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Reviewed by:
  • The sociolinguistics of narrative
  • Barbara Johnstone
The sociolinguistics of narrative. Ed. by Joanna Thornborrow and Jennifer Coates. (Studies in narrative 6.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2005. Pp. vi, 293. ISBN 1588116352. $126 (Hb).

Sociolinguists have been exploring the structures and functions of narrative discourse ever since the publication of Labov and Waletsky's 'Oral versions of personal experience' (1997 [End Page 663] [1967]). Research on narrative has been enlivened in the past decade by discussion between sociolinguists and discursive psychologists interested in life stories and the self (Josselson 1996), and between sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists who, framing the same issue somewhat differently, are interested in the discursive construction of social and personal identity (Ochs & Capps 2001). The series in which this book appears is intended to represent a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. This volume, according to editors Thornborrow and Coates, brings together 'some of the most recent work in the theory and practice of narrative analysis from a broad sociolinguistic perspective' (2).

How does sociolinguistic research on narrative differ from that of other disciplines, and what does a sociolinguistic perspective add? Three aspects of sociolinguistic theory and method, taken together, could be claimed to differentiate it from other approaches to discourse: (i) a focus on the connection between linguistic form and social function, (ii) a focus on variation and its social and linguistic implications, and (iii) a set of methods that includes both quantitative and qualitative, experimental and ethnographic ways of working. All are represented in this volume.

JENNY CHESHIRE and SUE ZIEBLAND's study of narratives by two women with high blood pressure exemplifies sociolinguists' concern with form-function links. Cheshire and Ziebland explore how verbal aspect, reported speech, the integration of reference and evaluative stance, and the discourse marker because are all deployed in one woman's narration to represent her chronic illness as an integral, normal part of a coherent life, while another woman uses evaluation to distance herself from the illness and contrast herself with others who have it. What seems sociolinguistic here is the way in which the analysts go beyond paraphrase to claims about how particular features of discourse structure and syntax are deployed for particular self-presentational ends. Likewise, JENNIFER COATES describes how repetition, 'collaborative completion', overlap, and seamless latching between turns create the sense that a couple are collaborating as equals in meaning-making, while a closer look at the number of narrative clauses each contributes and the semantic framing of their contributions shows that they are in some ways still adopting traditional gender positions. In a study of four-to-six-year-olds' collaborative stories, SHOSHANNA BLUM-KULKA explores how this activity allows children to practice both discourse-construction skills (such as picking up on others' use of the past tense to construct an imaginary world and adapting to the genre conventions of this kind of verbal play) and linked social skills (such as collaborating in framing and negotiating issues of concern).

Further exemplifying sociolinguists' concern with form-function connections, JANET HOLMES and MEREDITH MARRA describe specific linguistic resources (pronouns, adjective choices, 'addressee oriented pragmatic particles' such as you see and you know) deployed in stories by managers that 'complexify and humanize' the standard workplace identity associated with their position. SANDRA HARRIS uses Labov's model of the structure of 'fully developed' personal narrative to explore when narratives are told in the courtroom and how narrative and nonnarrative discourse can be 'hybridized', as when a lawyer constructs a narrative through the sequence and wording of a series of questions he asks witnesses.

Most of these chapters also call attention to variation: variation between individuals in Cheshire and Ziebland's study, gender variation in Coates's work, and genre differences in Harris's chapter. AMY SHELDON and HEIDI ENGSTROM compare 'systems of mutual engagement' in the narrative practices of preschool boys with those of girls, showing that the girls' contributions to joint narrative are more contingent on other girls' contributions than are the boys', whose talk is more independent. MARTIN MONTGOMERY explores television news broadcasts, claiming, contra previous...


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