Identity in interaction

Identity in interaction: Introducing multimodal (inter)action analysis. By Sigrid Norris. (Trends in applied linguistics 4.) Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2011. Pp. xviii, 298. ISBN 9781934078273. $89.95 (Hb).

Reviewed by Francesca Bargiela-Chiappini, University of Warwick

Identity is arguably a topic that continues to attract great interest among social scientists, yet its exact contours remain elusive. Depending on the disciplinary perspective from which one chooses to approach it, identity displays diverse facets. In this book, identity is viewed as ‘a process rather than being [….] as always developing rather than static; […] as co-production […] rather than simple co-construction’ (30). In addition to considering it processual, Sigrid Norris’s understanding of identity is multidimensional and mediated by cultural tools, including social time-space configurations. In other words, out of ‘constellations of practices’ and ‘meditational means’ social identities emerge as co-production involving actors and cultural artifacts in time-space.

The book is organized into nine chapters, including an introduction to multimodal (inter)action analysis (Ch. 1), a discussion of the theoretical underpinnings (Ch. 2), the description of an ethnographic case-study from which the author draws her illustrative sample data (Ch. 3), and a presentation of the concept of ‘modal density’ as analyzed in the case-study data (Ch. 4). The following four chapters (5–8) examine aspects of the production of identity, namely ‘horizontal identity’ (Ch. 5), ‘vertical identity’ (Ch. 6), ‘shifting identity’ (Ch. 7), and ‘stabilizing identity’ (Ch. 8).

The study in hand illustrates how the workings of identity-in-action can be effectively charted by a multimodal interaction analytical approach theoretically inspired by the principles of mediated discourse analysis and visual research methods. Moreover, given the situated nature of identification processes, N maintains that only ethnographic data collection allows the analyst to capture the fine details of identity dynamics as they unfold. This synchronous analytical perspective is complemented by a diachronic one, gained through N’s two-year longitudinal case study of individuals engaged in ordinary daily activities.

The sample data analyzed in this book persuasively illustrates the complexity involved in trying to capture the ‘modal density’ of human interaction. For example, one of the figures (Fig. 5.1, 144–45) consists of a sequence of sixteen frames, each representing a multimodal scene, movement in time-space and accompanying discourse, which effectively represents contexualized dialogue as one of the actions and its ‘positionality’ vis-à-vis the participants’ other behaviors in time-space.

The kind of multimodal interaction analysis extensively documented in this book is quite costly in terms of the time investment and relational involvement of the analyst with her participants in the field. Alongside other labor-intensive methodologies, successful multimodal interaction analysis demands sustained and meticulous dedication and the deployment of highly honed observational and perceptual skills over long periods. The degree of ‘invasiveness’ in people’s private lives also inhibits a more widespread adoption of this approach in the social sciences, even though the rewards to be reaped are rich.