Book review: Language in Late Modernity

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 21 15:56:05 UTC 2007

Language in Late Modernity: Interaction in an Urban School
Series Title: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics, 22
Author: Ben Rampton, 2006
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

reviewed by Louisa Willoughby, Monash University.

In this analysis of linguistic practices and interaction at one
multi-ethnic London high school, Rampton both provides important new data
on the nature of interaction in contemporary classes and demonstrates how
a careful analysis of seemingly 'everyday' talk and practices can
contribute to debate and understanding in such diverse areas as
anthropology, sociology and education. As with much of his previous work
(e.g. Rampton 1995), data for this book come primarily from radio
microphone recordings, supplanted by ethnographic observation at the
school and interviews with participants. In this case, four students at
the school wore radio microphones for 3-4 hours of around 3 days each,
yielding data about their social and classroom interactions in both class
and break times. While the small sample base might be seen to limit the
validity or relevance of Rampton's findings, the book is as much a
theoretical exploration of what these extracts of talk say about wider
social processes as it is an analysis of the specific situation at hand.
As such, it is a book more for the reader interested in how social theory
can be woven into and developed out of sociolinguistic analysis rather
than those looking for a more traditional linguistic ethnography of the
school environment (such as Eckert 2000 or Heller 1999).


The book is divided into five parts, and further into ten chapters. Part I
consists of the introduction, which reviews important themes and
background information for the rest of the book. As part of this
contextualisation, it provides a review of major debates and policy
directions in UK education over the 30 years before moving to review of
key tenets of post-structuralist thought in social and linguistics theory.
The chapter closes with a review of the volumes key research questions and
an explanation of the project's methodology and Rampton's reasons for
choosing an interactional sociolinguistics approach to these questions.

Part II ''Urban classroom discourse'' contains two chapters -- ''Talk in
class at Central High'' and ''Popular culture in the classroom''-- firmly
focussed on interaction in the classroom. Chapter two ''Talk in class at
Central High'' analyses how the traditional initiation-response-evaluation
(IRE)  model of teacher-student interaction is implemented and subverted
in the classrooms at Central High. While teachers in the UK are under
increasing curriculum pressure to implement IRE strategies in the
classroom, Rampton shows how the teachers at Central High negotiate a
teaching strategy that both mirrors and subverts aspects of the
traditional IRE framework and allows for a more democratic approach for
classroom interaction. This strategy is shown to work in ways that
acknowledges, and indeed encourages the participation of a number of
hyper-involved and somewhat unruly boys, but at the same time further
silences and marginalises some of the less-engaged female students.

Chapter 3 shifts the analysis to pop cultural references, and specifically
music allusions in the classroom. The chapter takes as its premise
theories that media in late modernity entering is entering classrooms and
subverting traditional authority structures. Through comparison with
another school in a middle class area, Rampton shows that students at the
more working Central High sing much more in class, and generally have much
noisier classrooms, however he questions the extent to which this results
in subversion of authority, or at least radially different forms of
subversion to those seen in the past. In analysing the instances in which
students sing or make reference to songs in class he shows the varied
social functions served by these musical allusions, and that while music
is generally marginal to the 'official' goings on in the class, its
function is similar to chatting and other very well-established forms of
student rebellion in the classroom.

Part III ''Performances of Deutsch'' expands on ideas previously published
in Rampton (1999), which somewhat strangely is neither acknowledged in the
main text nor listed in the bibliography. The two chapters -- ''Deutsch as
improvised performance'' and ''Ritual in the instruction and inversion of
German'' -- explore students' incidental use of German (the school's
compulsory foreign language) outside the language classroom, and why these
students, who were quite reluctant to speak in foreign language class,
chose to make use of German outside the classroom (Rampton terms this
second form Deutsch to distinguish it from classroom German). The use of
Deutsch at the school turned out to be a passing fad that most
participants had forgotten about when reinterviewed a year or so later,
but Rampton shows that while it lasted it was most frequently used in
ritualised verbal interactions (such as thanks or giving orders) and
particularly at moments where interaction was actually or potentially
problematic -- such as when classroom order has broken down. However,
Rampton finds that there is no specific association between Deutsch and
ritualised language -- rather Deutsch is but one of the language varieties
that students draw on in ''ritually pregnant moments'' (p170).

