Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Improvising onstage and off: Combining variationist, discourse, and anthropological approaches to style
by Trester, Anna Marie, Ph.D., Georgetown University, 2008, 273; 3339913
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation is an exploration of "style" or the use of language to project a social persona or identity (Coupland 2004; 2007; Eckert 2000; Schilling-Estes 1998, 2002, 2004), focusing on a community of performers of improvisational theater in Washington DC, with whom I conducted ethnographic research from January 2005 through July 2007. Working from within a "speaker design" approach to style, I suggest increased use of anthropological approaches to style (including use of ethnography and the study of performative contexts of language use) as well as discourse analytic approaches. Specifically, I illustrate how discourse aspects of language function as a resources that speakers use agentively and creatively in interaction.

There has been a considerable push in recent years to integrate anthropological and discourse analytic approaches in variationist stylistic inquiry to better understand the social meanings of style. This research continues and expands this development, suggesting that ethnographic and discourse analytic approaches enrich variationist analyses in two general ways. First, the approaches to data collection and analysis entailed in the anthropological and discourse analytic paradigms motivate a critical reexamination of some of the theoretical and methodological assumptions of traditional variationist studies of style. Secondly, discourse analysis provides the researcher with discourse features as units for analysis, discourse analytic frameworks for uncovering and interpreting the connections among language and social meaning, and a perspective on how identity is negotiated in interaction as achieved through discourse analysis itself.

While studies of linguistic style continue to draw mainly from linguistic structure at the level of phonology, morphology, and syntax, I consider relatively broader features of language including the choice to perform (or the choice to avoid performing) a socially recognizable dialect, the use of the voices of others through quotation (constructed dialogue) to reflect information about self, and the collaborative negotiation of frame shifts to playfully enact frame shifts and play spontaneous intertextual games. I suggest that such units drawn from higher levels of linguistic structure provide a more complete picture of the linguistic resources speakers have available to them in constructing, negotiating, and performing identity.

Additionally, I suggest that discourse frameworks (including framing, footing, stance, alignment, positioning, and intertextuality) contribute greatly to our understanding of linguistic style by linking up micro-level linguistic processes to more macro-level processes including the negotiation of social meaning. Framing, for example, helps us to understand how speaker awareness of frame, or "what is going on in interaction" (Goffman 1974) determines what language can be used (e.g. dialect performance) and what social significance such language carries in different interactional contexts. Finally, I argue that discourse analysis itself allows for the active tracking of the negotiation of meaning in interaction, including metacommentary about group members' use(s) of language. I argue that the unique ways in which such features are deployed in interaction contribute to this group's style, which has implications for identity.

Ultimately, I suggest that a combined variationist, ethnographic, and discourse approach to style enables the analyst to better understand the range of stylistic resources that speakers have available to them to construct, negotiate, and perform identity.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Schilling-Estes, Natalie
School: Georgetown University
School Location: United States -- District of Columbia
Source: DAI-A 69/12, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Linguistics, Theater, Language
Keywords: Discourse analysis, Ethnography, Identity, Improvisational theater, Language, Linguistic style
Publication Number: 3339913
ISBN: 9780549939610
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