Discursive transitions, emotional displays and silences: a multimodal approach to exploring narrative spaces of self-production

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


In the paper I present I will discuss my use of a multimodal approach to undertaking life history narrative (LHN) interviews. The interviews were conducted in North West England as part of a three year research project exploring the career progression and professional experiences of qualified teachers engaged in postgraduate study designed to enhance provision for pupils aged 5-18 with special educational needs. The theoretical stance taken is interpretivist; I seek to explore how the meanings attached to phenomena or practices are constructed and enacted locally. A seminal writer in this area is Goffman (1974:10) who suggests that research should investigate basic “frameworks of understanding” to study how meaning is constructed by individuals through talk and action. The work of Goffman has been extended and applied by Silverman (1997:82) who identifies talk as producing a shared social reality “as speakers modify and embellish each other’s accounts”. The work of Goffman and Silverman suggests that interview transcripts can be studied to explore how people communicate their view of the world and themselves as they talk about their experiences, offer opinions or express emotions. I engage with this idea to consider how the multimodal communication that occurs within a LHN interview can produce a shared reality. Undertaking narrative interviews entwines theory and method in that it encourages the researcher to think about the temporal and social context of the events being described, and the temporal and social context of the interview within which the stories are chosen and narrated. It enables an investigation of how individuals draw upon “narrative resources” to tell particular stories at certain moments in time (Burns and Bell, 2011:4). My implementation of narrative research draws on the approach advocated by Clandinin and Connelly (2000) who undertake LHN interviews to think through how such methods “render life experiences, both personal and social, in relevant and meaningful ways” (Connelly and Clandinin, 1990:10). However, while much narrative research focuses on what interviewees say about a topic, my intention is to look at the interaction between interviewer and interviewee, in order to explore how contradictory perspectives can be explored through “jointly developed narratives” (Webster and Mertova, 2007:20). These narratives can be figured as simultaneously real and constructed. Campbell and McNamara (2007:100) comment: “(narratives are) reconstructed in the sense that there are real people with lived experiences and identities that replicate and authenticate the narrative accounts of the characters who inhabit the apocryphal tales”. Rather than focus on research questions relating to the topics discussed in the interviews aspects of which I have already published (see Woolhouse, 2015) , my focus in the paper will be to consider the questions: • What can the context and style of communication, rather than the content reveal? • What can I learn as a researcher from reflecting upon the use of multimodal interviews? To answer these questions I draw together a multimodal visual method with social semiotics to analyse the production of meaning and to focus upon self-positioning and emphasise individual agency. Multimodal approaches are advocated by Kress and van Leeuwen (2001) who argue that these methods go beyond the linguistic and can encompass, for example, the use of images, spatiality, tactile experience etc. As Kress (2011:237) points out; “multimodality focuses on the material means for representation; the resources for making texts (and thus meaning) … that go beyond language”. Methods (263/300) My interest has been on developing a multimodal approach which invites interviewees to do something physical in addition to thinking and talking and to facilitate recollection and engagement. I ask interviewees to draw a ‘life history’ line on a piece of paper to mark out the events or experiences that they want to discuss in whatever way they choose. The act of drawing the line to accompany discussion requires the interviewees to do something physical, acting as a memory aid by involving the body in a form of tactile remembering. This invites personal involvement through emotional resonance and can enable individuals to recall experiences that may have happened many years ago. In the presentation I will discuss my data and experiences relating to using a multimodal research methodology to consider how the context and style of this approach involves producing jointly developed life history narratives through which the interviewer as well as the interviewee might (re)construct self-identity. I specifically focus on two aspects of textual analysis. Firstly, I explore ‘discursive transitions’, which I identify as moments within an interview where an interviewee switches the topic, content and/or style of their talk. Secondly I consider the moments of tension created by emotional displays, pauses or extended occurrences of silence. I am framing these transitions, displays and silences as productive narrative spaces that occur between two people. They are productive because as narratives are shared and jointly reworked, space for the individuals to narrate themselves into existence is created. These productive narrative spaces make apparent a process by which “the individual constitutes and recognises him (or her) self qua subject” (Foucault, 1992:6). It has been suggested that events in a persons’ life are drawn together through talk, metaphorically and literally, creating a temporal anchor for the events and for the effect they have on the (re)construction of identity. This narrating of the self is complex, but is a way for individuals to invite others to understand them, because the stories they tell “frame meanings that allow complex events, feelings and experiences to be captured, recounted, authored and re-authored” (Gaudilli and Ousley, 2009:933). Discussion and conclusions (348/300) I feel that the discursive transitions, displays of emotion and silences are particularly significant because they demonstrate how the narratives being told are under construction. They are not be fully formed but are being produced in a process of communication, where links between past and present, personal and professional are forged. As Bruner (2006:131) argues “narrative gives us the power to structure perceptual experience, to organise memory, to segment and purpose build the very events of a life”. What is important in terms of thinking about LHN interviewing, is that the narrative spaces illustrate that the experiences and events recounted are deeply personal, act to (re)construct identities, and are not pre-determined cover stories. In reflecting upon the experience of conducting LHN interviews, I feel they are events of meaningful exchange that connect individuals. They can be thought of as forms of embodied self-expression through which individuals construct the moral universe they inhabit and justify the opinions they hold. In particular, it is during moments of discursive transition, emotional displays and silences that the active, temporal (re)construction of self-identity is highlighted, and it is these, not just the content of what is said, that are worthy of detailed analysis. The productive narrative spaces I discuss are particularly important because I have found that these are the moments that highlight the issues and challenges that individuals face. While these moments might feel like an awkward experience for a researcher, in the case of my research they enabled me to witness the difficulties those with educational needs face and so attest to changes that might be made.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 11 Sep 2015
EventEuropean Educational Research Association (EERA) European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) - Budapest University, Budapest, Hungary
Duration: 1 Sep 2015 → …


ConferenceEuropean Educational Research Association (EERA) European Conference on Educational Research (ECER)
Period1/09/15 → …

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    Woolhouse, C. (Accepted/In press). Discursive transitions, emotional displays and silences: a multimodal approach to exploring narrative spaces of self-production. Paper presented at European Educational Research Association (EERA) European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), Budapest, Hungary. http://www.eera-ecer.de/ecer-2015-budapest/