Who owns my ideas?

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Jan Blommaert

I recently received an email from the academic sharing platform ResearchGate, where I maintain a profile.

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So here we are. I am the originator of knowledge, but I can only share it with others under conditions specified by a commercial enterprise, who holds the license to it. In the philosophical literature, this situation is know as heteronomy, the opposite of autonomy.

There is a long tradition in which knowledge was seen as an exceptional kind of commodity: as opposed to e.g. an apple or a bottle of Coke,  consumption of knowledge doesn’t deprive its producer of it. On the contrary, it is supposed to make everyone better, to contribute to the common good. We are now in a situation where (a) this principle of knowledge as a commons is entirely rejected; (b) the producer is deprived of the autonomy to communicate it.

The contribution of a publisher to an academic article is nothing more than a reference. To the title and author, it adds something such as “Journal of Applied Linguistics 34/3: 111-131”. That’s it.  This reference, of course, is the stuff of careers. The article can be insignificant or outright useless, but the reference turns it into an academic achievement, a really-existent result and product of labor that can be turned into a line in someone’s CV and thence into an argument for appointment, tenure or promotion. It’s alchemy: a stone has been turned into gold. Or at least, that’s what we believe has happened.

The price to be paid for this bit of alchemy is colossal. I can make ideas, convert them into knowledge and write them into texts; but I have to ask permission for communicating them to others, for I don’t have the right to do so myself. I can, thus, violate the copyrights to my own thoughts, words and phrases. I can be punished for doing so. So what is the next thing? Perhaps a close monitoring by publishers of conference contributions? – imagine that I would read a paper published by them to an audience who haven’t paid for it? Surely that would be a crime.

Forgive me if I find all of that quite weird.

Copyright Jan Blommaert, 2016

 

Academic publishing and money

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Jan Blommaert 

In what follows, I intend to place some footnotes to an earlier text, in which I addressed at length various highly contentious issues characterizing the field of academic publishing nowadays. That earlier text, roughly summarized, (a) described the present economic model of academic publishing as outspokenly exploitative; (b) included the current models of Open Access as equally absurd when viewed from the perspective of ownership, and (c) suggested that publishers become increasingly redundant as actors in the field of knowledge circulation. We can independently do almost everything currently done by publishers, and do it better.

The text became the topic of one of the first discussion sessions on Academia.edu and was widely picked up and redistributed (illustrating, thus, the exact point it was making). To the extent that the arguments in the text still require clarification and further elaboration, I wish to offer one point in what follows – about money.

As an element of background, it is good to recall that academic publishing is an extraordinarily lucrative business – in fact, one of the most lucrative businesses around. In 2013, Elsevier-Reed (one of the giants in the field) reported a net profit rate of 39% – a margin which for most other domains of industry belongs to the realms of dreams. Part of this is due to the escalation of subscription costs for academic journals, which has risen at a level three times higher than other average commodity costs since 1986. Academic publishing is, if one wishes, a robber economy. Open Access negotiations, especially those in which so-called “Gold Open Access” is the target, involve the payment of several thousands of Euro’s for a single article to be made Open Access. I refer the reader to the earlier text for details.

Grasping the nature of the transactions involved in all of this can be helped by the following illustration. Here is part of a copyright agreement I recently concluded with a prominent academic publisher.

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There is nothing special about the text of the agreement; in fact, it is quite common in our field. We notice that I transfer all copyrights to the publisher, and that I do not get a reward for it. In fact, what I get in return is a reference to an electronically published version of my text, and some heavily limited rights in using this published version myself. People who wish to read my article and have no access to an institutional subscription to the journal have to pay the price of a book – between 30€ and 50€ per article. And if I (or my university) want to turn the article into something that can be read at no cost by anyone, a couple of thousands of Euros must be paid to the publisher.

It’s all about money, surely, but only parts of the money involved in this are shown so far. An aspect never mentioned in these transactions is the production cost of the article. Articles don’t grow on trees, they are manufactured by someone, and this process involves material and immaterial resources, and labor costs.

Now let us do a little simulation here, and a merciful one. Imagine that the production cost of an average article involves 100 hours of academic labor (from getting the idea, over the research, to reading, writing, editing and so forth, and including the material costs). And imagine that such labor costs about 20€ per hour (as I said, I am being merciful here). The production cost of the article is 2000€, and by signing the copyright agreement this is donated to the publisher, who, in turn, charges everyone (including the author) for reading the article. It’s a form of “enclosure” – you spent a season working hard growing apples, but if you wish to eat one you need to buy it from a grocer who happens to have licensed the apples.

Imagine now that I write a book. The book has seven chapters, and to keep things simple I use the calculation above – each chapter being the equivalent of an article. We then get 7 times 2000€, or 14.000 Euros’ worth of labor donated to the publisher. It is because these production costs are eliminated in the transactions we (have to) enter into with publishers, that academic publishing is so extraordinarily lucrative a business. Publishers, simply put, do not bear any cost in the production of their primary material – the papers and books we submit to them for publication. When they speak about “costs”, consequently, they only address the end of the line production costs – some editing and lay outing, and marketing, sales and distribution of things that consumed tremendous amounts of labor to produce and represent, consequently, tremendous value – all of which is made invisible now. Note, in passing, that these end-of-the-line costs are usually pressented as prohibitive and are also rolled off onto the author, as in the following illustration, a fragment from another copyright agreement:

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Now, whose money is involved here? In my case, the money appropriated by publishers is that of my employer, a public university; through the system of subsidies in education, the money is ultimately put up by the taxpayer. Who, if s/he now wants to read the product they subsidized, need to pay 30€ for a single pdf download.

From the publishers’ viewpoint, this is an excellent business model (credentialed, I assume, by their profit margins). From the viewpoint of the producer, it’s a net, huge loss, and an economic  model that is profoundly unsustainable. I can therefore simply repeat the conclusion of the earlier text on this topic: let’s do the publishing ourselves. We can do it better, cheaper, more efficiently, and more democratically.

(Some of the arguments here are inspired by the essays in Charlotte Hess & Elinor Ostrom, Understanding Knowledge as a commons: From theory to practice; MIT Press 2011)

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“Us versus them” argumentation: a simple example

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Jan Blommaert 

What follows is a sketchy analysis – do try this at home – of a genre that has become extraordinarily widespread in social media debates: antagonistic argumentation revolving around a simple us-versus-them scheme. The example I shall use is that of a Facebook update posted on 15 August 2016. The update was part of a social media storm, erupted after an incident on the beach in Nice, France, where a Muslim woman wearing a so-called “burkini” (in fact, a hijab) was forced by four police men to take her tunic off, and fined 38€ for violation of decency regulations.

This incident triggered massive public and political debate in Belgium, and for days it was the topic on Facebook, both in the narrow sense (“away with the burkini!!”) and in the usual ripple-effect in which any theme related to Islam could lead to statements on every other Islam-related theme. Belgian politicians spoke out on the topic, and the Belgian-Flemish social democrats took a rather repressive position in the discussion. Evidently, this sent a (or better: one more) shock wave through Facebook, and social-democrats were quickly and generously showered by allegations of right-wing anti-immigrant politicking.

On 15 August, a sympathizer of the social-democratis posted this relatively long (and not always quite coherent) update. The original was in Dutch, I translated it.

Suddenly, some think that identifying radicalization is a right-wing thing. Hello! Moment please! Being social doesn’t mean being naïve. One can also naively walk into the lion’s den and believe the animal can be stroked like a pussycat. There is effectively a problem with some [Muslims] in Belgium and their interpretation of Islam. They not just put (soft or hard) pressure on their wives, family, friends; they effectively dictate rules that cannot be reconciled with our laws and human rights, such as fraternity, freedom and equality. Protecting these right is ALSO being social. No matter how sensitive the topic. And the discrimination that unfortunately occurs, the call for respect for Muslims, is no license to dictate the norms and values of Islam, or more precisely, their interpretation thereof. Let alone that non-Muslims would be prohibited from calling into question certain practices, like some in that same community that oppresses women and the social pressure not to just have contact or to marry a Muslim, to make her subordinate, to refuse her to seek a job or to force her to wear a veil. All of this cannot be reconciled with our society, which has known the Enlightenment, something the Middle East urgently needs to understand that a secular state isn’t such a bad idea given the diversity of views, also within one faith, and the negative consequences. It is not because exclamation marks and question marks are put around radicalization and the intolerant attitudes of a group of Muslims in Belgium, that this become a right-wing policy by definition. I have been able to experience myself over the past month how I was prevented by a second-generation Muslim of Belgian nationality, who clearly displayed radicalized traits, from having a conversation with a woman wearing a veil, while the latter had initiated the conversation with me! Such people do not respect our freedoms and democracy, and one must be able to say this and take action regarding this. This has nothing to do with left or right wing, but [a lot] with education and human rights. Being oversensitive now because one points to a problem, and claim that this would be a right-wing reaction, is too crazy for words. It’s not because one is socialist that one has to accept that our norms and values would suddenly be dictated from another corner, and that we once again experience religion like in the 1920, this time not from the Catholic church but by the few who have a very narrow view of Islam. The Muslim community has got a lot of work to do in the way of social control, and the Imam, in particular, should point towards the fact that Islam, too, teaches reconciliation, respect for the fellow human being. That there is no place in the real Islam for violence (including domestic violence), oppression and denying the respect for other people by a lack of respect for their human rights. And most certainly [there is no place for that] in the heart of God and his people.

The general direction of the text is apologetic, of course: the author’s main argument is that there is nothing “right-wing” to being critical of aspects of Islam which he deems in violation of fundamental “norms and values” regulating “our” societies. While developing his apology, however, a consistent us-them scheme is developed. We can, in fact, rewrite the entire text in two colums, one specifying characteristics and actions of “they”, the Muslims, another describing those of “we”, social-democratic Flemish Belgians. Consider the result:

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I have done this simple two-column excercise for many years with beginning discourse analysis students, and one can see how productive it is. In the “us” column, we can see

  • Expressions of epistemic authority: meta-qualifications expressing a superior, rational and delicate understanding of things (including, at the end, “true” Islam), and references to personal experience.
  • A reiteration of “our norms and values“, of which the reality in everyday and institutional life is presented as unquestionable: fraternity, freedom, equality, our laws, human rights, education, the secular state
  • A reference to “our” history, which has known “Enlightenment”, a thing badly needed and long overdue in the Middle East.
  • Depoliticizations: outspoken in this example but quite consistent, “stating problems” is not seen as a political-ideological action, it is mere realism and rationality.

The left-hand column, by contrast, contains

  • Generalizations: statements about a “minority” whose interpretation of Islam is wrong; the responsibility for this group, however, rests with the entire Muslim community – especially “the Imam” has some serious work to do.
  • Exaggerations: this minority of “radicalized” Muslims “effectively dictate rules” that clash with our laws, norms and values; they also prohibit “us” from pointing towards their shortcomings and from taking action in their regard. To whom such rules are effectively dictated, and who would effectively be prohibited from stating such problems is puzzling given the many thousands of posts in which such problems are stated with extreme clarity and without any shade of inhibition.
  • Scale jumps: anecdotal and exceptional incidents are lifted instantly to levels where absolute principles are at stake – rejections of “our freedoms and democracy”. Racist discrimination, in contrast, is usually presented as anecdotal (and not as a denial of these fundamental principles).
  • Absence of depoliticization: their behavior has extreme political significance; our resistance against it is, as we have seen, not political but a matter of common sense.

Note some terms around which I put scare quotes here: terms such as “our” (as in “our society”, “our norms and values” etc.) and “radicalized”. The first one is, technically speaking, a shifter, something the actual meaning of which shifts according to context; the second is a degree term expressing a particular level of intensity (compare: “my painting is innovative” – “my painting is very innovative” – “my painting is radically innovative”). None of the terms, thus, are neutral descriptors, if you wish – and thus they are begging the evident question what exactly do you mean by this? The broad lines of a more indepth analysis are now in place.

And so we see an argument which many (certainly its authors) would perceive as making sense, even “correct”, but which is in actual fact quite easy to dislodge. It is a kind of “rationality” that deserves to, and must, be critically addressed at all times. So do try this at home.

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What Pokémon Go teaches us about society

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Jan Blommaert 

The summer of 2016 was full of sports. There was the European football championship, almost instantly followed by an epic Tour de France and then spilling over into the Olympic Games. All of these were global competitive events. But the competition that wove itself through all of this, and was equally global, was entirely different. It consisted of millions of people all over the world going out in the streets with their smartphones ready, hunting for Pokémon cartoon creatures. Thé mega-event of the summer of 2016 was Pokémon Go.

Pokémon started as a game in 1995 and became very popular when it became a manga-style children’s TV series around the turn of the century. In my house, you will still find dozens of Pokémon merchandising items from that era, as my then-small children were greatly knowledgeable about nearly every aspect of the strange world of creatures, trainers and battles. Now in their early twenties, they took to the streets this summer to hunt and collect the same creatures. A comatose fantasy world had been brought back to life; Nintendo shares went crazy on the stock market.

The thing was considered weird by many. Flocks of people, staring at their smartphone screens, would walk and congregate, apparently aimlessly, in streets, parks, shopping malls, pubs, museums and private backyards; when overheard, they produced a cryptic jargon that could trigger smiles, jealous faces, and shrieks of amazement from others; at times they would stop, point their device in some direction – where I didn’t see a thing – and subsequently groaned “yessss!”. The news brought reports of traffic accidents caused by Pokémon enthusiasts, and YouTube showed clips (“epic fail” style) of people crashing into obstacles while concentrating on the events on their smartphone screens. Mayors and Police chiefs contacted Nintendo and called for restrictions on the placing of Pokémons in certain zones, and Brussels Airport politely requested the company to disable Pokémons on the airport tarmac and in the security screening area. The hype was seen by many as disruptive, silly, pointless and irritating. Like any hype, one supposes.

