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

Chapter 2 | Theoretical Perspectives and Methodological Approaches

Mediated Discourse Theory: Tracing Social Practices and Actions in the World

Grounded strongly in sociohistoric theories of activity, mediated discourse theory aims to understand the social practices people use to accomplish social action through discourse and through which discourse works its way into people’s actions and identities. As its name indicates, mediated discourse theory is grounded in the notion that human action is accomplished through discourse as it appears in many forms, whether talk, a wide range of hard copy and digital texts, mental representations of texts from the near or distant past and potential futures, visual images, embodied performances, and semiotic aggregates that include combinations of some or possibly all of these. Mediated discourse theory takes as its central goal “to explicate and understand how the broad discourses of our social life are engaged (or not) in the moment-by-moment social actions of social actors in real time activity” (Scollon, 2001b, p. 140).

Scollon (2001a) described mediated discourse theory as emerging in response to a number of needs. Perhaps the most pressing was the difficulty in maintaining a focus on both discourse and the action it is used to accomplish. A number of studies of discourse had tended to ignore social action, while a wealth of studies of action had tended to overlook the role of discourse. In addition, as Jones and Norris (2005) noted, sociohistoric theories had provided the broad outlines of a perspective on the relationship between discourse and action but had " stop[ped] short of developing a coherent theory of discourse and a clear way to analyze it as it is deployed within complex semiotic aggregates … with other non-linguistic meditational means” (p. 6).

Importantly for the purposes of this book, mediated discourse theory is uniquely suited to addressing the histories and heterogeneities that Prior (2003) asserted are essential for a more fully dialogic view of disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization. First, mediated discourse theory locates discursive practice within situated sites of engagement as well as along the lengthy historical trajectories people trace throughout their lives, historical trajectories that flow into and emanate from the multiple activities they participate in. Second, it understands social action as mediated by a far-flung network of heterogeneous practices generated by those histories. From the perspective of mediated discourse theory, the concrete histories people trace through the world, and the heterogeneities those histories produce, are central to understanding social action and the production of persons and social worlds.

Below, we outline five central tenets of mediated discourse analysis that address the historicity and heterogeneity of discursive practice and action:

1: Heterogeneous Networks and the Nexus of Practice

Central to mediated discourse theory is the notion that action is mediated by an extensive array of heterogeneous practices assembled from various times and places. Scollon (2001a) argued that while particular practices are situated in specific sites of engagement, they can also be incorporated into other activities to form a nexus of practice, a “network or matrix of intersecting practices which, although they are never perfectly or inevitably linked into any finalized or finalizable latticework of regular patterns, nevertheless form a network or nexus” (p. 16).

Each “nexus,” then, is comprised of a heterogeneous arrangement of practices—some local and specific and some spun off from other sites of engagement—that have come to be linked together over time in the history of the person. Understood from this perspective, social action is accomplished through an array of practices from multiple sites of engagement rather than through practices unique to any single activity or site.

Using the social practice of “handing” as an example (think of handing in stores, in religious ceremonies, in surgical operating rooms) to elaborate the notion of nexus of practice, Scollon (2001a) states that “the practice of handing an object to another person may be linked to practices which constitute the action of purchasing in a coffee shop, it may be linked to practices which constitute the action of giving a gift to a friend on arriving at a birthday party, or even to handing a bit of change to a panhandler on the street” (p. 5). In this sense, handing change to a panhandler is not accomplished solely by practices unique to that engagement, but rather by a dynamic, constantly in-the-making network or nexus of practices, some of which are specific to that engagement and some of which are employed in other instances of handing.

