above caricature demonstrates. Image via Roya TV’s Twitter account

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The situation is of course a lot more complex than that. The comparison effectively falls apart when we begin to consider the cultural, social, and historical background in more detail. Standard Arabic is not the native language of any social group – unlike colonial languages in creole-speaking societies, which can be traced to very particular social groups, ones whose historical roles have typically been violent and repressive. There are also the religious connotations of formal Arabic as the originary language of Islam, which introduces a whole new set of values into the equation.

Finally, we must beware of – and this is a point I always like to stress – black-boxing the contrasting codes of diglossic language situations into neat frames of ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ without actually examining what these labels mean. There is variability at both poles – but especially so the ‘Colloquial,’ given the existence of various dialectal varieties and linguistic forms with different levels of prestige, and different kinds of links with social identities and norms of use. Classifying a stretch of talk, or even a word or sound, as ‘Colloquial’ doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that it’s ‘not Standard’ – whereas its actual cultural associations could run from ‘prestigious urban,’ to ‘stigmatised rural,’ to ‘prestigious Bedouin,’ to ‘stigmatised Bedouin,’ to ‘devalued refugee,’ to ‘feminine,’ to ‘masculine,’ to ‘female performing forcefulness via use of a masculine-associated token,’ to ‘female performing socio-geographic origin via use of a regionally marked token which just so happens to also have masculinity associations in this particular context’… and so on. If all we can say about a bit of talk is “this is in [Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian, whatever] Colloquial,” all such nuances are lost.

Garrett, writing on Kwéyòl, seems much more aware of such issues than most writers on Arabic media I’ve encountered. (There are exceptions: see e.g. Atiqa Hachimi’s work on Maghrebi dialect feature stigmatisation on pan-Arab reality TV programmes, or Alexander Magidow’s highly intriguing presentation on dialect mocking in a Jordanian comedy series.) He actually directly engages with local debates on what Kwéyòl – the ‘Colloquial’ pole – should be: a language transplantable into formal contexts, or an exclusively conversational code. And not taking for granted what a particular linguistic variety is also allows for us to look in much greater nuance at the social and cultural meanings that might lurk in the folds of its variation. This, in particular, is an issue that studies of language in Arabic-speaking media all too often seem to forget.

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

On “Hypermedia”

A recent issue of the journal Public Culture includes an article by the media scholar Marwan Kraidy, in which he engages – not very successfully in my view – with criticisms of the Syrian regime made by the singer Asala Nasri as an effective challenge to Bashar al-Asad’s legitimacy (and hence a crucial component of the Syrian uprising). Leaving aside the question of how much mediated challenges matter to a regime whose staying power has been closely linked to its military capacities, Kraidy’s analysis is shaky even when it comes to exploring the way media themselves function. His view of contemporary media – so-called “hypermediated space” – focuses mostly on message transmission capacities: that is, how much “information” can be transmitted, how quickly, to what nodes in a mediated network.

Asala’s challenge was supposedly more effective and more relevant simply because her words were (able to be) transmitted more densely and frequently via the Internet. While this may be true, in a very basic way, this kind of argument tells us little about both what is actually said, and what are the principles of the forms of media in which it is said. Both content and form fall by the wayside, hostages to what amounts to a rather crude technological determinism.

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First, a word on “hypermedia” as Kraidy uses the term. Writers such as David Bolter and Richard Grusin have put a cultural spin on the idea of “hyper-mediation” – or the multiplication of references to media forms; for example, using website-derived aesthetics in printed newspapers, or sharing TV news clips online, or indeed reading out Facebook comments on a radio programme – and have looked at the particular meanings and functions such moves have in mediated communication. Not so Kraidy, for whom “hypermedia space” is simply the multiplication of “points of access” to messages, made possible (or merely amplified?) by digital technologies.

