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Article

Ideology and Practice in Academic Approaches to Language Revitalization  

Sarah Shulist

“Language revitalization” is an umbrella term that captures a range of interventions and forms of language planning that endeavor to improve the future prospects of Indigenous and minority languages, which have been marginalized through colonial violence and political and economic imperialism. The study of how best to provide this kind of support has become a vital topic across several disciplines within academia, including most obviously linguistics, but also education, Indigenous studies, and anthropology. Language revitalization in the 21st century constitutes not only a topic of analysis but also a community of practice in its own right, which is shaped by cultural norms, values, and activities. The community of practice constituted around the effort to support languages takes particular form in North American academic institutions, where Indigenous languages of the continent are the primary target for such interventions. As an area of work focusing heavily on language, revitalization initiatives rely on, transmit, and enhance specific language ideologies—culturally specific beliefs, values, and norms that not only help to articulate the value of language or different languages but also express different understandings of what language is, how it can or should be used, and what it means to speak in particular ways. While academic ways of understanding and discussing language are often treated as neutral, detached facts, they are in fact manifestations of language ideologies. These ideologies are expressed and transmitted within the ways that academic language revitalization work is accomplished, through the institutional structures (including university courses, training institutes, and other sites within academia) in which it is housed, and in the citational practices and narratives that are used to articulate and justify involvement in revitalization. Several core language ideological beliefs shape the practice of academic language revitalization. The housing of language revitalization primarily within linguistics courses and programs, as well as some of the historical trajectory through which thought about language loss has come into academic interest, influence the way that language, rather than speakers or community, is treated as the target for support. Practices that emphasize the numerical assessment of the level of threat that a language faces rely on specific formulations of how language connects to identity, the role of literacy and writing, and the relationship between language and national-level politics. The circulation of the outcomes of subjective assessment practices as quantitative statements promotes their entextualization as though they were objective facts. Additional major areas of power and political influence that intersect with the practice of language revitalization—including religious missionary activities, the environmental preservation movement, and Indigenous decolonization initiatives—all influence and transform expectations about language work; these influences are sometimes rendered invisible in the academic discussion. Recognizing and attuning to these ideologies within the practice of language revitalization and seeing the work as situated through researcher positionality is necessary for a full understanding of the role that academics can and do play in shaping the futures of Indigenous languages.

Article

The Internal African Slave Trade as History and Representation  

Marcos Leitão de Almeida

The internal African slave trade is a key topic to understand the political, cultural, and economic history of Africa. As a colonial category, the concept emerged throughout the 19th century as European imperial powers, spearheaded by European antislavery movements, constructed a discourse of abolition associated with the expansion of commerce, Christianity, and civilization. In the process, European imperial agents increasingly challenged the political sovereignty of African states and laid the ground for the discourse of racial inferiority of Africans. At the same time, the term also refers, then as now, to the expansion of the internal slave trade within the continent after 1850. Slavers in different parts of the continent continued to move people across the landscape to provide human labor, this time not for slave ships along the Atlantic coast but for the development of economic undertakings within the continent itself, such as clove plantations on Africa´s east coast, palm oil in West Africa, and the onset of coffee and sugar plantations in Angola. As a colonial and historical category, the internal slave trade is crucial to understanding 19th-century Africa. Moreover, with discoveries in archaeology and historical linguistics, the internal slave trade has been shown to have a much older history, connected with the making of polities in Northeast Africa such as Egypt and Meroë, the trade in slaves and gold in West Africa from the time of the Garamantes to the expansion of Mali, and the settlement of Bantu-speaking villages in Central Africa in the last millennium bce. In this way, the internal African slave trade was not one but many; internal slave trades were, rather, locally generated and emerged in different periods and places in response to distinct contexts and motivations. Therefore, the 19th-century internal African slave trade, with its spin-off stereotyped representation of a continent without history, needs to be supplemented by an understanding of the multiple slave trades in Africa’s early past, as evidenced by historical linguistics and archaeology.

Article

Language and Colonial Rule  

David Tavárez

The study, classification, and standardization of languages by scholars, missionaries, and administrators played a vital and often protean role in the implementation and enforcement of colonial domination. Ongoing scholarship surveys the merging of linguistic investigations and linguistic knowledge with colonial hegemony in the Americas and East Asia between the late 15th century and the end of World War II, with a sustained focus on Mesoamerica and the Andes. European colonial expansion from the 15th century onward resulted in the emergence of multiple philological and lexicographic projects that were intimately tied to a hegemonic refashioning of the social order through the establishment of extractive economic regimes, colonial administrative systems, and religious institutions that sought to Christianize and discipline colonial subjects. The conversion, education, and surveillance of these subjects were intricately tied to colonial governance objectives, priests, missionaries, and colonial officials who worked in tandem with Indigenous scholars and assistants who described and documented Indigenous languages. As a result of colonial policies, new vernaculars emerged, and regional languages underwent severe language shift or extinction. Even after the demise of colonial regimes, the linguistic policies embraced by nation-states relied on highly racialized, neocolonial approaches to linguistic and ethnic difference.

