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date: 26 October 2020

Language and Culture

Abstract and Keywords

Language is an arbitrary and conventional symbolic resource situated within a cultural system. While it marks speakers’ different assumptions and worldviews, it also creates much tension in communication. Therefore, scholars have long sought to understand the role of language in human communication. Communication researchers, as well as those from other disciplines (e.g., linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and sociology), draw on each other’s works to study language and culture. The interdisciplinary nature of the works results in the use of various research methods and theoretical frameworks. Therefore, the main goal of this essay is to sketch the history and evolution of the study of language and culture in the communication discipline in the United States.

Due to space constraints only select works, particularly those that are considered landmarks in the field, are highlighted here. The fundamentals of language and the development of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis in leading to the formation of the language and social interaction (LSI) discipline are briefly described. The main areas of LSI study—namely language pragmatics, conversation analysis, discourse analysis, and the ethnography of communication—are summarized. Particular attention is paid to several influential theories and analytical frameworks: the speech act theory, Grice’s maxims of implicatures, politeness theory, discursive psychology, critical discourse analysis, the ethnography of speaking, speech codes theory, and cultural discourse analysis. Criticisms and debates about the trends and directions of the scholarship are also examined.

Keywords: Language, culture, discourse, speech act, conversation analysis, discourse analysis, politeness, ethnography of speaking, pragmatics

The Fundamentals of Language

A major task of language researchers is to understand the complexities entailed in the structures of talk in order to unfold and understand sociality, including human nature, cultural values, power structure, social inequality, and so on. Researchers in language, culture, and communication study language situated in cultural nuances in order to understand language use in enhancing intergroup and intercultural dialogue. Although language enables learning and bonding, it also confuses interlocutors with contradictory yet deep and rich multi-layered meanings, such as (mis)interpretation of intentions, violation of normative conduct, and repair of conversations that have gone awry.

In a way, language not only construes our perception, but also constructs our social reality by manifesting actual social consequences. For example, the word race represents something that does not exist in physical reality, but it has real implications and consequences (e.g., discrimination, social disparity, unequal access to healthcare, etc.). Here, language allows the creation of actual and persistent perceptions (e.g., bad, inferior, non-deserving, and so on) that determine aspects of people’s lives. In fact, the role of language in influencing interlocutors’ perception and communication remains one of the most popular opening lines in empirical studies focusing on language and culture.

How Language Shapes Perception

Known as linguistic relativity, the notion that language influences our thinking about social issues derives from Edward Sapir’s works in anthropology and linguistics in the 1920s (Mandelbaum, 1963). Sapir studied the lexical dissections and categorization and grammatical features from the corpora obtained during his fieldwork over several decades. While studying the languages of different North American Indian tribes, including those living in Washington and Oregon in the U.S. and Vancouver in Canada, Sapir found, for example, that the Hopi language did not have lexical equivalents for the English words time, past, or the future. Therefore, he suggested that the Hopi worldview about temporal communication was different from the English worldview. In his lectures Sapir promoted the understanding of language as a system embedded in culture. Thereafter, based on Sapir’s findings, researchers studying language inferred that if there was no word for, say, you in a certain language, then speakers of that language treat you as nonexistent.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, a student of Sapir’s, later suggested that language could, to some extent, determine the nature of our thinking. Known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic determinism, the notion that language is a shaper of ideas or thought inspired further empirical testing (Whorf, 1952). This led some researchers to conclude that speakers of different languages (e.g., Polish, Chinese, Japanese, English, etc.) see their realities differently. The investigation of the effects of languages on human behaviors, as influenced by Sapir’s and Whorf’s works, continues to be a popular topic in various academic disciplines.

During its postwar rebuilding efforts overseas in the 1930s, the U.S. government recruited linguists and anthropologists to train its personnel at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). While linguists researching the micro-level elements of languages successfully taught FSI officers how to speak different languages, anthropologists studying the macro-level components of culture (e.g., economy, government, religious, family practices, etc.) taught the officers how to communicate effectively with people from different cultures (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1990). The research and training collaboration between linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists at FSI showed that the learning of a foreign culture was not merely about acquiring language skills or translating from one language to another, but a holistic understanding of language in a wider context.

While the teaching of foreign languages to FSI officers was efficient, teaching anthropological understanding of foreign cultures was more challenging. Moreover, during the 1940s the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis and the notion that language frames people’s worldview were contested in empirical findings. About the same time, Edward Twitchell Hall, who is credited with founding the field of intercultural communication, strongly promoted his belief that effective communication between two people from different cultural backgrounds (i.e., intercultural communication) should combine verbal (i.e., speech) and nonverbal (i.e., non-linguistic) communication embedded in a cultural context (Hall, 1966).

Citing efficiency, researchers at the time developed language translation programs that enabled the quick learning of intercultural communication. In this approach of linguistic universalism, researchers assumed structural equivalence across languages—that word-by-word translation can foster cultural understanding (Chomsky, 1972). This shift of direction in academic research challenged Sapir’s proposition of the understanding of culture and communication based on common conceptual systems—the notion that meanings and values of concepts cannot be truly understood without understanding the cultural system.

Regardless of the competing viewpoints, research on how speakers of different languages operate under different language and communication systems continues to date. Researchers have also widened the scope of the language and culture program to include the study of language use and functions (i.e., communicative purposes) in and across different cultural systems. Although the translation of the linguistic corpora into the English language is commonly featured in proprietary research publications, analyzing discourse data in the native languages is preferred. Language is therefore treated as intact with the cultural system. This line of study, despite differences in methodological and theoretical frameworks, forms the basis for a specific discipline within the communication field called language and social interaction (LSI).

Language and Social Interaction

The LSI discipline focuses on the study of human discourse and human interaction in situatedness. Scholars pursuing this line of research seek to understand the development of speech and language processes in various settings, from small group to interpersonal, including face-to-face and those mediated by technology (see International Communication Association [ICA] and National Communication Association websites, respectively). The scholarship employs qualitative and quantitative methods and includes verbal (i.e., speech) and nonverbal communication (i.e., nonlinguistic cues) (see the ICA website). The various methodological and theoretical frameworks used include social psychology, ethnography of speaking, discourse analysis, conversation analysis, and narrative analysis. Although well-established and housed in the communication field, works in LSI are interdisciplinary.

While LSI studies also include nonverbal communication as a language system, scholarship on speech—whether naturally occurring, elicited, mediated, or written—outnumber those focusing on nonverbal communication. The paucity of nonverbal scholarship in the LSI discipline underscores the challenges of recording nonverbal communication for data analysis (Fitch & Sanders, 2005). Although studies pertaining to how social life is lived in situated conversation and language is used in various interactional settings dominate LSI research discourse, the study of nonverbal communication as language deserves its own coverage as a (sub)discipline. Consequently, this essay focuses on the scholarship on speech in LSI. The following sections review a selection of the LSI subdisciplines organized by research methods, or more commonly conceptualized as analytical frameworks and procedures: language pragmatics, conversation analysis, discourse analysis, and the ethnography of communication. The review highlights a few major theories or theoretical frameworks in each subdiscipline, namely the speech act theory, Grice’s maxims of implicatures, politeness theory, discursive psychology, critical discourse analysis, the ethnography of speaking, speech codes theory, and cultural discourse analysis.

Language Pragmatics

Pragmatics is the study of language usage or talk in interaction. Researchers who study language pragmatics investigate the meanings of utterances in relation to speech situations in the specific contexts of use. Two theoretical frameworks that are commonly cited in language pragmatics are the speech act theory and Grice’s maxims of conversational implicatures, from which the influential politeness theory derives. These theoretical frameworks emerged from the examination of language independently from context, including situational factors that influence the cultural assumptions of the speaker and hearer.

Speech Act Theory

In an attempt to understand utterances in interaction, Austin (1962) explained speech acts as communicative acts in which speakers perform actions via utterances in specific contexts. Called performatives, these are illocutionary acts in which the speaker asserts a demand through utterances. Illocutionary acts contain force—that is, they allow the speaker to perform an act without necessary naming the act (e.g., apology, question, offer, refuse, thank, etc.). Austin illustrated three types of force: (a) locution, the words in the utterances; (b) illocution, the intention of the speaker; and (c) perlocution, the consequential effects of the utterance upon the thoughts, feelings, or actions on the hearer.

The speaker’s illocutionary act is said to be happy when the hearer understands the locution and illocutionary forces. In order for the speaker’s illocutionary act to be happy, the utterance has to fulfill felicity conditions. Felicitous illocutionary acts are those that meet social and cultural criteria and bring about effects on the hearer that the speaker intended (Searle, 1969). Thus, illocutionary acts are conventionalized messages, because their performance is an engagement in rule-governed behavior (also see Goffman, 1967).

Searle extended Austin’s concept of speech acts and elaborated on the speech act theory by identifying the conditions necessary for the realization of speech acts. For example, to promise, the speaker needs sincerity and intentionality; to declare the marital union of two partners, a priest or a judge has to be present. Hence the successful performance of a speech act depends on whether the constituent conditions of a particular speech act are fulfilled, or a particular speech act is realized in a contextually appropriate manner (i.e., in relation to sociocultural factors).

Searle developed a typology to categorize speech acts: (a) representatives, where the speaker says how something is, like asserting; (b) directives, the speaker tries to get the hearer to perform some future action, such as requesting and warning; (c) commissives, the speaker commits to some future course of action, such as pledging and promising; (d) expressives, the speaker articulates his or her psychological state of mind about some prior action, such as apologizing and thanking; and (e) declaratives, performatives that require non-linguist institutions, such as christening or sentencing. These conditions must be fulfilled for the speaker to effect the specific act.

