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Review of  Discourse in Context: Contemporary Applied Linguistics Volume 3

Reviewer: Michael Kranert
Book Title: Discourse in Context: Contemporary Applied Linguistics Volume 3
Book Author: John Flowerdew Li Wei
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.4053

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Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Sara Couture


‘Discourse in Context’ is not just a new collection of papers on language use in different institutional contexts, but is, as the editor John Flowerdew rightly claims (p. 2), the first collection specifically on the discourse-context relation covering a broad variety of approaches to discourse. The 15 chapters of this volume demonstrate the diversity of approaches to both types of discourse -- ‘little “d” discourse’ as language use in context and ‘big “D” discourses’ (Gee 2005) as systems of knowledge and belief. Each individual contribution represents an analytical approach to D/discourse such as conversation analysis or critical discourse analysis applied to a specific context, and all contributions discuss the text-context relation on the basis of their approach to context.

In chapter 1, John Flowerdew introduces the reader to the problems of the discourse-context relation and presents a concise overview of approaches to it, introducing the most important lines of thought from Gricean Pragmatics (e.g. Grice 1989, Sperber and Wilson 2001) to Systemic Functional Linguistics (e.g. Halliday and Hasan 1985), outlining criticisms of them and referring to the relevant literature.

In the second chapter, 'Considering context when analysing representations of gender and sexuality: A case study', Paul Baker undertakes a close reading of a DAILY MAIL article to demonstrate the features of sexual identity discourse in the British media. He chose an article from 16 October 2009, entitled ‘Why there was nothing “natural” about Stephen Gately’s death’, since this article instigated ‘the highest number of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission (over 25,000) ever recorded’ (p. 30). His close reading from a feminist poststructuralist perspective employs elements of Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough 1989) and Wodak’s Discourse Historical Approach (e.g. Reisigl and Wodak 2009) and uses a broad range of secondary data such as other DAILY MAIL articles and online comments to analyse the reception of the article in question. He also introduces the reader to the corpus linguistic concept of discourse prosody (Stubbs 2001), in order to verify his interpretation of certain linguistic features. Both the secondary sources and the corpora are analysed as contexts of the DAILY MAIL article and used to explain the language use of its author.

The third chapter is also based on a corpus-assisted approach to discourse. Monika Bednarek’s '''Who are you and why are you following us?'' Wh-questions and communicative context in television dialogue’ presents an analysis of Wh-questions in 27 contemporary US television series. Bednarek argues for the importance of the genre ‘television dialogue’, because with a global audience, US television series have a significant influence on speakers of English as a second language. This genre is particularly interesting because of its particular text-context relation, i.e. the necessary ‘overhearer design’ (Bubel 2008) of scripted TV dialogue as a result of lines being addressed to characters and to the audience at the same time. The dialogue is therefore designed to tell a story for the audience as overhearers who can listen to the dialogue, but can not take part in the interaction. This results in specific linguistic structures Bednarek analyses, such as wh-questions that do not appear in the same way in natural dialogue. Bednarek’s concordance and n-gram analysis lead her to develop interesting hypotheses for further research on this genre such as ‘why-, how- and what-questions function to create involvement between characters whereas who- and where-questions are used for plot development’ (p. 66).

In chapter 4, ’Discourse and discord in court: The role of context in the construction of witness examination in British criminal trial talk’, Janet Cotterill asks how the context of the British trial-by-jury system and its ancient archaic rules and protocols influence the way barristers question witnesses. The analysis pictures the courtroom as a context with asymmetrical power relations between the professionals (who ask the questions), the witnesses (who have to answer), and the jury as sanctioned overhearers who have to judge the case without being able to play an active role in the communication. In a selection of official trial transcripts, the witness examination by lawyers is analysed using a hybrid methodology of Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough 1989) and corpus linguistics, demonstrating, how the barristers’ questions to witnesses are designed as a ‘display exercise’ (p. 87) for the jury, telling the story from the prosecuting or defending perspective.

