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Review of  Identity in (Inter)action

Reviewer: Maria Rieder
Book Title: Identity in (Inter)action
Book Author: Sigrid Norris
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 23.316

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AUTHOR: Sigrid Norris
TITLE: Identity in (Inter)action
SUBTITLE: Introducing Multimodal (Inter)action Analysis
SERIES: Trends in Applied Linguistics 4
YEAR: 2011
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton

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


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

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

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

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

Chapter 1, “Multimodal (Inter)action Analysis”, introduces central terms used
throughout the book, and presents an overview of the framework. The necessity
for a broad multi-modal framework is demonstrated by a comparison of a
mono-modal analysis of an audio-tape transcript with a multi-modal analysis of a
video recording of the same interaction. This juxtaposition plausibly reveals
the likelihood of misinterpretations and other shortcomings of a mono-modal
(verbal) discourse and identity analysis that disregards various modes of
interaction, and therefore, the complexity of identity production.

Chapter 2, “Identity in (Inter)action: Theoretical Concepts”, starts out with a
presentation of the theoretical background of identity production analysis. By
first citing Goffman (1959) and Scollon (1998), the author presents an overview
of various definitions and conventional uses of identity as well as ways in
which identity production has been analyzed historically. Thereafter, the author
explains her own view of identity as being composed of different identity
elements, as something that is dynamic, and as something that is (co)produced in
a certain social-time-place together with societal networks, cultural tools and
the environment.

Before going into detail, the author introduces all analytical terms and units
of 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 stroke
is a unit of the mode of gesture), higher-level actions (i.e. multiple chained
lower-level actions that construct, e.g., a dinner, a class, a conversation,
etc.) and frozen actions (e.g. objects or the environment, which have previous
social and meaningful action imprinted on them); mediational means and cultural
tools; the site of engagement as the psychological, spatial and temporal window
opening on an action; the heuristic notion of foreground-background continuum of
awareness/attention; the intentionality of identity production hinting at
discrepancies between self-perceived and from the outside observed identity; and
the tension between agency and societal prescription in the production of
identity elements.

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

In Chapter 3, “Collecting and Transcribing Ethnographic Data: A Case Study of
Two Women Living in Germany”, the author first gives background information on
the case study and the participants and presents the different types of data
that were collected for the study. In order to allow for triangulation checks, a
variety of data, ranging from audio- and video-recordings of naturally occurring
action and informal interviews, field notes, still photos, as well as pieces of
creative writing, were collected during an extended period in which the
researcher lived with the participants. Ethnographic research of this type is
held to be necessary in order to allow for an all-encompassing analysis of
identity production. The author also describes a typical day of a researcher in
the field and the difficulties an ethnographer is met with in juggling several
different roles.

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

Chapter 4, “Modal Density, Actions, and Identity”, starts out with the question
of how social actors know which identity element to attend to when several
elements are produced at the same time. Examples from the case study illustrate
the term “modal density”, which depicts the concentration of different modes in
a higher-level action. The density of an action can be characterized by
intensity and/or complexity of multiple modes, which determines whether actions
and elements are produced and observed in the foreground, mid-ground or
background of attention/awareness. Modal density is a relational notion and
diminishes proportionately to the amount of attention and phenomenological

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

While the previous chapters concentrate on the analysis of identity elements
separately, Chapter 5, “Horizontal Identity Production; and Mastery and
Appropriation of Identity Elements”, looks at the horizontal piece (i.e.
simultaneous identity production) and shows how different elements and different
higher-level actions are juggled at the same time by the employment of different
modes of communication. The foreground-background continuum posits that actions
carried out with full awareness are located in the foreground, whereas lessening
awareness (shown by less modal density) places actions in the mid- and
background. The foreground-background continuum shows that identity elements can
be 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 identity
elements simultaneously.

Examples from the case study illustrate how focused-on higher-level actions, and
thereby produced identity elements, can be either parallel or mismatched in
terms of awareness for two interlocutors. The latter is plausibly shown to be a
common sign of high confidence and deep understanding between two communicating
social actors, whereas paralleled focused attention is needed when such deep
understanding 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 cultural
tools illuminate to what extent they master or appropriate identity elements.
When elements are fully appropriated, the social actor is often not aware of
them anymore, and may even reject them, which explains why self-perception,
actual action and perception from the outside can diverge considerably. The case
studies reveal that elements that are emphasized are often not appropriated yet,
which should make researchers aware of things that are not mentioned by social
actors. In order to gain such deep understanding of the social actors being
studied 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 the
same time, Chapter 6, “Vertical Identity Production”, examines the composition
of single identity elements. Each element is shown to be influenced by, and
produced through, three layers of discourse. The outer layer of discourse refers
to societal and institutional forces generating the general layer of identity
elements. The intermediary layer is created by the social actor’s immediate
networks and gives way to long-term or “continuous” identity elements,
highlighted by long-term, focused-on higher-level actions. Finally, the central
layers of discourse are formed by the social actor’s immediate actions and
therefore produce immediate identity elements. The extent to which these layers
become visible and apparent depends on the social actor’s compliance with the
norms of the discourse.

