Communication and Identities in Institutional Arenas - Part I/Per Linell: Rethinking Language, Mind and World Dialogically. Interactional and contextual theories of human sense-making

Summary and reflections on Linell, Per 2009: Rethinking language, mind and world dialogically – Interactional and contextual theories of human sense-making

Editor’s introduction, Preface, chapters 1, 2, 5, 9, 16, 20 edit

In the editor’s introduction to the book, Jaan Valsiner emphasizes the thorough analytical work of Per Linell in developing the dialogical approach both in the book and in his academic career. Connecting Linell’s work to the field of cultural psychology, Valsiner illustrates some of the challenges of introducing a new approach to the examination of the self, mind and society, and then moves on to pointing out that the book at hand is important “because it leads to generalized knowledge about ways the dialogical ways of thinking are organized”(2009: xxii).

In the preface of the book, Linell compares the “dialogical turn” of human sciences to the “linguistic turn” of social sciences in the 1970s, but concludes immediately that dialogue is more fundamental than language, as it entails more semiotic means employed by human beings than language alone (2009:xxvii). This book, Rethinking language, mind and world dialogically can be seen as a general overview of what Linell calls dialogical theories of human sense-making. “Dialogical” is defined as follows: when thinking, acting and interacting with each other and the world, human beings perform cognitive and communicative actions. If the world where these actions and interactions occur is understood dialogically, it can only be described as “dynamic, multi-aspectual and with potentials for different interpretations” (2009: xvii). Throughout all phenomena a dialogicity occurs, and the focus of the dialogical approach is thus relations between situations and cultures, selves and others, interactions and thinking and so on (2009: xvii). The preface, after having presented short overview of the entire book, ends in a rather sympathetic statement from Linell’s part, where he claims that the book is a reflection of his own “struggle to formulate a version and a vision of dialogism”.

Chapter 1 Conceptual and terminological preliminaries edit

Chapter 1 provides the reader with a description of the different interpretations of the words such as “dialogue” and “dialogical” in terms of language, communication and thinking. A commonly used definition of the word “dialogue”, is “conversation, or verbal interaction, between two or more participants” (p.3), a definition that seems to leave out other ways of communicating than the verbal (!). Linell points out, however, that in his study of dialogicality, “interaction in contexts” is a central meaning of the word (p.3). In terms of other choices of terminology, I find it rather interesting that Linell, after having stated that “polylogue” and “multilogue” are two possible terms to be used concerning interaction between several participants, chooses to work with “dialogue” and then use terms such as “dyadic” or “triadic” to underline the number of participants. To me, this is interesting, as the reasons for doing this are similar (as I understand it) with many other reasons for deciding to use a poly- or a multi- prefixed terms; and have to do with both gaining greater comprehensibility as well as using concepts that reflect the phenomena studied. Cf. the use of concepts of bilingualism/multilingualism or bilingual/multilingual.

After concluding that his interest in dialogue and dialogicality deals with meaning-making activities mediated in and through language, Linell discusses what he calls the three senses of dialogue in section 1.2; The first of these is the concrete, empirical sense of dialogue “face-to-face- interaction through talk” (but also interaction via technical aids such as telephones, television, radio, e-mail, chat, sms and so on)(p.4). Dialogue in the concrete, empirical sense is tightly connected to our everyday experiences. The second is the normative sense of dialogue, common in “social philosophy, and society at large”, involving the idea of a dialogue as a “high-quality interaction” (p.5). The normative theories of dialogue are sometimes far from “reality” or what can be observed empirically. The third sense of dialogue has to do with its abstract and comprehensive status, dealing with “any kind of human sense-making, semiotic practice, action, interaction, thinking or communication” (p.5) To exemplify, this could mean “ the internal dialogue within the self”or “ the dialogue between ideas or discourses” (p.6). It is in this final, abstract and comprehensive sense that Linell wishes to develop his theoretical framework, dealing with dialogism (“epistemological framework”) and dialogicality (“essences of human condition”)(p.7)

Chapter 2 Dialogism and its axiomatic assumptions edit

In the beginning of ch 2, yet another condition for the use of the concept dialogicality is offered: “ a person is interdependent with others’ experiences, actions, thoughts and utterances; a person is not an autonomous individual who can decide everything for him- or herself, as monologism tends to assume” (p.11) Therefore, it seems natural to accept when the author suggests that the term “dialogical” can in many instances be replaced with terms “social, interactional and contextual” instead (p.12, also suggested as key concepts on p. 14) and states many opposing ideas against thinking that places focus on “internal” mental processes among individuals. In 2.3, Linell presents an interesting point of departure for defining dialogism, which has to do with its “other-orientation”. As stated above, dialogism focuses interdependency between individuals, cultures and situations and opposes the idea of an autonomous individual. Referring to Bakhtin (1981), Linell underlines the responsive and anticipatory nature of discourse. (p.13) Here, a notion that occurred to me is that the focus on “the other” is something to be recognized from the postcolonial theory construction (see also summary of Ch 5 below).

