Research ethics in context

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Jan Blommaert 

I am often amazed at the naivety with which the thing called ‘research ethics’ is being addressed. This naivety, expressed in one-size-fits-all ‘ethical guidelines’ for research, overlooks the actual conditions under which so much of research is (necessarily) conducted: in sites often qualified as ‘margins’, with vulnerable, misrecognized and oppressed people whose position in society is precarious. Inequalities in the world are part and parcel of how actual research projects are undertaken, develop and evolve; this, of course, includes issues of method and methodology, but also issues of research ethics.

In 2008, I published a book called Grassroots Literacy. In the book, I analyzed handwritten texts by two authors from D.R. Congo – authors I had never met, about whom some suggested at the time that they had perished in the war raging in their area since the mid-1990s, and whose texts I had obtained, almost accidentally, through third persons. Working on these texts created acute ethical issues, which I raised and discussed in the preface. What follows is the relevant fragment from the preface to that book. The point I hope to make is that research ethics is a contextualized and situated matter, concrete features of which can and do escape the imagined simplicity (and equality) of the worldview often presupposed in ‘ethical guidelines’.

Globalization is a process that forces us to take the world as a context. This world is complex and highly diverse, and developments in the ‘centre’ of this world – the development of new telecommunication systems and media, for instance – have effects on the ‘margins’ of the world. Literacy is a case in point, and what the documents I examine here show us is that there is a growing gap between different literacy regimes in the world. Texts such as the ones I will discuss here do not quickly or easily communicate the messages they contain. Their meanings increasingly disappear in the widening gap between literacy regimes in diverse parts of the world. The problem is obviously not academic but very real, of immediate life-or-death importance to many people. Voice is a pressing concern in a globalizing context in which less and less can be taken for granted with respect to the communicative repertoires of people interacting with one another. I addressed these concerns in an earlier book called Discourse: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge University Press 2005), and in many ways the present study is a sequel to Discourse. It picks up, and develops, points embryonically made there, focusing on literacy because of the reasons specified above, and bringing literacy analysis in the same theoretical field of force as the one described in Discourse.

This purpose offers me the opportunity to write about a corpus of texts that has puzzled, intrigued and mesmerized me for more than a decade. I came across Julien’s life histories in the mid-1990s, by what I would call ‘structured accident’. The documents are rare instances of grassroots life-writing, and they offered me more theoretical and descriptive challenges than I could imagine at the time. My encounter with these documents coincided with a period in which I was deeply engaged with Johannes Fabian’s work. I had read and reviewed his History from Below, and few books ever had such a profound impact on me. Fabian has definitely been one of my maîtres à penser and the present book is, consequently, very much the upshot of a protracted dialogue with Fabian’s work.

This dialogue intensified when, again by accident, I started working on a handwritten history of the Congo written by the Congolese painter Tshibumba, about whose historical paintings Fabian had published the magnificent Remembering the Present. I received a copy of this massively intriguing document from Bogumil Jewsiwiecki, and quickly spotted the similarities between this history and Julien’s life-writing. Both displayed the constraints of sub-elite writing, and both produced a grassroots voice on history. In both, the very act of writing appeared to produce all sorts of things: texts, but also particular positions, subjectivities. The question guiding my work then became: what does this kind of grassroots literacy make possible for people such as Julien and Tshibumba?

I had, in the meantime, started realizing that the notion of constraint is central in considering this issue. Since the mid-1990s, I had frequently been requested by my national authorities to translate written statements by African refugees and Africans arrested by the police. Gradually, a corpus of texts had emerged in which I clearly saw that literacy achievements that had some value in sub-elite African contexts rather systematically failed to be seen as valuable in Belgium. The question about the possibilities of grassroots writing thus acquired a dimension of globalization: ‘grassroots’ equals local, and the local effectiveness and adequacy of communicative resources raises questions of mobility. Texts travel, and they not necessarily travel well. In the transfer from one place to another, they cross from one regime into another, and the changed orders of indexicality makes that they are understood differently. Having clearly understood that both Julien’s and Tshibumba’s texts were mobile texts – both were written for addressees in the West – I started realizing that these documents might offer exceptional possibilities for exploring and identifying the main issues of literacy in the age of globalization: issues that have to do with the locality of literacy regimes, with mobility and inequality.

This is the story of this book. There is irony in the story, because, naturally, it was hard not to reflect on my own writing practices while I was investigating those of Julien, Tshibumba and others. I saw my own literacy regime in action – writing in a globalized language that is not my own, in a particular register and genre, on a sophisticated laptop, in a solitary comfortable space surrounded by an archive and a working library, and with Google on the toolbar. All these material conditions: I don’t take them for granted anymore. There is so much inequality inscribed in the production of this book. The main inequality is in the result: voice. I can produce a globally mobile voice, they can’t; I can produce a prestige genre, they can’t; I can speak from within a recognizable position and identity, they can’t.

There are ethical issues here. I can write about Julien and Tshibumba in ways they themselves could not, for reasons that will become all too clear in the chapters of this book. And I could not consult them while writing. I never had contact with Julien, only with his patron, Mrs Arens. She informed Julien about my academic work on his texts, and she gave me, also on his behalf, permission for pursuing it. As for Tshibumba, he has disappeared from the radar screen several years ago and no one has been able to inform me about his whereabouts. Julien and Tshibumba, we should recall, live in the southern part of the Congo, in an area marked by deep poverty and marginalization, and torn by unrest and war since the second half of the 1990s. As for the refugees and police suspects whose documents I have analyzed, I hardly ever had any contact with them either, often because I did not even know their names and because my role as state-appointed translator proscribed contacts with these subjects.

I am aware of these issues, have reflected on them over and over again, and came across the bitter irony of contemporary realities. Customary ethical codes for research presuppose a particular socio-political environment in which everyone has a name, an administrative existence, a recognizable and recognised subjectivity that demands respect and distance. We can only use a pseudonym when people’s real names are known and when knowledge and possession of that name is connected to inalienable rights, to subjectivity and, consequently, to norms that separate the public from the private sphere. Underlying is the image of a fully integrated Modern society in which such elementary features are attached to everyone and recorded – officially – somewhere.

Real societies, alas, are different. There are people in our own Modern societies that do not possess such elementary features and rights. Illegal immigrants have no name and no identifiable ‘official’ existence. Their ‘lives’ and stories are, for all practical purposes, nonexistent. Their anonymity is not the result of a desire for ‘privacy’, it is the effect of erasure and silencing; not of choice but of oppression. And there are even more people elsewhere in the world to whom these conditions apply. African works of art kept in museums are only rarely attributed to an individual artist, they are attributed to an ethnic group or to a region somewhere in Africa. Millions of people there live ‘unofficial’ lives, and no one cares about their names, birth dates, addresses, or, in a wider sense, subjectivity. I write about their subjectivity, about their existence and lives – or seen from a different perspective: I invade their privacy – because I have voice and they don’t. I can invade their privacy because I have shaped a private sphere for them, and this act is an effect of global inequalities. I am not comfortable with that situation. But I believe there is great virtue in caring about their lives and in getting to know them, and if that exposes me to ethical criticisms, I will live with that. It is a lesson I have already learned about research in contemporary societies.

I have also learned that it is good to stop and reflect on such questions, and to realise (in Gunnar Myrdal’s footsteps) that existing ethical codes do not solve the moral dilemmas of social research. They merely highlight them.


Small genres of veridiction: the Twitter profile


Jan Blommaert 


Michel Foucault’s course of lectures at the Collège de France in 1974-1975 was devoted to the theme of “Abnormal”. The edited version of these lectures offers one of the richest analyses of the genesis of the modern individual as an effect of power – a new system of power revolving around norms and enacted by a wide range of actors, from the Law through the family doctor to the family. In this new form of power, risk is the central given, and the body is the focus. The body is the seat of our instincts and, when out of control, may turn us (any and all of us) into a monster. The body, thus, becomes gradually “readable” as an index of character, of who you are. And families are charged, under the guise of “educating” their children”, with the care of the bodies of their children, who gradually should become people whose bodies are “healthy” and, hence, “normal”.

A catalyst for organizing this mode of power (a biopower governmentality) , Foucault argues, is the confession. Confessing becomes the archetype for one of the central tools of power: the “examination”, a regulated series of genres in which one has to speak the truth in the face of an authority, who will pass judgment over it. We have to confess to the police, the doctor, the psychiatrist, the priest, but also to the school teacher, our parents, and our peers. The confession, in that sense, becomes a step-up to one of the themes developed in Foucault’s latter courses: veridiction, the specific behavioral-discursive templates we have developed for “speaking the truth”. And the generalization of such forms of confession, adds Foucault, results in a “permanent autobiography” made up of small and big stories about ourselves, submitted to the normative judgment of others. And this permanent autobiography, thus constructed, is “who we are”: it is how we show ourselves to others within normative templates that can be recognizable as truthful.