Pokémon go was disruptive. This new-generation, “enhanced” version of the two decades old video- and card game broke down the boundaries of the space within which so many contemporary forms of hi-tech popular culture are being practiced and within which they are contained. This space is that of the “virtual” world – more concretely, a screen. People engage with such forms of culture while sitting behind a screen in long uninterrupted bursts of activity, quietly and often invisible for all others who do not participate in it. Such forms of culture are, thus, spatiotemporally quite effectively niched. Parents would complain that their children spend long hours doing “something” behind that screen, while the nature of the practices their children are involved in is poorly understood, or indeed greatly unknown to them.

What the little smartphone app enabling Pokémon Go did, was to take such practices out of their usual spatiotemporal niches and bring them elsewhere, into the “real”, offline world, the public spaces where participants now mingle with nonparticipants – members of one culture encountering members of another culture, in a terrain now claimed by both. Going offline does not mean that the game is now shared by all; the boundary crossed is just that of the spatiotemporal seclusion typical of such forms of culture. But as I said, participants point their smartphones to something which remains invisible for nonparticipants, and get very excited by the presence of creatures that do not exist in the world of those who did not download the Pokémon Go app.

So here is the sociological and anthropological significance of Pokémon Go: it makes visible – a rare occasion – and offers a glimpse of a cultural world that coexists with other cultural worlds, and which usually remains out of the gaze of the unengaged bystander. This cultural world, I said it, is often called “virtual”. I consider that an epic misnomer, and Pokémon Go demonstrates it:  there is nothing “virtual” about millions of people all over the world performing cultural practices by means of a small hi-tech item, in public spaces not designed for such practices. It is a lesson in the complex cultural arrangements that characterize our world. Those who preferred to remain in denial – those who call it “virtual” – received an in-your-face warning that our society contains numerous communities, some small, some very large, of people engaging in practices not “normally” part of the cultural-canonical repertoire. We know these people, but we didn’t know the cultural registers they practiced. Or we believed they were not really, really real.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Pikachu and Bulbasaur are really really, real. So if you meet them, have some courtesy.

 

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Ahistorical? Yes, right…

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Jan Blommaert

Nelson Flores, in a recent article, adds to the cottage industry of uninformed and shallow criticism of sociolinguistic superdiversity. my colleagues and I are (once more) accused of:

three limitations of the super-diversity literature: (a) its ahistorical outlook; (b) its lack of attention to neoliberalism; and (c) its inadvertent reification of normative assumptions about language

Most of the arguments developed in some earlier texts are entirely applicable here, so no new elaborate argument is required. Just speaking for myself, I invite the reader to apply Flores’ critique to the following works.

  • Discourse: A Critical Introduction (2005) revolves around a theory of inequality based on mobile, historically loaded and configured communicative resources I call voice (following Hymes);
  • Grassroots Literacy (2008) describes in great detail how and why two recent handwritten texts from Central Africa remained entirely unnoticed and unappreciated by their Western addressees. Literacy inequalities in a globalized world, thus, for reasons that have their roots in different histories of literacy in different places.
  • The Sociolinguistics of Globalization (2010) addresses exactly the same phenomena: globalization expanding old inequalities while creating new ones due to a reshuffling of historically emergent linguistic markets, combined with a renewed emphasis on reified normativity by nation-state and other authorities.

In each of these books, the practical question guiding the theoretical effort, and significant amounts of data, deal with the systematic discrimination of large immigrant and refugee populations in Western countries such as mine, on grounds of sociolinguistic inequalities. Ahistorical? Neoliberal? Reified normative assumptions about language?

This is n’importe quoi criticism in which the actual writings of the targets of criticism, strangely, appear to be of no material importance. And in which critics, consequently, repeat exactly what I said in my work, and then claim that I said the opposite. Or come up, finger in the air, with insights others and I developed, published and defended in the 1990s.

One word about the “ahistorical” point in Flores’ criticism (and that of others). He equates “historical” with “diachronic”, a very widespread fallacy often seen as – yes, indeed – the core of an ahistorical perspective. “Historical” has to be “old”, in short, and whoever works on old stuff does historical work, while those who work on contemporary stuff are not historical in their approach. Since I work on issues in the here-and-now, I am “ahistorical”. Please read some Bloch, Ginzburg, Foucault or Braudel, ladies and gentlemen. Or some Bourdieu and Hymes, and even Gumperz and Silverstein: “historical” means that every human action, past and present, is seen and analyzed as an outcome of historical – social, cultural and political – paths of development, and derives much of its function and effect from that historical trajectory. Which is what I emphasize systematically while working in the present. And find a lot of work on old stuff entirely ahistorical.

Further commentary in defense of viewpoints I myself categorically reject is a waste of time. Discussion of profoundly uninformed opinions is also something for which I have very little patience.

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Commentary: Mobility, contexts, and the chronotope

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Jan Blommaert

(Commentary to a special issue of Language in Society on “Metapragmatics of Mobility”, eds. Adrienne Lo & Joseph Park)

I must emphatically thank Adrienne Lo and Joseph Park for inviting me to comment on the exceptionally insightful collection of essays presented in this volume. The essays, I believe, mark and instantiate the increasing maturity of what has become a sociolinguistics of globalization in which the various, highly complex challenges caused by mobility are being productively addressed.

Of these challenges, perhaps that to our established notions of “context” might be one of the most pressing ones. Rigorous and disciplined attention to context is what separates social and cultural approaches to language from formal linguistics; it is the thing that defines disciplines such as sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, pragmatics and discourse analysis. And an increasing awareness of mobility as a crucial ontological feature of “language” – or more broadly, meaning making – in today’s world goes hand in hand with an awareness that something is wrong with our well-weathered mainstream conceptualizations of “context”: they are too simple and fail to do justice to the complexities we observe. All papers in this volume can be read as illustrations and expressions of that unease. I propose to explore Bakhtin’s concept of “chronotope” as a possibly fertile and certainly more precise tool for addressing these challenges (cf. Blommaert 2015a).

Let me first define the scope of the issue; two preliminary remarks may be useful for what follows.

  • One: in a sociolinguistic approach to meaning making, context cannot ontologically be separated from language (or other semiotic modalities), for it is a fundamental part of the meanings constructed in language; context is what turns language in a “social fact” (to quote Durkheim).
  • Two: notions of context are built on, and invoke, imaginations of the social world and of the place of social actors and activities therein. So context is always more than just an operational-analytical category: it involves an ideological a priori (which, as we shall see, is always a moral a priori).