Demonstrators during the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, 2005. (Image via Elie Ghobeira / Wikimedia Commons)

For Kraidy, hypermediation is good for things such as civil society engagement and socio-political change, because people are no longer limited to getting their information from a single media source. (Yes, it is that simple.) The problem with this view is that we are still talking about potentials, rather than any discernible effects such media multiplication might have. People can – as they did, according to an earlier article of Kraidy’s, during Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, a kind of not-really prelude to the “Arab Spring” – bypass official channels of information in order to share messages, organise, etc., if only there is a hypermediated multiplicity of communication points for them to access. But of course there is no guarantee that they will actually do so. Further, though the “points of access” may be many, they are not all of the same type, and certainly not spread equally across the population. (The “digital divide” may be breaking down in many Arab countries with the advent of cheaper smartphones and mobile data plans, but there is more to accessibility and engagement than just the fact that somebody can access the Internet from their phone.) Facebook, for instance, might enable people to organise a protest effectively, but on the other hand there is no guarantee that this kind of engagement will actually last – as it gives little accountability and makes no provisions for more lasting organisational structures than e.g. face-to-face meetings might. These are important points, but they are lost in an argument which speaks only about “access to information” without delving in more detail about how media actually work.

To my mind, one of the more bizarre arguments to have come out of this approach is what I’ll cheekily term the “Arab Idol Democracy” argument. This is another point that Kraidy makes: that music talent reality shows – such as Arab Idol, its predecessor Super Star, and Star Academy – which allow audiences to “vote” on their favourites to advance to the next round, are amplifying the possibilities for participation and showing that democratic forms of engagement have real effects. Pick up your phone, and you enter a hypermedia space in which you are participating as a good, democratically aware citizen, whose vote will count and have an impact.

st3

“The stars of Star Academy 3.” “Arab” democracy in action.

Apart from being subtly orientalist – ignorant Arabs being educated about democracy by a Western-sourced cultural form – this argument again completely ignores both the form and content of media interaction. “Participation” might count, but it is limited to casting a (premium-rate-charged) tele-vote on a small pool of contestants who do not in turn have any lasting impact or accountability, and disappear from the scene completely once the “season” is over.

There may be a highly cynical comment about the state of participatory democracy in there somewhere. But this isn’t what Kraidy is saying; for him, rather, the effects are real, and (really) beneficial. In the end, I think, his arguments do little but demonstrate the true perils of technological determinism: taking certain laudatory statements – about “increased participation” and suchlike – for granted, and applying them in a superficial manner with only enough actual analysis that they still stick. Even though there is much greater complexity there in practice.

On “Hypermedia”

Some Thoughts on Conversation Analysis

(DISCLAIMER: This is a slightly more academic-toned post than many I’ve been writing so far. These might become more frequent for a while as my doctoral writing goes on. Still I hope to make it all accessible and interesting even to those who aren’t necessarily up to speed with the latest in humanities academia and academic approaches to language.)

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For a while now, I’ve been searching for a good academic methodological ‘hook’ for looking at language on Jordanian radio. One semi-popular approach to such issues is Conversation Analysis, an empirical-analytical method developed by a gaggle of U.S. sociologists from the 1960s onward with the goal of studying the finer details of human conversation and see how mutual understandings emerge in actual social interaction – rather than being forced to read these off as ‘interpretations’ from interviews or textual descriptions of events. On the surface, it looks workable: you transcribe people’s conversations from recordings, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, and then look for patterns and principles in the details of how they exchange their turns and communicate. But delving into actual Conversation Analysis (best practice is to capitalize it; though I’ll be using CA henceforth) as an methodological-analytical approach, it becomes clear it wouldn’t quite do. It is, on the one hand, a bit too narrow in the kind of data that it admits as valid for analysis; and also, once you look at it closely, not at all the methodologically rigorous end-all it claims to be.

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CA takes as its starting point the idea that talk, as a prime component of human social interaction, should be studied in its own right – as an activity with its own particular features and principles, and not merely a neutral medium of transmission for human values and beliefs. Conversation analysts proceed from transcripts of conversation (any kind of conversation: live, phone, broadcast – though always recorded so that a proper transcript can be made from it), and look at features such as when and how people take turns, when they are silent, when and how they correct themselves or each other (what CA calls “repair”), when and how they display (or not) that they have understood their interlocutor in conversation, and so on. The goal is to see, in short, how talk is structured as a social activity, and what this can tell us about how people deal with and come to understand each other over the course of this activity.

One strong proponent of using CA in studies of media has been Ian Hutchby, especially in his book Media Talk, where he looks at several broadcasting contexts – such as TV interviews, radio call-ins, and TV ‘audience participation’ programmes – and shows how these are organized according to principles that conversation analysts have found holding for “ordinary conversation” (Hutchby’s terms not mine). At the same time, conversation in media also has certain features not found in “ordinary” talk, and Hutchby lists a number of such features that CA can identify – which I’m not going to recount in detail here, but they include practices such as generalising reference in giving advice and constructing power asymmetries between hosts and broadcasters.

