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Applying the DDA

Pihlaja (2018) has used DDA to show how discussions about belief are dynamic and how positions can and do shift even among people of shared belief when they talk about their faith together.The following case study is taken from a larger corpus of discussions among Christians and Muslims in different social media contexts.The particular video analyzed here is from theYouTuber Alidawah, who is well-known across social media platforms for his dawah, or Islamic teaching and outreach. His videos follow a variety of different formats, including “vlogs”, where he speaks directly to the camera by himself, “response videos”, where he and his friends watch videos and discuss them, and videos where he or a cohost asks questions to Sheikhs about issues that are of relevance to young Muslims, particularly those living in the West. Several of the videos in the “Ask the Sheikh” series feature Sheikh Haitham, who is presented as an authority on the matters of interest, although beyond his introduction as a Sheikh, his specific background and credentials are not described. In one particular video, Ali Dawah’s friend Musa and Sheikh Haitham sit side by side and address the issue of halal (what is permitted in Islam) and marriage, a recurring theme in Ali Dawah’s videos. The two are sitting outside being filmed by a third person who is off-screen. Sheikh Haitham has a long beard, a kufi (a white knitted skullcap), and a traditional Islamic robe, while Musa is dressed in jeans and a stylish coat.

Before looking specifically at the content of the interaction, a DDA analyst would first consider the scales of analysis and the way in which the video is embedded in other systems. Viewers watching YouTube dawah videos each represent an individual interaction with the video, with different outcomes and behaviors emerging depending on who is watching. In each instance of the video being viewed, the users watching the interaction have their own assumptions and previous knowledge which feeds into how they watch and respond to the video. The users making the videos and the viewers or fan base of a particular user can be thought of as со-adaptive systems, with the content of videos affecting the users and how they view them and the viewers’ responses to the videos affecting the kinds of content that is subsequently produced by theYouTuber in subsequent episodes.

The videos also exist in a sociohistorical context that, again, can be viewed in terms of different scales. At a macro scale, the history of dawah throughout the last 1,500 years plays a role in how a contemporary YouTube video might be presented. In the case of the video analyzed here, without knowing the historical context of the Islamic practice of seeking advice from religious teachers and scholars, it might appear more novel than it actually is. With a shorter timescale, the history of dawah videos on the site and the emergent behaviors in these videos, what is and is not acceptable, could also be important for understanding the discourse of the video. This too will influence why a video is being made, and the analyst will need to determine the context for the particular YouTuber and their presence on the site. Finally, the events and conditions at the time of the making of the video, what topics are popular, and especially timely alternative issues may play a role in why a video is made. If an argument has emerged between two users or a large news story has made an issue (in this case, marriage) more relevant, knowing this will be essential for understanding and analyzing the trajectory going forward and understanding any behaviors that might emerge.

An analyst could also look specifically at how videos are viewed and responded to in real time. The focus could be on how those responses and the empirical evidence for them, whether it be through asking viewers or looking at viewer comments, reveal how users and viewers interact with one another and why particular videos are made and particular comments are posted. This might include being aware of “known unknowns”. For example, the analyst may see evidence of components in the system, yet be unable to observe the components directly. For example, a user might refer to other users or to a person that the analyst doesn’t know and can’t identify with available resources.

Flaving considered these larger issues, analysis of the video itself is likely to be more effective because the Level 0 preconditions of the interaction, as much as they can be known to the analyst watching the video, have been identified and noted. At this point, the interaction can be analyzed. At the beginning of the video, Musa presents the topic for discussion to Sheikh Haitham, saying:

  • 1 Inshallah [If God wills it]
  • 2 all of you are in the best of health
  • 3 in Iman [faith]
  • 4 and you’re doing fine
  • 5 you guys are tuning in to another episode
  • 6 of ask the Sheikh
  • 7 we have our
  • 8 beloved sheikh
  • 9 Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad with us today
  • 10 once again
  • 11 and
  • 12 what we’re going to be discussing today
  • 13 inshallah
  • 14 is
  • 15 Sheikh
  • 16 let’s get straight into it
  • 17 a lot of youngsters nowadays
  • 18 of course
  • 19 they want to get married
  • 20 you know
  • 21 we were all at that stage one
  • 22 at one point
  • 23 um
  • 24 and
  • 25 a lot of sisters specifically
  • 26 they want to get married
  • 27 they find the brother
  • 28 they like each other
  • 29 they want to take it the halal route
  • 30 the sister
  • 31 she takes it to her parents
  • 32 and
  • 33 her parents
  • 34 say no
  • 35 but for no
  • 36 Islamic reason
  • 37 so
  • 38 they say no
  • 39 maybe because of the brother’s race
  • 40 or maybe because of something very petty
  • 41 because they don’t want her to marry for example
  • 42 a
  • 43 brother from a different race
  • 44 you know
  • 45 so
  • 46 um
  • 47 what is
  • 48 the ruling and what is the like
  • 49 uh
  • 50 advice in regards to this

