Ethnography, Discourse and Hegemony by Benjamin Rampton


Introduction: Ethnography, Discourse, and Hegemony




Jan Blommaert, James Collins, Monica Heller, Ben Rampton,
Stef Slembrouck, and Jef Verschueren


1.  Introduction

Debates about the contemporary era  – describing it as one of transnational economies, polyglot cultures, and hybrid identities –  pose sharp challenges for received ways of thinking about a prominent and troubling feature of the current era: increasing inequality within and across nations. For us, one way of thinking about the problem of inequality is in terms of the availability or distribution of material and discursive resources and the interconnections between them. Through a set of in-depth case studies, commonly oriented to the notion of hegemony, we explore how pragmatics and linguistic ethnography, combining close attention to discourse properties and situational and institutional analysis, can contribute to reformulating the old questions –  such as those of class, identity, and power –  in order to better understand how inequality and domination are both produced and resisted.    
In this introduction, we will outline some dimensions of a rather ambitious programme, although the papers only address certain dimensions of that programme. Our goal is to extend the long-standing interest in our field in understanding power, including what it is, how it works and what its consequences are. We propose here that we can usefully do this by operationalizing the concept of hegemony, in particular by elaborating what ethnographic approaches might do to complicate, extend and render concrete the construction of hegemony. This is a complicated and multifaceted process, which we are only beginning to explore, and which any given field project could only begin to approach. As a result, we have chosen to put together a collection of papers which quite deliberately take up specific dimensions of historically- and socially-situated hegemonic processes. Some papers are oriented to close analysis of significant discursive productions, some focus more on intersections in socially-framed institutional sites, and so on; taken together, they point to a variety of ways in which to capture complex, spatially- and temporally-distributed hegemonic processes which affect individual lives as well as broader social structuration.


2.  What is hegemony?

Hegemony has a long history as a concept in the social sciences, inextricably linked to analyses of ideology and ideological reproduction. The genesis of the concept in this context is in revolutionary theory, with authors such as Lenin, Axelrod and Plekhanov addressing the question of ‘ideological conquest’ as an ingredient of revolutionary strategy. The classic formulations, of course, are to be found in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and they have given rise to a whole complex of interpretations and reformulations. The significant currents explaining the nature and effectivity of hegemonies include

·        the classical Gramscian emphasis on collective political struggle for state power and collective political struggle in ‘wars of positions’ (counter-hegemonic struggles) within major institutions of civil society: the school, media of all kinds, the church, and forms of popular self-organization such as unions or advocacy groups (Anderson, 1977; Hoare & Smith, 1971)
·        The efforts by authors such as Laclau and Mouffe (1985) to conceptualize hegemony in terms of shifting configurations arising out of times of crisis, in an effort to understand the discursive space of social contradictions and antagonisms (Howarth, Norval, & Stavrakis, 2000)
·        The cultural-materialist emphasis on language and quotidian experiences, on the particularities of lived hegemonies, and on the inseparability of the material and symbolic (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1992; Williams, 1977)
·        The efforts by Critical Discourse Analysis and cultural studies to link discourse analysis to the exploration of society-wide forms of political/ideological domination and change (Blommaert & Bulcaen, 2000; Fairclough, 1992)

The key features of hegemony identified in these traditions are
·        historical processes that involve the emergence, ascendance and decline of dominant, alternative and counter-hegemonic formations
·        political tension or struggle around control of the state and its agencies, institutions of civil society, and daily life processes of domination characterised by negotiation and consent rather than coercion
·        processes of domination that (seek to) naturalise relations of inequality, so that they are taken for granted and seem commonsense, providing an easily accepted frame for planning and action
·        effects and manifestations that are tacit and embodied as well as discursively articulated

As can be seen from this list, research has focused strongly on hegemony-as-consent, as the ‘soft’, cultural aspect of power relations. Absent from most research is attention to what in Gramsci’s parlance would be the ‘war of manoeuvre’: coercion and force, used as complements of persuasion and consent in the exercise of power. Papers in this volume will also focus on hegemony-as-consent, sometimes emphasizing the ways in which creative practices relate to existing hegemonies (see the papers by Caccamo & Vazques, Rampton, Slembrouck, and Blommaert). It may be useful, however, to underscore the fact that the absence of attention to coercion as part of conditions of power, especially in late modernity, is a problematic point of which the authors here are aware. One reason is that challenges to existing hegemonies may, and often do, result in crackdowns on those who perform them; challenges to authority are often countered by force – a force which re-establishes perhaps not the legitimacy of the hegemonic complex, but marks its boundaries and the areas where no trespassing will be allowed. A full explanation of power processes, contemporary as well as historical, needs to address coercion as part of power alongside, and often as a necessary complement to, hegemony (Anderson, 1977).


