Explain yourself: Bridigng Discourse and its applications to Participatory-Civic Engagement Groups

When individuals engage in behavior that might be considered inauthentic by other group members, they, or other members, often engage in bridging discourse to explain why the behavior is congruent with the idea of being period; in doing so, they demonstrate that their behavior is linked to the same ideology to which other group members link their behavior. When group members engage in behavior that others see as incongruent with the group’s ideology, they risk portraying themselves as deviant and indicating that they believe the ideology of the group is unimportant. Other group members may feel that such actions reflect poorly on the group as a whole, and this may change the collective identity of the group. When individuals engage in bridging discourse, they protect themselves, or others, from stigma but also maintain the collective identity of the group. Members accomplish this by reinterpreting the group’s ideology, redefining their behavior, or offering explanations as to why they should be excused from meeting the group’s standards.

Decker (2010)

Stephanie Decker’s recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography argues for the idea of bridging discourse, that is, discourse that individual members of a group may employ in order to explain inconsistencies of action with the overall group identity, in an attempt to maintain cohesion. While the ethnographic research that serves as the basis of the paper is focused on participants in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), this model of intragroup discourse may prove useful for the group, especially in discussing groups that have a upper management which may be attempting to change the group’s focus/direction.

Decker’s piece as well as the work she draws on is primarily based on Goffman’s frame analysis work. Decker’s work builds from Snow et. al (1986) work on frame bridging. While frame bridging refers to the connections between two or more different, but compatible organizations with each other or an organization with an individual who has a different, but compatible frame, bridging discourse deals with intragroup discussion between individual members or between a member and the group in whole. Decker also cites research on frame alignment by Oliver and Johnson (2000), which focused on recruiting practices in social movement groups. Here Decker is trying to expand the types of groups this sort of research can focus on, but it is worth noting that, given the research group’s focus on social groups that are also, in various ways, social movement groups, that this line of work bears further inquiry.

Briefly, bridging discourse is described by Becker as a set of strategies employed by group members to help ease incongruities between their actions and the group’s overall identity in order to smooth over those differences and maintain group cohesion. In her work with the SCA, she describes several instances of members employing bridging discourse to explain their actions. In particular, the main use of bridging discourse in the SCA was explaining why someone was not in period dress. Sneakers and rubber soled boots in particular served as a focus for group dissonance since one of the group’s overall tenet is to maintain the illusion of period (medieval and early renaissance) garb. Examples of bridging discourse used was claiming to be a new member and therefore ignorant of group policy, apologizing profusely and claiming a time/logistical snafu prevented the proper garb from being worn, or (in cases where members are in period, but culturally clashing garb) by incorporating the seeming inconsistency into an elaborate backstory for the persona one was portraying in SCA events. Members who are reacting to this discourse may make exceptions to the behavior, especially if the deviant member in question is considered a valued member of the group, in order to maintain group identity.

Of course, this bridging discourse has certain limits. Members can choose not to employing bridging discourse and accept a reputation as a deviant within the group. Secondly in particular, if enough members behave consistently outside of the group’s frame, it may shift the frame of the group so that members are no longer deviating from the group. Decker notes that “[group members] explained that, while they did not want to include members who did not make an attempt to be historically authentic, they found it important for the sake of the group to accommodate members with various interpretations of the ideology… while such members often noted that this flexibility alters the concept of authenticity and lowers the groups standards for historically accurate behavior… this flexibility ultimately made it possible for the group to survive,” (292).

Bridging discourse, then, might be something worth noting in our conversations and other research on the group we are looking at. Especially considering groups such as Racebending and the HPA, which have or are planning to change the scope of the group’s identity from a top down angle, it may be useful to see how individual members react to this shift and whether bridging discourse is utilized to either enforce the old group identity or the new one. In a group such as IC, it may be useful to see if bridging discourse is utilized among members when talking about events or the group identity in itself.


Decker, S. (2010). Being Period: An Examination of Bridging Discourse in a Historical Reenactment Group. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 39(3) 273-296.