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Review of  The Sociolinguistics of Narrative

Reviewer: Don Edward Walicek
Book Title: The Sociolinguistics of Narrative
Book Author: Joanna Thornborrow Jennifer Coates
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 17.400

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Date: Thu, 02 Feb 2006 18:05:27 +0000
From: Don Walicek
Subject: The Sociolinguistics of Narrative

EDITORS: Thornborrow, Joanna; Coates, Jennifer
TITLE: The Sociolinguistics of Narrative
SERIES: Studies in Narrative
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2005

Don E. Walicek, The University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras


This edited volume is the sixth work in a series on narrative published
by John Benjamins. It builds on existing scholarship indicating that
narrative is central to social interaction. Exploring the ''pervasive role
of narrative in our everyday life,'' the book includes thirteen chapters
that discuss the structure and function of storytelling from a
sociolinguistic perspective. In addition to addressing theoretical and
cultural issues, this text examines oral narratives associated with the
media, the court room, educational institutions, and the workplace.


The first chapter is entitled 'The Sociolinguistics of Narrative: Identity,
Performance and Culture.' Written by the editors, it addresses some
of the questions ''left implicit whenever stories are brought within the
analytic frame of sociolinguistics'' (1). These concern: the meaning of
story, the use of narrative as a descriptive term, how context affects
the production and shape of stories, the core elements of narrative as
a discursive unit / interactional resource, and the relationship between
situated narrative discourse and the construction of cultural identities.
Thornborrow and Coates draw attention to two themes that tie
together the book's contents: the tellability of stories and the
differences between individual and community-based approaches to
narrative. In addition, this chapter refers to seminal theoretical work in
the study of narrative, reviewing key concepts from Labov and
Waletzky (1967) and Labov (1972).

Chapter 2, 'Narrative as a Resource in Accounts of the Experience of
Illness' by Jenny Cheshire and Sue Ziebland, examines the life story in
the context of narratives. The chapter focuses on the testimonies of
two individuals who see their struggles with hypertension very
differently. One considers herself a typical patient and notes that her
illness tends to affect ''someone like myself;'' the other considers
herself atypical, pointing out that the condition in question does not
affect ''the real me.'' Comparing these points of view leads the authors
to see them as ''an important resource for people who have to adjust
to living with a chronic condition, helping to reinforce the strategies
they have developed in order to cope with the everyday demands of
the condition'' (40).

Chapter 3 presents 'Storying East-German Pasts: Memory Discourses
and Narratives of Readjustment on the German / Polish and former
German / German Border' by Heidi Armbruster and Ulrike H. Meinhof.
In order to explore the communication strategies of people who
endure major political and historical change (in this case, in Guben on
the Polish-German border and a cluster of villages in Thuringia), the
researchers used symbolically significant photographs
as ''communication triggers'' in interviews conducted between 1999
and 2000. The authors interpret their data in terms of models of
identity which postulate that crucial aspects of self-experience are
constituted not outside, but within narrative. Armbruster and Meinhof
argue that practices of self-representation are practices of memory,
that narratives are simultaneously a means of reflecting on and
reshaping the past.

Chapter 4, written by Nikolas Coupland, Peter Garrett, and Angie
Williams, discusses narratives of personal experience that teenage
boys shared in classrooms in Wales. The essay achieves two main
goals: first, it demonstrates why researchers' commentaries should be
integrated alongside evaluative data from the community studied; and
second, it shows that the successful telling of stories depends on
locally operative norms of production and interpretation. This work
contains a valuable theoretical section that expounds the distinction
between 'talk' and 'performance.' Referring to Bauman (1992), the
authors formulate a list of seven criteria that define performance as
a ''focusing of communicative events.'' They draw attention to
processes by which stories are ''entextualised'' (put into text at the
time told) and ''decontextualised'' (in a sense ''packaged'' as ''to go''
items), turning to Bauman and Briggs (1990).

The next chapter is 'Masculinity, Collaborative Narration and the
Heterosexual Couple' by Jennifer Coates. The subject here is co-
narration, collaboratively produced conversation, for which Coates
identifies three key features: repetition, joint utterance construction,
and overlapping speech. Based on her observation that male
speakers in single-sex groups prefer solo narration, the author
differentiates men who participate in collaborative narrative from ''new
men;'' she describes the former as speakers who perform
heterosexuality and ''(hegemonic) masculinity'' (105).

Two contributions address the notion of context. The sixth
chapter, 'Contextualizing and Recontextualizing Interlaced Stories in
Conversation,' is written by Neal R. Norrick. The author examines two
interlaced stories, which he sees as examples of a type of narrative
sequencing and co-narration in which participants speak of
interrelated events. Focusing on ''... the contextualization and
subsequent recontextualization in the telling of these stories...,'' (109)
he situates this sub-genre in terms of his previous work on humour in
these same stories (Norrick 2005) and ''story-telling rights'' (Shuman
1986, Blum-Kulka 1993). Next, in 'Hearing Voices,' Dick Leith
discusses evasion and self-disclosure in an individual's narratives of
alcohol addiction. The discussion centers largely on two transcribed
narratives, but also integrates elements of ethnography and
autobiography. Leith argues that listeners ''... as well as narrators,
have biographies, and that the issue of identity for both is a fluid and
multi-layered one'' (143).

The following two essays deal with the stories preschoolers tell.
Chapter 8 is 'Modes of Meaning Making in Young Children's
Conversation Storytelling' by Shoshana Blum-Kulka. It describes
narratives recorded in a preschool in Jerusalem. The author argues
that peer talk should be understood as a ''double opportunity space''
(150) in which talk functions simultaneously in two distinct spaces: in
this case the first (''socio-cultural arena'') is a space unique to the
culture of youth, while the second (''discursive arena'') is a testing
ground of sorts through which children eventually acquire adult-like
uses of language that include narrative conventions. Chapter 9 is
written by Amy Sheldon and Heidi Engstrom. Entitled 'Two Systems of
Mutual Engagement,' it describes the co-construction of gendered
narrative styles among Midwestern North American four and five year
olds. The authors focus on ''unsupervised spontaneous pretend play''
(174) among two same-sex groups, one female and one male.
Sheldon and Engstrom point to differences in examples of
performance, but argue against the idea that these gendered
processes are mutually exclusive and correlate with a single gender.

Janet Holmes and Meredith Marra present their study of workplace
narratives in Chapter 10. Probing the ideological significance of talk,
their work contextualizes six anecdotes alongside a discussion of the
professional identities of two managers. Holmes and Marra find that
these anecdotes ''... often complexify and humanise the standard
professional identity constructed by workplace managers, ... providing
a more personal perspective than the standard institutional discourse
allows'' (210). They describe these data, which contrast with more
focused ''business talk,'' as relatively unique, comparatively
compressed, and structurally minimal.

Sandra Harris leads readers to the courtroom in Chapter 11, 'Telling
stories and giving evidence.' The author examines narrative and
narrative structure in a 1997 sexual assault trial. Special attention is
given to: ''the intermingling of narrative and non-narrative modes of
discourse'' and the pressure (e.g., pressure on prosecuting
lawyers) ''to construct witness narratives as a powerful and persuasive
way of achieving a measure of discourse coherence'' in light of the
anti-narrative mode of much trial language (217). Harris reviews
previous work on narrative and points to ways in which different
participants characterize narrative differently (e.g., judges vs.

The topic of Chapter 12 is television news. In it Martin Montgomery
identifies a number of problems that arise when this discourse genre
is analyzed within a narrative framework. Discussing concepts such
as tense, textual cohesion, and principles of intelligibility, he holds that
television news only intermittently relies on narrative. Montgomery
argues that a large amount of news reporters' discourse should be
classified as 'commentary.' An appendix includes transcripts of data,
most of which are from BBC broadcasts.

Chapter 13 by Terry Threadgold juxtaposes an overview of the
previous chapters with a discussion of questions that arise when they
are considered as a whole. Pulling from the work of Bourdieu (1990)
in assessing the collection, he writes that telling stories ''seems to be
an important part of the way in which the habitus is negotiated and
thus of the way in which the social is embodied, enacted and remade''
(263). This concluding essay includes provocative commentary on
performativity, genre, the significance of micro-level analysis, as well
as an engaging account of Threadgold's work on refugee and asylum
issues in Great Britain. The author's research on the later topic
includes: the organization of a group to monitor the media's
representation of asylum / refugee issues and the establishment of a
creative writing and media literacy classroom project. These two
examples show that narrative can be ''used for radical interventions of
a kind which do not just analyse narratives in particular social contexts
but also rewrite them in order to change the dominant kinds of social
realities and selves (habitus) which they produce'' (264).


