Linguistics and the social sciences

Author: Greg Myers


This note is intended for teachers of courses with titles like 'Language in Society'. It outlines some key themes of current social theory that are relevant to linguistics, and suggests some areas of linguistics that may be of interest to social scientists. It includes some suggested web sites and further readings.

Table of contents

Linguistics and the social sciences

How does the pronunciation of 'car' vary with class or region? When and why do students learning English use their first language (Cantonese perhaps, or Spanish) in the classroom? How have the voices broadcast on the BBC changed? Do men interrupt women more than women interrupt men? Why do British people say 'You wouldn't happen to have the correct time, would you?' when they mean 'What's the time?'

Many students of linguistics find themselves dealing with issues that have concerned social sciences such as sociology, anthropology, geography, politics, and social psychology. And many students in these subjects find themselves wanting a principled, consistent analysis of some form of language: they have a collection of policy documents, new articles, interviews, or transcripts from television, and they want to relate them to some issue about social change. This note is intended for teachers of courses with titles like 'Language in Society' who want to lead their students to further resources for linking linguistics to the social sciences. Rather than try to map the complex relations between these fields, I will point to a few concepts that suggest the need to look further.

What linguists need from the social sciences

The practical strength of most linguists is their ability to pursue sustained analysis, and often to compare the applicability of two or more different systems of analysis. To do this, they often take some key social aspects of language use for granted, particularly in undergraduate coursework. Current work in the social sciences problematizes some of these concepts.


Social scientists have often warned sociolinguists against essentialising identities, taking them as fixed attributes, categories to be ticked off in the survey. Class was the first of these categories to be called into question; belonging to a class seems to be not so much a socio-economic fact as a cultural process. Gender also becomes complicated, a performance of certain roles that may or may not correspond to biological sex. National identities, so closely tied to languages and especially standard languages, can be treated as 'imagined communities'. While an earlier generation of sociolinguists looked for the authentic user of a language, often the oldest and most isolated speaker in a community, current sociolinguistics celebrates hybridity, the mixing and crossing of identities. Students sometimes imagine, from the skepticism of current social science approaches to class, gender, and ethnicity, that the social inequalities described in these terms have magically disappeared over the last generation. This is unfortunately not the case. See Antaki and Widdecombe (1998); Bucholtz, Liang, and Sutton (1999).


Sociolinguists have long criticised the ideal speaker-hearer proposed by Chomsky, starting instead a person embedded in complex social relations and histories. Recently they have often cited post-structuralist critiques of the very idea of a subject, the idea that there is a unified 'I' at the source of speaking and action. In these critiques, the 'I' is the effect, not the source, or speech; I am constructed as a unified, ongoing entity by language. But in linguistics, as in other disciplines, most students are actually rather uneasy with such critiques; at some level they believe there is a real self that precedes and underlies language. These questions arise when one studies formulaic language, or conventional genres, or language use that mixes different voices. Where is the subject in such speech? See Potter and Wetherell (1987); Shotter (1993).


One reason linguists are so uneasy with post-structuralist critiques is that they seem to remove any sense that a person can do anything to change things. The recognition in the 1960s and 1970s that when you say something you do something opened up whole fields of study in speech act theory, the ethnography of speaking, politeness theory, and stylistics. But if there is no unified subject behind these actions, then the models begin to look rather simplistic. So, for instance, the hope of finding a taxonomy of speech events, neatly categorized by several parameters such as participants, setting, and acts, crumbles as one tries to figure out the ends of such an event. See Moerman (1988).


Linguists have traditionally turned to sociology and political science for an account of social structure: stratification, institutions, laws, roles, exchange. But in the stripped-down version of sociology used by linguists, it is hard to tell how these structures ever change: working class people talk working class, some people have authority, and institutions specify the appropriateness of kinds of language to be used within them. Current research emphasizes different kinds of mediation between language and social change, the importance of different discourse practices, so that change or resistance to change are not just read off the kind of language used. See Chouliaraki and Fairclough (1999), Cameron (2000).

Public and private

One line of social and political thought over the last thirty years has dealt with the ideal of a public sphere, a realm in which discussion can take place and civil society can be constituted. This might seem to be far removed from linguistics and the study of actual interactions. But Jurgen Habermas, in developing the idea of a public sphere, drew on speech act theory, and linguists have been increasingly concerned with the uses of language in public discussion. The other side of such a division is the new interest in the use of language in intimate, domestic, private circumstances, and in the silences and omissions of the public sphere. See Behabib (1996); Livingstone and Lunt (1994).


So far, this review is making society sound rather grim and earnest. But we find repeated reminders in sociology and anthropology of the ubiquity and importance of mocking, hypothetical, and unserious uses of language, and delight in the sounds and patterns for their own sake. See Bateson (1972) and Goffman (1974); for readable overviews by linguists, see Crystal (1998) and Cook (2000).