Britt-Louise Gunnarson approaches ‘Business discourse in the globalized economy’ (chapter 5) by employing a combination of sociolinguistic, sociological and text linguistic methods. She construes context as a multilevel model of contextual influences on language, capturing the social context in a technical-economic, socio-cultural and a legal political framework. The business discourse itself is contextualised on the local, national and supranational level. In her paper, the author presents an analysis of staff policy documents uncovering the narrative structures of the genre as well as the different voices represented in the career stories told in these policy documents.

Michael Handford’s Chapter 6, ‘Context in spoken professional discourse: Language and practice in an international bridge design meeting’, focuses on the ‘professional meeting’ genre, using a corpus-assisted analysis. The context is captured with ethnographic methods which enable the author - who witnessed the event personally and interviewed participants - to verify his textual insights into the discourse. The detailed analysis of the material and a comparison to other corpora of professional discourse show considerable differences between business meetings in general and this engineering meeting in particular. A further, broader analysis however will be necessary to demonstrate, if these results can be generalised.

Chapter 7, ‘Ethnicities without guarantees: An empirically situated approach’, puts ethnographic methods also employed in chapter 6 centre stage. In their project ‘Urban Classroom Culture and Interaction’, Roxy Harris and Ben Rampton have undertaken a large data collection following 5 girls and 4 boys aged 13-14 in a London secondary school for two years, using participant observation, interviews, and producing 180 hours of radio microphone recording and playback interviews on the recorded data. The authors offer a detailed analysis of one episode involving an ethnically mixed group of girls. In this episode, ethnicity is part of the exchange. Contextualising the data in the transcript with ethnographic data, Harris and Rampton demonstrate that ethnicity in this example is ‘a resource that the girls exploited quite skilfully in pursuit of their really pressing interests’, i.e. prospective boy-girl relations (p. 153).

In ‘Constructing contexts through grammar: Cognitive models and conceptualization in British newspaper reports of political protests’, Christopher Hart analyses the media coverage of the UK student protests against rising tuition fees in 2010. He successfully translates the socio-cognitive approach to critical discourse analysis (van Dijk 2008) into a cognitive linguistic approach based on Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar (Langacker 2008). This approach allows him to capture the construal of demonstrator and police violence in the student protests in online press reports. Unveiling the grammatical patterns used, Hart can demonstrate convincingly, that the Guardian was the only newspaper in the sample that drew attention to police violence, while the other newspaper articles construe the hegemonic picture of legitimate police action using strategies of structural configuration and identification.

Chapters 9 and 10 of the edited volume under review aim to change our idea of the text context relation. Rick Iedema and Katherine Carroll present a method of reflexive ethnographic intervention into health care communication. In their study ‘Intervening in health care communication using discourse analysis’, they define context as ‘that which is entirely excluded from people’s attention’ (p. 186) and use video feedback in order to produce an environment in which practitioners can distance themselves from their naturalized practices such as infection control or ward rounds. This allows professionals and analysts together to learn about physical habits or communicative processes that are normally invisible to both. To demonstrate how this learning takes place, the authors recorded and analysed the conversations in video feedback sessions. Iedema’s and Carroll’s paper widens the discussion from the material at hand to discourse theory in general and the necessity to reflexive practice here, for example to question ‘the existing boundaries between discourse analysis and social practice’ in order to understand discourse as ‘a dynamic at the heart of complexity’ (p. 200).

In Chapter 10, ‘Locating the power of place in space: A geosemiotic approach to context’, Jackie Jia Lou focuses on an advertising campaign to legitimize gentrification of Chinatown in Washington DC in order to demonstrate the semiotic potential of advertising boards because of their location in certain neighbourhoods or in proximity to certain corporations. She fruitfully combines classical discourse analytical tools such as systemic functional linguistics with a new approach to context. This approach, based on Scollon and Scollon (2003), combines an analysis of the interaction order and the visual semiotics with the semiotics of a place and allows to capture, how the text of the advertising boards is semiotically linked to its specific location, for example outside the metro station in Chinatown.