From that perspective, two things can be observed – and I regret that space restrictions prevent me from entering into detail here. One, context remains quite poorly integrated in several branches of the social and cultural study of language (Silverstein 1992; see for a review Blommaert 2005, chapter 3). And two, the social imagination underlying many forms of usage of context appears to be “sedentary”: context is local, stable, static and given. Obviously, a notion of context adjusted to mobility needs to transcend this and stress its continuously evolving, multiscalar and dynamic aspects, as well as the intrinsic unity of context and action.

There are several available building blocks. John Gumperz (1982) never stopped reminding us that context is always contextualization, and Aaron Cicourel (1967; 1992) insisted that context was always multifiliar, overlapping and scaled. In addition, the union between context and action,we now realize, is metapragmatics: language-ideologically ordered indexicals are at the core of the dialectics of contextualized meaning making (Silverstein 2003; Agha 2007; also Blommaert 2005). The papers in this volume have all drawn extensively on these sources. The complication offered by mobility as a given has been well phrased by Lo and Park in their introduction (this volume): in an era of physical and technological mobility, people need to navigate multiple worlds. They cannot any longer be viewed as sedentary members of a (single) closed, integrated and stable Parsonian community and are subject to the normative judgments in vigor in very different places among very different people – simultaneously.

This is where the chronotope might come in handy. Recall that Bakhtin (1981) defined the chronotope as a timespace configuration – an “objective” bit of context, one could say – which was characterized, and joined, by ideological, “subjective” features. Specific times and places placed conditions on who could act, how such actions would be normatively structured, and how they would be normatively perceived by others. A knight in a medieval legend, for example, is expected to be chivalric and inspired by the noblest of motives, and his concrete actions would be expected to emanate such characteristics; if not, he’s not a “real” knight. Bakhtin, thus, offered us a heuristic unit in which timespace configurations are simultaneously orders of indexicalities, and in which the multiplicity of such units is a given of the dialogical and heteroglossic reality of social life. Chronotope, thus, is a “mobile” context enabling not just precise ethnographic description but explanatory potential as well.

We begin to see, for instance, how physical and social mobility operate synergetically – moving across timespace configurations involves a reshuffling of the social and cultural capital required for identity construction, prestige and power, through what Hymes called “functional relativity” (1996: 44-45). It explains, thus, why forms of speech indexically anchored in one timespace configuration – that of the colonial past, for instance – can be re-entextualized into another, in ways that involve entirely different indexical valuations. We can observe this in the essays by Vigouroux and Collins, where the indexical valuations of the speech forms deemed emblematic of the colonial (racialized) past dance up and down once they are moved into different timespace configurations. A descriptive stance – observing a particular accent in students’ speech (Collins), or a grammatical pattern perceived as “substandard” (Vigouroux) – is turned into a racialized-historical stereotype in ways described by Agha (2007) whenever such an accent is produced “elsewhere”. Mobility, we can see, involves indexical re-ordering, or to be more precise, indexical restratification.

Observe that such restratifications have an outspokenly moral character. The ideological load attributed to specific forms of social action turns them into moralized behavioral scripts normatively attached to specific timespace configurations. The essays in this volume are replete with examples in which judgments of speech are formulated in terms of locally articulated claims to legitimacy, i.e. in terms of a projection of behavioral features onto “the right to do X, Y or Z here and now”. Chun’s analysis of perceived mispronunciations of Korean names by “foreign” fans illustrates this: such fans are “not from here”, and their actions are therefore subject to normative judgments “from here”. Being “(not) from here” becomes an absolute normative benchmark: a non-negotiable one that offers no bail. Ideologies of correctness and standardization, we can see, are chronotopically organized (cf. Silverstein 1996). They require a distinction between “from here” and “not from here” that can be activated as a chronotope of normalcy: here-and-now, “normal” behavior is X, Y and Z, and this is an absolute, “ideal” benchmark. And Park’s excellent essay shows how people who are by definition “not from here” – expatriate executives – negotiate and renegotiate the issues caused by mobility itself, shaping a separate chronotope of normalcy among themselves (transnational business, after all, is a distinct “world” in Lo and Park’s terms).

Obviously, such distinctions are identity distinctions – indexical order is always a template for identity, and identities are chronotopically grounded, by extension (Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Park’s managers construct themselves in their elaborate metapragmatic discourses of mobility; Chun’s Korean fans ascribe identities to the mispronouncing transnational ones; Collins’ teachers construct their pupils in similar ways, and the discursive pathways analyzed by Vigouroux lead to a projected stereotypical identity of Sub-Saharan Africans drawn across timespace from the colonial imagination. Note that in each of these cases, moral judgments constitute the moment of identity-shaping. The “corrections” offered by Chun’s Korean fans come, as said earlier, with judgments of legitimacy, and legitimacy extends from minute features of language into categorical identity diacritics. Moralized behavioral scripts are the on-the-ground realities of indexicality, and thus of identity-making. Typically, those who are “not from here”can achieve “approximations” of the normative “standard” order (Vigouroux); they can therefore also only approximate the “standard”identities. “Standard” and “correctness” are inevitably evaluative judgments, and they fit into a package of profoundly moral-evaluative notions such as “true”, “authentic”, “real” and so forth. Language-ideological literature is replete with such terms, and in public debates on such topics one continually trips over collocations between terms such as “correct” and “true”, and “(not) from here”. Collins’ delicate analysis of racialized enregisterment in South-African schools can serve as a textbook example of this.

Lo and Choi’s case study of an internet debate on the “truth” in the story of the Korean rapper Tablo brings together several of the points mentioned here, and lends profile to another one. The critics who doubt rapper Tablo’s educational credentials (using, unsurprisingly, details of his English “accent” as evidence) draw on a chronotope of normalcy: normally, one can’t finish degree work at a US institution at the rhythm claimed by Tablo; normally, his English should be immaculate of he’s taken a degree in the US, normally he shouldn’t sound like “us” after his US-based education, and so forth. They base themselves on a “normal” behavioral script, adherence and deviance of which are profoundly moralized. The data are bursting with moral-evaluative statements that are simultaneously statements of identity ascription, and driven by the “from here-not from here” diacritic that defines globalized mobility.

But there is more, and Lo & Choi’s paper shows it in full glory. The general chronotope of normalcy, we observe, can be broken down into an infinite number of micro-chronotopes specifying the indexical order of specific bits of behavior (Tablo’s performance in a talkshow, his translation of a poetry book, and so forth). So we see a fractal connection across differently scaled chronotopes, in which the order of indexicality from the highest scale (the chronotope of normalcy) is carried over into microscopic and infinitely detailed lower-scale ones. We see, if you wish, chronotopes nested within chronotopes, with specific points and general ones interacting nonstop. Goffman’s “frames within frames” (1974) are never far away here, of course, but it is good to remind ourselves that “frames” are, in themselves, chronotopically organized.

