5b On Field

Hasan and “Speaking with Reference to Context”

“since language has this creative, construing power in relation to context, it seems best to abandon the popular though pejorative term product for text, or at least to slide the notion of stasis from it. For whatever is thing-like about a text is strictly immaterial to its quality of text-ness. Text text is, rather, the voice of its social process: it is through this voice that a social process is known for the social process that it is …” Hasan 1999: 239

The reading for this week is an article by Hasan, “Speaking with Reference to Context” (see bibliography). The paper begins by arguing that still, after all this time, much of the word on context entails reductive and simplistic notions, where context is treated as an “a-theoretical appendage which functions as a mere trouble shooter, a disambiguator of ambiguous sentences” (Hasan 1999: 220). She argues that even today “ideas about the relations of context and text continue to be largely “deterministic”, thus stunting the growth of the concept” (Hasan 1999: 221).

Hasan revisits the claim that text is “a passage of discourse which is coherent … with respect to the context of situation, and therefore consistent in register” (from Halliday and Hasan 1976: 23). Under some conditions, the principle of “contextual/registral consistency in text production” does not hold. Under what conditions is this the case? The paper seeks an answer to this question. In the process, Hasan postulates the basic systems for the contextual vector of field. These systems are:

  • ITERATION (a system which permits re-entry to the network, and which she argues should in fact be simultaneous to all three contextualisation systems – i.e. tenor and mode as well as field)

She proposes a network for field, which I discuss here:

Field of discourse Hasan 1999 from Annabelle Lukin on Vimeo.

Before presenting the network , Hasan demonstrates the need for the system of iteration(see section 2), by exploring three quite distinct examples:

  • Example A: the blurb of a book on Durkheim, by Giddens
  • Example B: the purchase of stamps at a post office, from Ventola 1987
  • Example C: mother-child interaction, around the getting of lunch, from Hasan’s data of naturally occurring everyday talk between mothers and their 3;6−4;0 year old children,  collected for a sociolinguistic research project. For a brief account of this research see Cloran (1989), Hasan (1989, 1992b).

Download a pdf of these text examples here: Text examples Hasan 1999

Texts A and B demonstrate the principle of contextual/registral consistency in text production, argued for my Halliday and Hasan (1976) as basic to the definition of text.

In example C, the instance of the mother-child interaction, there is clearly more than one thing going on. In examining the inter-relations of the things going on in this setting, Hasan proposes the notion of a “primary text“, and by extension a “main” contextual configuration (CC) – in this case, the business of organising the child’s lunch. Interspersed with this activity are a number of “subtexts“, including an exchange concerned with locating a food item (passionfruit), a commentary on the scarcity of passionfruit, a discussion of Nana’s seating preference, an explanation of vitamin C tablets, and the planning of a visit to another suburb of Sydney.

Figure 1 Hasan 1999Hasan argues that distinct functional relations obtain between the primary texts and the subtexts. One subtext is totally independent of the primary text. But the other subtexts in this setting bear on the primary text: one is “dependent” (the text which relates to the finding of the passionfruit – the primary text is on-hold until this process reaches completion). The subtexts pertaining to a commentary on the scarcity of passionfruit, a discussion of Nana’s seating preference, an explanation of vitamin C tablets – these are “tone setting” in their function, and are in a “collaborative relation” to the main text/CC. These options we see later in the paper are options in the system of ITERATION, which pertain to the feature [integrated].

Under such conditions we have a complex text, where subtexts are integrated into the main contextual configuration.

There is a further option in the system of ITERATION: Hasan argues context can be aligned, as in the case of cricket commentary. Here one context – the commentary – “unilaterally presupposes the existence of the other”, although “the game in impervious to the commentary” (p317).

Caveats on the presentation:

It is important when reading this paper that you keep in mind Hasan’s caveats on the network she is presenting. She notes “the networks are only partially tested; they are both tentative and lacking in depth of delicacy” and that “the selection expressions based on these networks will provide a reasonable (though not thorough) indication of the structure potential of a register, since the structural aspect of a text (type) is activated by relatively less delicate features. However, the networks will need to be developed a good deal in delicacy before we can specify the kind of semantic and lexicogrammatical features which are criterial to the creation of textural relations in a text” (p278).

However, the network on display is suggestive of how the dynamics of field are organized. It presents a basis for dialogue about how context might be described and represented in systemic functional theory.

On goals, outcomes, designs

As part of the argumentation of this paper, Hasan addresses the complexity of the idea of ‘goal’, since it has features as part of what is relevant in context both in Halliday’s and Martin’s work. Hasan notes “as a concept, goal/motivation in social action is riddled with problems, which despite the long tradition of philosophical discussion on the topic, have remained unresolved” (Hasan 1999: 234). She argues instead for the notion of “design”, which brings together both the subjectiveness of “goal” (the perspective from the social agent), as well as “outcome” – the effect of the text-in-context. I talk through her argument here:

The social process of speaking: goals, outcomes, and designs from Annabelle Lukin on Vimeo.


Hasan, R. (1999/in press). Speaking with reference to context. In M. Ghadessy (Ed.), Text and Context in Functional Linguistics: Systemic Perspectives (pp. 219-328). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. To be reprinted in Context in the System and Process of Language: Volume 4 of the Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan. London: Equinox.


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