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Interactional Sociolinguistics and Linguistic Ethnography: Considering the Relationship

4 October 2019

By Piotr Wegorowski

The topic of our last LEDS meeting of 2018-2019 was the relationship between Interactional Sociolinguistics and Linguistic Ethnography. In particular, we considered how useful it is to consider the two as separate frameworks.

Interactional Sociolinguistics (IS) is primarily associated with the work of John Gumperz. His key contribution, building on work in the areas of ethnography of communication and linguistic anthropology, was to reassert that “culture is essentially a communicative phenomenon, constituted through talk” (Gumperz and Cook-Gumperz 2008: 536). We discussed the implication this had in practice for analysis in the tradition of Interactional Sociolinguistics. Firstly, we agreed that a detailed analysis of spoken language is necessary. However, in contrast with approaches such as ethnomethodology, the wider cultural context needs to be taken into consideration.

The relationship between Interactional Sociolinguisitics and Linguistic Ethnography is a close one. For instance, Copland and Creese (2015) see Gumperz’s legacy as foundational to Linguistic Ethnography. Similarly, Bucholtz and Hall (2008) see the two as a part of a “loose alliance”. The two approaches share the preoccupation with the wider social context, as a prerequisite of analysing talk. Jaspers (2012: 135), for example, notes that “interactional sociolinguists in principle try to describe how meaningful contexts are implied via talk, how and if these are picked up by relevant others, and how the production and reception of talk influences subsequent interaction.” In this respect, Interactional Sociolinguistics seems to be very similar to Linguistic Ethnography, which aims to uncover the emic perspective of the participants involved in interaction.

We discussed what an interactional sociolinguistics analysis involves. The close study of interaction is also one tenets of IS. In this sense, it often employs tools from Conversation Analysis, including detailed transcription and analysis of spoken interaction, but it is distinct in its approach. The difference lies in the fact that for the IS “the concern is with situated interpretation of communicative intent, not with strategies as such, and that analysis is not confined to overtly lexicalised information” (Gumperz 1999: 464). We also saw the influence of Goffmanian analysis as an important element of an IS analysis, which Rampton (2017) sees as one of IS’s analytical resources.

At the end of our LEDS session, we looked over a short data excerpt from my doctoral work, trying to identify some contextualisation cues. Central to the Gumperz’s analysis of intercultural communication, contextualization cues are defined as “any feature of linguistic form that contributes to the signalling of contextual presuppositions” (Gumperz 1982: 131). In the case of the short extract we looked at, we saw the use of pronouns and rising intonation as examples of features that could be seen as contextualization cues in this specific example. We saw then how work which is situated within linguistic ethnography can benefit from some Interactional Sociolinguistics methods.


Bucholtz, M. and Hall, K., 2008. All of the above: New coalitions in sociocultural linguistics. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 12(4), pp.401-431.

Copland, F. and Creese, A., 2015. Linguistic Ethnography. Collecting, Analysing and Presenting Data. London: SAGE.

Gumperz, J. J., 1982. Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gumperz, J. J., 1999. On interactional sociolinguistic method. In Sarangi, S. and Roberts, C. (eds) Talk, Work and Institutional Order. Discourse in Medical Mediation and Management Settings. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 453-471.

Gumperz, J.J. and Cook‐Gumperz, J., 2008. Studying language, culture, and society: Sociolinguistics or linguistic anthropology? Journal of Sociolinguistics, 12(4), pp.532-545.

Jaspers, J., 2012. Interactional sociolinguistics and discourse analysis. In Gee, J. P. and Handford, M. (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Abington and New York: Routledge, pp. 135-146.

Rampton, B. 2017. Interactional Sociolinguistics. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies 175. Available at: