Scholars studying the anthropology of work have traditionally been interested in questions of power, class, inequality, moral economy, and the transformations brought about by global capitalism. To address these larger questions, workplace ethnography gives attention to both interactional and systemic level analysis, making linguistic methods a powerful tool for studying both talk at work and institutional discourse. Language has many social functions within the workplace, from the organization of tasks and goals to the ways people navigate relationships and perform identity. Linguistic theoretical and methodological perspectives are applied to the study of power and gatekeeping practices in institutional settings, performance of identity and gender at work, and inequalities related to race, ethnicity, and perceptions of accent. Linguistic practices in the neoliberal global economy are also an economic resource to be managed, regulated, scripted, and marketed, as part of the reflexive project of worker self-improvement. Language is also a form of labor itself in global customer service interactions, accent-reduction training, and contexts of tourism. Thus, workplace ethnography and language study complement each other, and linguistic methods and theory may be applied to major questions in the field of anthropology of work.
Lauren A. Hayes
Jillian R. Cavanaugh
Linguistic anthropology is the study of language as social action. Linguistic anthropologists study how people use language, and how, in using language, people are also defining and displaying who they are, enacting their membership in particular groups, and bringing various types of truths into being. Language, then, is a set of practices that people engage in every day in numerous forms, which helps to define their positions in their families, communities, workplaces, schools, and even nation-states. How one speaks is not only who one is—it is what one does. This is possible because language is multifunctional, that is, it works in many different ways to connect people, convey meanings and feelings, move people to action, and define who they are. The major functions of language are the referential function, the emotive function, the conative function, the poetic function, the phatic function, the metalinguistic function, and the indexical function, which often overlap when people use language and are shaped by language ideologies, that is, the beliefs and attitudes that shape speakers’ relationships to their own and others’ languages, mediating between the social practice of language and the socioeconomic, historical, and political structures within which it occurs. Language use is part of what makes humans human, and as anthropologists, focused on how humans live and make sense of each other and the world, language should always be part of what anthropologists attend to and investigate.
Linguistic and cultural shift are some of the most pressing issues facing minoritized speakers around the world. Language revitalization initiatives seek to increase the number of speakers through various pedagogical and social interventions. Language, however, is not simply a code transmitted between individuals, but comprised of a wealth of associated practices, norms, and forms of interaction in which that code has meaning. Multimodality is both an approach to the various communicative modes or semiotic fields of language, as well as a form of ethnographic practice related to media. Multimodality matters for the pedagogical methods, communicative modes, and media technologies involved in language revitalization. A multimodal approach to language revitalization includes modalities beyond a single communicative channel or form of media in recognition of the multifunctional and multidimensional nature of language.
Literature is often understood to be one of anthropology’s most recurrent and provocative companions in thought. The relationship between the two has taken a number of different and variously interrelated forms. Perhaps the most familiar of these is the theorization of the anthropologist’s status as a writer; this work tends to take its cue from certain strands of postmodernism and invokes literary techniques as tools through which to address concerns around representation and the evocation of lived experience. A second important, if often overlooked, area of research involves the study of concrete literary practices including reading, writing, performing, sharing, and listening, whether by means of ethnographic fieldwork or anthropological modes of textual analysis. Finally, there are the myriad relationships that anthropologists have maintained with particular literary figures or texts, which have proven essential to their thinking and to their lives.
