This term refers to representations or communications that consist of more than one mode, brought together not randomly but with a view to collective and interrelated meaning. Within the framing of socially, culturally and historically regularized ways of making meaning, the communicator ‘orchestrates’ an ensemble (Kress, 2010) that bears traces of the maker’s ‘interest’ (Kress, 1997) and agency (Rowsell, 2012), including aesthetic considerations (Hull and Nelson, 2009). As such, there is a meshing between cultural affordances, and the ideas and purposes of the individual, as meanings are ‘sedimented’ in particular ways (Rowsell and Pahl, 2007). Medium also frames what is done; as well as combinations of modes made bodily and on the page, the resources available in online technologies shape the configuration of multimodal ensembles (Burnett, 2011). Deriving from music, the metaphor ‘ensemble’ is suggestive of discrete parts brought together as a synthesized whole, where modes, like melodies played on different instruments, are interrelated in complex ways. This raises a number of analytical questions, such as which modes have been included or excluded, the function of each mode, how meanings have been distributed, whether alternative modes could have been chosen and what the communicative effect of a different choice would be. The weighting of modes, in terms of which is predominant or backgrounded, can indicate relative ‘status’ and their very co-presence is suggestive of multimodal interrelationships (Martinec and Salway, 2005). For example, it is argued that, in children’s picturebooks, similar subject matter is represented in a ‘congruent’ (Schwarz, 1982) relationship between writing and image, whereas different aspects or disjunctive features of a phenomenon are communicated in a ‘complementary’ or  ‘contradictory’ dynamic  (Nickolajeva and Scott, 2000). As meaning makers decide on modal ‘best fit’ and how to combine modes for a particular purpose, analysis of the moment-by-moment processes of constructing multimodal ensembles can enable the analyst to unpack how meanings are brought together.

See also: Affordance, Design, Mode, Multimodal

Editor: Diane Mavers
Other contributor: Kate Pahl

Key References
Kress, G. (2010)
Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication
London: Routledge

Rowsell, J (2012)
Modal Learning: Doing Multimodality

London: Routledge

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