The speech act theory can be used to describe utterance sequences—for example, to predict antecedents and consequents in a conversation. Thus, when a violation of the typology occurred, speech act theory successfully predicted repairs and other signs of troubles in the conversational moves. However, Searle’s taxonomy was criticized for several reasons. First, while Searle treated illocutionary acts as consisting of complete sentences in grammatical form, such acts can be very short utterances that do not follow the complete object-verb-subject structure (e.g., “Forge on!”). On the other hand, the speaker may need to utter several sentences to bring about effects on the hearer (e.g., advising). Second, Searle assumed that the felicity conditions for successful performances are universal, but later studies found that the conditions are indeed specific to the culture.

Furthermore, Searle subscribed to a linear, speaker-to-hearer view of transaction that dismissed the interactional aspect of language. The hearer’s role was minimized; specifically, the hearer’s influence on the speaker’s construction of utterances was ignored. Searle also neglected perlocutionary acts, which focus on the intention of the speaker. Instead, he focused solely on the linguistic goal of deliberate expression of an intentional state while overlooking extralinguistic cues. In short, the speech act theory could not account for intentionality and variability in discourse.

Grice’s Maxims of Implicatures

By moving beyond the linear (i.e., speaker-to-hearer) view of transaction, Grice proposed the cooperative principle (1989). He observed that interlocutors engage in collaborative efforts in social interaction in order to attain a common goal. In Grice’s view, collaborative efforts do not mean agreement; they mean that the speaker and the hearer work together in the conversation. According to the principle, participants follow four conversational maxims: quantity (be informative), quality (be truthful), relation (be relevant), and manner (be clear, be brief). Since these four maxims vary by culture, the interlocutors need to have culturally nuanced knowledge to fulfill these maxims.

According to Grice, meaning is produced in a direct way when participants adhere to the maxims. When the speaker’s intentions are conveyed clearly, the hearer should not have to interpret the speaker’s intentions. This occurs with conventional implicatures where standard word meanings are used in the interaction. However, in actual social interaction, most meanings are implied through conversational implicatures in which one or more of the conversational maxims are violated. Due to normative constraints, a speaker who says p implicates q, and the hearer would then need to infer the implied meanings; for example, what is being said and what is beyond words in a recommendation letter.

In short, Grice’s maxims of conversational implicatures are used to explain why people engage in different interpretations rather than rely on the literal meanings of utterances. The maxims attend to implied meanings that constitute a huge part of conversation and also the role of the hearer. Nonetheless, the cooperative principle was criticized for privileging the conversational conventions of middle-class English speakers. Additionally, Grice did not scrutinize strategic non-cooperation, which remains a primary source of inference in conversation (Hadi, 2013).

Politeness Theory

Influenced by Grice’s maxims, Brown and Levinson (1987) proposed the politeness theory to explain the interlocutor’s observation of conversational implicatures in order to maintain the expressive order of interaction. Brown and Levinson observed politeness strategies that consistently occurred in their field data across several languages: Tzetzal and Tamil languages in Asia, and the British and American forms of English. Despite the distinctive cultures and languages, they observed outstanding parallelism in interlocutors’ use of polite language to accomplish conversational goals. Politeness is the activity performed to enhance, maintain, or protect face or the self-image of the interlocutors.

To illustrate language universality in politeness, Brown and Levinson proposed a socialized interlocutor—nicknamed a model person (MP)—as a face-bearing human with rationality and intentionality when communicating. To avoid breaching social equilibrium, the MP, whom Brown and Levinson identified as the speaker, conforms to social norms to be polite. In performing a speech act, the MP cultivates a desirable image (i.e., positive social worth), pays attention to the hearer’s responses, and ensures that nobody loses face in social interactions (e.g., feels embarrassed, humiliated, awkward, etc.).

Since face is emotionally invested (e.g., actors get upset) and sanctioned by social norms, actors are said to engage in rule-governed behavior to pay homage to their face. Due to the emotional investment, face threats are likely to occur when actors perform facework. Brown and Levinson described two basic face wants: positive face, the desire for one’s actions to be accepted by others, such as approval from others; and negative face, the desire for one’s actions to be unimpeded by others. A threat to positive face decreases approval from the hearer (e.g., acknowledging one’s vulnerability), whereas a threat to negative face restricts one’s freedom to act (e.g., requesting a favor).

According to the politeness theory, the speaker can choose whether or not to perform face-threatening acts (FTAs). When performing FTAs, the speaker will go on or off record. In going off record, the speaker uses hints or utterances that have more than one attributable intentions, so that he or she does not appear to have performed a speech act. For example, the speaker who utters “Oops, I don’t have any cash on me” to the hearer after they have dined together in a restaurant is using an off-record strategy to suggest that the hearer foot the bill. In contrast, going on record means that the speaker performs the FTA (i.e., baldly without saving face) with or without redress. With redress, the speaker indicates that he or she does not intend to violate social equilibrium by performing the FTA (see further discussion below). Without redress, the speaker directly expresses his or her desire; for instance, the speaker commands the hearer to pay for lunch by saying, “You should pay this time.”