Article

Language and Culture in Workplace Ethnography  

Lauren A. Hayes

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.

Article

Language and Health  

Steven P. Black

Defined broadly, the anthropological study of language and health is as old as the field itself. In early writings, medicine and language were often treated as core aspects of cultural traditions. Since these early influences, four anthropological approaches to this topic have developed. The first approach, rooted in cognitive and psychological anthropology, examines cultural models of illness, explanations of illness, and narratives about illness. While this research provides significant insights into the relationship between language and understandings of experiences with illness, much of this work assumes monolingualism or, in some cases, includes multilingual speakers but does not explicitly address multilingualism as a facet of analysis. However, some scholarship examines the linguistic and experiential dynamics that occur when an explanatory model is shifted wholesale from one linguistic and cultural context to another. The second approach, based in medical anthropology, theorizes how medical discourses (in the sense of the limits of what persons might say or could say in specific medical contexts) shape the development of culturally specific subjectivities. In this research, many scholars expand on the idea that medical systems are cultural systems, especially in their analysis of the disjuncture between the authoritative stance of scientific medicine—with claims to be outside of or beyond culture—and the reality that scientific medicine is itself cultural and is embedded in distinct cultural contexts. Here, the bio– prefix (as in biopolitics, biopower, and biosociality) points toward the profound power of scientific medicine to reshape human bodies and thus human relationships, which become mediated by scientific medical discourses. The third approach, connected to linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, and conversation analysis, analyzes how health discourses (in the sense of documented linguistic and conversational patterns spoken in recorded health encounters) construct inequities and constitute cultural understandings of health and illness. Anthropological scholarship builds on the examination of the conversational construction of medical encounters in numerous ways, among them a discussion of what happens when individuals from marginalized cultural and linguistic backgrounds enter health care spaces. Finally, a novel framework links elements of the previous three approaches in interdisciplinary configurations to argue that language and health are co-constituted. This includes work on the pragmatics and ideologies of recovery and care, the discursive constitution of public and global health, medical translation, and health/communicative inequities.

Article

Language and (Trans)nationalism  

Kinga Kozminska

Language has always been entangled in vernacular-cosmopolitan visions. Transnational modes of transformation in the 21st century cannot, therefore, be understood without a close examination of changing ideals of linguistic legitimacy, their entanglement in politics of listening and embodied knowledges of the “listener.” A close examination of these developments enables us to see how language has been historically linked to modernity, rationality, technology, and society, and how an ideal of standard language ideology emerged in relation to particular politics of modernity and history of colonial legacy. This in turn has shaped the global order and contributes to social inequalities worldwide. To search for strategies for “understanding how time and space feel” and get transformed through interactions between the material and the social in the 21st century, research focuses on scale-making practices among transnational individuals and groups, their embodied enactments and entanglement in network cultures and specific rearrangements of materials. By doing so, it highlights sociolinguistic research’s capacity to counter unequal expectations in transnational space. Collected evidence promotes a holistic study of discourse, where recognition of changing research possibilities, positionalities, ecologies of media, and aesthetics may enable a better understanding of the continual processes of political linguistic figuration, see all communication as care, and study how its multiple readings are embedded in theory, politics, and technology.

Article

Language and Violence  

Robin Conley Riner

Theorizations of language and violence have a long history of coarticulation. Those theorizing violence have looked to language to make sense of it, and scholars of language have recognized a violence inherent in its structure and use. Anthropologists have used ethnography to explore differing experiences of violence, with a focus on everyday violence. Such work has uncovered the ways in which language can facilitate, justify, construct, normalize, and resist experiences of violence. Linguistic anthropologists, in particular, have articulated the discursive nature of structural violence, speech acts as forms of violence, and language policies and forms of language classification as violent practices.