Timothy de Waal Malefyt
The word “magic” refers to a broad range of beliefs and practices that include animism, charm(s), divination, enchantment, fantasy, fetish, glamour, illusion, miracles, the occult, shamanism, sorcery, spells, the supernatural, superstition, taboos, trickery, and witchcraft. Magic―once thought a core feature of “primitive societies,” abandoned by more rational, bureaucratic and progressive beliefs―is, in fact, thriving in contemporary life, and central to practices of capitalism as well as to everyday behaviors. Magic is practiced in fields of finance, government, law, medicine and health, technology, advertising, marketing, sports, the gaming industry, and theatrical performances, among other institutions. When situations allow for the assemblage of a “magician,” “rite,” and “representation” within these complex social networks and when professional skills, ideas, conditions, contexts, media, and meanings align, magic acts as an agent of change. Magic is also practiced in everyday situations in which people need to feel a sense of control in circumstances where it’s lacking, such as performing well under competitive conditions or during times of crisis with indefinite outcomes. Consequently, they rely on magical thinking—in the forms of superstitions, wishful thinking, and taboo avoidance—which is often accompanied by charms, amulets, or acts of faith to guide them through uncertainty. Conjuring terms such as “fate” and “luck” to ward off illness or improve one’s chances at getting a hit in baseball, are, in fact, ways of expressing ambiguities and dealing with conflicts of temporal existence that all humans face in one form or another. Magic structured in institutions and practiced in everyday situations is a prime example of contradiction in contemporary life. Objective knowledge of facts is increasingly understood as contingent rather than permanent, leaving room for uncertainty, mystery, the unknown, and seemingly nonrational alternatives. Scientific evidence becomes as valid as alternative facts. Documenting recent developments, it is suggested that rationality and magic are not mutually exclusive. Rather, rational behaviors and practices are suffused with magic. Magical beliefs and specific rituals complement practical knowledge so as to enhance knowledge as a way to secure success. All of these ways of thinking and social practices have something at stake, in that risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity of outcome are prevalent, and hence call on magical practices to bring about change.
Sabina M. Perrino
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article. Narratives have always been primary modes in human communication and engagement across cultures and have been used as key analytical tools in numerous disciplines. But how many narratives do individuals produce on a daily basis? This question is difficult to answer given the high variability of the types of narratives that humans tell and the fact that not every sociocultural setting might consider narratives in the same way. Individuals tell stories in many communicative practices, and they have also elaborated ideologies related to what are considered “good” or “bad” stories. These ideologies are, of course, part of specific sociocultural and linguistic contexts and thus might acquire different meanings from a cross-cultural perspective. While defining what a narrative is—how many units it contains and so forth—has been a daunting task in narratological studies, it is important to emphasize that, since the narrative turn in the 1980s, narratives have been appreciated not only for their content, or “denotational text,” but also for their pragmatic effects in the here-and-now of speech participants’ interactions, or their “interactional text.” More specifically, linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists consider narratives-as-practices instead of relying only on narratives-as-texts. From the classic Labovian model—in which narrative units are key elements for a narrative to be considered as such—to the more pragmatic and discursive approaches to narratives, many theoretical advancements have been made in this field. A linguistic anthropological analysis of a set of narratives collected in northern Italy (2003–2022) and in the United States (2017–2022) illustrates these discursive and pragmatic approaches to storytelling. These analyses thus demonstrate that narratives are interactional events in which their sociocultural surrounding is fluid, unpredictable, and, crucially, it always influences the story in significant ways as it unfolds in interaction. In this respect, while the Labovian model has been widely used, linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists have meaningfully advanced this field by adding an important pragmatic layer to their narrative theories and analyses. In their view, narratives need to include not only the sociocultural context in which they are told but, importantly, speech participants’ contributions during the storytelling event. Within this analytical and theoretical framework, scholars can unveil narrative patterns that would remain covert otherwise, such as the various spatiotemporal (or chronotopic) configurations that are encapsulated in the collected stories. In this sense, participants’ past stories can become part of the here-and-now interaction. Thus, narratives hardly have a clear division between past story and the present storytelling event, which, at times, conflate and become one.
