Multimodal interaction analytical approach to children’s digital activities

by Asta Cekaite, Professor in Child Studies at Linköping University, Sweden

There are of course many rich and complex methods that are applicable and useful in the study of children’s digital activities and digital lives. Methods are related and dependent on technological possibilities to document and investigate, and to make sense of digitally based activities. An ethnomethodological approach to multimodal interactional analysis provides a particular set of analytical resources, and is characterized by its particular epistemological assumptions (that is, ways in which knowledge is created) (Goodwin, C., 2000). This approach focuses on the analysis of social actors’ embodied, multimodal communicative resources, such as language, body posture, gaze, bodily configurations, gestures in coordination with material resources, objects, and, if relevant, spatial conditions, and examines how these embodied and material resources, when used together, accomplish social actions. One main feature and interest of this ethnomethodologically inspired approach is so called ‘participants’ perspective’, that is, the point of departure that, in order to understand social actions, social organization and social life, we can fruitfully attend to and follow the participants’ (in our case, children’s) actions and activities. This position and design of studies takes the point of departure in the actual conduct of the participants, rather than theoretical assumptions or pre-defined codes and categories. Therefore, the focus of research and data collection is observational, rather than experimental or researcher-initiated metalevel events. 

What data to collect and how

Taking the ethnomethodological perspective, the objects of study are not individuals’ internal experiences or conceptualizations, but social actors’ actions and their characteristics, and the collective procedures of social order, described by attending to the social actors’ endogenous, emic perspectives and participation in their authentic social practices. An important point of departure is that participants (both adults and children) recognize in detail what the other is doing, building their own and responding to each other’s actions (Goodwin, M. & Cekaite, 2018). It is the participants’ actions that guide the data collection focus, as formulated by Charles Goodwin, one of the founders of Multimodal Interaction Analysis, “[r]ather than wandering onto field-sites as disinterested observers, attempting the impossible task of trying to catalogue everything in the setting, we can use the visible orientation of the participants as a spotlight to show us just those features of context that we have to come to terms with if we to adequately describe the organization of their actions.” (2000: 1508). 

Traditionally, video-recordings were used in order to engage in a close analysis of social life, more specifically to investigate social actors’ embodied meaning-making (Goodwin, C., 2000; 2018; Mondada, 2016). Data of digitally-based activities can be obtained by recording the screens when children use their devices (for instance, in preschool or school during their school work, in the peer group, or at home). Especially useful and interesting in this sense are activities where children interact not only with digital media, but also with each other or adults. Of course, other kinds of documentation of screen-based activity (such as screen capture and other kinds of logs) are also relevant for making sense of children’s actions and in a more general perspective, examination of contemporary childhoods. 

Analytical procedures

Video recordings and digital data are for analytical purposes transformed into detailed transcripts and then are deployed to investigate and demonstrate social actors’ meaning making. A usual work procedure utilized by the ethnomethodological community concerns so called data-sessions that involve researchers’ presentation of video recordings, transcripts and other kinds of data for collegial scrutiny of interpretation.  

As mentioned, an important characteristic of multimodal interaction analytical studies concerns the interest in naturally occurring activities and how various digital resources feature in these. An illustration of this point is research on the educational use of tablets for digitally stored stories in preschool activities (Cekaite & Björk-Willén, 2018). By using multimodal analysis of video-recordings of teacher-child group reading, this video-ethnographic study of preschool’s everyday life has shown that there were no significant differences between tablet-based reading, as compared to picture-book reading. The teachers used similar ways of displaying picture-based information by turning the tablet images towards the children in order to build their understanding of the plot, excitement and enchantment with the story (similar to the ways documented in picture-book reading). 

 A teacher uses an Ipad, reading story from it

Such analysis of naturally occurring uses of digital resources can allow the researcher to discover and produce novel insights into changing digital activities and childhoods, as well as allow the researcher to critically examine the ‘novelty’ of practices that disclose both ‘continuity’ and ‘change’ in human modes of engagement. 


Cekaite, A. & Björk-Wilén, P. (2018). Enchantment in storytelling: Co-operation and participation in children’s aesthetic experience.Linguistics and Education, 48, 52-60. 

Goodwin, C. (2000). Action and embodiment within situated human interaction. Journal of Pragmatics 32, 1489 – 1522. 

Goodwin, C. (2018). Co-operative action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goodwin, M. H. & Cekaite, A. (2018). Embodied family choreography. Practices of control, care and creativity. Routledge. 

Mondada, L. (2016). Challenges of multimodality: Language and the body in social interaction. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 20, 336-366. 

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