Unmistakably, this text makes an impressive and significant
contribution to the study of narrative. Each of the book's well-written
chapters strikes an impressive balance between the need to support
research with empirical data and the importance of relating an
argument to relevant theoretical concerns. Those interested in the
analysis of narrative will be undoubtedly delighted by this publication.
The volume identifies a number of ways in which the study of narrative
relates to research in other fields (e.g., linguistic anthropology, gender
studies, critical discourse analysis, history). Cheshire and Ziebland,
for example, illuminate connections between narratives about the
body and work in the health field. Accordingly, this study will be of
wide appeal, attracting readers with interests in areas such as
sociolinguistics, forensic linguistics, and theories of identity and

With respect to technical matters, the book's index does not do justice
to the rich content found between its covers. While adequate as a
subject index, the names of researchers mentioned in the text are
completely absent from it, even those whose work receives substantial
emphasis (e.g., William Labov, Judith Butler, Roland Barthes). An
index that included authors' names would make information easier to
locate and identify areas of overlap between chapters. In addition, the
works by Hayden White and Herrnstein Smith that Threadgold refers
to are missing from the bibliography (261). On a more positive note,
the book has few typographical errors and is written in a clear and
concise manner that makes it appropriate for those new to the field as
well as for more seasoned scholars.

As I reread the first chapter several times, a certain statement jumps
out at me, ''... the issues that seem to us to be central to work on
narrative at this time are issues that are highly salient in
sociolinguistics in general'' (14). This may be fair as an overview of
some of the work in these two fields; however, as has been noted by
Rickford (2001), assumptions about what count as relevant and how
researchers study language depend significantly on how the
enterprise or goal of sociolinguistics is interpreted. In his
words, ''Labovian, Hymesian, and Couplandian conceptions of this are
different'' (221).

An example of one place that this might be of relevance is Chapter 5's
discussion of the co-construction of stories. Referring to her data,
Coates tells us the ''[m]ixed conversations are full of collaborative
narration, involving heterosexual couples, male and female friends,
fathers and daughters, mothers and male family members, as well as
mothers and daughters, sisters, female friends'' (105). She observes
that her data do not reveal examples of men collaborating with other
men to produce a narrative. According to the author, ''Heterosexuality
is at the heart of dominant versions of masculinity, so when male
speakers perform the heterosexual couple through co-narration with a
female partner, they are also performing hegemonic masculinity.'' She
argues that these speakers perform a hegemonic masculinity which
has heterosexuality, and possibly the fear of being identified as gay,
at its heart (105).

As I understand it, Coates suggests that the absence of a certain
pattern of interaction (i.e., men telling stories together in the presence
of women) is best accounted for by a subset of data (i.e., collaborative
narratives among heterosexual couples) and its links to hegemonic
interpretations of masculinity. Might a wider discussion of
collaboration, one that included a discussion of duetting in male-
female non-couples and in all male groups, be insightful here?
Moreover, a discussion of ''hierarchies of precedence among
components'' (Hymes 1972) could address how factors such as
setting, participants, and topic inform the phenomenon of collaborative
narration, perhaps even leading to insight on instances in which
norms for collaboration and performing gender are resisted, forgotten,
or altogether ignored. I sense in the volume a general reluctance to
juxtapose sharply different points of view within individual chapters
(one exception is Montgomery's Chapter 12).

In addition, it seems that the assessment of the interface between
sociolinguistics and narrative studies gives little attention to a number
of arguably devastating critiques of sociolinguistic theories and
methodologies (Cameron 1990, Harris 1980, 1981, Romaine 1984,
Singh 1996). While metacritique in sociolinguistics goes unmentioned
in a number of recent overviews of work in sociolinguistics, I consider
it ''highly salient'' and believe that they have much to do with the topic
of this exciting text. Note that Threadgold writes that research on
narrative has contributed to ''… rewriting the theories themselves,
especially linguistic theory, because these two came to be seen
as ''narratives which told only part of the story'' (267).

Several chapters direct attention to previously mentioned early work
on narrative (Labov 1972, Labov and Waletsky 1967). I appreciate
and continue to learn from these examples of research, but I believe
that situating this research in terms of critique and refinement of
Labovian models would assist readers in better positioning the
provocative examples of research this book contains in terms of
questions Threadgold poses: What is the relationship among theory,
method, and narrative? Why does the study of narrative matter? How
can it be used?

