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By Sari Pietikäinen, Alexandra Jaffe, Helen Kelly-Holmes, Nik Coupland

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Review of  Stance

Reviewer: Simone C. Bacchini
Book Title: Stance
Book Author: Alexandra Jaffe
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 25.1287

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“Stance: Sociolinguistic Perspectives” is, in the words of its editor, ‘a sociolinguistic exploration of one of the fundamental properties of communication: stancetaking’ (3). In its ten chapters, the contributors to this volume offer explorations of some of the ways in which speakers’ positionality is linguistically encoded through various lexicogrammatical and discursive means. Although, for the most part, the essays contained in this volume refer to contemporary English language examples, the collection also contains cases of non-English contexts and, in one of these, a non-contemporary situation.

This volume refers to encodings of speakers’ positionality as ‘stance’ and ‘stancetaking’. As Jaffe explains, stancetaking refers to ‘taking up a position with respect to the form and content of one’s utterance’ (3). Jaffe clearly acknowledges that the linguistic encoding of stance is not new. However, she rightly points out that each act of stancetaking is, by its very nature, both socially situated and dialogic: it occurs in a specific social context, which contributes to its shape; and it responds, directly or indirectly, to other possible stances a speaker might take in ways that are socially and interactionally relevant. With time, repeated acts of stancetaking can become indexical, at a higher level, of things such as femininity, for example. It is against these backdrops of indexicality that further stancetaking then takes place.

The main way in which the studies presented in this volume differ from previous ones is that their perspective is clearly sociolinguistic. What this means is that here, the approaches taken are ‘explicitly socially grounded’ (Coupland 1991: 99). As Jaffe explains, a sociolinguistic approach to stance and stancetaking is interested in the ways in which speakers ‘draw upon sociolinguistic resources and repertoires to signal positionality’ (10). What is meant by ‘sociolinguistic resources’ is ‘forms of variation that have established social indexicalities’ (10). All the studies in this volume successfully deal with a number of such indexicalities: authoritative speech, rationality vs. irrationality, moral irony, and elitism, to name but a few.

This collection of essays opens with an exhaustive introduction (Chapter One) by the volume’s editor, Alexandra Jaffe. In it, the aim of the work is clearly stated: ‘to map the sociolinguistics of stance, bringing together analyses that allow […] to explore both what the study of stance has to offer sociolinguistic theory, and to define the territory occupied by sociolinguistic approaches to stance’ (3). The extent to which it is successful will be addressed later. As Jaffe makes clear, the goal of her introduction is not to provide a general overview of research on stance, but rather, more modestly, to ‘identify dimensions of stance research that are particularly salient for sociolinguistics, and to situate the sociolinguistic focus on stance in relation to related concepts and currents of analysis within sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology’ (4).

Jaffe provides the reader with a useful introduction to the study of stance by first defining the object of enquiry and then by clearly explaining why a sociolinguistic approach, as opposed to other available approaches, is a productive one is shedding light on the various choices speakers and writers make when they encode positionality within a text.

Chapter Two (Stance, Style, and the Linguistic Individual), by Barbara Johnstone, is a discourse analytical study of one particular individual’s textual production (i.e. including both talk and writing) across a variety of genres and over a number of years. The analysis also makes use of biographical and historical data on the sociolinguistic and ideological contexts in which this well-known U.S political figure, Barbara Jordan, operated, and how, in turn, her linguistically encoded examples of stancetaking became indexical, through repetition, of this particular individual’s identity. For example, Johnstone points how the late U.S. politician established personal authority by repeated acts of linguistic epistemic and interactional stancetaking. Both in face-to-face interviews and in public speaking, Jordan would present and project moral and epistemological authority by highlighting (and thus drawing attention to) her knowledgeability, the power of intellect, her adherence to principle and her thoughtfulness. Explicit markers of evidentiality, encoded linguistically through markers such as ‘I think’, ‘in my opinion’ and phrases like ‘this may be too much of a generalization’, are convincingly shown by Johnstone to contribute to the establishment of Jordan as a (in this instance) thoughtful individual.

Chapter Three (Stance in a Colonial Encounter: How Mr. Taylor Lost His Footing), by Judith T. Irvine, makes use of Goffman’s (1981) notions of ‘faultables’ and of ‘audience’ to better understand the concept of ‘stance’. She does this by offering an analysis of archival material, in this case, letters held in the archive of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) from their nineteenth-century missions in West Africa. The letters concern a violent dispute among missionaries, which resulted in the corpus of letters between the missionaries, their locally-based bishop, and the church authorities in London. Irvine clearly and convincingly shows how – through stancetaking – the different social actors involved (i.e. the missionaries and their local bishops) positioned themselves vis-à-vis the ‘faultable’ actions of one particular missionary. The author points out that often an excessive emphasis on speaker intentionality and agency in stancetaking obscures how dispreferred stances can be imposed on speakers by others. These stances, in turn, are shaped and influenced by the various social and power structures in which such speakers operate.

