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Review of  Reimagining Rapport

Reviewer: Piotr Węgorowski
Book Title: Reimagining Rapport
Book Author: Zane Goebel
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 32.2612

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The elusive concept of rapport plays an important part in any ethnographic work. The tacit understanding of the importance of rapport among many ethnographers has not been matched with a critical questioning of the very concept. The collection fills therefore an important gap, both in terms of theorizing the concept as well as suggesting some methodological approaches to investigate it. The book is aimed at ethnographers working in different traditions, including anthropology, linguistic anthropology, or sociolinguistics, but its appeal extends to the wider social sciences.

The volume opens with an introductory chapter ‘Reimagining Rapport’ by Zane Goebel, in which the key rationale for the book is stated, along with some of the key terms. Rapport is seen here primarily through Agha’s (2005) notion of role alignment as well as acts of belonging. In Chapter 2 ‘Rapport in the Anthropological Imagination’ Zane Goebel traces the history of the term ‘rapport’, demonstrating its beginnings in Malinowski’s writings. Rapport tends to refer to positive social relations, both in classical anthropological work as well as a range of more recent linguistic anthropology tradition. Goebel calls for more detailed accounts of interactional constructions of rapport, noting some recent attempts to do so.

Ben Rampton offers a more linguistic focus in Chapter 3 ‘Sociolinguists and Rapport: On Linguistic Ideology and Fieldwork Practice’, problematizing the notion of rapport as a rather instrumental way to gain informants’ trust to collect linguistic data. Instead, the practice of playback, common in interactional sociolinguistics, is shown as an example of activity which disrupts the notion of rapport as a simple prerequisite of fieldwork, but rather enables researchers and participants to build relationships in the stage of analysis.

In line with previous chapters, rejecting rapport as a simple question of positive social relations or co-presence, Chapter 4 ‘Rapport with God’ by Joel Kuipers demonstrates a multitude of ways in which rapport between Javanese Muslims and God can manifest itself. Drawing on the analytical and theoretical concepts of role alignment and belonging, explored as well in the introduction to the volume, Kuipers how specific semiotic resources can be used in local practice to constitute rapport.

Chapter 5 ‘Intimacy through Time and Space in Fieldwork Interviews’ by Sabina Perrino engages with both theoretical and methodological approaches to rapport. By anchoring her analysis of interviews with participants in Senegal and northern Italy in the theoretical notion of chronotope and through adopting stance as a methodological tool, Perrino’s contribution further challenges the idea of rapport as something required in advance of carrying out research in favour of the dynamic intimacy that keeps being co-constructed. The chapter therefore provides a useful example of how close attention to interactional development of rapport can inform current debates on the topic.

Aurora Donzelli, the author of Chapter 6 ‘Hardly Speaking: Ethnographic Rapport and the Ordinary Ethics of Host-Guest Interaction in Upland Sulawesi’, reflects on the pragmatics of her own language use during fieldwork. She suggests that in Toraja, Upland Sulawesi, Indonesia, norms of interaction around hosting are not as reliant on talk, but rather revolve around food and drink. Local practices surrounding making and accepting offers of food and drink turned out to mediate social relationships and thus greatly contribute to social relations in general and rapport in a researcher-informants relationship in particular.

In Chapter 7, ‘A Confrontation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands: Interviewing, Local Language, and Rapport in Anthropological Fieldwork’, by Nicholas Harriman and Monika Winarnita the absolute possibility of even need for rapport is called into question. Harriman describes a chance encounter with a member of the community, which did not fit neatly into the positive social relations conceptualisation of rapport. Moreover, sharing a language with informants, another often tacit assumption of rapport, is challenged, as Harrinam and Winarnita describe how younger participants refused to answer in Cocos Maley, preferring instead to converse in English.

Reconceptualizing rapport by recognizing the rights and obligations imposed on interactants is the topic of Chapter 8 ‘Alignment and Belonging in the Sociolinguistic Interview: Research Assistants and Negotiated Rapport’, by Howard Manns. The chapter, in a similar vein to Perrino’s contribution, pays attention to nuanced ways in which rapport is constructed in interaction. Moreover, Manns demonstrates how rapport can be mediated by a research assistant, problematizing the researcher/researched dichotomy. Discussing a project in Malang, Indonesia, the chapter showcases the importance of a research assistant as a broker who becomes responsible for portraying participants in terms of belonging that the researcher and participants could share.

