Hasan on “the place of context in a systemic functional model”
This week we turn to the contributions of Ruqaiya Hasan to developing the theory and practice of systemic functional linguistics. Hasan has had more to say on the conception of context in the systemic functional model than any other scholar. She has probed and interrogated the concept because “there can be no language without context” (Hasan 2001 [in press]: 14) and because “understanding language as a resource for social action in society is what SFL is really about” (Hasan 2005[in press]: 18).
Over the next few weeks we will trace the key questions and proposals of Hasan in relation to theorising the context-construing power of language. The first reading for this week is A Timeless Journey: On the Past and Future of Present Knowledge. The paper is an account of Hasan’s “intellectual journey” (which she was asked to write for the publication of a selection of her papers by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press). The chapter is interesting for giving an overview of her earlier, pedagogical interests – in the teaching of language and literature in Pakistan – and how these areas of application challenged her to ask some big questions, both applied and theoretical. The decision to pursue the problem of how one can “teach literature” in such a way that students “produce their own reasoned analysis of a literary work” she describes as ‘the most important decision of my life” (xv). It has led her to “a deeper analysis of the relation of text and context than was available at that moment in the theory of linguistics that was to become SFL” (pxxiii).
With her interest in verbal art, “it was no accident that very early research on the concept of text came to occupy a central place in my working life” (pxx). She probed the very idea of “text” (see e.g. “Text in the systemic functional model” 1978; and “On the notion of text”, 1979); she developed, with Halliday, the most detailed account of cohesion systems in English (Halliday and Hasan 1976). She examined the distinction between “cohesion” and “coherence” (Hasan 1984, 1985). She inquired into the nature of text structure, and proposed the idea of “generic structure potential” because the variation between two instances of the same register needed to be described. She set out a method for describing the GSP of a register (e.g. Hasan 1985).
Given the claims Halliday makes about the text-context relations, it is hardly surprising Hasan’s intense interest in text led her to question and elaborate Halliday’s ideas on context. In 1973, she distinguished “material situational setting” – “raw situation” – from “relevant context“. The latter is “always encapsulated in the language of the text”. The material situational setting (or MSS), by contrast, “plays a variable role in the process of text: not all of the MSS is even fully semioticized” (pxxv). The variations within and between registers she has theorised, more comprehensively than anyone, by probing the parameters of context, namely field, tenor and mode (Hasan 1985, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2009). She has also understood the place of texture in relation to text and social context (c.f. Martin 1992). Finally, her work on semantic variation required that she separate out the key terms: “code”, “register” and “dialect” (e.g. Hasan 1973).
Through all of these intellectual efforts, Hasan has maintained her interest in the study of literature. It is interesting to note that Halliday also discovered linguistics through his interest in literature. She argues her studies of literature gave her a “foundation of respect for what is most central to the humanities and the social sciences, i.e. for the far reaching effects of language and culture on the formation of history” (xix).
The place of context in a systemic functional theory
The second reading for this week is a paper by Hasan published in 2009, called “The place of context in a systemic functional theory”. You can download the paper here:
The paper argues “there can be no comprehensive scientific linguistics without parole, and no study of parole without context: a viable linguistics needs to incorporate both” (Hasan 2009: 168). At the same time, the paper critiques standard applications of Halliday’s parameters of context – field, tenor and mode. She presents the standard view of these terms, then comments:
“What is interesting is the above description in its vagueness, the absence of ‘checkable’ criteria, and the reliance of ‘common sense’. It is as if, other than the context’s tripartite division, its description has no underlying regularities, and no reasoned framework to work with: the assumption seems to have been that being acculturated persons, the linguists would know what they were talking about, just as one might assume that native speakers ‘know’ the grammar of the clauses they are producing and comprehending” (Hasan 2009: 180).
I talk through this paper here: