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Keywords:

  • identity;
  • subject position;
  • classification;
  • narrative;
  • focalization;
  • qualitative material

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References

In this article I develop tools for analyzing the identities that emerge in qualitative material. I approach identities as historically, socially and culturally produced subject positions, as processes that are in a constant state of becoming and that receive their temporary stability and meaning in concrete contexts and circumstances. I suggest that the identities and subject positions that materialize in qualitative material can be analyzed from four different perspectives. They can be approached by focusing on (1) classifications that define the boundary lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, as (2) participant roles that refer to the temporal aspect of subject positions and outline their meaning for action, as (3) structures of viewpoint and focalization that frame meaning and order to opinions and experiences of the world, and as (4) interactive positions that articulate the roles and identities taken by the participants of communication.

There are many different ways in which to approach and analyse the identities that emerge and unfold in qualitative research materials. In this article I approach them as historically, socially and culturally produced positions, as processes that are in a permanent state of becoming (Hall, 1999, p. 39). Rather than seeing identities as complete beings, I understand them as changing discursive constructions that receive their temporary stability and meaning in concrete contexts and situations (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006, pp. 3–4).

Essentialist identity theories have met with increasing criticism since the linguistic and discursive turn in the social sciences and humanities (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006, p. 4). They have also been called into question by the breakdown not only of established structures, routines and practices in postmodern or late modern society, but also by the fragmentation of identities. As firm social structures, homogeneous national cultures and traditional group affiliations are being unsettled by the political, economic and cultural processes of globalization and localization, stable, continuous and predictable subject positions have also begun to dissolve (Törrönen, 2001).

Social sciences research used to deal with identity categories such as gender, age, class and nationality as external explanatory factors. They were treated as background variables and homogeneous categories into which it was thought that people could be readily slotted and which it was assumed had a causal effect on who we are and how we behave. This article takes quite the opposite view on subject positions. Identity categories are understood as heterogeneous positions, and the focus is to follow the processes in which those positions are constructed.

There are different definitions of the concept of subject position. Sometimes it is used to refer to a structure constructed in interaction, and with the intention of inviting the audience or listener to identify with a specific point of view that affords meaning to the subject under discussion (e.g. Althusser, 1984); at other times it is defined as an attribute of discourse whereby a masculine discourse, medical discourse or technological discourse, for instance, frames subjects into different kinds of actor roles and relations (see Suoninen, 1999, pp. 108–110); and at other times still it is taken as a construction of “us” as opposed to “them” (Hall, 1999).

My discussion here draws on all these different definitions of the concept of subject position. At the same time, my aim is to develop the empirical applicability of the concept as an analytical tool. Empirical analyses of identities and subject positions often tend to be rather impressionistic. It is not made clear enough to the readers which aspect of identities or subject position the research is exploring. In these cases the concept of identity or subject position loses its analytic significance: it may refer too broadly, inconsistently and flexibly to anywhere (Brubaker & Cooper, 2000).

In order to make the analysis of identities as subject positions analytically more definite and precise, I suggest that it is possible for us to analyse the subject positions that materialize in our data as classifications (cf. Hall, 1999) that determine the boundary lines between “us” and “them”; as participant roles that characterize the action (Törrönen, 2001); as structures of viewpoint that “experience” the world (Bal, 1988), and as interactive positions in communication (Goffman, 1981).

Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References

What the researcher expects to learn about reality and about subject positions from a certain set of qualitative material depends in large part on his or her ontological and epistemological commitments. Qualitative research materials can be approached as data that represent or construct situational, cultural or societal identities (cf. Jokinen & Juhila, 1999, pp. 56–66).

In the situational analysis of identities, the researcher usually assumes that the main focus should be to observe how the participants in interaction orientate to one another and one anothers' categories “here and now”. As an ontological stance, this implies a data driven analysis, such as conversation analysis (e.g. Sacks et al., 1974) or membership categorization device analysis (e.g. Sacks, 1974; Silverman, 1993).

In analytical strategies that represent the cultural viewpoint, the analysis of subject positions expands from situational contexts to cultural contexts. The researcher is interested to explore not only the orientations, categorizations and internal contexts of interaction. Potter and Wetherell (1987), for example, emphasize that analyses of subject positions can also consider the broader horizons of expectations that characterize the interaction as well as the various meaning systems that are circulated and used in culture (see Suoninen, 1999). Besides looking into the use of words and gestures by speakers to construct specific positions for themselves and for others in interaction, the researcher may be interested in the way that these speakers, through their categorizations, maintain, specify or change larger cultural subjectivities, practices and traditions they involve. As an ontological stance, this implies that meaning systems as cultural entities are prioritized over the situations and material processes.

