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Review of  Spoken Discourse

Reviewer: Kerry J Mullan
Book Title: Spoken Discourse
Book Author: Rodney H. Jones
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 28.2934

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Rodney Jones introduces Spoken Discourse (2016) as being about “how people use conversation to manage their lives – to get things done, to form and maintain relationships with other people, to enact certain kinds of social identities and to participate in social groups” (p. 1). He begins by analysing a short excerpt of a telephone conversation in which a son ‘comes out’ as gay to his father, an analysis that he refers to on several occasions throughout the book. He uses this and many other examples of interaction to show how spoken discourse “always involves people doing something” and how it involves multiple actions and multiple social practices (p. 3), since things are done differently in different societies.

The author points out that studying and participating in spoken discourse is imperfect since our knowledge of what was really meant in any interaction is always incomplete and we therefore need to infer a great deal. For this reason, it is important to consider how things are said, not just what is said (e.g. silences / pauses), as well as other factors such as culture, context, and the relationship between the participants (pp. 4-5). The main claim of the book is that “all spoken discourse is mediated in some way”, for example through the voice and body, physical setting and other objects, but also through sets of rules and expectations around how particular interactions should unfold (p. 11). Jones refers to these practices as technologies since they are man-made cultural artefacts. Jones introduces us at this point to the concept of “circumferencing” (p. 12), by using the extract of the ‘coming out’ conversation to illustrate how our understanding of an interaction changes when we have more or less information about it.

Jones concludes his introductory chapter by explaining the three meanings of discourse he will be focusing on in his book (pp. 19-20):
- language above clause (structure)
- language in use (doing)
- social world / practice (power)
and how he will present a model of spoken discourse (mediated discourse analysis) which accommodates these three aspects and shows how they work together (p. 21).

Chapter 2 explains the interdisciplinary nature of the study of spoken discourse and presents a survey of the approaches and work to date on spoken discourse relevant to the author’s ideas. Jones explains how linguistics in fact contributed less to the study of spoken discourse than some other disciplines, since traditionally linguists studied language as a system “independent of the contingencies of its use” (p. 26), although he acknowledges the contributions made by Saussure and Chomsky to the study of language in general. Jones proceeds to give a detailed account of the contribution of various linguists (such as Sinclair & Coulthard, Labov and Halliday) to the study of spoken discourse as we understand it today (p. 27). He explains the role of philosophy and the study of rhetoric in ancient Greece, in particular the relationship between speech style and the speaker’s goals, and how speech influences how others see us (p. 28). The contribution of more recent philosophers such as Austin, Grice and Wittgenstein to this field will be known to most readers, as will their respective contributions: speech act theory, interactional logic, and the notion of language games.

The author clarifies the contribution to spoken discourse of anthropology and of important scholars such as Malinowski for his work on situating language in context and culture, and Boas for his emphasis on language as inseparable from social practices and social relationships (pp. 30-31); this work would ultimately lead to the theory of linguistic relativism, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In this section Jones covers other influential anthropologists, such as Hymes (whose model of ethnography of communication was directly opposed to Chomsky’s theory of generative linguistics), and Ochs and Silverstein who developed the notion of indexicality. Jones introduces us to the Palo Alto group – an interdisciplinary and important, yet under-acknowledged, group of anthropologists, psychiatrists, information scientists and cyberneticists who collaborated on what was probably the first case of micro-analysis of a filmed spoken interaction (pp. 33-34). Bateson is perhaps the most well-known member of this group; he introduced the concepts of metacommunication and framing in discourse.

In the next section, Jones describes how sociologists such as Goffman and Garfinkel have strongly influenced the study of spoken discourse through their ‘bottom up’ approach to the study of social life through interaction (p. 35). This led to the frameworks of conversation analysis (attributed to Sacks) and interactional sociolinguistics. Jones points out that it is often forgotten that conversation analysis (CA) was originally developed based on technologically mediated communication (i.e. phone calls) not face to face talk. Gumperz is generally acknowledged as the founder of interactional sociolinguistics. Whereas CA is concerned with the orderliness of interaction (p. 38), interactional sociolinguistics is more concerned with how social concepts like ages, gender and ethnicity affect communication. French sociologist Bourdieu also contributed greatly to the study of discourse through his work on how we habitually perform social actions and through his notion of ‘symbolic capital’ (p. 39).

In the section on critical perspectives, which he defines as “approaches that acknowledge that the kinds of resources that are available to people for social interaction, the kinds of ‘language games’ in which they deploy these resources, and the ways that they are accountable to one another for how they do so, are not ideologically neutral” (p. 39), Jones includes Foucault’s ‘orders of discourse’ (p. 39), Kristeva’s notion of ‘intertextuality’ (which proposes that no text is completely original), and Derrida’s related notion of iterability (or repeatability) (p. 40). In the following section, Jones examines three areas of tension between the aforementioned approaches to spoken discourse analysis: the ‘text/context’ problem; the ‘structure/agency’ problem; and the ‘macro/micro’ problem (p. 42).

