Standing out in a crowd

I’ll be short this time and I’ll do more of a companion piece to a book review that is (there is still time) or was (?) slated to come out by the end of the year. I wrote it during the summer when I was given this opportunity. Back then, I had a brief look at the book before accepting the task. The book seemed like a good fit for me to review, so I went with it. Anyway, the book in question is Mark Seilhamer’s ‘Gender, Neoliberalism and Distinction Through Linguistic Capital: Taiwanese Narratives of Struggle and Strategy’ that came out this year.

The title already tells you what the book is about, so, yeah, a very fitting title for the book. Okay, I personally prefer obscure titles, that open up only after having read the book (or any text, for that matter), but I don’t mind a clear and informative title. So, in short, the title tells you exactly what’s in store for you if you happen to read the book. It’s partly about gender, how being a woman is a factor (among others, of course) in achieving distinction in the Taiwanese context. It also deals with neoliberalism, how one is, more or less, expected to achieve, to keep working on oneself, not for the sake of self-improvement, in the sense that you work on improving whatever it is that happens to intrigue you, but for achieving in a competitive society, like getting more money, status, prestige etc. Distinction is arguably the key concept in this book. I already sort of defined it, in relation to gender and neoliberalism, but, to give you simple definition, it pertains to how one stands out in a crowd, how one distinguishes oneself from others or, to be more accurate, how one appears distinct from others in some positive sense, what is deemed positive by others. In this book the assessment of distinction revolves around linguistic capital, that is to say how one’s language skills play a role in achieving distinction.

The second part of the title indicates how the assessment of achieving distinction is done. In short, it involves analysis of narratives that deal with various struggles that are part of everyday life and the strategies people develop to overcome these struggles, as suggested by the title. I was not that familiar with narrative analysis, that is to say how it differs from, say, discourse analysis, but I was able to get the gist by reading the relevant chapter of the book. I was a bit suspicious about how this approach will work before reading about it, how it is defined in the book. I had this feeling that it might result in naive appraisal of the four personal narratives that Seilhamer included in this book. That said, I think he does a good job explaining how it works and why he thinks it’s an apt approach, fit for this purpose. I also liked that he doesn’t qualify the narratives as experiences, as such, but rather as acts of self-presentation. This may seem like a minor thing, but it isn’t. Assuming that it is possible to convey one’s experiences to others, on an as is basis, there’s no telling whether one is dealing with experiences or stories about those experiences. There’s also the big if, whether it is even possible to do that, to convey one’s experiences to others, without those experiences getting altered, one way or another, deliberately or not. If you’ve read my essays, or my articles, for that matter, you’ll know that I’m in the camp that thinks that it’s not possible, nor interesting, really. Instead, what’s interesting is how people come experience things in certain ways, the way they do, inasmuch as they do, if they do, which for sure isn’t the same thing as someone telling about their experiences, whether or not it’s possible to be do that.

I’ve seen plenty of research, typically under the generic label of ethnography, that emphasize the importance of being inclusive, letting people tell their story, (which is fine, commendable, really, especially in lengthy unedited form) only to take their views for granted, treating them on an as is basis. I don’t know about others, but I think it’s pretty naive to think that people just happen to be sincere. Now, I’m not saying people aren’t sincere, but rather that there’s no way to tell if they are or aren’t. By no means does this devalue people’s experiences. It’s only that there’s no way of knowing, for sure, if what people say is what they experienced. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It’s fine to take it all into account, but it should be accompanied by a critical assessment, trying to figure out why people say the things they say, what the conditions of their apparition. This is something that Seilhamer does point out, while also explaining his role in the study and how it affects or may affect the participant narratives.

I didn’t really include much personal commentary in my review, for obvious reasons, but I here I like to emphasize that I liked the book. The theory part of the book, chapters 2, 3 and 4, are well written. They are concise, yet easy to comprehend. I mean, I could recommend this as good reading to just about anyone, regardless of their background. While I can’t say for sure, I’d need to test it (and I think I know just the right person to test this with!), I have a feeling that it’s highly accessible non-academics as well. It might not be considered important to other academics, I mean it might even be frowned upon, but I have to give credit to Seilhamer for making the text accessible to just about anyone. Many academic articles and books reek of stuffy formalism, a form of elitism that stresses that the expression is more important than the content. It’s just gatekeeping, making sure that the riffraff know their place. As Bakhtin (259) points out in ‘Discourse in the Novel’, it’s just about getting “bogged down in stylistic trivia”, completely ignoring “the social life of discourse” that takes place “in the open spaces of public squares, streets, cities and villages, of social groups, generations and epochs.”

So, yeah, I am so glad that this is not the case with this book. I mean, this turned out to be pleasant reading. To be honest, I don’t think it would have worked well otherwise. The narratives are rather free-form, as one might expect really, so it would have been odd to write the rest of the book in the high and mighty academic style, peppered with words that most people haven’t even heard of. The contrast would have been brutal, turning against itself, if you ask me.

I also enjoyed reading about something that’s distant to me. To be honest, my prior knowledge of Taiwan is rather limited, so I was happy to get to read about something that I’m not already well acquainted with. This also applies to the gender aspect. I mean, yes, I am familiar with women, no doubt about it, but I can’t speak for women. I don’t what it is like, so the emphasis on gender roles made this book more interesting than it would have been without it being taken into account. What I found to be particularly interesting in this regard was how in the Taiwanese context (and, Asian context in general) being a woman comes with certain perks, how, for example, it is considered more appropriate for Taiwanese women to mingle with foreign men than it is for Taiwanese men to mingle with foreign women. Now, on its own, this isn’t that interesting, but it gets interesting in the context of learning foreign languages. Again, I can’t speak for women, but, in my experience, this is also the case in Finland. I reckon it is more considered more appropriate for Finnish women to be in relationship with foreign men than it is for Finnish men to be in relationship with foreign women. It may be considered unpatriotic or something. Men may also be ridiculed for it, not for being unpatriotic, but for not succeeding in having a relationship with a ‘local’ woman. It’s a bit like, as if, no one wanted the man, so he had to look for some outsider. Something also tells me that this is a very male oriented thing, so it’s men who think men should only associate themselves with ‘local’ women. I don’t think it’s women who take issue with such, really.

Anyway, well worth reading. A breeze to flip through, while packing a punch.


  • Bakhtin, M. M. ([1934–1935] 1981). Discourse in the Novel. In M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (M. Holquist, Ed., C. Emerson and M. Holquist, Trans.) (pp. 259–422). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Seilhamer, M. F. (2019). Gender, Neoliberalism and Distinction through Linguistic Capital: Taiwanese Narratives of Struggle and Strategy. Bristol, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.