24.30, Review: Discourse Analysis; Sociolinguistics: Scollon, Scollon, & Jones (2012)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-24-30. Tue Jan 08 2013. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 24.30, Review: Discourse Analysis; Sociolinguistics: Scollon, Scollon, & Jones (2012)

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Date: Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:32:14
From: Kristen Michelson [kmichels at email.arizona.edu]
Subject: Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-2479.html

Author: Ronald  Scollon
Author: Suzanne Wong  Scollon
Author: Rodney H. Jones
Title: Intercultural Communication
Subtitle: A Discourse Approach
Series Title: Language in Society
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Year: 2012

Reviewer: Kristen E Michelson, University of Arizona


In this third edition of “Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach”,
Scollon, Scollon, and Jones expand upon the framework initially put forward by
Scollon and Scollon in 1995 and carried out in a second edition in 2001, which
introduces and develops the concept of “discourse systems” as a way to get
beyond the culture-equals-nation problem imposed by the term “culture”. Rather
than “culture”, the authors suggest that it is the various discourse systems
into which we have been socialized -- formally or informally -- that influence
our interpersonal communication. “Discourse systems” contain: “ideas and
beliefs about the world, conventional ways of teaching other people, ways of
communicating using various kinds of texts, media, and ‘languages’, and
methods of learning how to use these other tools” (p. 8). Like others
(Verschueren, 2008; Matsumoto, 2010), Scollon, Scollon, and Jones strive to
avoid essentialist notions of culture and do so by: 1) developing a
culture-general approach with an intricately woven macro-paradigm through
which to understand communication, and 2) substituting the term “culture” with
the term “discourse systems” as a way to avoid the frequent associations of
culture with ethnicity or national origin. They nuance their understanding of
discourse systems through careful articulation and reiteration of the fact
that their descriptions are not of groups of people, but rather abstract
systems in which people participate. In other words, they are not interested
in discourse communities, but rather in discourse systems. Unlike much of the
literature on intercultural communication where the focus is on communication
breakdowns between interlocutors, and often attributed to problems with the
linguistic code (see Spencer-Oatey et al., 2012), Scollon, Scollon and Jones
are interested in the underlying factors which mediate communication.

The first half of the book begins with chapters on functions of language and
on elements of discourse systems, while the latter half contains a series of
chapters on specific discourse systems. In the first chapter, “What is a
Discourse Approach?”, the authors begin by acknowledging the many definitions
and connotations of ‘discourse’, noting that their own work draws primarily
upon the Foucauldian notion of “orders of discourse” and Gee’s (2011) notion
of “Discourses with a capital D” (p. 8). This leads to the foundation of their
argument: that Discourses are cultural toolkits employed in social
interactions for the purposes of communicating who we are, as well as what we
presume about others and the groups to which they belong. Chapter 2 includes a
discussion of speech acts, speech events, and speech contexts, emphasizing the
point that knowledge of context shapes and helps our understanding of speaker
meaning. In Chapter 3, the authors discuss two sides of face strategies
(involvement and independence), give examples of how these are instantiated in
specific discourse styles, and describe three face systems: deference,
solidarity, and hierarchy. Chapter 4 focuses on conversational inference,
adjacency sequences, and cohesive devices such as reference (pronouns),
schemata (grammar of context), prosodic patterning (intonation and timing),
and conversational inference.

