The concept of contextualization started with a group of scholars who believed that contexts are not pre-made and objective but rather created and shaped by language and text. One of the first scholars to define contextualization was John Gumperz. Gumperz (1982) defines contextualization in relation to discourse analysis as the process through which participants in a conversation “foreground or make relevant certain aspects of background knowledge and underplay others” (p. 131). He emphasizes that contextualization is an activity conducted by speakers and hearers that “is not a static structure, but rather reflects a dynamic process which develops and changes as the participants interact” (p. 131). Therefore, there is never a single “context” that can be imposed on a whole set of data but rather multiple contexts that are created and shaped by participants during interaction. As researchers, we look for contextualization cues to help us define what the participants see as relevant to the context.

Contextulization Cues

A contextualization cue is “any feature of linguistic form that contributes to the signaling of contextual presuppositions” (p. 131). When participants understand each others’ contextual cues, then conversations go smoothly. However, when contextual cues are misunderstood, conversation does not run smoothly, and participants often label each other as rude, socially awkward, foreign, strange, etc (p. 132).

Context and Culture

Bauman and Briggs (1990) discuss the shift from looking at a context to looking at contextualization as a process within the realm of performance studies. They also state that “communicative contexts are not dictated by the social and physical environment but emerge in negotiations between participants in social interactions” (p. 68). They argue that researchers are faced with multiple contexts and the best way to interpret a communicative event is to conduct an “agent-centered view of performance” (p. 69 ). Therefore, when studying cultural rituals and traditions, scholars can better grasp what these cultural practices mean to the people performing them.

Context and Political Rhetoric

Murphy (2001) cites Bakhtin (1981) when referring to the analysis of political rhetoric, arguing that even the most classic pieces of public address still exist “not at a sacred distance or in an absolute past but rather within a zone of direct and even crude contact with all other discourses, past and present” (Murphy, 2001 , p. 48-49). Thus, rhetorical texts are contextualized by their intertextual relationships and “conversations” with other texts and discourses, as Bakhtin stated, “Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life” (1981, p. 293).

De-contextulization and Re-contextualization

One more issue must be addressed when discussing contextualization and that is the processes of de-contextualization and re-contextualization. Decontextualization occurs when language becomes separated from its “social and cultural contexts of production and reception” (Bauman & Briggs, 1990, p. 72). This often happens because words are entextualized, or transformed into texts, which can easily be lifted out of their original contexts. Of course, words cannot hang by themselves as an abstract entity without any context, and therefore, “decontextualization from one social context involves recontextualization in another” (p. 74). Often, when words are recontextualized, they bring along with them parts of their old context(s) into their new ones (p. 75).

Urciuoli (2009) discusses how the words “culture” and “diversity” are de- and re-contextualized on different pages of a university’s website and how these uses compare with how students at the university use the words culture and diversity. Urciuoli (2009) finds that although these words are “invested with interpretive residues from prior usages and shape and classify succeeding usages in ways coherent with previous usage” (p. 23), their meaning is regarded as unchanged by participants who use them in different contexts.

Contextualization is a useful tool when trying to identify the appropriate context(s) behind a communicative event. Viewing context as a process rather than as a static noun gives power to the producers of the communication to create, maintain, and change what contextual factors are relevant to them.

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Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bauman, R. & Briggs, C. (1990). Poetics and performance as critical perspectives on language and social life. Annual Review of Anthropology, 19, 59-88.

Gumperz, J. (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murphy, J. (2001). History, culture, and political rhetoric. Rhetoric Review, 20(1/2), p. 46-50.

Urciuoli, B. (2009). Talking/not talking about race: The enregisterments of culture in higher education discourses. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 19(1), 21-39.