Ethics and IRBs

During the past week my wife Chris and I have been in transit from Peru, to Austin, and finally to Berkeley, and we are now setting up our new home. Much neglect of this blog has ensued. I did, however, want to pass on two interesting links. The first, brought to my attention by Jane Simpson over at Transient Languages and Cultures, is a link to the draft of the LSA’s ethics statement. The statement itself is available here. The draft statement is cleverly set up as a series of blog posts, with each major section getting its own post, with its own comments section. (The front page of the blog is here.) This seems like a nice way to get discussion going among linguists, and there have already been some interesting comments posted. Also included are links to ethics statements by other professional organizations such as the American Anthropological Association.

On a related note, Claire Bowern over at Angarrgoon (who also mentions the LSA ethics statement blog) provided a link some time ago to Institutional Review Blog, which is maintained by Zachary M. Schrag, an Assistant Professor of History at George Mason University. According to its subheader, the blog is dedicated to providing “[n]ews and commentary about Institutional Review Board oversight of the humanities and social sciences.” Schrag is apparently preparing a book and he posts frequently. His perspective seems like a valuable complement to discussions going on at places like Savage Minds (e.g. here, here, and many others).

I must admit that my personal experience with IRBs at the University of Texas was not that bad. Certainly there were lots of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, but at the end of the day, the members of the IRB seemed sane and did not engage in the over-reaching that I’ve heard about in some of the worse horror stories from my colleagues. I will be very interested to see how the IRB is at Berkeley. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed.)

Fellowship opportunity for Amazonian linguists

The University of Florida has recently announced a fellowship program for profesionals and scholars from countries that include areas of Greater Amazonia: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, or Venezuela. The fellowship pays for study at the University of Florida, with the aim of producing academic works linked to the conservation of Amazonian rainforests. A colleague of mine who is involved with this program informed me that they would consider applications from linguists whose work overlaps with issues relevant to conservation, such as work on traditional environmental knowledge (e.g. zoological and botantical lexical knowledge). Further information is available online in Spanish here, Portuguese here, and English here.

Dissertation on Apinajé phonology and education

For those who are not subscribed to the etnolinguistica listserve — a must, btw, for Amazonianists — I wanted to mention the online availability of a recent dissertation, here:

Albuquerque, Francisco Edvige. 2008. Contribuição da fonologia ao processo de educação indígena Apinajé. Universidade Federal do Tocantins.

The dissertation focuses on a re-study of Apinajé phonology, and the implications of the results of this study for the Apinajé orthography and the teaching materials used in Apinajé bilingual education programs. On the phonological front, the author concludes that previous analyses of the Apinajé phonological inventory were flawed due to the inclusion of three nasal mid vowels, which he concludes are not contrastive in Apinajé. He includes a very interesting discussion of the practical and political issues surrounding the Apinajé orthography raised by the new phonological findings.

(For Mac users: The pdf file was not readable with Preview; it comes out fine with Acrobat Reader.)

Dissertations on Amazonian Languages

I recently discovered a very nice online resource: an online collection of dissertations and master’s theses on Amazonian languages, here ( The majority of the dissertations on this page were written by students at Brazilian universities, but there are also several from US and European ones. It’s especially nice that this page has Brazilian dissertations, since those are frequently hard to get a hold of outside of Brazil.

Here, to whet your appetite, is a small sample of titles:

Ferreira, Rogério Vicente. 2005. Língua Matis (Pano): uma descrição gramatical. Doutorado, Unicamp.

Freitas, Deborah de Brito Albuquerque Pontes. 2003. Escola Makuxi : identidades em construção. Doutorado, Unicamp

Santos, Manoel Gomes dos. 2006. Uma gramática do Wapixana (Aruák): aspectos da fonologia, da morfologia e da sintaxe. Doutorado, Unicamp.

Sousa Filho, Sinval Martins de. 2007. Aspectos morfossintáticos da língua Akwe-Xerente. Doutorado, UFG.

Zuccolillo, Carolina Maria Rodriguez. 2000. Língua, nação e nacionalismo: um estudo sobre o Guarani no Paraguai. Doutorado, Unicamp.

Is it time for a ‘new’ Anthropological Linguistics?

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.