In an examination of identities from a societal viewpoint, we start out with the assumption that the subject positions appearing in the interview do not ultimately refer to the situation or the culture, but rather to society's material, political and/or economic processes. In this case the researcher will analyse the subject positions in relation to macro theories that can help form a picture of what kinds of societal identities and processes are relevant to the analysis and how they can be understood (see Jokinen & Juhila, 1999, pp. 56–66). In critical discourse analysis, macro contexts and structural factors are considered ontologically primary to micro contexts and cultural entities for purposes of analysing subject positions.

The societal, cultural and situational strategies of analysis can be applied either independently or in combination with each other. In situational strategies one usually prefers independent analysis (e.g. conversation analysis) whereas in cultural and societal strategies one often takes some influences from other perspectives by accommodating them to cultural or materialist ontology and epistemology. When one combines different perspectives, one needs to explicate how initially incompatible ontological commitments and epistemological principles are possible to modify and bring together for the purposes of analysis. This makes the combination of different perspectives a challenging task. The researcher needs to clarify how the techniques of analysis that are borrowed from competing perspectives can be consistently and productively applied in a new theoretical context (see e.g. Sims-Schouten et al., 2007; Speer, 2007; Riley et al., 2007).

Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References

An examination of qualitative data from a situational, cultural or societal perspective does not automatically determine which aspect of the subject position the analysis should focus on. The research questions and the researcher's knowledge interests are of crucial importance here. In all the strategies described above, the analysis of subject position may look at how those positions are constructed in the qualitative material as (1) classifications that define the boundary line between “us” and “them”, as (2) participant roles that refer to the temporal aspect of subject positions and that determine their meaning for action, as (3) structures of viewpoint and focalization that frame the meaning of and give order to opinions and experiences of the world, and as (4) interactive positions that articulate the roles and identities taken by the participants in communication.

When the construction of subject positions is analysed in terms of classifications, we can trace the way that speakers use categories to draw boundary lines between “us” and “them”. The positions of “us” and “them” may be represented in the data by both human (individuals, groups, organizations, enterprises, nations, etc.) and non-human actors, such as animals, objects or concepts (Greimas & Courtés, 1979). Therefore, besides exploring how people are divided into “us” and “them” subject positions, we can examine how nations, social welfare, a political program, a technological invention, drinking habits or emotions, for instance, are adopted as part of our world or expelled to the world of others.

In an analysis of how subject positions are constructed as participant roles, our main concern turns to the temporal aspect of the subject position. In this case, the positions of “us” and “them”, for example, are examined as part of narrative trajectories or storylines. We may be interested to find out what kinds of participant roles the positions of “us” and “them” are attached to in the course of events; what kinds of changes these roles undergo in the storylines; and how they embody the norms that frame the action. If, for example, the researcher has interviewed politicians and public officials on steps taken to promote welfare in Sweden from the 1970s to the present day, the analysis may approach the interviews as narratives in which welfare becomes incorporated as part of different participant roles and storylines, where its identity as agency changes and where its normative nature in motivating and guiding political action varies.

In an analysis of how “us” and “them” boundary lines are constructed in the data and how they are embedded in specific kinds of participant roles, our focus is on the ideational (Halliday, 1978), mimetic (Hodge & Kress, 1988) or story level (Prince, 1988) of the data. These levels refer to the content plane of communication, to represented events, characters, accidents, acts, actions, settings, and so on. In this case our focus is to examine how classifications and participant roles are used to categorize actors, mark divisions and indicate processes in the represented reality.

The perspective is reversed when we turn to analyse subject positions as structures of viewpoint and interactive positions. In this case the focus of examination is on the interpersonal level (Halliday, 1978), the level of semiosis (Hodge and Kress, 1988) or narration (Prince, 1988) of the data. These levels refer to the expression plane of communication as opposed to the content plane, to “how” it is represented as opposed to “what” is represented. In conversation analysis, for example, subject positions are analysed as interactive roles that unfold in a turn-by-turn organization of interaction, with the researcher aiming to find out how the participants in interaction orientate to each others' turns and categories in interviews (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006, pp. 36–37). Narratology, for its part, has developed tools for analysing subject positions as structures of viewpoints or focalizations, whereby the aim is to identify whose perspective and whose senses the speaker or narrator is using in communicating knowledge about the matter under discussion (Genette, 1980).

Data

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References

To illustrate the analysis of subject positions as classifications, participant roles, structures of viewpoint and interactive positions, I will here use interview data (N = 117, 60 women, 57 men) collected at the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health, Finland, in 2003 and 2004. The interviewees were aged between 23 and 35 years and recruited from the rapidly growing branches of information and service jobs in the fields of business and administration. We regarded these young people as emerging groups, a generation whose values, meanings and drinking habits allow us to identify both the permanent and changing traits of drinking habits, practices and culture in Finland (Törrönen & Maunu, 2007).