It is easy to see how Foucault’s observations about the confession, and modes of veridiction more generally, could resonate in the field of social media practices today. Much of what we are invited to do on social media, I propose, revolves around the construction of a “permanent autobiography” in Foucault’s sense: a sequence of small and big veridictional narratives by means of which we show ourselves to others as “true”, “real”, “authentic” and – derived from that – “likable”, “cool”, “attractive” or what not. Facebook’s “timeline” format provides a chronological linearity to updates – an iconic feature of “(auto)biography” – and “being yourself” is a key ideological precept there, as well as on other social media. Even if the formats and functions of Facebook are not the same as, say those on “professional” social media such as LinkedIn or dating apps such as Tinder, the normative expectation on each of them is that you are “yourself” and not hide behind a mask.



This, evidently, is the key element in confession: speak the truth, do it consistently and frequently, and do it in the presence of evaluating others. Others – note – will judge whether you are “true”, and it doesn’t suffice to believe that you’re “true” yourself. A “true” identity is interactionally, and normatively, constructed, around an imagined identity essence – “being yourself”. This essence is imagined singularly (and opposed to plural “masks” we have to wear in so many sites of life), while in reality it assumes very different shapes in different media. To make this clear: compare someone’s CV to that same person’s profile on a dating site, and ask which one would be judged as a “lie” by the person who constructed both. We are “ourselves” in a broad variety of actual forms and shapes (chronotopically organized, I would say), each of them experienced as “real” (even if not comprehensively so).


This now takes us to social media as tools of governmentality. There is a burgeoning literature on social media as data-gathering tools serving interests alien to those animating the practices we perform on social media. Such interests include security as well as commerce, and they are fed by big data drawn from the activities performed on social media.

The quality of such data, naturally, heavily depends on the reliability of the information provided by users in their social media activities. And this is where the identity essentialism mentioned above enters the picture. The normative expectation informing social media interaction is, effectively, “veridictional”: since we wish to enter into specific types of relationships with others, we need to do so on a footing of credibility – the ways we show ourselves to others must trigger the indexicals of veridiction, converted into identity attributions that enable membership of groups and networks. And in view of that, we provide loads of stories feeding into such identity essentialism. Profile data – the basic stuff you have to provide for opening an account on social media – are a case in point.

These profile data are usually multimodal and contain images as well as text. Both are narrative modalities: they separately and jointly tell something about us, and are selected in such a way that we expect (or hope) others to recognize the relevance and authenticity of our stories. Let us turn to my own Twitter profile for an example.

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The usual ingredients are there: (a) a profile picture, (b) a text on “who I am”, and (c) a banner illustration. The text (b) identifies me as “academic and knowledge activist”. This is how I want to address people from my Twitter account, and what I post there should reflect those “essential” identity feature. The relational appeal is: read my tweets as messages produced by an academic and knowledge activist. As for the two pictures (a) and (c), they directly connect to (b). In the profile picture (a), I am presented in my capacity of academic, lecturing in front of a screen showing lecturing slides. The banner illustration (c) is an (unclear) picture of me giving a speech at a trade union strike picket in Antwerp harbor a few years ago – here is the activist. The two “essential” identity features I offer to my followers on Twitter are mirrored in the pictures. Together they construct an autobiographical micro-narrative in which two moments of my life – a lecture and a speech during a strike – are invoked as evidence supporting the “truth” of who I am.

Much here, of course, is implicit and becomes readable through shared tacit indexical codes. Sometimes, people are more explicit though. The following profile picture displays a young aspiring Belgian politician next to Mrs Christine Lagarde (head of the IMF) – a “frame” in which the young man’s political ambitions are quite loudly stated by the presence of a global political celebrity. The autobiographical and veridictional nature of this picture is, I hope, entirely clear.

slide 7b

In both illustrations, the actual bodies are visible as part of the narrative. We can see Foucault’s moral “topography of the body” in the details: in my Twitter profile, for instance, I am dressed differently in both pictures – one kind of dress “typical” for academic lecturing, another more appropriate for early-morning trade union activism. My body posture, too, is different: the thoughtful lecturer versus the fiery activist. Both pictures, of course, were the outcome of a selection in which the “essence” (i.e. the “truthfulness”) of the identities I wished to convey was the benchmark.

But even if bodies are not shown, similar “essences” can be expressed. Consider the Twitter profile images below, where people use “real” pictures (and names) as well as symbols, allegories, mottos and other items to identify themselves.

slide 6b

There is, thus, great semiotic diversity by means of which we produce such small stories about who we are, but the veridictional direction, I suggest, remains mandatory.


Profiles such as the ones shown here, we can see, are small veridictional genres. They provide micro-narrative clues as to who we are, submitted to the normative judgment of others. The information contained in them, given its normative direction, is presented as “essential” – as the stuff you really have to know about me in order to enter into this particular relationship. As said above, it is this particular relationship that acts as a filter on what one releases in the way of information – hence the chronotopic differences between what we show in our CV, on Facebook, and on “professional” or dating sites.

It was Foucault’s massive contribution to theories of power that he showed how, in the power systems of Modernity, we ultimately police ourselves. The distributed and infinitely fractal nature of power (as normative regulation of everyday life) begins and ends with the modern individual him/herself, incorporating and enacting normative and evaluative expectations in every instance of social behavior. The norms we find “natural” ans “self-evident” as instruments for smooth social interaction (as Durkheim sketched them), Foucault insists, are at the core of the modern system of power.

The things documented here enter into interactions with protocols and algorithms designed by commercial organizations to produce sellable data on who we are and what it is we are after. Thus, when analyzing the more scary sides of social media usage, pointing towards the bad guys who collect such data on us and convert them into profiled formats by means of which our “bubbles” are created, doesn’t suffice, for we cannot exclude our own forms of agency from the equation. The system begins and ends with all of us, confessing regularly, frequently and consistently in a self-organized permanent autobiography, providing the perfect raw materials for highly sophisticated and infinitely detailed systems of power.



One of the problems with language is what linguists make of it (remarks on a review)


Jan Blommaert 

The title of this text is borrowed from Dell Hymes, who argued that sociolinguists ought to be concerned not with the artefactualization of (institutional-normative) Language, but with what people do in and with language. I use this title because I embrace this view, and because it precisely summarizes my reactions to a review of a book of mine. The book is Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity (Multilingual Matters 2013), and the reviewer is Lars Hinrichs (Journal of Sociolinguistics 19, 2015: 260-265). It is good to keep in mind that the only ambition I had with this little book was to show that an ethnographic linguistic landscape analysis could analyze a particular social unit – a neighborhood – as a complex and dynamic system, a moving target, rather than as a “snapshot”. I thus addressed shortcomings I had identified in some other work in linguistic landscape studies.

While Hinrichs’ review, in fairness, is not a negative one, it is littered with statements that reveal “one of the problems with language” as Hymes saw it. I’ll review some of those statements and provide feedback to them. Not because this is about me – as an author, I am deeply grateful to Hinrichs for having engaged at some length with my work – but because it is about a larger vision of what we should be doing as sociolinguists.

1. Let me start with how Hinrichs understands my general theoretical orientation.

“The introduction also defines the concept of superdiversity, on which much hinges in Blommaert’s theoretical universe. The term was proposed by Vertovec (2007) and denotes the kind of diversity that is encountered in present-day metropolitan centers. The prefix super implies that this diversity is different in kind and scale than what was seen before the last two or three decades of the twentieth century, with unprecedented numbers of categories of immigrant groups coexisting in cities. From this tenet springs the assumption that the multilingualism in superdiversity is a novel mix of more languages than ever before.” (261)

It’s always wonderful when people appear to know me better than I do myself, but I cannot possibly recognize myself in this description. My theoretical universe is ethnographic, and I believe I have made this abundantly clear in almost everything I have ever written. As for the notion of superdiversity: the team with whom I have been working on themes related to superdiversity have long ago, and repeatedly, stated our quite fundamental differences with the view attributed to Vertovec. A quick reading of, for instance, the introductory chapters of Language and Superdiversity (Arnaut et al, eds, Routledge 2016) and Engaging Superdiversity (Arnaut et al, eds. Multilingual Matters 2017) should suffice to make this clear. The range of inferences drawn by Hinrichs from the use of “super” in “superdiversity” may (or may not) apply to Vertovec’s work, but it is entirely alien to mine.

Of course, the books I referred to above did not exist when Hinrichs wrote his review. But several other texts, generously explaining our differences, were available back then. For instance this one, in which I reiterate that we see “language and superdiversity as a space of synthesis, a point of convergence or a nexus of developments long underway” (2) and “what superdiversity has provoked, I believe, is an awareness that a lot of what used to be qualified as ‘exceptional’, ‘aberrant’, ‘deviant’ or ‘unusual’ in language and its use by people, is in actual fact quite normal” (3). This reversal of our conventional normative benchmarks for understanding language in society, I underscore in the same locus, compels us towards an ethnographic stance, for it is a paradigmatic moment which renders much of what we used to be quite certain of in the past open for re-exploration. This is my view of superdiversity: a small number of really new sociolinguistic phenomena have challenged our fundamental imagination of the sociolinguistic world, enabling us to re-examine and re-search old stuff. This is precisely what Rob Moore does in a paper Hinrichs uses against my views (264), while the argument Moore builds (and other have built since as well) is entirely in support of the kind of revisionism provoked by an awareness of superdiversity. (Moore, by the way, is a member of our INCOLAS consortium, as are Madsen and Van der Aa, also cited by Hinrichs; it is strange to see them presented in the role of dissidents here).

