This term refers to a set of socially and culturally shaped resources for making meaning. Mode classifies a ‘channel’ of representation or communication for which previously no overarching name had been proposed (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001). Examples of modes include writing and image on the page, extending to moving image and sound on the screen, and speech, gesture, gaze and posture in embodied interaction. It is not that other modes of communication had not been formerly recognized and studied; for example, extensive research and theorization has been undertaken into gesture (e.g. McNeill, 1992). Embracing a variety of communicational means as worthy of investigation constitutes a challenge to the prior predominance of spoken and written ‘language’ in academic work, and opens up possibilities for recognizing, analyzing and theorizing the variety of ways in which people make meaning, and how those meanings are multimodally interrelated. Modes are not autonomous and fixed, but, created through social processes, are fluid and subject to change. For example, the words ‘wicked’ and ‘cool’ have recently taken on fresh meaning. Nor are modes universal, but are particular to a community where there is a shared understanding of their semiotic characteristics. Making marks in the sand as they recounted stories was a mode for the Walbiri women of central Australia (Munn, 1973) that is not available in other communities.

What a mode is continues to be subject to debate. For example, some writers view colour and layout as modes, and hence writing as multimodal, whereas others would not make those distinctions. One response to this is that definitions of mode are dependent on what are counted as well-acknowledged regularities within any one community. Graphic designers are likely to have a secure grasp of the range and potentialities of typology (e.g. font, layout), whereas this might not qualify as a mode amongst others who may not have access to and knowledge of these resources and their ‘affordances’. Another ‘test’ for whether a set of resources ‘counts’ as a mode is the presence of the three Hallidayan ‘metafunctions’ (Halliday, 1978); whether the ‘ideational’ (subject matter), the ‘interpersonal’ (constructing social relations) and the ‘textual’ (creating coherence) are realized. Definitions of mode continue to be refined and developed.

Editor: Diane Mavers
Other contributor: Will Gibson

Key References
Jewitt, C. (2009)
The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis
London: Routledge

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

London: Routledge


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