Jones – ‘Have you swiped your Nectar card?’: Pretextuality and practices of surveillance

The Literacy Research Discussion Group is delighted to announce their external guest speaker: Prof Rodney Jones. Rodney is Professor of Sociolinguistics and Head of Department at the University of Reading. Details of his talk are below:

‘Have you swiped your Nectar card?’: Pretextuality and practices of surveillance

Pretextuality is a key concept in discourse analysis, through it perhaps has not received the degree of analytical attention that it deserves. It is usually defined as the set of expectations we bring to texts and the situations of which texts are part that help us to understand the purpose of the text and the goals of its author. As Widdowson (2004) argues, ‘All texts are designed to be understood pre-textually…it is the pretextual purpose that we bring to texts that controls how we engage with them and regulate the focus of our attention.’ Whereas Widdowson’s focus is on pretextuality as an interpretive tool, Maryns and Blommaert ( 2002:14) view it more from the perspective of discourse production. For them, pretexts constitute ‘conditions of sayability’: the ‘socially preconditioned meaning assessments, textuality resources and entextualisation potential’ that that allow certain people to say certain things in certain situations. In their analysis of migration stories told by asylum seekers, for example, they show how pretextuality functions to deny discursive resources to particular kinds of people. For ‘social engineers’ (Hagnagy, 2011) and ‘con-men’ involved in things like identity theft, pretextualtiy has a rather different meaning: ‘Pretexting’ is the practice of creating an invented scenario (a pretext) to engage a targeted victim in revealing sensitive information about themselves. While Maryns and Blommaert’s concern with pretextuality focuses on the way it can deny speech to certain individuals, social engineers are more interested in the way it functions to compel speech.

This paper will consider pretexuality in the the context of digital surveillance of the kind regularly engaged in by internet companies (like Facebook and Google), software developers, and retail firms in order to gather consumer data. The question I will be asking is: what are the discursive strategies such entities use to compel users to engage in ‘discourse producing activities’ that result in ‘capta’ (‘captured’ data about users identities, their mundane activities, and their preferences and predilections). The analysis focuses on three ‘case studies’ of ‘pretexting”: 1) online quizzes (such as ‘What Shakespearean character are you?’) of the type often encountered on Facebook; 2) mobile apps which gather information from your smartphone (including your location, your contact list, and your communication with others); and 3) retail loyalty cards such as the ‘Nectar card’ which promise benefits to shoppers who are willing to reveal details about their purchasing behaviour. The analysis will combine all three of the definitions of pretextuality discussed above: Pretextuality as a matter of communicative conventions (or ‘frames), as a function of social power and regimes in inclusion and exclusion, and as an a social practice, an interactional accomplishment dependent on the form and structure of different kinds of ‘conversations’. Understanding pretextuality in the context of digital surveillance, it will argue, requires not just an analysis of of texts and the social contexts in which they occur, but also of the moment by moment unfolding of the social interactions (involving both humans and algorithms) in which texts and contextualization cues are deployed and relationships of power and inequality are constructed.

Hadnagy, C. (2011). Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley.

Maryns, K. and Blommaert, J. (2002) Pretextuality and pretextual gaps: On de/refining linguistic inequality, Pragmatics 12 (1)

Widdowson, H. G. (2004). Text, Context, Pretext: Critical Issues in Discourse Analysis. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Rodney’s main areas of interest are discourse analysis, interactional sociolinguistics, and language and digital media. He is particularly interested in how digital media affect the way people conduct social interactions and manage social identities. For the past two decades he has been involved with the late Professor Ron Scollon and other colleagues in developing an approach to discourse called mediated discourse analysis, the principles of which are laid out in his 2005 book with Sigrid Norris Discourse in Action: Introducing mediated discourse analysis. He has applied this approach to a range of contexts including health and risk communication, classroom discourse, professional communication, computer mediated communication, and language and creativity. Rodney has authored/edited twelve books and over fifty journal articles and book chapters.

Before joining the University of Reading, Rodney worked in the Department of English at City University of Hong Kong, where he acted as Head of Department from 2012 to 2014. While in Hong Kong he conducted a number of large scale funded research projects having to do with the digital literacies of secondary school students, HIV prevention and education, food labelling, collaborative writing in the creative industries, and laypeople’s communication of scientific and medical information. He is interested in supervising projects on language and (new) media), mediated discourse analysis/nexus analysis, language and gender/sexuality, language and creativity, and health and risk communication.

W13, 1600-1800, Mon 25th Jan, Bownland North Seminar Room 10