The speaker can use either positive or negative politeness strategies when performing FTAs with redress. Positive politeness strategies are used to attend to the hearer’s positive face. For example, in the restaurant scenario, the speaker can choose to compliment the hearer in order to establish solidarity by saying, “You have always been so generous …” On the other hand, negative politeness strategies are used to avoid imposing on the hearer’s negative face. For example, by seeking permission, “Would you consider paying for lunch? I will return the favor in the future,” the speaker acknowledges that the hearer is not obligated to perform the action of footing the bill.

According to the politeness theory, the speaker wants to use the least amount of effort to maximize ends by considering the weight of performing the FTA. Brown and Levinson postulated a formula: Wx = P (S, H) + D (S, H) + R, where W stands for the weight of the FTA; P the relative power of hearer (H) over speaker (S), which is asymmetrical (e.g., if H is an authority); D the social distance between H and S, which is symmetrical (if H speaks another dialect); and R the ranking of imposition of the FTA in a particular culture. They suggested that P and D were universal with some emic correlates. Thus, in calculating Wx, S will consider the payoffs of each strategy. For example, in using positive politeness strategies, S may appear to be friendly, whereas in using an off-record strategy, S may appear manipulative by imposing on H, who gets S’s hints and then performs a future act. In using an on-record strategy, S may choose to be efficient, such as in an emergency (e.g., Ambush!).

After three decades, politeness theory remains one of the most tested theories. However, amongst its criticisms, the theory is said to account for intentional politeness, but not intentional impoliteness. The significant attention paid to the speaker’s utterances, albeit with a consideration for the hearer’s face, reveals the assumption of conversations as monologic. In some respects the theory followed the trajectory of Searle’s and Grice’s works in that the performance of utterances is conceptualized as a rational cognitive activity of the speakers. In particular, speakers are assumed to generate meanings and action, whereas hearers are treated as receivers who interpret the speech performance. Therefore, the politeness theory is unable to fully explain interactional organization in talk exchanges.

Conversation Analysis

During the 1960s, empirical science centered on the prediction of the effects of abstract ideas on communication and social life. Common predictors tested include personality types, cognition, biological sex, income level, and political stance. Social scientists who studied language commonly adhered to the quantitative paradigm; they conducted experiments, used elicited conversations, and analyzed responses containing rehearsals of recollected conversations. The study of mundane rituals, however, was not of academic concern.

Erving Goffman, a sociologist, later made a radical theoretical move that differed significantly from the mainstream empirical studies. Goffman stated that orderliness was empirically observable from everyday conversation. He argued that since socialization shapes the social actor’s competencies, conversation maintains moral codes and institutional order. In other words, sequential ordering of actions in social interaction reflects the macro social institution (e.g., politics, business, legal systems, etc.).

Goffman’s works were viewed as a paradigm shift in the social sciences. He called attention to the orderliness that is observable in ordinary conversation—an area of investigation that other scientists neglected. Furthermore, unlike the early works in language study, Goffman’s theoretical framework no longer focused solely on the performance of speakers in conversations. Instead, meaning making—that is, the examination of the participants’ understanding of one another’s conduct—took precedence. Goffman did not test his ideas, nor did he develop any set of empirical methods that allowed the testing of his ideas.

In search of an empirical analysis of conversation, Harold Garfinkel, another sociologist, expanded on Goffman’s ideas. Garfinkel (1967) proposed that ethno-methods (i.e., the study of people’s practices or methods) inform the production of culturally meaningful symbols and actions. He noted that social actors use multiple tacit methods (e.g., presuppositions, assumptions, and methods of inference) to make shared sense of their interaction. Thus, conversation is a place where participants engage in mundane reason analysis, and conversational sequential structure—the organization of social interaction—reveals membership categorization.

The subdiscipline of conversation analysis (CA) was further expanded when Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff, who were later joined by Gail Jefferson, studied suicide calls made to the Center for the Scientific Study of Suicide, Los Angeles (Sacks, 1984). They investigated how sequential structure is managed in institutional talk. Conversation analysts study conversation sequence organization, turn design, turn taking, lexical choices, the repair of difficulties in speech, and the overall conversational structure. They analyze linguistic mechanisms (e.g., grammar and syntax, lexis, intonation, prosody, etc.) in naturally occurring conversations.

Institutional talk, as examined in later CA studies, focused on those that have fewer formal constraints as institutional practices (e.g., phone calls, doctor–patient interaction, and classroom instructions), but not those that have rigid structures within formalized rituals (e.g., a religious wedding ceremony, a sermon, etc.). Institutional CA studies accelerated in the past few decades, allowing the identification of macro-level societal shifts through the management of social interaction in talk (Gee & Handford, 2012).