The interviews revolved around the following questions: How often do you go out to a pub; in what kind of company? What do you do at the pub? In what kind of pub do you feel most and least comfortable? Are there places that you are not quite sure about but approach with contradictory feelings? Do you have your own favourite places? What happens on a typical evening out in your case? What would your best possible evening out be like; what about the most catastrophic? Do you like to get to know new people when you go out?

Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References

Classification is an important tool in the construction of “us” and “them” divisions. Sociological analysis has approached “us” and “them” divisions, among others, from the viewpoint of moral order (Durkheim, 1965), distinction (Bourdieu, 1984), symbolic boundary work (Lamont, 1992), labelling (Goffman, 1968) and membership categorization (Sacks, 1974).

In an analysis of how the subject positions of “us” and “them” are constructed in the data, it is important to note that they may be produced as open or implicit categorizations, and they can be based on slim differences of degree or sharp, almost antithetical distinctions. In identifying and charting classifications, it is central to ask what kinds of oppositions, tensions, contrasts, comparisons or metaphors the speakers or narrators use in classifying the entities of the world and expressing their own standings among them. Let us look at the following Excerpt 1.

Excerpt 1.

Interviewer (M[ale]): Can you tell me what makes a pub a comfortable place in your opinion? Interviewee (F[emale] 29 [interview code]): I'm a country girl myself so it's hard for me to understand these people who make believe they're something that they're not, like there are these places [pubs and restaurants] where you go and you dress up in your best clothes but then feel very uncomfortable, I mean people are not natural. There are other places where you can see that people are happy and still quite sensible so I mean [-] they're pretty much themselves if you can put it that way, or at least fairly close to being themselves.

In Excerpt 1 the interviewee classifies pubs and restaurants into the dual categories of pretentious posing-places and places where people genuinely have a good time. She uses this classification to set herself apart from people who she thinks pay too much attention to what they look like, who are shallow and superficial and who always dress up. At the same time she identifies the people with whom she feels a sense of affinity.

This kind of classification between “us” as natural and normal and “them” as factitious and abnormal recurs frequently in the corpus of 117 interviews when the interviewees answer the question as to what it is that makes a pub a comfortable or unpleasant place. In Excerpt 1 the subject position of “superficial people” is constructed by referring to dress code. Another recurring way of constructing this position is by reference to music genres. The interviewees associate heavy music and Finn-pop with authentic people. Techno-music, by contrast, is associated with “shallow people” (F 39), “cool clubbers” or individuals with a “nose-in-the-air attitude” (M 62) (Törrönen & Maunu, 2005, pp. 39–40).

Besides taking distance to a trendy dressing and techno-music, the interviewees express the demarcation between “natural” and “unnatural” subject positions by classifications that are based on location and age. In addition to places frequented by “shallow people”, they avoid suburban pubs where “alcoholics hang around all day long and the jukebox keeps playing the same records over and over again” (M 74) and teen places where youngsters drink too much and stumble around (M 83).

The corpus of 117 interviews thus involves countless classifications that draw the distinction between “us” and “them” and load them with specific meanings. How should we approach these classifications? What kind of reality and knowledge do they represent and what kind of subject positions are constructed through these classifications?

If we choose to approach “us” and “them” classifications as situational identities, we will be examining them as locally and collaboratively produced identities that gain their meaning in relation to a turn-by-turn sequence of interaction. In this case the analysis is strongly data driven. The researcher is not supposed to engage in a priori speculation about the orientations and motives of speakers (Heritage, 1984, p. 243) or about the cultural discourses or societal structures that are external to the data at hand. All the researcher's interpretations are based on how the participants make sense on what is going on in a particular utterance and how they publicly display their mutual understanding of that through orientations to each others' categories. As mentioned above, this kind of analysis would imply the application of membership categorization device analysis (e.g. Sacks, 1974; Silverman, 1993), for instance. In this case, as the interviewees seem to orientate to the question of enjoying an evening out at a pub as a matter that has to do with being one's own authentic self (see Excerpt 1), the researcher could focus on analysing how the interviewees use demarcations from “them” in the construction of morally convincing and genuine identities for themselves.

In cultural analysis, locally produced “us” and “them” subject positions are reflexively situated in the wider cultural arena by assuming that “interview-talk speaks to and emerges from the contemporary ways of understanding, experiencing and talking about the specific interview topic” (Rapley, 2004, p. 16). As the researcher examines how locally produced “us” and “them” classifications around a specific interview topic comment upon contemporary cultures, the attention turns to comparing the classifications with one another and to trying to find out what kind of classificatory system they form. For example, when we compare how the subject position of “them” as “hollow people” is constructed in the corpus of 117 interviews, we find that it is produced through contrasts formed between ordinary people and celebrities, between laid back folk and uptight individuals, between open-minded people and cocky characters, between authentic selves and show-offs, and between people who are sociable in pubs and individuals who use pubs for their own needs (see Törrönen & Maunu, 2005). In all of these contrasts, “them” is related to individualistic showing off or dissociation from group solidarity, while “us” is linked to natural, genuine and equal sociability.

