The example I have chosen (see also Wetherell, 2012, Chapter 4) comes from the work of conversation analyst and linguistic anthropologist, Marjorie Goodwin (2006). Goodwin has spent considerable time developing and analysing patterns in detailed records (video and audio) of girls’ activities in school playgrounds. Her work beautifully and poignantly reveals the ways in which various ‘small worlds’ are put together in the moment.
Goodwin’s research is guided by a number of key assumptions (see also C. Goodwin, 2000). First, her focus is on what she calls, following Goffman (1961), the ‘situated activities’ characteristic of ‘encounters’. For Goffman, as Goodwin (2006, p. 7) reports, encounters are orchestrated moments of embodied interaction such as lovemaking, boxing, dancing and card games. Situated activities are emergent patterns of practice, recognized by participants, even if they could not explicitly articulate the patterns involved, which are bound up with questions of value and with local moral orders. Situated activities are flexible and contingent. They are oriented variably to contexts, but also often demonstrate repetitive, relatively ordered, recurrent features. They are pretty much the activity complexes stressed by Brown et al (2009), in other words.
Goodwin explores both affect and discourse equally and assumes these are entangled in the sense that embodied action (on a scale of intensity) tends to be bound up with talk at some point in a flow of activity. This entangling may occur either through patterns of utterances associated with activities in the moment or occur subsequently as participants begin to account for, communicate and make sense of their actions. Indeed, entangling has always/already occurred as participants’ current actions usually orient to past familiar practice, and thus are recognizable and meaningful to others. History is brought into the present moment.
Following ethnomethodological principles, Goodwin argues that researchers can look to participants’ accounts and how they make their actions meaningful for other participants to understand the practices in which they are engaged. In line with practice theory (Schatzki et al, 2001), her work takes for granted that embodied flows of activity demonstrate both ‘texture’ and ‘middle ranges of agency’ in Sedgwick’s (2003) senses. The flow of activity is both constrained by past practice and the immediate situation and context, and open-ended in the sense that ‘things can always be otherwise’ (Edwards, 1997).
Goodwin (2006) describes her work as ‘multimodal’. What this term suggests is not just that a flow of situated activity engages bodies and talk but that also it engages and organizes spaces and physical objects and reflects their existing histories of organization. A focus on situated activity and practice implies attention to integrated and organic interweavings across multiple domains. Borrowing from affect terminology, one could say that Goodwin is interested in the assemblages and articulations of practices across multiple modalities that make up the girls’ playground activities and their lived worlds in this milieu.
To illustrate these points, I want to look in more detail at two examples from Goodwin’s research. The first is a very brief embodied episode, where the intensity of affect combines with utterances as part of the broader systems of situated activity making up recurring playground practices. Goodwin describes a commonplace normative episodic sequence in girls’ playground lives as they play hopscotch.
As Goodwin explains, Carla is accusing Marisol (both Spanish speakers) of having violated the rules and thus having lost her turn at jumping through the hopscotch squares drawn on the ground. Carla’s cry is very loud and can be heard as very aggrieved. Goodwin reports that the normal pitch of the girls’ speech is between 250 and 350 Hz, although in this OUT! OUT! cry, Carla’s voice leaps and escalates markedly in pitch, and she massively extends the duration of the cry for very many milliseconds. Goodwin’s stills from the videotape show that Carla’s utterance is backed up by a contorted facial expression and by dramatic gestures. Still in the crouching position she had assumed to watch Marisol’s jumping feet, Carla points vehemently at Marisol with her arm extended out as far as it will go. She then stands up and replays Marisol’s moves on the hopscotch grid illustrating what she did wrong. Although Marisol does not say anything, she is swept up in this torrent of affect/discourse. As Carla’s accusing finger points at her, the still from Goodwin’s video, reproduced in her text, shows that Marisol adopts a body stance that is in fact quite hard to describe, somewhere between a cringe, a smile and a shrug. She looks embarrassed, amused and annoyed, engaged in what looks like it could be the local, relational, affective counterpoint to a justified accusation that catches one out in an illegitimate act.
Body movements and facial expressions and so on are intimately choreographed and patterned with talk in this very brief episode and the whole complex does impressive amounts of identity work in a nanosecond. Carla’s talk and her body movements, for instance, demonstrate her affective positions. She is first a judge and then an accuser. The pattern is part of a recognizable affective–discursive practice. As Goodwin (2006, p. 40) states, ‘… affect is lodged within embodied sequences of action. Moreover, the phenomena that provide organization for both affect and action are distributed through multiple media within a larger field of action’.
The sequence presented in Example 1 is part of a relatively simple affective practice. Goodwin goes on to look at some of the more extended and complex social practices of girl’s friendship groups such as gossip events, disputes, assessments and even the persistent degradation rituals addressed at a marginal member of one group. The picture she paints is of loosely ordered socio-political life the girls share. Their playground lives are constituted from engrossing, persistent, repetitive but creative forms of collective activity. Affect supplies much of the texture of these practices and renders them highly involving and highly invested. However, this affect is not random. Its nature and display is shaped by the girls’ broader activities, determined by the unfolding sequences in which it is embedded.
Let me illustrate with one of Goodwin’s examples of persistent affective positioning. This interaction involves three girls, Angela, Aretha and Sarah, sitting together talking. Goodwin argues that what unfolds is characteristic of the ways in which Angela is often targeted in the group.
There is a complex act of embodied positioning and affective practice taking place here. Angela is being described as a ‘tag along girl’ and coached by Sarah: she is made to repeat this description of herself. In being described as such, and through the repetition of the description, Angela’s marginal status is also being accomplished, performed and continued.
Goodwin notes the non-randomness of the choice of Angela as the excluded one. This is a middle-class school with some very wealthy parents. The group of girls is diverse in terms of ethnicity and social class, but Angela combines together two more marginal identities in this context – she is African-American and from a working-class background. The patterning of her actions, such as her practices around eating, are ‘remarkable’ to the other girls and become the basis of this long-term construction of her as ‘other’ to their more shared culture.
It might seem that we could understand what is going on here in relatively familiar social research terms as the imposition of a role upon Angela. All the detailed paraphernalia of conversation analysis and its transcription technologies turning an event into words on paper might seem rather redundant. However, as Goodwin would no doubt point out, this is misleading. If we look back at how the interaction is unfolding, and the layers added by the detail of the words, movements, turn-taking, intonation patterns and so on, we see something a bit more complicated and interesting than ‘contempt’, ‘exclusion’ or ‘humiliation’. We see, in other words, an affective–discursive practice emerging along with complex acts of subject positioning rather than, say, an emotion moving to ‘land’ on one individual. This is joint, coordinated, relational activity in which affect and discourse twine together.
In an odd way, Angela is being included through what seems to be a familiar ritual marking her difference and exclusion. Familiar practice or ritualized sequence depends on reflexive awareness about how the practice plays out and how the scene works. The transcript suggests that having done this bit of usual practice jointly, the girls can move on together to something else, to play fight together and continue their chat. The interaction opens with Angela attempting a characterization of her own conduct – she is not someone who judges anybody, she follows the other girls around – presumably she is referring back to some earlier event or conversation. Sarah seizes the opportunity, however, to develop a marginalizing re-formulation of Angela’s actions – this is not following, it is ‘tagging along’. Angela’s resigned response (‘whatever’) suggests this process of negative re-formulating her actions is not news to her. It is not something she contests and it seems to rely on a version of her identity that is already consensual, already familiar and available. Her repetition of Sarah’s words, when she is exhorted to do so, becomes a kind of performance in this context. The jerky body movements and the recapitulation of Sarah’s emphatic and bossy speaking rhythm mark this out for anyone observing as an instructed or coerced re-enactment.
Again, it would seem nonsensical to try and separate here the moment of affect from the discourse, or the track of ‘intensity’ from the track of ‘quality’ in Massumi’s terms, or the speaking subject from affect that escapes or exceeds. Affect and discourse are indissolubly and tightly woven together in Sarah’s emphatic assertions and, then, differentially, in Angela’s re-enactment. The whole affective–discursive practice emerging in this scene with Angela should be the unit of analysis along with the ways in which this practice articulates with the other practices that make up the ‘small world’ of this girls’ friendship group.