In a second step, the dialogism between coercion and agency is discussed for all
three different layers. While the outer and intermediary layers of discourse and
the consequential identity elements seem to be forced upon a social actor, a
social actor does have a certain amount of agency in regard to what he or she
takes on for her/himself and in regard to the free choice of network
participation. In turn, while agency seems to be highest in the production of
immediate identity elements, a social actor is nevertheless constrained by the
environment, cultural tools, situational circumstances and culturally learned
ways of doing things. The different discourses, even though they can be looked
at separately, have to be seen as intertwined and overlapping, creating a
complex interplay between agency and coercion.

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

Chapter 7, “Shifting Identity, Saliency of Identity, and Identity Change”, is
concerned with the ways a social actor uses to shifts the focus between
different higher-level actions that he or she performs simultaneously in
horizontal or vertical senses. The author introduces the notion of
semantic/pragmatic means, a signaling system of pronounced lower-level actions
produced before a shift in order to mark the end of a foregrounded action and
the beginning of a new higher-level action. After providing the theoretical
background, the signaling system is exemplified by the presentation of two
categories of means (i.e. beats, defined as a gesture with only two movement
phases, e.g., hand/finger beat or head toss; and deictics, e.g., gaze and talk
or 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, one
can observe the saliency of those elements that are valued in one’s network and
that are therefore kept continuously on some level of awareness. The author
emphasizes here that the saliency of an identity element can be enjoyed if it
can be incorporated in the overall sense of self, while a discord among the
identity layers can cause great distress. Therefore, it seems plausible that
social actors strive for normative identity elements and often take on forced
general and continuous layers of identity.

Identity change can come about as an agentively driven decision by the social
actor, or as a forced change coerced from the outside. Mostly, a change of
identity is facilitated by the development of an auxiliary element, which fills
the void after an element has been given up, and helps people to cope with
changes. A change of an identity element is ethnographically illustrated as
encompassing 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 of
change, and awareness can accelerate a change. Identity elements also change in
an unreflected state through habituated actions, but the change then usually
does not become obvious to the social actor and the outside world.

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

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

Chapter 9, “Investigating Identity in (Inter)action”, presents a summary of the
framework with its newly introduced concepts and provides some guidance to
students studying identity.


This work presents a comprehensive exploration of identity in all aspects.
Identity elements are discussed separately as well as in sequential and
synchronic combination with others. They are also examined in a minute-by-minute
micro analysis as well as observed in their long-term development and within
macro aspects of identity change and stability. The data is not only fully
integrated in the presentation of analytical elements, but encompasses a wide
range of different data types, including creative writing, in order to catch the
feel 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 study
throughout the book to illuminate different aspects of identity production. This
allows the reader to form a clear picture of the personality of the social
actors in question and to engage actively in the process of discovery of the

The book reminds linguists and other analysts of two very important analytical
facts. Firstly, the exclusive concentration on verbal data not only disregards
what is communicated through other modes of communication and objects
surrounding social actors, but also is often misleading and can yield
misinterpretation of the data. A second reminder refers to the high importance
of the historical and cultural background (“historical body”) of social actors
when researching their actions and identity production.

The biggest contribution of the book is, however, the developed framework of
multimodal identity analysis, which is new in regard to the introduction of
multimodal transcription methods and central concepts such as the
foreground-background continuum, analysis of horizontal and vertical identity
production, and many more elements, that together form one framework of
analysis. Different from earlier contributions to identity analysis, this work
incorporates not only verbal and conventional non-verbal modes, but also frozen
actions, objects, environment and habitus into a holistic analysis of action and
identity production. The framework is presented in an easily accessible and
narrative 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, and
concludes in a summary (Chapter 9), in which all the different aspects of
identity analysis are brought together. The complexity of identity production is
very evident; however, the book provides good guidance to those wishing to study
identity production in a comprehensive way.

On the organizational side, the author has made a great effort to keep different
aspects of analysis apart in separate chapters. This is certainly not easily
manageable when writing about a topic as complex as identity analysis, in which
all aspects are interwoven and interdependent. At times, the reader may detect
that theoretical reasonings and interpretations are raised repetitively and do
get 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 on
vertical or horizontal identity production, rather than being placed with
aspects of identity change.

Occasionally, transcript and field note interpretations considering the
enactment of identity elements suggested by the author seem to be rather
subjective (e.g. p.13; p. 107). This may be a result of the author’s better
understanding of the social actors she studied, in contrast to a naturally more
limited and fragmented presentation of a case study in an academic work.

As the author suggests, a more detailed exploration of how social actors
stabilize their person identity could be a potential topic of future
ethnographic research.

In conclusion, the book presents a fascinating, practical, methodologically
sound and well thought out framework of identity analysis that will be valuable
and appealing to a wide range of students and scholars, such as discourse
analysts, scholars engaging in qualitative research and the analysis of identity
production, 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 News
Discourse. New York: Longman.

Maria Rieder is currently a PhD student in the Centre for Language and Communication Studies at Trinity College Dublin, where she is carrying out a sociolinguistic and ethnographic study of Irish Traveller language and culture. Her research interests include contact linguistics, applied linguistics, linguistic anthropology, discourse analysis, ethnography and identity and cultural studies. In the past, she has worked as a student assistant and tutor for undergraduate students of English linguistics. At Trinity College Dublin she teaches German as a foreign language.