Hinrichs, thus, constructs a straw man and launches an assault on that straw man’s views – not on mine. To be sure, he is not alone in this; a small cottage industry has emerged in which the same forms of intellectual laziness are practiced and the same weird statements are being loudly voiced. One shall forgive me for not attaching too much weight to them: if one wishes to engage me in a dialogue, let it be about what I did write, not about what the views of others wrongly ascribed to me. Which brings me to a second issue.

2. I appear to have given Hinrichs particular satisfaction on one point:

“I first note that in a welcome break from his earlier writing, Blommaert no longer presses one particular point: that sociolinguistics should abandon the construct of the language, it being an abstraction rooted in structuralism.” (263)

Once more: please read what I have written on this topic. Did I ever argue that “sociolinguistics should abandon the construct of the language”? No. I have written over and over again that the modernist (structuralist) concept of language is an ideological reality of language-in-society, and that, consequently, it cannot be a methodology for looking at language – it is an object of sociolinguistic study. So, concretely, what I am saying is that the modernist-structuralist concept of Language-with-a-capital-L is not what linguists and sociolinguists should reduce their observational data to, since it is an observational datum in its own right. Sociolinguists should not abandon this construct, they should study it. Language-ideological reifications – such as people believing that they “speak Language X” – are sociolinguistic facts, and therefore not the most accurate tools for metalevel analysis. We have learned this from two decades of work on linguistic ideologies – a development Hinrichs (as well as others in the cottage industry) appears to have entirely missed. He observes “how heavily languages are here [in my study] reified as emic units” (263) but has failed to notice that ’emic’ here means ‘language-ideological’.

Hinrichs believes that, in this book, I have made a salutary turn by counting and listing “languages”, and by mentioning even a “variety” by name: “ecumenical Dutch”. Sadly I must disappoint him: the use of words does not entail their presuppositions when these very presuppositions have been fundamentally altered. When I use a term such as “ecumenical Dutch”, I do not gesture towards the self-contained, singular, static and bounded set of forms and relations between forms that defined “Dutch” in the tradition of modernist-structuralist linguistics (and sociolinguistics). I point towards a flexible, constantly evolving, historically loaded, open-ended range of communicative features-in-practice, to which we can attach a conventionalized – “vernacularized”, if you wish – label such as “Dutch”. And I explain this at length. It is remarkable that Hinrichs has overlooked this work of re-qualification in my usage of these terms. He projects his own qualifications of these terms onto my use of them, after which he finds them inconsistent.

This misconstrued “abandon of the construct of language” reappears somewhat further in the shape of suspicion:

“Thus, it is good that this book does not expand the argument against ‘language’ any further – but it does pursue the argument for the ‘End of Synchrony’ (p. 117) – which might be the re-birth of the earlier argument in another guise.” (263)

The first part of the sentence is wrong, as I explained; the second one, about “the end of synchrony”, is again quite strange. What I mean by the end of synchrony is that an analysis of the kind I propose does not get anywhere when we employ the modernist-structuralist concept of language outlined above: a self-contained, singular, static and bounded set of forms and relations between forms that exist transcendently, detached from spacetime-situated practice. This modernist-structuralist concept, I have argued repeatedly, renders language fundamentally ahistorical – where “historical” is not reduced to chronology but refers to the plenitude and complexity of social practices situated in spacetime – in short, what people do in and with language, as I said at the outset. And yes, I could not have done much with such tools when I attempted to describe a concrete spacetime unit as a moving target.

Hinrichs defends the use of his concept of language as follows:

“However, it is already an integral part of scholarly practice that when abstractions are made we question their validity, carefully guarding the boundary between general and specific claims. Couched in the terms of an iconoclastic formula (‘the end of synchrony’), this argument dresses itself as a new departure, but erases the virtues of extant sociolinguistic practice.” (263)

Unfortunately, I must once more disagree about this “integral part of scholarly practice” when it comes to Language in the sense described above. I see loads of work – including work by critics of the sort of work we do – in which the modernist-structuralist concept of language is unquestioningly used, for instance for describing “code-switching” and other forms of complex multilingualism. I see a pretty robust conservatism, in fact, when it comes to checking the validity of that concept in much work that aspires to be advanced and sophisticated. And apart from its manifest intellectual shortcomings, I also see a very limited awareness about the ideological and political history of that particular concept as a tool of institutional oppression, disqualification and exclusion.

3. I even see analytical stereotyping. My book dealt with the linguistic landscapes of an area in Antwerp, Belgium. I trust that readers know what linguistic landscape analysis is: it is a study of publicly visible inscriptions. And the only ambition I had with the book, I repeat, was to demonstrate the relevance of ethnography for getting more sociolinguistic knowledge out of and about linguistic landscapes. The reasons for that are, I believe, generously explained in the book. Nonetheless, Hinrichs is disappointed: “But in a sociolinguistic work, one also hopes for deep study of speech data” (264). Sociolinguistics, that’s the study of spoken speech, apparently. He seems to have overlooked a few developments in the sociolinguistics of literacy lately – notably those connected to ethnographic and multimodal approaches. Reducing sociolinguistic work to spoken language, in an age of online and offline interactions, is very twentieth century I’m afraid.

So I should have made recordings of spoken speech in my linguistic landscape study. And what should I have done with them? Hinrichs:

“I would have welcomed some much more detailed (and potentially quantitative) structural analysis of Dutch used by members of different immigrant groups in the area, and to see its discussion embedded in the broader, ongoing debate on how to classify multiethnolects, which includes discussions of Dutch in multiethnic urban settings (…)” (264)

I confess not having done the kind of research Hinrichs would have welcomed. Perhaps I will do it when I decide to study the very different things he appears to be after (and accept uncritically all the highly problematic assumptions buried in that kind of quest – “multiethnolects” used by “different immigrant groups” to be identified by means of … what?). So here is how Hinrichs wraps it all up:

“I would say that Blommaert employs an excess of revolutionary rhetoric, when established methods and ideas might have served equally well, or better.” (264)

Okay, I haven’t been conservative enough. I apologize for that. The call is: let’s all just do what we have been doing for half a century.

4. But it is more specific than that, and that brings me to a more general point. A particular model of sociolinguistics is here upheld as the benchmark of quality – the modernist-structuralist, variationist and quantitative one. Virtues and shortcomings are measured against it. The ‘sociolinguistics’ used as a benchmark by Hinrichs is a highly partial one, a sociolinguistics from which a broad range of sociolinguistic approaches have been elided – the entire ethnographic and linguistic-anthropological tradition, in fact, is dismissed here.

Well then, if we should all do what we have been doing for half a century, it is good to remember that back then and since then, people such as Hymes, Gumperz, Goffman, Bourdieu and Fabian, among others, drafted the ethnographic-sociolinguistic agenda that informs my work and that of many others, while others drafted different agendas. Animosity between various branches of sociolinguistic scholarship is as old as the discipline itself and shows an unfortunate cyclical pattern of escalation and de-escalation – of ‘schismogenesis’ in Bateson’s old terms. We are clearly in a stage of escalation once again, in which the silliest and most superficial statements are offered as conclusive arguments, and in which no effort is made to, at least, understand the assumptions and vocabularies of the perceived adversaries.

I can assure Hinrichs that I know all the stuff he unfavorably compares my work with; I know structural analysis, I know the work on “multi-ethnolects”, I know variationism and the three waves, I know quantitative sociolinguistics, I know big data sociolinguistics, I know multimodal analysis and so forth. If I do not use these approaches it is not for being unfamiliar with them, nor for want of having tried them out. It is for the best reason in science: they don’t work for what I am after. The tools I selected for this particular study were, in my judgment, the best ones. Note: not the only ones, and I welcome anyone doing different types of research in the same site. In fact, I supervised research in this area, on this topic, operating on an entirely different paradigmatic footing. For I do not see researchers of a different kind as a danger or an adversary, I see them as partners in a search for knowledge.

This spirit of pluralism, dialogue and cooperation marked the birth of modern sociolinguistics half a century ago, at a time when virulent factionalism marked the development of formal linguistics. I hope we shall be allowed to be conservative in wishing to conserve that spirit.



‘Home language’: some questions


Jan Blommaert

This short research note is part of the Durkheim and the Internet project.