3.  Why hegemony now?

There are a number of reasons why the current era of Late Capitalism/Late Modernity makes the  notion of hegemony seem particularly relevant to an understanding of contemporary inequality.  These include: the increasing salience in social life of  rhetorics of choice, consumption and individualism (Bauman, 1997; Bourdieu, 1984; Singer, 1999), and more generally, the increasing importance of symbolic representation, discourse, and semiosis in the system dynamics and social life of contemporary capitalist societies (Fairclough, 1995; Giddens, 1991; Habermas, 1987).  In terms of the formal political field, reasons for the importance of the problematic of hegemony include the often-noted de-voicing of traditional political/class blocs, and the pluralisation/ fragmentation of political struggles (Chomsky, 2001; Fraser, 1989; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Taylor, 1992). In addition, the last several decades have seen a much-debated epistemological shift within the academy, entailing a rejection of essentialism and the guarantees formerly provided by grand narratives, and an increased acceptance of contingency, ambiguity and indeterminacy (Bauman, 1992; Lyotard, 1984; Rorty, 1989). As a sociological counterpart to these political and epistemological shifts, the contemporary era also presents us with an ongoing reconfiguration of ‘traditional’ sources of authority that now require discursive legitimation. Consider, for example, the post-1960s questioning of domestic patriarchy (Coontz, 1992; Nicholson, 1986), of religious authority (Bauman, 1997; Lasch, 1991), of nation-state allegiances (Friedman, 1994; Hobsbawm, 1996), and of education-based social mobility (Apple, 1996; Bernstein, 1996).
The concept of hegemony remains vitally necessary to critical analysis because along with the rhetorics of choice, the movement away from class-based political mobilization, the epistemological shifts, and the ongoing ‘critique’ of traditional forms of authority, the contemporary era also presents us with a widely-acknowledged  intensification of social inequality within and across nations (Bourdieu, 2000; Singer, 1999).  It is our argument, explored in various of the papers in this collection, that hegemony can be a key conceptual tool for understanding contemporary inequality and domination. Although deriving from intellectual and political engagement with class domination and class struggle, hegemony is always about more than class relations in the abstract, or rather, it refuses to abstract class and class relations from the manifold relations – those of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation etc –  which enter into the particularities of lived, historical experience. It is thus both focused on central features of capitalist social orders and simultaneously sensitive to the historical variety of forms of domination in complex social systems.


4.  Why ethnographies of hegemony?

The particularities of lived, historical experience are of course the central concern of ethnography, making it in principle an especially sensitive perspective on hegemony.
Admittedly, the relationship between these two terms can be problematic.  There are many ways in which ethnography itself plays/has played an unwitting role in domination, and there has been much discussion of its identity within the apparatus of colonialism (Collins, 1998; Comaroff & Comaroff, 1992; Fabian, 1983).  Indeed, where a recognition of such complicity has driven researchers from totalising generalisations about whole, bounded ‘communities’ and ‘cultures’ to textual accounts of the contingencies and indeterminacies of discourse and situated action, ethnography often risks losing all sight of hegemonic processes in a world which “is always fluid and ambiguous, a partially integrated mosaic of narratives, images and signifying practices”, research being reduced “to an exercise in ‘intersubjectivity’, the communing of phenomenologically conceived actors through talk alone” (Comaroff & Comaroff 1992:30, 10).   Nevertheless, in the first instance, as a methodology ethnography is at least open and reflexive about its dependence on socially agreed and situationally contingent procedures of enquiry, invoking not only epistemological but also poetic, personal and political grounds in its justification.  And secondly, ethnography’s concern and unease about the relationship between larger systems and the unpredictabilities of everyday conduct make hegemony an especially pertinent concept, focusing attention as it does on processes that not only produce systemic inequality but also blur its contours. 
At least in principle, ethnography allows for both the close analysis of interaction (the basic material of social relations) and the linking of interaction(s) across time and space.  It permits communicative practices to be linked to the conditions of their emergence, unfolding, and decline, and it  allows communicative practices to be conceptualised as inherently embedded in institutional ones (or perhaps conversely, institutional practice can be understood as extensively discursive [albeit in distributed form]). Where ethnography does actually set its sights in this way, then it is potentially very well-positioned for the analysis of hegemony.


