LINGUIST List 24.30

Tue Jan 08 2013

Review: Discourse Analysis; Sociolinguistics: Scollon, Scollon, & Jones (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 21-Nov-2012
From: Kristen Michelson <>
Subject: Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach
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Book announced at

Author: Ronald ScollonAuthor: Suzanne Wong ScollonAuthor: Rodney H. JonesTitle: Intercultural CommunicationSubtitle: A Discourse ApproachSeries Title: Language in SocietyPublisher: Wiley-BlackwellYear: 2012

Reviewer: Kristen E Michelson, University of Arizona


In this third edition of “Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach”,Scollon, Scollon, and Jones expand upon the framework initially put forward byScollon and Scollon in 1995 and carried out in a second edition in 2001, whichintroduces and develops the concept of “discourse systems” as a way to getbeyond the culture-equals-nation problem imposed by the term “culture”. Ratherthan “culture”, the authors suggest that it is the various discourse systemsinto which we have been socialized -- formally or informally -- that influenceour interpersonal communication. “Discourse systems” contain: “ideas andbeliefs about the world, conventional ways of teaching other people, ways ofcommunicating using various kinds of texts, media, and ‘languages’, andmethods of learning how to use these other tools” (p. 8). Like others(Verschueren, 2008; Matsumoto, 2010), Scollon, Scollon, and Jones strive toavoid essentialist notions of culture and do so by: 1) developing aculture-general approach with an intricately woven macro-paradigm throughwhich to understand communication, and 2) substituting the term “culture” withthe term “discourse systems” as a way to avoid the frequent associations ofculture with ethnicity or national origin. They nuance their understanding ofdiscourse systems through careful articulation and reiteration of the factthat their descriptions are not of groups of people, but rather abstractsystems in which people participate. In other words, they are not interestedin discourse communities, but rather in discourse systems. Unlike much of theliterature on intercultural communication where the focus is on communicationbreakdowns between interlocutors, and often attributed to problems with thelinguistic code (see Spencer-Oatey et al., 2012), Scollon, Scollon and Jonesare interested in the underlying factors which mediate communication.

The first half of the book begins with chapters on functions of language andon elements of discourse systems, while the latter half contains a series ofchapters on specific discourse systems. In the first chapter, “What is aDiscourse Approach?”, the authors begin by acknowledging the many definitionsand connotations of ‘discourse’, noting that their own work draws primarilyupon the Foucauldian notion of “orders of discourse” and Gee’s (2011) notionof “Discourses with a capital D” (p. 8). This leads to the foundation of theirargument: that Discourses are cultural toolkits employed in socialinteractions for the purposes of communicating who we are, as well as what wepresume about others and the groups to which they belong. Chapter 2 includes adiscussion of speech acts, speech events, and speech contexts, emphasizing thepoint that knowledge of context shapes and helps our understanding of speakermeaning. In Chapter 3, the authors discuss two sides of face strategies(involvement and independence), give examples of how these are instantiated inspecific discourse styles, and describe three face systems: deference,solidarity, and hierarchy. Chapter 4 focuses on conversational inference,adjacency sequences, and cohesive devices such as reference (pronouns),schemata (grammar of context), prosodic patterning (intonation and timing),and conversational inference.