Chapter 9 ‘Rapport to Fit In-Rapport to Stand Out: The Dynamics of Role Alignment during Group Interaction’ by Michael C. Ewing continues the focus on interactional phenomena. Based on data from a project investigating youth language practices in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, Ewing shows how repetition, code mixing, vocatives, and question sequences can be used in rapport management practices. This is an important point in the chapter, as rapport is not seen as something that is simply built, but rather managed, as rapport involves managing both positive as well as disharmonious elements of interactions.

The closing chapter, entitled ‘Coda: Reimagining Rapport Theoretically, Meta-Methodologically, and Methodologically’ by Zane Goebel, synthesises the contents of the volume and emphasises the key points, both theoretical and methodological. Firstly, rapport is conceptualised not as something that simply emerges at a given point, or even before, fieldwork, but rather it is a dynamic concept that is actively managed throughout the process, or even well after the research has taken place. Methodologically then, the edited volume offers a range of approaches that allow researchers to scrutinize the nuances ways in which rapport is managed.


The edited collection provides an important contribution to the hitherto understudied concept of ‘rapport’. The work is a result of a symposium held at La Trobe University in July 2015, and, as noted in the acknowledgements, the present volume adds to one already published (Goebel 2019). It would have perhaps been useful to fully set out how the two collections differ in focus and scope. Similarly, some more explicit engagement with the already published work would have been welcome. Having said this, the current volume offers great coherence, and the editorial decision for inclusion of the specific contributions has clearly focused the discussion of rapport in terms of theory and methodology. In particular, the theoretical ground in role alignment comes through clearly throughout the volume.

While addressing the central issue of rapport, the range of studies cited illustrates well the many different ways in which rapport can be conceptualised and analysed. The editor addresses a potential issue of lack of geographical diversity head on and encourages readers to see this as a strength, as having several chapters from one country, Indonesia, makes it possible to dispense with the older views of language boundedness and its relationship with a nation state (p. 11). Many different approaches, including more interactional as well as conceptual ones, attest well to this point. On the other hand, the introductory chapter also suggests a reconceptualization of rapport to include its embodied and intersemiotic nature. It is something that comes through most clearly in contributions by Kuipers and Donzelli, and it is a very welcome inclusion, but perhaps there is still scope to expand theoretical and methodological discussions in this regard.

One area that has been attended to well is the interactional aspects of rapport. The introductory chapter by Goebel, as well as contributions by Perrino, Manns, and Ewing, show clearly how rapport is managed in interaction. It is a topic that merits more research, in the context of (linguistic) anthropology, as well as other settings (see for example discussion of rapport in police interviews described by Rull and Baker 2020), and the book makes an important step in opening up a future discussion of rapport. Nearly all chapters deal with rapport in often highly multilingual settings, and as such often involve implicitly or explicitly questions of language learning and translation, and theorizing and analysing rapport in other examples of ethnographic work, in more traditionally ‘monolingual’ settings, could have added to the volume even further. Having said this, it is perhaps an exciting additional line of enquiry for future research.

The edited collection offers a timely and well thought out starting point in reimagining the critical yet understudied notion of rapport. While one of the main strengths of the book lies in its theoretical contribution as well as some wider methodological points, and it is not aimed to provide a ‘how-to’ manual relating to fieldwork, the collection will nevertheless be useful to anyone embarking on an ethnographic project. It is highly recommended for scholars and researchers with interest in ethnography.


Agha, Asif. 2005. Voice, footing, enregisterment. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1). 38-59.

Bull, Ray & Bianca Baker. 2020. Obtaining Valid Discourse from Suspects PEACE-fully: What Role for Rapport and Empathy? In Mason, Marianne & Frances Rock (eds.). Discourse of Police Interviews. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 42-64.

Goebel, Zane (ed.). 2019. Rapport and the Discursive Co-Construction of Social Relations in Fieldwork Encounters. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Piotr Węgorowski is a lecturer in applied linguistics at the University of Glasgow. His research interests include linguistic ethnography, particularly in institutional and professional contexts, as well as multilingualism.

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