Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Terri Ulmer

Chapter 2 | Theoretical Perspectives and Methodological Approaches

Challenging Discourse Community Models of Development

Prior (1998, 2003) argued persuasively that the strong tendency to situate disciplinary development within the assumed boundaries of a disciplinary territory is not so much a matter of a particular theory but rather is driven by a broader ideological paradigm grounded in a set of structuralist practices that powerfully shape how we think about and study communication, learning, the person, and social worlds.

Outlining those practices in Writing/Disciplinarity, Prior (1998) detailed a number of interpretive moves involved in constituting the object of inquiry. Key among those moves are several forms of abstracting and decontextualizing the phenomena under investigation. Moves to spatialize and detemporalize the phenomena, for example, configure the object as a discrete, temporally and spatially bounded system and synchronize actors and activities according to a single perspective. The result, Prior (1998) argued, is that

the historical particularities of persons, places, and events are reduced to a simpler set of abstract typifications. Thus, for example, particular historic individuals may be recoded into types (male or female, expert or novice, an instance of one of a dozen income categories). (p. 6)

Moves to name and label the phenomena according to a typified, already existing social world (e.g., a particular discipline, school, work, family) further reduce actors and activities to the identities and actions readily associated with that world and unify action according to the perspective that world offers up. Finally, moves to assign to that social world a system of government, a set of rules that dictate actors’ behaviors and activities, serves to further unify the world and bring it “under the control of a set of rules that allow prediction and explanation" (Prior, 1998, p. 6).

According to Prior (2003), those interpretive practices occasion a set of assumptions about discourse, the person, and communities that emphasize the homogeneity and unity of discourse and the formation of persons and social worlds:

Prior (1998) outlined in detail how those assumptions were reflected in the notion of discourse community, a construct that strongly shaped theory and research on writing in the disciplines in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 2003, Prior extended that analysis, showing how the same basic set of assumptions were embedded in notions of community of practice and activity systems, constructs that had prominently informed theory and research in writing in the disciplines in the late 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century.

Prior (1998, 2003) noted the pervasiveness and durability of the structuralist paradigm, even in the face of studies of the academic writing and learning of undergraduates and graduate students depicting complex spaces interpenetrated with multiple discourses, practices, and identities (Casanave, 2002; Chin, 1994; Chiseri-Strater, 1991; Herrington & Curtis, 2000; Prior, 1991, 1994, 1995; Prior & Shipka, 2003; Syverson, 1999). He argued that the paradigm is so strong in part because it closely aligns with folk models of communication (particularly the conduit metaphor) and folk models of sociology (particularly in regard to a reliance on already named social spaces—a discipline, school, work—to identify objects of inquiry).

To productively contest the structuralist paradigm, Prior (2003) pointed to the need

to follow the concrete sociohistoric trajectories of actors, practices, and artifacts through heterogeneous spatial-temporal worlds, to unanchor the formation of our objects of inquiry from the typifications offered up by our languages, to attend to the multiplicity, the lamination immanent or visible in all interaction, and to see the laminated, fundamentally heterogeneous character of our discourses, our selves, and our social worlds. (p. 20)

Prior (2003) went on to offer three alternative notions informed by a fundamentally dialogic view of literate activity and social formations:

These three notions call on us to attend closely to the historical trajectories of persons and practices, to illuminate the profound heterogeneity in what has often been regarded as homogeneous discourses and identities anchored in discrete, autonomous territories.

When literate activity is viewed from such a perspective, Prior (2003) asserted,

there are no spaces where the social histories of people, practices, artifacts, and institutions disappear, no purely monologic activity systems, no places where identities can be figured simply in terms offered by a dominant institution’s map (where a person is just an engineer, just a student, just a teacher). (p. 14)

Given the power of the dominant paradigm, Prior (2003) argued that notions of discourse communities, communities of practice, activity systems, or a host of other constructs

will continue to slip toward that underlying structuralist matrix unless we very consciously wrest them away and carefully stake out alternative theoretical grounds. (p. 20)

In response to Prior’s (2003) call, we turn to mediated discourse theory, which we explicate in the next section, to begin the work of staking out some alternative theoretical ground toward a more fully dialogic perspective of disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization.

2.01 « PREVIOUS | NEXT » 2.03