In general, CA theory postulates that talk is conducted in context. Participants’ talk and actions evoke context, and context is invoked and constructed by participants. Sequencing position in conversations reflects the participants’ understanding of the immediate preceding talk. As such, sequential structure reveals socially shared and structured procedures (Garfinkel, 1967). Thus, CA is the study of action, meaning, context management, and intersubjectivity.

CA is qualitative in methodology, even though later scholarship involved statistical analysis. The method is criticized for several weaknesses, among them: (a) the analysis and presentation of select segments of conversation lack rationale; (b) most CA studies are restricted to studying conversations in North America and Europe; (c) since multiple identities are at play in conversations, those that are consequential for social interaction remain ambiguous and debatable in analyses; and (d) the boundaries between pleasantries (e.g., small talk) and institutional talk are at times fuzzy in institutional CA (Have, 1990). Nevertheless, with a range of sub-areas quite well developed, CA is said to form its own discipline.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse Analysis (DA) is a broad term for different analytical approaches used to examine text and talk. Discourse is considered language use in general, and language is viewed as a form of action. The distinctions between the different approaches used in DA are based on the influences of the early works or traditions in conversation analysis and ethnomethodology, discursive psychology, critical discourse analysis and critical linguistics, Bakhtinian research, Foucauldian research, and even interactional sociolinguistics (Gee & Handford, 2012). However, the very different approaches and practices in DA have sparked disagreements among researchers about their applications and distinctions.

Data used in DA range from written to spoken, such as recorded spontaneous conversation, news articles, historical documents, transcripts from counseling sessions, clinical talk, interviews, blogs, and the like. Socio-historical contexts are often included in DA. As a tool for analyzing text and talk, DA has significantly influenced the study of language and culture. Two of the most popular DA approaches used in communication studies are Discursive Psychology (DP) and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA).

Discursive Psychology

DP evolved in the early 1990s from Derek Edwards and Jonathan Potter’s works, in which they expressed dissatisfaction with the ways psychologists treated discourse. In psychology, utterances are treated as a reflection of the speaker’s mental state. Hence, talk is considered reflective (Edwards & Potter, 2005). However, in DP talk is considered constructive; language use is thus viewed as a social action or function. This means that people use language to make sense of what they do in a socially meaningful world. Therefore, language is treated as a tool to get things done.

In DP, researchers study the details of what people say (e.g., descriptions, terms, lexicons, or grammar). Researchers are concerned with how these features have particular effects or bear functions, such as shifting blame, denying responsibility, and providing counterarguments. DP researchers seek to understand the interests, attitudes, and motives of the speakers, particularly, why people use language the way they do and how they manage and construct identities.

Language use in news media coverage provides a good example for DP analysis. For example, the August 2015 news coverage about corruption in Malaysian government offices supplies rich vocabularies for analyzing the speakers’ motives. Under the leadership of Bersih (an organization whose name literally translates to clean in the Malay language), an estimated half a million street demonstrators peacefully gathered in Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital, for a public demonstration that lasted two days. The demonstrators demanded transparency in the country’s governance, including fair elections. They urged the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, to resign following a critical exposé published in The Wall Street Journal. The Prime Minister was reported to have transferred the equivalent of US$11 billion from a government development firm into his personal bank account (Wright & Clark, 2015). Prior to the Prime Minister’s counterattack, the press labeled the demonstrators rally goers. However, the Prime Minister and his acolytes in government in turn used descriptors such as criminals, crazy, unpatriotic, and shallow-minded culprits to label the demonstrators traitors to their country.

The description above shows the way the speakers used language to construct their reality and their relationship to that reality. In this case, DP researchers would analyze and illustrate how the Prime Minister and his government officials co-construct shared meanings in interaction, such as particular realities, beliefs, identities, or subjectivities. For instance, the government can be seen as attempting to exercise control over the public demonstrators (through discourse) in order to defend governmental power. Thus, by labeling the demonstrators culprits, the government asserted its identity as the authority—the elite power that runs the country and decides what goes.

DP researchers assume that each speaker has multiple identities, and the identities can only be performed successfully with the consent of the listeners (Antaki & Widdicombe, 1998). The researchers also assert that the productive examination of discourse must be considered within the context of language use, such as the institutional setting and local sequential organization of talk. For example, a proper analysis of the Malaysian public demonstration above must include an understanding of the context of the public demonstrators’ dissatisfaction with governmental corruption and citizen’s demand for transparency in governance—a longstanding issue since the country’s independence from Britain. Thus, indexicality—the understanding that the meaning of a word is dependent on the context of use—is essential in DP analysis (Potter, 1996).

Perhaps one of the strongest criticisms of DP is the researchers’ reluctance to interpret macro-social concerns. DP researchers insist that the analysis of text and talk should depend on the context exactly as construed by the language used. This means that extratextual information should not be inserted in the analysis. Therefore, DP cannot be utilized to interrogate broader social concerns, such as politics, ideology, and power (Parker, 2015). As such, context is limited to and constituted by the interactional setting and functions of utterances.

