LINGUIST List 23.316

Tue Jan 17 2012

Review: Linguistic Theories; Pragmatics: Norris (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 17-Jan-2012
From: Maria Rieder <>
Subject: Identity in (Inter)action
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AUTHOR: Sigrid NorrisTITLE: Identity in (Inter)actionSUBTITLE: Introducing Multimodal (Inter)action AnalysisSERIES: Trends in Applied Linguistics 4YEAR: 2011PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton

Maria Rieder, Centre for Language and Communication Studies, Trinity College Dublin


This work introduces Multimodal Identity Analysis (MIA), a new theoretical andmethodological framework for the holistic analysis of identity production andcontext, which has been developed by the author on the basis of an extensiveethnographic study. As the title suggests, the framework equally considersverbal, non-verbal, visual modes, frozen actions and objects as modes ofcommunication and sees identity as being produced in interaction with thehistorical body and social forces.

This review follows a horizontal approach in order to pay tribute to the wealthof newly introduced concepts within this rich and comprehensive framework ofidentity analysis.

The book contains a preface and 9 chapters, and spans 298 pages.

The Preface explains the purpose of the book and introduces the reader to theparticipants of the case study, which will play a big part in the illuminationand illustration of the different concepts of MIA in the subsequent chapters.Also, the types of data and the range of communicative modes that areincorporated in the analysis are presented here in the preface.

Chapter 1, "Multimodal (Inter)action Analysis", introduces central terms usedthroughout the book, and presents an overview of the framework. The necessityfor a broad multi-modal framework is demonstrated by a comparison of amono-modal analysis of an audio-tape transcript with a multi-modal analysis of avideo recording of the same interaction. This juxtaposition plausibly revealsthe likelihood of misinterpretations and other shortcomings of a mono-modal(verbal) discourse and identity analysis that disregards various modes ofinteraction, and therefore, the complexity of identity production.

Chapter 2, "Identity in (Inter)action: Theoretical Concepts", starts out with apresentation of the theoretical background of identity production analysis. Byfirst citing Goffman (1959) and Scollon (1998), the author presents an overviewof various definitions and conventional uses of identity as well as ways inwhich identity production has been analyzed historically. Thereafter, the authorexplains her own view of identity as being composed of different identityelements, as something that is dynamic, and as something that is (co)produced ina certain social-time-place together with societal networks, cultural tools andthe environment.

Before going into detail, the author introduces all analytical terms and unitsof analysis: The different kinds of actions, such as lower-level actions (i.e.smallest unit of meaning of a particular communicative mode, e.g., a hand strokeis a unit of the mode of gesture), higher-level actions (i.e. multiple chainedlower-level actions that construct, e.g., a dinner, a class, a conversation,etc.) and frozen actions (e.g. objects or the environment, which have previoussocial and meaningful action imprinted on them); mediational means and culturaltools; the site of engagement as the psychological, spatial and temporal windowopening on an action; the heuristic notion of foreground-background continuum ofawareness/attention; the intentionality of identity production hinting atdiscrepancies between self-perceived and from the outside observed identity; andthe tension between agency and societal prescription in the production ofidentity elements.

The following chapters each elaborate on one of these concepts or aspects ofidentity production and gradually build a complex framework of analysis.

In Chapter 3, "Collecting and Transcribing Ethnographic Data: A Case Study ofTwo Women Living in Germany", the author first gives background information onthe case study and the participants and presents the different types of datathat were collected for the study. In order to allow for triangulation checks, avariety of data, ranging from audio- and video-recordings of naturally occurringaction and informal interviews, field notes, still photos, as well as pieces ofcreative writing, were collected during an extended period in which theresearcher lived with the participants. Ethnographic research of this type isheld to be necessary in order to allow for an all-encompassing analysis ofidentity production. The author also describes a typical day of a researcher inthe field and the difficulties an ethnographer is met with in juggling severaldifferent roles.

For the purpose of multimodal analysis, Norris has designed and presents here aflexible transcription system, which takes a higher-level action, made up ofseveral lower-level actions, as the unit of analysis and includes images,different fonts and various signs to illustrate the hierarchies, configurationsand relationships of different modes in identity construction.

Chapter 4, "Modal Density, Actions, and Identity", starts out with the questionof how social actors know which identity element to attend to when severalelements are produced at the same time. Examples from the case study illustratethe term "modal density", which depicts the concentration of different modes ina higher-level action. The density of an action can be characterized byintensity and/or complexity of multiple modes, which determines whether actionsand elements are produced and observed in the foreground, mid-ground orbackground of attention/awareness. Modal density is a relational notion anddiminishes proportionately to the amount of attention and phenomenologicalperception.

In a second block, the author gives practical tips on how to jot down non-verbalbehavior of different modes in field notes with the help of signs, arrows,abbreviations, etc. Following the analyses of informal interviews onself-perceived identity element production, by which the use of these practicaltips is demonstrated, the author explains the term "site of engagement" as thesocial, historical, psychological, temporal and spatial window opening on anaction, which, besides the employment of different modes of communication, needsto be considered in the analysis of a particular action and identity element.