In explaining the use of Deutsch Rampton draws extensively of
anthropological theories of ritual and performance (cf. Goffman 1967,
Turner 1969, 1982). He notes that the audiolingual methods employed by the
German teacher creates a highly ritualised classroom environment, where
the teacher is constantly trying (but rarely succeeding) to get her
students into a state of ''flow''. In this light, the use of Deutsch is
seen as, at least in part, an inversion of the rituals of the German
classes -- a way of acting out some of their frustrations and unease at
the way their lessons were conducted.

Part IV ''The stylisation of social class'' seeks to understand the
processes and meaning involved when students adopt (exaggerated) cockney
and posh accents in their interactions. A particular interest of Rampton's
over these chapters is whether class is still a meaningful category for
these post-modern students. In exploring this area, he builds his argument
over four chapters. Chapter 6 ''Language and class I: theoretical
orientations'' lays the groundwork for the rest of the analysis, covering
such as aspects as what is meant by social class and stylisation, how
class might manifest itself in interaction, and how we might explore the
stylisation of class from a sociolinguistic perspective. Chapter 7
''Language and class II:  empirical preliminaries'' provides further
background, this time focussing on the informants themselves. As a
precursor for identifying potential stylisations of cockney and posh,
Rampton explores the features of students' everyday speech and the degree
to which their speech becomes more/less standard-like depending on the
formality of the situation (e.g.  talking with peers vs. orals in class).
He then sets up the criteria which he uses in judging a particular
instance of language use to be stylised;  namely that the utterance ''be
linked to some kind of change of footing, or minor shift in key in the
flow of activity on hand'' (p. 261), and involve a use of features
typically associated with posh/Cockney that appeared (on the basis of the
author's intuition) to be outside the students usual speech repertoire.

Chapters 8 and 9 -- ''Schooling, class and stylisation'' and ''Classed
subjectivities in interaction'' -- explore how stylisation is used in
practice at Central High. Students are shown to play with these varieties
in a number of different ways, for example using Cockney to scold fellow
students who are misbehaving or posh to mock the speech (and thus the
attitudes) of a disliked teacher. While there is a strong association of
posh with formality and school orientation and Cockney with informality
and peer orientation, both are used in transitions from work to play, and
the connotations of each provide students with ample opportunities to play
with an subvert these associations. Thus one student in particular often
uses cockney when trying to cajole his friends into doing work, while
others deploy posh in part as a way of sending up the seriousness of doing
schoolwork. When used with peers these stylisations were often part of a
wider performance - for example using posh to show mock fear at a threat
or to give a mock denial that one would behave in a 'rude' manner. They
were also clearly linked to performances of the grotesque, and Cockney to
the students' emergent and often crude expressions of their sexuality. As
with much of the book, the complexity of Rampton's argument over these
chapters defies brief summarisation, however it should be noted that he
concludes that the students ''stylisations of posh and Cockney amounted to
far more than a superficial engagement with the class dynamics of English
society''(p. 378). Despite their different ethnic origins and personal
understandings of class, Rampton finds the students continue to
participate in the ''emotive intimacies of class'' and give voice to their
complex understanding of it in their frequent stylisation of posh and

Part V ''Methodological reflections'' closes the book with a single
chapter entitled ''Reflections on generalisation, theory and knowledge
construction''. As the title of this chapter implies, the purpose of this
section is to make transparent many of the reasoning processes behind the
interpretations and theoretical claims made in the book and to make
explicit how other researchers might be able to draw on Rampton's methods
and reasoning in their own research projects. It also acts as a coda to
the book as a whole by reflecting on the extent to which findings from
Central High School can be generalised to other settings.


