Identity, audience design and trans-contextuality in police interviews

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


This paper will present the findings of new research into identity construction and audience design in UK police interviews. This demonstrates how interviewees can be significantly disadvantaged due to lack of awareness of the highly unusual configuration of audiences for interview-room talk, leading them (among other things) to misguidedly construct an identity which may in fact do considerable damage to their legal position. The UK police interview is a multi-audience, multi-purpose, trans-contextual (Briggs 1997, Blommaert 2001) mode of discourse. In its original interview-room context, it has an important function as part of the initial criminal investigation. But it is subsequently re-contextualised in the courtroom, where it is presented to judge and jury as evidence against the interviewee. The communicative challenges posed by multiple, and especially non-present, audiences, will be illustrated by adapting Bell’s (1984) audience design model for the police interview context, thus demonstrating (1) why this context is discursively counter-intuitive to participants, and (2) that interviewer and interviewee, although ostensibly addressing each other, are orienting to different audiences. This paper will focus on one key aspect, namely identity construction. Identity is taken to be a mutable discursive construct, created by a speaker according to their understanding of the needs and expectations of the context, audience and purpose (e.g. Schiffrin 1996). But what if a speaker misjudges, or misidentifies, these factors? Detailed analysis of data from recent police interviews will show how interviewees adapt the identity they project in response to the police interviewer, treated as sole audience. Yet given their radically different agendas (prosecution/defence), the asymmetric power relationship, and the interviewee’s lack of legal knowledge, this can produce an identity which is highly detrimental to the interviewee when recontextualised for the later courtroom audience which will ultimately decide their fate. References Bell, A. (1984) ‘Language style as audience design’. Language in Society 13: 145-204 Blommaert, J. (2001) ‘Investigating narrative inequality: African asylum seekers’ stories in Belgium’. Discourse & Society 12(4): 413-449 Briggs, C. (1997) ‘Notes on a ‘confession’: On the construction of gender, sexuality and violence in an infanticide case’. Pragmatics 7(4): 519-46 Schiffrin, D. (1996) ‘Narrative as self-portrait: Sociolinguistic constructions of identity’. Language in Society 25: 167-203
Period3 Nov 2010
Event titleSociolinguistics Symposium
Event typeConference
Conference number18
LocationSouthampton, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational