Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.
AUTHORS: Meinhof, Ulrike Hann; Galasiński, Dariusz TITLE: The Language of Belonging SERIES: Language and Globalisation PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan YEAR: 2005
Marisol del-Teso-Craviotto, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Miami University
The purpose of the book is to examine the role of language in the formation of cultural identities. Specifically, it looks into how people mark their forms of belonging through ways of speaking and narrations of the self. Using ethnographic and discourse analytic methodologies, the authors examine the discourses of three generations who lived in areas that have undergone profound changes in their social, political, and geographical make-up since 1945. One case study centers on the German-Polish border, where the old German city of Guben was divided into two separate cities after World War II, the German Guben and the Polish Gubin. The other case study is based on the once socially and culturally integrated cities of Tiefengrün and Hirschberg, which after World War II became part of West and East Germany, respectively. By comparing three generations from these two communities, the authors aim at discovering discursive ways in which their members perceive and construct their identities in relation to both the local context, and social, cultural, political, and geographical structures.
Chapter 1: Setting the Context
This introductory chapter offers an overview of the book and gives a brief description of the social and geographical context of the communities under study. The chapter also discusses the notion of identity, and frames the goals and results of the study within the context of cultural and linguistic studies of identity.
The authors review essentialist and non-essentialist approaches to the study of identity, and reject the former both in theoretical terms and in light of the results of their own research. As will be seen in detail in the rest of the chapters, their analysis supports the conceptualization of identity as a context-bound, discursive, and never-ending process in which social actors negotiate what it means to be, for instance, Polish, German, young, or part of a local community. They emphasize, however, that despite the dynamic nature of identity, the conversations with the participants and the narratives that emerged during the interviews show that local discourses of identity are mediated by socially shared metanarratives provided by the nation, society, and diverse social groups, and are expressed through a variety of linguistic resources that they call ''grammar of identity''. They warn, however, ''that one cannot speak of linguistic resources which can be universally seen as constructive of identity'' (p. 12).
Chapter 2: The Language of Belonging
This chapter explores the micro-level features of discourse that are involved in the ''language of belonging''. Before proceeding to the analysis of examples from the German-Polish border, the authors criticize the study of identity when it is based on a list of categories and linguistic phenomena that have been established beforehand. They offer instead an analysis that makes no a priori assumptions and focuses instead in the context-bound nature of both content categories and linguistic resources. They also avoid looking at the linguistic features in terms of uniqueness or sameness, and argue for framing the construction of identity through the metaphor of belonging.
From conversations with people from Guben and Gubin, Meinhof and Galasiński observed that participants were constructing their identities around four categories: time, place, social relations, and social encounters. These categories were not exclusive to this context nor the only ones relevant for the participants, but they emerged as especially salient. The analysis of the construction of Polishness and Germanness suggests that while Polish informants' interactions mostly showed a negative construction of identity, i.e., a ''not belonging'' based on the existence of the Germans as an outgroup, German texts were less uniform and showed generational similarities that, in some cases, did not build their identity on the notion of Germanness but on other local or regional allegiances.
Chapter 3: The Grammar of Identity
This is the last chapter that discusses the theoretical considerations of identity, drawing also on data from the German-Polish border. The authors endorse the anti-essentialist position that identities are constructed in the local context of interaction, and argue that this local context provides a repertoire of identity positions that are dependent upon, and more or less likely to appear, with certain discursive practices of the community. This constitutes a ''grammar of identity'', i.e., ''socially available linguistic resources which, in a given context, can be constructive of identity positions'' (p. 65). These linguistic resources are found mostly at the lexico-grammatical level and are part of public discourses such as the media, literacy materials, or oral tradition, which are mediated at the local level. Their main argument is that certain linguistic resources make some identities more likely to arise than others, as shown in the interviews from the Polish Gubin. Here, the discourse of communist propaganda still constrains the construction of certain subject positions, especially when talking about the communist era in Poland, and even if the identities constructed are anti-communist. As Meinhof and Galasiński argue, however, this does not mean that identities are totally constrained or determined by these public resources, since there is also the possibility of challenging the positions favored by the communist discourse.
Chapter 4: Stories of Belonging and Identification
This chapter moves from the micro-analytic perspective of previous chapters to analyze the structure of the narratives offered by the informants in the conversations, focusing on the interviews from the former border between East and West Germany. The authors argue that in the process of talking about the past, informants ''peopled'' their past and engaged in a re-counting of their own selves that involved a mixture of private and public events, identifying social actors and groups, and expressing feelings of belonging or not belonging towards those social actors, thus creating identity. These narratives, whether single or dually authored, are in no way coherent but they do offer a sense of cohesion for those who are engaging in storytelling.
The authors found cross-generational differences. The middle-generation informants often engaged in narratives that showed a negotiation of the informants' subjective geography -- in contrast with the official geography. In co-authored narratives, the researchers often found contradictions in the informants' positions, even when they were engaged in the same narration and they overtly agreed with each other, which clearly pointed out the difference between implicit and explicit discourses of identification. This generation also engaged in argumentative narratives (those whose chronological order is disrupted by processes of fore-shadowing and back-shadowing), which often consisted in defending themselves against the critiques of discursively absent interlocutors.
In contrast with the middle-generation's narratives, the old generation engages in prototypical storytelling, with a chronological sequence of events, the narrator as protagonist, a plot leading to a climax or anti-climax, and an evaluative final comment. In these stories the past is recounted as a series of events rather than as an emotional description, and the story's actors are not necessarily represented as members of the in- or out-group, but as individuals that make the story move on.
Chapter 5: Photography and the Discourses of Memory and Identification
This chapter examines the role of pictures in the collection of ethnographic and discourse analytic data. They chose pictures from three periods (before the start of World War II in 1939, between 1945 and 1989, and after the Berlin fall in 1989). These photographs were chosen to index places in the respective towns and villages which could be easily recognized, to index a time span significant for all three generations, and to index certain key aspects of the socio-cultural context. Meinhof and Galasiński remark on the advantages of using pictures over the typical sociolinguistic interview, since relying on a visual stimulus avoids the interference of the researchers and limits the influence that their linguistic choices may have on the informants' responses.
The authors also discuss the advantages of using pictures in terms of the kind of narratives and identity construction that takes place when examining them. First, descriptions of the time and place of the pictures do not necessarily trigger descriptions of ''true'' spaces or time periods, since informants sometimes seemed to mis-recognize or even refuse to recognize some of the pictures. This type of subjective response to a supposedly objective image is especially valuable in the study of identity, because in the process of identification of time and space, participants situate themselves as part of, or excluded from, certain time and place coordinates, positioning themselves as belonging to certain groups but not others. Second, photographs trigger narratives of past events in which informants yield past experiences from the perspective of the present day. The stories do not necessarily stay within the confines of the picture but wander in time and space as they make memory connections. In fact, the same pictures can trigger conflictual perspectives, most dramatically seen across generations.
Chapter 6: The Voices of Neighbourhood
This chapter examines Polish narratives of neighborhood to show how positive and negative accounts of the ''Other'' can coexist in the same story without apparent contradictions. Despite abundant evidence that Germans in general, and Germans from Guben in particular, are constructed as a threat in the Polish narratives, the authors choose to focus on positive accounts of encounters with Germans. From their analysis of narratives across generations, the authors conclude that stories of personal encounters with Germans have two voices: a narrative, positive voice, which remarks on the how nice Germans can be, and a metanarrative, negative voice that frames that niceness as a surprise, something that stands out from the more general belief about Germans as the enemy. The metanarrative appears in the stories implicitly, but in other cases, it can also be explicitly challenged. Meinhof and Galasiński argue these two apparently competing discourses are historical products that affect the identity formation of the self. Thus, while the narrative voice is based on personal experiences of neighborhood, the metanarrative voice is the voice of the nation, i.e., the public discourse that dominated the decades that followed World War II, and that had no competing public discourse.
They finish the chapter with a hopeful note, presenting the narrative of a Polish woman of the youngest generation, who does not frame her positive narrative of an encounter with Germans within a negative metanarrative. They argue that this shows the importance of personal experiences to override the ''grammar of identity'' that may be imposed on people throughout the years.
Chapter 7: Frames of Belonging: Crossing Local, National and Transnational Spaces
This chapter reflects on the apparent contradiction that surfaced during the interviews with people from the German/Polish border regarding the European identity. While the European identity hardly ever surfaced in the narratives triggered by the pictures, it was a significant category in the final, direct question of the interviews about self-identification, although what ''European'' meant in each case was quite variable. In some cases, the European identity was part of a multi-layered account of identity, a ''Russian doll'' type of interpretation of the self where local, regional, national, and transnational identities are seeing as nested in each other, as different layers. In contrast, other narratives constructed certain identity categories as incompatible or in conflict with other categories.
In the Polish narratives, for instance, the main identification was with the nation. Local and regional allegiances were hardly ever invoked, and the European identity was filtered through that of Polishness: the European Union consists of nations dominated by Germany, which is the ''other'' that surfaces overwhelmingly in the narratives. There is no sense in the Polish narratives of the European Union as an entity that may go beyond national boundaries, or that encompasses all of its people. In contrast, the German narratives from across the border are less uniform, showing different degrees of identification with the local, regional, and national categories.
The most important conclusion of this chapter is the contrast between the identities invoked in narratives prompted by pictures and those prompted by direct questioning. The fact that a European identity was mostly circumscribed to the latter shows that any studies that intend to tap into questions of identity cannot simply remain at the level of consciously expressed attitudes. Identities are constructed in discourse, and therefore, indirect methodologies such as the one used here are the most suitable to discover those attitudes that do not typically surface in questionnaires or more direct questioning, but are nevertheless important for the construction of the self.
This book will be of much value not only to linguists working on discourse analysis, but also to political scientists or social psychologists, or in general, anyone interested in the study of identity. The authors favor a context-bound and local understanding of identity that they illustrate with numerous examples that are also available in their original Polish or German transcriptions. One of the main contributions of this book is its methodology, although its discussion could have been more useful toward the beginning of the book, instead of in Chapter 5. Meinhof and Galasiński argue convincingly that adopting the view that identity is fluid and multi-layered must come hand in hand with a methodology that allows the researcher to understand precisely that fluidity and context-bound nature of identity. Direct questioning shows only part of the identities that are relevant for individuals, and responses usually stay at the more or less conscious level of personal identification with a number of social groups. More indirect methods, such as the use of photographs as triggers for the conversation, show a very different spectrum of identities and identifications than those likely to arise in direct questioning, as vividly illustrated in the excerpts of this book. This method has the additional advantage of minimizing the leading role of the researcher, but does not suppress it altogether, as is sometimes the case in some of the excerpts that are included in the book. In some of the examples (e.g., in the conversation on p. 92), the informants' positioning seems to respond to the researcher's prompting rather than to their own perspective. While this type of interference is unavoidable when engaging in conversations with informants, it is clear that the use of pictures reduces these problems significantly.
Another especially important aspect of Meinhof and Galasiński's research is exemplified in Chapter 3, where they discuss the grammar of identity. The authors' analysis of identity as the product of both local and larger social forces illustrates the complex ways in which agency and ideological imposition interact in the creation of identity, a complexity that is sometimes downplayed in an attempt to fight essentialist interpretations of identity. The data presented in this and other chapters are crucial reminders that we should not over-emphasize the freedom and instability that takes place in the creation of identity.
The reader may have expected a more detailed discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of the research. In the discussion of the concept of identity, for instance, the authors engage in the essentialist/non-essentialist debate, which already has a rich tradition in linguistic anthropology and discourse analysis, but offer a somewhat limited view of the issues involved in this more or less arbitrary opposition between both positions. The reader interested in the study of identity may want to consult some additional bibliography such as Bucholtz and Hall (2005), Woodward (1997), or Worchel (1998), which represent just a few of the approaches that may be relevant for the discursive study of identity. This limited account of non-essentialist approaches to the study of identity also weakens some of their theoretical claims. Readers may have benefited, for instance, from a more thorough description of the advantages of adopting the metaphor of belonging in detriment of concepts more widely used in the literature such as sameness and uniqueness.
Finally, a minor comment on the book is the need for a more careful editing, since there are numerous contradictions in the labeling of the informants, who appear with different initials in the examples and in the text, or who are sometimes identified by their whole names instead of using the initials that protect their anonymity.
Bucholtz, Mary, and Hall, Kira. (2005). Language and Identity. In A. Duranti (ed.). A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell. pp. 369-394.
Woodward, Kathryn, ed. (1997) Identity and Difference. London: Sage Publications.
Worchel, Stephen, Morales, J. Francisco, Páez, Darío, and Deschamps, Jean-Claude, eds. (1998). Social Identity. London: Sage Publications.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Marisol del-Teso-Craviotto graduated with honors from the University of Valencia (Spain), where she received her B.A. in English and German Philology. She then did an M.A. in Linguistics and Composition at Northwestern State University of Louisiana, where she also graduated with honors. In 2004, she received her Ph.D. in Linguistics and completed a graduate minor in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Cornell University. She is currently an assistant professor of linguistics in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Miami University. She has done extensive research in the area of language and gender, with a focus on their ideological implications in the media. She has published several articles on the ideology of women's magazines, and on the construction of gender and sexuality in Internet chat rooms. Her present research focuses on the discursive negotiation of identity among Latin American immigrants in Spain.