In addition to the heterogeneity of practices, the relationships among those practices are also a central feature of each nexus. Because the practices are acquired throughout a person’s life span, some will inevitably be encountered and used over longer periods than others. Thus, Scollon (2001a) asserted, the practices comprising each nexus “must inevitably be of different ‘strengths,’ that is, some will be new practices at the earliest stages of aggregation and others will be ones consisting of many, many actions over a long period of time” (p. 80). Further, because the practices comprising each nexus are from a variety of engagements, and thus are not all created expressly to accomplish that action, the linkages among them are textured by varying degrees of synergy and tension. Some practices can be connected in ways that complement one another, thus allowing them to work together productively. Other practices in a nexus, on the other hand, might be linked together in ways that conflict with one another. A “linked, but disruptive” practice, for example, “may be linked to another practice, but in such a way that one disrupts the other and the social trick of accomplishing the action is overcoming this disruptive link” (Scollon, 2001a, p. 82).

Contrasting the more recognized notion of community of practice with the notion of nexus of practice, Scollon (2001a) highlighted two key differences. First, the notion of nexus of practice is more loosely structured in the sense that it does not respect the presumed borders of a community. According to Scollon (2001a),

The concept of nexus of practice is unbounded (unlike the more problematical community of practice) and takes into account that at least most practices … can be linked variably to different practices in different sites of engagement and among different participants (p. 5).

Second, each nexus is continually structured and restructured over time. As such, the notion of nexus of practice takes into account its unfinalized and unfinalizable nature, that nexus is continually in-the-making rather than always already made.

2: Historical Trajectories of Practice

In addition to highlighting the heterogeneous array of practices that mediate action, the notion of nexus of practice also illuminates the historical trajectory a practice traces as it comes to be linked across a series of nexus throughout the life of the person. As people move through life, they generate a historical trajectory that traverses multiple nexus. As they interact with each nexus, people move from setting to setting, from institution to institution, from activity to activity, and from genre to genre. And, even though each nexus offers different discourses with different expectations and affordances, they are not disconnected; rather, they are experienced with some degree of continuity. Part of that continuity is the re-use of practice along this history. When Scollon (2001a) wrote that “a practice is an action with a history,” (p. 69), he did not mean a history of use within any single nexus of practice, but rather a dialogic history of use and re-use that extends across time and space and multiple nexus in response to antecedent action in the near and distant past and anticipating use in subsequent action in the future.

Elaborating the historical trajectory of use traced by the practice of handing in the life of the person, Scollon (2001a) stated that,

for the individual, the practice is the aggregation, over a considerable period of time, of a history of concrete, specific acts of handing. Each of these acts is different from each other; each may be carried out with different participants; each may involve different objects; each has its own constraints on the act of handing; and each act may be different from the others in the linkages made with other social and discursive practices. What we refer to more abstractly as the social practice of handing is none other than this history and some small degree of “predictability” for the social actor which arises from the momentum produced by this history. (p. 73)

In this sense, handing change to a panhandler is not an isolated act but rather is inseparably linked to and informed by various other instances of handing in which a person has engaged, even though each instance involved different participants, different objects, and coordination with different practices.

From a dialogic perspective, it is important to note that those histories do not just reach back from the present into people’s near and distant pasts, but are also projected forward toward their anticipated futures. Discursive practice, after all, is not just about accomplishing the action immediately at hand in response to previous action, but is also always oriented toward actions in the imagined future.

With this emphasis on historical trajectories and the profoundly heterogeneous dimension of social action, mediated discourse theory offers a productive approach for raising and answering questions about the continuity of persons and practices across time and space and multiple engagements as well as how discursive practice weaves together multiple temporalities and timescales.

3: Resemiotization of Practice across Nexus

In addition to addressing multiple representational media as they are simultaneously deployed in any given nexus, mediated discourse theory is also attuned to the way practice is resemiotized, or reworked across multiple representational media, from one nexus to others. Linking practice into new nexus involves linking with different practices and acting with different participants and artifacts, but it also involves refashioning it into different semiotic forms. Acting with spoken talk in one nexus, for example, may be resemiotized into acting with written text in another nexus, acting with mental representations of that discourse in another nexus, acting with visual representations of that discourse in another, and acting with embodied representations in yet another.

