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Review of  Discourses in Place

Reviewer: Susan Olmstead-Wang
Book Title: Discourses in Place
Book Author: Ronald Scollon Suzanne Wong Scollon
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 16.1600

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Date: Mon, 16 May 2005 18:50:04 -0600
From: Susan Olmstead
Subject: Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World

AUTHORS: Scollon, Ronald; Scollon, Suzanne Wong
TITLE: Discourses in Place
SUBTITLE: Language in the Material World
YEAR: 2003
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)

Susan Olmstead-Wang, Department of English, University of Alabama,


Discourses in Place is the first book to explore systematically the
question of geosemiotics: how language and signs make meaning in relation
to where (and when) they are physically placed in the world. A primary
focus of geosemiotics is indexicality in which signs depend on their
context for meaning. Unlike icons such as modern brand logos, which mean
the same thing no matter where they are found, indexical signs depend on
what they point to for their meaning. Building on the work of Edward T.
Hall and Irving Goffman, the Scollons study how people take up positions
and relationships with others in social interactional order. Kress and van
Leeuwen's visual semiotic framework provides the basis for analysis of
signs as parts of a semiotic structure system that includes code
preference, inscription, and emplacement. The Scollons' work, drawn from
examples in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, demonstrates that
globalization challenges one's intuitions about reading signs and
understanding indexicality in the world.

This important book presents systematic observations about discourses in
place(s), of theoretical implications, and of material which can be used
in a course on public discourse. In keeping with a book about reading and
interpreting signs in real-world context, this text provides clear reading
cues including introductory, explanatory, and summary material which help
to move complex arguments forward and to allow readers to pick up and read
separate chapters as they choose. A comprehensive outline in text-box form
(p. 20-21) provides a very helpful overview and relevant selections from
it in each chapter keep the reader linked to the overall structure.
Excellent photos and charts guide readers through (necessarily) complex
theoretical arguments. Theory and application are paired in several ways
in the text: practices are found at the end of Chapters 2-4 and 6-9, and
photo illustrations (a gathering for tea, street corners in 5 cities,
Chinese lettering in signage) are placed throughout the book. A handy
glossary and readable endnotes help make the book layout friendly.


Chapter 1 focuses more on the indexable world than on systems of
indexicality in language, which have been studied elsewhere. Geosemiotics,
part of an approach to how situated meanings point to a larger discourse,
links discourse analysis, linguistics, and communication in a framework of
interpretation for social action and meaning making. Following Goffman,
Scollons' geosemiotics studies social actors where they live, act,
and "give off" social signals in the "interaction order."

Chapters 2 through 4 focus on social interaction and on image and text
representation. Chapter 2 considers key questions of indexicality
including how signs locate and produce meaning and how language points to,
and reflects from, the place in which it is situated. Three types of
indexicality are space, social relationships, and time. Iconicity,
indexicality, and symbolism are not exclusive categories; they are
overlapping concepts in complex relationship. For example, indexicality of
physical gestures alone may not give all necessary information about
reference; symbolization may also be needed for an accurate
interpretation. Major indexicals include demonstratives and deictic
adverbials, personal pronouns, and tense and time adverbials. Indexicality
of the social actor may be relative, for example, to the speed with which
a driver approaches a road sign and to the speed with which the driver is
able to interpret the sign.

Chapter 3 begins geosemiotic analysis and focuses on how people use the
interaction order to accomplish discourse in the world. Goffman argues
that our bodies take on social role performances, produce the interaction
order, and index the world by "kit" or "sign equipment." Here the Scollons
extend Goffman's theories so that indexicality in language includes
frontstage and backstage presentations, expressions that one gives and
gives off, and the dynamics among people in the same social space. When
describing the interaction order, the Scollons discuss Goffman's 'with'
as "a social group that is very important for the study of geosemiotics"
including a relative notion of who is a "with" and who is not. Following
Hall's suggestions about socio-cultural patterning (of time, of spaces, of
proxemics), geosemiotics builds on the theory of "social actor." Socio-
cultural patterns of time are interpreted in relation to a clock standard,
a sense of urgency, and a sense along the continuum/dichotomy of
monochronism-polychronism. Patterns affecting perceptual spaces include
visual, auditory, olfactory, thermal, haptic (tactile) as they demark
different kinds of space and/or different semiotic zones. Proxemics, the
study of interpersonal distances, reflect social distance and personal
fronts as they display the intentions of social actors.

