Today’s dissertation proposal

Reading: Scollon, Ron. 2001. Mediated discourse: The nexus of practice. London, New York: Routledge.


One in a continuing series. As an exercise in mental discipline, I always try to keep in mind a topic that I would write up as my dissertation proposal, if I had to propose today.

there is an inherent and irreducible link between discourse and practice… but to see that link as it works in practice requires studies which are fundamentally discursive-historical or longitudinal so that the workings of practice across a historical sequence of actions can be made visible. Such studies are necessarily ethnographic so that constellations of practice, nexus of practice, can be made visible in order that the operations of both discourse (discursive practice) and practice (other, non-discursive practices) can be concretely seen as they develop in the habitus of the participants and in the nexus of practice which is produced homologously across participants. (Scollon 2001: 158)

Too jargony; didn’t read:

What’s the connection between the actions we take in social contexts, and the talk that accompanies them? Once actions have become habitual to the point where we can call them “social practices,” does that mean that each practice has its characteristic way of speaking? Scollon says not, or at least, he says it’s not that simple.

To begin with, what counts as a social practice? What’s the right level of magnification for this kind of inquiry? Bourdieu uses things like “gift exchange,” but for Scollon that’s too complex to be considered a single practice. Exchanging gifts involves choosing a gift appropriate to the situation, wrapping it or not, identifying the proper moment to give the gift, accepting or refusing. In fact, in a sense you can’t know whether your gift exchange was accomplished successfully until some future occasion when you expect the other person to reciprocate. For Scollon, all this indicates that we should look at smaller details. Rather than exchanging gifts, Scollon’s example of a social practice is handing objects from one person to another. The bulk of the book is concerned with documenting the way a one-year-old child acquires this practice.

Something like gift giving, then, is best analyzed as a nexus of practice. All those smaller aspects of a gift-giving event are social practices that exist in various social contexts, and all come together in an exchange of gifts. Some of these practices are discursive and others are not; seeing how these two kinds of practice are related (i.e., in what kinds of nexus) is what it means to analyze talk in its social context. And since these relationships among practices aren’t mechanistic — since, for example, you can have gift exchanges with or without wrapping paper — you need to do long-term ethnography in order to see all the configurations of practices that comprise a nexus of practice.

So, that’s Scollon in a nutshell. What about the hypothetical dissertation?

I’d like to do an ethnography of a middle or high school math class from this perspective. My sense is that there are math class practices and nexus of practice that students are expected to learn over the course of the school year. The question is, what are they, how are students exposed to them, and how do they learn them (or not, and if not, why not)?

Scollon also brings in a concept of mediational means, classes of physical objects that are incorporated into practices. In his study of handing, the objects that are handed constitute mediational means; you can’t just hand, you have to hand something. He makes a further distinction between mediational means that are semiotic or not; objects that themselves carry a meaning have special significance. This piece of the theory will be really useful for considering mathematical diagrams and notation.

My goal would be to identify a nexus of practice that has particular salience for the class, and to track its development over time. I’m imagining it as something like the speech event in which students are called to the front of the room to explain their work, but in any ethnography, you have to be open to letting the data lead you.

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Posted in Research process

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