All the essays in this volume thematize such cross-scalar connections, and call them, for instance, “discursive pathways” (Vigouroux), “re-entextualizations” (Lo & Choi), or “interdiscursivity” (Park). Such terms remain useful, and understanding them as descriptors of cross-chronotope processes of uneven (scaled) quality can deepen their analytical force and make them far more precise than the “cross-contextual” label we now stick onto them. Such connections – the “polycentricity” of communicative environments, in short (Blommaert, Collins & Slembrouck 2005) – are inevitable in the sociolinguistics of mobility, and we have to be able to get a more precise grasp of them. This leads me to a final, brief, remark.

In the essays by Chun and by Lo & Choi, the internet, or (to use an epic misnomer) the “virtual world” is the context of the data offered. The analyses are outstanding; but we should not overlook the fact that the online context is the least well understood one in our fields of study, and that a careful investigation of how this context shapes and determines online social action remains to be undertaken. We know that it has exceptional scalar qualities (think of virality), and that, as a chronotope, it stands in complex polycentric relationships to “offline” ones (see Blommaert 2015b; Varis & Blommaert 2015). But the exact characteristics of these phenomena await profound focused study. Note that all the subjects discussed in the essays in this volume live in the internet age, and that, consequently, we can assume that all have been influenced by the circulation of cultural material enabled by such technologies. Precise how this influence plays out in their actual day-to-day discourses, how it modifies them and grants them yet another dimension of metapragmatic mobility, raising new issues of polycentric normativity, looks like a worthwhile topic for a follow-up volume. It is to the credit of the present volume that such fundamental questions emerge, and I repeat my sincere thanks to the editors for affording me the chance to engage with them.

References

Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Austin TX: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2015a) Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language and society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116.

Blommaert, Jan (2015b) Meaning as a nolinear effect: The birth of cool. AILA Review 28: 7-27.

Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2016) Chronotopic identities: On the timespace organization of who we are. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 153. Tilburg: Babylon.

Blommaert, Jan, Jim Collins & Stef Slembrouck (2005) Polycentricity and interactional regimes in ‘global neighborhoods’. Ethnography 6/2: 205-235.

Cicourel, Aaron (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

Cicourel, Aaron (1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, Erving (10974) Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New Tork: Harper & Row.

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hylmes, Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis.

Silverstein, Michael (1992) The indeterminacy of contextualization: when is enough enough? in Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Silverstein, Michael (1996) Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Donald Brenneis & Ronald Macaulay (eds.) The Matrix of Language: 284-306. Boulder Co: Westview Press.

Silverstein, Michael (2003) Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23: 193-229.

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2015) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual Margins 2/1: 31-45.

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Durkheim and the internet: Notes on sociolinguistics and the sociological imagination.

durkheim

Jan Blommaert

(under construction)

1. Sociolinguists as sociologists

Over two decades ago, the Welsh sociologist Glyn Williams (1992) wrote a devastating review of the sociological underpinnings of the sociolinguistics of his day.[1] His findings were (not to put too fine a point on it) that sociolinguistics was often a combination of very good and even avant-garde linguistics with conventional sociology. So, while sociolinguists appeared as leaders and innovators in the field of advanced linguistic analysis, they would be mere followers in the field of sociological reflection, happy to adopt, often implicitly and without much questioning or motivation, mainstream forms of “sociological imagination” (cf. Mills 1959). This led to images of society characterized by social integration, social consensus and cooperation, the relative stability of social relations and identities, and clearly delineated national units and group identities as circumscriptions for analysis – recipes from the kitchen of Talcott Parsons, according to Glyn Williams.

It is certainly true that sociolinguists have by and large avoided discussing major theoretical issues in sociology and social science, and have been extremely prudent in explaining the big sociological issues that may emerge from their work (but see e.g. Fairclough 1992; Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999). This is a great pity, since contemporary sociolinguistic work does often yield insights that are challenging mainstream sociological assumptions, and do so at a fundamental level – the level at which, to quote C. Wright Mills (1959: 5), “the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated”. The level, in short, at which we can consider a “sociological re-imagination”, a re-imagination of our fundamental conceptions of humans and their social lives. In this paper, I intend to undertake a modest attempt in that direction.

The main motive driving this attempt has already been given: contemporary sociolinguistics is sociologically relevant. And the reason behind this can be picked up quickly while reading sociological classics: they invariably refer to patterns of interaction as fundamental to whatever is understood by social relationships,  social structure or social process – and usually also grant great importance to this – but pay hardly any attention to the actual nature and features of such patterns of interaction.  Sociolinguists do just that, it’s our profession. And systematic attention to communicative modes and processes, we shall see, has the potential to reveal the weakness of certain commonly adopted sociological assumptions and conclusions. It is my conviction that the “socio” in “sociolinguistics” involves the responsibility to work from language towards society – that what eventually needs to be clarified and explained, through the analysis of sociolinguistic processes, is society and how humans operate in it and construct it. This becomes increasingly pressing as our field of study is changing from “offline” communication in a precisely circumscribed social space to include rapidly evolving and changing “online” communication, with its well-recorded challenges to established analytical frameworks. I want to encourage my fellow sociolinguists to take that responsibility seriously: we do have something to say that transcends the narrow confines of our own field of inquiry, and we should say it. Sociolinguists are, whether they like it or not, specialized sociologists.

In my attempt, I will use Emile Durkheim’s work as my benchmark. Why? Not just because of its pervasive influence on Parsons. From reading Durkheim’s work I found that his lasting influence across a broad swath of social and human sciences is often underestimated. It is in his work that the fundamental imagery of Man and society was constructed that became the perimeter, so to speak, within which twentieth-century social thought moved and developed. And even if later scholars dismissed his work or claimed to be free of his influence, they still adopted some of its fundamental principles. We’re all, in many and often surprising ways, still Durkheimians.[2] And in what follows, I intend to work with Durkheim in two different ways.

One, in support of Durkheim, I wish to add to, and refine, a notion he saw as absolutely foundational for sociology as a science: le fait social, the social fact. This notion, when Durkheim first formulated it, was highly contested (to the extent that Durkheim spent most of the preface to the second edition of Les Règles de la Méthode sociologique defending and clarifying it: Durkheim 1895 [2010]). It was also rejected in what came to be known as Rational Choice Theory and, more generally, in the tradition of Methodological Individualism. The notion of social fact, of course, determines the possibility of a definition of “the social” as a sphere of phenomena and processes that cannot be reduced to constituent parts without losing much of their essence. Thus, it also preconditions the very possibility of a sociology and a sociolinguistics. A highly precise and analytically powerful view of the social fact is possible if we excerpt some advanced sociolinguistic work, I shall argue.

Two, we need also to step away from Durkheim and the world he tried to make sense of and consider our own. There are things now that Durkheim couldn’t possibly have known or predicted, and contemporary sociolinguistic work on internet phenomena raises several entirely new fundamental questions about the nature of social groups, social relations and social processes and permits new hypotheses in these domains. By combining this second exercise with the first one, we arrive at a number of fundamental propositions – at theory, in other words – that may contribute to work in several other disciplines, and that has been generated inductively by detailed empirical attention to the facts of language, interaction, communication. Of which we know that they are absolutely central to any social phenomenon. Or at least: let’s try to establish that.