Scollon (2005) described an extensive history of resemiotization in his experience installing hardwood flooring. He traced the trajectory of a flooring specialist’s knowledge and experience re-represented in a book about laying hardwood floors—first as the book’s text and images are read and discussed by Scollon and his wife while they plan and prepare to install new flooring in their home; then as materials for the project are ordered and delivered; then as Scollon and a relative install the flooring, action which evokes multiple resemiotizations of the book’s texts and images as well as multiple instances of resemiotizing earlier talk and action; and finally as Scollon incorporates that experience into a chapter in an academic publication. These resemiotizations of practice are not discrete, isolated uses; rather, they serve as links in the chain that runs through these activities, with each resemiotization informed by those that have come before and paving the way for those that follow.

What becomes readily apparent in following such trajectories and attending to the resemiotization of discourse as it is repeatedly reused across activities is that

Much of the discourse which is of relevance to a moment of action is, in fact, displaced from that action, often at quite a distance and across a wide variety of times, places, people, media, and objects. As we have expanded the circumference (Burke 1969 [1945]) of our view of the moment of action we have come to consider these complex displacements to work across multiple moments in which the discourse is transformed semiotically. (Scollon, 2008, pp. 233–234)

Scollon (2008) referred to these trajectories of reuse and re-representation as discourse itineraries, “the historical path of these resemiotized displacements” (p. 234) as they are reworked and re-represented across activities. By addressing multiple representational media both as they are simultaneously deployed in complex semiotic assemblages and as they are resemiotized in extensive itineraries across multiple nexus, mediated discourse theory affords the “work of tracing pathways and trajectories of texts, actions, practices, and objects, of people and communication across time and space and multiple modes” (p. 241).

Informed by mediated discourse analysis and other lines of scholarship that address the histories of mediation in social practice, Prior, Hengst, Roozen, and Shipka (2006; see also Prior & Hengst, 2010) refer to the reworking of discourse across multiple representational media as "semiotic remediation," a term they offer to describe "the diverse ways that humans' and non-humans' semiotic performances (historical or imagined) are re-represented and re-used across modes, media, and chains of activity" (p. 734). Like Scollon's notion of "discourse itineraries," "semiotic remediation" offers a dialogic perspective of semiotic practices in the world by illuminating how meaning-making involves people drawing upon semiotic resources from their near or distant pasts, transforming them for use in a present interaction, and orienting them toward future responses and activities. Such a perspective is crucial for understanding the situated deployment of semiotic means as being located along historical trajectories that reach across people's lifeworlds. It also draws attention to persons' engagement in semiotic performance as a discursive practice rather than attending solely to the products and objects persons create for those performances.

4: Development of Practice across Engagements

Mediated discourse theory views those histories of concrete re-use and resemiotization across engagements as crucial in the production, or development, of practice, in how it comes to be in the history of the person. In other words, from the perspective of mediated discourse theory, the historical trajectories traced by practices through the world are not simply avenues of travel, but rather the very pathways of their development. Based on his fine-grained analysis of the history of the practice of handing in the life of one person, Scollon (2001a) concluded that

[a] social practice is developed as practice through a sequence of social or mediated actions through which a person consolidates that practice in the habitus … across a variety of new or different situations. Of course this movement into new circumstances is always partial and always involves further adjustments and accommodations of the practice in the habitus to these new objective conditions. (p. 141)

Scollon (2001a) viewed practice as emerging from the continual “adjustments and accommodations” needed to refashion the practice for use in “new objective conditions” (p. 141). “In this sense,” wrote Scollon (2001a), “practice is always, to borrow Bakhtin’s terms, unfinalizable. A practice changes with each action as does the habitus of the social actor” (p. 167). The “adjustments and accommodations” to the practice are not just relevant in refashioning them for use in present circumstances; they also figure prominently in opening up practice for potential future uses. “Each use,” wrote Scollon (2001a), “elaborates and complicates” practice as it consolidated in the habitus, and “therefore each use opens up the potential for more complex uses” (p. 135) in the near and distant future. In other words, it is not merely that practice moves across engagements, or even that it is transformed as it does so, but that those reworkings and resemiotizations are the basis of its development.

