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Listening for Identity Beyond the Speech Event

by Stanton Wortham - 2010

Background: A typical account of listening focuses on cognition, describing how a listener understands and reacts to the cognitive contents of a speaker�s utterance. The articles in this issue move beyond a cognitive view, arguing that listening also involves moral, aesthetic, and political aspects.

Focus of Study: This article attends to all four dimensions but focuses on the political. I argue that listening requires attention to the social identities inevitably communicated through speech. My account of �listening for identity� moves beyond typical approaches by construing listening as a collective, public process, not one located in an individual listener�s mental states. To listen is to respond sensibly to others, such that participants can build a coherent interaction. Once we adopt this pragmatic account of listening, we must acknowledge that listening requires attention to patterns beyond the event of listening itself. Some of the signs and behaviors that cohere to form an instance of listening depend for their meaning on patterns from outside the event of listening. In addition to arguing that we listen for identity, then, I also argue that we must �listen beyond the speech event.�

Setting: The case study presented in this article comes from a yearlong study of a ninth-grade English and history class in an urban American school that served ethnically diverse working-class children.

Research Design: The research involved 3 years of ethnographic research in an urban American high school, 1 year of intensive ethnographic research in the classroom described, and discourse analyses of 50 hours of recorded conversation from this classroom.

Conclusions: Speakers inevitably identify themselves and others when they talk, and this identification can only be successful if people listen and respond in appropriate ways. We certainly listen for the cognitive contents communicated by speech, but we also listen for the identities established through speech. The two central claims made in this article and illustrated by the case study are that we inevitably listen for identity and that listening requires attention to patterns beyond the speech event.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 11, 2010, p. 2850-2873
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15796, Date Accessed: 9/26/2020 5:15:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Stanton Wortham
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    STANTON WORTHAM is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. His research applies techniques from linguistic anthropology to study interactional positioning and social identity development in classrooms. He is particularly interested in interrelations between the official curriculum and covert interactional patterns in classroom discourse. He has also studied interactional positioning in media discourse and autobiographical narrative. Publications include Narratives in Action (Teachers College Press, 2001), Education in the New Latino Diaspora (Ablex, 2002; coedited with Enrique Murillo and Edmund Hamann), Linguistic Anthropology of Education (Praeger, 2003, coedited with Betsy Rymes), Learning Identity (Cambridge, 2006), and Bullish on Uncertainty (Cambridge, 2009, with Alexandra Michel). More information about his work can be found at http://www.gse.upenn.edu/~stantonw.
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