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Review of  Context and Contexts

Reviewer: Inas Youssef Mahfouz
Book Title: Context and Contexts
Book Author: Anita Fetzer Etsuko Oishi
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 23.850

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EDITORS: Fetzer, Anita and Oishi, Etsuko
TITLE: Context and Contexts
SUBTITLE: Parts meet whole?
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2011

Inas Y. Mahfouz, Ain Shams University, Egypt.


This volume belongs to the John Benjamins Pragmatics and Beyond New Series
(P&BNS). It is the product of an international panel organized within the
International Pragmatics Association Conference that took place in Melbourne in
2009. It is composed of three parts, each of which comprises three
contributions. The book begins with an introduction, where the editors introduce
pragmatics as an interdisciplinary field which probes into questions pertaining
to communicative action and context. The introduction also tackles context as a
multi-layered concept which defies all attempts of reaching a precise
definition. Finally, the editors end this section by shedding light on the
various chapters included in the book.

The book is divided into three parts covering situated meaning, deixis, and
communicative action. All the contributions are selected in such a way as to
clarify the clear link between parts and whole. Part I, “Situated meaning in
context,” examines the interaction between meaning and context, or the situation
in which discourse is produced. In Part II, “Deixis in context,” the relation
between context and deictic expressions is investigated from various
perspectives. Finally, Part III, “Communicative action in context,” provides a
multi-faceted, extensive theoretical discussion of the interconnectedness
between speech acts and context.

Part I comprises three papers that discuss the relation between meaning and
situation in various domains, namely, law, politics and media. The first
contribution, “Why a mother’s rule is not a law: The role of context in the
interpretation of Greek laws,” by Amalia Moser and Eleni Panaretou, investigates
the role of the meso- and macro-context in the interpretation of a text. The
meso context in this paper is used in the same sense as genre, whereas macro
context is used to refer to social and cultural surroundings such as power,
dominance, inequality among social groups, etc. (Van Dijk 2003).The analysis in
this paper is done through examining tense, aspect, and modality in Greek laws
and comparing these features to a mother’s instructions to her children based on
the assumption that both types of discourse perform the same speech act. For
example, both types of discourse would set rules in: “Challenge of paternity is
not allowed after the death of the child, unless the relevant suit ‘had already
been filed’” (p. 27); “Ari, you may play football in the afternoon only ‘if you
had finished’ your homework” (p. 27). Though the past perfect should not be used
in both examples, the researchers state that informants accept it in the first
because it is a law and reject in the second because this is ordinary an
instruction from a mother to her children. The authors conclude by pinpointing
that legal texts are created within a cognitive frame that permits deviance from
grammatical norms.

The second chapter, “Fighting words: Hybrid discourse and discourse processes,”
by Lawrence N. Berlin, applies the Multilayered Model of Context (MMC) to data
obtained from the interviews with Hugo Chávez, the President of Bolivia.
According to this model, context is broken into four distinct levels: linguistic
context, interactional context, situational context, and extrasituational
context. The paper traces Chávez’s use of militarizing language over a period of
time, beginning with the latter part of 2007, and culminating in the early part
of 2008, when the president called for the mobilization of troops to the border
with Colombia, as in the following example: “Mr. Defense Minister, move ten
battalions to the border with Colombia immediately” (p. 61). Berlin ends by
emphasizing the importance of incorporating MMC in critical discourse analysis
because it provides a fuller understanding of texts. This is because such a
model examines the text not only from a linguistic perspective but also from
situational and extrasituational points of view. Moreover, the creation of
external reality is possible through hybrid discourse, which manipulates
language to achieve certain purposes.

