Communicative Practices at Work: Multimodality and Learning in a High-Tech Firm

Communicative Practices at Work: Multimodality and Learning in a High-Tech Firm

by Kleifgen


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This book examines communicative practices in a circuit-board manufacturing plant in California's Silicon Valley, where the employees come from diverse ethnolinguistic backgrounds, their activities involve the use of high-tech equipment and their practices are shaped by, and sometimes contest, local and global forces. Analyses of the data show that learning occurs optimally when workers make strategic use of both their home languages and English within an ecology of semiotic systems. The book demonstrates the importance of accounting for multilingual practices in studies of multimodality. Through detailed ethnography it brings the reader to a better understanding of learning-in-practice in work environments, where the complexities and accelerated growth of new technologies along with a globalized world produce new forms of multilingual and multimodal communication.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783090440
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 10/28/2013
Series: Language, Mobility and Institutions Series , #1
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jo Anne Kleifgen is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, USA. Her publications include Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners (with Ofelia García; Teachers College Press, 2010) and Languages of Africa and the Diaspora: Educating for Language Awareness (with George C. Bond; Multilingual Matters, 2009).

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Communicative Practices at Work

Multimodality and Learning in a High-Tech Firm

By Jo Anne Kleifgen

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2013 Jo Anne Kleifgen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-045-7


Introduction: Theorizing Communicative Practices at Work

A word is a territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor Volosinov, 1973: 86

Consider this scene: In a small plant that manufactures circuit boards, a machine operator and his supervisor are working at a computerized assembly machine, which has been programmed to load components on a circuit board. They are under pressure to finish a set of boards that is slated for delivery to the customer by the afternoon. They have just discovered that the machine failed to place three microscopic components to their assigned spaces on the board. This is not good news, as the machine's inability to place these components will slow down the rest of the assembly process.

At this point, the machine operator takes the board to an inspection station where two women are working, and the supervisor asks one of them to inspect the board. As she begins to review the board, the supervisor examines the Bill of Materials (BOM) that the customer submitted for this job and asks her to read aloud the numbers on the board corresponding to the components that now will have to be placed by hand: 'Could you please read the numbers?' Her gaze scans the three locations on the board as she reads, 'Seventeen, twelve, thirteen'. The supervisor, searching for the numbers on the BOM, confirms, 'Seventeen, twelve, thirteen. Is that right?' and the inspector answers 'Yes'. Then, looking up from her sources of information, she turns to the supervisor to verify that these are the only components to be checked: 'Three pieces. Is that right?' 'Yeah', he replies. The supervisor retrieves the components from the machine and gives them to the inspectors, who carefully load them by hand.

One might be tempted to dismiss this as just another humdrum exchange at work. Indeed, this sort of 'trouble-shooting talk' is an everyday occurrence in this company, where workers constantly deal with breakdowns in assembly. Yet, brief interactions such as these deserve a closer look. This book is about looking both within and around such interactions and about the convergence of multimodality, learning, and globalization in the workplace. It examines communicative practices in a contemporary American work setting – a small circuit board assembly plant in California's Silicon Valley – where the employees come from diverse ethnolinguistic backgrounds, their activities involve the use of high-tech equipment and massive amounts of documentation, and their practices are often shaped by, and sometimes contest, larger global forces. One of the things I attempt to show in this book is the various ways in which participants 'learn' through conjoint action, drawing on the array of resources available to them, including their ways of speaking (Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, English) and other semiotic modes of communication (writing, gestures, sounds, images) along with mediating tools (circuit boards, components, software, high-tech machines) to accomplish their tasks. Thus, whereas a number of prior studies have focused on talk at work (Atkinson & Drew, 1984; Drew & Heritage, 1992b; C. Goodwin, 1994, 1995b; Sarangi & Roberts, 1999), literacy at work (Hart-Landsberg & Reder, 1995; Hull, 1997, 2000; Tannock, 1997), learning and cognition at work (Chaiklin & Lave, 1993; Darrah, 1996; Engestrom & Middleton, 1998b) and work and global capitalism (Gee et al. 1996; Gowen, 1992), this volume examines these different facets as they come together in social interaction.

The scene described here is, in many ways, a remarkable achievement. It is steeped in communicative complexity. Language use here is crucial yet is only part of the story. The environment is permeated by tools as well as by different inscriptions, a term first used by Derrida (1977) to refer to all marks – writing, graphs, numbers, blueprints, images – that organize and represent material phenomena. These are all contributing elements to communication and action at work. To account for all these resources, I use the broader term communicative practices to encompass languages and language varieties, spoken as well as written forms, and the use of other semiotic building blocks to construct meaning on the job. The term also implies that meaning-making is highly contextualized and permeated by ideology. This concept is developed in depth by Hanks, who argues that the key elements in communicative practice are linguistic (and other semiotic) structures, communicative activities, and 'the socially specific values that always inform experience' (1996: 304).