Anna Maurannen’s chapter ‘Lingua franca discourse in academic contexts: Shaped by complexity’ takes readers into what will be for many a familiar environment: academia, in the form of a multilingual environment with English as the lingua franca (ELF). Analysing data from the ELFA Corpus (English as a Lingua Franca on Academic Settings), which consists of spoken, dialogical, authentic, non-EFL-learning events such as academic seminars and conference discussions, Maurannen shows that collaboration is salient in ELF, as all speakers are aware that a non-native language is being used and that therefore problems can occur. Her study also shows that, in this context, academic hierarchy overrides language expertise when linguistic corrections are made; it is not necessarily the English native speakers but rather the senior academics who provide help in the use of English.

In Chapter 12, ‘A multimodal approach to discourse, context and culture’, Kay L. O’Halloran, Sabine Tan and Marissa K.L. E return to a multimodal understanding of discourse that was already featured in chapters 9 and 10. Here, discourse is understood as multimodal semiosis, and as embedded in multimodal context. The focus is therefore on the context which is not external to discourse. The authors aim to capture the embeddedness of online business news in the multimodal context of the internet. Employing ‘Multimodal Analysis Video Software’ developed by Kay O’Halloran, the authors provide the reader with a detailed impression of this useful tool, considering the restrictions of a research article. Analysing videographic representations of different actors in business news such as Certified Expert, Newsmaker and Presenter, the authors demonstrate how events and social actors are re-contextualised depending on the news networks distinctive communicative practices.

Chapters 13 and 14 focus on language learning in different contexts. In ‘Intervening in contexts of schooling’, David Rose and J.R. Martin review the effects of the genre-based literacy pedagogy they developed as a practical application of the Sydney school of Systemic Functional Linguistics. The authors summarize succinctly the Sydney school research into school genres such as stories, reports or critical responses, and interpret Bernstein’s theory of pedagogic contexts (Bernstein 1996) on this background. They argue that teachers themselves do not reflect the structures and intentions of genres used in school. Pupils therefore only acquire this knowledge implicitly, rather than through conscious engagement with the language of high quality examples. This creates and perpetuates inequalities in education, since the pupils’ lack of knowledge is wrongly individualized when failure is attributed to innate abilities. Therefore, they suggest a program of genre-based literacy that teaches pupils to deconstruct genres in reading high level curriculum texts. In a multi staged programmes, the learners will then be guided to practice these genres in joint and individual writing and rewriting of texts. A broad analysis of data from 100 randomly selected classes shows the incredible impact of this teaching method on all low-, middle- and high-achieving students in different school years compared to students without read-to-learn instruction. The article provides impressive examples of students’ work to illustrate the success of the method and persuade the reader.

Hansun Zhang Waring’s ‘Turn-allocation and context: Broadening participation in the second language classroom’ employs Conversation Analysis to understand turn-taking in English as a second language class. She argues for a theory of context that distinguishes sequential context (in other words: co-text), and institutional context. In the sequential context, one action shapes the understanding of the next and constrains possible following actions. The institutional context is normally internalized and recognized as relevant by the participants. Although her discussion on the theoretical understanding of context in Conversation Analysis and its application to classroom discourse is enlightening, the results of her analysis are not surprising to experienced teachers: teachers broaden learner participation in a plenary situation by either bypassing the first respondent or selecting an alternative category of speakers.

In the final article of the volume, ‘Political discourse analysis - Distinguishing frontstage and backstage contexts. A discourse-historical approach’, Ruth Wodak presents some results from her fieldwork on ‘Doing Politics’ in the European Parliament, also published in Wodak (2011). Her analysis in this paper focuses on three short episodes from a working day of an MEP (Member of the European Parliament) she calls Hans. Her close reading of the transcripts shows the different registers Hans has to manage ‘frontstage’ (i.e. aimed at the public) and ‘backstage’(i.e. in internal negotiations of policies). Her discussion of the results also shows the importance of ethnographic data for the interpretation of discursive events, which has already been pointed out for other contexts in Chapters 6 (‘spoken professional discourse’) and 7 (‘ethnicity in urban classroom culture’). Politicians form a community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991) like other professionals, and only with the support of ethnographic methods can an external analyst interpret and understand their linguistic strategies.