‘Home language’ is a variable often used in policy-oriented research on language-in-education. It is assumed that differences in ‘home language’ are causally related to differences in learning outcomes in diverse populations. In Belgium, for instance, systematically reoccurring PISA-results indicating lower scores for ‘migrant’ learners are easily attributed to one ‘home language’ factor: the assumption that Dutch is not the ‘home language’ in many immigrant learners’ families. This point is correlated with, and in a self-confirming loop supported by, two other variables: the ‘level of education’ and ‘occupation’ of the parents of the learner.

Aaron Cicourel (1964) told us half a century ago that variables used in statistical research need to be ecologically validated – they need to be grounded in ethnographically observable facts, where ‘ethnography’ refers to a methodology in which the ‘insiders’ perspective’ is being described. Such facts, Gregory Bateson underscored (1972: xxviii) cannot be denied, and they are always evidence of something. This something can be a pattern as well as an idiosyncrasy, and what it is precisely cannot be determined by assumption; it must be investigated empirically. The trouble with variables such as ‘home language’ in the kinds of research I pointed to, is that they are established as unchecked assumptions and turned into powerful explanatory factors, while, in actual fact, they remain poorly argued and fragile assumptions.

Let me point out some crucial weaknesses in this mode of practice.

  1. Behind ‘home language’, a particular, and elaborate, sociological imagination is hidden, and this imagination is carried along in the usage of the term as variable and explanatory factor. So the general question to be raised about ‘home language’ is: what exactly is meant by this? Which realities is it supposed to stand for? And once we have found an answer to this, how can these realities be used as an explanation for other realities (i.c. educational performance scores by ‘migrant’ learners).
  2. In current practice, we see the following sociological imagination emerge
    1. ‘Home language’ refers to the language(s) spoken among the members of the family in direct interaction;
    2. More precisely, it refers to parent-child interaction; very often, the mother is implicitly seen as crucial in this respect;
    3. This ‘home language’, thus established, has a transmission effect: children learn and adopt the language(s) of their parents;
    4. This transmission effect is important, even crucial: the language(s) transmitted in direct interactions within the family act(s) as a resource as well as a constraint for learning. Home is the crucial socialization locus.
  3. From an ethnographic point of view, all of these points are weak hypotheses. Here are some critical remarks.
  4. As to 2.1: what is meant by ‘language’? Is it just the spoken language? If so, where is literacy? And why would the spoken variety of a language prevail over its literate registers when we are trying to determine the effects of ‘home language’ on learning outcomes, knowing the important role of schooled literacy in formal learning trajectories? I shall add more complications to this issue below.
  5. About 2.1 and 2.2. Is parent-child interaction all there is to ‘home language’? Children usually grow up in a ‘home’ environment where popular culture, social media and peer groups are very much part of what ‘home’ is all about. Thus, even if parent-child interaction would be ‘monolingual’ (in reality it never is, see below), the actual ‘home language’ environment experienced by children could be outspokenly ‘multilingual’, with complex modes of spoken and written interaction deployed in a variety of relationships – with parents and family members, non-family friends and peer group members both online and offline, and ‘distant’ popular culture networks, to name just these. Children might spend far more time interacting with, say, members of their after-school soccer team than with their parents.
  6. About 2.2. Even if we accept parent-child interactions as being of paramount importance in defining the ‘home language’ environment, which types of interactions are we talking about? There are homes where parent-child interactions predominantly revolve around order and discipline (the ‘eat-your-veggies-and-clean-up-your-room’ type, say) and homes where more intimate and elaborate genres are practiced (the ‘mom-is-your-best-friend’ type, say). If we consider parent-child interaction a crucial form of input in language socialization, we need to be precise about what such modes of interaction actually involve, for children will learn very different bits of language depending on the types of interaction effectively practiced.
  7. About 2.2. The previous remark leads us to a more fundamental one (complicating my point (4) above): ‘language’ is a very poor unit of analysis for determining what different modes of interaction actually do in the ‘home language’ environment. Register is far more relevant as a unit: we organize different modes of interaction by means of very different linguistic and communicative resources. Concretely, when a child grows up in the ‘eat-your-veggies-and-clean-up-your-room’ culture mentioned above, it is likely to learn the discursive resources for commands and instructions, not those for talking about one’s deeper feelings or dreams. In that sense, ‘monolingual’ is always a very superficial descriptor for any real sociolinguistic regime – it’s never about language, and always about specific bits of language(s) operating in normatively defined (and complex) form-function mappings (called ‘languaging’ in current literature).
  8. About 2.3. That there is a transmission effect cannot be denied – see the previous point. The thing is, however, what exactly is transmitted? Which particular register features ‘spill over’ from parents onto children in the different modes of interactions mentioned earlier? And which ones are activated, acquired and shaped in the different forms of interaction, within the broader reality of ‘home language’ described above? And how about the specific school-related registers? How do they actually relate to the registers deployed in the ‘home language’?
  9. About 2.3 and 2.4. What really needs to be established is the actual structure of the repertoire of the children. And how does parent-child interaction (and its transmission effects) fit into such repertoire structures? We might learn, from such inquiries, that children might actually reject the ‘home language’ in its narrow definition and that far more powerful transmission effects emerge from, e.g., peer groups or popular culture (and not just by teenage children). Socialization, we should realize and accept, happens in far broader social-systemic environments, and the home (in the imagination outlined above) cannot a priori be assumed to be the most important one. The specific role of the home within such broader socialization environments needs to be established empirically. In an age of intense online-offline dynamics, the old Durkheim-Parsonian views of ‘primary’ socialization units such as the family need to be critically revisited.
  10. A general remark. I referred to some other variables commonly correlated with ‘home language’: the level of education and the professional occupation of the parents – usually the mother. An unspoken assumption is that optimal learning effects can be derived from (a) a Dutch-dominant ‘home language’ environment, (b) with highly educated parents (c) employed in prestige-carrying occupations, acting as main transmission agents. But according to the logic of this particular bit of sociological imagination, the most powerful transmission effects may come from parents not fitting this picture. An unemployed parent is likely to be far more available for parent-child interaction than a full-time employed one. As for the latter, such powerful transmission effects cannot be just assumed, and the earlier issue of interaction types and specific registers becomes more pressing. In homes with ‘absent parents’, the effects of the broader socialization environment must be taken seriously. The implicit status hierarchy contained in (a)-(c) above just may be a sociological fiction.

From an ethnographic viewpoint – and, by extension, a viewpoint emphasizing ecological validity in research – the unquestioned use of ‘home language’ in the sense outlined here will inevitably result in fundamentally flawed research, the outcomes of which are entirely dependent on a series of assumptions that do not stand the test of empirical control. The problem is situated at the level of the sociological imagination motivating such assumptions; and this imagination, we know, has lost touch with sociological reality. The good news, however, is that there is a significant amount of ethnographic research addressing these issues, from which one can draw a more realistic set of assumptions and against which the ecological validity of current findings can be checked. The potential benefit of doing that has been, one hopes, sufficiently established here.


Bateson, Gregory (1972 [2000]) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Cicourel, Aaron (1964) Method and Measurement in Sociology. New York: Free Press


An intriguing rebuttal came my way shortly after posting this text: the kinds of research I advocate here would yield way too much diversity and, thus, prevent generalization. It’s an old argument, and those who use it display an amazingly superficial knowledge about generalization as a scientific practice. Reading the two classics I cite here, and especially Bateson’s old Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), could be helpful. But more disturbing is the implication of this argument: that sociological fiction is fine because it is generalizable – we know that our assumptions are wrong or unfounded, but we will still use them because they satisfy a formal-methodical criterion of ‘generalizability’. Unfortunately, fiction doesn’t become science when it’s generalized. It becomes generalized fiction.


A review of “Overheating” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen)


Jan Blommaert 

Overheating: An anthropology of accelerated change. Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Pluto Press: London 2016, 192pp. $30, paper, ISBN 9780745336343.

(An abridged version of this review will appear in the Journal of Anthropological Research)

This book is iconic in the Peircian sense: its structure and style resemble, “mirror” even, its contents. It offers a mountain of information and even more food for thought, and it does so in a text that can be read at lightning pace. For those who have read Eriksen’s earlier Tyranny of the Moment (2001) the topic and style are familiar: Eriksen provides an update here of his earlier statements on the present stage of globalized modernity as characterized by spacetime compression and acceleration, and by issues of interacting – clashing – scales as defining many of the problems currently experienced in various parts of the world.

EriksenThe world, indeed, is the space within which Eriksen sets his book, and this world is trop plein, argues Eriksen – not just with people, but even more with the processes, products and side-effects they generate at an incredible rate. Eriksen writes an anthropology of the world-in-motion, and being an anthropologist he does so by means of a superb intellectual device: the alteration of statistics to sketch the higher scale-levels of the issues he addresses, with ethnographic vignettes documenting the lower scale-levels of the same issues. These issues are laid out in the five core chapters 3 to 7, on energy, mobility, cities, waste and information overload, caught between an introductory chapter dominated by the spectacular growth of the world’s population (chapter 1) and a chapter laying out a conceptual vocabulary (chapter 2),and a final chapter in which things are pulled together in a vision of clashing scales (chapter 8).