The third paper in this part, “Context and talk in confrontational discourse,”
by Luisa Granato and Alejandro Parini, focuses on confrontational discourse in
media. It aims at clarifying some of the contextual features of confrontational
discourse with the purpose of understanding the relation between language and
context. The researchers analyze the dimensions of tenor and mode as expounded
in the Theory of Register, as described in the Systemic Functional Linguistics
(SFL) paradigm. Halliday (1978) defines ‘register’ as a theory of language
variation according to what is taking place, what part the language is playing,
and who is taking part, and deals with field, tenor, and mode. The study is
based on two corpora of media interviews in Argentina. The conclusions of the
study emphasize the wide differences between prototypical sequences and
confrontational sequences as far as mode and tenor are concerned. At the level
of mode, in confrontational sequences, there is no respect for turns, whereas in
prototypical sequences, turns are respected. There is usually a clear reluctance
to pass the floor in confrontational sequences. At the level of tenor, roles are
often ignored and participants’ actions cannot be predicted. Overall, polite
behavior is practically absent in confrontational encounters. The example below
illustrates the features of mode and tenor in confrontational sequences, where
square brackets signify overlap in which the speaker follows his line of
thought, ignoring his interlocutor.

D: …the evidence, didn’t work out [xxx well and]
B: [But the feeling was that]
D: [and this blew over. Let me, let me finish]
B: [close the case and move on to something else]
D: Let me finish.
B: So as not to investigate.
D: Let me finish and stop making unpleasant insinuations (p. 76).

Part II, “Deixis in context,” examines how far context influences the
interpretation of deixis through three studies that cover wide domains, ranging
from everyday conversation and general corpora, to political discourse. The
first contribution, “This? No, that! Constructing shared contexts in the
conversational dyad,” by Konstanze Jungbluth, focuses on the role of the hearer
in constructing context. The study analyzes spoken language to emphasize the
importance of situational context. It uses Spanish and Polish data to
investigate the various parts of conversation: heard utterances, intentions of
the speaker, and interpretations of the hearer. The paper concludes that these
parts contribute to a fuller understanding of spoken language. The following
example makes this point clearer. In this example two men are standing facing
each other and they are involved in harvesting fruits. One of them is trying to
direct the attention of the other to ‘those’ fruits behind him that are ready to
be picked up. In the following extract the word ‘those’ is almost an order to
the hearer to turn around:

Man: No, no, not these, they are smaller.
Harvester: Which ones? These?
Man: To your left side (pause) behind this branch. ‘Those’ over there. (p. 105)

“‘Here is the difference, here is the passion, here is the chance to be part of
great change’: Strategic context importation in political discourse,” by Anita
Fetzer, focuses on the indexical deictic form, ‘here,’ and its counterpart,
‘there.’ The paper evaluates the communicative function these deictic forms
perform in two different genres, namely, interviews and political speeches. The
chapter highlights the difference in function and distribution of ‘here’ and
‘there’ in these two genres. The more determinate nature of the linguistic
context of these deictic forms is found in speeches. The researcher cites this
example from a party conference: “If anyone ‘here today’ thinks that ‘we’ can
just sit tight and wait for the pendulum to swing back to the Conservatives –
think again” (p. 132). The co-occurrence of ‘here today’ with the pronoun ‘we’
signifies a shared common social space. The data under investigation comprise 29
full length political interviews and 16 political speeches containing a total of
more than 200,000 words.

The last paper in this part, “Context, contrast and the structure of discourse
in Turkish,” by Ṻmit Deniz Turan and Deniz Zeyrek, focuses on the contrastive
discourse connective ‘on the contrary.’ The paper investigates the use of this
connective in the Turkish language. The paper probes into the role this
connective performs in bridging the gap in the cognitive context between a
writer and his/her audience to clarify the role of such a contrastive connective
in argumentation. For example, “Literally, it is impossible to say that the
author of the book is unenlightened”; “On the contrary, (he) reflects the
culture of a part of our country with a profound sensitivity and understanding
in his work” (pp.156-157). The paper also touches upon negation, as it is
obligatory in expressing contrast, especially with this connective. The data is
driven from a two-million word corpus of modern written Turkish representing
various genres. The researchers conclude that ‘on the contrary’ performs a role
in forming, reshaping, and changing the context in written discourse.