DP is also criticized for casting speakers as conscious and agentic—that is, as autonomous subjects who manipulate language to do things. Speakers’ intentionality in attribution is thus considered fixed in their minds. Such an assumption in fact closely resembles that of traditional psychology—the very idea that DP researchers attempted to shift away from (Parker, 2015). Moreover, the analyst’s interpretation is crucial in unfolding an understanding of the discourse. The analyst’s knowledge and statuses thus influence his or her interpretation of the language used by speaker and can be a weakness if the analyst may conform to some sort of ideology that impacts data interpretation.

Critical Discourse Analysis

Of all the approaches used to study DA, CDA is one that takes a macrosocietal and political standpoint (Van Dijk, 1993). Critical discourse analysts examine how societal power relations are enforced, legitimated, maintained, and dominated through the use of language. The sociohistorical context of the text is emphasized. The examination of social problems requires the analyst to be well versed in multiple disciplines. Commonly, the analysts are motivated by particular political agendas or ideologies, and they seek to challenge certain ideologies (Fairclough, 2005). Therefore, based on, say, the motivation to fight social inequality and oppression, an analyst may seek out selected texts or talks for study. It is in CDA studies that the abuse, dominance, and unequal distribution of social goods are called into question.

Social theorists whose works are commonly cited in CDA include Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Karl Marx, Jürgen Habermas, and Michel Foucault. Typical vocabulary in CDA studies includes power, dominance, hegemony, class, gender, race, discrimination, institution, reproduction, and ideology. Topics examined include gender inequality, media discourse, political discourse, racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and antiSemitism. Critical discourse analysts seek to answer questions such as: How do elite groups control public discourse? How does such discourse control the less powerful group (in terms of mind and action)? What are the social consequences of such discourse control? (Van Dijk, 1993). The dominant social groups in politics, media, academics, and corporations are scrutinized in terms of the way they produce and maintain the dominant ideology.

Critical discourse analysts explore three contextual levels of discourse: the macro, meso, and micro (Van Dijk, 1993). At the macro level, analysts focus on the understanding of relationship between the text and broader social concerns and ideologies. At the meso level, analysts examine the contexts of production and reception of the text, and the ideologies portrayed. The analysts ask questions such as: Where did the text originate? Who is (are) the author(s) and the intended audience of the text? What perspectives are being promoted? At the micro level, analysts scrutinize the forms and contents of the text through linguistic features and devices in order to reveal the speaker’s perspective or ideology. Linguistic features and components studied include direct and indirect quotations, terms used to refer to individuals or groups, sentence structure and grammar (e.g., active and passive voice), and premodifiers (e.g., non-Muslim citizens or Muslim-Chinese citizens).

While analysts frequently favor institutional texts (e.g., a journalistic report) in their analyses, everyday conversation is also included. In fact, everyday conversation is considered social group discourse that can be used to reveal societal norms and shared beliefs. According to van Dijk’s studies of racism in everyday conversation, he found that the speakers’ utterances of “I am not racist, but …” and “We are not a racist society, but …” are in fact a reproduction of institutional talk. He called this specific type of talk a double strategy of positive self-representation and negative other-denigration.

While the multidisciplinary nature of CDA seems beneficial, it is also one of its biggest criticisms. In particular, critical discourse analysts are often accused of not productively using a combination of multiple approaches. Indeed, the more linguistically-oriented studies of text and talk overlooked theories in sociology and political sciences that focus on social and power inequality issues. On the other hand, those that focus on sociology and political sciences did not rigorously engage in DA. Moreover, the relationship between discourse and action coupled with cognition remains inconclusive (Van Dijk, 1998).

The Ethnography of Communication

The ethnography of communication originated from ethnology in the 1800s and found a home in in anthropology. Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist, pioneered the ethnographic methods. He intensively recorded the methods he used in his fieldwork when studying the Trobrian Islanders of Papua New Guinea in 1914, including intrinsic details about the people, their language, and their daily life (Murdock, 1943). Franz Boas, a German anthropologist who lived among the Inuit in the late 1800s, further propounded on the necessity for language training among ethnographers who wished to decode the emic (i.e., native) perspective (Muller-Wille, Gieseking, & Barr, 2011).

Ethnographers study social norms, meanings, and patterns of life by examining symbolic activities ranging from speech to social artifacts. By writing on culture, recording people, and natural history, ethnographers describe, analyze, and compare people from different communities. The painstaking work involved in ethnography provides rich data that are highly nuanced. Ethnographic works are said to be the portraits of social life. Oftentimes, interviews are used concurrently, along with other methods (e.g., textual analysis) to obtain community members’ interpretation and explanation of the communicative activities. Data analyses are conducted along with (i.e., not after) data recording in the field.

While an ethnographer may generate questions for investigation before entering the field, he or she must remain flexible and receptive to other important questions that may emerge on site. The focus of investigation might shift because theoretical sensitivity—the review of literature prior to fieldwork—may not sufficiently orient the ethnographer to actual interactions. This is because the behaviors and activities that the ethnographer purports to study may have changed due to cultural shift. The use of such an inductive method allows the study of language and culture without theoretical constraints.

