Making Progress: Constituting Identity via Interaction

Robert C. Swieringa

Grand Valley State University, United States of America


Routine interaction among actors may be considered a form of social organization in that the interlocking moves of its participants provide organization for the joint undertaking of mutually relevant actions. As Schegloff notes, such a consideration warrants considering conversational interaction not solely as micro-level phenomena but as a type of context itself for those actions undertaken by participants (Schegloff, 1987). Conversation represents a space in which interactants, by the nature and fit of their contributions, constitute a frame of reference for instantiating a mutually recognizable setting for undertaking those goals and identities sustained as relevant.

Institutional communities present members with a complex field in which to enact and dynamically create identities. Within those settings involving judgments of “productive work,” presentations of oneself as a productive member and successful participant of the community may be routine and important, particularly during interactions in which one must account for past activities. As part of a two-year longitudinal study of participation, membership and activity within the institutional setting of a university life sciences laboratory, this current project examines the joint discursive creation of “progress” between students and their professor during weekly laboratory meetings.

The weekly meetings, as a speech situation (Hymes, 1986), call forth a particular, expected, and named discourse on the part of its student participants: weekly “reports.” These reports are co-constructed by the (current) reporting student and the professor, presenting the recent past and the projected activities of the student. This discursive activity takes on generic qualities and expectations as the student and professor negotiate its construction as a representation of the student’s work. As such, a reporting exists as a contested discourse space in which at least two individuals create an account of the actions of one.

As members of an institutional community – the life sciences laboratory – students recognize the institutional expectations of “making progress” toward completion of their degrees and research projects, as they move along a trajectory of participation within the community (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Reportings are recognized within the community as opportunities for assistance (for overcoming problems, e.g.,) and for enacting one’s membership within the community. These interactions mark moments within the activity of the lab in which individuals are called upon to enact their identities as successful participants of the laboratory. Drawing on ethnographic and interaction analysis methods, the routine community discourse of “reporting” is examined as a site for interactants’ joint creation of relevant community identities via the display of past and projected activities.


Hymes, D. (1986). Models of the interaction of language and social life. In J. J. Gumperz & D. Hymes (Eds.), Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication (Rev. ed.) (pp. 35-71). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schegloff, E. (1987). Between micro and macro: Contexts and other connections. In J. C. Alexander, B. Giesen, R. Münch, & N. J. Smelser (Eds.), The micro-macro link. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Session: Paper session
Interaction 2
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 08