What social scientists need from linguists


Structuralism transformed the human sciences in the 1960s and 1970s with the prospect that all aspects of culture could have the kind of organisation found in language. Linguistic concepts were applied to films, architecture, and food. These projects have proved impossible, or perhaps just deeply unfashionable. Now the question might be why the 'grammars' of all these other symbol systems are so unlike those of languages.


Social scientists pile up huge amounts of text, usually without looking at it as text. Various researchers have demanded that they pay attention to the structure, rhetoric, and materiality of media texts, documents, interviews, surveys. Linguists can provide a start on the detailed analysis, though of course sociologists, psychologists, or geographers may be looking for something different from what linguists look for.


When we closely at social science research data, we begin to reconstruct the interactions that have been reified in survey results, media effects, interview or focus group quotations.


Researchers in a range of fields, from film studies to computational linguistics, need ways of categorising types of texts. Studies of genre link these sterotypical forms to the kinds of interaction going on. Linguists have a body of work on analysing written and spoken (and more recently, visual) texts.


Linguists and computational researchers have developed large collections of language data. The collections themselves may not be of interest to most social scientists, who would have their own preferred designs for such a corpus. But the tools for searching and comparing corpora could be useful to social scientists who want to extend their analyses beyond the few texts they can analyse in detail by hand.

Starting points and personal lists

(These aren't intended as classics or foundational texts, but as readable social science approaches to issues relevant to communication that might prompt someone to read further. I've restricted myself to monographs, not collections or articles. I've tried to avoid the obvious, the most-cited works. And I've been unashamedly biased in my choice of personal favourites).

A dozen books in the social sciences that might interest linguists

Adam, Barbara (1995). Timewatch: The Social Analysis of Time. Cambridge: Polity.

Agar, Michael (1996). The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography (Second Edition). San Diego: Academic Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1990). Thinking Sociologically. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bazerman, Charles (1999). The Languages of Edison's Light. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Becker, Howard (1998). Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You're Doing It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Billig, Michael (1996). Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology (Second Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Douglas, Mary, and Aaron Wildavsky (1983). Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hermes, Joke (1995). Reading Women's Magazines (Cambridge: Polity).

Meyrowitz, Joshua (1985). No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scannell, Paddy (1996). Radio, Television and Modern Life : A Phenomenological Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

Silverman, David (1998). Harvey Sacks: Social Science and Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Polity.

Suchman, Lucy (1987). Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A dozen books by linguists that might be useful to social scientists

Blum Kulka, Shoshana (1997). Dinner Talk: Cultural Patterns of Sociability and Socialization in Family Discourse. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Briggs, Charles L. (1986). Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Role of the Interview in Social Science Research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, Deborah (2001). Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage.

Eckert, Penny (1999). Language Variation as Social Practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fairclough, Norman (1992). Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity. [His new book on text analysis for social scientists is forthcoming]

Goodwin, Marjorie (1990). He-Said-She-Said: Talk as Social Organization among Black Children. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen (2001). Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold.

Rampton, Ben (1995). Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents. London: Longman.

Stubbs, Michael (2001). Words and Phrases : Corpus Studies of Lexical Semantics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Swales, John (1999). Other Floors, Other Voices: A Textography of a Small University Building. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Thornborrow, Joanna (2002). Power Talk: Language and Interaction in Institutional Discourse. Harlow: Longman.

Wodak, Ruth, Rudolph de Cillia, Martin Reisigl, and Karen Liebhart (1999). The Discursive Construction of National Identity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Antaki, Charles and Sue Widdecombe, (eds.) (1998). Identities in Talk. London: Sage.

Bateson, Gregory (1972). 'A Theory of Play and Fantasy,' in Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine.

Behabib, Seyla (ed.) (1996). Democracy and Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bucholtz, M, A. C. Liang, and L. A. Sutton (eds.) (1999). Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cameron, Deborah (2000). Good to Talk? London: Sage.

Chouliaraki, Lilie, and Norman Fairclough (1999). Discourse in Late Modernity: Rehtinking Critical Discourse Analysis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cook, Guy (2000). Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crystal, David (1998). Language Play. London: Penguin.

Goffman, Erving (1974). Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Livingtone, Sonia, and Peter Lunt (1994). Talk on Television: Audience Participation and Public Debate. London: Routledge.

Moerman, Michael (1988). Talking Culture: Ethnography and Conversation Analysis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Potter, Jonathan and Margaret Wetherell (1987). Discourse and Social Psychology. London: Sage.

Shotter, John (1993). Conversational Realities. London: Sage.

Related links

Sociology On-line (Tony Fitzgerald):

The University of Wales Aberystwyth, Media and Cultural Studies (Daniel Chandler):

Universiteit van Amsterdam, Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis (Paul ten Have): (David Gantlett):

Cultural Studies Central (Robin Markowitz):

Popular Culture (Sarah Zupko):

Social Science Information Gateway:

British Sociological Association:

British Association for Applied Linguistics:

Qualitative Research page:

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