Picture 1: Gail Jefferson, one of the three founding figures of Conversation Analysis (the other two being Harvey Sacks and Emmanuel Schegloff).

For this to work, though, one needs to assume that (a) broadcast talk is in fact different from “ordinary conversation,” and (b) we know what the principles of “ordinary conversation” actually are. Both are assumptions made by whoever is analysing the talk (I’ll discuss a bit more below why this is a problem for Hutchby in particular). The second one, especially, links to one pervasive weakness of CA: its ethnocentricity. Most work on CA has been done on English, with the result being that we simply know much more – in brute, numeric terms; I’m sure every conversation analyst would agree that it’s possible, and desirable, to run CA on languages other than English – about the details of Conversation in English than in any other language. (Linguistic anthropologists have begun to redress the balance a bit, but the skewing is still considerable.) It also has somewhat eclectic transcription practices which any purebred linguist would probably gag over (eye-dialect! Putting a lengthening sign on an English vowel without indicating its IPA value! Using a colon as a sign for lengthening sounds in the first place, rather than the two tiny triangles that IPA necessitates!! Etc.). It’s not, then, an analytical approach which would be easy to generalise beyond English (even if there’s nothing in the actual principles of CA that would exclude this possibility).

There are more problems that have to do with the way CA approaches data. The focus is always on transcripts – and transcripts alone. For a conversation analyst to find an interesting feature to talk about, this feature has to be noted in transcripts, and observable in them across a number of cases. What’s going on in the minds of the people talking to each other is irrelevant – for CA’s purposes, it’s what they say, and how they say it, that matters; and that alone. All the “shared understanding” that CA goes on about is in fact only what is demonstrated in conversation; the “understanding” here isn’t a cognitive understanding, necessarily, but rather enough common ground for the conversation to continue in order to make sense. (Obviously, there needs to be some prior common cognitive understanding – at the very least, of the language that is being spoken – before the understanding-emergent-in-Conversation can come into play; but that’s merely a background assumption, rather than a topic of analysis for CA.)

A corollary of this is that in CA the analyst can’t argue for the relevance of any issue unless an “orientation” to it on part of speakers is discernible from the transcript. Variables such as gender, class, age etc. are irrelevant, unless there is proof in the transcript that participants are making it relevant for each other. Which makes sense on the very basic level of constructing and exchanging turns in conversation – but any attempt to broaden your argument, and you soon run into problems.

Take, for example, gender. Unless the gender identity of a speaker is made relevant in Conversation – explicitly, or implicitly, e.g. by being systematically denied long turns because of their gender identity – whether a speaker is male or female is not a variable for CA. Of course, comparing across cases – of, for example, all-male and all-female conversations – one could find consistent differences linked to gender; but the absurd conclusion you are forced to take if you follow the CA line religiously is that gender is simply irrelevant as a variable within these interactions. Unless you assume that speakers are also making the same kinds of links, across contexts, that the analyst is… but then there is no transcript-based proof that this is the case. (I think – or hope – that nobody would be insane enough to question the conclusion that gender is relevant in such a hypothetical scenario on the basis of this latter point; but the point is that any such conclusion already moves us away from the strict ’empirical closeness’ badge that CA wears so proudly.)

CA methods are also silent on how gender norms may make only certain kinds of conversations, rather than others, come to happen in the first place: it looks only at what actually happened (i.e., the transcript), not how this situation, with these participants, as opposed to any other, even came to pass – even though the fact that there are these participants present rather than others likely has an influence on how they converse with each other. (This is all relegated to the background, to “broader social context,” something that CA acknowledges but is essentially agnostic upon since it can’t (always) be reliably read off the transcript – even though it’s a crucial factor in how this transcript in particular is available.) Talking about media, if there’s an all-male panel broadcast somewhere, and none of the feisty males present produces a turn for which gender would be an issue… then it’s just not an issue! Gender inequalities aren’t brought up, so there are no power differentials at play, and it’s a perfect public sphere as long as any troublemakers (e.g., women) are kept out of the Conversation.

Picture 2: An example of an interactional context with no displayed power inequalities whatsoever. Hasselhoff-approved. (Via  here)

In other words: for CA, unless the analyst can find an evident (to them) “orientation” to a concept such as gender in the transcript they are poring over, that concept is determined to be irrelevant to the interaction. Which is true only to the extent that it is irrelevant to the way the conversational exchange is unfolding at any particular moment. How this exchange is made possible in the first place, or where it might lead to, may well be influenced by “broader context,” but CA is not interested in this as much as in the micro-structures that make talk possible.