In this extract, the value of looking closely at the moment-by-moment production and processing of language is evident as it shows the positions of Musa and the Sheikh at the video’s outset. The transcript produced for this analysis is presented in intonation units, which are stretches of speech uttered in a coherent string (Chafe, 1994) that show how speakers’ talk is being assembled moment by moment in the Level 1 of interaction. It shows where, for example, a speaker begins to use many fillers, as at the end of Musa’s statement where he is formulating the question for the Sheikh about the issue he has identified. Although, for Musa, parents preventing their children from marrying for reasons that he thinks are not “Islamic” is a clear and obvious “problem”, as he speaks with the Sheikh and judges the Sheikh’s response, the end of the extract suggests some discomfort in relation to how the question should be formulated.

In the Level 1, moment-by-moment interaction, the reason for Musa’s trepidation might be better understood when we note that the Sheikh’s response does not indicate a clear alignment with Musa. When Musa says “a brother from a different race”, the Sheikh speaks at the same time as Musa with a second-person completion that is inaudible and then nods as if understanding Musa’s point. This suggests that the Sheikh has a preexisting opinion on the topic, something analysts can confirm or disconfirm in his response. Musa’s lack of clarity in phrasing of the question—“so um what is the ruling and what is the like uh advice in regards to this”—suggests he is not entirely sure how it should be worded. The Sheikh’s apparent eagerness to speak and address the question should be taken into account in understanding Musa’s disfluency.

In the Level 2 analysis of the extract, although there are any number of things that could be focused on, three are particularly relevant for this discussion. The first is the addressing of the viewer directly as “you” and the orientation of the discourse toward this “you” in the first instance. This move at the beginning of the video is a feature ofYouTube videos more generally, where the viewer’s presence is explicitly acknowledged and the video takes them into account as someone for whom Musa is expressing phatic concern.

Second, Musa uses several Arabic words without translation, including inshallah, meaning “if God wills it”, which is quite common in the discourse of Muslim speakers of English, and iman, referring to faith. Understanding these words in English is not essential to the video, and Musa and the Sheikh do not speak in extended stretches of Arabic (except when the Sheikh speaks Arabic at the very beginning of the video as an invocation and later when he quotes the Qur’an). The use of Arabic implies that there is an expectation that the viewer has some understanding of Islam and key Arabic phrases, but the audience is primarily English speaking. Given the topic, Musa likely assumes that the targeted viewer is a Muslim interested in hearing the Sheikh’s advice on the topic.

Lastly, the discussion of marriage and the focus on “a lot of sisters specifically/ they want to get married” positions young Muslim women as both implicitly being more interested in marriage than men and as being regularly denied marriage by their parents. The presentation of this “problem” is not that the women need to ask their parents for permission to marry (which, again, is assumed in the video without being explicitly stated), but that they are being denied marriage.The way this is presented suggests a particular model for right and moral behavior that is assumed by Musa and which goes unchallenged as the halal or permissible route. It also assumes that the viewer will not find problematic the notion of the woman needing to ask her parents for permission before marrying.

Sheikh Haitham’s response starts by connecting his answer with the topic, rather than directly responding to the questions “what is the ruling and what is the ... advice on this[?]”. Instead, the Sheikh challenges how the question has been framed, saying that the issue is much more complex than is suggested.

  • 1 first of all
  • 2 let us start
  • 3 all the way from the beginning
  • 4 and now
  • 5 this sister
  • 6 how did she find that brother
  • 7 this is the first question
  • 8 yeah
  • 9 were they loose in terms of their relationship
  • 10 when they were studying at
  • 11 uh
  • 12 college or
  • 13 at university
  • 14 or maybe at work
  • 15 or some even
  • 16 Islamic
  • 17 Islamic Dawah
  • 18 activity
  • 19 yeah
  • 20 they were loose
  • 21 with each other
  • 22 and they become attached to each other
  • 23 and they want to get married to each other
  • 24 this is very common
  • 25 so that is the first thing
  • 26 that we need to address

In the moment-to-moment, Level 1 interaction of the response, the Sheikh’s response and lack of fillers suggests he is more confident in his answer and has responded to similar questions in the past. His comment that the issue is “very common” also suggests that he is used to answering similar questions, so his production of the answer is more fluent. Musa doesn’t look directly at the Sheikh for much of the video, but instead looks in front of him, appearing to listen carefully and nodding in agreement with what the Sheikh says.

In Level 2, the Sheikh takes as the starting point the relationship that Musa described in the question, but changes the time line of the story, moving back the hypothetical time line from the moment that the sister wants to take the halal route to marriage by asking where the sister met the brother in the story. Changing the starting point of the story in this way, the Sheikh’s telling of the same story focuses on a new hypothetical part of the relationship wherein the sister has met the brother in a “loose” way. Whereas Musa’s telling of the story positions the sister as acting in a moral way, given her desire for a halal marriage, the Sheikh’s use of the metaphor “loose” to describe the initial relationship then changes the moral judgment about the desire to get married.