The remainder of the chapter is designated to discuss different core concepts of dialogism. The first of them is interactionism, based on an idea that communication and cognition/thinking always involve interaction with the surrounding world and are dialogically intertwined. Furthermore, dialogism “must regard interactions, activities and situations as primary” (p.15). Linell presents also an interesting, yet challenging idea of silent reading as “interactions between the text and the reader” (p.15). Another core concept within dialogism is contextualism, referring to the interdependentness of sensemaking-processses, situated discourses and contexts. For sense-making, the contexts, whether concrete situations, co-texts, local interactional accomplishments or background knowledge, are essential. (p.16-17) . The third core concept that I will comment upon here is communicative constructionism, referring to interactive construction of meaning. Linell relates this concept to the term social constructionism and suggest yet another version; “contextual social constructionism” (p.19). At the end of chapter 2, Linell once again states what dialogism is all about: “ a meta-theoretical framework for human sciences”, primarily concerned with processes of human meaning-making in and through language (p.28) and the unit of analysis of dialogism is situated interaction (p.30)

Chapter 5 Dialogue and the other edit

This chapter, together with chapter 9 (examined below), form the two core chapters in the text I have studied. Its point of departure is dialogism’s emphasis on the social nature of interaction, and all individuals’ interdependence of others. That “other” may be a direct partner in interpersonal interaction, a generalized other or a “third party other” (p.69). To illustrate these ideas, Linell presents the reader with an empirical example, a transcript from a dialogue from a criminal court trial. By using the empirical example as an aid, he then illustrates how not only the parties participating in the interaction are interdependent in meaning-making and working thus as coauthors for eachother’s contributions, but also how their utterances are sequentially constructed and often subjected to negotiation of interpretation (Pp. 71-74), the latter the kind of argumentation that is commonly recognized from CA theory. As for the third party others in the dialogue presented, there are a number of those (yet not seen in the transcript); the judge,the jury, the audience, and so on.

When moving on from dealing with the empirical example to theorizing about the other, Linell concludes that we, in a Bakhtinian sense, “in languaging use each other’s words” (p.76). He also critically examines many ideas of intrapersonal construction of meaning (referring to Dewey, Kant and Piaget to name a few), thus emphasizing the social construction of meaning instead (p.78-79). Within the dialogical theory there is a strong belief that the individual mind evolves in constant interaction with others (p.80). This other-orientedness means a certain focus on both commonality/intersubjectivity with others and difference/alterity from others. Intersubjectivity, or common knowledge, norms, assumptions and commitments is an important ground for interaction, as it can be considered a kind of other-orientedness, Linell states, referring to many theorists who have discussed the concept before him (p. 81-82). Alterity, then, emphasizes the difference and reoccurring tensions between “us” and “the others”, standing in a dialogical relation to each other (p. 82). The strangeness and outsideness of the other are an essential part of fruitful dialogues, or interactionally constructed meaning making. It is in the unknown other that we see ourselves. The ideas of commonalities and alterities are then connected with Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development and the relations between individuals in interactions, and furthermore, to learning. By doing this, Linell presents the ZPD as a dialogical phenomenon (pp. 85-86). He then moves on to introducing the concept of complementarity as a bridge between intersubjectivity and alterity, describing the concept as a mostly positive, cooperative form of interaction (pp.86-87). From the focus on the other that is perhaps considered in a more dyadic relation, the remainder of the chapter moves on the deal with interaction with more than two parties. Linell introduces Marková’s terms “Ego” and “Alter”, which roughly correspond to “I” and “thou” and then moves on to the triadic interaction between “I-you-it”, also known as the pragmatic triad, where both interlocutors and the object that is dealt with in interaction acquire their important roles (pp.89-91). Linell then argues, that any triads, pragmatic or situational (now-here-I) are insufficient for a “dialogical explication of the communicative act” (p.93). This is when the idea of double dialogism is introduced, claiming that dialogues in fact consist of four elements, Ego (“I”)- Alter (“you”)-Socioculture (“we”/”one”) –Object (”it). Socioculture in this model can also be understood as the signs or social representations of the object (pp.94-97). The role of third parties in interaction is then further theorized in the final part of the chapter. Linell writes for instance about the important roles third parties play in communication in terms of trust and confidence, their active and non-active presence in the interaction (copresent others vs. remote audiences and virtual participants) and artifacts as third parties (pp.99-103).

Chapter 9 Social interaction and power edit

This chapter is primarily concerned with the dynamics of situated interaction, arguing that each contribution to interaction has links to prior and possible next actions – hence the word “inter-action”. Linell states that his theory deals with “inter-acts”, to be compared with monologist pragmatics’ “speech acts” (.p178, again critically examined in pp. 181-183). Another core concept is that of “communicative project”, a project that is jointly constructed, centered around a communicative task, and focuses on the other. Referring to many known names from CA theory (Schegloff, etc.), Linell agrees with conversation analysis’s focus on the local sequential construction of interaction (initiatives, responses, reciprocity), but points out that similar analyses apply also to longer time frames than just some situated interaction. Seeing communicative acts as interacts in a larger scale means thus that the larger wholes can be considered as communicative projects (p.181). Communicative acts, as Linell points out, are acts made for some purpose, whether asking for advice, asserting or accusing someone, and thus connected to a greater scale of events than the local organization of interaction (p.182).

