Book Review: Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event


“Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event” by Stanton Wortham and Angela Reyes is about using a new approach to discourse analysis that draws primarily from linguistic anthropology. It emphasizes the importance of analyzing the pathways across linked events in order to understand social processes such as learning and socialization. The authors argue that “[i]n order for discourse analysis to be a useful method for studying social processes …, it must uncover how people, signs, knowledge, dispositions and tools travel from one event to another and facilitate behavior in subsequent events” (p.1). The intended audience are students and researchers who are already familiar with discourse analysis. The authors clearly present the tools and techniques of discourse analysis applied to a range of data including data from classroom observations, historical artifacts, and internet-mediated communication.

Chapter 1 ‘Discourse analysis across events’ introduces the approach to discourse analysis through an example from a ninth grade classroom of mostly African-American students in an urban American high school. The authors make a distinction between the terms ‘narrated event’ and ‘narrating event’. Narrated event is what is being talked about, and narrating event is the activity of talking about the event/s. For example, interactions among students and teacher make up the narrating event, while the topic of discussion is the narrated event. The narrating events that are linked through recurring patterns form a pathway in which the analyst examines patterns within individuals events, and across linked events over time.

Through several segments of classroom interaction, the authors introduce key terms used to analyze discrete events, as well as the steps to examine patterns across events. Some of the key terms include indexicals, voicing, evaluations, positioning and actions. The authors show through their analysis how social action is accomplished through language use – and in this case, how teachers and students exclude and discipline a particular student. Thus discourse analysis across speech events combines within-events and cross-events analyses to understand social processes such as learning.

Chapter 2 ‘Central tools and techniques’ elaborates on the authors’ approach to discourse analysis. This chapter clarifies the authors’ primary focus on “how participants establish relationships with others, they position themselves interactionally, perform social actions and evaluate both others and the social world” (p. 41). The authors elaborate on the three phases of discourse analysis. Phase 1 focuses on mapping narrated events, which means identifying characters, objects and events that participants refer to as they speak to one another. In order to map a narrated event, the analyst needs to look at grammar, lexicon and the sociocultural context. Phase 2 is an iterative process of establishing the meaning of signs through selecting, construing and configuring indexicals. Finally, in Phase 3, the analyst engages in drawing conclusions about the positioning of participants and interpreting the social action occurring in the narrating event. Phase 2, in particular, employs concepts found in linguistic anthropology such as voicing (Agha, 2005), entextualization (Silverstein, 1976), and enregisterment (Agha, 2007).

The chapter illustrates the procedure for discourse analysis with different classroom examples, this time, focusing on instances of crying ‘racist’. Through the analysis, the authors demonstrate how understanding the sociocultural context of crying ‘racist’ in the mass media, and linking it to the analysis of the classroom events, lead them to the conclusion that the instances are best understood as being humorous instead of serious.

Chapter 3 ‘Discourse analysis of ethnographic data’ applies discourse analysis to ethnographic data such as interview transcripts, recordings of naturally occurring events, and documents. In using discourse analysis on ethnographic data, the goal of the researcher is to record potentially linked events over time and across different settings and subsequently “identify which events are in fact linked into pathways through which consequential social action occurs” (p. 73). The chapter refers to two ethnographic case studies in which data was collected from classroom settings over a period of one year. Analysis was based on transcribed audio recordings of classroom events, and supported by the researcher’s observational notes and sociocultural meanings of the classroom and the broader context.

The challenges of using ethnographic data to conduct discourse analysis across speech events are i) the researcher must record numerous events in the settings being studied over an extended period of time; and ii) the researcher cannot tell in advance which events are significant although he/she can predict certain topics that might be relevant in the long term. The authors stress the importance of collecting as much data as possible as the analysis is dependant on “pathways of linked events that together accomplish social actions” (p. 109).

In Chapter 4 ‘Discourse analysis of archival data’, the author’s model of discourse analysis is applied to archival data used in two existing discourse analytic studies, one on Japanese women’s language and the other on Irish English accent. The archival data used in the studies differed in their sources. While much of the data was taken from print media, including visual images, in one study, three books were referred to in the other study. The authors thus demonstrate that discourse analysis beyond the speech event can be applied to a wide range of data sources from historical materials.

Drawing from material used in the study on Japanese women’s language, the authors present a pathway across three narrating events across a long temporal space; the three events were based on publications dated 1888, 1907 and 1908. While separated by historical distance, the events share several features such as referring to the same linguistic style spoken by Japanese schoolgirls, characterizing such speech negatively, and giving similar historical accounts of where the speech originated and how it spread. In a subsequent set of events, the authors similarly demonstrate how the negatively evaluated linguistic style took on a positive meaning as seen in print advertisements from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.