In Chapter Four, Janet McIntosh takes an ethnographic approach to examine the narratives of white Kenyans. She shows how, through stance choices, they ostensibly establish distance between their rational, Western selves and the superstitious, irrational belief system of black Kenyans. However, McIntosh shows that, in closer inspections, these white Kenyans’ belief system is less coherent and more porous than they would like their listener to believe. In fact, their cumulative stance choices reveal a degree of anxiety about the possibility of cultural assimilation and suggest that these choices might serve to perform a preferred identity.

Chapter Five, by Robin Shoaps, aims, in the author’s words, to ‘demonstrate the necessity of ethnographic research for the study of resources for indirect stancetaking and how they are deployed in naturally occurring speech situations’ (92). Shoaps’s is the first study in the collection which looks at a language other than English; she examines, Sakalputek, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala. The author looks at constructions that encode what she terms ‘moral irony’ which, superficially, resemble ironic constructions in English. These constructions, she argues, provide an important resource in Sakalputek for indirect stancetaking. Shoaps argues that in these constructions, ‘moral irony’ is ‘modal’ ‘not only because the construction makes use of modal particles, but because, semiotically, it projects a realm of possible actions and a possible division between the speaker or animator and principal or agent who takes responsibility for or is committed to the hypothetical stance or action’ (112-113). It is ‘ironic’ because – following Goffman – the principal ‘who is committed to the possible stance is distinct from the animator who, in the moment of speaking, rejects the stance or action’ (113). For example, in an encounter where, as customary in Mayan culture, a bride receives advice from her kin the night before the wedding, the bride’s aunt (in this case) advising her niece not to make her father (who is deceased) ashamed qualifies her statement by saying (107): ‘as if because you don’t have a father anymore you can put your mother in shame [,] and as if he’s over and done with’. Here, the aunt uses moral irony to indicate ‘an imagined stance of some other principal who endorses the erroneous idea that because the girl’s father is dead’ (107) she is not expected to hold the same standards of respectability.

Chapter Six is by Alexandra Jaffe. In it, the volume’s editor explores how teachers in a bilingual Corsican-French primary school produce acts of sociolinguistic stance, which, in turn, position the two languages within the classroom. Through the repetition of such acts, Jaffe argues, the pupils’ instructors simultaneously accomplish two things: they offer ‘ideal models of bilingual practice and identity’ (119) whilst, at the same time, attributing stances to their students. The analysis offered in this chapter illustrates how the sociolinguistic stance encoded by bilingual instruction in the classroom highlights the ways in which ‘the conventional association between language and social categories, linguistic ideologies, and language hierarchies’ (143) are themselves indicators of stance.

Chapter Seven, by Mary Bucholtz, looks at the use of of the lexical item ‘güey’ by Mexican and Mexican American youth as both a marker of ‘interactional alignment and of a particular gendered style’ (147). Through her analysis, Bucholtz sheds light on the ways in which stance and style are attended to simultaneously through the use of slang. She argues that contrary to what its critics often claim, ‘güey’ is not a mere verbal filler. Instead, it is a ‘highly expressive [term], performing a range of functions within discourse’ (150). For example it may function as an address term, an insulting or noninsulting reference term, or a discourse marker that indicates focus as emphasis. However, it can also index solidarity, ‘especially during face-threatening social actions’ (152). In an example that Bucholtz provides (153), a young man travelling on a bus with a school friend comments on a motorist’s driving he sees through the bus window. He says: ‘hey idiot. (pause). This güey can’t go here. He has to go on the right’. Here, the term had a double function: that of a reference term but also a mildly insulting epithet. In the following example (152), the term simply functions as an address term: (one of the boys’ phone rings. The boy takes it out of his pocket and puts it to his ear) ‘What’s going on güey? What’s going on güey?’

Chapter Eight is by Scott F. Kiesling. Looking at three examples of situated talk (i.e. recorded interviews and interactions in a U.S. college fraternity, recorded interaction among female colleagues who shared similar jobs in university administration, and the use of the phonological realization of word-final ‘-er’ by second generation Italian and Greek immigrants in Sydney), Kiesling argues that speakers’ stances are the primary means through which they organize interaction. Stance, which he defines as ‘a person’s expression of their relationship to their talk’ (172), then becomes the ‘precursor, or primitive, in sociolinguistic variation’ (172).

Chapter Nine, by Adam Jaworski and Crispin Thurlow, is an exploration of one particular type of stance: elitism, as encoded in the language of travelogues in the travel sections of two British newspapers. The chapter offers an examination of elitism ‘as an everyday discursive accomplishment in the light of a critique of contemporary class privilege and social inequality’ (195). The authors highlight the inherently ideological significance that stances take which, enhanced by their ability to draw little attention to themselves, become a powerful tool for the preservation and propagation of positions such as elitism. For example, one frequently-made in travel writing is the distinction between ‘tourists’ and ‘travellers’. Tourists are seen as sophisticated, often driven by a desire to conform and to ‘take in’ as much as possible; quantity over quality, mere escapism versus a true cultural desire to learn, understand, and improve oneself through travel. As the two authors point out, this distinction is often exploited by travel writers who then position their readers as fellow-travellers, as opposed to the despised tourists.

