flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/19980646313 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Until one of my supervisors pointed me towards ‘Researching language and social media’ (Page et al, 2014), I hadn’t spared a great deal of thought towards a linguistic perspective. After reading this however, I now find myself with yet another lens through which to view my study and I’m increasingly appreciating that different perspectives might allow different interpretations and enrich the findings.

This post was provoked by Page et al’s discussion (2014:32) of text and context when adopting a linguistic approach to analysis. In particular I’m drawn to the parallels that a consideration of context has with exploring the boundaries within an ethnographic study and whether an ANT approach might help … or hinder.

Text, especially in social media, is neither read nor written in a vacuum. Communications and exchanges involve not only text, but sub-text, para-text, co-text or meta data which affect (and may even effect) interpretation and meaning. As a consequence, identifying the boundaries of the textual units can be quite a challenge requiring us to consider both the text itself and the context within which it was generated. What other elements surround the text, which are inherent in the environment and which are intentionally (or unintentionally) introduced by the author? And of course, what part might they play within the discourse? Can or should they be considered ‘actors’ or mediators accompanying the text? If these additional elements were removed, would the interchange become completely different and result in a different outcome? In Twitter, some of the context might indeed be internal to the environment, but inevitably the external world will play a role. That context might consist of the online or offline; it might be outward-facing or drawing from the outside. Contextual factors within social media might include participants, technology (both as a constraint and facilitator), behaviour, text (connected or related texts) and the medium itself (constraints like functions and features, T&C etc). This is where Latour’s  (2005:12) exhortation to ‘follow the actors’ might prove illuminating, or alternately might result in continually chasing shadows. (Note to self: I feel I need some concrete examples of how others have addressed these challenges)

With context being so multi-layered and fluid, establishing where it begins and ends clearly presents challenges. Considering context then is similar to bounding the ‘site’ within which an ethnography might take place; the text or site might initially be Twitter, but as soon as observation or analysis commences, the world beyond immediately comes into play.

Page et al write that others contend that unless you know everything about context, you can’t undertake an analysis. This provides further support for gaining intimate knowledge through immersion in the field, rather attempting an outsider perspective.

Latour, B., 2005. Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford; New York.
Page, R., Barton, D., Unger, J.W., Zappavigna, M., 2014. Researching language and social media: a student guide. Routledge.

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