Le monde est trop plein is the motto that directs the argument. In the twentieth century, the world’s population rose from less than two billion to almost seven billion, and this massive increase has gradually shaped a scale level unknown to earlier generations of anthropologists and social scientists. There are, for instance, presently more people living in urban areas than the entire world’s population in 1920. Distinctions between the ‘urban’ and the ‘rural’ that were so important in the formative stages of anthropology, and indeed the entire conception of the  ‘local’ as the circumscription within which ethnographers operated, consequently, now have to be reimagined as dispersed over a variety of interacting scales. The interactions of such scales constrain and condition what happens ‘locally’, and Eriksen draws on some of Bateson’s vocabulary to define the often uneasy effects of such cross-scale frictions – the frictions causing the ‘overheating’ of the processes he describes. There are runaway processes, treadmill syndromes, double binds, and flexibility issues – concepts all referring to the loss of local agency, stability and control – generated by a general crisis of reproduction – the incapacity to extend current modes of life into the future – framed by multiscalar neoliberal engines of global scope. This, Eriksen explains in his final chapter, leads to global issues of trust, of risk-experience, of uncertainty and instability.

We have, for instance, witnessed a phenomenal expansion of the wage-labor population over the past half century, and this process largely went hand in hand with the growth of superdiverse megacities around the world. This high-scale process triggered several others. It triggered a crisis in energy consumption and, inextricably related to this, in pollution and surplus waste production, as well as in the growth of a huge informal economy and a global increase of exploitation and inequality alongside wealth accumulation and extraction. Eriksen’s well-chosen ethnographic vignettes demonstrate how people around the world have to find ways – usually new ways – to manoeuver the complexities of everyday life economically, socially and culturally, in a continuous but nonlinear and often paradoxical loop between local needs and higher-scale constraints and affordances. Previously well-functioning methods have ceased to be useful, and trusted systems of authority and sociopolitical equilibrium have equally expired as valid problem solvers.

The core argument, thus put, is reminiscent of that developed decades ago in Fernand Braudel’s description of three layers of time, where such layers corresponded to degrees of consciousness and individual agency. Typically, people would be aware of the évenémentiel in their world, since it corresponds to their own bio-chronological scales and allows them degrees of responsiveness and even anticipation. The higher-level layers of time, however, are rarely a matter of direct consciousness (other than through the mediation of événéments), and the longue durée – the time of climate changes and systemic transformations – is often practically unconscious as a layer of human experience and activity. As to agency: one or more individuals could have influenced (and did influence, in fact) the Battle of Waterloo, while it takes the combined efforts of many millions of people to have effects on climate change. Since, in Eriksen’s view, higher-scale processes now become far more palpable as effects on everyday life, there is a growing “tension, typical of modernity, between the system world and the life-world, between the standardised and the unique, the universal and the particular” (7).

This world, in its present state, is new, Eriksen underscores, and its birth year is 1991, when the Cold War as we knew it ended. There will forever be those who jump up as soon as “newness” is mentioned, and will argue that nothing much has changed. But Eriksen is adamant: the explosive expansion of the world’s pool of wage labor, for instance, has transformed not just the entire economic system (with industrial delocalization as a typical phenomenon, resulting in what Wallerstein, long ago, foresaw as a new global division of labor). It also transformed the social system, creating a worldwide new class called “precariat” by Guy Standing, and doubling, between 1990 and 2010, the number of South-North migrants from 40 to 80 million (59-60).


The point Eriksen makes – often implicit – is: scale matters. Even if there was global tourism prior to the 1990s, for instance, the fact that the number of tourist trips around the world nearly doubled between 1995 and 2012 (from about 500 million to 1 billion) is itself a social, cultural and economic phenomenon without precedent, creating not just entirely new forms of cultural encounters but also new forms of cities and infrastructures not constructed by local needs but shaped by needs to cater for visitors, and new forms of consumer markets, flows of capital and modes of employment. More concretely: when Spain welcomed 15 million holiday makers in 1979, critics already bemoaned the disastrous transformation of the Spanish costas; in 2015, the number of tourists had risen to 60 million, or 120% of the country’s population, with equivalent effects on not just the costas, but the entire country. A shift in scale is a qualitative shift, argues Eriksen, transforming the phenomena themselves, and not just a shift in numbers that leaves older fundamental structures intact.

Consequently, such shifts invite a new anthropology, for, when Lévi-Strauss wrote his pessimistic lines on the “escapism of traveling” in Tristes Tropiques, “the number of tourist arrivals in the world was about 2 per cent of the present figures” (64). The anthropologist’s world, thus, has drastically changed, and some of the runaway processes and double binds that used to be relatively ‘niched’ in an earlier stage have become systemic now – exceptions have become rules. Since most of our intellectual and bureaucratic tools for addressing the world have their roots firmly in such earlier stages of development of our societies, they operate as anachronisms, often accentuating the problem and creating a void of responsibility and potency for change; consequently “in the multiscalar kinds of societies in which most contemporaries live, all forms of blaming are present simultaneously” (143).

Eriksen extends this argument over a vast range of domains, succinctly pointing towards origins and futures and focusing on the present state of the processes and phenomena he examines. Many of the facts he submits in this book are rather well known, but they usually only reach us piecemeal, in scattered and disintegrated forms. Eriksen’s achievement is not just the synthetic form in which he combines tremendous amounts of data and information, even if precisely this synthesis makes this book mandatory reading for students, for whom, as participants in the huge changes described here, the scope and speed of such changes often remain cryptic and experiences anecdotal. His achievement is to have sketched a colossal domain for anthropologists to rethink, reinvent and reimagine. Some accelerated change in our theoretical and methodological development is needed – this is the food for thought offered in Overheating.



Pride, prejudice and pedantry

language: a feminist guide

Last year I discovered the perfect gift for the supercilious arse in your life: a mug emblazoned with the legend ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’. grammar-mug The existence of this item testifies to the widely-held belief that sneering at other people’s language-use is not just acceptable, it’s actually a virtue. When the subject is language, you can take pride in being a snob; you can even display your exquisite sensitivity by comparing yourself to a genocidal fascist (‘I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi: I can’t bear it when people use language incorrectly’).

On Twitter there’s a ‘Grammar Police’ bot whose mission is to belittle random strangers by tweeting unsolicited corrections of their ‘defective grammar’. Because, according to its profile, ‘publishing defective grammar abases oneself’.

‘Abases *oneself*’? Try ‘one’, or better, ‘you’. And maybe get your thesaurus out, because I don’t think ‘abase’ is the word you want.

What I’ve…

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Redefining the sociolinguistic ‘local’: Examples from Tanzania

Wajanja DSCN5923 2

Jan Blommaert 


In a visionary book, Arjun Appadurai (1996: 194) noted ‘new forms of disjuncture between spatial and virtual neighborhoods’,  seriously complicating the actual meaning of a term such as ‘local practice’. This disjuncture, Appadurai argued with amazing foresight, would be an effect of the growth and development of a new infrastructure for globalization both in its hard and soft dimensions: the internet. With equal lucidity and at the same moment in history, Manuel Castells (1996) predicted the development of a new type of social formation which he called ‘network’ and which was not constrained by the traditional boundaries of social groups. Castells, too, saw the internet as the engine behind such far-reaching transformations in the sociocultural, political and economic order worldwide.

Appadurai and Castells made these claims while observing this global technological infrastructure in its infant stage. More than two decades later, and now living in what has effectively become a network society, one can only be amazed by the accuracy of their predictions, as well as by the very slow pace at which scientific disciplines devoted to humans and their societies have adjusted their gaze and frames of reference in addressing transformations predicted in the mid-1990s (see e.g. Eriksen 2016). It is clear, for instance, that sociolinguistics has been quite slow in addressing globalization as a fundamental mechanism of sociolinguistic change (Coupland 2003; Pennycook 2007; Blommaert 2010), and that the disjunctures between spatial and virtual neighborhoods anticipated by Appadurai – or rather, in an updated formulation, the complex intersections generated by spatial and virtual social spacetimes – still await satisfactory analysis and theorization (cf. Coupland 2016; Blommaert & Rampton 2016; Varis 2017; Blommaert 2017).

To be fair, the task is challenging, for sociolinguistics quite consistently relied on a particular imagination of spacetime in analysis and theory. Such spacetimes were ‘local’, meaning: they were enclosed and autonomous, allowing the analysis of clear sociolinguistic patterns within the specific spacetime unit – the neighborhood, the village, the city, the region, the nation-state. This imagination of the ‘local’ provided clarity for another key concept: the speech community (cf. Rampton 2009). Such communities, it was assumed, derived levels of stability and sharedness from their ‘local’ roots, which in turn allowed analysts to zoom in on the normative modes of social interaction, the forms of socioculturally relevant variation, the effects of institutionalization, and the dominant patterns of sociolinguistic change. This ‘sedentary’ logic was, of course, dislodged by ‘non-sedentary’ phenomena such as migration and the various forms of language contact it provoked. The spacetime unit in which such forms of sociolinguistic complexity occurred, however, was not affected, and it is only with the rapid and pervasive spread of ‘virtual’ spacetime that we are forced to address modes of social interaction developing in an unbounded, elastic and dynamic spacetime not contained by the qualities we used to ascribe to the ‘local’ in research.

