Listening for Identity Beyond the Speech Event

From Section:
Instruction in Teacher Training
Nov. 10, 2010

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 112 Number 11, (2010), p. 9-10.
A typical account of listening focuses on cognition, describing how a listener understands and reacts to the cognitive contents of a speaker’s utterance. The literature in this issue argues that listening also involves moral, aesthetic, and political aspects.

Focus of Study

This paper attends to all four dimensions but focuses on the political. The author argues that listening requires attention to the social identities inevitably communicated through speech.
The author’s account of listening for identity moves beyond typical approaches by construing listening as a collective, public process, not one located in an individual listener’s mental states. To listen is to respond sensibly to others, such that participants can build a coherent interaction. Some of the signs and behaviors that cohere to form an instance of listening depend for their meaning on patterns from outside the event of listening.
In addition to arguing that we listen for identity, then, the author also argues that we must listen beyond the speech event.

The case study presented in this article comes from a yearlong study of a ninth-grade English and history class in an urban American school that served ethnically diverse working-class children.

Research Design
The research involved 3 years of ethnographic research in an urban American high school, 1 year of intensive ethnographic research in the classroom described, and discourse analyses of 50 hours of recorded conversation from this classroom.


Speakers inevitably identify themselves and others when they talk, and this identification can only be successful if people listen and respond in appropriate ways. We certainly listen for the cognitive contents communicated by speech, but we also listen for the identities established through speech. The two central claims made in this article and illustrated by the case study are that we inevitably listen for identity and that listening requires attention to patterns beyond the speech event.

Updated: Jan. 17, 2017
Identity | Listening | Secondary schools | Social behavior