Ultimately, mediated discourse theory’s close attention to historical trajectories of practice as they are reworked and resemiotized across time, space and multiple media affords a view of practice in-the-making, as it is assembled, or aggregated, to use Scollon’s terms, across multiple engagements, “one mediated action at a time” (2001a, p. 5). Scollon (2001a) emphasized this point when he wrote that “[p]ractice is, in fact, not acquired wholesale”; rather, it is assembled “bit by bit” through re-use along a historical sequence of mediated actions (p. 27). Given the aggregative nature of the development of practice, Scollon (2001a) argued that “any view of practice must include a theorization of the origin of social practice in the life of the individual in the material and objective conditions within which actions take place” (p. 12).

It is this unfinalized and unfinalizable nature of practice and nexus themselves, the recognition that practice and nexus are continually-in-the-making, that prompted Scollon (2001a) to argue that “we can learn relatively little about discursive practice from the direct and exclusive study of discursive acts (texts), and less about the linkages between discursive acts and other social acts from single, decontextualized, or isolated instances” (p. 110). Examining the texts themselves, no matter how closely, can only reveal so much about their concrete workings in the world. Likewise, investigating single synchronic instances of the linking of practice, no matter how carefully, ultimately indicates little about the histories of the different practices involved, how they have been reworked and resemiotized for present use, and the consequences those linkings have for future practice and action. Alternatively, Scollon (2001a) asserted that

we can learn a great deal about social practice and discursive practice by seeing them in light of the historical sequences within which they participate. And notice that I am not saying that we must see discourse or social practice in light of “history” in some large but non-concrete sense. What I mean to say is that we can learn much from studying the very specific and concrete set of actions which form the linked chain from earlier to later in the habitus of social actors. (p. 110)

5: The Development of People and Social Worlds

In addition to serving as the developmental pathways of practice, mediated discourse theory understands these historical trajectories as the developmental pathways of persons. These are, in other words, not only the pathways along which practice is assembled, but along which selves are constructed.

In redeploying practices from engagements in their near and distant pasts in each nexus, people are not just accomplishing social action in the moment. They are also engaged in the more durable and enduring work of creating and continually re-creating themselves through the discursive actions they take and the practices they use to accomplish those actions. Scollon (2001a) wrote that “any action which is taken reproduces (and claims, imputes, contests, and recontextualizes) the identities of prior social actions as well as negotiates new positions among the participants within [the present] nexus of practice” (p. 7). In this sense, through the re-use and resemiotization of practice, persons are not only transforming action, but (re)fashioning their identities as well. The nexus of practice, then, is much more than a means of accomplishing action. It also functions as “as a network which itself is the basis of the identities we produce and claim through our social actions” (Scollon, 2001a, p. 142). Scollon’s (2001a) notions of the production of self across nexus echo other theoretical work that attends to trajectories of identification and participation across activities (Beach, 2003; Bourdieu, 1977; Holland et al., 1998; Van Maanen, 1984; Wortham, 2006).

Mediated discourse theory further emphasizes that these histories and the profound heterogeneities they generate in the production of a person are also at the center of the formation of our social worlds. Linking participation with social practice to both the formation of persons and the sociocultural worlds they inhabit, Jones and Norris (2005) noted how the nexus of practice people use to “build their social identities” are the very “linkages of practices which, over time, become social groups” (p. 99). Practice is constitutive of social worlds, after all, and no matter which nexus people have engaged with in the past, find themselves engaged with at present, or imagine engaging with in their anticipated futures, their acting with discourse reflexively address and shape the concerns and interests of the collective.

It is the accumulation of these heterogeneous arrays of discursive practice that continually shape and re-shape social worlds as they are encountered by other participants, even though they are not aware of the full historical trajectories that generated them. In this way, Scollon (2001b) asserted, “the social actions through which social actors produce the histories and habitus of their daily lives” come to form “the ground in which society is produced and reproduced” (p. 140).

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