Mass communication is a constitutive part of social life and experience across the world today, affecting how people work, practice religion, engage in politics, understand others, and so on. Indeed, in many world contexts, social actors interact with mass media on a daily basis. In doing so, they not only consume or produce media artifacts but also participate in publics. A public is a particular kind of social form that coalesces as discourse circulates among, and thereby creates, audiences of mutual attention. Through participants’ ongoing orientation to and engagement with circulation of texts and images, publics produce social arenas that link disparate persons into collectivities of shared interests, issues, and convictions. Some publics are large, general, and sustained, such as those centered on national news. Other publics focus on particular topics, such as those related to religious communities, political ideologies, marked social identities, professional worlds, or even hobby and fan cultures. Others still are relatively small scale, such as those formed among the diffuse groupings of friends and acquaintances connected on social media platforms. As venues constituted by the circulation of discourse, publics have wide-ranging social and political consequences. The interests and identities that they privilege and presuppose shape broader processes of social belonging, exclusion, and contestation. Publics ground claims to political authority through assertions of the public interest. Publics also mediate contemporary consumer capitalism, as when advertising targets particular networks of public circulation. In short, publics lie at the center of contemporary social formations and political economies. The anthropology of publics and the public sphere examines how practices and structures of mass communication mediate and generate wider forms of social and political organization. How do publics normalize some identities while marginalizing others? Under what conditions can publics emerge as political actors? How do dominant public spheres shape political cultures? In taking on these questions, anthropologists attend to the regimes of publicity; that is, constellations of participation norms, social imaginaries, media infrastructures, language ideologies, and metadiscourses that organize publics. This analytic perspective illuminates both how normative publicity is reproduced and challenged and to what effect. In addition, in focusing on discursive circulation, scholarship on publics has pushed anthropologists to develop research methodologies that go beyond face-to-face, participant observation as a tool of data collection. The anthropology of publics and the public sphere has thus emerged as a theoretically generative and methodologically innovative field that endeavors to illuminate mass communication and its implications for social life. In doing so, it has generated novel theoretical understandings of mass media, power and affect, consumption and capitalism, identity, belonging and exclusion, and the bases and limits of democratic representation.
Robert Hariman, Shauna LaTosky, Michał Mokrzan, Jamin Pelkey, and Ivo Strecker
Pragmatic linguistics, discourse analysis, and the ethnography of speaking developed rapidly from the middle of the 20th century, when researchers began to be able to take ever smaller and more efficient audiovisual recording equipment to the field, and computers helped them play back, analyze, and discuss these especially rich new data with their interlocutors on location and with their colleagues at home. Part of this newly energized research was the comparative study of rhetoric—that is, of how distinctive speech practices could have persuasive effects. It soon led to the finding that specific forms of culture produce specific forms of rhetoric, as when economic horizons (hunters, herders, cultivators, etc.) provide specific metaphorical repertoires. However, a further finding took longer to emerge. It was first articulated by the rhetoric culture project, which seeks to explore not only how culture structures rhetoric but also how rhetoric structures culture. This fundamental chiasmus was initially discussed at several international conferences in Germany and the United States and has been elaborated in nine volumes of the Berghahn Books series Studies in Rhetoric and Culture (2009–2022). A key premise of Rhetoric Culture Theory (RCT) is that human beings are neither fully free nor fully determined in what they can do, and that this tension is mediated by the continual generation of discourses from the interaction between intention, convention, and performance. Stephen Tyler has provided a model for this complex process which illustrates the open-ended and emergent nature of discourse and explains how cultures, with their diverse customs, conventions, habits, and lifestyles, are self-organizing configurations continually recreated, negotiated, and changed through texts and performances. Cultural explanation is advanced through attention to processes of argument and appeal, dissonance and resonance, variation and feedback, and the like, but the results may not be objectively functional. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote de la Mancha was chosen as RCT’s icon and telling example of this rhetorically produced and potentially fantastic nature of culture. RCT is also inspired and supported by understandings of the power of the word in other (and especially non-European) cultures. An example of this is Baldambe (Father of the Dark Brown Cow), an elder from Hamar, southern Ethiopia, who provided “historic” moments where in collaboration with the ethnographer spoken words were transformed into written ones, and texts with their own distinctive features and literary style emerged as documented in a number of publications. RCT is also influenced by the tenor of its time, not least an impending climate collapse and other threats that characterize the Anthropocene. Rhetorical and cultural abundance can be part of the existential crisis and resources for renewal on behalf of equity and sustainability. Reflecting on the relationship between speech practices and deep problems can reveal how all of culture is challenged by vicissitudes that are unanticipated and that scale up disastrously, and that call up inventive answers while testing the limits of human ingenuity.