In what follows, I shall try to document the analytical complexities we have to face as soon as we engage with such new forms of spacetime. My ambitions are modest: I merely intend to identify a number of inevitable ‘phenomenal’ features – what kinds of phenomena are we encountering? – and point in the direction of a particular analytical vocabulary that might be helpful in exercises of this kind. I shall do so by drawing on insights into the emerging internet-and-mobile culture in Tanzania, and I have the advantage of a longitudinal perspective, having been involved in research there for over three decades now (see Blommaert 2014). So let me first introduce some of the historical frame in which we need to set the discussion.

The ups and downs of language hierarchies in Tanzania

Tanzania offers us fertile terrain for investigating the changes in what is ‘local’ due to globalization and its online infrastructure, for these forces appear to have comprehensively reshuffled the institutional sociolinguistic order, creating, so to speak, a ‘language policy from below’ defying the official one, and replacing a relatively stable sociolinguistic hierarchy by a more fragmented one. While I do not expect this development to be unique to Tanzania, the case has the advantage of being clear. Tanzania, we know, was often highlighted in the sociolinguistic literature of the 1960s and 1970s as a relatively rare instance of  successful ‘demotic’ language planning. While most other recently decolonized countries had opted for a continuation of the colonial sociolinguistic order, with the language of the former colonial power (concretely: French, English, Portuguese) as national or official language, the socialist rulers of Tanzania radically opted for Swahili as the language expressing the postcolonial identity of the country and its citizens, turning it into an exception to what was later defined as the postcolonial rule of ‘linguistic imperialism’ (Phillipson 1992; see Blommaert 2014 for details on the postcolonial history of Swahili).

Swahili (in a range of varieties) was already relatively widespread in the country at the time of independence, and its adoption as national language, to be used in almost every official domain, made it into a language the hegemonic position of which as ‘the language of everyone’ remained uncontested for decades. There was one crack in that hegemony though. English was not entirely eliminated; it was kept as the language of instruction of post-primary education. The reasons for this language-political anomaly are complex, and officially the argument was that Swahili needed, first, to be ‘developed’ to cope with the demands of scientific thought and progress. Concretely, this meant vocabulary development – a Sisyphean  process not helped by a byzantine structure of official ratification. Pending the completion of that task, English remained the language of the – very small – national intelligentsia, as access to standard forms of English was almost entirely dependent on access (through demanding state exams) to secondary and tertiary education. And in that way, it retained covert prestige – a lot of prestige.

This, incidentally, is one of the ways in which we can define Tanzania as a ‘margin’: its endogenous symbolic resources were for a long time valuated and hierarchically positioned with regard to an exogenous benchmark: the symbolic resources of its former colonizing power. Its status as a sociopolitical system, likewise, was measured quite consistently against that of metropolitan sociopolitical systems. So while there are a range of ‘objective’ criteria for establishing ‘margins’ as opposed to ‘centers’ in the world system – GDP and poverty indexes, to name just those – ‘subjective’ ones also count. For decades, there was a strong self-defining tendency in the country as being ‘marginal’; and this imagination was shared by politicians who saw Swahili as ‘not yet ready’ to fulfill the functions of English, as well as by local rappers who nicknamed their country ‘Bongo’ and their hiphop scene ‘Bongo Flava’ – the flavor of total marginalization.

Tanzania was long an example of what sociolinguists preferred as ‘local’: a state even officially devoted to self-reliance, non-alignment and autonomy, with an unchallenged government and a population often imagined as Swahili-speaking monoglot. Within such an imagined enclosed and self-contained unit, sociolinguistic reflections followed simple tracks, usually revolving around ‘Swahili versus English’ in education – a topic that dominated the literature on Tanzania for decades. Below the surface of that imagined ‘locality’, however, several very different processes were at work. First, there was a great deal of variation within Swahili that was left unexplored even if it pointed towards existing and new inequalities within the imagined demotic sociolinguistic system. Second, there was the uneasy fact that most Tanzanians were not monolingual but at least bilingual, combining (varieties of) Swahili with (varieties of) ethnic languages. The latter were very rarely drawn into the equation in Tanzania. Third, even if English was an active resource in just small segments of Tanzanian society, it carried tremendous language-ideological weight as the language indexing everything that was foreign, smart, desirable and exclusive (and capitalist) – it was, in other words, the undisputed sociolinguistic marker of elite-status. Prestigious products (usually equivalent to overseas products) would be advertised in English, and prestigious people would be identifiable by the variety of English and the level of fluency in using it. The persistent refusal of the Tanzanian government to replace English by Swahili throughout the entire education system – and the persistent pointing, in motivating this anomaly, towards the superiority of English as a language of learning, undoubtedly contributed to this prestige.

The clear sociolinguistic patterns many sociolinguists believed to observe in Tanzania, thus, obscured a far more nuanced and fractured system in which the near-absence of English in Tanzania did not prevent a status hierarchy very similar to that in postcolonial countries where the former metropolitan language had been preserved as the language of the public sphere. Thus, in spite of massive amounts of lip service to it, Tanzania never really was the demotic sociolinguistic nation it was often perceived to be. Neither was it the enclosed and self-contained ‘local’ system many preferred to behold. While the dynamics of language variation within Swahili, and between Swahili and ethnic languages, were by and large (territorially) domestic forces, the prestige of English rested (like elsewhere) precisely on the translocal, international imageries it invoked.

At this point, we begin to see the contours of the problem I intend to more fully develop below. Yes, Tanzania was seen as a ‘local’ sociolinguistic arena, and most of the sociolinguistic literature would address it as such. But colonization had made that ‘local’ character very porous and elastic indeed, since an important part of how Tanzanians related to Swahili was determined by translocal linguistic ideologies firmly rooted in colonial (and postcolonial) realities. Such language-ideological imageries easily entered the country, even if until the early 1990s the communications and mass-media landscape in Tanzania was very poorly developed. Tanzania, one could say, was a switchboard between various subnational and supranational scale-levels (Blommaert 2010: 182-194), but in the pre-internet era the connections between such scale-levels were narrow and accessible for a privileged minority only. This would of course change when the internet entered the country. And when I did the fieldwork from which I draw the observations below, in 2012, I was working in a very different society.

Script vernacularization: Intanet Bomba

One of the most conspicuously different features of Dar es Salaam urban life these days is the generalized use of mobile phones. Like in other places in Africa, mobile phones solve a perennial problem: offering a means of long-distance communication cheaply and effectively, without requiring the massive investments required for landline networks. In the developing world, mobile phones represent a genuine revolution and are seen by influential policymakers as crucial tools for future economic, social and political development. In the words of a World Bank-related researcher,

Mobile telephones are revolutionizing the formative processes of economic development. These relatively cheap handheld personal communicators are empowering the most basic development agents, turning former functionaries reliant on erratic and remote external inputs into key decision makers with direct access to the facts they need. (Lambert 2009: 48)

New providers, consequently, are almost all located in the developing world (Lambert 2009: 49), and the range of services they offer do not lack sophistication: m-banking can be found in several developing countries while it is still rare in Europe; job advertisements and access to social and administrative services are also offered via mobile phones in several countries, as well as cheap chat services.[1] Another World Bank-connected researcher, Elisabeth Littlefield (2009: 50) thus reports:

The biggest success in customer adoption to date has been the M-PESA network in Kenya, which has reached more than 6.5 million customers in just over two years. It has become the preferred method for moving money for 50 percent of Kenyans.

In the next sentence, however, this optimism is instantly qualified:

However, fewer than 1 in 10 mobile phone banking customers are actually poor, new to banking, and doing anything more than payments and transfers. Most of the new offerings, especially when led by existing banks, have served to provide more convenient bill payments for existing customers and to decongest branches.

The sophisticated m-services are thus largely an affair of the urban middle classes, including the lower middle class, as we shall see shortly.

The March 2012 statistics released by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority reported almost 27 million subscriptions to mobile phone operators.[2] Against a population estimated to around 46 million, this number is impressive, but let us not forget that people sometimes have to take subscriptions from several providers to compensate for inadequate network coverage. Several such operators are active, with the global player Vodacom (locally nicknamed ‘Voda’) being the largest one, the state-run TTCL holding a middle position and the privately owned Benson being the smallest. Competition among the providers is fierce and has led to a steady decrease of the rates for using mobile phones.

