Is it time for a ‘new’ Anthropological Linguistics?
December 27, 2007
Just a few days ago I finally obtained a copy of Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle, which drew my mind back to an issue that has concerned me for several years. Let me explain.
To risk stating the obvious, linguistic form and social action are complexly intertwined: linguistic form is instrumental in social action, and social action both affects the selection of particular elements of linguistic form in communicative interaction, and through the cumulative effects of such selection, drives changes in linguistic form, through processes such as grammaticalization. Nevertheless, there are domains in which, as an idealization, we can usefully treat linguistic form as largely independent of social action, and conversely, social action as largely independent of linguistic form. The viability of these idealizations is evident in the institutionalization of the disciplines of Linguistics, on the one hand, and disciplines like Anthropology and Sociology, on the other. I have no quarrel with the fact that these disciplines are oriented towards research in which the idealizations based on the relative independence of linguistic form and social action hold sway. However, I believe that this institutionalization of the division of the linguistic-formal/social-actional continuum has had an unfortunate effect on the study of the vast middle ground of phenomena for which these idealizations are untenable. Numerous scholars have, of course, recognized that the idealizations in questions are problematic in certain respects, leading to the rise of several hybrid sub-disciplines: linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, ethnomethodology/conversational analysis, and the sociology of language among them.
Each of these subdisciplines has made important contributions to understanding the middle ground in which linguistic form and social action are irreducibly intertwined, but I also believe that the disciplinary centers of gravity around which they orbit have tended to pull each subdiscipline towards the respective idealizations of independence of linguistic form and social action that characterize the core of each institutionalized discipline. To be clear, this has not affected each sub-discipline’s capacity to do valuable work, as each still focuses on some portion of the linguistic-formal/social-actional spectrum that merits attention. But the overall consequence has been, in my opinion, to create (or recreate, or perhaps, leave) a gap in attention to the middle of the spectrum where linguistic form and social action are so tightly intertwined that serious attention must be paid to both.
This problem is revealed clearly, in the realm of Anthropology, at a number of points in Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle, which examines issues of subdisciplinarity in Anthropology. There are several relevant and thought-provoking passages in this collection, but I’d like to zero in on one in James Clifford’s contribution which speaks directly to the issue of the institutional division of labor with respect to the intersection of linguistic form and social action. Since he articulates the view from the anthropological hill so nicely, I quote him at length:
Perhaps the most dramatic disarticulation of the four fields ensemble [i.e. archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and physical anthropology] has taken place with respect to “linguistic anthropology.” Most departments today do not feel the need for a distinct linguistic track or faculty cluster. The study of linguistic process is very much part of anthropological work, but it tends to be seen as one of sociocultural anthropology’s many provinces. Few anthropologists now study “languages” in the sustained descriptive/analytic way that was common to the generation of Sapir or Kroeber. As Silverstein argues (this volume), “Linguistic anthropology is sociocultural anthropology with a twist, the theoretical as well as instrumental (via ‘discourse’ or ‘the discursive’) worrying of our same basic data, semiosis in various orders of contextualization.
Here Clifford alludes to two related processes: the progressive elimination of linguistic anthropology from anthropology departments, and, in the minority of cases where it survives or flourishes, the ascendance within linguistic anthropology of theoretical concerns and methods dominant in cultural anthropology, and the concomitant marginalization of theory and methods related to linguistic form. As far as I see the disciplinary situation, the convergence of linguistic and cultural anthropology in recent decades is in itself a fine development; there is much interesting work being done in this vein. However, I do see a regrettable side-effect: the emergence of a significant gap in research coverage of a part of the linguistic-social spectrum to which linguistic anthropology used to attend. Specifically, I see a significant gap emerging in the area of the study of linguistic form as a socially-embedded phenomenon — that is, linguistic form as an instrument of social action and conversely, social action as a factor that affects linguistic form.
Lest I be seen as exaggerating the problem, let me point out that there is some work that I believe focuses on precisely the area in question, such as Bill Hank’s work on referential practice, John Haviland’s work on spatial deixis and evidentiality, and some of Alessandro Duranti’s work on Samoan ethnopragmatics, among others. However, work of this type is becoming rarer in the pages of journals like the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and Language and Society.
My sense is that linguistic anthropology’s estrangement from the close study of linguistic form constitutes a major change in the orientation of the discipline, and one that is unlikely to be reversed in the near future. It seems to me that those of us who believe that the socially-contextualized study of linguistic form is important and valuable need to find a new intellectual space in which to organize our efforts, and new institutional spaces where such work can be based. As my post title suggests, I am fond of the new-old name ‘Anthropological Linguistics’ as a denomination for a field that concentrates on the socially-contextualized study of linguistic form, but I could imagine others. Regardless, I think the real question is whether Anthropological Linguistics, so defined, can organize itself into a productive community and find an institutional home.