The key situation revisited
David Poveda - Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
This paper is very much an opportunity to share some thoughts on the key situation (Gumperz and Cook-Gumperz, 1982) or gatekeeping encounter (Erickson, 1975) concepts drawing from: (a) my own occasional theoretical ramblings and; (b) more especially, how I have either drawn on or have been drawn to these analytical concepts in my own research across very different social settings and topics. To advance the main argument, I focus on two relatively recent research experiences discussing how key/gatekeeping situations became an important part of the theoretical apparatus. This happened for two reasons: (1) against my expectations or hypotheses the identified "key situations" did not point towards analytically relevant or socially consequential interactional events; or (2) when I did not expect the premises of a gatekeeping encounter could come into operation they emerged quite forcefully and visibly. This, in turn, opened the door to re-considering some basic assumptions behind the classic micro-ethnographic and interactional sociolinguistic research program regarding the organization of "complex" bureaucratic societies, the role of meritocracy in contemporary (post)-industrialized social life and the place of the interactional encounter in the organization of social inequalities. The paper is organized in three parts. First, I outline what I see as crucial (and perhaps implicit) assumptions in the research agenda around documenting key situations / gatekeeping encounters - and some of the reasons why this research agenda is so analytically powerful and seductive. Next, I discuss how the key situation/gatekeeping encounter construct emerged in two of my own contrasting research experiences, one on immigrant students in Spanish Secondary Compulsory Education and another on the experiences of singleparents- by-choice in the Spanish Adoption System. Finally, I use these research cases to (hopefully) contribute to recent revisiting and rethinking of the microethnographic / interactional sociolinguistic research agenda and of key events/gatekeeping encounters as critical analytical concepts.
Keywords: Microethnography, Interactional sociolinguistics, gatekeeping