Why, then, do interviewees build up a classificatory system that organizes and divides people into these kinds of contrasting groups? To answer this question, the researcher must resort to knowledge that is external to the data at hand. This knowledge will provide him or her with the competencies needed to contextualize the results to the unique cultural features and processes of building social ties and sociability in Finland.

If the contrasts between “us” and “them” are analysed as reflecting society's material, political and/or economic processes, the researcher will turn to socio-cultural macro theories that can help locate and explain the findings in relation to these processes. For example, in his critical discourse analysis Fairclough (2003, pp. 202–203) commits himself to a macro theoretical view according to which the current neo-liberal, globalized world is governed by “new capitalism” that favours subject positions that are market-driven and based on entrepreneurship and consumerism. In Fairclough's model subject positions between “us” and “them” can be analysed from three perspectives, i.e. in terms of how they are materialized in interviews, produced by discursive practices and have a dialogical relationship to the socio-cultural practices of “new capitalism” (Fairclough, 1992). This, then, turns the focus to how the subject positions emerging in the interviews strengthen or undermine the consumer-minded or entrepreneurship-driven identities favoured by neo-liberalism or new capitalism. What kinds of local and sub-cultural subject positions for or against “new capitalism” emerge in the interviews? Are certain pubs criticized as shallow and superficial because they are too heavy on market-oriented commercialism and individual status competition?

Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References

Telling stories is an important tool for constructing processual temporal identities for ourselves and others (Riessman, 2008, p. 8), as well as for nations, firms, non-governmental organizations, alcohol, technology, concepts, etc. (cf. Latour, 2005, pp. 63–86). We can approach these temporal identities as actants (Greimas & Courtés, 1979) or participant roles (cf. Herman, 2002) that form narrative programs, plots or storylines that describe a change of state in a certain subject (Czarniawska, 2004, p. 79). Narrative programs form trajectories by becoming chained into a logical progression. As narratives usually deal with a disruption of what is expected or canonical (Herman, 2009, p. 20), they may include not only the trajectory and programs of the main character (subject), but also the trajectory and programs (anti-programs) of the villain (anti-subject) who hinders and complicates the subject's action (Greimas & Courtés, 1979).

Subject and anti-subject are two central actants or participant roles in narrative trajectories. In addition, it is possible to identify five other actant positions within a “fully formed” narrative trajectory: sender, object, helper, opponent and receiver (Sulkunen & Törrönen, 1997). Sender can be identified by inquiring who or what legitimizes the action, subject by asking who is the main character of the action, object by finding out what the subject aspires to, helper by paying attention to what kinds of abilities and competencies the subject needs in the action, anti-subject by questioning who hinders and complicates the subject's action, opponent by examining what kinds of means the anti-subject is using in the action, and receiver by considering who benefits from the action. These actant positions or participant roles get their meaning in relation to each other. Let us look at the following Excerpt 2.

Excerpt 2. Taina's (F, cover name) story about her ideal evening out.

Taina: [It starts] pretty early [-] We'd go home to a friend and cook some food, and perhaps even have a sauna just among us girls, and put on make-up and gossip and, and have some red wine, eat good food and sort of get a good vibe going . . . And then take taxis and drive into town and go to some pub maybe . . . like that, yeah, and one thing that's important is that you have a good time, like you go on with the girls to a night club . . . Then it'd be nice if other friends joined the group, perhaps some good-looking men, handsome and smart[-] And one thing is that nobody leaves early but the partying continues straight through into the morning, but like someone always wilts, but on a perfect night out that doesn't happen [laughs] [-] The group stays together and of course next morning's hangover is as mild as possible, that'd be brilliant [laughs] maybe too much to ask [laughs].

In Taina's story a group of girls takes on the role of subject in action, aiming to get a “good vibe going”. This action is modified by many kinds of helpers: with the help of cooking, having a sauna, putting on make-up, gossiping and drinking, the group of girls gets into the right mood. Besides acting in the subject position of helper, drinking also becomes an opponent towards the end of the narrative, i.e. a potential source of a hangover. In Taina's narrative the roles of sender and receiver remain implicit. This implies that not all positions are always occupied and that they can appear more or less prominently in narratives. One and the same actor may also occupy many different participant roles in the course of the narrative trajectory, which change as the story develops. Despite the latency of the participant roles, it is possible to infer that the sender and the receiver in Taina's narrative is the group of girls: it sends itself, by itself, to have fun for itself. This interpretation is underpinned by the fact that Taina narrates the events almost entirely in the first person form of “us” (see Törrönen & Maunu, 2007).