Jones then introduces the framework he will use throughout the rest of the book to analyse spoken discourse: mediated discourse analysis (p. 44), developed by Scollon and colleagues. This framework offers a way to combine aspects of all the approaches to spoken discourse analysis and to address the three areas of tension referred to above. Greatly influenced by Vygotsky’s theory of cultural-historical psychology (p. 44) and Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia and dialogism (p. 45) which emphasise the social connectedness of what we do and say, mediated discourse analysis consists of five key concepts which can “help us to understand how our everyday engagement with spoken discourse both situates us in the societies in which we live and creates opportunities for us to change those societies for the better” (p. 46). These are mediation, action, interaction, identity and community.

Jones explains that mediation includes semiotic and physical means: languages, gestures, genres, styles of speaking etc., as well as computers and telephones (pp. 46-7). He refers to these as ‘technologies of talk’ (idem), subject to affordances and constraints which amplify or limit the potential for action (p. 47). Mediated discourse analysis takes a slightly different approach to action, in that it examines the role of discourse in the accomplishment of action at a particular ‘site of engagement’ (pp. 48-9) where actors have constructed a social situation in which the conversation takes place. Interaction as used here in a broad sense refers to multiple forms of interaction: that between speakers and listeners, that between technologies of talk, that among the speakers’ different social groups, and that among the sites of engagement (pp. 49-50). It also embodies the notions of dialogism and heteroglossia referred to earlier to incorporate the connectedness of the interaction to previous speaker’s utterances. Mediated discourse analysis deals with identity as interactional rather than philosophical (i.e. the notion of a core ‘self’ and/or a social role in a certain situation), how we negotiate our identities in interaction, and how these negotiations in turn contribute to the ongoing evolution of these identities in a particular community) (pp. 50-51). This concept of community focusses on how certain groups are imagined (e.g. around ways of talking such as dialects, or as speech genres and social practices), and how they become tools for people to take social action and build communities and societies (pp. 51-2).

In the next five chapters, Jones uses the five key concepts of mediated discourse analysis to analyse various extracts of discourse. Chapter 3 (Technologies of Talk) examines in detail the different physical and semiotic tools used in spoken discourse and the social actions they make possible, and applies these to the analysis of a filmed interaction between two friends where one ‘comes out’ as gay to the other. The rest of this chapter deals with speech genres and social languages and how they govern certain interactions. Jones adds a final section on technologies and technologisation, where technologies are “tools that become associated with bodies of knowledge and collections of techniques as to how to use them” and technologisation is the “process by which tools come to be associated with techniques for using them” (p. 72).

In Chapter 4 (Talk in Action), Jones explores the two ways to conceive of the relationship between discourse and action: discourse as action; and discourse in action. He does this primarily through the analysis of a graduation ceremony at Hong Kong Baptist University and two further instances of ‘coming out’, all of which are complex scenarios, able to be fully understood only by applying both discourse as action and discourse in action, and by acknowledging the role of past actions in making future ones possible (p. 102).

Chapter 5 (Talk in Interaction) looks at how participants manage interaction in spoken discourse, and at the broader concept of the interaction order (the unspoken rules and expectations that govern interactions) (p. 106). Jones uses a selection of examples to illustrate how these rules differ, and how interactants use them to achieve certain outcomes, for example turn taking, topic changes, openings and closings (pp. 112-120). The final section in this chapter deals with participation, i.e. who can participate in an interaction and in what way, through Goffman’s notions of ‘participation frameworks’ and ‘production formats’ (p. 121), and concludes with another reference to the bigger picture: how all interactions are connected to past discourse and are part of a larger conversation (Gee’s ‘big C Conversations’, p. 132).

In Chapter 6 (Talk and Identity), Jones explores how participants reveal or claim certain identities (or certain aspects of themselves) through various interactions. He goes on to illustrate how identities can be a number of things: stable roles that participants use to accomplish certain social actions (our identity kits, p. 138); the accomplishments themselves in each new interaction (identity management, p. 147); and our ‘historical bodies’ (Scollon, p. 134) – the collections of our past interactional experiences (identity projects, p. 153).

Chapter 7 (Talk and Communities) looks at how participants speak as members of different groups or ‘communities’, how different technologies of talk affect and characterise interactions within and between groups and how group membership is used in interactions. Following an initial section on culture and intercultural communication, the rest of the chapter is based on a discussion of the three different notions of ‘community’ which make up Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’ (p. 160): speech communities, discourse communities and communities of practice. Jones shows us how imagined communities give people a way to make sense of their experiences and identities through their membership in various groups, and how this is intertwined with membership in certain concrete communities, in turn influencing discourse practices.