For example, in Chapter 2 Cheshire and Ziebland indicate
that ''narrative discourse allows them to interweave the objective and
subjective aspects of knowledge... '' (40). As I read the accounts of
illness the chapter presents, the narratives from Rose and Josephine
that the authors share stood out to me as stories belying any order of
accounts that preserves a strict division between subject and object. I
am partially satisfied with the conclusion that ''narrative provides a way
for them to display and construct an identity as patient and to
integrate this identity into their sense of a stable, coherent, permanent
self'' (40). But as I studied this intriguing chapter I kept thinking of
ways to use social theory to further unpack the idea that ''language
reflects society'' (Cameron 1990).

In his work on narrative, Bakhtin (1979) speaks of dual moments of
aesthetic activity, discussing not only identification and empathy, but
also ''extopy.'' Extopic positions relay a watchful listening, an excess of
comprehension and knowledge. Bakhtin's comments recognize Rose
and Josephine outside and next to the world they tell about: Each of
these women is an able storyteller, a being independent of herself,
with whom she appears to be on equal footing. According to Bakhtin
(1984), the positions from which their stories are told must be oriented
in a new way to this new world, ''a world of autonomous subjects, not
objects'' (7). I include Bakhtin's commentary not because I think the
authors of Chapter 2 should have mentioned it, but because it can
serve as a reminder that scientific analysis does not always have to
strive for a final, fixed solution to problems such as those the research
discussed above strives to answer. The study of narrative reveals
science as story and speaks of stories as spaces through which
meaning passes. Science and story both emerge as modes of
knowing that tolerate and nurture questions and silences.


Cameron, D. (1990). Demythologizing sociolinguistics: Why language
does not reflect society. In J.E. Joseph and T.J. Taylor (Eds.),
Ideologies of Language (pp. 79-93). New York: Routledge.

Bakhtin, M. (1979). Estetika Slovesnogo Tvorchestva (The Aesthetics
of Verbal Creation). Moscow: S.G. Bocharov.

Bakhtin, M. (1984). Problems in Dostoevsky's Poetics. ed. and trans.
Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bauman, R. (1992). Performance. In R. Bauman (Ed.), Folklore,
Culture Performances, and Popular Entertainments (pp. 41-49).
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bauman, R. and Briggs, C. (1990). Poetics and performance as
critical perspectives on language as social life. Annual Review of
Anthropology 19, 59-88.

Blum-Kulka, S. (1993). You gotta know how to tell a story: Telling,
tales, and tellers in American and Israeli narrative events at dinner.
Language in Society 22, 361-402.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Harris, R. (1980). The Language Makers. London: Duckworth.

Harris, R. (1981). The Language Myth. London: Duckworth.

Hymes, D. (1972). Models of the interaction of language and social
life. In J.J. Gumperz and D. Hymes (Eds.), Directions in
Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication (pp. 35-71).
New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Labov, W. (1972). The transformation of experience in narrative
syntax. In Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English
Vernacular (pp. 354-396). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania

Labov, W. and Waletzky, J. (1967). Narrative analysis: Oral versions
of personal experience. In J. Helm (Ed.), Essays in the Verbal and
Visual Arts (pp.12-44). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Norrick, N.R. (2005). Interaction in the telling and retelling of
interlaced stories: The co-construction of humorous narratives. In U.
Quasthoff and T. Beckles (Eds.), Narrative Interaction (pp. 263-283).
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Rickford, J.R. (2001). Style and stylizing. In J.R. Rickford and P.
Eckert (Eds.), Style and Sociolinguistic Variation (pp. 220-231). New
York: Cambridge University Press.

Romaine, S. (1984). The status of sociological models and categories
in linguistic variation, Linguistische Berichte 90, 25-38.

Shuman, A. (1986). Story Telling Rights: The Uses of Oral and Written
Texts by Urban Adolescents. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Singh, R. K. (Ed.). (1996). Towards a Critical Sociolinguistics.
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Don E. Walicek is a doctoral student in the Department of English at
the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. His research interests
include sociolinguistics, sociohistorical linguistics, Pidgin and Creole
Studies, and the language-ideology interface. He is the guest editor
of the publication 'Creolistics and Caribbean Languages,' Sargasso
2004-2005, I.