Language, broadly construed as systems of representation, is arguably the foundation of shared culture‚Äîit is the premier symbolic system. While language is central to social interaction and social structures, it remains at the margins of sociological research and theory. Given the profoundly interpretative nature of language, studies of language often have been regarded as being more humanistic than scientific. Within Sociology, studies of language have tended to focus on highly technical aspects of conversation analysis, perhaps reflecting an effort to reconcile the importance of language and the demands of science. However, with changing and contested notions of what constitutes a social science and deeper appreciation for the inseparability of symbolic practices and material realities, more sociologists are turning to a broad range of theories and methods for apprehending the sociological importance of language.
Moving away from the highly technical focus associated with conversation analysis, sociologists are increasingly concerned about the ability of studies of language to effectively apprehend routine relations of power and privilege‚Äîto get at the reproduction of power in the dailiness of ordinary life. For example, a superficial review of literature might include Steinberg's (1999) analysis of how material and discursive forces conjoin in shaping inequalities; Williams' (1999) exploration of the relevance of French Discourse Analysis for a language-based empirical research; Bourdieu's (2003) argument for the potency of symbolic power in strengthening relations of oppression and exploitation; Osha's (2005) argument for the usefulness of poststructural discourse analysis for African scholars seeking to develop Afrocentric scholarship; and Pascale's (2007) use of ethnomethodological and poststructural principles in her analysis of commonsense knowledge about race, class, and gender.
Scholars whose research on language ranges from sociolinguistics to poststructural discourse analysis are united by the desire to look at rather than through systems of communication. Yet it is somewhat curious that such a broad focus on language has been lacking at the ASA. Early in the 1970s, Joshua Fishman ("Author's Postscript" in Dil, 1972) described the failure of "sociology of language"to make any visible impact on American academic sociology, in spite of growing research by linguists and social scientists that bridged those disciplines. The times had seemed promising, exemplified by a 1964 meeting of key researchers around the country, supported by the Social Science Research Council's Committee on Sociolinguistics. The International Sociological Association (ISA) had a thriving Research Committee (RC) on Sociolinguistics, fed mainly by research from Western European and Russian sociologists. But no corresponding organizational response emerged in the ASA.1
From the '60s until now, sociologists in the United States have had recourse only to organizational strands that recently converged as ASA's section "Ethnomethodology & Conversation Analysis - EMCA"(one strand was originally called "Sociolinguistics & Conversation Analysis"). The EMCA represents some overlapping interests with members of the LCN who assembled at the ASA '08 to talk about sociological studies of language. However, for the most part, the EMCA has carved out research questions and techniques that do not easily accommodate the many approaches and more broadly conceived sociological studies of language that were being discussed at our Culture section roundtable, described below.
Language as an explicit focus of study can occasionally be found in the titles of papers presented in various Sections (e.g. Sociology of Education; Race, Class and Gender; and, especially Sociology of Culture). Further, the ASA does include "Language and Social Linguistics"as one of 72 topics that members may check as an area of interest. (Interestingly, "Language and Social Linguistics"is grouped under "Qualitative Methods" which is one of 17 broad topic areas, rather than under "Sociology of Culture.") "Language and Social Linguistics"also is used to index sessions in the annual Program (in 2008, only one session besides ours was indexed there.) And, "Language & Social Linguistics"is a category of "Special Programs"that graduate sociology programs can select to show in ASA's Directory of Graduate Departments. In 2008, only three did so (UC, Santa Barbara; UC Santa Cruz, and Indiana University.)
Outside the ASA, the most obvious similar organizational niche is, as already noted, the ISA. Today the RC on Sociolinguistics has been replaced by the salient RC 25, "Language and Society" which emphasizes its large umbrella by listing 14 styles of analysis on its home page‚Äîand those are intended to be illustrative. Unfortunately, the cost of attending international meetings excludes many who are interested from ready access to that venue. Within the Linguistic Society of America, and other linguistics associations, "sociolinguistics"is well-established, but most sociologists interested in the study of language do not see themselves as linguists, nor have the requisite grounding in formal linguistics. Another cognate organizational niche is found in the National Communication Association, which has a section on "Language and Social Interaction", whose current program chair has a sociology Ph.D. Again, however, most sociologists with interests in language do not identify as scholars of communication.