Jones’ final chapter (Answerability and the Future of Talk) summarises the main points of the book: how all conversations involve issues of identity, agency, and group affiliation, where the speakers expose themselves in some way, and where the participants must respond to each other (p. 181). The author reminds us of Bakhtin’s notion of dialogue (p. 181), and its connectedness with past discourses in our consciousness - those conducted with others or those conducted by others - which have influenced us. This connectedness leads Jones to reiterate an important point that he has made throughout the book in his frequent references to the bigger picture: this connectedness across discourse has an ethical dimension, described by Bakhtin as ‘answerability’ (p. 183). When we participate in social interaction, we are answerable for what we say and do – not only to the other immediate participants but also to the wider community and the ‘big C’ conversations to which we are contributing in our societies, and to ourselves and the person we want to be. Jones asks us all to consider the consequences of our utterances: for ourselves, our interlocutors and our societies. Mediated discourse analysis provides us with the tools to explain how this answerability is possible, essentially through the reflexive nature of discourse, which allows us to look back at what we have said and to talk about it through metadiscourse (p. 185).

The final sections of the book concern the analysis of two particular incidents of police mistreatment of African Americans showing how these incidents are connected to and contribute to the ‘big C’ conversation around racism and police brutality towards African Americans, but how at the same time the analysis of these incidents can be manipulated to contribute to the portrayal of African Americans as threatening or dangerous, and how metadiscursive strategies can shape our perceptions of reality and our treatment of others (p. 195). Jones concludes with a warning to discourse analysts to remember that our analyses are filtered through various technologies of talk, and that to fully analyse spoken discourse we need to take into account the broader social and historical context, as well as the micro detail of the interaction. To do this we need to become adept at ‘circumferencing’, at “continually adjusting our perception of phenomena so that we don’t get ‘stuck’ either in the ‘small d’ discourse of the individual interaction or the ‘big D’ discourse of the social context” (p. 196).


Despite the author’s disclaimer that he was unable to cover all approaches and work to date (p. 25), Jones manages to provide a thorough and comprehensive examination of spoken discourse. The book covers the most important areas of spoken discourse in a logical and systematic manner, beginning with a survey of the history and main contributors to the field. The author summarises and outlines a number of important frameworks and approaches to the analysis of spoken discourse, concluding with an explanation of his choice to use a combination of these through the mediated discourse analysis approach. Jones clarifies the five key concepts of this approach and then uses the following five chapters (Chapters 3 to 7) to examine these one by one through the analysis of a number of examples of spoken discourse. He achieves this, at the same time incorporating many of the main authors and frameworks as he moves deftly from micro to macro analysis of the examples of interaction, discussing the philosophical and practical nature of the connectedness of discourse along the way. For the most part clear and well written (apart from a couple of distracting typographical errors in the first half of the book), as will be seen from this review itself, the book is nevertheless dense and demands a high level of focus from the reader at all times.

My main criticisms would be with two of the reviewer quotes on the back of the book which I find misleading. One reviewer implies that this is a textbook. The coherent and progressive narrative throughout this monograph makes it difficult to imagine students using this as a textbook which they might dip in and out of. This point is linked to my second criticism which is to disagree with the reviewer who recommends this to “both experienced discourse analysts and novices in the field”. Again, it is hard to imagine this book as appropriate for novices to spoken discourse analysis. While Jones outlines important scholars and frameworks, a certain existing knowledge of the field is required to fully appreciate the summaries covered, given the limits of space within which the author necessarily has to operate. Although mentioned above as a strength of the book, in my opinion it is precisely Jones’ micro and macro analysis of interaction and his philosophical and ethical discussions of the connectedness of discourse which would challenge many novices in the field. This is not to dissuade novices from reading this important book, but more experienced discourse analysts with an understanding of the range of approaches are more likely to benefit from this work.

This book is without doubt a very valuable and thought-provoking contribution to the literature on spoken discourse analysis. Not only is it a useful reference as a history and explanation of various discourse analysis frameworks, it also offers a balanced and an up to date summary of all sides of the contemporary debates surrounding the terminology and approaches to discourse analysis. In addition, the book’s constant reminders of the connectedness of discourse and the part we all play in that and in our societies will resonate strongly with the reader. As Jones points out (p. 196), “[t]he purpose of analysing spoken discourse is not just to find out something interesting about language and communication. It is to make us better at it”. And if we get better at analysing discourse, we might also manage to create better societies.
Kerry Mullan is Senior Lecturer and Convenor of Languages at RMIT and Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Research. She teaches French language and culture and Global Language. Her main research interests are cross-cultural communication and the differing interactional styles of French and Australian English speakers. She also researches in the areas of intercultural pragmatics, discourse analysis and language teaching. She is currently investigating humour in French and Australian English social interaction.

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