In analyzing the material used in the study on Irish English accent, the authors trace a pathway of four events from publications of 1802 and 1910. Focusing on evaluative indexicals and voicing in the data, the authors demonstrate how speakers of Irish English who make language and pronunciation mistakes are contrasted with superior speakers who do not make such mistakes. The authors further conclude that the readers of the publication are invited to align themselves with the superior characters and make fun of the mistakes. In two events taken from contemporary publications, the authors similarly analyze how Irish English is construed as ignorant and humourous, again pointing out that readers of the publications are enlisted to laugh at the mistakes.

The authors point out some key differences between analyses of ethnographic and archival data. In ethnographic studies, participants are often the same in different narrating events. In archival data, because of the historical scale, participants often change from one event to another. In addition, ethnographic studies focus on relatively few linked events in a pathway, while archival studies involve a larger set of events. Thus the challenge of engaging in discourse analysis of historical artifacts is to choose events from a very large set of potentially relevant events.

Chapter 5 ‘ Discourse analysis of new media data’ focuses on discourse analysis of new media such as email, blogs, and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The authors apply their model of discourse analysis to recent studies of new media, one focusing on a YouTube video and the comments posted in response to it, and one that traces the recontextualization of stock storyline elements in music videos.

The case study on a YouTube video and its comments focused on how the YouTube performance indexed African American culture or ‘blackness’, and how the subsequent comments demonstrated whether viewers aligned themselves with the performer or not. Using data from the case study, the authors highlight the indexical cues that take the form of nonstandard pronunciation and orthography, emoticons, and abbreviations that contributed to an understanding of the viewers’ attitudes toward the YouTube performer’s interpretation of blackness.

In the study of storylines in music videos, the authors focus on the comparison of two music videos that employed stock storyline elements. In the analysis of videos, images and non-verbal communication form a substantial part of the data. The authors make two important points about the music videos. One, the use of stock storylines demonstrates how the two videos establish a pathway across a genre of music videos, and yet differ in their treatment of the storyline elements. While one video simply replicates the the stock storyline, the other creates self-reflexive distance by “juxtapos[ing] stock and contrasting elements to produce ironic commentary” (p. 169). This analysis is further supported by the commentaries on the videos. Two, the self-reflexive music video and the previous YouTube performance video on blackness together form another pathway that “perform ‘ironic blankness’ and position themselves as clever and self-aware” (p. 169). These two different pathways thus show how discourse analysis beyond the speech event can account for media that are separated from one another in time and space.

In Chapter 6 ‘Conclusions,’ The authors conclude their four primary contributions to discourse analysis by applying discourse analysis beyond the speech event:
A systematic method for doing discourse analysis of discrete speech events based on existing linguistic anthropological concepts;
Moving from discrete and recurring types of events to cross-event patterns;
Using pathways of linked events to demonstrate social action; and
A productive approach that can be employed in different ways for different data.
The rest of the chapter goes on to elaborate on their primary contributions.

The final point made by the authors is that their approach to discourse analysis beyond the speech event circumvents the issues surrounding conceptualizing discourse analysis as focusing on either micro or macro processes. Instead, discourse analysis beyond the speech event “uncover[s] intermediate-scale regularities that take shape across pathways of linked events, … allow[ing] us to capture the heterogeneity of relevant resources from various scales” (p. 182).


The authors of “Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event” have achieved their goal of communicating a systematic method of discourse analysis by detailing the processes and demonstrating how their analytical approach can be applied to different types of data. What was most impressive about the approach was its productivity across dissimilar data (i.e. ethnographic, archival, new media) and contexts (i.e. classroom, history, internet communication).

The intended audience is supposed to be advanced students and researchers working in the area of discourse analysis methods. Since discourse analysis spans various disciplinary fields, and the authors adopt particular analytical terms, readers may find the book on the outset somewhat alienating if they are not familiar with the particular terms used. However, the authors take care to define key terms and illustrate the use of such terms through examples and thorough analysis of the examples. Students and researchers with a background in linguistic anthropology will probably be more familiar with the concepts and terms used since the approach is based on linguistic anthropology.

Overall, the authors present a robust methodology that aims to uncover how participants accomplish various social actions. It is hoped that future research employing discourse analysis will consider what the authors have to offer.


Agha, Asif. 2005. Voice, footing, enregisterment. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 38-59.

Agha, Asif. 2007. Language and social relations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Shifters, linguistic categories, and cultural description. In Keith Basso & Henry Selby (eds.) Meaning and anthropology, 11-55. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

This review was originally published on The Linguist List.

Lee, S. (2015). Review: Anthropological Ling; Discourse: Wortham, Reyes (2014) [Review of the book Discourse Analysis beyond the speech event]. The Linguist List. Retrieved from


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