Starting a Dialogue between Social Semiotics and Complexity Theory

We recently published Making Signs, Translanguaging Ethnographies edited by Ari Sherris and Elisabetta Adami. In this post the editors introduce us to the book and its unique Bricolage and Talmudic sections.

Preparing this volume has been a work of encounters which gave way to layers of experiences and we hope is just one possible opening to a new way of thinking about how we make and interpret meaning. It started as a serendipitous encounter between the two of us, when we met once at a symposium on translanguaging and ethnography and later began conversations on the possibilities of crossing perspectives, in an attempt at starting a dialogue between social semiotics and complexity theory. The experiences of the volume’s contributors form additional layers at the core of this volume from ethnographic/documentary linguistics, sociolinguistics, linguistic landscape, and multimodality (broadly conceived). The volume is also a site of encounters among four theorists of what we envisage as among the most innovative and promising perspectives on research and activism across inclusive approaches to communication, language and education with a Bricolage piece asking Jan Blommaert, Ofelia García, Gunther Kress and Diane Larsen-Freeman to answer ten key questions and trace interrelations with each other’s viewpoints.

Besides the eye-opening preface by Jeff Bezemer and Gunther Kress, and the introduction written by us, the volume hosts seven chapters presenting empirical studies that relocate margins at the centre, through investigations of phenomena and settings that have been little explored so far, and by attempting various entanglements between approaches that have rarely been combined. Research of and through these uncharted entanglements allows the authors (and hopefully the readers) to show how observing and documenting domains of communication that are often neglected can not only problematize traditional ways of knowing, but also shed new light onto social interaction, meaning-making and human communication as a whole.

Finally, the volume attempts at stretching the boundaries of (the often too limiting) academic genres. It does so first and foremost in the Bricolage; the process of its making has been a wonderfully enriching enterprise, for us, the editors, and (we like to believe) for the four theorists too, who had never met on (screen and) paper before. Working with them at the Bricolage, we have not only had further proof of the immense intellectual value of Diane, Gunther, Jan and Ofelia, but also experienced the immensely humane, thoughtful and caring characters of the four. We hope that the Bricolage may be the first of a series opening a new genre enabling academic dialogue through joint forms of writing. A second genre innovation is in the final chapter of the book, in which we draw from the Talmudic tradition to construct commentaries to each of the empirical chapters that add additional layers, imagined next steps in meaning-making and interpretation. The commentaries ask themselves how these studies would be reframed and (re)investigated further by adopting a social semiotic and a complexity theory perspective. This, too, is an attempt to start a dialogue between two approaches that have good grounds for potential mutual integration and yet had not met until now. We hope this dialogue will continue further with those who read the book. We look forward to hearing from you!

Elisabetta Adami e.adami@leeds.ac.uk

Ari Sherris arieh.sherris@gmail.com

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Engaging Superdiversity edited by Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebæk, Massimiliano Spotti and Jan Blommaert.

Engaging Superdiversity? Yes, Very Engaging.

This month we published Engaging Superdiversity edited by Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebæk, Massimiliano Spotti and Jan Blommaert. In this post, Jan explains more about the background to the book.

Engaging SuperdiversityAs all of us know, there is a tremendous pressure in the academic system at present to operate as an individual in a competitive ‘market’ of science focused on deliverables – or more precisely, a market of money for science and other more symbolic and status-related perks. All of these elements – individualism, competition and result-driven orientation – are fundamentally unscientific, and render our lives as science workers increasingly less interesting. Science is a collective endeavor characterised by solidarity and focused on processes of knowledge construction. Why else do we need references at the end of our publications, than to illustrate how we have learned from others in a perpetual process of critical and productive dialogue?

This critical reflex was the motive, almost a decade ago, for a small team of scholars to join forces in a consortium called InCoLaS (International Consortium on Language and Superdiversity) – a ‘dream team’ of people who decided to care and share, to explore domains only superficially touched by inquiry, mobilising each other’s resources in the process,  and to do all this without a pre-set target or road map. After all, exploration is not the same as driving in a limo on a highway with the GPS on: by definition, you don’t know where it will take you. There is no ‘draft proposal’; there are ideas.

