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Co-constructing Family Identities through Telephone-mediated Narrative Exchanges

Catherine Ann Cameron (UBC) & Julia Gillen (Lancaster University)
Friday, May 18th
Buchanan A201

Introduction: We explored telephone interactions between young children and adult
family members as contributing insights to the co-construction of identities (Marcia,
2002) within both the nuclear and the extended family (Blackledge and Creese, 2008;
Ochs & Capps, 2001). We deployed methods of linguistic ethnology to enrich the scope
of pragmatics, semiotic resources and temporal range of engagement (Maybin &
Trusting, 2011). Our premise was that intimate relatives have knowledgeable
appreciation of their child’s affective and cognitive worlds (Göncü, 1999; Gonzalez, Moll
& Amanti, 2005) that they can call upon to enhance emerging language use and narrative
productions, and especially in distanced communications (Aarsand & Aronsson, 2007).
Talking over the telephone potentially scaffolds children’s skills at offering clear,
cohesive communications, and elaborated narratives (Cameron & Hutchison 2009).

Methodology: Examination of the corpora of four preschool children in telephone
interactions with a family member showed them to employ extensive expressive power to
negotiate considerable communicative space in having both emotional and cognitive
needs addressed. These techniques included: participant discussions to aid interpretation;
photography of sites and phenomena discussed to stimulate participants’ recall and aid
interpretation (Pink 2006); participant observation. These extended methods beyond
transcription analysis enhanced interpretative endeavors. Participants were five pairs of
lower- to middle-income family couples: one mother-son pair, two mother-daughter pairs
one father-daughter pair, and one grandmother-granddaughter pair. All the children were
between four-and-one-half and five-and-three-quarters years of age when the exchanges
occurred. One participating parent was a librarian; two family members were university
faculty members; one parent, a car mechanic; and one, a telephone call-centre service
representative. We recruited research participants in families where telephone
interactions between parent/grandparent and child were relatively uncommon, but where
launching calls for our research was welcomed for additional familial contact.
Findings: Five-year-old Sam and his mother, talking on the phone (Mother at work, and
Sam at home) achieved inter-subjectivity about questions of fact, such as whether the
insect that stung him was a wasp or a bee, in spite of the challenges of their
decontextualized situations by virtue of their mutual personal and familial knowledge and
parental modeling of mutual respect. Sarah, four years, and Mother negotiate what her
mother looked like at a certain point in time, and how tall she must have been (not an
‘Bitty-Baby’ size, not the size of Raggedy Ann, but the size of Raggedy Ann plus a small
doll on her head) and engaging in apparently accurate speculation about Mother’s current
desire states. Fumiko, age five, discusses with her mechanic father the sorts of cars he
might have fixed that day, speculating as to which colors of cars are their most favorite.
Emily exchanges with her distant grandmother her experiences on the first day of school
and lapses into a discussion of a previously shared Christmas.

Discussion: We support the proposal that identities are co-constructed as stories about persons and shared experiences are (Reddy, 2008; Reddy & Trevarthan, 2004; Sfard &
Prusak, 2005; Schatz, 2007). We noted the high degree of mutuality within informal
pedagogic encounters that Rogoff (2003) characterizes as ‘guided participation’. We also
conclude that using diverse techniques to come to emic appreciation of participants’
perspectives is essential to deepening interpretive understanding.


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Blackledge, A. & Creese, A. (2008). Contesting ‘language’ as ‘heritage’: Negotiation of
identities in late modernity. Applied Linguistics, 29(4), 533-554. doi:

Cameron, C.A. & Hutchison, J. (2009). Telephone-mediated communication effects on
young children’s oral and written narratives. First Language, 29(4), 343-367.

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Ochs, E. &∓ Capps, L. (2001). Living narrative: Creating lives in every day story telling.
Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

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Reddy, V. (2008). How infants know minds. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
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Sfard, A. & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: in search of an analytic tool for
investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational Researcher, 34,

Shatz, M. (2007). Revisiting “A toddler’s life for the toddler years”: Conversational
participation as a tool for learning across knowledge domains. In C. A. Brownell
& C. B. Kopp (Eds.) Socioemotional development in the toddler years: Transitions and transformations. (pp. xv-xli). New York NY: Guilford Press.
Catherine Ann Cameron, Psychology Department, UBC,
2136 West Mall, Vancouver BC V6T 1Z4;
Tel: 604.822.9078
Fax: 604.822.6923

Julia Gillen,
Literacy Research Centre, Department of Linguistics and English Language,
Lancaster University, UK, LA1 4YT
Tel: +44 (0) 1524 510830

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