2. Durkheim’s social fact

Emile Durkheim devoted his life to the self-conscious construction of sociology as a science, and by the end of his life, he had achieved that goal. In his view, scientific sociology was a necessity in fin-de-siècle France. Durkheim shared the widespread sense of discomfort of his compatriots, epitomized in the military defeat against German forces in 1870 leading both to the end of the second Empire and to the revolution of the Paris Commune. Society-as-we-knew-it appeared to be falling apart. People had become weak, decadent, hedonistic and individualistic, and a generation of industrialization, with the growth of a large urban proletariat in mushrooming cities had disrupted France’s national sociocultural cohesion, and hence had prejudiced its future as a strong nation. Sociology, for Durkheim, was one of the tools needed to reconstruct a sense of membership among the French, of a community that was characterized by specific and exceptional features – to be discovered by scientific sociology and to be spread throughout France by a new system of “moral education” (the title of his celebrated course of lectures: Durkheim 1961 [2002]). This sociology was, thus, aspirational and prescriptive, a sort of “ortho-sociology”;  rather than to just describe what was there, Durkheim set out to convert factual description into normative prescription in view of constructing a society that, in his understanding, was not yet there.[3]

2.1 Norms and concepts

This normative-prescriptive aspect is a point we need to remember, for it explains the particular focus of Durkheim’s sociology, norms; or to be more precise: the secular moral order that should characterize the rational, industrial and science-based French society of the 3rd Republic. The existence of such an order – implicit and often invisible in everyday life – was what Durkheim posited as “the social fact” that made his sociology possible; and the vigorous promotion, spread and enforcement of this order was the nation-building task of the modern French state, via its education system. Eventually, this rational civic moral order should replace religion as the belief system underlying and organizing society, gradually becoming as “sacred” as previously religious beliefs. The latter were, according to Durkheim, veiled and misconceived understandings of the real moral order:

“We must discover those moral forces that men, down to the present time, have conceived of only under the form of religious allegories. We must disengage them from their symbols, present them in their rational nakedness, so to speak, and find a way to make the child feel their reality without recourse to any mythological intermediary.” (Durkheim 1961 [2002]: 11).

Durkheim’s analogy of the secular moral order with the moral order propagated in religion would, in later stages of his career, push him towards profound engagements with religion as a social fact. For in both the secular and the religious moral order, he saw the same features at work: both were experienced and perceived as beyond the grasp and intention of individuals, and as compelling norms of social life. In the case of religion, they emanated from a divine force; in the case of social facts, society provided them; in both cases, individuals acquired them through extended interaction in their communities as well as through institutionalized forms of learning and education.

These features, then, formed the definition of his “social fact”. Social facts are forms of behavior and thought (1) that are “exterior to the individual” and (2) experienced by individuals as coercive, constraining and imperative rules, deviation of which would come at a price (see e.g. Durkheim 1895 [2010]: 100; discussion in Lukes 1973: 8-15). They are, in short, collective norms of which the individual has an acute awareness, and to which individuals feel they must submit. Here is one of the many formulations provided by Durkheim:

“A rule is not then a simple matter of habitual behavior; it is a way of acting that we do not feel free to alter according to taste. It is in some measure – and to the same extent that it is a rule – beyond personal preference. There is in it something that resists us, is beyond us”. (Durkheim 1961 [2002]: 28)

Once more, the religious analogies are plain: the social order is sacred in Durkheim’s eyes. Recall that the social fact, thus defined, was the object of sociology as designed by Durkheim; the two defining characteristics of social facts should set the new discipline apart from psychology (a science devoted to individual behavior and thought).[4] Durkheim soberly observed that people act differently when they are alone from when they are in the company of others. When alone, instincts, pre-social desires would regulate behavior (and would therefore be the terrain of psychological analysis); social behavior, by contrast, was regulated by “collective conscience” – what we could now call an “ideology” – and by a moral discipline pushing individuals to bring the extremes of their instincts under control so as to be acceptable in the eyes of others[5]. In that sense, the development of social behavior marks a transition from “absolute existence” (humans in their natural state) to “relative existence” (humans as social, in relation to others and to institutions), from an a-moral state to a moral state, and from a mode of solitary autarky to one of solidarity and labor division (cf. Lukes 1973: 125; many of these notions were already elaborated in Durkheim’s dissertation, De la Division du Travail social, 1893 [1967]).

The collective conscience, note, is made up of “collective representations” – things we would now call “concepts”, relatively fixed meaning frames. And while institutions such as state-sponsored education transmit, across generations, certain collective representations “typical” of the nation-state, such representations are acquired alongside more specific ones characterizing and organizing life in particular social groups (caste, class, family, profession, etc.). The norms that organize social life are, in other words, layered and scaled. Socialization, thus, proceeded both at the level of becoming a citizen of a (homogeneous) country, and at the level of becoming a member of (more diverse) specific social sub-groups. The function of both is the same: norms always presuppose “a certain disposition in the individual for a regular existence – a preference for regularity” (Durkheim 1961: 34). Social rules are, simply put, “limits to our natural inclinations” (id: 96). Now, although Durkheim would underscore the fact that “man always lives in the midst of many groups”, his views on which specific groups we should think about differ from publication to publication, and even when he mentions groups, he does not necessarily devote much analysis to them. Moral Education specifies just three such groups: the family, the nation (or political group), and humanity (1961 [2002]: 73-74), for instance, and only the nation is elaborately discussed – not surprising in a book that aspired to reorganize national education in France. Elsewhere, he would profoundly examine professional groups and religious groups as well. In all, Durkheim had a strong preference for what we could call “thick” groups, groups in which people shared a lot of norms, values and “collective representations”, and as we shall see later, his influence has been pervasive in that respect.

2.2 Integration and anomie

Let us recall Durkheim’s motives for the development of a sociology. He was gravely concerned about the perceived loss of sociocultural cohesion in the France of his day. He believed he was witnessing the disintegration of an old social order, while a new one was not yet in place. Consequently, his sociology consistently addressed issues of sociocultural cohesion or integration: how did this rapidly changing society maintain a reasonable degree of cohesion? In De la Division du Travail Social, he pointed towards one answer: new forms of solidarity grounded in the emergence of new, smaller, professional groups, were complementing older forms of solidarity grounded in “deep” sociocultural ties. And they did so by developing alternative moral orders and collective representations – the defining features of the “social” as we have seen earlier, and in that sense also the defining features of identifiable social groups. Members were integrated into such groups by subscribing to and adopting these defining features, by “enregistering” (we would now say) the moral codes that shaped such groups and held them together. In other words, integration is a factor of successful socialization of individuals into the moral orders of social groups, and social cohesion is an aggregate of such forms of integration.

