Accessing Identity through Face Work: A Case Study of Historical Courtroom Discourse

In: International Review of Pragmatics


There are certain areas of study where present-day pragmatics can benefit from history. This study investigates the processes of identity construction and negotiation through face work, using as a case study the historical courtroom in 18th century America. Adopting a social constructionist perspective to identity, the paper proposes that face is inextricably intertwined with identity, as it involves the process in which interlocutors position themselves, through discourse, in social interaction. Drawing upon the framework of self-politeness (Chen 2001), the paper reveals the ways in which an expert identity is constructed and negotiated during a trial where two medical professionals testified as expert witnesses and, at the same time, were challenged by the hostile interrogators. It is found that the experts resorted to two main discursive strategies which enhanced and restored their self-face, namely redressive and off-record, in their struggle for an expert identity, primarily because in the context of cross-examination, such strategies enabled the experts to directly or indirectly voice their response to previous face damaging utterances, instead of being silent on an issue (i.e. the withhold self-face threatening act strategy) or admitting that there was inconsistency in their testimony (i.e. the bald, on-record strategy). Such strategies helped the experts to construct and renew their identity or even resist others' identity ascriptions, enabling them to present themselves in a favourable light as their identity was under constant face threats from the adversarial interlocutors.

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