Chapters 4 through 6 focus on visual semiotics in signs as representations
of the interaction order. Chapter 4 addresses Kress's and van Leeuwen's
understanding of visual semiotics as a form of constructed presentation of
framed images selected by a photographer (in contrast to random
snapshots). Extending this understanding, the Scollons focus on four main
semiotic systems: represented participants, modality, composition, and
interactive participants. Represented participants in a composed picture
demonstrate a narrative relationship between or among themselves, often by
means of a vector of gaze. Modality, the "truth of credibility of
statements realized linguistically" (p. 89) is specific to sociocultural
groups. Composition is the way in which information systems make "real"
or "new" information salient or prominent in a display. A principle of
geosemiotics at work here is that if two systems are in conflict, situated
semiotics override decontextualized semiotics. In an image, interactions
among participants may be between participant and producer, among
participants in the picture, and/or between viewer and participants.

Chapter 5 represents a transition from the first chapters, which discuss
the social world, the interaction order, and principles of visual
semiotics to the remaining chapters (5-9), which focus on place semiotics.
It applies concepts from visual semiotics and examines how signs placed in
the world connect their meanings in time, in space, and in the social
world through language. The authors use a photo and a prose description of
a particular interaction (a street beggar) at a particular point in a
sequence of social interaction (the point at which he receives a coin
donation) to show indexical relationships among the parts. They illustrate
the relationship between meaning and "the active work of the social
construction" of performances in public or social places (p. 107).

Chapters 6 through 8 describe code, preference, inscription, and
emplacement, key elements of place semiotics. Chapter 6 shows that visual
images take their meaning from where they are located in the world. In
semiotic spaces, pictures display a code-preference selected from among
center-margin, top-bottom, left-right, and earlier-later, or other
semiotic conventions. A code may symbolize something (for example, a
romantic time period or foreign tastes) while not necessarily indexing a
particular community (for example, an English-speaking audience). In order
to know enough about whether a code preference is based on geopolitical
indexing or sociocultural associations, interpreters look for evidence
outside the signs themselves. Focusing on Chinese-English bilingual signs,
the authors point out that there may be multiple codes within a single
sign or picture. Although placement is usually the most important
indicator of code preference, local laws may dictate that one language
must be placed in the more salient (preferred) position on the sign. This
makes it hard to determine whether text/code placements reflect carryover
from colonial days (for example, in Hong Kong) from the international/
global sphere (in which the same code choices are in service to two
different ideologies) or from other forces at work.

Chapter 7 discusses problems of code preference in inscription including
what material signs are made of. Inscription is based on the physical
materiality of language and it includes fonts, material, layering, and
state changes. In China, traditional characters can have double
association with the most ancient, or the most modern values. Simplified
writing shows conservative, socialist values. Materials may reflect time
(permanent, temporary) or quality. Layering of indexicality, state changes
(neon signs, traffic lights) or denied (hidden) inscription (a new car
model is concealed for unveiling).

Chapter 8 addresses a central concern of geosemiotics: where the sign or
image is physically placed. Three systems of emplacement,
decontextualized, transgressive, and situated, explore the question of
whether emplaced discourse is "socioculturally authorized" or not (p.
145). Decontextualized semiotics are those which always appear in the same
form no matter the context, including brand names. Transgressive semiotics
is any sign in the wrong place (including a transgressive reading vector).
Situated semiotics is at the heart of geosemiotics because meaning depends
on where the sign is. Exophoric indexicality links what is on a sign to
what it refers to in the real world such as an exit sign that points
outside its own frame. Chinese writing is "exploitable" in that it allows
text vectors to be left to right, right to left, or top to bottom. When
geosemiotic systems interact, a vector references the physical world
outside the sign. Following Kress and van Leeuwen, the authors understand
four small meaning systems to interact: a text vector system, a
construction system, a preference system, and an indexicality system.
Authors argue that where semiotic systems interact, situated semiotics
render meaning more clear than decontextualized semiotics (p. 159) and
they warn against mistakes in interpretation including overgeneralization
from "closely-situated semiotics" (p. 159).

Chapter 9 takes up the topics of place orientation and discourse
orientation. At the intersection of interactional order and the human-made
environment, multiple discourses come together (centripetal movement) to
organize the spaces in complex aggregates. Comparing discourses at street
corners in five cities around the world, the Scollons found that
discourses (including traffic regulations, commercial rules,
infrastructural discourses) influence each other in "interdiscursive
dialogicality" (p.167). Dialogicality reflects prior discourse and
anticipates future discourse. In addition to a centripetal coming together
of discourses, a centrifugal strategy may trace one discourse through a
semiotic aggregate. In geosemiotics, this web of social discourse and
physical place affect each other. Physical places include 4 types of
spaces (exhibit and display, passage, special use, and secure) in which a
variety of semiotic discourses interact in groups of various sizes. The
authors apply the theories discussed here to the concrete example of
gathering for tea in which discourse is shaped by spatial arrangement of
tables and chairs, seating order, and many other factors. In comparing
convergences at the 5 street corners, the authors found that 8 discourses
(related to regulatory, infrastructure, commercial or transgressive
discourses) were present in all instances and used in complex, overlapping

