What does a linguistic ethnographer do?
A linguistic ethnographer’s research tools (aside from pen and notebook) are not always evident. This post briefly explains these tools and how they can be used by anyone.
When I get to chatting with the barista at my neighborhood coffee bar, or the baker where I get my daily bread, or parents at my kids’ schools—themselves doctors, nurses, restaurateurs, lawyers, teachers—I sometimes accidentally find myself using words like “transnational” or “diaspora” or “semiotic” in casual conversation. When this first happens—maybe thanks to a combination of my foreign accent, my permanently disheveled look, and my decidedly weird word usage—they inevitably pause a second, tilt their heads to the side, and ask: “What is it that you do, again?”
When they ask this, I’m often immersed in digesting a journal article that recently blew my mind, obsessing over some linguistic-ideological phenomenon I came across on TikTok, or mentally picking apart an interaction I witnessed during my fieldwork, so I occasionally have an out-of-body experience while attempting to answer this question and realize, “Wow, they think I’m insane.” Or, worse, “They think I’m being really pretentious.”
“I…((panicking, cringing)) am a linguistic anthropologist” (Disclaimer: I am actually an educational linguist …)
((Hm...)) “I study how people talk.”
“Oh. I thought you were an English teacher.”
“I used to be, but now I’m doing a research project about something else.”
((long pause)) “…oh”
((gritting teeth, cringing)) “Heh. … What do you do?”
On a personal level, these conversations can be downright painful, awkward, even alienating. But as far as linguistic ethnography is concerned, everyday awkward conversations like this one are THE BEST. What I mean is that they give us a lot to think about and they provide incredibly rich sources of data. For me, wearing my linguistic anthropologist hat, the more awkward an interaction, the better! Awkwardness is a linguistic anthropologist’s bread and butter. As an outside observer—and also as a participant having an out-of-body moment of clarity—a good ethnographer doesn’t get scared off by awkwardness, but always asks herself, “What is going on here?” Why is this interaction breaking down? Who are these people? Who are they being right now? What identities are they performing for each other? Which repertoires are they using for these performances? Which shared cultural frameworks are they trying to tap into by using these repertoires? What kind of meaning are they drawing from this interaction? What social purpose does this interaction serve? The questions go on and on.
Once you start to look at your everyday interactions through the lens of language, you might start to see things in a different way. Of course, this isn’t some special skill that needs to be learned via highly specialized training. We all do it all the time. In fact, Citizen Sociolinguistics draws specifically on non-linguists’ everyday wonderings and intuitions about language in an attempt to make traditional research more robust, more complete, and more engaged/engaging. As an added benefit Citizen Sociolinguistic observations are often more understandable and, let’s be honest, more fun than the kind of thing a Regular Sociolinguist might publish. Here’s an old favorite of mine.
So, in summary: Hi. I’m your friendly neighborhood linguistic anthropologist. I’m just trying to understand what’s going on here. Do you have five minutes to grab a coffee? I promise I’ll try not to make it awkward!
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