The volume under review aims to ‘bring [...] together researchers from different approaches, but all with the commitment to the study of language in context’. By choosing a broad variety of approaches, the editor John Flowerdew invites the reader to ‘compare and contrast these different approaches and the application of their particular models of content’ (p. 1).

Many students and early career researcher share the challenge in trying to find a methodologically broad overview of their field that is a good read and at the same time gives a detailed insight into the analysis of linguistic material. Introductions are often either written from only one theoretical point of view, are theory-heavy, or do not present a variety of primary material. In this respect, ‘Discourse in Context’ is a very welcome and thought-provoking read, hopefully not only to established researchers interested in the newest currents in the field, but also to beginners at the postgraduate level or even motivated readers at undergraduate level. Thus, it is truly regrettable that such an interesting collection of papers carries such a heavy price tag of $190, because it will exclude precisely this audience from gaining access to a publication they would profit from most.

All chapters are well-written and introduce their approach to language in context in the clearest possible way. The contributions follow a similar textual pattern, giving the reader a transparent insight into their methods and goals, and allowing the comparative reading the editor intended. While keeping their theoretical introductions succinct in favour of detailed analyses of their primary materials, the overview over the academic literature in the field is comprehensive and useful. Almost all authors use helpful graphic representations for presenting their results; however, the gray scale reproductions are not always well printed and are sometimes difficult to read; Chapters 10 and 12 are a particular example of this.

Although not all findings of the research ‘Discourse in Context’ are surprising as pointed out in the summary earlier, all papers deliver a hands-on introduction into the methods of textual analysis and contextualisation, and allow the reader to evaluate the merits of them. The connections between the different chapters, however, could have been made clearer by structuring the volume into sections, each with their own introductions. For example, the structure could have focussed on research methods: Chapters 2-4, 6 and 11, for example, use corpus linguistic methodology in different ways, while Chapters 10 and 12 focus on multimodality. Alternatively, or even in combination with a methodological structure, papers with similar fields such as language learning (Chapters 11, 13 and 14), or professional discourses (Chapters 5, 6, 9 and 15) could have been placed in themed sections. Separate introductions to such sections, which would put the different approaches into context, would have made a volume that succeeds in combining breadth and clarity an even better read.


Bernstein, Basil B. 1996. “Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research, critique” (London: Taylor & Francis), Critical perspectives on literacy and education

Bubel, Claudia M. 2008. ‘Film audiences as overhearers’, “Journal of pragmatics”, 40.1: 55-71

Fairclough, Norman. 1989. “Language and power” (Harlow: Longman), Language in social life series

Gee, James P. 2005. “An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method, 2nd edn” (New York, Abingdon: Routledge)

Grice, H. P. 1989. “Logic and Conversation.” In Studies in the way of words, 22–40. Cambridge, Mass., London: Harvard University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. 2008. “Cognitive grammar: A basic introduction” (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. 1991. “Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation / Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), Learning in doing social, cognitive, and computational perspectives

Halliday, Michael A. K., and Ruqaiya Hasan. 1985. Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Language education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reisigl, Martin, and Ruth Wodak. 2009. ‘The discourse-historical approach’, in “Methods of critical discourse analysis”, ed. by Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer, 2nd edn (Los Angeles [u.a.]: SAGE), pp. 87–121

Scollon, Ronald, and Suzanne B. K. Scollon. 2003. “Discourses in place: Language in the material world” (London: Routledge)

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. 2001. Relevance: Communication and cognition. 2nd ed. Oxford, Cambridge MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Stubbs, Michael. 2001. “Words and phrases: Corpus studies of lexical semantics / Michael Stubbs” (Oxford ; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers)

van Dijk, Teun A. 2008. “Discourse and context: A sociocognitive approach” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Wodak, Ruth. 2011. “The discourse of politics in action: Politics as usual” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)
Michael Kranert works in the field of political linguistics, applying linguistic research methods such as Systemic Functional Linguistics and Critical Metaphor Analysis to political discourses. His Ph.D. project at UCL London aims to undertake a comparison of the discourses of New Labour and the German SPD at the turn of the twenty-first century, explaining linguistic and discursive differences with reference to differences in the political cultures of Germany and the UK.

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