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Current Work

The Social Dynamics of Learning and Recognition

My research focuses on the social dynamics of learning. The primary means of studying these social dynamics of learning has been through the micro-interactional analysis of learning. This involves the study of small scale moment-to-moment happenings of interactions as a way of describing how learning happens in real time. The aim of this work is to identify the social dynamics that lead to student learning and development.

As a means of characterizing the social dynamics of learning, I have been developing a theory of recognition to characterize the processes that contribute to the student’s engagement, motivation, and eventual learning. The two main components of this theory of recognition are:

1. The mediational means through which recognition occurs. Such mediational means include language forms (Thompson and Jensen, 2017), interactional framing (Thompson and Dori-Hacohen, 2012), mood (Stone and Thompson, 2014), as well as various institutional apparati (Thompson 2016a).

2. The self or identity-in-interaction that is subsequently recognized (Thompson 2016a). In this way an analysis of recognition as it happens in an interaction can help us to understand a student’s motivation to engage with the task of learning.

Ontology and Recognition

Recognition has had a long history as a philosophical concept (Hegel, Kojeve, Fanon, etc.) and more recently as a social scientific analytic (Povinelli, Townsend, Keane). Without rehearsing the philosophical debates (e.g., Taylor, Williams, Honneth, Fraser, Laitinen), as a social scientific analytic recognition has suffered from two main shortcomings. First, the creative power of recognition has been largely neglected. Recognition has typically been understood as a passive act in which one simply recognizes (or fails to recognize) what is always already there. Second, recognition has been understood as a subjective matter of social construction. When viewed from dominant dualistic modes of understanding, this approach to recognition as a merely subjective (or even intersubjective) matter means that recognition is understood to be dependent upon the perceptions of individuals and is thus considered to be not “objective” and thus not-quite-real (see Packer 2011).

I believe that both of these problems can be addressed by the recent “ontological turn” in anthropology and by taking an ontological rather than epistemological view of recognition. This is to say that when recognition is viewed in the old epistemological mode as a mere interpretation and passive reception of what is already there in the world, then recognition is always only recognition of what was always already there. Alternatively, when recognition is viewed in the ontological mode as a matter of constitution and active construction of what persons (and things) are becoming, then we can begin to see that recognizing some thing as a particular type of thing opens that thing up to new possibilities of what can or should be done with that thing, and thus of what that thing can become (see my work on recognition of the Virgin Mary in a Chicago underpass, e.g., Thompson, 2017).

Ontology and Recognition in Education

In the realm of education, the thing being recognized is the student themselves. This view of recognition points to the fact that the work of recognition in actual learning encounters contributes to the construction of the identity of the learner. These processes of recognition at this shorter timescale are always in tension with processes of recognition at longer timescales (for a fuller development of the time-scaled nature of recognition and its consequences in interaction see Thompson 2016a). But these shorter timescaled processes always carry with them the possibility that they can lead to more substantial change and development in the learner. Thus, a properly scaled and ontological view of recognition as a creative and constitutive force in human interaction can help us to understand how students learn and, indeed, how they become who they will become.

Language and Learning (Form and Content)

Language is one of the preeminent means through which recognition happens. As such, my work considers the role of language in three different ways: the role of language and forms of talk in learning (e.g., language and the constitution of interactional frames, see Thompson 2014 and Thompson and Dori-Hacohen 2012), the content delivered through language forms (e.g., academic language, or discourse markers, see Thompson & Jensen, 2017 for the former and Thompson, 2016b for the latter), and the practical consequences of language variation whether as prestige registers or as having linguistic relativity effects (current research interest). With regard to the role of language and forms of talk in learning, in previous work I illustrated the important role that the joint construction of an interactional frame plays in the processes of recognition (see Thompson 2014). Regarding the role of content delivered through language forms, I am working on a paper (see Thompson 2016b) that demonstrates how the formal features of language qua discourse (pragmatic) markers function to deliver the “content” that the student needs to learn regarding how to solve this particular kind of mathematics problems. In this manner I demonstrate that the form IS the content. Finally, an important part of considering the value and importance of academic language has involved the question regarding whether or not there is anything particularly valuable about the forms of language learned in academic contexts beyond as a prestige register. My initial work on this with Bryant Jensen has pointed to how the same functional accomplishments of language forms found inside schools can also be found outside of the schools and that it may even be the case that one is more likely to find such functions being accomplished in talk outside of schools as compared to talk inside schools.


Packer, M. (2010). The science of qualitative research. Cambridge University Press. Chicago

Stone, L., and Thompson, G. A. (2014) “The Dance of Stance: The Role of Epistemic and Affective Stance-taking in Building a Classroom Mood.” Learning, Culture, and Social Interaction, 3(4), 309-322.

Thompson, G. A. and Dori-Hacohen, G. (2012). “Framing Selves in Interactional Practice.” Electronic Journal of Communication special issue on Communication as Social Construction. 22(3/4). Published in French as: “Le Cadrage Personnel dans la Pratique Interactionnelle.”

Thompson, G. A., and Jensen, B. (2017). “Academic Language Outside of the School: Latino 2nd Graders Developing Functions of Academic Language in Play at Home.” Paper presented at the Anthropology of Child and Youth Interest Group joint meeting with the Council of Anthropology of Education. Los Angeles, CA. March.

Thompson, G. A. (2014) “Labeling in Interactional Practice: Applying Labeling Theory to Interactions and Interactional Analysis to Labeling.” Symbolic Interaction, 37(4), 458-482.

Thompson, G. A. (2016a). “Temporality, stance ownership, and the constitution of subjectivity.” Language and Communication, 46, 30-41.

Thompson, G. A. (2016b). “The Content of the Form: The Linguistic Ideological Roots of the Transmission Model of Education.” American Educational Research Association. Washington DC. April.

Thompson, G. A. (2017). “The Virgin Mary Exposed in a Chicago Underpass: An Anthropological Theory of Visual Poiesis at the Ontological Turn.” American Ethnological Society Annual Meeting. Palo Alto, CA. March.