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Language, culture and social difference: Using linguistic ethnography to explore collective class identity in cultural texts

21 February 2019

By Beverley Hill, Swansea University

My recent research was prompted by an interest in whether cultural texts (such as films, books, art etc) can successfully be used as alternative sources of data for the ethnographic study of language, culture and society. Leading a discussion on this topic at the last LEDS meeting (6th February) gave me the opportunity to highlight some of the dilemmas that I encountered during this research and to explore these dilemmas further with knowledgeable and supportive group colleagues.

Ethnographies of social class, such as Sherry Ortner’s analysis of her high school year group, have largely used interview interactions and field notes to understand class identity (Ortner 2003). But we can also understand class identity from media texts which reflect and shape our beliefs about different social groups (Sellnow 2014). So films, as cultural artefacts, can provide useful sites for the analysis of the relationship between language, culture and social difference (Perez-Milans 2015).

Widescale sociological surveys of class (e.g. Savage 2015) show us that today’s class distinctions have moved on from the historical tri-partite system of upper, middle and working class, yet this traditional class imagery remains strong in British culture (see Rampton 2007). With this in mind, and prompted by reading Ortner’s study, I was interested to find out more about how I could use films as a source of data for understanding representations of collective class identity and for thinking about the relationship between public artefacts on the one hand and wider cultural understandings of social class on the other.

I started my discussion by outlining some assumption about class drawn from Ortner’s study; that class is culturally or discursively constructed, that different rhetorics of class do different things for different purposes and that class is inextricably combined with race, ethnicity and gender. I also introduced an earlier study in which I had analysed the language of class (class talk) from interview data, again within the context of British culture. It was this earlier study which had prompted me to consider what might influence the ways in which people perceive and understand social class. Drawing on Ortner’s (2003, 2006) anthropological studies of social class and culture and using language as my starting point (Perez-Milans 2015), I set out to examine British social class identity in the 20th Century Fox film ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ (2014) as a means of thinking through the relationship between language, culture and social difference. During the group discussion we examined film extracts which showed that collective identity was marked linguistically and semiotically through in-jokes, accent, expressions, (im)politeness, clothing and behavioural choices, all of which become markers of cultural distinction.

As our discussion progressed, the group suggested alternative data sources for the linguistic study of class identity, including current TV documentaries, as well as further academic references. The most interesting parts of the discussion revolved around two areas. Firstly, we explored what constitutes (or could constitute) alternative sources of data for a linguistic ethnographic study. For me, based on my film analysis, cultural artefacts can only provide one perspective and therefore whether they can be successfully used in isolation as data is questionably. Secondly, we discussed the disciplinary boundaries of linguistic ethnography, and whether any study which explores the connection between ethnography and linguistics is therefore a linguistic ethnography. While we may not have resolved these questions entirely, for me, as a non-linguist, I found that the group responses, both critical and supportive, encouraged me to feel that working on the edges of the discipline, as I do, is quite an interesting place to be.


Ortner, S. (2003), New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the class of ’58, Durham and London, Duke University Press.

Ortner, S. (2006), Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power and the Acting Subject, Durham and London, Duke University Press.

Perez-Milans, M. (2015), Language and Identity in Linguistic Ethnography, in S. Preece (ed), The Routledge Handbook of Language & Identity, New York and London, Routledge.

Rampton, B. (2007), Linguistic ethnography and the study of identities, Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies, Paper 43, available from…/workingpapers/…papers/43.pdf

Savage, M. (2015), Social Class in the 21st Century, UK, Pelican Random House.  

Sellnow, D.(2014), The Rhetorical Power of Popular Culture: Considering Mediated Texts, Thousand Oaks, California, Sage.