This mode of collaboration turned out to be immensely ‘profitable’, to use the terms of the market. Several high-profile publications emerged, and our buzzword ‘superdiversity’ has become a modest celebrity in its own right, attracting what must be seen as the ultimate intellectual compliment: controversy. There are ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’, and both camps have had, over the past years, sometimes heated debates over the value of the word ‘superdiversity’.

We ourselves don’t really care about that word. Sometimes one needs a new word simply to examine the validity of the older ones – the word is then just a sort of stimulus to shed some of the attributes and frames inscribed in the older ones; and it is not the word that is central, but the ideas it points to and the data it can help explain. Whether research is convincing or not rarely depends on which words are used to write it down; usually it depends on the quality of analysis and argument.

Engaging Superdiversity offers another set of studies on language and superdiversity, drawn from one of the key features of our collective mode of work: team workshops in which we listen to and discuss the work of our team members – senior as well as more junior researchers – and insert their results in the collective explorative process described earlier. In these workshops, all of us are ‘free’ – free to come up with unfinished ideas, unsolved problems, struggles with complex data. The joint work of critical dialogue, usually, results in products that are, to say the least, engaging.

This collection of essays, more than any other publication so far, gives people a sense of the ambience in InCoLaS activities. It covers the terrains we find important – inequality, the online-offline nexus, power – and expands the theoretical and methodological framing of the process of exploration. There is a very large number of new things in this book (for the benefit of the “non-believers” who question what is so new about superdiversity), and some of the chapters will, I believe, have considerable impact in the field.

I joined the editorial team rather late in the game, and my gaze is thus, perhaps, a bit more that of a detached spectator than Karel’s, Martha’s and Max’s. So let me say this: When reviewing manuscripts for journals, book proposals, or even student’s essays, I always make a distinction between work that is good and work that is interesting. Most work I see is good, in the sense that there is nothing wrong with it, other than that I would never read it: it’s not interesting. Engaging Superdiversity is good and interesting – extraordinarily so – and I am proud to see it in print.

Jan Blommaert

Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic LandscapesFor more information about the book, please see our website. You might also be interested in Jan’s previous book Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes.

Being ‘foreign’: Italians and coffee, Danes and rye bread

TonVallenAward-kleinMartha Sif Karrebæk has recently been announced as the winner of the 2013 Ton Vallen award.  This is an annual award for papers written by new researchers  on sociolinguistic and educational issues in multicultural societies which we at Multilingual Matters are proud to support.  In this article Martha takes us on a tour from coffee in Rome to rye bread in Denmark to introduce us to the themes of her research.

I recently passed some days in Rome with my husband and two children. We had brought a guidebook (Lonely Planet, 2012) to enrich and facilitate our visit, and we spent much time studying the authors’ advice on all thinkable matters. As it is customary, the book included sections devoted to “Eating” and “Drinking & Nightlife” and in the latter the topic of coffee was explored. I quote from this:

“For Romans, coffee punctuates and marks the process of the day, from the morning and mid-morning cappuccino, to the afternoon espresso pick-me-up, or summertime granita with cream. To do as the Romans do, you have to be precise about your coffee needs… [here follows a longish paragraph on the different varieties of coffee and their names caffè, caffè macchiato, caffè all’american etc.]. Then, of course, there’s the cappuccino… Italians drink cappuccino only during the morning and never after meals; to order it after 11am would be, well, foreign.”

The quote presents Romans as having similar and very specific coffee practices, and that the variety of coffee one chooses is defined by the time of the day and of the year (at least). You can easily become recognizable as a tourist – or ‘foreign’ relative to the Romans – if you do not adhere to this specified order. It is clearly one of the goals of the guidebook to educate tourists, or ‘foreigners’, to be able to “do as the Romans do” (evidenced by the many repetitions of the phrase “do it the Roman way / do as the Romans do”, moreover the book had several sections on etiquette). Thus, we were supposed to take the advice into account. Also, the small “well” inserted between commas (to order cappuccino in the afternoon would be, “well, foreign”) indicates that the self-identification as ‘foreign’ is undesirable. In fact, when you do not observe the norm for coffee ordering, it becomes a transgression of a moral order. You show yourself not to be interested to blend in, to integrate – or should I say: to assimilate?