Throughout the book, I pay close attention to the complexity of communicative practices at work. For the moment, let us briefly notice the workers' use of multiple resources for communication in this interaction. First, they exchange a few words consisting largely of numbers in their native language (to be elaborated below). Other sign systems they deploy include their embodied actions, such as pointing to the 'problem' locations on the circuit board and taking the board to people at another station for review. In addition, they draw on inscriptions and relevant objects in the work environment by reading aloud available information and scrutinizing both printed documents and the spatial configurations and inscriptions on the partially loaded board. In short, the social interaction is multimodal, with gestural, spoken, written and visual resources all working together to form a communicative whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. I describe this multimodal complexity in greater detail in subsequent chapters.

The scene also evokes other matters that will be explored in this book. For example, though taking place in a specific work context, the participants' talk and actions reflect local – global linkages and tensions. In this interaction, the workers' actions reflect the company's involvement in the broader context of an intensely competitive international market. Many potential customers in Silicon Valley have begun to send their manufacturing to locations abroad. To survive and remain locally relevant, this company must have leading-edge equipment, be able to do a fast turn-around on a job and provide excellent quality control. Employees have a large stake in the success of this firm. The quality of the product determines whether or not the company will win more contracts or simply fold and leave the workers without a job.

The local-global link becomes even more perceptible in this scene's verbal exchanges, for the participants happen to be speaking primarily in Vietnamese, one of several languages spoken on the manufacturing floor. The multilingual character of this talk is testimony to one effect of globalization – people crossing national borders to find work. The Vietnamese speakers in our scenario are immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants to the United States. At work, they form what in workplace parlance is known as a 'natural team'. In this company, workers arrange themselves in groups by ethnolinguistic background and frequently communicate in their native languages while working. We will see that these workers move across teams when needed, and that English becomes the communicative code as urgent tasks are accomplished and deadlines met. At several points in this book, I describe how participants rely on their native languages and cultural practices, and I examine whether and how they are able to shift between these languages and English, the lingua franca, to produce a collaborative and efficacious work environment.

This book will also explore the relations of power circulating in this workplace, which emerge at the local discourse level as well as the broader societal level. In doing this, we focus on the evaluative element of communicative practice. In the scene we have been considering, the supervisor, an older male, and the inspector, a younger female, use person-reference and other Vietnamese forms to display hierarchy and social distance. Through this 'social work', participants effectively manage their 'professional work'. This book looks closely at social positioning among workers as they co-construct collaboration at one moment and hierarchy at another.

At the same time, larger institutions of power have an impact on the interaction in this scene, in which tensions between meeting deadlines and assembling high-quality products are manifested through concerted action to double-check the circuit board and associated documents. Underlying these tensions is the company's relationship with its customers and its long-standing effort to become certified by an international quality-control system that requires the standardization of every manufacturing procedure. The workers in this scene are immersed in an ethos that is highly aware of these pressures. In this book, we will examine not only the power relations flowing from the larger societal level but also the ways in which the workers respond to them.

Finally, the workers' communicative practices allow us to explore learning-in-practice: the pooling of distributed knowledge and learning 'on the fly'. In the scene described above, we are witnessing a 'task activity', something different from an ordinary conversation. To accomplish the task, participants pool knowledge as they fashion and assess an artifact. Through the conjoint actions of the machine operator, the supervisor, and the inspector, an error in the production process is detected and dealt with. The machine operator, upon examining the trial board and noticing that three components are missing, shows the problem to his supervisor. Together, they scrutinize data on the computerized machine and call on the expertise of the quality inspector to help them locate the source of the mistake and come up with a practical alternative. Through the pooling of distributed knowledge, they collaborate to find a solution. In this book, learning at work will be shown to include figuring out together ways of fixing mistakes and breakdowns, showing other workers how to perform a task optimally and devising innovative procedures for production and evaluation. I examine how learning occurs when employees deploy the semiotic resources at their disposal, including the languages that they speak and the ways that these are integrated with written, visual and gestural signs during their work activities. Workers' actions of sharing knowledge and thereby learning something new are illustrated throughout the book as I discuss the notion of learning-in-practice. In the remainder of this chapter, I explore the theoretical underpinnings of this work and then provide a brief overview of the chapters that follow.

Theoretical Underpinnings

The work of Valentin Nikolaevic Volosinov

To establish a theoretical foundation for this book, I rely heavily on the thinking of the early 20th century linguist Valentin Nikolaevic Volosinov (1895-1936), whose central thesis about the nature of language as situated utterance is best expressed in his own words: 'The real unit in language that is implemented in speech ... is not the individual, isolated monologic utterance, but the interaction of at least two utterances – in a word, dialogue' (1973: 117). Volosinov was a key member of a group of intellectuals, who came together after the Russian revolution to form a circle and meet regularly in the 1920s to discuss ideas from various disciplinary perspectives. It was known as the Bakhtin Circle after Mikhail Bakhtin, who presided over the group and is today its most prominent member. This intense period of intellectual fervor was soon to be interrupted under Stalin's consolidation of power (Morris, 1994).

Apart from his writings and his association with Bakhtin and the Circle, little is known about Volosinov's life. He was employed at the Herzen Pedagogical Institute in Leningrad until 1934. It is possible that he was a victim of Stalinist repression; he disappeared from view around that time. Holborow suggests that he 'probably died in the gulags' (2006: 11). Morris (1994) states that he contracted tuberculosis in 1914 and died in 1936 in a sanatorium. We may never know how his life ended; what we do know is that he was a visionary ahead of his time. In the short span of his intellectual career, Volosinov produced powerful ideas about language and ideology that have stood the test of time. Much of my discussion about Volosinov is based on Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (hereafter MPL), which he published in 1929 and which is clearly his most important work, although it received little notice at the time. The work generated new interest when it was translated into English in 1973, after linguist Roman Jakobson called attention to the original Russian version (Morris, 1994; Titunik, 1987). I also draw on Volosinov's earlier book, Freudianism: A Critical Sketch (1987a), which was originally published in 1927.

True to his times, Volosinov used the dialectic approach in MPL to present his arguments about the centrality of language and ideology in social interaction. He argued that the study of language could not be carried out adequately either by what he called 'abstract objectivism' or 'individualistic subjectivism', two competing positions in linguistics at the time. The former, embodied in the structuralist approach of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, was in his view too abstract, focusing on synchronic structures and removed from context of use, where the creative flexibility of language comes to life in changing social and ideological circumstances. In the structuralist view, language is nothing more than an 'isolated, finished, monologic utterance, divorced from its verbal and actual context and standing open not to any possible sort of active response' (1973: 73; emphasis in the original). As for individualistic subjectivism, which he began to critique in Freudianism: A Critical Sketch and continued to critique in MPL, this position mistakenly locates the individual's creative communicative capacity in the psyche rather than in society. Approaching the study of language from a dialogic (rather than monologic) stance, Volosinov can thus argue that human consciousness is not a purely psychological phenomenon, but rather 'the individual consciousness is a socio-ideological fact' (1973: 12; emphasis in the original). Volosinov sums up his opposition to both approaches this way: 'Language acquires life and historically evolves precisely here, in concrete verbal communication, and not in the abstract linguistic system of language forms, nor in the individual psyche of speakers' (1973: 95; emphasis in the original).

With 'concrete verbal communication' as the starting point for a theory of language, Volosinov develops his concept of the construction of meaning as a social, dialogic, and evaluative phenomenon. When he states that we communicate in signs with an 'evaluative accent', he is signaling the centrality of ideology in human social interaction. He states:

No utterance can be put together without value judgment. Every utterance is above all an evaluative orientation. Therefore, each element in a living utterance not only has meaning but also has a value. (1973: 105; emphasis in the original)

In order to illustrate his argument for the notion of sign and ideology at the dialogical level, Volosinov offers examples in literary works of how value judgments are conveyed through what he calls 'expressive intonation' and through reported speech, which was his dissertation topic. In his technical analysis of reported speech, he shows that language, stored in the eye of the mind through historical experiences in social interaction, represents ideologies that may change over time. Put another way, Volosinov argues that reported speech does not merely contain the interlocutor's original utterance; instead, the speaker, in reporting the utterance of the other, alters it and cloaks it with an 'evaluative accent'. Ideology, then, becomes uniquely embedded in reported speech. In Volosinov's view, all utterances are in some ways like reported speech, because they are built on the words of others. Bazerman (2004: 55) remarks on Volosinov's ability as a linguist 'to explore the relations among texts technically in order to understand how language as utterance works in practice'. In a very real sense, by starting with evidence from literature, he paved the way for future research on how ideology can be indexed in talk-in-interaction.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Introduction: Theorizing Communicative Practices at Work 1

Theoretical Underpinnings 5

Overview of the Book 11

2 Genesis, Inc. and Its People 15

Why Genesis, Inc? 17

Ethnographic Fieldwork 20

The Setting 21

Management and Employees 26

Workers' Task Activities 26

Assembling Circuit Boards 27

Discussion 36

3 Multimodal Interaction on the Assembly Floor 39

Understanding Multimodality 40

Conversation Analysis at Work 43

Task Activities 44

Working with Languages 46

Working with Other Semiotic Resources: Perceptions and Representations 61

Discussion 71

4 Doing Social Work: Power Relations in Interaction 74

Background: Person-Reference in Vietnamese 75

Power Relations at Genesis: Person-Reference on the Assembly Floor 77

Revisiting the Problem-Solving Event 79

Impressions from Hanoi 90

Discussion 94

5 Globalizing Forces and Quality-Control Certification 99

Background: What is ISO 9002 Certification? 100

Power Relations: Social Studies of Literacy 101

Collecting Data a Second Time Around 103

Becoming ISO-Certified at Genesis, Inc. 104

Endogenous Quality-Control Practices 113

Discussion: The Social Life of the Verbal Sign 123

6 Learning-in-Practice 129

Theorizing Situated Learning at Work 130

Ways of Knowing and Learning at Work 133

Learning and Ideology 144

7 Conclusion: Towards a Comprehensive Understanding of Communicative Practices at Work 164

An Alternate Vision 165

Future Research Directions 167

Exodus 170

Appendix 172

Transcription Conventions and Full Transcription (Chapters 3 and 4) 172

References 181

Index 194

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