Chapter Nine, by Justine Coupland and Nikolas Coupland, concludes the volume with a look at how the dialogically developed stance, in relation to body weight in a geriatric setting and in women’s magazines, indexes and reinforces the role of the body as a ‘moral site’ (229). By highlighting the dialogic nature of stancetaking, Coupland and Coupland show that authorial stances are not always, and not only, the product of individuals’ subjectivities but can, and often are, made for them. The authors quote, for example, medical discourse, which has often been referred to as ‘asymmetrical’, realized in acts of ‘speaking for’ rather that ‘speaking with’ the patient. They then refer to the discourse of magazine features relating, in this case, to issues of weight and body shape issues. This discourse, Coupland and Coupland argue, is distinctive in the ways it attributes institutional stances to laypeople (the magazine readers) in relation to their body weight and body shape. This, the authors argue, is essential to the maintenance and dissemination of normative ideologies, in particular, with regard to ageing and the body.


In 1981, Lyons (1981) wrote that, as far as works written in English were concerned, ‘the vast majority of them [were] seriously flawed, from a theoretical point of view, by their failure to give due weight to [the notions of modality, subjectivity, and locutionary agency] and their interdependence’ (235-236). This, he argued, was mainly due to an ‘intellectualist prejudice that language is essentially an instrument for the expression of propositional thought’ (236).

Fortunately, things have change since then and what might be termed the ‘subjective function of language’ has been receiving considerable attention. The encoding of ‘speaker’s positionality’ vis-à-vis his/her utterance, its form and content, and in relation to his/her real or potential audience, has been explored not only in semantics but also in pragmatics and discourse studies. According to each particular researcher’s priorities and theoretical orientation, this has resulted in different terminology reflecting the particular aspect of subjectivity being investigated. However, from whichever point of view one wishes to approach it, one thing is clear: in language, speaker’s positionality is found everywhere. Indeed, language seems to be specifically designed to encode it.

This volume refers to encodings of speakers’ positionality as ‘stance’ and ‘stancetaking’. As Jaffe explains, stancetaking refers to ‘taking up a position with respect to the form and content of one’s utterance’ (3). Jaffe clearly acknowledges that the linguistic encoding of stance is not new.

Most of the volume’s contributions also benefit greatly from ethnographic and anthropological approaches, which is why they are likely to be appreciated by a public with interests beyond linguistics and sociolinguistics. What the contributors to this volume clearly show is how central of a process stancetaking is in the formation, maintenance, and transmission of individual and communal identity. Furthermore, stancetaking is clearly shown to be related to concepts such as power, ideology, and style. Consequently, the research presented in this volume will be of interest not only to sociolinguists, but also, in this reviewer’s opinion, to literary scholars, discourse-analysts, anthropologists and psychologists. All readers will certainly appreciate the clarity with which arguments are made and will find inspiration to further test the ideas and methodologies put forward.

Another strength of this volume is the range of data it uses: travelogues in British newspapers, everyday monolingual and bilingual talk in English as well as other languages, archival material such as letters written by African Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century, and recorded interactions and interviews. This certainly strengthens the arguments being made and clearly demonstrates the wide applicability of a sociolinguistic approach to stancetaking. All contributors to the volume are experts in their own fields and have long histories of dealing with their respective topics. However, each contribution is up-to-date, both in terms of progress in the field and the latest developments put forth by each researcher. As such, this collection can work well as an introduction to what, for some, might be a new area of interest, as well as a way of staying abreast of leading researchers’ current thoughts on issues such as stance and individual style.

Of all the very good essays in this volume, one that particularly stands out (at least in this reviewer’s opinion) is Jaworski and Thurlow’s essay on elitist stance in newspaper travel articles. Although the analytic tools they employ are neither new nor particularly sophisticated, their work clearly illustrates how stancetaking and ideology can be fruitfully uncovered and explored in texts to which most readers will have been exposed at one point or another. Thus, this chapter can be used as a ‘how to’ guide by instructors, more experienced researchers, and students alike.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book which, by providing a unifying concept, offers a very interesting and useful methodology for looking at speakers’ individuality or ‘self’. Written with clear language and with a plethora of examples, it is likely to be a seminal work for years to come.


Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lyons, John. 1981. Language, Meaning & Context. London: Fontana.
Simone C.Bacchini is Social Sciences Curator at The British Library. He has obtained a PhD in Linguistics. His thesis was on the linguistic encoding of the experience of bodily pain in chronic illness. His interests include sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, health communication, and systemic functional grammar. He is currently working on ageist discourse in Italian political discourse.

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ISBN-13: 9780199860555
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