Article

Language and White Supremacy  

Jennifer Roth-Gordon

White supremacy is a racial order that relies on a presumed “natural” superiority of whiteness and assigns to all groups racialized as non-white biological or cultural characteristics of inferiority. Despite decades of scientific studies refuting these claims, beliefs in racial difference continue to rely on ideas of innate or genetic differences between groups. Scholars now widely agree that race is a social, cultural, and political distinction that was and continues to be forged through relations of transatlantic slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. A focus on white supremacy does not limit scholars to the study of white supremacists, that is, those individuals and groups that outwardly espouse a racial order that privileges whiteness and white people and frequently endorse physical violence to maintain this order. Under white supremacy, societies privilege whiteness even in the absence of explicit laws and sometimes while promoting ideologies of racial inclusion and equality. Contexts of white supremacy feature the consolidation of white power and wealth at the expense of people of color—an arrangement that is maintained through racial capitalism, settler colonialism, anti-blackness, imperial conquest, Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, and xenophobic or anti-immigrant sentiment. Widespread awareness of linguistic difference can be mobilized to support these pillars of white supremacy through a range of official language policies and overt acts of linguistic suppression, as well as more covert or subtle language practices and ideologies. While the term “white supremacy” has gained broader circulation in the 21st century, these topics have been studied by linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists for decades under the more familiar headings of “race and language,” “racism and language,” and “raciolinguistics.” This scholarship examines how racial domination is consolidated, maintained, and justified through attention paid to language, but also the ways that marginalized speakers take up a broad range of linguistic practices to challenge assumptions about the superiority of whiteness and emphasize non-white racial pride, community ties, and cultural and linguistic heritage and traditions. Racial and linguistic hierarchies work together to falsely connect whiteness and the use of “standard” (officially sanctioned) language with rationality, intelligence, education, wealth, and higher status. Under these racial logics, speakers of languages associated with non-whiteness are readily linked to danger, criminality, a lack of intelligence or ability, primitivism, and foreignness. Together these ideologies naturalize connections between languages or specific linguistic practices and types of people, producing the conditions under which racialized speakers experience discrimination, marginalization, exclusion, oppression, and violence. At the same time, speakers challenge these power dynamics through linguistic practices that range from codeswitching, bilingualism and multilingualism, and language revitalization efforts, to verbal traditions both old and new, including social media genres. Though racial hierarchy continues to be bolstered by a linguistic hierarchy that assigns higher value to English as well as other European or colonial languages, linguistic variation persists, as speakers proudly embrace linguistic practices that defy the push to assimilate or submit to language loss. Beliefs in the superiority of whiteness have global resonance, but local specificities are important, and a majority of research has thus far been conducted within the context of the United States. Scholars who study language, racial inequality, and oppression continue to weigh in on public policies and debates in an attempt to raise awareness on these issues and advocate for racial and social justice.

Article

Language as Social Action  

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.

Article

Language Ideologies  

Catherine R. Rhodes

Language ideologies are a mediating device that helps people make sense of the relationship between linguistic and other communicative patterns and socially salient categories. Language ideologies are used to evaluate socially perceivable behavior as meaningful with respect to issues of power, authority, and difference. They can be understood as a framework for linking certain uses of language (or other communicative forms) with certain social positionalities. The study of language ideologies involves examining the social work language users do through their behaviors, activities, and social relations. As a concept grounded in indexical processes, analyzing the social work of language ideologies requires a semiotic framework that can make clear how people evaluate context, which can also evidence their understanding of social distribution. This article defines key terms in language ideologies research, provides a brief history of the development of the concept, discusses methodological considerations when studying language ideologies, explores scholarship on the making of social difference through linguistic ideological work, and discusses key areas of research interest.

Article

Language Revitalization and Multimodality  

Georgia Ennis

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.

Article

Literacy  

Laura Sterponi and Jenny Zhang

Literacy has been in the purview of anthropological inquiry since the late 19th century. In fact, while linguistics repudiated written language as derivative and secondary (Saussure), it has been anthropology that has chiefly contributed to the establishment of literacy as a domain worthy of investigation. Whether through historical analysis or ethnographic methods, anthropologists have consistently attempted to elucidate literacy’s effects on human cognition and societal organization. Early formulations conceptualized literacy as a technology and connected the acquisition of writing to a significant enhancement of cognitive capacities at the level of the individual and to the inception of democracy at a societal level. This view was subsequently criticized and, in the 1980s, replaced with a socioculturally situated perspective which theorized literacy as a cultural practice expressed in manifold cultural activities and at the same time shaped by political, economic, and ideological conditions. Attempting to overcome both technological determinism and cultural relativism, theoretical formulations of the last few decades have advanced a techno-cultural articulation and an expansion toward multimodality. As theories of literacy have come to affirm plurality, complicating linear trajectories and teleological narratives underpinning alphabetic ascendancy, literacy education has turned into a more complex and controversial focus of inquiry. On the one hand, literacy researchers have taken to examining a wide range of contexts beyond schools, thus displacing schooled literacy from center stage. On the other hand, they have acknowledged that schooled literacy continues to have a very powerful function in society. Scholarship at the intersections of literacy and disability and of literacy and race illuminates the functioning of schooled literacy as a mechanism for the maintenance and reproduction of a social order predicated on racial hierarchies and ableism. The methodological toolkit of cultural and linguistic anthropologists equips them well to achieve rich documentation of literacy practices on the ground and to shed light on the political and economic forces that shape textual activities locally and globally. In advancing the literacy research program, anthropologists can be instrumental in deepening our understanding of literacy as a transnational phenomenon and as an international enterprise. Building on the important work that has brought to light the ways certain conceptualizations and implementations of literacy align with systems of oppression and inequity, anthropologists are also well positioned to advocate refashioning and repositioning literacy as an instrument and objective of social justice and community empowerment.