One of the most interesting and productive concepts developed by Durkheim is that of anomie. Anomie describes a situation in which individuals cannot draw on available normative orders (either by absence of such orders, or because access to them is severely restricted) or reject such orders: “normlessness”. Durkheim discussed the concept elaborately in his Suicide (1897 [1951]), and he did so from the viewpoint of social cohesion. In a rapidly changing society where an old order is on its way out while a new order is under construction, he argued, numbers of people find themselves in a moral no-man’s land where the rules of the social game are unknown, unclear or in need of development. Anomie, we could say, is the concrete face of social disintegration and individual marginalization. And Durkheim saw his own rapidly transforming society as prone to anomie, since the robustness and homogeneity of the old social order (revolving around, for instance, widely shared religious norms and close family ties) had vanished while a new one (based, as we saw, on a sophisticated division of labor generating numerous new professional, integrated groups) was not yet fully developed; individuals, consequently, would risk being poorly or incompletely socialized and at a loss finding out what it takes to do well. This moral no man’s land explained the high statistical incidence of suicide, and Durkheim provided a primarily social explanation for suicide.

With some qualifications, Durkheim saw anomie as something negative, a lack of a clear and widely shared moral social order; individuals caught in anomie are marginalized, deviants, outsiders. At the same time, he saw anomie as an inevitable feature of socio-historical change and, in that sense, as a constant feature of societies at any point in time – a fully integrated society was an aspiration rather than a reality, and at any moment in its historical development, societies would be characterized by old and new normative systems coexisting in a sometimes uncomfortable way. Yet, Durkheim failed to see the creative and productive potential of anomie, as well as the ways in which anomie operates as a relational concept, a (negative) normative judgment of one about another, obscuring the ways in which the margins of society are spaces where alternative social orders are quite rigorously observed and policed – as Howard Becker (1963) famously demonstrated.

2.3 Durkheim’s impact and the challenge of Rational Choice

I have deliberately been selective here, focusing on elements from Durkheim’s work that offer immediate possibilities for critical re-evaluation in view of sociolinguistic evidence. Let me summarize and reformulate these elements in a series of related propositions.

  1. There is a set of human forms of behavior that are collective, in the sense that they cannot be reduced to individual agency or intention. They are acquired socially, through socialization and education processes, in a variety of groups. They have a sui generis reality which cannot be explained by explaining individuals’ enactments.
  2. These forms of behavior must be seen as governed by sets of sanctioned norms, or ideologies, and the character of these norms is moral. Social behavior is moral-normative.
  3. These sets of norms characterize social groups, notably “thick” groups such as those of the nation, class, caste, family, profession, religion. We always live in a plurality of such groups.
  4. These sets of norms are the key to social cohesion and integration: people who submit to them will be perceived as “normal” members of their social groups, while people deviating from them will be confronted by anomie and risk being seen as outcasts.

In a variety of formulations, these propositions can be found throughout twentieth-century sociology (and beyond). It was, like that of e.g. Dewey and Bourdieu but unlike that of e.g. Weber (Gerth & Mills 1970: 57) first and foremost a sociology of communities and of social cohesion, and it opened several areas of exploration that became foundational for twentieth-century social sciences. These areas ranged from the study of ethnoclassification and ethnoscience (through his work with Marcel Mauss), collective memory (through his student Maurice Halbwachs), labor organization and labor institutions (influencing, to name just a few, Everett C. Hughes, Herbert Blumer and John Kenneth Galbraith), socialization (influencing e.g. Piaget), religion, cultural symbols and ritual (influencing e.g. Victor Turner),  and several others.

This brings us to Durkheim’s main follower-vulgarizer, Talcott Parsons. It was Parsons who turned the priorities of Durkheim’s program into the systematic theory to which Glyn Williams took exception, in the effort significantly simplifying some of the most interesting but often unstable aspects of Durkheim’s work – notably the relationship between “society” and “social groups” and the place of individual agency in society.[6] Parson’s sociology, as we know, focused on integration at the level of “society” (e.g. Parsons 2007). Societies would remain integrated because of the widespread acceptance of specific and relatively enduring sets of values, while norms characterized smaller social groups. Norms could differ from the dominant values, of course, they could even run counter to these values; but they were distinctly “lighter” than values.[7] Thus, in a text written in 1964 on US youth culture (at that time perceived as rebellious and increasingly deviant), Parsons confidently concluded that

“American society in a sense appears to be running its course. We find no cogent evidence of a major change in the essential patterns of its governing values.” (Parsons 1964: 181)

In other words, the long-haired, pot-smoking and anti-Vietnam young rebels of the early 1960s were still good and decent Americans, and their shocking behavior did not shake the foundations of the American mode of integration. Four years later, such an argument would be hard to sustain, and not just in the US (Elbaum 2002).[8]

As I said above, Durkheim was very much a sociologist of communities, of the collective dimension of social life. The most radical challenge to this came from what is now known as Rational Choice (Theory) (Green & Shapiro 1994; Adamae 2003). Rational Choice is an outgrowth of Methodological Individualism, something Max Weber introduced as a doctrine in the social sciences (and was taken further by e.g. Hayek and Popper). Simply put, Methodological Individualism is the theory complex in which every human activity is in fine reduced to individual interests, intentions, motives, concerns and decisions, because (it is argued) such observable individual levels of subjectivity in action, even if eminently social, are the only ones available to the analyst (Heath 2015). And Rational Choice can best be seen as a radicalization of the “individualism” in this: human action, in Rational Choice, is driven by one motive: the maximization of individual “profit” (material as well as symbolic) and proceeds by means of calculated, intentional and rational decisions by individuals (“choice”). Since Durkheim’s moral order crucially depended on the suppression (or “moderation”) of individual interests and preferences – egoism is typically seen as “immoral” – the theoretical dichotomy could not be sharper.

Rational choice, in that sense, is a fundamental denial of Durkheim’s “social fact”. Even more: it is a lock-stock-and-barrel denial of the entire Durkheimian sociological imagination, for “there is no such thing as society” (to quote Margaret Thatcher’s slogan). In Kenneth Arrow’s (1951) famous view, any form of collective (rational) choice is just impossible. Arrow, “proved” this in his so-called “Impossibility Theorem”, quite incredibly by means of intricate mathematical argument – and mathematics reshaped (and replaced) field observation-based sociology as the privileged source of knowledge on humans and their social practices (Adamae 2003: 102-116; cf. Blommaert 2016). To the disbelief of empirical sociologists such as Everett C. Hughes, if certain social practices were ruled mathematically “impossible”, it was assumed that their occurrence in the real world was exceptional or accidental (cf. Hughes 1971 [2009]: xix, 348-354).

For reasons explained below, Rational Choice never made a real inroad into Sociolinguistics; but it largely dominates several social-scientific and humanities disciplines, most notably Economics (cf. Thaler 2015).[9] Revisiting and revising Durkheim’s social fact from the perspective of contemporary sociolinguistics – the exercise I stall embark on in a moment – therefore implies a rejection of Rational Choice. A good reason for this is that in the more radical varieties of Rational Choice, people never seem to communicate, or to communicate only in dyadic logical dialogue when they are allowed to.

