Can multimodal analysis help us to understand (super)diversity in place?

By Caroline Tagg

On Thursday 14th April, Elisabetta Adami presented initial findings from her work on the University of Leeds based project, Leeds Voices: communicating superdiversity in the market, at the UCL Institute of Education, London. Her multimodal analysis of Kirkgate Market highlights the complexity that superdiversity brings not only to public life but to the ways researchers can make sense of busy, fast-moving city spaces.

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Entrance to Kirkgate Market (for this and other photos, see the Leeds Voices website)

Adami’s presentation focused on a multimodal landscape of Kirkgate market, drawing on the distinction between referencing – what a sign represents in the real world; indexing – what a sign points to in the world and, in this case, its socio-cultural significance; and addressing – who the intended reader or addressee of a sign is. Drawing on photos taken over 7 months of fieldwork, she explored how language choice could both reference a country and index existing ideas about that country’s food, depending on the addressee; and how this could be either reinforced by font choice or contradicted, in the case of the stall selling Middle East-inspired food with a sign which recalled a Western saloon. Colours also appeared to be used to index particular nationalities, while other resources – such as the crowding of products on the shelves – might be considered by some to index other attributes: low price, in the case of overcrowded shelves. An interesting observation related to the photos of food which adorned many food stalls. These could be read on one level as referential when addressed to customers not familiar with the particular food; but on another level were likely to index other things about a food stall. Adami suggested they would likely carry associations of tourism for many people in Italy – rather than ‘authenticity’ – and therefore be considered ‘tacky’, an impression I also had in relation to how food pictures were valued in Britain.

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A Polish tea and coffee stall (Leeds Voices website)

The challenge to researchers of a superdiverse space like Kirkgate Market lies not only in the wealth and variety of cultural referents but in the diverse range of potential addressees and the myriad of ways in which signs can be intended and interpreted. As researchers, we can draw on the academic literature and on our own backgrounds to speculate on the likely significance of font, colour, script and layout, and bring these together to form a coherent idea as to how one stall-holder intended his stall to be perceived. However, the market’s customers come from various social, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, and their interpretations of the stalls will be shaped by their differing assumptions and whether or not they are the intended addressee – not to mention their personal preferences, their purpose that day, how many children they are trying to keep an eye on, and so on. How a sign-maker designs their stall will be shaped in part by their partial understanding of the various people who can be persuaded to shop there. This is true of any market, of course, but we might wonder if a stall-holder in a small market town can be more confident about the stability and relative homogeneity of his or her local clientele.

One of Adami’s examples illustrates the complexity of a contemporary city market wonderfully. Penny Rivlin, the project research assistant, noticed that a British butcher had decorated his meat display with some plastic grapes and a Chinese ‘lucky cat’ figurine. He told her that, since the upmarket fish stalls had been moved to his area of the market, he used the grapes to attract what he saw as the ‘high end’ customers that now passed his stall on their way to buy fish – the plastic fruit constituting his idea as to what more sophisticated customers would appreciate. He also explained that he had put the figurine next to his belly pork because his Chinese customers were the only ones who bought that particular meat. When Adami spotted a second lucky cat figurine placed on a Romanian food stall, she assumed it was a widespread practice – until the female Romanian shop owner butcher told her that she simply liked cats. Seeing a couple of Chinese customers come up to the stall, Adami wondered if the figurine might nonetheless be inadvertently attracting this national group.

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Pork belly with ‘lucky cat’ and grapes (Leeds Voices website)

As well as adding to scholarly understanding of how multimodal resources are deployed in superdiverse contexts, the project may also serve to challenge plans to upgrade the market, a move which threatens to transform the linguistic landscape from an exciting display of diverse cultural and personal identities, transcultural conviviality and freedom of expression into a sanitised, homogenous, and much less culturally rich city space.

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