An extended notion of Context: Field, Tenor and Mode in distributed teaching and research

The notion of context in the systemic functional tradition is based on a term originally developed by the British linguist J.R. Firth (1957), who referred to what he called the "context of situation" (this term actually stems originally from the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski[2].

Drawing heavily here, for the purposes of brevity, on a condensed explication of contextual theories of meaning taken from Nöth (1990, p. 100), Firth's "context of situation" is taken as referring to pragmatic aspects of meaning - and defined as comprising the following factors of meaning:

  1. The relevant features of participants, persons, personalities
    1. The verbal action of the participants
    2. The nonverbal action of the participants
  2. The relevant objects
  3. The effect of the verbal action

Within the tradition of contextual theories of meaning a syntactic or syntagmatic approach is adopted when considering the meaning of a linguistic (or other) sign to be a function of its relation to other linguistic (or other) signs in its context, and a pragmatic approach is adopted when meaning is defined as a function of its situational context.

Firth emphasises both modes or aspects of context, both the relational and the situational. His semantic concept of meaning goes beyond traditional semantics, covering all other branches or levels of linguistic description. In this definition, meaning is "the whole complex of functions which a linguistic form may have" and contextual relations at all levels, phonology, grammar, or lexicography, are manifestations of meaning.

Modern systemic functional linguistics (see for example Halliday 1985; Halliday and Mathiesen, 199@; Halliday, 199@) builds upon Firth's further developments of Malinowski's concepts of "context of situation" and "context of culture", and focuses on creating a systemic functional description of language, but as Halliday has pointed out, it is meaningless to consider the linguistic "code" and linguistic "behaviour" as two separate things. A semantically based functional description of language must take account of the fact that code and behaviour are part and parcel of the same thing, the realisation and construal of the social order.

The social context of the linguistic code is the culture - seen as a network of information systems, and the social context of language behaviour is the situation in which socio-cultural meanings are exchanged by means of, amongst other things, the linguistic code.

In Halliday's words: "Context is in this kind of model a construct of cultural meanings, realised functionally in the form of acts of meaning in the various semiotic modes, of which language is one.The ongoing processes of linguistic choice, whereby a speaker is selecting within the resources of the linguistic system, are effectively cultural choices, and acts of meaning are cultural acts."

A quick summary of how this approach may be used to model dialogue is provided in Halliday (1984) from which the above citations and paraphrases have also been taken:

"At the highest possible level of generality of description at the level of social context dialogue is interpreted as a process of exchange involving just two variables:

  1. the nature of the commodity being exchanged:
    1. goods and services
    2. information


  2. the roles defined by the process of exchange:
    1. giving
    2. demanding

    with complementary roles of:

    1. initiation
    2. response

The system of dialogue at the level of social context is represented as a move:

Diagram 2

While the system of dialogue at the level of semantics (the speech function) is represented as:

Diagram 3

At the level of the lexicogrammar meanings are coded as wordings (selections of options in the lexicogrammatical system - which may be described functionally at deeper and deeper levels of delicacy, which I will not go into in detail at this stage.

Since the context of any given interaction or dialogue involves the continual negotiation of various social roles, and since these roles are complementary (depending on who is actually doing what at any given time), the context of situation embodies aspects of the social order as perceived by the participants at any particular time in the process. The social context is simultaneously being realised by the actions (linguistic and other choices) of the participants, while at the same time this (inter)action is realizing the various options of role assignment and commodity being exchanged. As shown above, the speech function categories represent a system in their own right.

Context is continuously being created (realised), while at the same time being modified by the particular developmental course that any given conversation or interaction takes over time.

Note, though, that there is no specific treatment of the concept of "goal" in the above mentioned systemic functional approach. I would take this to imply that goals are something which are assumed to develop over time in the course of interactions in which various participants seek to make meaning out of some perceived state(s) of (external) affairs, events, moves, acts and their own transitional (internal) conceptions of the socio-cultural (and individual?) meaning of these, which taken together, all constitute various aspects of the ongoing realisation and development of the context for the interaction or exchange in question.

Syntagm, Paradigm and System

Systemic understandings of communication and language are built upon the three fundamental notions: "system", "syntagm" and "paradigm", with the constitution of meaning being considered to occur in the area of intersection between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes.

The paradigmatic axis is primary, in the sense that it defines the most general level possible for the organisation of the grammar of language as a system - that is, what kinds of potential relationships between constituents may be realised by language in use, while the syntagmatic axis is secondary in the sense that it is specified locally in terms of the general systemic environment - that is, it represents the ways in which the paradigmatic potential of the system of language is actually realised as constituent structures in practice.

A system then, is a general theoretical representation of paradigmatic relationships, seen in relation to constituent structure, which is in turn tied to syntagmatic relationships. The most abstract level of representation is the paradigmatic, and the most specific is the syntagmatic or constituent level, the organization of which is understood to be the realisation of paradigmatic . Neither paradigmatic nor syntagmatic relationships are given priority however, but are seen as two integral aspects of the system which in itself can exist only because of the necessary interactions that occur between these two fundamental levels of organisation and representation.

Metafunctions of language

  1. The interpersonal metafunction
      The interpersonal metafunction has to do with the relationships between communicators and adressees, i.e. with those linguistic resources that actualise social roles more generally speaking, and especially those roles developed through conversational interactions and other kinds of linguistic exchanges. It has to do with the ways in which the system of language and the various types of interactions that this system makes possible between language users allow social relationships to established, maintained and change over time.


  2. The ideational metafunction
      The ideational metafunction has to do with representation, i.e. with those linguistic resources that allow us to make meaning on the basis of our experiences of the world around us and within us.


  3. The textual metafunction
      The tekstual metafunction has to do with the production of actual texts, i.e. with those lingusitic resources that facilitate the presentation of ideational and interpersonal meanings as information that may be shared by a speaker and a listener in a text which unfolds in a context. The role of the textual metafunction is facilitatory. It serves to make possible a presentation of and ideational and interpersonal meanings in the form of information which may be exchanged, and it also offers the speaker strategies for how to direct the listener (or reader) in his or her interpretation of the text.


Field, Tenor and Mode

In systemic functional theory the three concepts of Field Tenor and Mode are central in relation to descriptions of context. Here I shall present these concepts before I go on to show tentatively how they are being applied within the current framework of this present research.


What is going on - the social processes and the domains of meaning created in the realisation of these social processes.

Tends to be realised by ideational meanings.


Who's taking part. the social roles and relations of those taking part in the interaction and the interactional roles and relations created in the realisation of these social roles and relations.

Tends to be realised by interpersonal meanings.


What role the semiotic system is playing in context - its relative distance to those involved according to medium (spoken, written language, images, actions etc.) and channel (face-to-face, forms of technological mediation etc.), its complementarity with other social processes (from ancilliary to constitutive), and its rhetorical contribution (didactic, instructive, persuasive, and so on).

Tends to be realised by textual meanings.