Chapters 5-8 each focus on one of the four main elements of discourse systemsthat cut across all cultures proposed by the authors: face systems, forms ofdiscourse, socialization, and ideology. Chapter 5 focuses on inductive vs.deductive discourse patterns in spoken and written discourse, with a viewtoward how certain preferences for one or the other relate to involvementstrategies, politeness, and face work. In Chapter 6 the authors further unpackthe four universal elements of their framework of discourse systems againstthe backdrop of the notion of ideologies. They illustrate these through adetailed description of the Utilitarian discourse system (AKA the “discoursesystem of ‘global capitalism’”, p. 112), tracing the origins of this systemfrom the Enlightenment through Bentham and Mill. They continue with adescription of the Confucian discourse system and its roots in Chinesephilosophy. The focus in Chapter 7 is on forms of discourse. The authors drawa distinction between various purposes of communication (informationconveyance or relationship maintenance), and map these values onto the twodiscourse systems they have outlined in the previous chapter. They proceed tooutline six theories of communication in the Utilitarian discourse system:anti-rhetorical, positivist-empirical, deductive, individualistic,egalitarian, and public (i.e., institutionally sanctioned), and conclude withdiscussions of multimodal communication and the notion of emplacement. Chapter8 focuses on both informal and formal modes of socialization, noting thatsocialization into a discourse system is always partial and participation isalways peripheral.

Chapters 9 through 11 focus on specific discourse systems, the first of which-- corporate and professional discourse -- is situation-bound, while thelatter two -- generational, and gender and sexuality discourses -- areidentity-bound. Throughout these chapters the authors make a point toreiterate that individuals simultaneously belong to multiple discoursesystems. In the chapter on professional discourse (Chapter 9), attention is onmanagement systems, organizational vs. individual goals, and participation andapprenticeship. The chapter on generational discourse (Chapter 10) affords anopportunity to reiterate the distinction between voluntary and involuntarydiscourse systems, and proceeds with an overview of the historico-culturalevents influencing the discourse systems of certain age groups of people whohave grown up in the US and China, respectively. The chapter on sexuality andgender discourse (Chapter 11) provides a context in which to discuss notionsof performativity, to problematize the “difference” approach to interculturalcommunication, and finally, to reiterate the point that communication does notmerely stem from who we are, but rather what we are trying to do in aparticular moment in terms of the identities we are asserting and therelationships we are negotiating or ratifying.

The final chapter, “Doing ‘Intercultural Communication’”, serves as asynthesis chapter, discusses dangers of stereotyping and othering, andfinally, reiterates the notion presented in Chapter 1 of interculturalcommunication as mediated action.


The most obvious structural change since the previous edition is the inclusionof the end-of-chapter syntheses, discussion questions, and references forfurther study, all of which enhance this book’s pedagogical utility. Thefoundational theoretical framework remains intact, including treatment of thesame four elements of discourse systems, and the same three specific discoursesystems. Much of the content has been rearranged, however, and the resultingchapter reorganization serves to better elucidate the components of theframework. A vast amount of new content appears in the form of a more thoroughpresentation and discussion of the Confucian discourse system in the chapterson Ideologies in Discourse (Chapter 6) and Generational Discourse (Chapter10), inclusion of new digital modes of communication, expansion of theparticipants under consideration in the discussion of generational discourse,and finally, development of a more inclusive discussion on sexuality andgender discourse that attempts to move beyond binary gender categories.Finally, other more subtle yet important modifications include thesubstitution of examples (e.g., replacing the discussion of a discourse systemof an ESL teacher in the second edition with that of a corporate context).

Although the actual authors of this third edition are Suzanne Wong Scollon andRodney Jones, Ron Scollon’s own work is appropriately honored posthumouslythrough official attribution to him as first author of this edition. Further,the chapter on forms of discourse and its attendant discussion on authorshipprovide a natural in-text moment to further pay him tribute.

In framing their argument in terms of discourse systems, Scollon, Scollon, andJones are able to focus on the deeper, underlying universal values affectingways of relating and communicating interpersonally. The continuous maintenanceof this same heuristic throughout the book works quite well; the use of thenotion of discourse systems to overcome the problematic connotations of“culture” presents a discerning and compelling argument. The entire book iseffectively cohesive with the authors reweaving key concepts throughout (e.g.,relating politeness strategies to deductive and inductive rhetorical styles).Proposals are supported with clear examples, such as the illustration of ascene in which a father rejects his son’s offer to pay his taxi fare, and theway in which people participating in different discourse systemsdifferentially interpret this scene.