While the previous chapters concentrate on the analysis of identity elementsseparately, Chapter 5, "Horizontal Identity Production; and Mastery andAppropriation of Identity Elements", looks at the horizontal piece (i.e.simultaneous identity production) and shows how different elements and differenthigher-level actions are juggled at the same time by the employment of differentmodes of communication. The foreground-background continuum posits that actionscarried out with full awareness are located in the foreground, whereas lesseningawareness (shown by less modal density) places actions in the mid- andbackground. The foreground-background continuum shows that identity elements canbe produced sequentially (verbally) and non-sequentially or simultaneously(other modes, such as layout, posture, gestures, gaze, cultural tools, etc.).Meaning is made by each mode separately, which produces several identityelements simultaneously.

Examples from the case study illustrate how focused-on higher-level actions, andthereby produced identity elements, can be either parallel or mismatched interms of awareness for two interlocutors. The latter is plausibly shown to be acommon sign of high confidence and deep understanding between two communicatingsocial actors, whereas paralleled focused attention is needed when such deepunderstanding needs to be built or repaired.

A second subchapter deals with the notions of mastery and appropriation.Ethnographic fieldwork and the observation of how social actors handle culturaltools illuminate to what extent they master or appropriate identity elements.When elements are fully appropriated, the social actor is often not aware ofthem anymore, and may even reject them, which explains why self-perception,actual action and perception from the outside can diverge considerably. The casestudies reveal that elements that are emphasized are often not appropriated yet,which should make researchers aware of things that are not mentioned by socialactors. In order to gain such deep understanding of the social actors beingstudied and to explore their mastery and appropriation of identity elements,long-term ethnographic fieldwork is indispensable.

After looking at the horizontal production of different identity elements at thesame time, Chapter 6, "Vertical Identity Production", examines the compositionof single identity elements. Each element is shown to be influenced by, andproduced through, three layers of discourse. The outer layer of discourse refersto societal and institutional forces generating the general layer of identityelements. The intermediary layer is created by the social actor's immediatenetworks and gives way to long-term or "continuous" identity elements,highlighted by long-term, focused-on higher-level actions. Finally, the centrallayers of discourse are formed by the social actor's immediate actions andtherefore produce immediate identity elements. The extent to which these layersbecome visible and apparent depends on the social actor's compliance with thenorms of the discourse.

In a second step, the dialogism between coercion and agency is discussed for allthree different layers. While the outer and intermediary layers of discourse andthe consequential identity elements seem to be forced upon a social actor, asocial actor does have a certain amount of agency in regard to what he or shetakes on for her/himself and in regard to the free choice of networkparticipation. In turn, while agency seems to be highest in the production ofimmediate identity elements, a social actor is nevertheless constrained by theenvironment, cultural tools, situational circumstances and culturally learnedways of doing things. The different discourses, even though they can be lookedat separately, have to be seen as intertwined and overlapping, creating acomplex interplay between agency and coercion.

In a concluding step, the chapter integrates both horizontal and verticalidentity production in one chart, illustrating the production of differentlayers and elements in the foreground- background and attention continuum.

Chapter 7, "Shifting Identity, Saliency of Identity, and Identity Change", isconcerned with the ways a social actor uses to shifts the focus betweendifferent higher-level actions that he or she performs simultaneously inhorizontal or vertical senses. The author introduces the notion ofsemantic/pragmatic means, a signaling system of pronounced lower-level actionsproduced before a shift in order to mark the end of a foregrounded action andthe beginning of a new higher-level action. After providing the theoreticalbackground, the signaling system is exemplified by the presentation of twocategories of means (i.e. beats, defined as a gesture with only two movementphases, e.g., hand/finger beat or head toss; and deictics, e.g., gaze and talkor motion and talk), whose use is illustrated with examples from the case study.

Even though the focus of action and identity elements may shift frequently, onecan observe the saliency of those elements that are valued in one's network andthat are therefore kept continuously on some level of awareness. The authoremphasizes here that the saliency of an identity element can be enjoyed if itcan be incorporated in the overall sense of self, while a discord among theidentity layers can cause great distress. Therefore, it seems plausible thatsocial actors strive for normative identity elements and often take on forcedgeneral and continuous layers of identity.

Identity change can come about as an agentively driven decision by the socialactor, or as a forced change coerced from the outside. Mostly, a change ofidentity is facilitated by the development of an auxiliary element, which fillsthe void after an element has been given up, and helps people to cope withchanges. A change of an identity element is ethnographically illustrated asencompassing a successful change of all three layers of the identity element.Social actors tend to be more aware of an identity element during a period ofchange, and awareness can accelerate a change. Identity elements also change inan unreflected state through habituated actions, but the change then usuallydoes not become obvious to the social actor and the outside world.

Even though the last chapter showed how identity elements are constantly subjectto change and negotiation, Chapter 8, "Stabilizing Identity", points to a"person identity", (i.e. a person's overall identity). With "stabilization" theauthor does not mean the production of static identity, but rather a coherentproduction of identity in the social actor's social/time/place and habitus (i.e.set of socially learned dispositions accumulated as a consequence of socialaction), therefore linking micro analysis with macro identity frames. Again,this chapter stresses the necessity of ethnographic study in order to avoidmisinterpretation, as identity cannot be determined through a social actor'sactions only, but rather has to be interpreted from the background of his/herhabitus and historical body. A person's habitus can therefore be taken as astabilizing aspect in identity production and narratives often help socialactors make sense of their actions by linking present actions to past actionsand imagined future actions. The continual presence of an identity elementsomewhere on the attention continuum and the interweaving of multiple identityelements also have a stabilizing effect.

Stabilization of person identity is seen as closely linked to a person'snetwork. Different person identities may emerge or overlap when a person islinked to more than one very distinct network, and in such a case, a person willbe perceived differently by different social actors.

Chapter 9, "Investigating Identity in (Inter)action", presents a summary of theframework with its newly introduced concepts and provides some guidance tostudents studying identity.


This work presents a comprehensive exploration of identity in all aspects.Identity elements are discussed separately as well as in sequential andsynchronic combination with others. They are also examined in a minute-by-minutemicro analysis as well as observed in their long-term development and withinmacro aspects of identity change and stability. The data is not only fullyintegrated in the presentation of analytical elements, but encompasses a widerange of different data types, including creative writing, in order to catch thefeel of the moment. It is found to be very convenient, if not even necessary,for a study of this kind, that the author uses one ethnographic case studythroughout the book to illuminate different aspects of identity production. Thisallows the reader to form a clear picture of the personality of the socialactors in question and to engage actively in the process of discovery of theframework.

The book reminds linguists and other analysts of two very important analyticalfacts. Firstly, the exclusive concentration on verbal data not only disregardswhat is communicated through other modes of communication and objectssurrounding social actors, but also is often misleading and can yieldmisinterpretation of the data. A second reminder refers to the high importanceof the historical and cultural background ("historical body") of social actorswhen researching their actions and identity production.

The biggest contribution of the book is, however, the developed framework ofmultimodal identity analysis, which is new in regard to the introduction ofmultimodal transcription methods and central concepts such as theforeground-background continuum, analysis of horizontal and vertical identityproduction, and many more elements, that together form one framework ofanalysis. Different from earlier contributions to identity analysis, this workincorporates not only verbal and conventional non-verbal modes, but also frozenactions, objects, environment and habitus into a holistic analysis of action andidentity production. The framework is presented in an easily accessible andnarrative manner, supported by accounts, different types of transcripts,creative work and valuable practical tips (e.g. field note taking,transcription, analysis) from the field. It gradually broadens the analysis,with the introduction of new concepts of analysis in every chapter, andconcludes in a summary (Chapter 9), in which all the different aspects ofidentity analysis are brought together. The complexity of identity production isvery evident; however, the book provides good guidance to those wishing to studyidentity production in a comprehensive way.

On the organizational side, the author has made a great effort to keep differentaspects of analysis apart in separate chapters. This is certainly not easilymanageable when writing about a topic as complex as identity analysis, in whichall aspects are interwoven and interdependent. At times, the reader may detectthat theoretical reasonings and interpretations are raised repetitively and doget mixed up in some chapters. For example, it seems that the matter of saliency(Chapter 7) would be better located, or at least introduced, in the chapters onvertical or horizontal identity production, rather than being placed withaspects of identity change.

Occasionally, transcript and field note interpretations considering theenactment of identity elements suggested by the author seem to be rathersubjective (e.g. p.13; p. 107). This may be a result of the author's betterunderstanding of the social actors she studied, in contrast to a naturally morelimited and fragmented presentation of a case study in an academic work.

As the author suggests, a more detailed exploration of how social actorsstabilize their person identity could be a potential topic of futureethnographic research.

In conclusion, the book presents a fascinating, practical, methodologicallysound and well thought out framework of identity analysis that will be valuableand appealing to a wide range of students and scholars, such as discourseanalysts, scholars engaging in qualitative research and the analysis of identityproduction, linguists and ethnographers.


Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York:Anchor Books.

Scollon, Ronald. 1998. Mediated Discourse as Social Interaction: A Study of NewsDiscourse. New York: Longman.


Maria Rieder is currently a PhD student in the Centre for Language andCommunication Studies at Trinity College Dublin, where she is carrying outa sociolinguistic and ethnographic study of Irish Traveller language andculture. Her research interests include contact linguistics, appliedlinguistics, linguistic anthropology, discourse analysis, ethnography andidentity and cultural studies. In the past, she has worked as a studentassistant and tutor for undergraduate students of English linguistics. AtTrinity College Dublin she teaches German as a foreign language.

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