In this chapter I turn to a closer look at just one of the teens in the study discussed in the last chapter. The girl we will meet in this chapter is “Sandra” (not her real name), one or our working-class teenagers. Sandra is an active and resilient participant in her environments, with no “special” problems untypical of those environments, though those environments present plenty of very real problems for teenagers like Sandra. The interviewer was a middleclass white female graduate student earning a PhD in psychology. She was known to Sandra to be interested in teenage girls’ lives at home and at school. My main concern with Sandra’s interview will be to analyze one of the many narratives she tells. But I want to set the analysis of this narrative in the larger context of Sandra’s whole interview. I want to stress the ways in which an analysis of the rest of the interview and of the narrative can mutually support each other, helping us to achieve some degree of validity in terms of criteria like coverage and convergence (as well as linguistic detail, as we draw on a variety of different aspects of language). We will start our analysis of Sandra’s interview by considering the whole interview and reflecting on two of the building tasks we discussed in Chapters 2, 7, and 8, namely the Connections Building Task (no. 6) and Sign Systems and Knowledge Building Task (no. 7). Let us start with Connections:
Our first step was to look across the whole interview for themes, motifs, or images that co-locate (collocate) with each other, that is, themes, images, or motifs that seem to “go together.” Such related themes connect diverse parts of the interview together and give it a certain overall coherence and “texture.” In doing so, they render certain things as connected and relevant to each other in Sandra’s world as depicted in her talk and other things as not as closely connected or relevant to each other. There are three related motifs that run through Sandra’s interview. All three of these motifs have to do with how Sandra sees things in her world as connected or disconnected, especially the latter. In fact, the notion of connection and especially disconnection is a major overall theme in Sandra’s interview and worldview. In each of these cases, Sandra uses many words and phrases that appear to share certain aspects of situated meaning with each other. Below, I list some examples of each of these under the labels “Disconnection,” “Not Caring,” and “Language and Laughter.” These are Sandra’s three major motifs. It is apparent that “Not Caring” is also a form of disconnection, and many of the “Language and Laughter” examples involve affective language, nonsense, noise, or laughter as ways to disconnect from authority and hurtful (judgmental) language. These three motifs constitute connected threads that run throughout Sandra’s interview:
There are various things we could do with these motifs, in terms of worries about the validity of our analysis. For example, we could get “inter-judge reliability” in regard to the words and phrases within these themes, or in
regard to similar or different themes independent judges might come up with. While there is certainly nothing wrong with this, my interest in these themes is in using them to begin to form hypotheses about some of Sandra’s situated meanings and figured worlds, hypotheses that I can then check by further consultation of this and other data. Ultimately, the validity of the analysis will reside in how the ideas we can generate from the above motifs help to illuminate other data (coverage), data that we hope will lead us to similar conclusions (convergence). I will also appeal, below, to the details of linguistic structure, and I have had a number of other discourse analysts go over this data with me, checking my conclusions with them and being sure that they do not see important motifs I have missed (agreement). Remember, validity is never “once and for all.” Other people working on our data, or similar data, will discover things that support, revise, or challenge our own conclusions. Validity is social. So we see that Sandra uses a large number of words and phrases that take on, in her interview, situated meanings that cluster around the three motifs we have listed above. In turn, these motifs are all integrally concerned with building connections and disconnections in the world as Sandra sees it and portrays it in her interview. However, Sandra’s third motif, the one we have labeled Language and Laughter, also relates to Building Task 7, Sign Systems and Knowledge:
In Motif 3, in particular, Sandra seems to disavow the representational function between words and the world, the very language function that others (e.g., schools) take to be of primary importance. By “representational function,” I mean the idea that language connects directly and straightforwardly (“objectively”) to the world “out there” (“re-presents” it), and that this has little to do with how people feel, what their needs are, or what their personal opinions, based on their own lived experiences, are. Sandra sees words said only because they are “true” or are “facts” backed up by some authority figure (e.g., her sister, her mother, her father, or, by extension, her teacher) as “stupid” and as a way to “ruin” things. In turn, Sandra celebrates the social, bonding, and affective functions of language. Language that is silly or funny, but that “feels right” and that is intended to make one feel good is the only truly efficacious language. Sandra wants to relate only to those who tell her “the answer I want to hear, that sounds right, with my problem.” She wants a relationship with an adult only if they “won’t say nothin’ ” (i.e., engage in judgmental language or tell on her) or if they speak “silly,” but endearing, talk to her, like her grandmother. In terms of Building Task 7, Sandra is privileging one form of language, namely affective, caring language, and disprivileging another form, namely
objective unemotional fact-giving authoritative language. Of course, this also relates to ways of knowing the world and other people, as well as relating to them, that Sandra either prefers or disprefers. Both from how Sandra carries out her work with this building task, and from many other aspects of her interview, we eventually drew the hypothesis that she was operating with a figured world something like:
Sandra disavows “authoritative representation” (whether adult control or the authority of asocial “factual” language), both in terms of how her world is and in terms of her ways of being in that world. This disavowal is coupled with a celebration of social interaction outside of or opposed to such authoritative representation. Once we have hypothesized this figured world as operative in Sandra’s interview, we can gather more data about how far and widely it functions in her world. It would be particularly interesting, for example, to see if and how it operates in her relationship to teachers and school. Evidence we connected on this score showed that, in fact, Sandra liked teachers who showed they cared about the students personally (e.g., one who knew a student was asleep in class because she had been working at a job the night before) and disliked those who stressed academic content, but not caring. Figured worlds do not belong to just one person. They are shared by a social group whose reality and experience they seek to capture in a useful, albeit oversimplified way. Thus, we would hypothesize that Sandra’s figured world is shared by some or many of her peers and others in her world. We would, thus, need to extend our data collection (or look through the data from our other working-class kids) and check this hypothesis out. And, indeed, we found that Sandra’s figured world (“cultural model”) above holds across a number of her peers and reflects their view of authority figures. The anthropologist John Ogbu has argued that, in his studies of students in urban classrooms in the United States, there are two different figured worlds at play about the relationship between teacher and student. Some students (among whom he argues are those from immigrant families that freely chose to come to the U.S. to improve their lives) operate with a “pragmatic, utilitarian” model that stresses that what is important about the relationship between teacher and student is that the teacher has important and useful knowledge and skills to transmit to the student. Whether the teacher likes or
cares about the student or his or her family or cultural group is less important than the knowledge and skills being transmitted. Other students (among whom Ogbu argues are those from families whose ancestors came by force to the U.S., for example African-Americans, and Native Americans and some Latinos whose ancestral lands were taken by the U.S.) operate by a “caring” model that stresses that what is important about the relationship between teacher and student is that the teacher likes, respects, and cares about the student and his or her family and cultural group. The transmittal of knowledge and skills, on this model, should operate within a caring relationship. These students tend to disaffiliate from teachers and schools whom they see as uncaring, disrespectful, or untrustworthy. Sandra, though she is a lower-socioeconomic white girl whose ancestors, long ago, came freely to the U.S., clearly operates by Ogbu’s caring model, one he attributes to many African-American students. In fact, we have argued that she holds a yet more general caring model-one that applies across the board to authority figures-and also ties it to forms of language in interaction (authoritative, fact-giving language vs. affective, social, caring language). Let me give a final brief example that captures the figured world we have attributed to Sandra. In response to the interviewer’s question “Is there someone . . . who you feel really doesn’t understand you?,” Sandra breaks into a long story about taking a drive with her sister after she (Sandra) had been punished by her mother, where her sister clearly wanted to offer Sandra “authoritative” advice and to know “facts” about her life (e.g., in regard to boys and safe sex) outside of any ongoing social interaction (“She’s never talked to me like that before”). While there are other parts of Sandra’s interview where she talks freely about sex with her friends, her response here is “Wow! That’s weird.” The understanding Sandra wants from her sister-or anyone else, for that matter-is based on words that consider her affective (not cognitive) perspective, that are part and parcel of ongoing egalitarian social interaction, and that are used to heal and bond. Words outside such a context, “authoritative words,” make “no sense.” Thus, she says of her sister: “. . . she’ll give me a right answer, like the answer that I want to hear, . . . but then we’ll keep talking about it, and it will make no more sense, no more sense.” By this, Sandra means that the sister will start to answer in an empathetic and affective way, but then switch to more authority-based talk seeking facts and offering adult advice.