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Author: Ben Rampton Title: Language in Late Modernity Subtitle: Interaction in an Urban School Series Title: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics, 22 Published: 2006 Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Louisa Willoughby, Monash University.
In this analysis of linguistic practices and interaction at one multi-ethnic London high school, Rampton both provides important new data on the nature of interaction in contemporary classes and demonstrates how a careful analysis of seemingly 'everyday' talk and practices can contribute to debate and understanding in such diverse areas as anthropology, sociology and education. As with much of his previous work (e.g. Rampton 1995), data for this book come primarily from radio microphone recordings, supplanted by ethnographic observation at the school and interviews with participants. In this case, four students at the school wore radio microphones for 3-4 hours of around 3 days each, yielding data about their social and classroom interactions in both class and break times. While the small sample base might be seen to limit the validity or relevance of Rampton's findings, the book is as much a theoretical exploration of what these extracts of talk say about wider social processes as it is an analysis of the specific situation at hand. As such, it is a book more for the reader interested in how social theory can be woven into and developed out of sociolinguistic analysis rather than those looking for a more traditional linguistic ethnography of the school environment (such as Eckert 2000 or Heller 1999).
The book is divided into five parts, and further into ten chapters. Part I consists of the introduction, which reviews important themes and background information for the rest of the book. As part of this contextualisation, it provides a review of major debates and policy directions in UK education over the 30 years before moving to review of key tenets of post-structuralist thought in social and linguistics theory. The chapter closes with a review of the volumes key research questions and an explanation of the project's methodology and Rampton's reasons for choosing an interactional sociolinguistics approach to these questions.
Part II ''Urban classroom discourse'' contains two chapters -- ''Talk in class at Central High'' and ''Popular culture in the classroom''-- firmly focussed on interaction in the classroom. Chapter two ''Talk in class at Central High'' analyses how the traditional initiation-response-evaluation (IRE) model of teacher-student interaction is implemented and subverted in the classrooms at Central High. While teachers in the UK are under increasing curriculum pressure to implement IRE strategies in the classroom, Rampton shows how the teachers at Central High negotiate a teaching strategy that both mirrors and subverts aspects of the traditional IRE framework and allows for a more democratic approach for classroom interaction. This strategy is shown to work in ways that acknowledges, and indeed encourages the participation of a number of hyper-involved and somewhat unruly boys, but at the same time further silences and marginalises some of the less-engaged female students.
Chapter 3 shifts the analysis to pop cultural references, and specifically music allusions in the classroom. The chapter takes as its premise theories that media in late modernity entering is entering classrooms and subverting traditional authority structures. Through comparison with another school in a middle class area, Rampton shows that students at the more working Central High sing much more in class, and generally have much noisier classrooms, however he questions the extent to which this results in subversion of authority, or at least radially different forms of subversion to those seen in the past. In analysing the instances in which students sing or make reference to songs in class he shows the varied social functions served by these musical allusions, and that while music is generally marginal to the 'official' goings on in the class, its function is similar to chatting and other very well-established forms of student rebellion in the classroom.
Part III ''Performances of Deutsch'' expands on ideas previously published in Rampton (1999), which somewhat strangely is neither acknowledged in the main text nor listed in the bibliography. The two chapters -- ''Deutsch as improvised performance'' and ''Ritual in the instruction and inversion of German'' -- explore students' incidental use of German (the school's compulsory foreign language) outside the language classroom, and why these students, who were quite reluctant to speak in foreign language class, chose to make use of German outside the classroom (Rampton terms this second form Deutsch to distinguish it from classroom German). The use of Deutsch at the school turned out to be a passing fad that most participants had forgotten about when reinterviewed a year or so later, but Rampton shows that while it lasted it was most frequently used in ritualised verbal interactions (such as thanks or giving orders) and particularly at moments where interaction was actually or potentially problematic -- such as when classroom order has broken down. However, Rampton finds that there is no specific association between Deutsch and ritualised language -- rather Deutsch is but one of the language varieties that students draw on in ''ritually pregnant moments'' (p170).
In explaining the use of Deutsch Rampton draws extensively of anthropological theories of ritual and performance (cf. Goffman 1967, Turner 1969, 1982). He notes that the audiolingual methods employed by the German teacher creates a highly ritualised classroom environment, where the teacher is constantly trying (but rarely succeeding) to get her students into a state of ''flow''. In this light, the use of Deutsch is seen as, at least in part, an inversion of the rituals of the German classes -- a way of acting out some of their frustrations and unease at the way their lessons were conducted.
Part IV ''The stylisation of social class'' seeks to understand the processes and meaning involved when students adopt (exaggerated) cockney and posh accents in their interactions. A particular interest of Rampton's over these chapters is whether class is still a meaningful category for these post-modern students. In exploring this area, he builds his argument over four chapters. Chapter 6 ''Language and class I: theoretical orientations'' lays the groundwork for the rest of the analysis, covering such as aspects as what is meant by social class and stylisation, how class might manifest itself in interaction, and how we might explore the stylisation of class from a sociolinguistic perspective. Chapter 7 ''Language and class II: empirical preliminaries'' provides further background, this time focussing on the informants themselves. As a precursor for identifying potential stylisations of cockney and posh, Rampton explores the features of students' everyday speech and the degree to which their speech becomes more/less standard-like depending on the formality of the situation (e.g. talking with peers vs. orals in class). He then sets up the criteria which he uses in judging a particular instance of language use to be stylised; namely that the utterance ''be linked to some kind of change of footing, or minor shift in key in the flow of activity on hand'' (p. 261), and involve a use of features typically associated with posh/Cockney that appeared (on the basis of the author's intuition) to be outside the students usual speech repertoire.
Chapters 8 and 9 -- ''Schooling, class and stylisation'' and ''Classed subjectivities in interaction'' -- explore how stylisation is used in practice at Central High. Students are shown to play with these varieties in a number of different ways, for example using Cockney to scold fellow students who are misbehaving or posh to mock the speech (and thus the attitudes) of a disliked teacher. While there is a strong association of posh with formality and school orientation and Cockney with informality and peer orientation, both are used in transitions from work to play, and the connotations of each provide students with ample opportunities to play with an subvert these associations. Thus one student in particular often uses cockney when trying to cajole his friends into doing work, while others deploy posh in part as a way of sending up the seriousness of doing schoolwork. When used with peers these stylisations were often part of a wider performance - for example using posh to show mock fear at a threat or to give a mock denial that one would behave in a 'rude' manner. They were also clearly linked to performances of the grotesque, and Cockney to the students' emergent and often crude expressions of their sexuality. As with much of the book, the complexity of Rampton's argument over these chapters defies brief summarisation, however it should be noted that he concludes that the students ''stylisations of posh and Cockney amounted to far more than a superficial engagement with the class dynamics of English society''(p. 378). Despite their different ethnic origins and personal understandings of class, Rampton finds the students continue to participate in the ''emotive intimacies of class'' and give voice to their complex understanding of it in their frequent stylisation of posh and Cockney.
Part V ''Methodological reflections'' closes the book with a single chapter entitled ''Reflections on generalisation, theory and knowledge construction''. As the title of this chapter implies, the purpose of this section is to make transparent many of the reasoning processes behind the interpretations and theoretical claims made in the book and to make explicit how other researchers might be able to draw on Rampton's methods and reasoning in their own research projects. It also acts as a coda to the book as a whole by reflecting on the extent to which findings from Central High School can be generalised to other settings.
Language and Late Modernity is a complex book that is more about the theory than describing the particular reality of life at Central High School. Rather than being a comprehensive ethnography of the linguistic environment of the school (like perhaps Heller 1999 or Eckert 2000), it takes short extracts of talk largely from the 4 participants wearing radio microphones and looks to see the underlying processes at work in these speech events. The heavy emphasis on theory means the book needs to be read attentively -- it is not the 'light' read that ethnographies often are -- however readers are rewarded for their careful reading with a number of interesting an important theoretical insights. A clear strength of the book is the way in which the author weaves an enormous breath of literature from education, cultural studies, sociology and anthropology into a cohesive and convincing explanation of the linguistic and social practices he recorded at Central High. While one might not always agree completely with the interpretations he poses or the way he develops these theories, as he himself stresses the point of the book is not to present the one true account of what is going on when people use language in certain ways, but to explore some of the many different things going on simultaneously. Thus it is not necessary to accept his analysis at all times in order to find the book useful and insightful. Having said this however, I found that in the overwhelming majority of cases Rampton does an excellent job of weaving his analysis together into a coherent and useful theoretical perspective that gives insight into processes at Central High that would likely find resonance in other UK educational settings.
For me, the inclusion of chapter 10 ''Reflections on generalisation, theory and knowledge construction'' was a particularly welcome addition to the volume as it acts as something of a ''how to'' guide for drawing abstract theory out of what might at first glance seem rather unexceptional interactions. This section will doubtless be of interest to many graduate students, early career researchers and others looking to take their own work to a more theoretical level. Through his explicit discussion of epistemological basis for his work and the degrees to which he seeks to make claims of wider generalisation, Rampton helps the reader understand the thought processes guiding his analysis and leaves them particularly well-positioned to evaluate how well his analysis and conclusions fit within these stated aims.
Throughout the book, a key interest of the author's is to deconstruct a number of myths surrounding modern education -- such as modern students no longer having the ability/attention span to collectively respond to classroom talk (and particularly teacher demands that students recite what they have learnt) or ideas that social class is no longer a relevant identity for contemporary teenagers. While most of these myths would not be believed by serious scholars working in education in the first place, Rampton's careful and painstaking deconstruction of these myths serves as an interesting and well executed lesson in logic and rhetoric and how academics can use seemingly minor findings from their own research to poke powerful holes in popular discourse. For those of us not entirely familiar with UK education politics and policy these sections also serve as a useful introduction.
The complexity of the book poses a challenge for the author in how to handle the many occasions where the text must refer back (or indeed forward) to examples or theoretical points discussed elsewhere in the text. Here the author's general practice is to repeat extracts, quotes and often summaries of his own analysis -- a practice that was often a helpful memory aid, but sometimes became annoyingly repetitive. It is difficult to know if and how this situation might be handled more efficiently, but the reader with a good memory and/or strong prior knowledge of the theories being presented may become irritated by this somewhat repetitive style.
All in all ''Language in Late Modernity'' is an interesting and insightful monograph that clearly demonstrates the potential of interactional sociolinguistics as research methodology/approach and adds to a potentially highly fruitful dialogue between sociolinguistics and cultural studies as disciplines. As much (if not more so) a book for educators as linguists, the book covers a wide and eclectic range of topics but manages to weave this diversity into a coherent whole and provide insights relevant to a wide range of fields.
Eckert, P. (2000). Linguistic variation as social practice: The linguistic construction of identity in Belten High. Oxford: Blackwell.
Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Heller, M. (1999). Linguistic minorities and modernity: A sociolinguistic ethnography. London: Longman.
Rampton, B. (1995). Crossing: Language and ethnicity among adolescents. London: Longman.
Rampton, B. (1999). Deutsch in Inner London and the animation of an instructed foreign language. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3:4, 480-504.
Turner, V. 1969. The ritual process. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Turner, V. 1982. From ritualto theatre: The human seriousness of play. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Louisa Willoughby completed her doctorate with the Language and Society Centre at Monash University, and now teaches there and in the Deakin University Education faculty. Her main research interest is the relationship between identity, language maintenance and schooling, with her current research focussing on language choice and access to language education for deaf migrants and their families.