Discourse and Identity; Gee and Bucholtz

Blog » Discourse and Identity; Gee and Bucholtz

Posted on 13 Mar 2013 03:51

James Paul Gee’s “Literacy, Discourse and Linguistics: Introduction And What is Literacy” seeks to prove an overarching claim that the focus of applied linguistics is not rooted in language or literacy, but rather in social practices. “It’s not just how you say it, it’s who you are and do hen you say it,” is an important premise for his argument. Gee contends that in the real world of discourse, technicality of speech or writing is not as important as one’s position within the community that views or hears the writing or the speech. The community to which one presents oneself influences both the way that one says it and what it is that one will say; this is the effect of a discourse community, according to Gee. We often change the way that we speak or the way that we present ourselves on a vast range of “Discourses” (actions, values, social attitudes, glances, dress, body positions, etc.) in order to be accepted or well received in that discourse community. Nobody is born with innate ability to participate in any discourse other than their “primary” discourse, which is the one with which we learn about the world and how to communicate in the first place. The primary discourse is the one that is used to communicate with intimates, who will not judge or rank you based on Discourses. Often, to participate in discourses outside of our intimate one, we must transfer or translate our thoughts from our primary discourse into the secondary discourse, so that a community that has a standardized way of expressing and understanding ideas can approve it.

Gee uses a very interesting case study to showcase the existence of the primary and secondary discourses. He uses a very primitive example: a five-year-old girl with an anecdote about a birthday party she attended, participating in what she perceives as a discourse community, her mother reading a book to her seven-year-old sister. The little girl tells her anecdote to her family members in her primary discourse but chooses to tell the story to her mother and sister in a storybook fashion. Gee is implying here that the girl understood her mother reading to her sister as a discourse community that is separate from her normal interaction with them. During reading time, this storybook way of telling a tale is the appropriate method of communicating, and so the five-year-old girl has no choice but to adopt it, and transfer her anecdote from her primary discourse into this secondary one, so that it can be expressed to her mother and sister at this time.

I can appreciate Gee’s case study. It’s very cute, and even more purposeful. If Gee intends to get a point about the nature of societal linguistics across, which is a better way than to show how it is happening in the most primitive and unaltered state? This little girl hasn’t been told the expectations of any discourse other than her primary one and perhaps the one in pre-school. She was never told, explicitly, that she must speak like this to her mother and sister (and she clearly doesn’t) but she assumed she should and this supports Gee’s claim: that secondary discourses are acquired, and that primary discourses can only go so far.

Mary Bucholtz’s study of a community of high school nerd girls is far more nuanced than Gee’s. Bucholtz is trying to prove that the speech communities model has too many limitations that make it difficult to use for sociolinguistic purposes and specifically, gender considerations. She observes six such limitations which include its tendency to focus on language, its emphasis on consensus as the organizing principle of community, its preference for studying central roles and ignoring the marginal ones, its focus on the group rather than the individuals, its view of identity as static categories, and valorization of researchers’ interpretations over participants’ own understandings of their practices.
In order to prove that the speech communities model is too specific because of these six limitations, she takes on the study of a group of nerd girls and uses their conversations to analyze each speaker’s adherence to the discourses of this community.
She especially notes how each member is expressing her identity, which Bucholtz classifies into negative practices and positive practices. Negative practices are meant to dissociate the nerd girls from the other communities in their high school, and positive practices are meant to promote the nerd girls’ nerd-ness (if you will). Bucholtz’s analyses prove that the speech community model fails to present a good assessment of this community because it would ignore all of the nuances that she analyzes. The model she chooses to use for her study is the community of practice model, which does take into account aspects of community such as identity and the micro-level of oneself in a community.

While I thought that Bucholtz’s choice of case study was inappropriate and a pretentious, I do see her point. She needed a very specific gender group in which the members are very obviously expressing their identity, and this is quite a common thing for all adolescents to do. Her choice of case study is appropriate for the purpose it serves.

My own research will also involve a very specific interaction. I intend to continue with my study of the sub-Reddit r/atheism. My research will culminate in a claim that I have yet to formulate, but it will find itself in a thread started by a religious original poster who seeks and explanation of atheism and the choices atheists have made. There is a lot to observe about the language used by the previously observing (lurker) member and the other active members response to it. It is interesting to note how an outsider of a rather strict community is able to make their presence by using the proper language and method of communication to express their concerns and ideas.

Leave a comment

Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License