Context

Context is a term often used in methodological accounts to refer to what falls outside the empirical focus of a study yet is, at the same time, seen as relevant to the interpretation of that empirical focus. Thus when data are collected and analyzed a distinction is made between ‘text’ and ‘context’, and often different empirical status is accorded to them, text being ‘primary’, context being ‘secondary’. One extreme position in this debate is taken by, for instance, some conversation analysts who argue that anything outside the (multimodal) text selected for analysis is irrelevant for its analysis, unless participants themselves orient to it. At the other end of the spectrum we find the position taken by some ethnographers that as much of the context (of a case) as possible must be taken into account. Somewhere in the middle lies the position taken by, for instance, (interactional) sociolinguists and systemic functional linguistics. They argue that we must investigate how language (‘text’) ‘fits into’ context and how people construct and recognize these contexts. Frequently in research the empirical boundaries between text and context coincide with modal boundaries: a linguist treating image as context, for instance. Multimodality aims to avoid pre-defining such boundaries along modal lines, opting instead to investigate the functions of various modes in ensembles. For discussions about the methodological implications of notions of context see Blommaert (2005), Hak (1999), and Duranti & Goodwin (1982).

Editor: Jeff Bezemer

Key References
Blommaert, J. (2005)
Discourse
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Duranti, A. & Goodwin, C. (eds) (1982)
Rethinking context
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hak, T. (1999)
“‘Text’ and ‘con-text’: Talk bias in studies of health care work.” In Sarangi, S. & Roberts, C. Talk, Work and Institutional Order. Discourses in Medical, Mediation and Management Settings Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter (pp. 427- 451)

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