5.  Language in ethnographies of hegemony?

In a discussion of ethnography, Comaroff & Comaroff argue that
“‘[t]he representation of larger, impersonal systems’... is not untenable in ‘the narrative space of ethnography’... In fact, systems appear ‘impersonal’, and holistic analyses stultifying, only when we exclude from them all room for human maneuver, for ambivalence and historical indeterminacy –  when we fail to acknowledge that meaning is always, to some extent, arbitrary and diffuse, that social life everywhere rests on the imperfect ability to reduce ambiguity and concentrate power” (1992:11)
Without any doubt, indeterminacy and ambivalence are endemic to the production and interpretation of meaning, and failure to engage adequately with this provides one major source of the criticism of accounts of ideology in critical discourse analysis (Blommaert & Bulcaen, 2000; Vershueren, 2001).  At the same time, however, a great deal of the effort that humans make to “to reduce ambiguity and concentrate power” –  i.e. to establish hegemony – are channelled through language, discourse and interactional practice.  Putting these points together, the importance of discourse and language in the articulation of both centrifugal and centripetal social processes make them very sensitive sites for analysis of dynamics in which hegemony takes shape and operates.
Of course, hegemony is produced and experienced in much more than language and discourse alone.  Hegemony impacts on the organisation of the material environment, saturates consciousness etc. (see 2 above), and to understand how communicative forms and practices get ideologically sedimented, or how, for example, genres, styles and code selections inhibit thought and action hegemonically, requires critical ethnographic reading of the historical, institutional and political loadings of ‘context’.  At the same time, though, as we mentioned earlier, discourse, symbolic representation, and semiotic production appear to be growing in importance historically, and linguistic practice in commodified form is an increasingly significant dimension of the production of wealth (Castells, 1999; Heller, 2001).  In cultural theory, the ‘zone’ between the tacit and the articulated has long been regarded as a particularly sensitive arena for analysis of active and emergent political consciousness. And in pragmatics and linguistic anthropology, analyses of situated language use have already substantially contributed to the deconstruction of macro-micro polarities, a focal task in structuration and practice-theorizing and a necessary underpinning in analyses of hegemony.  Hegemony itself might not often have been emphasised in these demonstrations that abstract categories such as culture, social structure or the institutional order can be approached as processes and constructions in discourse and interaction, and power and inequality may not always have been foregrounded and theorised.  But John Gumperz, for example, has consistently concentrated on the ways in which language practices interact with ideologies of language, identity and institutional order, producing and reproducing social inequality through contemporary bureaucratic processes (e.g.Gumperz, 1986), and in Kroskrity, Schieffelin and Woolard’s groundbreaking 1992 Pragmatics Special Issue on ‘Language Ideologies’, hegemony is explicitly linked to language and discourse in a range of situations and relationships. 