Article

Literature and Anthropology  

Andrew Brandel

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.

Article

Magical Practice  

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.

Article

Narrative in Sociocultural Studies of Language  

Sabina M. Perrino

Narratives are primary modes in human communication and engagement across cultures and have been used as key analytical tools in numerous disciplinary fields. 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 (2003–2023) and in the United States (2017–2023) illustrates these discursive and pragmatic approaches to storytelling. These analyses demonstrate that narratives are interactional events in which their sociocultural surrounding is fluid and unpredictable, and, crucially, it always influences the story in significant ways as it unfolds in interaction. In this respect, while the narrative model elaborated by William Labov in the 1960s 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 the past story and the present storytelling event, which, at times, conflate and become one.

Article

Performativity in Africa  

Katrina Daly Thompson and Mwita Muniko

Judith Butler’s theory of performativity has been highly influential in anthropological studies, particularly of gender and sexuality. Drawing on J. L. Austin’s concept of language as action, Butler’s theory challenges identity categories and emphasizes the role of language and other semiotic resources in constructing, reproducing, and resisting social identities and power relations. While much research has focused on applying Butler’s theory to studies of gender and sexuality in the West, there is a growing interest in its application to diverse cultural settings, including African societies. The use of Butler’s theory of performativity in anthropology to understand how language and other semiotic resources are used to perform specific social actions in African contexts goes beyond gender and sexuality to encompass various areas such as research, statehood, nationhood and nationalism, kinship, religious identity and piety, respectability and social hierarchy, race and ethnicity, morality and dignity, everyday interactions, aging, and citizenship. Examining these aspects of performativity reveals the complex interplay between language and social action in shaping cultural practices and beliefs in Africa and beyond. The translation of Butler’s theory in Africa-focused anthropology emphasizes the importance of examining cultural practices and beliefs within specific sociocultural contexts rather than imposing external frameworks or preconceptions. It highlights the diverse and dynamic nature of African societies’ cultural practices and beliefs, offering a valuable theoretical framework for understanding them and contributing to a nuanced understanding of the construction of social practices and beliefs in African societies and beyond.

Article

Publics and the Public Sphere  

Andrew Graan

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.

Article

Rhetoric Culture Theory  

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.

Article

Sign Languages  

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway and Kristin Snoddon

Ethnographic studies of sign languages illuminate and complicate the ways in which the category of sign language is differentiated from other categories, including the categories of language and non-language, different types of sign languages, and signed versus spoken languages. These studies also highlight how sign language ideologies emerge in particular contexts, methods, and interpretations of data. An ethics of nonnormative communication is both an object and a mode of inquiry in anthropological and ethnographic studies of sign languages. Rather than pursuing categorical distinctions between codes and modalities, ethnographic studies show that such distinctions hinge on the situated interpretations that people make based on their life experiences, their sensory orientations, and the ideological frameworks that mediate their assessments.

Article

Social Media  

Kendra Calhoun

Foundational linguistic anthropological theories of community, identity, and multimodality, among other topics, offer invaluable insights into communicative practices on social media. Phenomena on social media also require researchers to continually adapt and update these theories—which were first conceptualized before social media became integral to everyday life—to account for the unique communicative possibilities afforded by constantly evolving digital technology. Like anthropological studies in in-person contexts, anthropological studies of language and culture online vary in scope, theoretical framing, and methodological approach depending on their central topics of inquiry. Social media can be studied within a primarily in-person ethnographic project as one of many sites of communication for members of a community in addition to (or overlapping with) contexts such as work, school, and the home. Social media can also be studied as primary sites of analysis through digital ethnographic approaches, typically focused on the communication patterns within a network or community of social media users on a single platform. Linguistic anthropological perspectives on social media are necessarily interdisciplinary, informed by scholarship in related fields including sociolinguistics, cultural anthropology, communication studies, and media studies. To this interdisciplinary understanding linguistic anthropology contributes a unique perspective attuned to the details of linguistic structure and the ways language and culture are mutually constitutive.