The third and final part in this volume, entitled “Communicative action in
context,” is basically a theoretical part that brings all the previously
discussed points together, where parts meet whole. The first paper, “Speech acts
in context,” by Jacob L. Mey, elaborates on the importance of placing speech
acts in the right context for their proper understanding. According to the
author, speech acts are pragmatic acts and have to be situated in reality to
become real. Furthermore, all speech acts are in a way created by their
contexts, which determine what a speaker may say. This is how parts meet whole,
because outside of context, speech acts do not exist.

The second paper in this part, “How are speech acts situated in context?”, by
Etsuko Oishi, probes into the different elements that affect the success or
failure of performing an illocutionary act. In making an utterance, whether it
is performative or non-performative, the speaker identifies him/herself as the
addresser, the hearer as the addressee, and the circumstances as the context.
Along the same lines, Van Dijk (1977) has argued that “A specific force or
function may be assigned only if the communicative context yields information
about whether the speaker has certain obligations, the hearer certain wishes,
the action a beneficiary role for the hearer, etc.” (p. 214).

The last contribution in this part, “Context and adaptive action,” by Thanh
Nyan, investigates context as a non-focal element required for the occurrence of
a focal event. The author probes into context in terms of perceptual and
conceptual categorization, attention selection, and decision making. The
underlying principle is how the brain handles contextual change.


The purpose of the book is to capture the dynamic nature of context by
highlighting its multilayered nature. The editors want to highlight the value of
linguistics, psychology, sociology and cultural studies in any methodological
interpretation of discourse. Context is difficult to define “in spite of its
omnipresence in the domains of pragmatics, sociopragmatics, discourse analysis
and ethnomethodology, the concept of context has remained fuzzy” (Fetzer 2004,
p. 3). To achieve its objective, the book is divided into three parts. Part I
emphasizes how context influences the interpretation of a text, to the extent
that it may make commonly unacceptable forms seem quite acceptable. This part is
certainly the richest and most innovative in its approach to older problems
pertaining to the role of context and its role in understanding texts. For
example, the first contribution illustrates how the cognitive frame of laws
makes deviance from linguistic norms acceptable. The second part of the book
examines how context influences the interpretation and use of deixis. The first
two contributions in this part by Jungbluth and Fetzer delve deep into the use
of deixis, opening new perspectives. Finally, the third part points out the
interaction between context and speech acts, where finally, all parts of the
context meet whole. Though this division justifies the subtitle of the book, the
reader is left somewhat confused by encountering such a purely theoretical
section at the end of the book. It would have been better if this section had
been placed at the beginning of the book.

The book is intended for those who are interested in the interconnection between
context, pragmatics, and discourse. It is full of specialized terminology that
would be difficult, if not impossible, for beginners to understand. The only
shortcoming of the book would be the absence of a glossary that explains these

Finally, “Context and Contexts” develops a long tradition of books published on
context, but at the same time, opens up new horizons for future researchers by
posing questions that require further investigations. Some of these horizons
include: the characteristics of law as a genre and how far it differs from
everyday conversation; the advantages of using a Multilayered Model of context
(MMC) in the analysis of texts; and the contextual characteristics of
confrontational interviews. These avenues are valuable because they consider
older problems from new perspectives. Overall, the selection of contributions
results in an informative volume that is a must read for any scholar interested
in perceiving context and discourse analysis from a fresh perspective.


Fetzer, Anita. 2004. Recontextualizing context: Grammaticality meets
appropriateness. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of
Language and Meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

Van Dijk, Teun. 1977. Context and cognition: Knowledge frames and speech act
comprehension. Journal of Pragmatics 1, 211-232.

Van Dijk, Teun. 2003. The discourse - knowledge interface. In G. Weiss and R.
Woodak (eds). Critical Discourse Analysis: theory and interdisciplinarity.
Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Inas Y. Mahfouz is an Assistant Professor of Language and Linguistics at Ain Shams University. Her primary research interests include discourse analysis, computational linguistics, and Systemic Functional Linguistics.