Taina's story is about an ideal evening out. Therefore, the anti-subject's narrative programs and trajectory do not have prominent roles, as they do in the following Excerpt 3 that deals with a disastrous evening out.

Excerpt 3. Aleksi's narrative on a disastrous evening out

(a) Well for me in some sense it starts from… somehow you've just happened to have been drinking way too much at a very early stage, (b) and then, if we get together and go some place where like there aren't too many people we know [-], to a place that's completely different from what you wanted … (c) So that'd be it, that's the sort of thing, (d) there might be a techno party going on, (e) so that's it [-] (f) And then when you're pissed you go and say something smart to someone you hardly know, (g) so that would be it … (h) I don't think I would fight, cos I don't really think like, that would happen, but if you really want to push the boat out then yeah, you really get into a serious argument with someone … (i) So that's the elements of a catastrophe, (j) and always if you've been out [-] late, you've spent loads of money, like a hundred euros, (k) so all these things, like the next day you're like, oh my god… like that was smart, and take a taxi a really long way from home and alone, so that costs even more.

In Aleksi's narrative, alcohol takes over from the outset and as an anti-subject turns the drinker's evening into a disaster. Alcohol (a) entirely dictates the course of events. It makes Aleksi go to the wrong kind of place (b & d), make a fool of himself (f), fight and argue (h), and spend too much money (j).

These two kinds of story types offer an expressive material for an examination of how human and non-human participant roles may act in the narratives of evenings out by taking different kinds of temporal subject positions. For example, it would be interesting to ask what kinds of functions these participant roles get in the positioning of “self”, “us”, “others” and “them” in the narratives of ideal and disastrous evenings out? (c.f. Harré & van Langenhove, 1999). Or it would be fascinating to analyze in what kinds of participant roles the “home” and the “pub” appear: what do they facilitate, allow, hinder, encourage, prohibit, etc., in the narratives of evenings out (Latour, 2005, p. 72)? On the other hand we could also ask, in what kinds of temporal subject positions do alcohol or drinking act in the narratives of ideal and disastrous evenings out. This is the question we focus on here.

A comparison of the different types of narratives makes it clear that drinking does not appear in them in the subject position of subject. The same goes for the subject positions of sender and receiver. In the evenings out, drinking mainly appears in three subject positions, i.e. those of helper, opponent, and anti-subject.

As a helper, drinking seems to strengthen the interviewees' abilities and competencies to transcend the individualized routines of everyday life and move into the together shared activities and fun of the group. This process is well illustrated by Taina's narrative above. On the other hand, as Aleksi's narrative goes to show, drinking can appear as an anti-subject or opponent in all phases and events of a night out and prevent the transition from individual action to together shared activities.

How can we approach and analyse these temporal subject positions from a situational, cultural or societal perspective? From a situational perspective, they can be examined in relation to the local construction of self-images in the interaction between interviewer and interviewee. The researcher may ask how the teller includes an explicit judgment of self when alcohol is pictured in the participant role of helper and how the nature of the judgment changes when alcohol is represented in the participant role of anti-subject or opponent. Another important aspect of this kind of analysis is to examine how these contexts of judgments of self are organized within the turn-taking system (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006, p. 152), in the flow of the surrounding conversational environment (Herman, 2009, pp. 32–36).

From a cultural perspective, the participant roles can be approached as subject positions that articulate cultural norms and values in young adults' drinking rituals and group formations. By analysing how the participant roles are materialized in the stories, the researcher can trace how the action, such as drinking, assumes a normative orientation in them (see Törrönen, 2000, 2001). The sender's participant role expresses the having-to element of action (obligation), the subject symbolizes the wanting-to element of action (desire), the helpers embody the being-able-to (abilities) and knowing-how-to elements of action (competences), whereas the anti-subject and the opponents, finally, reflect the “otherness” of the reality described, displaying the boundary line between culturally proper and improper means in the action. Thus, the participant role model provides us with the tools we need to analyse how drinking is normatively motivated and what kinds of abilities and competencies for action one either achieves or loses by drinking. Furthermore, by analysing how alcohol can act as a subject position, the researcher can map what kinds of possible “cultural plotlines” alcohol may facilitate, allow, encourage, hinder or prohibit in young adults' drinking rituals and cultures.

In a societal perspective, the temporal subject positions can be examined from the viewpoint of the struggle for dominance by different narrative programs, plots or storylines. Here the researcher can apply Fairclough's (1992) critical discourse analysis and ask how the stories (narrative programs, plots, storylines) and their subject positions are related to the “social matrix of discourses” used within socio-cultural practices of drinking, and how they reproduce or transform the “orders of discourses” that are hegemonic in these practices.

Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References

So far we have discussed how subject positions are constructed in qualitative data through representations of reality by classifications (us and them distinctions) and stories (participant roles). The next two chapters proceed to explore how subject positions are constructed in qualitative data through the character's perceptions, imagination, knowledge, or point of view (focalization) and through narrating voices (interactive positions) (cf. Bal, 1988).

There are no such things as perspective-free objective accounts, descriptions or stories about reality, but only ways of representing reality in which exigencies of perspective-taking are more or less highlighted (Herman, 2002, p. 302). It is fruitful to consider focalization in relation to voice. Behind the narrative voice, there is a speaker or narrator who can be identified by asking, “who is talking?” By focalization, then, we mean the person through whose eyes, ears, nostrils, or skin things are perceived in the presented reality by asking, “who is experiencing?” (Genette, 1980). Within focalization, a distinction can be made between focalizer and focalized. The focalizer is the subject who directs the perceiving, and the focalized is that which is perceived (Rimmon-Kenan, 2005). Thus, focalization is a matter of creating windows into the processes and entities of reality and of regulating what kinds of selective information the audience gains from it (Jahn, 2005, pp. 173–175). The analysis of focalization reveals from whose point of view (narrative) information is mediated to the audience.

The main types and techniques of focalization are zero-focalization where events are narrated from the viewpoint that varies in an unrestricted way; internal focalization where the telling of events is restricted to the viewpoint of a focal character; and external focalization where the presentation is “restricted to behaviourist report and outside views, basically reporting what would be visible to a camera” (Jahn, 2005, p. 174).

Focalization is a process that involves continuous, more or less subtle shifts or changes in focalizers and focalized. For example, Taina's narrative above (Excerpt 2) concretizes how the events of ideal evenings out are perceived and experienced from the perspective of the group as a focalizer. The events and activities are described as an experience shared by “us”. The experience of “us” is expressed by narrating the story by internal focalization, in the first person “us”, or by external focalization, narrating in the passive voice. Internal and external focalization alternate in narration and together create an impression of flow in ideal evenings out, of a team spirit that has several alternative focalized to choose from, depending on the group's spontaneous goal.

Accordingly, the focalizers and focalized of the chaos narratives concretize either the failure of identifying with the we-subject or the later breakdown of that subject. For example, Aleksi's narrative above (Excerpt 3) is a good example of that how in different accounts of disastrous nights out the focalization usually alternates between the passive voice and I-form narration in a way that the collective we-experience is never reached (see Törrönen & Maunu, 2007).

As regards the ontological status that can be afforded to the focalizations, the focus in situational analysis can be upon what kinds of functions and meanings the shifts and changes of focalization hold for the presentation of self in the interview context; in cultural analysis, the spotlight may be upon how the processes of focalization clarify the cultural logic of young adults' drinking rituals; and finally in societal analysis, the attention may be centred on how the we-focalizations of leisure time drinking stories contrast with the processes of individualization in society that are breaking up and complicating the maintenance of collective groupings and ties.

Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References

Erving Goffman (1981, p. 129) says that dyadic models of communication between speaker and hearer must be broken down into analytically smaller elements. The terms speaker and hearer do not capture the multiple fluctuating statuses that the interactive participants can have in communication (Herman, 2009, p. 41). For example, the speaker may speak as an author, animator, principle or figure. The author refers to the producer of the words. The animator is a voice that says the words, as a news anchor who is reading the scripts written by news journalists. The principal is a character in the represented world whose words the narrator or speaker cites. And the figure, finally, points to the earlier self whose words the present self animates by saying, for example, that twenty years ago I used to tell people that I want to become an author (Goffman, 1981, pp. 124–157). These four different interactive positions can be called footing roles (see Potter, 1996, pp. 122–149).

Accordingly, hearer can be decomposed into the interactive positions of addressed recipient and unaddressed recipients, such as over-hearer and eavesdropper (Goffman, 1981, pp.132–137; Potter, 1996, p. 143). The over-hearer differs from the eavesdropper in that the speaker is aware of its presence. For example, politicians who are interviewed for a TV news broadcast as principals will not perhaps consider the journalists interviewing them as their main concern. Rather, in these situations they will more likely formulate their messages for non-present voters as over-hearers.

A research interview is an example of an institutional situation where the participants construct for themselves rather stable interactive positions of interviewer and interviewee (Ruusuvuori, 2010, p. 269). In a research interview the interviewer is orientated to encouraging the interviewee to speak about a specific topic, and the interviewee is orientated to giving information about that topic.