As mentioned, Scollon, Scollon, and Jones endeavor to present aculture-general framework, rather than a culture-specific paradigm a laHofstede (1980). It seems that at times, however, they do have to get specificin order to illustrate their argument, and when they do, they fall into theessentialist trap. For example, in describing ideologies and discourse(Chapter 6) they explain features of the Utilitarian and the Confuciandiscourse systems, ascribing certain ways of doing things to each of thesesystems. The geographical situatedness of these respective systems makes ithard to avoid conclusions of a culture-specific “East-West” dichotomy in spiteof the constant reminders to the reader that “there is nothing inherently‘Chinese’ or ‘American’ about these patterns” (p. 93). Nevertheless, theauthors are quite aware -- and indeed acknowledge overtly -- that their ownargument is not entirely immune to essentialization and reification, and onceagain, specificity seems inevitable in order to explain the components of theframework. Indeed, an East-West focus permeates many of the examples in thebook, such as in the chapter on corporate and professional discourse where theauthors say that: “…as these (multinational) corporations extend theiroperations throughout the world, they seek employees from the countries inwhich they are operating. In many cases those potential employees have notreceived primary socialization into the Utilitarian discourse system… Outsideof these schools they have been enculturated, for example, into an ideologysuch as the Confucian one, which places a strong emphasis on interpersonal andfamilial relationships” (p. 189).

The authors state at the outset that this book is intended for studentsinterested in learning more about corporate and professional discourse, andindeed their content as well as their overall proposal seems appropriate fortheir intended audience. The ultimate emphasis on the Utilitarian discoursesystem frames their argument in economic, corporate terms, and the manyexamples of speech situations include conversations which would take place ina professional workplace setting. This book is most likely to resonate withthose in international business or international business communication,although the simultaneous breadth and depth of the work and the inclusion ofsuch voices in the conversation as Vygotstky, Hofstede, Hall, Goffman,Gumperz, Hymes, Foucault, Bourdieu, Lave and Wenger, Cameron, and so manyothers, renders this an equally interesting book for students in appliedlinguistics.

Assuming a more novice audience, the lack of in-text citations at certainpoints may be missing key opportunities for learners to begin to attributespecific ideas to their original authors. However, the “References for FurtherStudy” at the end of each chapter are quite helpful, and these sections offerconcise and useful overviews for those seeking to pursue any of the lines ofthought presented.

Overall, the paradigm presented throughout the now three iterations of thisbook remains a remarkably insightful way to conceptualize factors influencingcommunication, or, in the authors’ own terms, factors mediating communication.By focusing on common denominators of all human life (ideologies, forms ofdiscourse, socialization, and face systems) Scollon, Scollon, and Jonessuccessfully arrive at a culture-neutral heuristic that can be used in anyinstance of interpersonal (and thus, intercultural) communication.


Gee, J. (2011). An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method,Third Edition. London: Routledge.

Hofstede, G. H. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences inwork-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Matsumoto, D. (2010). Introduction. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), APA Handbook ofIntercultural Communication (pp. ix-xv). Washington, DC: AmericanPsychological Association.

Spencer-Oatey, H., Işik-Güler, H., and Stadler, S. (2012). InterculturalCommunication. In Gee, J. P., & Handford, M. (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook ofDiscourse Analysis (pp. 572-586). London: Routledge.

Verschueren, J. (2008). Intercultural Communication and the Challenges ofMigration. Language and Intercultural Communication, 8(1), 21-35.


Kristen Michelson is a third year doctoral student in Second LanguageAcquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona. Her research interestscenter around SLA in study abroad, development of intercultural competence,multiliteracies approaches to culture and language teaching, teaching Frenchas a foreign language, language use in intercultural encounters, anddiscursive and semiotic representations of cultural patterns through a widevariety of media, most notably digital spaces and literature.

Page Updated: 08-Jan-2013