Chapters 5-8 each focus on one of the four main elements of discourse systems
that cut across all cultures proposed by the authors: face systems, forms of
discourse, socialization, and ideology. Chapter 5 focuses on inductive vs.
deductive discourse patterns in spoken and written discourse, with a view
toward how certain preferences for one or the other relate to involvement
strategies, politeness, and face work. In Chapter 6 the authors further unpack
the four universal elements of their framework of discourse systems against
the backdrop of the notion of ideologies. They illustrate these through a
detailed description of the Utilitarian discourse system (AKA the “discourse
system of ‘global capitalism’”, p. 112), tracing the origins of this system
from the Enlightenment through Bentham and Mill. They continue with a
description of the Confucian discourse system and its roots in Chinese
philosophy. The focus in Chapter 7 is on forms of discourse. The authors draw
a distinction between various purposes of communication (information
conveyance or relationship maintenance), and map these values onto the two
discourse systems they have outlined in the previous chapter. They proceed to
outline six theories of communication in the Utilitarian discourse system:
anti-rhetorical, positivist-empirical, deductive, individualistic,
egalitarian, and public (i.e., institutionally sanctioned), and conclude with
discussions of multimodal communication and the notion of emplacement. Chapter
8 focuses on both informal and formal modes of socialization, noting that
socialization into a discourse system is always partial and participation is
always peripheral.

Chapters 9 through 11 focus on specific discourse systems, the first of which
-- corporate and professional discourse -- is situation-bound, while the
latter two -- generational, and gender and sexuality discourses -- are
identity-bound. Throughout these chapters the authors make a point to
reiterate that individuals simultaneously belong to multiple discourse
systems. In the chapter on professional discourse (Chapter 9), attention is on
management systems, organizational vs. individual goals, and participation and
apprenticeship. The chapter on generational discourse (Chapter 10) affords an
opportunity to reiterate the distinction between voluntary and involuntary
discourse systems, and proceeds with an overview of the historico-cultural
events influencing the discourse systems of certain age groups of people who
have grown up in the US and China, respectively. The chapter on sexuality and
gender discourse (Chapter 11) provides a context in which to discuss notions
of performativity, to problematize the “difference” approach to intercultural
communication, and finally, to reiterate the point that communication does not
merely stem from who we are, but rather what we are trying to do in a
particular moment in terms of the identities we are asserting and the
relationships we are negotiating or ratifying.

The final chapter, “Doing ‘Intercultural Communication’”, serves as a
synthesis chapter, discusses dangers of stereotyping and othering, and
finally, reiterates the notion presented in Chapter 1 of intercultural
communication as mediated action.

The most obvious structural change since the previous edition is the inclusion
of the end-of-chapter syntheses, discussion questions, and references for
further study, all of which enhance this book’s pedagogical utility. The
foundational theoretical framework remains intact, including treatment of the
same four elements of discourse systems, and the same three specific discourse
systems. Much of the content has been rearranged, however, and the resulting
chapter reorganization serves to better elucidate the components of the
framework. A vast amount of new content appears in the form of a more thorough
presentation and discussion of the Confucian discourse system in the chapters
on Ideologies in Discourse (Chapter 6) and Generational Discourse (Chapter
10), inclusion of new digital modes of communication, expansion of the
participants under consideration in the discussion of generational discourse,
and finally, development of a more inclusive discussion on sexuality and
gender discourse that attempts to move beyond binary gender categories.
Finally, other more subtle yet important modifications include the
substitution of examples (e.g., replacing the discussion of a discourse system
of an ESL teacher in the second edition with that of a corporate context).

Although the actual authors of this third edition are Suzanne Wong Scollon and
Rodney Jones, Ron Scollon’s own work is appropriately honored posthumously
through official attribution to him as first author of this edition. Further,
the chapter on forms of discourse and its attendant discussion on authorship
provide a natural in-text moment to further pay him tribute.

In framing their argument in terms of discourse systems, Scollon, Scollon, and
Jones are able to focus on the deeper, underlying universal values affecting
ways of relating and communicating interpersonally. The continuous maintenance
of this same heuristic throughout the book works quite well; the use of the
notion of discourse systems to overcome the problematic connotations of
“culture” presents a discerning and compelling argument. The entire book is
effectively cohesive with the authors reweaving key concepts throughout (e.g.,
relating politeness strategies to deductive and inductive rhetorical styles).
Proposals are supported with clear examples, such as the illustration of a
scene in which a father rejects his son’s offer to pay his taxi fare, and the
way in which people participating in different discourse systems
differentially interpret this scene.