Ethnographers may compare the behaviors cross-culturally when a sufficient number of studies of the cultures of interest become available. Since the voices of community members are given precedence, ethnographic reports rely heavily on and present people’s utterances, as well as fine details of observations. In fact, early ethnographic works in anthropology tend to exhaustively cover many life aspects about a community, though the search for nuances and painstaking details, coupled with the ethnographer’s prolonged engagement in the community, pose constraints of time and resources. However, in the 1960s, ethnography took a new turn with the greater emphasis on the study of language use.

The Ethnography of Speaking

The prominence of ethnographic studies focusing on speech in language and culture began in the 1960s with Dell Hymes’s study of language use. Hymes, who was trained in anthropology and linguistics, sought to understand speech patterns, functions, and speaking in situatedness. He departed from microlinguistics (which focuses on semantics, turn-taking, prosody, and conversational structure) to pursue a more holistic account of interaction in context. Hymes emphasized the examination of nonverbal cues, tone of conversation, evaluation of the interlocutors’ conduct, the setting of the interaction, and so forth.

Speaking is considered fundamental in understanding social reality. Hymes’s ethnography of speaking (later called ethnography of communication) is a method for analyzing communication in different cultural settings. Hymes’s (1972) SPEAKING mnemonic or schema, developed as an etic framework for the etic understanding of social interaction, provides an inductive tool for examining social and cultural elements through the means and ways of speaking. Each letter in the SPEAKING mnemonic represents a different element of a speech act: S represents the setting or scene; P, the participants and participant identities; E, the ends; A, the act sequence and act topic; K, the key or tone; I, the instrumentalities; N, the norms of interaction and interpretation; and G, the genre.

The SPEAKING mnemonic is one of the most widely used theoretical and analytic frameworks in ethnographic studies. Although Hymes developed it to study spontaneous conversation, recent communication studies has broadened the scope of the data to include textual analysis and computer-mediated communication. Such pluralities are, in fact, inherent in people’s ways of speaking and despite some criticisms (e.g., Hymes proposed using his methods to study muted groups, but researchers who wish to listen to minority voices must also learn to listen to the dominant ones), the ethnography of speaking’s theoretical framework has withstood the test of time. It was the inspiration for Gerry Philipsen’s (1992) speech codes theory—another important heuristic theory in the ethnographic study of language and culture.

Speech Codes Theory

In addition to Hymes’ ethnography of speaking, Philipsen drew from Bernstein’s coding principle (1971) to postulate his speech codes theory. Bernstein argued that different social groups manifest different communicative practices and linguistic features. These differences are influenced by and, in turn, reinforce the groups’ coding principles—the rules that govern what to say and how to say it in the right context.

According to Philipsen, people’s ways of speaking are woven with speech codes—the system of symbols, meanings, premises, and rules about communication conduct that are historically situated and socially constructed. Therefore, examining a community’s discourse can tease out people’s understanding of the self, society, and strategic action. Philipsen posited five propositions for studying the relationship between communication and culture:

  1. 1. People in different speech communities exhibit different ways of speaking, with different rules for communicative conduct informed by their socially constructed symbols and meanings.

  2. 2. Each code gives practical knowledge about the ways of being in a speech community.

  3. 3. People attach different cultural meanings to speech practices.

  4. 4. Metacommunication (i.e., talk about talk) reveals important worldviews, norms, and values of the people.

  5. 5. The common speech code reveals the morality of communication conduct. For example, community members’ discourse about should nots reveal the shoulds that they value.

Using the five propositions, Philipsen argued that the speech codes theory can reveal the ways of speaking and reinforce a group’s speech codes. Indeed, the theory has informed the vibrant scholarship on ways of speaking and meaning-making across different global cultural communities. For example, Lee and Hall’s (2012) study of Chinese Malaysian discourse of dissatisfaction and complaint-making, with and without a formal goal of resolution—called, respectively, thou soo and aih auan—unearthed previously unexplored cultural values of the speech community. Lee (2014) developed the study further to understand the assumptions of personhood among Chinese Malaysians.

Cultural Discourse Analysis

The speech codes theory also served as the foundation for the development of Donal Carbaugh’s cultural discourse analysis theory. Carbaugh, a former student of Philipsen’s, proposed the cultural discourse theory (CDT) as a way to understand culturally shaped communication practices. According to CDT, cultural discourses are constituted by cultural communication and codes. Culture is an integral part but also a product of communication practices that are highly nuanced and deeply meaningful and intelligible to cultural participants (Carbaugh, 1996). Cultural participants draw on diverse communication practices and thus create diversity within and across cultural communities.

Cultural discourse analysts study key cultural terms that are deeply meaningful to the participants; for example, oplakvane, which is a distinctive way of speaking to assert Bulgarian personhood (Carbaugh, Lie, Locmele, & Sotirova, 2012). Such cultural terms are an ongoing metacultural commentary that reveals implicit cultural knowledge, the taken-for-granted knowledge, such as beliefs, values, and assumptions about the self.