The Level 2 analysis shows how stories can develop in interaction and how storytelling can be co-constructed in interaction, something narrative analysts have described (De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2011). The telling of a story, particularly in the case of a generic story like the one in the interaction between the Sheikh and Musa, is influenced by the interactional context. Musa’s telling of the story is occasioned, and the Sheikh’s elaboration of the story is dependent on this occasioned telling of the story. Isolating the story and analyzing only what Musa or the Sheikh say would not provide a complete picture of how the story is operating in the conversation.

Taking the conversation as a whole in the Level 3 of analysis, the whole trajectory of the discourse event can be viewed: how it starts as a question asked by Musa of the Sheikh and develops from the answer the Sheikh gives and the subsequent back and forth of the conversation. In this one instance, the response shows the way in which system change can happen gradually. The Sheikh’s challenge to the story that Musa has told about the “sister” changes the focal point of the issue of moral action from what the parents are doing to what the daughter has done. The Sheikh picks up on the prototypical story of a young woman’s relationship being blocked by her parents and asks “how did she find that brother[?]”, offering several scenarios wherein the relationship might be inappropriate. Again, when the Sheikh says, “this is very common”, he is presenting his story about the young woman as an emergent behavior among young Muslims.

In Level 4, the interaction, the way in which young Muslim women in particular are spoken about has an influence on subsequent discussions about marriage among not only the people in the video but also the viewers. Because the conversation occurs within a video oriented toward the public, the analyst will need to consider the influence it is perceived to have on those who view it as a part of the larger complex system of dawah videos on YouTube and other YouTube videos, and so on to further levels of abstraction. The timing of the video will also be important, as it may be influenced by videos made by other dawah presenters, the discourse of public television Imams, and other related discourse.

Having mapped the relationships among the different levels of discourse in the video, the analyst then needs to use additional discourse analytic tools to investigate particular features of the video in more detail. To further investigate the interaction between the Sheikh and Musa, conversation analysis tools may be appropriate, whereas tools of multimodal analysis may be more suitable to investigate gesture, for example. Any area of further inquiry can then build on the insights from the discourse dynamics analysis, making connections among the different levels of discourse to answer more detailed questions.

The DDA developed out of dissatisfaction with traditional cognitive linguistic approaches to discourse analysis. The question that therefore remains is whether the DDA can coexist with the cognitive turn or whether it must be defined as inherently opposed to it. On this point, it is worth quoting at some length Larsen- Freeman and Cameron’s (2008) discussion of the relationship between the social and the cognitive in applied linguistics:

Indeed, we ourselves favor a sociocognitive approach, the lack of a hyphen signaling the fact that complexity theory encourages an integrative approach, rather than segregating the social from the cognitive. ... Certainly there are some who choose to work either on the social side of language or on the cognitive side with little attention paid to the other. Although dealing with one apart from the other may allow for rigorous descriptions, it must be recognized that the description can only be partial. More problematic from a complexity theory point of view is that the dichotomizing leaves open the issue of how the two, cognitive and social, are connected. ... By looking at only one side or the other, a dualistic view of phenomena is promulgated and reinforced. ... Such dualisms get in the way of seeing that members of each pair are two perspectives on the same underlying process. Language structure is shaped by the way language is used, and its use in turn fuels further development.

(P- 93)

In terms of the DDA, the inclusion of Level 4 considerations takes seriously the fact that system regularities and patterns of usage exist side by side with the fluid, dynamic unfolding of an occasioned discourse stream. It is in these Level 4 considerations that cognitive linguists would include, for example, the patterns of influence within and across cultures and discourse communities emerging from embodied cognition, schemas, scripts, domain mappings, and conceptual blends (discussed in previous chapters). However, contemporary cognitive linguists are now also increasingly emphasizing levels 1 to 3 in areas such as dynamic metaphor comprehension (Gibbs & Santa Cruz, 2012; Kovecses, 2015) and the recontextualization of metaphors across the same discourse stream (Richardson, 2017) and across multiple discourse streams and genres (Deignan et al., 2013).The DDA therefore offers an important corrective to cognitive linguistic approaches that overemphasize the cognitive dimension, and it provides a crucial set of tools for analyzing the inherent shifting complexities of social interactions.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Think of an individual interaction in which religious language might be present and think about that interaction as a complex system. What components can you identify as important to map, and how would you analyze them within the system?
  • 2. How could a religious institution be conceived in terms of complex systems theory, and how might the complex interaction of different components help you understand the discourse that emerges in that context?
  • 3. Investigate a short interaction between two people talking about a religious topic, either in an online video or podcast. Using the language of the DDA, map the discourse event and discuss what elements of the interaction require different tools for closer analysis.
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