Intertextuality and the performance of group identity

Anna Marie Trester

Georgetown University, United States of America


Within sociolinguistics, there is growing interest in data taken from performance contexts as a valuable site for observing the role of language in the production of cultural meaning (c.f. Coupland forthcoming, 2001; Schilling-Estes, 1998). The present investigation uses discourse analysis to consider interactions among a community of performers of improvisational theater (improv), focusing on three conversations offstage that feature a shift into performance. Fine-grained analysis of the language made salient during these performances yields insight into how this group uses intertextuality to index broader social meaning including identity and ideology.

The data analyzed in this paper are drawn from an ethnography conducted with an improv community in Washington, DC, focusing on three conversations that shift into the playing of highly structured and elaborate group games. Identifying intertextuality as a central component of these games, I consider the different source texts which are evoked and the particular kinds of intertextual reshaping which occur, suggesting that choices about WHAT source texts are evoked and HOW they are transformed are illustrative of processes of community reaffirmation, community building, and member socialization. Given Becker’s (1994) observation that “social groups seem to be bound primarily by a shared repertoire of prior texts” (165), I consider how an observed game move like “Mr. Questions, okay, I’ll inhabit that character tonight” evokes shared knowledge of the “rules of improv” and indexes shared values of group members including the importance of listening, acceptance, and agreement in interaction.

Additionally, these games require a developed ability to actively track and utilize intertextuality in interaction, which not only is highly valued as an improv skill, is an important aspect of their style, but also is of crucial importance for being a fully participating member of the group. Members use the playing of these games as a resource for reaffirming community. Thus, I consider how these games develop intertextual ability, illustrating how the achievement of these games depends on the mechanisms of intertextuality identified by Bauman and Briggs (1990) entextualization, decontextualization, and recontextualization.

This study contributes to our understanding of intertextuality by identifying how these two aspects of intertextuality (WHICH source texts are evoked and HOW they are transformed) are implicated in the performance of group identity. This work broadens the scope of intertextuality research by considering performance contexts and contributes to the conceptualization of intertextuality as a unit including how to operationalize it and use it for analysis.


Bauman, Richard and Charles L. Briggs. 1990. Poetics and performance as critical perspectives on language and social life. Annual Review of Anthropology. 19: 59-88.

Becker, A. L. 1994. Repetition and Otherness: An Essay. In B. Johnstone (Ed.), Repetition in Discourse, vol. 2, 162-175. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Coupland, Nikolas. forthcoming. . Style: Language Variation, Identity and Social Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- --------2001. Dialect Stylization in Radio Talk. Language in Society 30 (3) 345-375.

Schilling-Estes.1998. Investigating ‘Self-Conscious’ Speech: The Performance of Register in Ocracoke English. Language in Society. 27 (1) 53-83.

Session: Paper session
Dicourse 2 (Identity)
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 11