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Introduction to Ethnography of Communication

Ethnography is a field of study which is concerned primarily with the description and analysis of culture, and linguistics is a field concerned, among other things, with the description and analysis of language codes. In spite of long-standing awareness of the interrelationship of language and culture, the descriptive and analytic products of ethnographers and linguists traditionally failed to deal with this interrelationship. Even anthropological linguists and linguistic anthropologists until the 1960s typically gave little attention to the fact that the uses of language and speech in different societies have patterns of their own which are worthy of ethnographic description, comparable to – and intersecting with – patterns in social organization and other cultural domains. The realization of this omission led Dell Hymes to call for an approach which would deal with aspects of communication which were escaping both anthropology and linguistics.

With the publication of his essay “The ethnography of speaking” in 1962, Hymes launched a new synthesizing discipline which focuses on the patterning of communicative behavior as it constitutes one of the systems of culture, as it functions within the holistic context of culture, and as it relates to patterns in other component systems. The ethnography of communication, as the field has come to be known since the publication of a volume of the American Anthropologist with this title (Gumperz and Hymes 1964), has in its development drawn heavily upon (and mutually influenced) sociological concern with interactional analysis and role identity, the study of performance by anthropologically oriented folklorists, and the work of natural-language philosophers. In combining these various threads of interest and theoretical orientation, the ethnography of communication has become an emergent discipline, addressing a largely new order of information in the structuring of communicative behavior and its role in the conduct of social life.

As with any science, the ethnography of communication has two foci: particularistic and generalizing. On the one hand, it is directed at the description and understanding of communicative behavior in specific cultural settings, but it is also directed toward the formulation of concepts and theories upon which to build a global metatheory of human communication. Its basic approach does not involve a list of facts to be learned so much as questions to be asked, and means for finding out answers. In order to attain the goal of understanding both the particular and the general, a broad range of data from a large variety of communities is needed.

A major early contribution to the field included an outline of information to be collected in doing ethnographies of communication, by Dell Hymes, Joel Sherzer, Regna Darnell, and others (1967), and this served as a guide for the scope and organization of the first edition of this book in 1982. Other major contributors to the development of the field have included John Gumperz, Dan Slobin, Richard Bauman, Susan Philips, Susan Ervin-Tripp, Shirley Brice Heath, and Ben Blount. Hymes’s influence has been so pervasive that it is impossible to specifically credit each of the concepts and visions for which he was initially responsible, and which inform this book and the work of others in various ways.

Scope and Focus

The subject matter of the ethnography of communication is best illustrated by one of its most general questions: what does a speaker need to know to communicate appropriately within a particular speech community, and how does he or she learn to do so? Such knowledge, together with whatever skills are needed to make use of it, is communicative competence. The requisite knowledge includes not only rules for communication (both linguistic and sociolinguistic) and shared rules for interaction, but also the cultural rules and knowledge that are the basis for the context and content of communicative events and interaction processes. Each of these components will be further delineated in the chapters which follow.

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What is Sociolinguistics?

The study of the many ways language and society intersect is known as sociolinguistics. The field combines sociology, psychology, anthropology and more.

To help us understand what sociolinguistics is all about, Connie Eble suggests we begin by reviewing some of the many questions sociolinguists try to answer through observation and experimentation. These questions include:

  1. Which features of language behavior are people conscious of using? Which are below the level of their conscious awareness?
  2. To what extent do individuals and groups use language to define themselves or to set themselves apart?
  3. What factors cause individuals or groups to change their language in order to sound either similar to or different from others?
  4. In what observable ways do individuals and groups change the features of their language and the ways in which they use language?
  5. What factors inhibit or promote the extinction, rise or maintenance of local varieties of languages?
  6. What factors cause listeners to perceive one type of language as higher in status than another?
  7. Do men and women, boys and girls use language differently?
  8. Do adults change their language and the way they use it as they grow older?
  9. How does education affect the features of language that people use?
  10. How do social networks affect language?
  11. What type of speaker and what type of group initiate linguistic change?
  12. What social mechanisms help a new feature of language take hold and spread?
  13. What features of language do people vary according to their social situation?
  14. What attitudes do people have towards regional dialects and foreign accents?
  15. What happens when people wish or need to interact with people who speak another language?
  16. What factors support or inhibit bilingualism?
  17. In what ways is linguistic behavior subject to control? By whom?
  18. How do social conflicts and tensions, such as racism, affect language?
  19. How do radio, television, films and popular entertainment affect language?
  20. How does discourse (connected stretches of speech or writing) differ from one group to another?

An important feature of sociolinguistics is its commitment to observing and reporting on language, rather than prescribing how to use it. This style of language study is known as descriptivism. Read Dr. Eble’s Essay

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chaika, Elaine. (1994). Language: The Social Mirror. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
  • Coulmas, Florian, ed. (1997). The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Macaulay, Ronald K. S. (1994). The Social Art: Language and Its Uses. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Trudgill, Peter. (1995). Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin Books.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald. (2002). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. 4th ed. Cambridge: Blackwell.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling-Estes. (1998). American English. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • An Intro to Sociolinguistics, a primer from the University of Oregon. 

Connie Eble is Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she has taught for more than thirty years. She is also Editor of American Speech, the quarterly journal of the American Dialect Society. Her book Slang and Sociability (University of North Carolina Press, 1996) reports her study of the slang of American college students. She has recently completed terms as president of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association and the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States. Her current research project is a study of the loss of French in Louisiana in the first part of the nineteenth century.

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