Three types of questions typically guide cultural discourse analysis (CuDA) are: (a) functional accomplishment (What is getting done when people communicate in this specific way?); (b) structure (How is this communicative practice conducted? What key cultural terms are used to give meaning to the participants? What deep meanings do the terms create?); and (c) sequencing or form (What is the act sequence of this communicative practice, in terms of interactional accomplishments, structural features, and sequential organization?).

The analyst approaches a CuDA project with a particular stance or mode of inquiry. Carbaugh identified five modes of inquiry that enable analysts to tease out important cultural ingredients in a topic of investigation: the theoretical, descriptive, interpretive, comparative, and critical. For example, the theoretical mode enables analysts to understand the basic communication phenomena in the speech codes of a community and therefore to refine what and how to listen for culture in their discourse before venturing into the field. The five modes chart a rough linear design; the analyst must accomplish the preceding mode before embarking on the subsequent mode. The first three modes (i.e., theoretical, descriptive, and interpretive) are mandatory in any CuDA project; however, the last two (i.e., comparative and critical) may or may not be accomplished in a single study (e.g., in an exploratory study).

Cultural discourse analysts typically use Hymes’s SPEAKING framework and Philipsen’s speech codes theory as guidelines for their subsequent analyses in the descriptive and interpretive stages. The analysis of implicit cultural meanings in CuDA can be structured using five semantic radiants or hubs: being, acting, relating, feeling, and dwelling. Using CuDA, analysts can tease out people’s understanding of who they are (being); what they are doing together (acting); how they are linked to one another (relating); their feelings about people, actions, and things (feeling); and their relationship to the world around them (dwelling). The cultural discourse analyst’s task, then, is to advance cultural propositions (i.e., statements containing the taken-for-granted knowledge) and premises (i.e., values or beliefs). These are statements that shed light on the importance of a particular communicative practice among members of a speech community (e.g., beliefs about what exists, what is proper, or what is valued).

While the theories in the ethnography of communication have gained a lot of prominence in the LSI discipline, they have also enriched it. For example, Hymes’s SPEAKING framework, Philipsen’s speech codes theory, and Carbaugh’s CDT have all added depth and rigor to LSI data analysis. Evidently, to navigate through the language and social interactions of a community to which the researcher is not an insider, he or she needs to gain communicative competence (Hymes, 1962). Specifically, the researcher needs to know how to communicate like the insiders in order to articulate and explain the behaviors and communicative phenomena to other outsiders. The researcher also needs to gain competence particularly in the multidisciplinary methods of LSI.

However, neither reliance on English as lingua franca for LSI research nor the practice of hiring translators are sufficient for undertaking this line of inquiry successfully. Therefore, many LSI studies recruit international scholars to participate in their research projects. While this is a common practice, especially in CuDA, the researchers’ cultural interpretations and the subsequent translation of the data into the English for publications need to be done with utmost care in order to maintain the integrity of cultural nuances. Moreover, while the scholarship has strived to give voice to muted, non-dominant groups internationally, the dearth of cross-comparative studies—a goal and a tradition of ethnography—is a great concern. In that sense the study of intercultural interaction using the ethnography of communication has not yet come of age in this increasingly globalized and complex world.


This essay outlines the history and evolution of the study of language and culture by the main areas of study in the LSI discipline. The four main areas summarized are language pragmatics, conversation analysis, discourse analysis, and the ethnography of communication. Influential methodological and theoretical frameworks reviewed cover the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, speech act theory, Grice’s maxims of implicatures, politeness theory, discursive psychology, critical discourse analysis, the ethnography of speaking, speech codes theory, and cultural discourse analysis. Finally, the essay examines major criticisms of the theories and applications, as well as possible future directions of scholarship, when and where appropriate in the discussion.

Further Reading

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Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Doubleday.Find this resource:

Hymes, D. (1962). The ethnography of speaking. In T. Gladwin & W. C. Sturtevant (Eds.), Anthropology and human behavior (pp. 13–35). Washington, DC: Anthropology Society of Washington.Find this resource:

Martin, J. N., Nakayama, T. K., & Carbaugh, D. (2012). The history and development of the study of intercultural communication and applied linguistics. In J. Jackson (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of language and intercultural communication (pp. 17–36). Oxon, England: Routledge.Find this resource:

Philipsen, G. (1975). Speaking “like a man” in Teamsterville: Culture patterns of role enactment in an urban neighborhood. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 61, 13–22.Find this resource:

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Carbaugh, D. A. (1996). Situating selves: The communication of social identities in American scenes. Albany: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

Carbaugh, D., Lie, S., Locmele, L., & Sotirova, N. (2012). Ethnographic studies of intergroup communication. In H. Giles & C. Gallois (Eds.), The handbook of intergroup communication (pp. 44–57). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

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