The sociolinguist’s toolkit: Some definitions

Here are some of the must-know definitions in my sociolinguistic “toolkit.”

[Note: This list is incomplete and will undoubtedly expand over time, but for now]:

1. sociolinguistics

2. culture
Culture is a loaded word with many definitions depending on the context in which it is used (in popular reference, depending on the discipline, and so on).  I like Riley’s (2007) definition of culture as “social knowledge.”  For example, even two people born on the same day on the same street will have different cultural compositions because of the diversity of their experiences in comparison with one another, the layers of their socialization and their differential access to knowledge.  In other words, Riley says that each person lunches from a “vast smorgasbord” and the product of their individual trays is analogous to their “culture.”  This idea is in opposition to common ideologies about culture as one’s nationality, ethnicity, or something we “have” or “don’t have.”  However, the insidious use of culture to promote a divisive or discriminatory agenda is still very much at play in public discourse.

3. community of practice (CoP)
In the same way the definition of culture above complicates the notion that culture is something we “have,” the idea of community of practice focuses on how common practices hold social groups together, not social constructs like gender, ethnicity, or nationality.  The latter are what Anderson refers to as “imagined communities” – social constructs that are ideologically motivated, especially for nationalistic purposes.  Looking at groups from the CoP approach illuminates that social groups are held together, so to speak, by shared knowledge and practices.  Language is an important dimension of any community of practice.   Think for example of attending a gathering of people practicing a religion other than your own.  Being a participant observer in that situation, you will see that people will all seem to know a particular prayer by memory, when to sit or stand, and how to behave more generally.  As you engage in the practice(s) of that community, over time it will become so familiar almost as if it’s second nature to you… this is what Bordieu meant by habitus, Scollon&Scollon by historical body or embodiment of practice.

4. narrative
Revived by social psychologists in the 70s and 80s, linguistics began to look at narrative as a specialized speech event with a lot of discursive power, a genre of its own and a force to be reckoned with.  Whether it’s looking at narrative as sites of identity construction on the individual (Schiffrin, de Fina) or institutional level (Linde), fodder for a nexus analysis / “activist sociolinguistic” approach to understanding human behavior (Scollon and Scollon, Rodney), socialization in literacy practices (Shirley Brice Heath), or narrative in multimodal or computer-mediated settings, narrative is an endless field of study as you can find them any number of places in daily life.

5. pragmatics (speech acts / speech act theory)

6. role theory –> positioning –> stance / (identity construction)
Who we are (or consider ourselves to be) has implications for how we present ourselves, how others orient to us, and is constantly changing and shaping talk-in-interaction.  Positioning, derived from the work of Harre and Davies (1991) in social/discursive psychology,  is a theoretical and analytic framework sociolinguists use to better understand identity construction in emergent interaction. As it was originally intended more for narrative, positioning theory is comprised of a “mutually-determining triad” of positions, storylines and speech acts.  [See here for my latest application of positioning theory to conflict talk in political discourse].  So for example, as an immigration advocacy organization (position) faced with unexpected racist/xenophobic commentary from an elected official, you might take a particular storyline (i.e. “immigrants want the same thing as anyone else, the American Dream”) and demand an apology (speech act).  This actually happened recently in DC, see here.

Stance, as outlined by du Bois (2007) is a more recent adaptation of positioning theory which has the advantage of bringing together various types of “positions” one can take in an interaction, including affective, propositional, and interactional.  It also relies on a 3-part process, which says that “I evaluate something, and thereby position myself, and thereby align (with respect to) you” (ibid).  Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, but are both ripe for understanding how identity is emergent in interaction and not a static thing.

In the working world, having this knowledge facilitates an approach to identity that is fluid and considerate of people’s self identification, not a priori assumptions about membership in macro social categories.  As a mixed race person myself, I know all too well the frustration that goes with being forced to check one box only!

7. discourse analysis

8.  framing / footing
Framing refers to our structures of expectations in interaction.  In other words, it’s what guides us to the appropriate interpretation of “what’s going on” in everyday conversation.  These expectations are culturally-guided, in the sense that they are based on our own experiences and social knowledge.  Even monkeys at play, for example, need to be able to tell the difference between a play bite or a serious attack.  We as humans identify frames using linguistic and paralinguistic cues.  A more recent example in political discourse is Rush Limbaugh’s radio commentary on Sandra Fluke’s testimony advocating for insurance companies and employers to cover contraception.  Progressives interpret his commentary in the frame of hate speech, whereas Limbaugh himself says it should be interpreted in the frame of comedy or sarcasm.

9. geosemiotics –> visual semiotics

10. intercultural (or interdiscourse) communication
The history of cross-cultural communication as an object of scholarly attention began around WWII when the US government realized that it would behoove them to know how to communicate in other languages, if only to gather intelligence on the “enemy.”  It was revived again in the 80s in a business-driven approach to address communication “problems” in a globalizing corporate world.  Scollon would say that these two aforementioned approaches were problematic, in the basic sense that they got the “problem” wrong.  Earlier work approached “cultural” or “language” differences as the end all be all to improving communication across “difference,” often focusing on conflict and miscommunication.  Misunderstanding between people was often described as “cultural” or “linguistic.”  [Note: the Peace Corps continues this approach as it heralds early CCC scholar Edward T. Hall, see my short blog post on this topic here].

To this end, Scollon says “Cultures do not communicate, people do.”  His approach, intercultural or interdiscourse communication departs radically from a priori assumptions about what “culture” is and focuses instead on discourse systems, actions, and practices.  These 3 things vary from individual to individual.  Scollon’s critical approach to language, communication, and social action in the intercultural context shows us that 1) most approaches to CCC are misinformed because 2) “miscommunication” doesn’t actually stem from culture or language, and that 3) looking at actions and practices of social actors is the only way to understand what’s really going on.  Furthermore, his push for an activist sociolinguistics couldn’t jive better with what I envision for the field.

11. nexus and mediated discourse analysis

12. ethnography of speaking/communication/action

13. critical discourse analysis
While discourse analysis is interested in “small d” discourse, CDA is all about the “big D” discourses: how language (re)produces and maintains larger discourses of racism, ideology, and power.

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“Culture” à la Peace Corps: A case study of intercultural training materials

This year the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th birthday.  The federally-funded program has sent nearly a quarter million Americans around the world, since it was signed and enacted into law by President John F. Kennedy.  While many friends of mine are current or past Peace Corps volunteers, I got into a heated debate with a friend about it just before she left for Panama.  The argument went something like this:  “You should really do it, Noelle.  If you don’t travel to other countries, you’ll never get out of that DC mindset, you’ll never be cultured.”  “But why do I need to travel to ‘be cultured?’  Do I not ‘have’ culture just as I am?  What do you mean by culture anyway?”

Though we never resolved the debate, I found myself wondering recently if and how my friend’s understanding of the elusive term “culture” might change through his Peace Corps service.  What is it that she will have gained from her time in Colombia – is it really “culture?”  Our debate is symptomatic of a larger issue and so the question we might ask here is: How does the Peace Corps define “culture” and when is it invoked?  How does Peace Corps use the term to prepare their volunteers to live abroad? In what follows,  I take a critical look at “culture” as it is used and appropriated by Peace Corps in their “Culture Matters: Cross Cultural Workbook[1].”  I will make use of key readings in the field of  intercultural communication by Scollon and Scollon (1997, 2012) and Piller (2007).

As part of their pre-departure training, volunteers are given a “Cross Cultural Workbook” – a 266-page crash course in “what to expect when you’re crossing cultures” to help prepare volunteers for the “toughest job you’ll ever love” (1).  A caveat in the introduction claims that “while it impossible to talk about culture without generalizing” (2) it warns readers from making a priori assumptions and generalizations about cultures.  Nevertheless, the document proceeds to do exactly that.  From my reading of the document I find many of the prevailing views of “cross cultural communication[2],” which have been addressed and problematized in the study of intercultural/interdiscourse communication pioneered by Scollon (1997, 2003, 2012) and others, including:

1) culture as national identity (Piller, 2007: 211); “stereotyping interculturalism” (Scollon, 1997: 5)

2) culture as “predictive” or “normative” (Piller, 2007:212)

3) emphasis on miscommunication, and that being rooted in “cultural difference” (ibid.)

4) “lumping” and “binarism” (Scollon and Scollon, 2012:4)

5) non-empirical; use of constructed examples abstracted from social interaction (ibid.)

Throughout the manual, quotes from Peace Corps members, staff, and others are inserted in the sidebar that illustrate the points above.  In this quote by a PCV (Peace Corp Volunteer) stationed in Korea, culture is synonymous with nationality (“Koreans are…”), rather than the prevailing social scientific understanding of identity, on the basis of any social category (race, gender, nationality) as an abstraction or social construction.  In addition to falling prey to Scollon’s “stereotyping interculturalism,” the text also treats culture as “predictive.” Thus, we can understand how Koreans “live their lives” because they are Confucian and all people who believe in Confucian principles act in X way.  This idea is similar to what Scollon and Scollon (2012) refer to as “lumping” and “binarism.”  By saying that “Koreans are…” the author(s) essentialize(s) and reifies/y the social category of “Korean,” implying that all Koreans are alike (i.e. “lumping”).  Lastly, by juxtaposing the lifestyle of “Koreans” with her/his own, the author(s) discursively draw(s) the boundary between Koreans and Americans (i.e. “binarism”).

In this second example, we see another common pitfall of the cross cultural communication approach:  The use of constructed examples rather than empirically-driven ones.  Despite being a thought-provoking scenario, it is problematic for many reasons – namely, in which country is “prejudice against Black people traditional?”  Racism and discrimination is hardly a “tradition,” it is a behavior; an action that cannot be essentialized as a lifestyle or characteristic of a macro social category.

In conclusion, I would like to return to the idea that “it is impossible to talk about culture without generalizing.”  Scollon and others, through mediated discourse analysis and its methodological arm of nexus analysis have demonstrated that this simply is not the case.   Furthermore, if the Peace Corps took a mediated discourse analytic approach, perhaps they would come to the conclusion that what is often written off as “cultural” misunderstanding is actually linguistically based.


[1] Peace Corps “Culture Matters: Cross Cultural Workbook,” http://www.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/library/T0087_culturematters.pdf, Intercultural Press, accessed on February 5, 2012

[2] Using Scollon’s (1997, 2012) distinction between cross cultural communication (CCC) and intercultural communication