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And this is the main issue I have with approaches like Hutchby’s. They seem to be convinced that CA is the only possible way in which talk on media can be analysed with an empirical basis for identifying asymmetries of power and other features of context, rather than simply saying such asymmetries are present. The analyst imposes their own understanding, the argument goes, rather than letting the data speak for itself.

But I’m not sure how identifying “orientations” in the micro-structures of talk involves any less imposition of the analyst’s own understanding compared to working on broader scales. In classic CA, at least, there’s the “next turn proof procedure”: the requirement that the other participant demonstrate, in their talk, that they have understood a certain orientation as such before this orientation can be said to be present. In other words, unless my interlocutor confirms (or plays on, or challenges) me making my own or anyone else’s gender relevant in my talk, there’s no basis for the analyst to claim that a certain understanding of the relevance of gender is shared between the two participants. But in media talk, where the interlocutors – the audience – are not present, there are no such subsequent confirmations. There is no way to prove that an orientation that a media analyst of Conversation identifies is actually shared by anyone else but the broadcaster – or, on the contrary, that orientations that the broadcaster does not bring up in their talk may not be relevant for some (or indeed all; there’s just no way to know) members of their audience. For all that, we have to fall back on the analyst’s intuition.

cainaction1

Picture 3: Conversation Analysis in action, as explained by linguistic anthropologists. From Charles and Marjorie Goodwin, “Participation,” p. 222-244 in A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, ed. Alessandro Duranti, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

The fact that it’s the analyst’s intuition that counts causes problems even for classic CA. CA’s charter is to uncover general principles of human Conversation, but Jefferson, Sacks and Schegloff based most of their empirical conclusions and analytical guidelines on data from English. And though CA methods themselves are perfectly neutral in this respect, it’s difficult to see how somebody poring over transcripts in any language would be able to avoid bias without a good knowledge, or at least a vague intuitive sense, of what kind of communication ‘sounds normal’ for that language.

This is, of course, just the kind of work that many linguistic anthropologists do – but linguistic anthropologists also (usually) know the context of the conversations being produced fairly well, given that they’ve spent months or years with the people who produce them. But CA, in its traditional form, imposes no such requirement upon the analyst. One can (maybe even should) do CA based on transcripts and recordings alone, with no necessary knowledge as to where, how, for what purpose etc. such transcripts and recordings were made. But then one is limited to studying the principles of English (or Slovene, or Xhosa, or Yukaghir, or whatever language one can claim to know intuitively) Conversation; since even such simple things as long silences between turns – which might indicate some sort of problem, hesitation or disagreement, for (American) English speakers, but are perfectly normal in e.g. Apache – can vary considerably in what they mean in different cultural and linguistic contexts.

What I’m trying to argue here is not that using CA for analysing media is inappropriate. If you know how to do it, and do it consistently and carefully and with good knowledge of the broader context at hand, it can tell you a lot. It’s only that it is not inherently any less biased than any other kind of analysis of media texts (such as Critical Discourse Analysis, which Hutchby rather histerically seeks to demolish in his Media Talk book). So it’s probably not necessary to cling desperately to CA analytical methods and still produce some kind of sensible argument about the media text that you’re studying.

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There are aspects of CA I still find attractive. It gives unrivaled access to the way in which conversation is organised, on a very minute level, and can reveal principles and asymmetries that more broad-based approaches can’t But in analysing talk on Jordanian radio (or any other media context for that matter), I don’t think it makes sense to sacrifice the broader arguments one can make – about power, politics, language, gender – simply to locate one’s analysis more firmly in a particular disciplinary tradition. Transcribing 50 calls from Muhammad al-Wakeel’s programmes according to strict CA conventions and looking at – say – sequences of turn-taking, or types of acknowledgment, or the way people put forward claims as to the veracity or relevance of their problems would of course be perfectly possible. But then I would be studying structures of turn-taking, or types of acknowledgment, or the way people put forward claims as to the veracity or relevance of their problems – and it would still be me deciding how relevant these are to power and inequality as it comes up in radio talk. (After, of course, a (hopefully) well-considered analysis.) So why not look more broadly as well?

Some Thoughts on Conversation Analysis