In Chapter 10, the authors return to an earlier action orientation, draw
conclusions for the book, and highlight implications of their theory. The
Scollons follow K. Burke's suggestion that underlying metaphors or
generative narrative organizes our thinking and they suggest that human
action (including discourse) arises from prior experience and is embedded
in interaction order and complex performance. Four elements (actor,
interactional order, visual semiotics, place semiotics) bring actions
together. Physical place and interactional order are two systems of
interpretation that work together such that one discourse produces a sign
but another discourse interprets it in double indexicality. Our actions
produce identity and they index discourse in place. Signs mean, in part,
by where (when) they are placed. An action selects a subset of signs and
moves on that selection. History, physical environment, and previous
dialog converge at a point in space. The future of geosemiotics may inform
how language is located in the material world and will link disparate
fields. Because indexicality is often taken for granted and is differently
expressed in different languages, conscious focus on it will inform
intercultural contact.


Discourses in Place is a pioneering study that establishes the field of
geosemiotics. It does so by extending key concepts, applying ethnography
as a focal strategy, linking several areas of study, and suggesting
implications for several related fields. The Scollons "make visible
invisible observations" (p. ix) in interesting and complex ways.

The authors do an excellent job of conceptualizing and extending relevant
theories of Goffman, Hall, Kress, and van Leeuwen while acknowledging the
limits of this initial study. They look forward to expanding the research
to include constructs and categories that are defined and refined by socio-
cultural groups not necessarily reflected in this study, which is reported
in English by researchers based in North America.

By working within a framework of ethnography, the authors acknowledge an
inclusive, flexible approach to a social group's ways of seeing. Native
intuitions are especially necessary in determining what system of values
is at work in a preferred semiotic interpretation.

In addition to drawing from several strands of sociolinguistic research,
the Scollons' approach links studies of face-to-face communications,
visual semiotics, signs as placed in the physical environment, and
sociopolitical language policy, especially in China.

I noted, however, one missed opportunity to make a significant argument
link and a couple of minor, distracting editing inconsistencies. In the
Preface, the authors recount Elio Antonio de Nebrija's creation of a
grammar of Castillian Spanish to illustrate how language has often been
used to "control diversity and produce social uniformity" (p. ix).
However, they seem miss an opportunity to highlight this anecdote as an
example of a constructed language whose indexicality to the society in
which it was (was to be) situated was weak or disconnected. Although they
note that not even the queen herself spoke Castillian, they focus on socio-
political implications and not explicitly on this disruption between
language, reference, and emplacement. The development of Castillian as a
preferred form of Spanish has implications for other language policies,
including the spread of simplified Chinese characters.

Because of the content of the following passages, a couple of minor
editing problems seemed ironic. When discussing a photo of icons in
Chapter 2, the authors refer to "the symbol 'X' (in red)" (p. 26). In
fact, the photos are shown as black and white with the 'X" hardly visible
at all. This kind of mistake appears again in Chapter 9 where the prose
description indexes "the man in the green shirt" (p. 179). These minor
editing problems are probably related to last minute changes at press but
they point up a problem of indexicality related to changes of state (from
color to black-and-white photos) and a problem of making signs and what
they index match properly over time or during an evolving process.

Another example of the text not matching its content is a long sentence,
which has several insertions and complex grammar. Rather than direct
readers clearly, the sentence structure juxtaposes conflicting deictics
and pointing vectors which send the reader around and around the city in

"There is also a continuum in the design of public spaces between highly
designed and controlled places where only certain clearly defined social
actions and interactions may occur -- a busy street intersection allows
only certain types of traffic to pass in certain sign-designated times,
many cities prohibit street vendors -- and much more loosely designed and
loosely controlled places; often these are socially marginalized places or
zones such as back alleys or peripheral regions of a city." (p. 169)


By emphasizing the necessity of considering both sign and emplacement,
geosemiotics has implications for code-switching research. Recently,
relationships between two languages spoken in one conversation have been
explored in terms of one language being dominant, while the other has been
seen as non-dominant. In this book, the Scollons argue that signs,
including those which employ more than one code, language, or text vector,
can be fully understandable only when seen in context. Like bilingual
signs, code-switching functions along the interface of complex systems and
requires complex, situated interpretation.

Geosemiotics is well poised to consider socio-political developments in
public policy regarding codes and code placements, especially in Hong
Kong, and changes in how Chinese languages and written codes develop in
China, Taiwan, and elsewhere. Although Nebrija wanted to limit language to
diversity, the globalizing world needs geosemiotics as an approach to
cross-cultural communication which acknowledges the situated nature of


Susan Olmstead-Wang researches Mandarin-English code-switching and teaches
graduate TESOL courses at the University of Alabama, Huntsville.

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