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19 September 2017

Combining Ethnography and Linguistics to Reach into the Details of Social Life

Professor Ben Rampton reports on last week's Ethnography, Language & Communication summer school for doctoral students.


Last week the School of Education, Communication & Society held its summer school ‘Key Concepts in Ethnography, Language & Communication’.

Here Professor Ben Rampton, course leader and director of the Centre for Language, Discourse & Communication at King’s, explains how the course combines linguistics and ethnography to chart dimensions of social life that are hard to reach with other methods.

A lot of social science is interested in meaning, but meaning involves much more just than the content of the words that are used – interviews, for example, entail more than the reporting of facts and opinions, and much more goes on in communication in classrooms and consultations than the official business of ‘learning’ or ‘diagnosis’. There is a continuous flow of signals about social stances and relationships carried in the small details of language and interaction – e.g. in a momentarily delayed reply, in the emphasis given to one word rather than another.  

At the same time, the production and interpretation of these signs is profoundly influenced by the participants’ expectations, assumptions and communicative resources, and increasingly often in contemporary conditions of globalisation, these take shape in social networks and prior experiences that are very different from the researcher’s.

The perspectives and tools explored in this course help researchers to avoid the perils of both under- and over-interpretation. Traditional social scientific methods – e.g. interviews and surveys – often take what subjects say at face value, skimming the surface of the communicative event, under-estimating the influence of the social and historical context.

At the same time, there are other approaches – e.g. critical discourse analysis, cultural criticism – that tend to over-privilege sociological and ideological factors, eclipsing what the specific text or interaction means for the participants involved, and the way they have brought their own agency to bear upon it.

Selecting research methods inevitably involves trade-offs, and the ELC programme offers researchers from a variety of approaches and disciplines an appreciation of the complexities of language and communication, and a set of ethnographically sensitive tools to extend their current perspectives and methods of inquiry.

This year's participants commented that they enjoyed being ‘so deeply immersed in the data, concepts, frameworks and conversations’; that it helped them ‘situate research in interdisciplinary fields, [with a] methodological and analytical framework’; and that ‘the data sessions…brought out the central magic of interactional analysis.’

Participants came from a range of research backgrounds including sociolinguistics, ethnography of medicine, social anthropology, human geography, museum studies and education. 

If you are interested in attending the ELC summer school in 2018, write to or follow this page for updates. 

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Professor of Applied and Socio Linguistics