Apart from basic services – calls and SMS – the providers all offer mobile Internet services. These Internet services, however, are used by only a small minority of mobile phone subscribers. According to the business newspaper The Citizen in January 2012, about 11% of the Tanzanian population have access to Internet, 45% of whom – around 2 million – use mobile internet.[3] Internet subscriptions – compared to basic mobile phone services – are still very expensive: an average domestic (landline) subscription from TTCL in Dar es Salaam cost 100,000Tsh (around 50 Euro) per month in September 2012.[4]

We begin to understand that such figures point towards an elite, even if the term is used with some degree of elasticity here. We also understand that this elite is concentrated in the large urban areas, if for no other reason because of the fact that Internet requires electricity. And when it comes to electricity, the Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority of Tanzania warns us that “[w]ith about 660,000 customers, electricity was available to only about 11% of the population by [the] first quarter of 2007, with more than 80% supplied in the urban areas”.[5] About 9 out of 10 Tanzanians have no access to a regular electricity supply, and that figure corresponds to more than 90% of the territory of the country. Access to the Internet is a rather exclusive feature of urban life in Tanzania, and new online-offline social space nexuses are confined to these areas.

It also strongly plays into that urban life-world – even more: it has become an icon of the culture of urban life. And a key element of this culture is a new register of ‘cool’ Swahili. A new lexicon of terms referring to mobile phone and Internet use has emerged in no time, including terms such as “intanet” itself, “kuperuzi” (‘to surf the internet’, from English ‘peruse’), “vocha” (‘voucher’, i.e. a prepaid card), “bomba” (‘connection’), “hudumu” (‘subscription’), “mtandao” (‘network’), “m-pesa” (mobile ‘banking’), ‘kufuatilia” (‘to follow’ on Facebook or Twitter) as well as globally circulating loan codes such as SMS, PIN and MB all firmly entrenched now in the cool register of mobile connectivity, and new slang terms such as ‘mrembo wa Facebook’ (‘Facebook darling’, a woman attracting significant amounts of male attention on Facebook) are coined incessantly. Providers market their products under labels such as “ezy pesa” (‘easy money’ – a phone banking application) and ‘Epiq Nation’ (an image slogan from the Zanzibar-based Zantel).

Publicity for mobile phone and mobile Internet providers – extraordinarily dense, testifying to the price wars among providers – show happy young people. References are made to happiness and joy throughout, in slogans such as “Ongea kutwa nzima na cheka” (‘talk the whole day and laugh’). We see a young man screaming with joy when opening his “Tigo Internet Mega Boksi” – a box containing applications for mobile Internet (Gmail, Facebook, Chrome, Firefox etc.) from the Tigo provider. And young girls enthusiastically gazing at a smartphone are announced to be “wajanja wa kuperuzi” – ‘expert internet surfers’. Those are happy, successful young people, and they are very much ‘in the world’.

Not unlike what we encounter elsewhere in that world, mobile phone advertisements suggest success derived from global mobility; their appeal rests on the strong suggestion that purchasing this commodity enables one to break out of the local, so to speak. Zantel’s Epiq Nation campaign, thus, showcases Mwisho Wampamba, a Tanzanian actor featuring in a popular South African TV series offered on commercial networks in Tanzania – an incorporation of the mobile, international, young, Tanzanian celebrity (see Figure 1). Large Vodacom and Epiq Nation campaign events feature Chidi Benz and Juma Nature AKA Kibla – Tanzanian Hip-Hop icons who attract audiences all over East Africa – and Epiq Nation sponsors a ‘Bongo Stars Search’ program, comparable to ‘American Idol’ or ‘The X Factor’ and aimed at recruiting future popular culture celebrities and setting new popular culture trends.

figure 3

FIGURE 1: Epiq Nation billboard featuring Mwisho Wampamba, Masaki, Dar es Salaam © Jan Blommaert 2012

The exploitation of Tanzania’s vibrant ‘Bongo Flava’ Hip-Hop scene in mobile phone marketing campaigns was already described by Christina Higgins (2013). Higgins observed that providers deployed the urban Swahili youth slang in their campaigns, a variety of which Bongo Flava artists are the epigones; popular Hip-hop song titles likewise found their way into marketing slogans, and a popular beer brand has “100% TZ FLAVA” printed on its bottles. Note, in passing, how the ‘Bongo’ term that used to carry dark stigma as an index of extreme marginality and poverty has been turned around, semiotically, in expressions such as ‘Bongo Flava’ and ‘Bongo stars’ to suggest, presently, a ‘center in the margin’: even in Bongoland, there can be global stars and cultural commodities.

The point Higgins made there, and which can be confirmed here, is that the connection between popular culture and marketing moves Swahili in a privileged position vis-à-vis the young urban middle-class consumers targeted in campaigns. But it is not just any Swahili: it is the cool slang-ish Swahili characterizing local youth cultures in Tanzanian cities, driven by the new online infrastructures. The medium for such campaigns is thus not a language per se, but a specific register. The amount of code-mixing in publicity for mobile phone providers should already make clear that ‘language’ is not the best unit to describe what goes on. And in view of the argument we are building here, we can see how a fully globalized set of ‘scripts’ has entered the ‘local’ arena – the ‘local’ has effectively ceased to exist, one could say. But the actual way in which these scripts have entered the ‘local’ is through complex vernacularization (a term we shall have to qualify shortly), by mobilizing a ‘local’ sociolinguistic dynamic of register-formation in Swahili, not English, effectively reversing – when seen from the usual distance of language policy research – the existing sociolinguistic hierarchies. The ‘global’ language English, once unchallenged in its symbolic predominance, has now been joined by ‘local’ forms of prestige-bearing ‘cool’ Swahili.

We are witnessing fully developed lifestyle branding targeting a young urban audience of consumers, and this fully developed form of branding follows global templates. Look at how the companies behind Epiq Nation announce their campaign:[6]

“Etisalat Zantel” has partnered with “Mobilera” to offer “Epiq Nation” the new youth lifestyle product which is much more than just great rates for mobile phones and internet services.

“Epiq Nation” will provide the Tanzanian`s youth with unprecedented services where they can have access to exclusive deals, discounts, experiences and competitions. This offer aims at improving the lives of the youth in Tanzania and meets their hunger for new technologies and products.

The discourse is that of advanced consumerist marketing, and the approach is that of sophisticated branding strategies aimed at complementing the product (“great rates for mobile phones and internet services”) with an avalanche of “exclusive deals, discounts, experiences and competitions”, so as to shape entire identities and life projects centred around particular commodities (Blommaert & Varis 2015). We see how mobile phones and Internet products are advertised in ways fully integrated in such global scenarios for branding and marketing.[7] Choosing Zantel’s Epiq Nation products is not just a choice for a particular product in a competitive market – it is a choice for a specific lifestyle, a self-imagined identity constructed through consumption. People who do so are not just ‘wateja’ (‘customers’), they are laughing and smiling, happy, young, affluent ‘wajanja wa uperuzi’ (‘experts surfers’) and, perhaps, ‘warembo wa Facebook’ (‘Facebook darlings’). Obviously, even if we are still engaging with Swahili, not much is left of the sociolinguistic ‘local’ here.

We have seen that providers target a young urban audience, and that they do so by means of complex campaigns turning commodities into lifestyle choices. Given the price of Internet subscriptions, the audience going for the full package is relatively restricted. And this is where we see that providers ‘open up’, so to speak, and attempt to bring their products to customers in less well-off areas of the cities, to the struggling urban lower middle classes who earn a modest salary but are nonetheless necessarily integrated in the networks of contemporary urban life. A taxi driver, for instance, needs a mobile phone to conduct his business, because taxis operate on an individual lease basis and without a central radio dispatching system. The same goes for small traders and shopkeepers: contacts with customers and providers are all maintained through mobile phone communication. Even more: given the relatively high cost of cross-network calls, these lower middle class people can be seen equipped with more than one handset, each of them connected to one provider network and all of them used to make network-internal calls. More affluent customers, less worried about the prohibitive costs of cross-network communication, typically have a single smartphone.

Mobile phones, subscription packages and prepaid cards are not just sold in hip downtown shops and malls; they are sold almost everywhere in the city. Small groceries, restaurants, post offices, bars, kiosks: one can read everywhere that ‘vocha’ are available, and ‘vocha jumla’ (‘every kind of prepaid card’), followed by a list of brand names – ‘Voda’, Airtel, Tigo, what have you. Mobile phone provision stretches into the poorest corners of the city. Naturally, the cost of full subscription packages with mobile internet access far exceeds the budgets of most people in such areas; what is effectively sold there are the cheapest prepaid cards, enough to make local calls and send some SMSses. But they can be found everywhere alongside other standard household products such as soap, maize flour, cooking oil, onions, fruit or water. Thus, while we can say that the spread, the availability, of mobile phones in Dar es Salaam is ‘democratic’, their distribution or accessibility – the specific ways in which they are being appropriated and used – is not democratic at all and follows clear class lines.