6.  Methodological challenges

As a sensitising construct, hegemony spans history, institutions, discourse and discursive resources, situated interaction, and subjectivity, and its capaciousness as a concept requires an equally capacious epistemology-cum-research practice. We have already suggested that ethnography has the scope to make a start on this, though it is worth pointing to particularly problematic issues for the empirical analysis of hegemony. 
If empirical claims are to be made about hegemony, then analysis has to show that in the end, local processes of consent ultimately implicate, or are implicated in, powerful, society- or world-wide interests and interest groups (e.g. the dominant classes in capitalism) (see Fairclough 1992:94).  Taking Williams’ terms (1977), an adequate analysis of hegemony needs to distinguish dominant formations and movements from emergent, residual, alternative, and oppositional ones. But how is this to be done amidst the processes of accommodation, negotiation and interaction that constitute consent, amidst all the unpredictability of life on the ground, amidst the emic priorities of ethnographers and the experience of the participants, amidst the pluralisation and increased ambiguities of late modernity and the absence of the guarantees provided by grand narratives?  We are facing here, yet again, a challenge to bring ethnography into the realm of historical analysis and vice versa –  something which looks less and less avoidable if one takes context in ethnography seriously. (We recognize that taking context seriously requires grappling with issues of systemic analyses of power, conflict, and consent, such as that provided by De Vos in this volume).
In some cases, it is possible to use the benefits of hindsight to follow the political ramifications of particular texts, and to differentiate the counter-hegemonic practice of emergent movements from hegemony of dominant formations.  This can be done in the historiographic investigation of archive documents (e.g.Blommaert, 1999; Collins, 1999; Comaroff & Comaroff, 1992; Fabian, 1991; Heller, 1994), although on the down-side, much of the subtlety of hegemonic processes may escape, since many of the ambiguities and contingencies of local everyday life are inevitably lost to such studies.  Audio- and video-recordings of contemporary discourse can usually bring one closer to the local interactional workings of power, and they obviously don’t exclude temporality from the analysis –  it is often possible to locate texts and practices in the prior development of particular traditions, and one can sometimes observe their short-term effects and consequences.  But with hegemony in the frame, the analyst is committed to diagnosis of the practice’s significance within much wider/longer social processes, stretching well beyond the local interactional and institutional contexts in both time and social space.  There is an invitation to ask whether, for example, a particular argumentative sequence constitutes routine dispute or counter-hegemonic resistance, whether it instantiates business-as-usual or points to incipient social change, and without recourse to knowledge of longer-term eventuations situated in a much wider social field, there is a considerable risk of over-reading, with analysts opting for romantic optimism and gloomy determinism according to personal preference.  Long term fieldwork undoubtedly provides a better basis for analysing hegemonic processes, providing an opportunity to treat interactional data historically, though even here, there are bound to be points where “change and continuity [will have] to be conceptualised in ways not contained in the ethnographic data itself” (Willis & Trondman 2000), and very careful cross-reference to the evidence of other empirical studies, often in other disciplines, will still be needed if particular texts and practices are to be situated adequately in broader trends (Hammersley 1992:85-95).  Ethnography is undoubtedly eclectic as a mode of data-collection, as a set of analytic procedures and as a textual genre, so none of these methodological comments invalidate ‘ethnographies of hegemony’ as a possibility.  They indicate, though, something of the scope of such an undertaking.   


7.     Locating our studies within this problematic

The papers in this special issue engage various themes within the problematic of hegemony while also making distinctive theoretical and methodological contributions. Monica Heller’s “Actors and discourses in the construction of hegemony” draws upon material from Francophone Canada to explore the relation between ideological dispute and hegemony building. In particular, she analyzes how public debates and institutional conflicts concerning “what it means to be Francophone” can be understood as pieces of a broader “discursive shift[] from a ‘modernizing’ to ‘globalizing’” vision of  Francophone identity in contemporary Canada. Using ethnographic evidence focused on the issue of ethnolinguistic politics, and drawing upon structuration theory, she shows how these discursive shifts involve specific actors as well as specific institutional processes (such as a community cultural center’s planning meeting)  in the construction of a new hegemony in civil society. Taking up a related theme of the relation between ideology and hegemony, Jan Blommaert’s “Orthopraxy, writing and identity” and Ben Rampton’s “Hegemony, social class and stylization” examine how the use of specific linguistic genres and routines can reveal a tension between relatively agentive and creative and relatively unconscious and hegemonically dominated practices bearing on subjectivity and history. For both, a key question is what is conscious activity and what habituated practice. In Blommaert’s case it concerns efforts at subaltern historical writing in post-colonial Africa; in Rampton’s it concerns adolescent play with class accents in multi-ethnic London schools. Celso Alvarez Caccamo and Gabriela Prego Vazquez’s “Political cross-discourse” draws upon the concept of “reflexive technologization” from Critical Discourse Analysis, as well as the lexicon of “indexes” from linguistic anthropology, to study the nature and discursive economy of political discourse. Drawing upon examples of political speeches and addresses in Galicia, they examine how the utterances from such speeches circulate among and hybridize with everyday discourses, creating the political illusion that elite speech is ‘from the people’.
A second pair of related themes concerns the specific nature of the contemporary era. In particular, the apparent erasure of class in contemporary political and academic discourse is addressed in Jef Verschueren’s “A touch of class”, James Collins’ “The reading wars in situ”, Stef Slembrouck’s “Narrative accounts of class and parenting in the area of child protection”. Based on analysis of a corpus of party documents, Verschueren argues that so-called ‘Third Way’ or social democratic political agendas rest on a new hegemony in which social class largely disappears from political discussion. This involves a series of related shifts, in which ‘exclusion’ replaces ‘exploitation’ as a key object of political concern, and in attention to inequities of gender, ethnorace, and sexual orientation paradoxically goes hand-in-hand with a political retreat from a concern with inequality. Analyzing both public literacy debates and specific ethnographic materials from a US secondary school, Collins argues that social class inequality pervades literacy debates as well as school organization but in ways which are refracted into idioms of skill and individual mobility rather than expressed as social fractures. Working with interview material, Slembrouck explores how social classification procedures –  how we speak about self and others –  euphemize yet index class-based fears among middle class parents caught up in the Belgian public care system in ways which are traceable historically to long-running contradictions within discourses of social problems and social work.
In addition to the question of the erasure of class from public discourse, several papers also address the role of hegemony in mediating fundamental sociopolitical contradictions in Late Modern societies. This is most directly taken up in Patrick DeVos’ “Discourse theory and the study of ideological (trans)formations.” Engaging Laclau & Mouffe’s (1985) discourse-based theory of hegemony, DeVos analyzes how contemporary social democratic parties – most influentially the Labor Party of Tony Blair and his house theoretician, Anthony Giddens – attempt to re-articulate fundamental political and economic contradictions, embracing globalization and ‘economic opportunity’ but “abandon[ing] their struggle for equality.” Verschueren’s analysis of shifts in political idioms can be profitably read as an empirical illustration of  DeVos’ arguments about discursive re-articulation. Similarly, Collins’ account of the US literacy debate can be read as a case illustrating DeVos’ discussion of hegemony and the ‘dislocation’ of subjectivities. In this instance, the ‘reading wars’ are a struggle to define what it means to be a ‘literate’ or ‘illiterate’ person and thus a fit or unfit economic and political subject in a society experiencing sharply increasing economic inequality.
The papers in this special issue also orient to greater or lesser degree with the fundamental tensions between a ‘classical’ Gramscian emphasis on historical blocs, political movements, and political strategy and that derived from Williams’ (1977) emphasis on subjectivity, lived experience, and situated expression and interpretation. The former emphasis on blocs, movements, and strategies is found in the articles by Verschueren, DeVos, and, to a lesser extent and with differing emphases, in those by Caccamo & Vazquez, Heller and Collins. The latter emphasis on subjectivity and situated expression and interpretation is found in the articles by Blommaert and Rampton, and, with less direct attention to Williams, in that by Slembrouck.
Finally, as might be expected in a set of studies concerned with discourse and ethnography, as well as the analysis of hegemony, the papers also take a number of methodological positions. In some papers, empirical description is a primary concern, using ideas from social theory as sensitizing concepts. This is the emphasis, for example, in Heller’s discussion of what ethnography can teach us about hegemonies, in Rampton’s exploration of social class as an interactive and long duree historical phenomena, in Verschueren’s critical analysis of  ‘third way’ rhetorics, and in Slembrouck’s reflexive investigation of the researcher’s access to the interplay between class and classification within a particular field of social practice. Conversely, DeVos is resolutely concerned with engaging discourse theory as political theory. His is not an ethnographic inquiry, but it engages the common problematic of hegemony. Collins shows a more ethnographic bent, but with an emphasis on exploring the tensions emphasized in theories of late and post-modernity between forms of regulation and sources of inequality; and Blommaert addresses the adequacy of Scott’s (1990) arguments about ‘orthopraxy’ as a reversal of usual thinking about hegemony. Caccamo & Vazquez draw upon leading concepts in Critical Discourse Analysis but combine their theoretical engagements with fine-grained discourse analysis and ethnographic attention to the distribution of utterances. What we get from these papers taken together is a questioning of a single, authoritative view of hegemony, for example, the view of hegemony as simply consensus gained through the naturalizing of dominant world views.
This set of papers illustrates some of the joys and frustrations of addressing social processes as fundamentally distributed and connected. It allows us, for example, to see that while the concept of class is erased in the discourse produced by actors of the state, it emerges as a strong point of orientation in the interactions of school students. It allows us to see that processes of identity construction turn up in certain ways in interactions where key resources are distributed in institutional sites likes classrooms or social work agencies, and in other ways in ‘back-stage’ interactions like administrative council meetings. These phenomena, or rather noticing their differential distribution, then oblige us to ask questions about why things look different depending on which facet is examined – namely, what are these facets of? how are they connected? A flexible engagement with the problematic of hegemony can provide insight into these questions and into forms of domination and inequality in our era.

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