Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Themes in discourse research: the case of Diana
Themes in discourse research: the case of Diana

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.8 Discursive practices continued

1.8.1 Discursive practices are flexible

In general terms, then, the interaction order is not a set of hard and fast rules which people follow like social dopes. Rather, discursive practices are flexible and creative resources. Genres may be mixed together and new genres can emerge. Part of the task of ethnographers of communication is to try to describe the diversity across social situations. In effect, they are charting what they call communicative ecologies (Gumperz, 1999): the variable and dynamic discursive practices found in a community or which distinguish particular speech events. As Gumperz argues, it is these ecologies and the cultural knowledges that go with them which make it possible, for instance, to hear just a few words on the radio, out of context, and be able to immediately identify the words as coming from a comedy show, constituting ‘the news’, as a politician's answer to a question or as a ‘vox pop’, the voice of ‘the person in the street’, and so on.

The range of phenomena which make up discursive practices within wider speech events is large and varied. It includes, for instance, turn taking – how do two or more speakers manage to divide the conversational floor between them? Turn taking has been studied by conversation analysts who are also interested in the regular ways in which people perform different kinds of discursive activities such as turning down invitations, making requests, repairing mistakes, and so on. These are the craft skills of interaction, routinely performed and highly pervasive. In the discipline of ethnomethodology these are understood as people's methods for doing everyday life.

It is worth considering for a minute what kind of knowledge or method this is that people possess. Is this knowledge that people can clearly articulate? How intentional is it? Is it automatic and unconscious knowledge? Is it like following a recipe? Is it a skill like riding a bike? No one easy answer can be given. Consider, for instance, some of the other phenomena which sociolinguists study. Some sociolinguists have argued that there is such a thing as a genderlect. In other words there are distinctive ways of speaking and forms of interacting which are gender linked. There is such a thing as ‘speaking like a man’. The existence of and explanation for such genderlects are hotly debated. But if it was established that women used more modal adverbs (e.g. so, very, much) than men, for instance, would this be best described as a strategic performance? Sociolinguists are also interested in phenomena such as accent shifts in the course of a conversation, intonation patterns, tonal qualities and the social messages these convey to different audiences. Diana, for instance, conveys a great deal of information to her audience concerning the social groups she belongs to through these features of her voice and delivery, and yet accent is not something which is usually self-consciously performed.

Some of the things people do in talk – their discursive practices – are remarkably subtle. Take a look at another extract from the Panorama interview.

Extract 5
BASHIR Did you (.) allow your friends, your close friends, to speak to Andrew Morton?
DIANA Yes I did. Yes I did
DIANA I was (.) at the end of my tether (.) I was (.) desperate (.) I think I was fed up with being (.) seen as someone who was a basket case (.) because I am a very strong person (.) and I know that (.) causes complications, (.) in the system (.) that I live in. (1.0) ((smiles and purses lips))
BASHIR How would a book change that.
DIANA I dunno. ((raises eyebrows, looks away)) Maybe people have a better understanding (.) maybe there's a lot of women out there who suffer (.) on the same level but in a different environment (.) who are unable to (.) stand up for themselves (.) because (.) their self-esteem is (.) cut into two. I dunno ((shakes head))
(Extract adapted from Potter, 1997: 151)