As mentioned, Scollon, Scollon, and Jones endeavor to present a
culture-general framework, rather than a culture-specific paradigm a la
Hofstede (1980). It seems that at times, however, they do have to get specific
in order to illustrate their argument, and when they do, they fall into the
essentialist trap. For example, in describing ideologies and discourse
(Chapter 6) they explain features of the Utilitarian and the Confucian
discourse systems, ascribing certain ways of doing things to each of these
systems. The geographical situatedness of these respective systems makes it
hard to avoid conclusions of a culture-specific “East-West” dichotomy in spite
of the constant reminders to the reader that “there is nothing inherently
‘Chinese’ or ‘American’ about these patterns” (p. 93). Nevertheless, the
authors are quite aware -- and indeed acknowledge overtly -- that their own
argument is not entirely immune to essentialization and reification, and once
again, specificity seems inevitable in order to explain the components of the
framework. Indeed, an East-West focus permeates many of the examples in the
book, such as in the chapter on corporate and professional discourse where the
authors say that: “…as these (multinational) corporations extend their
operations throughout the world, they seek employees from the countries in
which they are operating. In many cases those potential employees have not
received primary socialization into the Utilitarian discourse system… Outside
of these schools they have been enculturated, for example, into an ideology
such as the Confucian one, which places a strong emphasis on interpersonal and
familial relationships” (p. 189).

The authors state at the outset that this book is intended for students
interested in learning more about corporate and professional discourse, and
indeed their content as well as their overall proposal seems appropriate for
their intended audience. The ultimate emphasis on the Utilitarian discourse
system frames their argument in economic, corporate terms, and the many
examples of speech situations include conversations which would take place in
a professional workplace setting. This book is most likely to resonate with
those in international business or international business communication,
although the simultaneous breadth and depth of the work and the inclusion of
such voices in the conversation as Vygotstky, Hofstede, Hall, Goffman,
Gumperz, Hymes, Foucault, Bourdieu, Lave and Wenger, Cameron, and so many
others, renders this an equally interesting book for students in applied

Assuming a more novice audience, the lack of in-text citations at certain
points may be missing key opportunities for learners to begin to attribute
specific ideas to their original authors. However, the “References for Further
Study” at the end of each chapter are quite helpful, and these sections offer
concise and useful overviews for those seeking to pursue any of the lines of
thought presented.

Overall, the paradigm presented throughout the now three iterations of this
book remains a remarkably insightful way to conceptualize factors influencing
communication, or, in the authors’ own terms, factors mediating communication.
By focusing on common denominators of all human life (ideologies, forms of
discourse, socialization, and face systems) Scollon, Scollon, and Jones
successfully arrive at a culture-neutral heuristic that can be used in any
instance of interpersonal (and thus, intercultural) communication.


Gee, J. (2011). An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method,
Third Edition. London: Routledge.

Hofstede, G. H. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in
work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Matsumoto, D. (2010). Introduction. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), APA Handbook of
Intercultural Communication (pp. ix-xv). Washington, DC: American
Psychological Association.

Spencer-Oatey, H., Işik-Güler, H., and Stadler, S. (2012). Intercultural
Communication. In Gee, J. P., & Handford, M. (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of
Discourse Analysis (pp. 572-586). London: Routledge.

Verschueren, J. (2008). Intercultural Communication and the Challenges of
Migration. Language and Intercultural Communication, 8(1), 21-35.


Kristen Michelson is a third year doctoral student in Second Language
Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona. Her research interests
center around SLA in study abroad, development of intercultural competence,
multiliteracies approaches to culture and language teaching, teaching French
as a foreign language, language use in intercultural encounters, and
discursive and semiotic representations of cultural patterns through a wide
variety of media, most notably digital spaces and literature.

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