3. Sociolinguistics and the social fact: in support of Durkheim

So let us first establish this: people do communicate; they communicate all the time, in highly diverse and complex modes, often with more than one interlocutor, and not always logically, economically or rationally; it is through interaction that they are recognized as “social”, as a “subject”, and as producers of ideas. Affirming this is, of course, of an extraordinary triviality. But this trivium has been denied and neglected in tons of sociological and other social-scientific work, turning it not in a trivial truism but into a hard-fought methodological principle. Establishing that principle means affirming the very possibility of a socio-linguistics. And I think we have pretty decent empirical back-up for this principle and, thence, for the possibility of sociolinguistics. So let us show some of that evidence in what follows.

I repeat what I mentioned earlier: while almost every major sociologist would emphasize (or at least mention) interaction as a given, detailed attention to interaction has never been part of the sociological mainstream. Interaction was paid lip service to, and communication is often seen as a set of transmission practices not worthy of study in its own right – something so elementary that it belongs to the décor in which real social action is played out and does not demand further examination.[10]  Blumer, defining the methodological position of symbolic interactionism as it was being kept in the margins of the sociology of his time, lamented (1969: 7):

“a society consists of individuals interacting with one another. The activities of the members occur predominantly in response to one another or in relation to one another. Even though this is recognized almost universally in definitions of human society, social interaction is usually taken for granted and treated as having little, if any, significance in its own right.”

Durkheim was no exception. And this, remarkably, led to generations of sociologists overlooking what is potentially the most self-evident “social fact”. Let me sketch some aspects of it, and start with the most general one.

3.1 Language as a normative collective system: ordered indexicality

People can only communicate with others when they share and deploy different forms of “grammar” – conventionalized normative patterns ordering the potential mess of symbols we call language, ensuring that we “make sense” to each other. This simple observation should be enough to establish it as a Durkheimian social fact pur sang.[11] But let me elaborate this – begging the reader for tolerance for the highly sketchy summary of complex histories of linguistic thought in what follows.

The different forms of grammar can – roughly – be divided into grammars of form and grammars of usage, and usually the term “grammar” is reserved for the former: the fact that the formal, morphosyntactic organization of linguistic expressions is governed by language-specific (i.e. non-individual) rules, compliance with which displays some degree of flexibility but is overall quite strict and relatively stable and enduring. Description of these formal rules became “linguistics”, and their relatively stable and enduring character became the key element in identifying separate “languages” (cf. Silverstein 1977; Irvine 2001; Bauman & Briggs 2003; Blommaert 2013; see Agha 2007a:222 for a concise discussion). As for grammars of usage, they gradually became a separate domain of study (called “Pragmatics”) through the work of language philosophers such as Austin (1962), Grice (1975) and Searle (1969) (cf. Verschueren  1999). Here, too, relatively stable and enduring rules were detected, although the overlap between such rules and separate “languages” was less outspoken; rules of politeness, for instance, appeared to be connected, rather, to social and cultural groups than to the actual “languages” they use, and were even seen as potentially universal  (Brown & Levinson 1987; for a critical appraisal see Eelen 2001). A generation of anthropologists had, in the meantime, provided mountains of literature on the sociocultural embedding of language in specific (often “ethnic” or “tribal”) communities (see Hymes 1964 for a survey), while symbolic-interactionist sociologists in the US had started exploring the social-scientific significance of everyday patterns of social interaction (e.g. Goffman 1959; Blumer 1969).

The eminently social fact of grammar, remarkably, became individualized as soon as universals became the ambition of linguistic theory in the wake of Noam Chomsky’s epochal reformulation of linguistic as a science of “competence”  – the mentally structured capacity to generate grammatically well-formed sentences (e.g. Chomsky 1965). Chomsky had announced that the focus on competence meant that linguists should be concerned with an “ideal” speaker/hearer operating outside of any form of real communicative situation; and this ideal speaker became an individual speaker whose “language” existed, in universal ways and (contrary to Saussure’s view) perfectly, in his/her individual brain (see Katz 1972 for an excellent example). Methodological individualism, thus, entered the science of language through the detour of psychologism, and social and cultural norms were replaced by mental operations unaffected by (socially and culturally contextualized) “performance”. Language had become an a-social fact.

Modern sociolinguistics was a reaction to that; and from its very beginnings, work in sociolinguistics would struggle to re-emphasize language as a social fact. Reaching back to the work of Sapir and Whorf, the abstract language designated as the object of linguistics was countered by situated, contextualized “speech” and such speech had to be understood in terms of a dialectics of language and social life, lodged in a “speech community” (Hymes 1966; 1972; 1980; Gumperz 1968; 1982). And apart from a (possibly) mentally hardwired and universal grammatical “competence” – the linguistic system – one should also consider the group-specific and culturally-relative communicative competence – the sociolinguistic system (Hymes 1992). Communicative competence, note, referred to knowledge of the sociocultural norms of language and the capacity to deploy them adequately in a variety of social circumstances. The norms of language, thus, were defined as sociocultural constructs; and Michael Silverstein (again drawing on Whorf) put a gloss on them: “language ideologies” (Silverstein 1979).

I shall be forgiven for this breathless rush through half a century of intellectual development, for I have arrived now where I wanted to arrive. The concept of language ideologies, which rose to prominence and became a unifying focus in the 1990s (Kroskrity, Schieffelin & Woolard 1992; see Blommaert 2006a for a review), offered a comprehensive framework for re-establishing language as a social fact, in nearly all its aspects. The central idea proved extraordinarily productive: language is used on the basis of socioculturally grounded conventions dialogically organizing its production and understanding; the empirical basis for such ideologies were concrete “indexicals”, i.e. aspects of communicative form that pointed in nonrandom ways to salient, context-specific sociocultural meaning reservoirs, and ultimately to social structure (see Agha 2007; also De Fina et al 2006). Indexicals, thus, pointed to conventionalized and therefore presupposed histories of meaningful usage and precipitated them into new moments of deployment. In Silverstein’s words (1992: 315):

“Now any indexical process, wherein signs point to a presupposed context in which they occur (i.e. have occurred) or to an entailed potential context in which they occur (i.e. will have occurred), depends on some metapragmatic function to achieve a measure of determinacy. It turns out that the crucial position of ideologies of semiosis is in constituting such a mediating metapragmatics, giving parties an idea of determinate contextualization for indexicals, presupposable as shared according to interested positions or perspectives to follow upon some social fact like group membership, condition in society, achieved commonality of interests, etc. Ideology construes indexicality. In so doing ideology inevitably biases its metapragmatic “take” so as to create another potential order of effective indexicality that bears what we can appreciate sometimes as a truly ironic relation to the first.”

This principle could be applied to the formal “grammar” of language, which appeared subject to strong language-ideological effects (e.g. Silverstein 1979; Errington 1988; Irvine & Gal 2000); to the learning of language norms in socialization processes (e.g. