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Review of  Language in Late Modernity

Reviewer: Louisa Willoughby
Book Title: Language in Late Modernity
Book Author: Ben Rampton
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 18.850

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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

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.

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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521812631
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 464
Prices: U.K. £ 55.00
U.S. $ 95.00