Anna-Malin Karlsson

Multimodality – a theory-dependent standpoint or a common sense view on communication? 

Social semiotics has a proud tradition of multimodal analysis and theorizing, based partly on Halliday’s systemic-functional model of language and grammar. Whether this results in a language-biased approach to multimodality can be (and has been) discussed. However, it is clear that a systemic mindset, where meaning-making  is construed as organized by strata, metafunctions and more or less distinct modes, differs from a more purely interactional and emic approach, such as the ethnomethodological (eg. Goodwin 2000, Mondada 2007). Another theoretical paradigm where multimodality is central is Mediated Discourse Analysis (eg. Norris 2004). Here, the nexus of meaning-making and the historical body of meaning-makers are foregrounded, rather than the interplay between modes and their potentials. 

Understanding multimodal meaning-making seems difficult without theory, or at least without theoretical assumptions about what meaning-making is about. Furthermore, multimodal approaches to discourse have in many cases emerged as a development of existing theories of language, communication or social interaction. This has resulted in parallel strands of multimodal research, with very little contact in between. 

In this talk, the similarities and differences between systemic, ethnomethodological and socio-historical approaches to multimodality will be explored, and the affordances of the different theoretical assumptions to provide explanations and solutions will be tested on authentic communicative cases. Is there a potential for building a theoretically eclectic multimodal field, based on similar-enough standpoints and concurrent empirical findings? Would a less theoretically rigid and more ‘common sense’ conception of multimodality facilitate multidisciplinary and practice-based collaboration, and even strengthen a general multimodal conception of communication? 



Goodwin, Charles. 2000. Action and embodiment within situated human interaction. Journal of Pragmatics 32.10: 1489–1522. 

Mondada, Lornza. 2007. Multimodal resources for turn-taking: pointing and the emergence of possible next speakers. Discourse Studies, 9(2), s. 194–225. 

Norris, Sigrid. 2004. Analyzing multimodal interaction: A methodological framework. London: Routledge.