How we can analyse interactive positions by means of situational, cultural or societal ontology? Conversation analysis is a good example of a research tradition that approaches interactive positions from a situational perspective by focusing exclusively on the participants' orientations and on the endogenous context in turn-by-turn sequencing and organization of talk (Schegloff, 1997). As has become evident above, in conversation analysis the “(a)nalyst cannot claim the relevance of any identity category unless it can be shown that it does some business for the interacting parties” (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006, p. 63). For example in Excerpt 1 above, the interviewee's categorization of “us” as authentic selves in contrast to people who dress up is not necessarily relevant for the conversation analyst. Its relevance depends on whether it does some observable business for the interaction between the speaker and the hearer.

When we apply the tools of conversation analysis to examine interactive positions in interviews, our analysis may focus on what kinds of questions and footing roles (author, principal, animator, figure) encourage the interviewee to speak about the anticipated topic, and on the other hand what kinds of questions and footing roles prevent the topic from flowing. This kind of analysis requires a more detailed transcription of the material analysed than that given in Excerpt 1. It should denote rising intonations, falling intonations, pauses, and so on. If we also wanted to examine gestures, such as facial expressions and head and body positions, the interview should also be videotaped.

Positioning theory, then, usually approaches interactive positions from a cultural perspective. According to Davies and Harré (1990), positioning is a process through which speakers take on, oppose and put forward subject positions that are made available by the wider cultural master narratives, storylines or discourses. Positioning involves the use of categories to signify that a categorized person belongs to one category and not another. Speakers can position themselves or others into interactive positions of powerful or powerless, authentic or false, definitive or tentative, teacher or pupil, chauvinist or egalitarian, and so on (Van Langenhove & Harré, 1999, pp. 17–18). In the process of positioning, the initial positioning can be disputed and the speakers repositioned as authors, animators, principals or figures. The act of positioning thus refers to the assignment of fluid subject positions to speakers in the context of discursive co-construction of storylines that make a person's actions culturally intelligible.

For example, a comparison of the interviewees' “us” and “them” classifications (see Excerpt 1) and stories (see Excerpts 2 and 3) shows that the interviewees position themselves into at least five different storylines. One of these storylines deals with cultural authenticity. By criticizing people who dress up and are arrogant “hollow people”, the interviewees position themselves in a storyline of morally honest, considerate and competent agents who are not interested in matters superficial. The second storyline deals with adulthood. By setting themselves apart from teenagers, the interviewees align themselves with a storyline of mature actors who can make responsible choices and control their behaviour. The third storyline deals with addictions. By taking distance from “marginalized people” who feed their abject desires, the interviewees perform a storyline of self-controlled, sovereign consumers. The fourth storyline is focused on exemplifying how authentic people maintain ties of friendship (Excerpt 2), and the fifth on difficulties in doing that (Excerpt 3). Next, the analysis could proceed to examine the contextual variation in these strategies for self-presentation: for instance, how do the interviewees take on the positions of authors, principals, figures or animators and shift in their strategies for self-presentation from the one to the other?

From a societal perspective, the interactive positions are contextualized to the processes of dominance, power relations, inequality or injustice by applying critical discourse analysis, for instance (see Fairclough, 2003). In this case the researcher relates the local enactment of interactive positions to the broader texture of relevant political, economic and social discourses. Here we may observe that the corpus of 117 research interviews on comfortable and unpleasant pubs is perhaps not the most appropriate and interesting case for the purposes of critical discourse analysis. More suitable sources of data are provided by situations where there exists a power asymmetry between the interacting parties, such as in institutional interaction situations between therapists and clients, social workers and clients, doctors and patients, tutors and students, and managers and employees. This kind of material allows the critical discourse analyst to concentrate on such questions as whether the rights and obligations of the interacting participants are symmetrical or asymmetrical. How are topics introduced, developed and established? Is topic control symmetrical or unbalanced? (Fairclough, 1992). In what way are the interactive positions of author, animator, principal and figure used in the symmetrical and asymmetrical topic control situations?

Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References

In the foregoing I have discussed how we can analyse subject positions constructed in qualitative material as classifications that define the boundary line between “us” and “them”; as participant roles that refer to the temporal aspect of subject positions and outline their meaning for action; as structures of viewpoint and focalization that frame the meaning of and give order to opinions and experiences of the world; and as interactive positions that articulate the roles and identities taken by the interacting parties during their communication.

I have also discussed how these four aspects of subject positions can be analysed as referring to situational, cultural or societal identities. The situational approach to subject positions implies a close focus on interaction happening “here and now”, the cultural approach examines the “here and now” subject position in relation to various meaning systems and norms that are circulated and used in culture, and the societal approach uses macro theories to place them in the context of the main structural features and processes of society.