Our ambition is to change this state of affairs; we want to provide a new venue (both virtual and in-person) for thinking about language by sociologists, for sociologists. Like many before us, we have turned to the Culture Section and its provision for establishing research networks as a resource for organizing ourselves, for establishing a core community of scholars who can begin to imagine and implement a new, diverse agenda for sociological research on language as an institution and for the study of language use as a foundational system of practices.
At ASA's 2008 meeting, nearly 30 sociologists crowded around one of the Culture roundtables to begin identifying colleagues and specific topics under the banner of "sociological studies of language." The session kicked off with one example of a proposed approach: Harrison White (2008a) presented a paper laying out his framework-in-process, making good on his promise in the updated 2nd edition of his classic Identity and Control (2008b), to extend his theory of "How Social Formations Emerge"through study of language and linguistics. After the presentation, participants traded ideas back and forth, trying to get a handle on what was being defined in the paper, what was being missed by current approaches, what might be created if we stood back and started afresh.
The crowd was a mix. Many were there to hear what Harrison would propose next in his ongoing project of reassembling a framework for sociological analysis. White, along with his students and colleagues has long been at the forefront of inventing new styles of cultural sociology that blend formal methods, especially techniques from social network analysis, with various research projects in the sociology of "culture (Mohr and White, 2008). Others were there because their work already focused on other styles of sociological studies of language, or they were considering going in that direction, and they were intrigued by the prospect of meeting a collection of like-minded colleagues. Several attendees (as well as some who could not attend but wrote about their interest in the new network) hoped to link up professionally with people sharing their more specific interests. Relishing the rare opportunity for such a gathering in the U.S., the ensuing discussion of activities to be undertaken and ways to do so as a group, was energized and passionate.
Our goal is to approach the study of language in much the same fashion that scholars in this Section have approached the problems of culture. We take up the systematic sociological investigation of language as a social process through which all forms of materiality, structure and interaction gain meaning and relevance. The Language and Culture Network will reconvene in San Francisco where we will take up these matters once again; before that August date, the network is experimenting with online means to carry on collegial sharing of ideas, references, etc. We intend to push forcefully on the question of what new sociologies of language might look like and how we as sociologists might advance a more effective and more broadly integrated research agenda for our newly formed research network on Language and Culture. We invite you to join us!
References (not in published newsletter)
Bourdieu, Pierre. (2003). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Dil, Anwar S. Ed. (1972), Language in Sociocultural Change: Essays by Joshua A.
Fishman, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Mohr, John W. and Harrison C. White (2008). “How to Model an Institution”. Theory
and Society 37:485-512.
Osha, Sanya (2005). Kwasi Wiredu and Beyond: The Text, Writing and Thought in Africa. Dakra, Senegal: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.
Pascale, Celine-Marie. (2007). Making Sense of Race, Class and Gender: Commonsense,
Power and Privilege in the U.S. New York: Routledge.
Steinberg, Marc. 1999. Fighting Words: Working-Class Formation, Collective Action, and Discourse in Early 19th Century England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
White, Harrison C. (2008a). “A Framework for Discussing Meaning and Language.”
Paper presented at the Culture Section Roundtable, American Sociological Association meetings, Boston, MA.
White, Harrison C. (2008b). Identity and Control: How Social Formations Emerge, 2/e.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Williams, G. (1999). French Discourse Analysis: The method of post-structuralism. New York: Routledge.
*Adapted with minor copy editing, including providing references, from “Culture,” Spring 2009, Newsletter of the Sociology of Culture Section, American Sociological Association.