Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895–1975) was a Russian philosopher, scholar, and cultural theorist who devoted his writings to the study of language and social structure as it appeared in literature. He was educated in classical studies and taught as a schoolteacher before moving to a small town in Russia to escape the social and political revolution of 1917–1918. During this time he met two colleagues, Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev, with whom Bakhtin would study and debate politics and philosophy, and who formed the core of the “Bakhtin circle.” (The three men would inform one another’s writings to such an extent that today there is continuing debate about the original authorship of many of their published volumes.) In 1929 Bakhtin completed his work Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics, as well as his essay “Discourse in the novel.” He later became a professor in a small college where he was little known until the 1950s and 1960s. Interest in Bakhtin spread when his major works were translated into English in the 1970s and 1980s. Bakhtin’s name is now included among the most prominent social theorists of the twentieth century.
Bakhtin’s views on language contrasted with those of linguists who he believed misrepresented language by seeing it as a system of rules and failed to appreciate the function of language in its social and cultural context. Of Bakhtin’s major concepts, dialogue is the one that has attracted the attention of most scholars, and it is often considered the umbrella concept for his work (Holquist 1990). While Bakhtin’s concept of dialogue can mean many things, in one of his central uses of the term he makes it clear that we are to see the world (or life) as a great dialogue, full of conversations and utterances on many themes and topics, where utterances respond to others’ utterances, and expect a response of their own, even when the utterance is directly addressed to a single respondent. He thus encourages us to see not just a single utterance, but the utterance’s relationship to others. Every speaker is always participating in a larger dialogue in which there have been utterances on similar themes and topics in the past, where the speaker’s contribution is a part of the evolution of the dialogue. Sometimes this participation is explicit and easily identifiable, other times it is subtle and indirect. Bakhtin’s idea that the text exists in a web of other texts and contexts has become adopted in postmodern and other theoretical circles as intertextuality. Both societal change and differences in worldview exist because of (and are reflected in) heteroglossia. Heteroglossia refers to a multiplicity of languages and dialects that contrast against the unified consistency of a single language or culture. In addition to national languages and dialects within a single language, we use multiple languages for different purposes in different settings. These languages reflect different views on the world, with different ideologies, theories, and perspectives. In any culture, Bakhtin argues, some of these languages give preferred, dominant, and accepted meanings, while others work against the dominant meanings. Bakhtin refers to the former as centripetal forces working to create ideological unity, and to the latter as centrifugal forces working against that centralization to develop new meanings. This tension between centralization and decentralization is always evolving and developing, so much so that this process exists in every utterance (Bakhtin 1981, 272). Most sub-disciplines in communication studies have been significantly influenced by Bakhtin’s work, rethinking commonplace beliefs and concepts from a dialogic perspective. In interpersonal communication, Baxter and her colleagues (Baxter 2004; Baxter & Montgomery 1996) have developed a relational dialectics perspective that has taken the implications of Bakhtin’s dialogue and his writings about the self to rethink a number of widely held beliefs about interpersonal relationships such as relationship development, closeness, and interactional competence. In organizational communication, Anderson (2005) has used Bakhtin’s concept of double-voiced words to describe how, in organizational change, speakers use quotations from other speakers to understand typical organizational practices and to imagine how future language might change when organizational practices change. Rhetoricians have also found much to adopt from Bakhtin’s work. Hopkins (1989) analyzed the rural dialects in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood as heteroglossia, which she argued brings readers closer to characters and makes the characters’ ideologies more explicit. In language and social interaction, Tannen (2004) used Bakhtin’s notion of polyvocality to show how speakers articulate utterances as if spoken by the family pet in order to distance themselves from their own speech. The function of dialogue and the development and negotiation of meaning in social life draws together each of these studies, all influenced by a Bakhtinian philosophy about the nature and function of social discourse.
- Anderson, D. L. (2005). “What you’ll say is . . . :” Represented voice in organizational change discourse. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 18, 63 –77.
- Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Baxter, L. A. (2004). Relationships as dialogues. Personal Relationships, 11, 1–22.
- Baxter, L. A., & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Relating: Dialogues and dialectics. New York: Guilford.
- Bell, M. M., & Gardiner, M. (eds.) (1998). Bakhtin and the human sciences. London: Sage.
- Holquist, M. (1990). Dialogism: Bakhtin and his world. New York: Routledge.
- Hopkins, M. F. (1989). The rhetoric of heteroglossia in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 75, 198 – 211.
- Morson, G. S., & Emerson, C. (1990). Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a prosaics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Murphy, J. M. (2001). Mikhail Bakhtin and the rhetorical tradition. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 87, 259 – 277.
- Tannen, D. (2004). Talking the dog: Framing pets as interactional resources in family discourse. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 37, 399 – 420.