PhD Findings (2): Media Matters

(This is the second in a series of three posts on findings from my doctoral thesis, with the title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” A general introduction to the posts can be found here. Part 1 is here; Part 3 is here.)

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During the first few years of this decade, the heyday of the so-called “Arab Spring,” there were more than a few journalists and scholars caught predicting that great transformations were afoot in Middle Eastern societies – not least because of the communication revolutions brought about by new media. Internet, smartphones, Facebook were all hailed as harbingers of a new social order. Regimes would be toppled, the people would finally find their voice, and so forth. Some years on, and these revolutionary consequences have pretty much failed to materialise in their predicted capacity. Authoritarian political culture has returned in force in countries such as Turkey and Egypt; in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, media have become a battleground for a spectrum of factions seeking rhetorical advantage rather than an outlet for free expression.

This is not to say that changes haven’t happened, or that new media aren’t important. It’s just that the ‘great divide’ approach to new media – we have smartphones now, so everything is will be different – isn’t the most accurate. As I’ve argued a couple of years ago on the Discover Society blog, we should rather be more attentive to what specifically each medium enables: what types of arguments, what kinds of rhetoric, what kind of language, which particular channels of meaning-making. Sometimes, these resources can be used effectively for resistance and social change; sometimes (likely more often), they are not. But without knowing in detail what they actually allow for, we also can’t provide a useful account of their potential.

I study radio. Radio is a very special medium: it is, fundamentally, sonic, as it utilises sound as the primary medium of transmission. As a listener, one might have visual or palpable engagement with your radio receiver, for example, but the essence of the transmission – that is, what is actually transmitted to you as well as all others attending to a particular station’s broadcast at any given moment – is sound. Sound is the funnel: you do not see the broadcasters talking, you do not see the people calling in, so what you hear provides the raw material needed to understand what the broadcast is actually trying to convey.

At least, that’s the theory. Media consumption never takes place in a vacuum, and our interpretations will always be shaped by external factors – cultural beliefs and stereotypes, the context of viewing or listening, subsequent discussions with other people. Still, there is a prevalent sense or belief – what can be termed an ideology, following Ilana Gershon’s concept of “media ideologies” – that radio is primarily sound-based. This is a crucial part of what has defined radio as a distinct medium ever since its inception in the 1920s, and its subsequent presence in daily life – in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

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Photo taken in the studio of the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS), Jerusalem, 1947. The PBS, established in the 1930s during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, was one of the first radio stations to broadcast in Arabic, as explored in detail by Andrea Stanton (see this article for a useful summary). Image via Wikimedia Commons (unknown author).

The ideal of radio as a sound-exclusive medium is noticeable in Jordan as well. Non-government radio stations, which I focus on in my research, are highly invested in maintaining a relaxed, spontaneous, authentic environment during their programmes. Since sound is their main means for doing so, they resort to spoken language to present an effect of spontaneity and authenticity: they use colloquial Arabic, of the type used in day-to-day life in contemporary Amman, to impress upon listeners that their programming is meant for ‘ordinary’ Jordanians, attentive to their problems and accepting of their voices. (The extent to which they actually enable listener participation is another matter; but at least it’s a motivating factor behind the choice of idiom.) Similarly, when nationalism or patriotism needs to be conveyed – as in morning programmes, when the Jordanian nation is metaphorically brought into being – this is done through sound: language sometimes, for instance emphasising the particular sounds (such as [g] for ق / qāf) that are considered to be characteristically ‘Jordanian,’ but more often music – especially nationalist, patriotic tunes, with distinctly Jordanian or Bedouin dialect lyrics, praising and supporting some aspect of Jordan (the land, the people, a particular town or village, and so on), or the Hashemite monarchy.

Occasionally, the sound ideology also gets manipulated in a broader sense – as for example in Ṣawtunā wāḥid (“Our Voice Is One”), the 5 February 2015 memorial programme for the martyred pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. For this occasion, a number of radio stations broadcast a single live programme for nine hours instead of their regular programming as a gesture of national unity. They unified, in other words, the sound of their broadcasts, their otherwise disparate voices. Whichever of the 10 or so participating stations you tuned into on the day, you would hear exactly the same live broadcast. Sonic unity thus stood for actual unity – but it could only do so because sound was considered the main channel of transmission for radio stations.

Report on the Ṣawtunā wāḥid memorial programme on 5 February 2015. Via Mazaj FM, on YouTube.

Digital media do transform these dynamics, to an extent. Jordanian non-government radio has a heavy Internet presence. Each radio station has its own Facebook and Twitter pages, with a constant stream of posts announcing upcoming programmes, sharing photos and videos of station personnel, or just greeting and chatting with their audiences. Webcams are also popular; these are placed in the studio – usually, there are at least two, one showing the broadcaster and another for the ‘control’ area where the producers and sound editors work – and transmit a live video feed for every programme over the radio station’s website and dedicated smartphone apps (most stations offer a free app that can be downloaded from all major phone app storefronts). Finally, hosts make good use of the textual aspect of contemporary media to engage with listeners – through classic mobile text messages, Facebook chats, or WhatsApp.

All these channels of communication clearly go beyond radio’s limitation to sound alone. Now the broadcasters can actually be seen; questions can be sent in text; announcements posted live on social media can be browsed and read by users at their own leisure, rather than going unheeded if they missed the particular moment at which the host read them out during the programme. Still, all these mechanisms are supplementary to the live radio broadcast. Sound remains at the core, the central zone of engagement for radio producers and their audiences.

Broadcasters use digital media for many different purposes, and sometimes in quite creative ways. The Radio Fann morning programme host Hani al-Badri, for example, is a very prolific WhatsApp user in communicating with listeners, allowing him to greet a much greater number of listeners within any single show than if he was just taking phone calls. Jessy Abu Faisal, the Lebanese host of the morning show on Sawt al-Ghad and the first successful female radio presenter in Jordan, was fond of using webcams for prize draws, giving out rewards to callers who could identify objects in the studio through the live webcam. Digital media here only amplify the potential already present in radio – such as its ability to connect ‘live’ to its audiences and engage with local listeners. They are an important part of the media ecology in which contemporary radio operates; they transform it, to an extent; but they do not displace it.

Hani al-Badri hosting his morning programme on Radio Fann, captured by the in-studio webcam.

Much can also be said about the impact of these media on radio language. At the most trivial level, there are the words used to describe digital media interactions, and which reflect broader trends in colloquial and formal Arabic as these media have risen in popularity in recent years: the use of English loanwords for specialised social media terms such as like or tweet, or native Arabic terms which have some colloquial traction – such as تطبيق taṭbīq “(smartphone) app,” تحميل taḥmīl “download,” نزّل nazzal(a) “to post, upload (on a social media page),” and so forth. One could perhaps quantify, as sociolinguists like to do, the proportions of kinds of words used for different social media interactions, or how different levels of engagement with digital media impact variations in pronunciation or use of different registers (Standard, Colloquial) of Arabic, and then attempt to interpret these findings in the broader context of contemporary Arabic linguistic variation.

But more than lexical or phonetic details, what is, I think, more relevant here are the effects of digital media on radio language in a broader sense, in terms of the novel communication dynamics that they enable. It’s not a revolutionary change by any means; again, what I’ve found is that it mostly amplifies radio’s existing potentials, rather than transforming it into some completely new phenomenon that will change Jordanian society in unprecedented ways. Still, it does provide interesting new possibilities for radio hosts.

When Hani al-Badri reads out his listeners’ WhatsApp messages, he’s not just engaging with large numbers of people; he’s engaging with them, addressing them directly, as individuals, usually by name. This is quite different from the classic radio dynamic of ‘speaking-to-everyone’ while giving an impression of intimate, one-to-one conversation – speaking “for-anyone-as-someone,” as the media scholar Paddy Scannell puts it. The kind of language used when communicating by means of social media messages still allows a sense of closeness and intimacy between broadcaster and audience. But this is now an intimacy of overhearing actual conversations, rather than simulating them through addressing an undifferentiated mass of listeners as if they were just one person. You may not be the person addressed, but the feeling of liveness, closeness, intimate presence, is still there, perhaps even stronger.

Or take the obsession of broadcasters with their social media followings. The most blatant example of this is Radio Hala’s Muhammad al-Wakeel, whose public Facebook page currently (as of August 2017) sports over seven million ‘likes’ and ‘follows.’ How many of these are genuine individual profiles doesn’t really matter; again, the media ideology of sites such as Facebook presupposes that each of these likes and follows stands for a singular, unique person. And so al-Wakeel is able to mention his social media following on the air whenever he needs to shore up his legitimacy – whenever he needs to claim, for example, that his voice is what truly represents the Jordanian people, or that his show is the best, most popular radio programme in Jordan, providing news and ‘services’ (such as putting people in touch with officials) to nearly the entire Jordanian population. In his day-to-day language, al-Wakeel can thus directly define and enumerate the audience his programme supposedly represents – a linguistic strategy that simply wouldn’t be possible without a deep investment in social media.

Image published to celebrate 4 million “Likes” on Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page, January 2015.

This takes me to a final point regarding the relevance of media and media context. Hosts such as al-Badri, al-Wakeel, and Abu Faisal are radio celebrities. They take up the majority of the on-air time on their respective shows. They claim, and sustain, a particular kind of authority simply through being given more space to speak in the radio setting. This matters because the things they say, and the ways in which they say them, will be heard by large numbers of people – on a regular, everyday basis, in a setting which simulates the impression of intimacy, often in direct conversations with the very people who constitute their audience. The language they use is not just a data point to be compared with a slew of others in a statistical comparison: they build rapport with audiences in different ways, construct unique personalities. They might be authoritarian heroes, or simple ordinary citizens who make light-hearted jokes with their listeners and allow them to make jokes in turn. When scrutinising their language, we can’t just claim that this is how media language in Jordan today looks like, or equate their positions with beliefs shared by all Jordanians (however much they might claim that this is in fact the case). They must be viewed with caution, in context, for the unique language users and personalities that they are. And the media which they use to communicate, whether radio or social media or something else entirely, are an important factor in this.

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What kind of medium you use to communicate matters greatly. The initial enthusiasm about the potential of new media to bring about social change in the Middle East may have been unwarranted. But challenges and transformation can happen; we just need to be more precisely aware of what any new medium is capable of achieving, and what it is not. On Jordanian radio, the Internet, webcams, and social media are used to supplement classic radio communication – often to sustain the very same arguments and dynamics already possible in classic radio, such as constructing a single Jordanian national public or seeking a live, authentic connection with a local audience. But this is not to say that these new dynamics could not be used in different ways. They won’t cause a revolution all by themselves; but perhaps they can be used as tools for one… if they are taken up.

I think it helps to think of media as an arena. It is less a ‘stage’ for putting up rehearsed performances than a space in which struggles and competitions take place, among whoever is able to enter. There are paths to victory, to making your voice heard, to change and revolution; but there are also obstacles. Rules of the game. Restrictions on equipment, match-ups which are often unfair to novices. You cannot just participate; the way the arena is shaped – media form, if you will – affects the way you need to shape your contributions, your strategies for participation. You need to talk in specific ways, with specific people, through specific channels, in order to be heard and heeded.

This might be self-evident to many of us today, moving in the highly dynamic, highly reflexive world of multiple media in which we are all producers and participants. Different social media are used for different purposes; they demand different repertoires, different ways of expression, different kinds of language. Even as prosaic a device as a hashtag (#) is used in different ways on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram. This has, slowly, come to be recognised by analysts of language and discourse as well – though perhaps less so for Arabic than for other languages (i.e., English, where most of this kind of work is being done); and, even more frustratingly, not as much for ‘old’ media (radio, film, music, television, and so forth) as for the ‘new’ offerings of the smartphone age. But it is not just new media that shape language; classic media do as well. And they continue to be relevant. The contemporary media ecology is dynamic, reactive, and complementary, an environment – a discursive arena – built of many possibilities, rather than each new medium simply steamrolling over all previous ones.

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PhD Findings (2): Media Matters

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.

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“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