The democratic spread, nonetheless, necessitates an open format of marketing communication. A detailed look at figure 2 below reveals something quite interesting, and in order to grasp its relevance, some explanation needs to be given about advertisement culture in Tanzania. To begin with, advertisement was a relatively rare thing in Ujamaa Tanzania. The reason was quite simply that consumer commodities were rare in the days of Kujitegemea. One would see professional beer advertisements, some Pepsi publicity boards and some for other international products – more about that in a moment – but often, products were advertised by paintings on facades and fences, handcrafted by local professional sign-writers. Commercial slogans did not circulate intensively, with perhaps the exception of a slogan for a local ‘pombe’ (indigenous beer) called Chikubu. The slogan was Tumia Chibuku, ni pombe bora – ‘use Chibuku, it’s excellent beer’ – and it was played before and after a popular humorous radio play that aired every night on Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam for years on end. Most people still know the slogan today, and note that the slogan was in Swahili.

Prestige products – a synonym, for decades, of products manufactured abroad in ‘the West’ – were almost invariably accompanied by English publicity items. Thus, in figure 2 we see a small and older sign promoting Nivea cream with an English text, next to another one for Pepsi equally in English. Driving through Dar es Salaam, we still see English widely used whenever elite products are being promoted: hotels and spas, wines, brandies or whiskies, imported beers, some banking facilities, insurance and so forth. But when it comes to that one commodity set emblematic of globalization, things are different. Mobile phone adverts are overwhelmingly in Swahili, and the English Nivea and Pepsi signs in figure 2 are juxtaposed with several mobile phone advertisements, in Swahili.

Figure 4

FIGURE 2: Mikocheni village, Dar es Salaam © Jan Blommaert 2012

Swahili has, thus, invaded a zone of prestige previously exclusively emblematized by English. Even when companies preferentially target the affluent Tanzanian yuppies, the new Swahili registers are used instead of or in conjunction with English (as e.g. in ‘Ezy Pesa’). Monolingual English mobile phone advertisement boards can be found, not by coincidence, in the vicinity of expensive shopping centers attracting a largely expatriate community of customers. Thus, the English Epiq Nation poster featuring Mwisho Wampamba (Figure 1) could be found near Shopper’s Plaza, Masaki, a supermarket tailored to the demands of the international business and diplomatic community in Masaki, and incorporating a ‘Subway’ sandwich shop on its premises.

The Mikocheni kiosk in Figure 2, thus, displays two generations of prestige products: an older one (Nivea cream) in English, dating to the times where ‘international’ was still generically a synonym for ‘outside of Tanzania’ and therefore ‘in English’; and a new one (mobile phone services) in which global commodities have been converted into local status-hierarchical emblems – they have been ‘reterritorialized’ to adopt Higgins’ (2013) terminology – and also distributed along a more fractured scale of prestige, in which some items are reserved for an affluent elite and thus marketed in English, while other prestige-bearing items are more widely offered and marketed through new ‘cool’ Swahili registers. The use of mobile phones is a global status emblem cleverly and skillfully ‘translated’, so to speak, into a new local stratification of symbols and values. The cool Swahili register that accompanies and enacts it is the key to this practice, it defines and establishes its characteristics as part and parcel of cultural innovation locally, and it is no doubt also the key to the success of mobile phones in Dar es Salaam.

What is left of the ‘local’?

Such forms of localization, as we now know, are defining features of cultural globalization. They enact the ‘vernacular globalization’ that Appadurai (1996) already announced. But we begin to see the tremendous complexity captured by the terms ‘vernacularization’ and ‘localization’ when we recap and summarize the case of Tanzania as a sociolinguistic ‘local’. Several facts, we have seen, prejudge and complicate simple distinctions between what is ‘global’ and ‘local’ (or ‘exogenous’ versus ‘endogenous’ in sociolinguistic terminology), what we call ‘localization’, and how we can see Tanzania (and perhaps any spacetime unit in our types of research) as a ‘local’ arena. Let me go through some of these facts.

  1. Tanzania, even in its ‘self-reliant’ heyday, was of course never truly ‘local’, as its colonial history bore down on postcolonial language hierarchies: English and Swahili were placed on a prestige scale in which the global predominance of (colonial and postcolonial) English was the benchmark.
  2. The recent insertion of that country in a global system of online and mobile communication was an effect of the post-1985 liberalization policies which, more than before, opened the doors of the country to outside influences and agency.
  3. More in particular, there was a reshuffling of the sociolinguistic hierarchy, in which English did not lose much of its prestige, but was now complemented by new, prestige-bearing ‘cool’ registers of Swahili. The latter, remarkably, developed around global commodities: the internet and mobile communication itself, and a revived marketing and popular culture industry, based on global publicity templates, scaffolding it. An endogenous language, if you wish, came to index the prestige of exogenous commodities, and English is no longer the sole emblem of ‘non-local’ objects and values.
  4. Such registers do not remain confined, of course, to marketing discourses, but emerge in very close synergy with existing popular culture agents. Interestingly, the emblematic expression of marginality, ‘Bongo’, became an index of this new ‘global’ dynamics and its prestige. From pointing downwards, it became a pointer upwards, to a much-desired and aspired-to range of prestige commodities, lifestyles and imagined identities.
  5. All of the foregoing, we can say, is ‘vernacular globalization’. This process, however, comes with two important qualifications. One: it is heavily restricted to the urban centers of the country due to the unequal distribution of the online-offline infrastructures. In spite of its almost by definition translocal character, the vernacular globalization, thus, is an urban phenomenon.
  6. Second, this urban phenomenon is also not pan-urban but socioculturally niched, a feature of the restratification and specialization of the consumer market in urban Tanzania. We have seen that elite products such as imported luxury items, expensive hotels and resorts are still marketed through English (in ways hardly different from marketing in, say, Europe). The more widely accessible layer of prestige goods underneath this elite range – internet and mobile phone items – is the space within which we see the new Swahili registers emerge and flourish.

Those who wish to use an older sociolinguistic-indexical order – that, for instance, characterizing the first decades after independence – to understand contemporary Tanzanian sociolinguistic processes are certain to leave the field confused and possibly even wrong-footed. For what has happened is a pretty comprehensive reshuffling of the sociolinguistic stratigraphy, largely due to – precisely – the facts of internet-driven globalization. A distinct sociolinguistic universe has emerged: a highly fragmented and layered urban one in which distinctions between registers index sensitive social distinctions in positions and forms of access within a consumer market. Whatever we now call ‘local’ in research in that spacetime arena needs to be qualified along those diacritics, I’m afraid. And whenever we locate Tanzania in the ‘margins’ of the world system, we should equally prepare ourselves for lengthy qualifications of what we exactly mean. For obvious reasons, the use of terms such as ‘glocalization’, while not unhelpful as a starting hypothesis, won’t help us to get away with it any longer, as soon as the job of analysis needs to be done.

In a recent book, Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2016) argues that the ‘local’, in conditions of contemporary internet-driven globalization, is a diffuse, unstable and scalar phenomenon, dislodging, in effect, the established ethnographic imagination of the ‘local’ as a site of autonomous and self-contained researchables. Eriksen points to a real problem and a real responsibility here. We all have been trained in  traditions in which our ‘real’ objects – bits of language – were set in a ‘context’. The latter was relatively unimportant, just a quickly sketched spacetime frame, and not enough care has gone in theorizing and methodologizing it. We pay the price for this oversight now, when online and offline nexuses preclude any simple determination of ‘local’ and ‘nonlocal’ elements as features of context – both are inevitably not just part of the same ‘context’, but determine, as such, the bits of language we examine. Let me underscore this for clarity’s sake: separating ‘text’ from ‘context’ excludes a fundamental feature of communication nowadays, that context is text, and more broadly, that society is language. Detaching both amounts to trying to extract the egg from the omelet. And it is (to use contemporary slang) “so twentieth century”.



This chapter is largely based on materials analyzed in Blommaert (2014, chapter 7), and collected during fieldwork in Dar es Salaam, September 2012. I am deeply grateful to Koen and Els Adam-Vandemoortele, their son Maarten and their local collaborators for hosting me with exceptional generosity and comfort during that trip. I am also grateful to Sjaak Kroon, Jos Swanenberg and Marilyn Martin-Jones for providing me with clear pointers for how to reorganize an argument of which I sensed the general direction but not the specific one.


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[1] For the latter, see the excellent study of Fie Velghe (2012) on the use of a mobile chat application in townships around Cape Town.

[2] Data accessed through, 12 September 2012.

[3] See the report on

[4] I am grateful to Els Vandemoortele for granting me this glimpse of her household budget.

[5] Data accessed through on 12 September 2012.

[6] From, accessed 12 September 2012.

[7] The fully globalized nature of marketing templates in Tanzania can also be judged from the extraordinarily frequent use of the greatest myth of global consumerist marketing: the suggestion that certain things are ‘free of charge’. The Swahili word ‘bure’ (‘gratis’, ‘free of charge’) occurs in every second advertisement, suggesting that a certain amount of prepaid airtime, SMSses or download Megabites is ‘free’ when you purchase certain package formulas. Things are usually not ‘free’ when you have to pay for them, of course.