Later on in the chapter, Linell further deepens the discussion on sequentiality of interaction, joint construction of meaning and act-activity interdependence. These three are sometimes called the three reflexive dialogical principles. Sequentiality refers to the chained nature of interaction and meaning-making, while act-activity interdependence equals a principle focusing on the part-whole relations in sense-making. Joint construction then deals with co-authorship. (Pp.186-187) In 9.7, the concept of “communicative project” (CP) is focused and analyzed. The basic idea behind this notion is that single utterances most often are parts of bigger projects – and that the communicative projects as such have holistic features that overbridge the parts they consist of (pp.188-189). Communicative projects thus refer to dynamic “tasks carried out by participants in and through their interaction” (p.190) but are also embedded within other, successively larger non-communicative projects (p.192). Most importantly, CPs are always dialogical, an argumentation that is emphasized through the illustration of a number of empirical examples (pp. 193-196). In 9.8, Linell introduces a related concept, that of communicative genres. Relating this concept to Bakhtin’s “speech genre” (1986b), he concludes that it is more inclusive than Bakhtin’s original or “text genre” used in literary theory (pp.198-199).

Yet another related concept is the communicative activity type (CAT), defined as “comprehensive communicative project tied to a social situation type”. The interest towards CATs is guided by an interest towards larger patterns of actions and interactions, relating to social situations and encounters, framed by specific expectations and purposes. (pp.201-202) As an analytical concept, CATs belong to a meso-level, “providing a link between situated micro-processes and societal macro-structures” (p.203). The analysis of CATs can occur in many conceptual and empirical dimensions, which are divided into three different groups by Linell: framing dimensions (purposes and tasks, activity roles, scenes, times, role of language…), internal interactional organizations and accomplishments (phase structure, core CPs, agenda, topical progression methods, role of artifacts…) and sociocultural ecology (socioc. history, relations to larger societal organizations…) (pp.203-204). Together with CPs, CATs are basic analytical concepts within the dialogical analysis of social interaction, and, according to Linell, better suited for the analysis of interaction than theories of speech acts and adjacency pairs, because:

  • “CP theory focuses the analysis on discourse on “what’s going on” for the participants
  • it deals with structural provisions and topicality at the same time, as two sides of discourse
  • it accommodates the fact that there are communicative projects on different time scales
  • it naturally encompasses the theory of CATs as a natural part of the theory, also relating communication to non-communicative aspects of encounters” (pp.211-212, shortened).

The chapter then ends with a short “digression” to the issue of power in interaction, with asymmetries and the asymmetrical division of communicative labor as a point of departure. Linell points out that asymmetries, boundaries, domination and subversion and tensions are essential in social communication and that therefore, analysts need to discuss interaction from these perspectives (p.214).

Chapter 16 Dialogue and artifacts edit

This chapter deals with artifacts, and dialogue being different from many artifacts. Linell brings once again in the important role that certain artifacts play in assisting dialogue (technologies; mobiles, computers, radio, television…) and discusses the complex and varied ways that human beings use artifacts. Reading, for instance, is an example of an activity based on the usage of external artifacts, an example that underlines Linell’s argument for considering artifacts from their affordances point of view, meaning their meaning potentials (pp.345-346). The meaning, or potential meanings of artifacts are sometimes obvious but also not yet realized meanings for the users. It is not until they are used, appropriated, that they are assigned a local and situated meaning (p.347). Artifacts can also be considered as third parties (“others”) and boundary objects connecting contexts and situations – artifacts are not always what they seem to be designed for (p.348).

Chapter 20 Some misinterpretations of dialogism edit

The aim of this final chapter is to challenge a number of extremist interpretations of dialogism and try to clear out some misinterpretations concerning it. Linell discusses the criticisim and claims that dialogism is in fact “a nuanced, systematic and veridical framework that is sensitive to the facts of human sense-making” (p.425). Dialogism, as has been stated above, should be understood as a counter-theory to monologism and its individualistic and representational models of cognition and interaction. Linell relates dialogism to constructionism, but not to what he calls radical constructionism, but to contextual, social constructionism. He then connects dialogism with three features within contextual constructionism:

1. The focus on both situation and tradition within both dialogism and contextual constructionism.

2. The realization that language use occurs in the real world, in interaction with the physical and social environments – not in isolation.

3. All communication, cognition and action are situated and part of different genres or communicative activity types (p.426)

Considering the above, Linell then discusses five false interpretations sometimes attributed to dialogism, these being extreme relativism, extreme situationalism, extreme social determinism, extreme collectivism and extreme intersubjectivism. Finally, he states that dialogism should not be interpreted in accordance to these fallacies/misunderstandings (pp.427-430).