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LEDS Session 3 – Exploring an Ethnohistorical Approach to Multimodality

26 November 2019

post written by Lauren O’Hagan

This third session of LEDS (on 20 November) was facilitated by Dr Lauren O’Hagan, Research Associate in the Centre for Language and Communication Research. The aim of the session was to introduce Lauren’s historical approach to ethnography and discuss the potential benefits of grounding multimodal analysis in evidence from archival and historical records.

Warm-Up Activity

The session began with a warm-up activity to introduce attendees to the topic of Edwardian book inscriptions, which is Lauren’s research focus. Attendees worked in pairs to match nine images of inscriptions to their correct label: ownership inscription, gift inscription, author inscription, association copy, prize inscription, prize sticker, armorial bookplate, typographical bookplate and pictorial bookplate. Lauren then briefly outlined the prototypical features of each inscription type and how they can be recognised based on their material features.

Introduction to Historical Approach to Ethnography

Lauren introduced her research question – what can book inscriptions reveal about class conflict in Edwardian Britain – and clarified why the Edwardian era (1901-1914) was such an important period for exploring class conflict in Britain. This is connected to factors such as the growing literacy of the working classes as a result of the introduction of free and compulsory education, increased trade unionism, the founding of the Labour Party, the growth of free public libraries, the suffrage campaign and the fight for Irish Home Rule.

The group was then introduced to Lauren’s dataset of 3,000 Edwardian book inscriptions, which were collected largely from secondhand bookshops to ensure that they were representative of all class groups. Lauren outlined her six-step model for analysis, drawing particular attention to how multimodal analysis can be combined with archival research into the lives of each inscriber, and how various historical resources (including birth, christening, marriage and death certificates, census returns, newspaper records and street directories available online through the website, which the group were introduced to in the session) can be used to gather ethnographic information to support the multimodal analysis.

O’Hagan’s six-step model for analysis

Lauren explained some of the pitfalls with using Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) visual grammar model alone to analyse images, particularly its lack of consideration for genre conventions, sociocultural context and comparisons of modes. This means that analyses can be interpretative and subjective with a limited awareness of historically specific meanings, as well as how meanings can shift over time. She argued that, with a multimodal ethnohistorical approach, synchronic analysis is blended with diachronic evidence, which moves multimodality beyond text-centred analyses because hypotheses concerning the function and form of artefacts can be derived and explored from concrete historical documents. This approach can thereby offer a more human interpretation of the meaning of texts that is more individualized and more sensitive to the voices of the unrepresented.

Finally, Lauren discussed some of her key findings in terms of each class group and how they made use of the semiotic and material features of book inscriptions to achieve specific communicative goals concerning the maintenance or performance of social status.

Discussion of Social Semiotic Article

Before the session, the group was encouraged to take a look at Lauren’s article Towards a Multimodal Ethnohistorical Approach: A Case Study of Bookplates (2018). The group discussed some of the questions to arise from the article and the presentation of the research.

Analysis of Book Inscriptions

The group then had fun exploring with Lauren two examples of book inscriptions belonging to individuals from opposite ends of the Edwardian social scale. Lauren revealed how, on the one hand, pictorial bookplates were used by the upper class to ‘perform’ their social status, whereas on the other, book prize stickers both revealed the lower-class status of working-class book owners and manifested signs, in the form of various annotations, of these individuals’ resistance to their social positioning. These findings demonstrated the importance of supporting analysis of word, image, typography, colour and texture with archival evidence. The subtleties of class conflict and performance of status would not have been discovering by using multimodal analysis alone.


Huge thanks to everyone who came to the session! It was really enjoyable and it was great to be able to share my work with you all! I hope you have all learnt a bit more about how an ethnohistorical approach to multimodality can help facilitate the accurate reconstruction of cultural practices and demonstrate that material and semiotic choices are always guided by the histories and values of societies and their cultures. I hope you may be encouraged to go off and explore the approach within your own research.


Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T., 1996, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, London: Routledge.

O’Hagan, L. 2018. Towards a Multimodal Ethnohistorical Approach: A Case Study of Bookplates, Social Semiotics, 29:5, pp. 565-583.