The choice of how to approach and examine classifications, participant roles, structures of viewpoint and communicative positions as expressions of local, cultural or societal subject positions is determined by each researcher's theoretical perspective and knowledge interests. The theoretical framework and knowledge interests specify which aspects of subject positions are highlighted in the analysis. For example, positioning theory pays attention to the categories of us and them, participant roles and viewpoints as elements of self and other positioning (see Harré & van Langenhove, 1999). However, these aspects of subject positions are analyzed for grasping how interactive positions are constructed, negotiated and maintained in conversations. Actantial position theory (Greimas & Courtés, 1979), in turn, focuses on the categories of us and them and participant roles as a struggle between the trajectories of subject and anti-subject. These aspects are analyzed by prioritizing the temporal aspect of subject positions as participant roles over their static aspect as us and them classifications.

Furthermore, the theoretical framework and knowledge interests specify, what kind of knowledge the researcher can use in the analysis and how detailed the analysis of subject positions should be. When the researcher decides to analyse subject positions solely as situational identities, this also implies the choice to undertake a very detailed analysis. At the same time, the decision will restrict the scope of interpretation available to the researcher. As described above, the conversation analyst can only make interpretations that are based on how the interacting parties orientate to one another and one another's categories “here and now”. The analyst cannot make use of knowledge that is external to the situation at hand. This kind of analysis can be criticized for reducing the subject positions to participants' orientations and for cutting them loose from relevant background, contextual or political knowledge that would inform their analysis (Wetherell, 1998; Benwell & Stokoe, 2006, p. 64).

The choice to analyse subject positions from a cultural perspective gives the researcher greater scope to make interpretations, but also creates other kinds of problems as the researcher aims to establish how the “here and now” subject positions transcend the interaction situation and are constructed by cultural traditions, practices and norms. Since cultural representations refer to one another in an endless and unanticipated way, the researcher needs to decide what kinds of cultures the subject positions refer to and where the confines of these cultures are. In addressing this challenge, the researcher needs to avoid overly simplistic and stereotypical as well as overly rich and unique interpretations of subject positions. For instance, there is the risk that the researcher solidifies the “here and now” subject positions in relation to the most obvious cultural discourses at that time (see Harris & Rampton, 2009, p. 116), or that s/he individualizes or psychologizes them out of what is actually culturally shared.

The decision to analyse subject positions from a societal perspective is not without its problems, either, as it requires a “ready-made” understanding of the main structures and processes of society. For example, in critical discourse analysis the theory of “new capitalism” allows the researcher to be critical against the dominance of ruling institutions and positions and provides him/her with the tools to either question the subject positions that maintain hegemony in society or to strengthen subject positions that appear subordinated, marginal or excluded. This kind of researcher position may overly steer the analysis and lead to over-interpretation, in which case the “here and now” subject positions will be too directly associated with hegemonic or counter-hegemonic economic and social processes to which they do not actually belong.

To conclude, qualitative data involve a rich variety of subject positions and offer multiple options for analysis. Qualitative datasets are not exhausted by just one or two analyses, and therefore it makes no sense to try and undertake one single analysis that covers every facet and every aspect of the data. My preliminary analysis and observations of the interview data above could be complemented by an analysis using Simmel's (1949) concept of “sociability” to study how the interviewees use their us” and “them” classifications to construct equal sociability among themselves by taking distance from too intimate and personal subject positions, on the one hand, and from status-oriented subject positions, on the other hand; or Latour's (2005) theory of “network” to examine how the interviewees' stories of evenings out describe the establishment and maintenance of durable friendship nexuses that are based on specific kinds of associations between human and non-human temporal subject positions; or Turner's (1969) idea of “liminal space” to investigate how the shifts in the focalizations of the stories of evenings out indicate the interviewees' ritualistic transformation from an individual state to a collective state: their entrance from everyday life to the world of intoxication, as well as their return to normal everyday order; or Tracy's (2002) survey of “interaction-relevant identities” to explore what kinds of interactive positions of master identities (gender, class, ethnicity), relational identities (friend, wife, partner) or personal identities (unique characteristics of them) the interviewer and interviewees use to orientate to each other's categories while speaking about nightlife. This is to exemplify that qualitative data are always so thick in meanings that when we change the theoretical background and the lens of the research setting, this also casts the subject positions in a new light.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Situational, Cultural and Societal Subject Positions
  4. Subject Position as Classification, Participant Role, Viewpoint or Interactive Position
  5. Data
  6. Analysis of Subject Positions as “us” and “them” Classifications
  7. Analysis of Subject Positions as Participant Roles
  8. Analysis of Subject Positions as Viewpoints
  9. Analysis of Subject Positions as Interactive Positions
  10. Discussion: Theory, Research Questions and Knowledge Interest as Compasses for Analysis
  11. Acknowledgement
  12. References
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