Language and Late Modernity is a complex book that is more about the
theory than describing the particular reality of life at Central High
School.  Rather than being a comprehensive ethnography of the linguistic
environment of the school (like perhaps Heller 1999 or Eckert 2000), it
takes short extracts of talk largely from the 4 participants wearing radio
microphones and looks to see the underlying processes at work in these
speech events.  The heavy emphasis on theory means the book needs to be
read attentively -- it is not the 'light' read that ethnographies often
are -- however readers are rewarded for their careful reading with a
number of interesting an important theoretical insights. A clear strength
of the book is the way in which the author weaves an enormous breath of
literature from education, cultural studies, sociology and anthropology
into a cohesive and convincing explanation of the linguistic and social
practices he recorded at Central High. While one might not always agree
completely with the interpretations he poses or the way he develops these
theories, as he himself stresses the point of the book is not to present
the one true account of what is going on when people use language in
certain ways, but to explore some of the many different things going on
simultaneously. Thus it is not necessary to accept his analysis at all
times in order to find the book useful and insightful. Having said this
however, I found that in the overwhelming majority of cases Rampton does
an excellent job of weaving his analysis together into a coherent and
useful theoretical perspective that gives insight into processes at
Central High that would likely find resonance in other UK educational

For me, the inclusion of chapter 10 ''Reflections on generalisation,
theory and knowledge construction'' was a particularly welcome addition to
the volume as it acts as something of a ''how to'' guide for drawing
abstract theory out of what might at first glance seem rather
unexceptional interactions. This section will doubtless be of interest to
many graduate students, early career researchers and others looking to
take their own work to a more theoretical level. Through his explicit
discussion of epistemological basis for his work and the degrees to which
he seeks to make claims of wider generalisation, Rampton helps the reader
understand the thought processes guiding his analysis and leaves them
particularly well-positioned to evaluate how well his analysis and
conclusions fit within these stated aims.

Throughout the book, a key interest of the author's is to deconstruct a
number of myths surrounding modern education -- such as modern students no
longer having the ability/attention span to collectively respond to
classroom talk (and particularly teacher demands that students recite what
they have learnt) or ideas that social class is no longer a relevant
identity for contemporary teenagers. While most of these myths would not
be believed by serious scholars working in education in the first place,
Rampton's careful and painstaking deconstruction of these myths serves as
an interesting and well executed lesson in logic and rhetoric and how
academics can use seemingly minor findings from their own research to poke
powerful holes in popular discourse. For those of us not entirely familiar
with UK education politics and policy these sections also serve as a
useful introduction.

The complexity of the book poses a challenge for the author in how to
handle the many occasions where the text must refer back (or indeed
forward) to examples or theoretical points discussed elsewhere in the
text.  Here the author's general practice is to repeat extracts, quotes
and often summaries of his own analysis -- a practice that was often a
helpful memory aid, but sometimes became annoyingly repetitive. It is
difficult to know if and how this situation might be handled more
efficiently, but the reader with a good memory and/or strong prior
knowledge of the theories being presented may become irritated by this
somewhat repetitive style.

All in all ''Language in Late Modernity'' is an interesting and insightful
monograph that clearly demonstrates the potential of interactional
sociolinguistics as research methodology/approach and adds to a
potentially highly fruitful dialogue between sociolinguistics and cultural
studies as disciplines. As much (if not more so) a book for educators as
linguists, the book covers a wide and eclectic range of topics but manages
to weave this diversity into a coherent whole and provide insights
relevant to a wide range of fields.


Eckert, P. (2000). Linguistic variation as social practice: The linguistic
construction of identity in Belten High. Oxford: Blackwell.

Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Heller, M. (1999). Linguistic minorities and modernity: A sociolinguistic
ethnography. London: Longman.

Rampton, B. (1995). Crossing: Language and ethnicity among adolescents.
London: Longman.

Rampton, B. (1999). Deutsch in Inner London and the animation of an
instructed foreign language. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3:4, 480-504.

Turner, V. 1969. The ritual process. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Turner, V. 1982. From ritualto theatre: The human seriousness of play.
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Louisa Willoughby completed her doctorate with the
Language and Society Centre at Monash University, and now teaches there
and in the Deakin University Education faculty. Her main research interest
is the relationship between identity, language maintenance and schooling,
with her current research focussing on language choice and access to
language education for deaf migrants and their families.

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