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LEDS Session 2 – Discussion of recently published work in linguistic ethnography

5 November 2019

In LEDS’ second session of 2019-20 on 30 October 2019, we enjoyed exploring and discussing the breadth of linguistic ethnographic work through consideration of a selection of ten recent research article abstracts.

Abstract selection

In preparation for the session, a purposeful selection of abstracts was made from a list of 100 articles returned from a search of the database Linguistics and Language Behaviour Abstracts.  The database was searched using the keyword “linguistic ethnograp*”, plus the search parameters of articles published in English and since 2010.  One article from each year was chosen, with the aim of ensuring coverage of a range of topics and research foci.  The abstracts/articles selected were:

Year Author Title Journal
2019 Debras, Camille  Political graffiti in May 2018 at Nanterre University: A linguistic ethnographic analysis Discourse & Society
2018 Snell, Julia  Solidarity, stance, and class identities Language in Society
2017 Kusters, Annelies  Gesture-based customer interactions: deaf and hearing Mumbaikars’ multimodal and metrolingual practices International Journal of Multilingualism
2016 Woydack, Johanna; Rampton, Ben  Text trajectories in a multilingual call centre: The linguistic ethnography of a calling script Language in Society
2015 Lauriks, Sanne; Siebörger, Ian; De Vos, Mark “Ha! Relationships? I only shout at them!” Strategic management of discordant rapport in an African small business context Journal of Politeness Research
2014 Creese, Angela; Blackledge, Adrian; Takhi, Jaspreet Kaur The Ideal ‘Native Speaker’ Teacher: Negotiating Authenticity and Legitimacy in the Language Classroom The Modern Language Journal
2013 Karrebaek, Martha Sif ‘Don’t speak like that to her!’: Linguistic minority children’s socialization into an ideology of monolingualism Journal of Sociolinguistics 
2012 Copland, Fiona   Legitimate Talk in Feedback Conferences Applied Linguistics
2011 Keating, Maria Clara; Solovova, Olga    Multilingual dynamics among Portuguese-based migrant contexts in Europe Journal of Pragmatics
2010 Jacobs, Geert; Slembrouck, Stef   Notes on linguistic ethnography as a liminal activity Text & Talk


We set out as a group to explore the following questions through our discussions:

1.            What are your thoughts about the range of research approaches and research topics these articles represent? Including: (a) What research topics and fields of study are covered? (b) What linguistic/communication analysis methods are used? (c) What use is made of ethnographic data in each study?  Is there any variation in this? (d) Did anything surprise you about the researcher’s approach or findings?

2.            From reviewing these studies, what can we surmise about the distinctiveness of linguistic ethnography as an approach to researching language in social life?

These questions provided a productive way in to comparing the ten articles and their application of a linguistic ethnographic approach to different areas of research interest.  Our discussion was lively and wide-ranging, although we did not reach any definitive conclusions based on any sort of comprehensive review. Instead, we had each dipped into different articles piquing our own individual interests, and we each brought a range of varied observations to the table.

Question 1 – research topics and research approaches

The fields and topics of research covered political discourse (Debras); social class and solidarity (Snell); metrolingual deaf-hearing customer service encounters (Kuesters); commercial marketing telephone encounters (Woydack and Rampton); customer service encounters in the small business context (Lauriks et al); multilingualism and identity in education (Creese et al, and Karrebaek); language teacher training feedback conferences (Copland); multilingualism in transnational migrant communities (Keating and Solovova); and themes in institutional linguistic ethnographic research (Jacobs and Slembrouck; this paper was qualitatively different from the others as it is a meta-analysis of a number of other research articles presenting findings from linguistic ethnographic research in institutional contexts). 

One of our first observations was that these topics of research were quite varied, but not perhaps as eclectic as some of us had expected. Contexts of research featuring prominently in the collection were education, institutional-lay interactions of various kinds, and migrant/multilingual settings both within and outside of education. We discussed this mix, and how it could be argued to reflect the typical range of disciplinary ‘homes’ or backgrounds of applied linguists in general, and linguistic ethnographers in particular, today.

A second observation was that the methods of linguistic analysis employed were, in contrast, highly variable: multimodal analysis of the linguistic landscape (Debras); variationist sociolinguistic analysis (Snell); multimodal analysis of gesture (Kuesters); transcontextual analysis (Woydack and Rampton); politeness and rapport management analysis (Lauriks et al); indexicality and language ideologies (Creese et al, and Karrebaek); authority and legitimate talk (Copland); language and literacy trajectories (Keating and Solovova); and a ‘close reading’ of academic research articles as ‘texts’ (Jacobs and Slembrouck). 

Some of these analytic approaches manifest a shared focus on power and critical analysis; others illustrate the expansion of the ‘linguistic’ in linguistic ethnography beyond the verbal into multimodal conceptions of communication. The variety evident illustrated how linguistic ethnography can be viewed as a kind of umbrella term, encompassing a wide range of approaches to analysis of language and communication used in combination with ethnographic methods.

Other differences between the articles were evident in the extent to which each author had engaged in ethnographic fieldwork – with periods of fieldwork ranging from a couple of months to four years – and the extent to which authors had drawn on the LE literature in contextualising their study and its methodology, for example.  We did not have time to discuss these in detail.

Question 2 – the distinctiveness of linguistic ethnography

We did not come to a definitive view on this question, but based on our discussion we did feel that there were some preliminary grounds for challenging Rampton et al.’s (2004: 18) claim that ‘linguistic ethnography identifies a position that is methodologically fairly distinct when compared with applied linguistics, education studies and a good deal of linguistic anthropology’. 

We felt that there were overlaps in the research foci and topics that authors engaged with between the studies selected, and other applied linguistic/education studies/linguistic anthropology studies.  Moreover, with such an eclectic mix of approaches to linguistic analysis used in these studies, we felt that it was hard to see what ‘methodological distinctness’ could be claimed by linguistic ethnography as a research approach.  However, we acknowledged that our views were based on partial readings only of this far-from-perfectly-representative selection of papers in linguistic ethnography.  We did all agree that it would be fascinating to explore this through a more comprehensive analysis.

Thanks to everyone who came along to the session and contributed to such a lively discussion!