Food (including drinks and beverages) and food practices are culturally specific, and they can be used to define who is, and who is not, part of a social community. Phrased differently, they can be said to ‘index’ cultural and social belonging and identity. Such practices are created and re-created all the time, and they are taught to children and newcomers both explicitly, through manuals such as my guidebook, or through parental advice, and implicitly as demonstrations of normal behaviour in the everyday routines. A community is always defined relative to other communities, and therefore food and food practices can also be used to show who is not regarded as part of the community. Guests, or ‘visiting outsiders’, are often treated with distrust; they are potentially disruptive of the social community. In order to overcome the suspiciousness, guests should demonstrate how they respect and observe the cultural norms of the host community.

Now, of course, this is a very simplified description. Yet it is relevant both to my recent experiences on the trip to Rome and to my fieldwork in an urban school in Copenhagen. As I have reported in the academic paper “What’s in your lunch-box?”, in this school the lunch-boxes of children with an immigrant background were taken to index their and their families’ attitude to Danish society and their educational potential in general. Bread became a proxy for something more important, namely national belonging, national fidelity and solidarity. It was treated as obligatory that the children brought the traditional variety of bread rye bread for lunch. This obligatory status was disguised as part of a health discourse. “Rye bread is healthy, white bread isn’t.” As it is unthinkable these days to refuse to obey advice given in the name of health (the health discourse is pervasive, intrusive and of a moral character) children were forced to bring and eat rye bread, no matter whether they liked it or not, and regardless of the fact that there are many other ways to compose a healthy lunch. Moreover, the children were put in very difficult situations as they mediated between their home where rye bread was not necessarily consumed and where other food items may have been attributed with higher value than rye bread, and school, where teachers were very explicit about their parents’ lack of competence when they did not observe the rye bread order. The children were left to find their own way to navigate between the school and the home as different normative centres of authority.

My family and I are good-mannered people so we refrained from ordering cappuccino after 11 AM – as we were told to – in Rome. Yet, despite this highly conscious work on ‘integrating’ we still managed to transgress some of the food cultural norms. It turned out that it was highly unexpected that we order espresso (caffè) as well as caffè macchiato (instead of at least latte macchiato) and even granita (a sort of sherbet made on a very strong espresso) for our 12 year old son, who drinks coffee with more pleasure than his mother. We were asked, again and again, if this was really what we intended to order; the probably well-meaning waiters tried to convince us that it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. When the coffee eventually was served, the waiter would put it on the table in front of the child with a very inquisitive facial expression, gazing at him, then at his mother, who had insisted on this beverage. We certainly felt that we had failed to demonstrate good or appropriate parenthood. Of course, there may be other interpretations. It may be the case that we just didn’t demonstrate to be the habitual tourists – which would be somehow a success as we really made an effort not be touristic at all. However, in that case I would have expected some comments or reactions that were supportive of our choice, yet, we never received that. No smiles or other approving responses. In the urban school where I did fieldwork, the children were never explicitly told that rye bread was only obligatory for lunch. In the morning you could choose to eat other things, even white bread (although oats with milk was placed higher in the breakfast hierarchy). Neither were they told that possible breakfast items did not include, e.g., lasagne. This was learned gradually in the classroom, in public, while being on display.

To conclude, it is very hard to learn to observe cultural norms unfamiliar to you even when you try to. Many norms tend to be implicit rather than explicit. I haven’t touched upon the consequences of the social transgressions that you then end up doing. For us, in Rome, the social repercussions were minimal, but the children in the classroom suffered a daily marginalization. Their social transgressions had much more serious possibly long-term effects.

So, remember not to drink caffè when you are under 12 in Rome, and not to eat white bread for lunch, and lasagne for breakfast, when in Denmark. Because then you show yourself to be, well, foreign.

Martha Sif Karrebæk

Martha’s page at the University of Copenhagen can be found here.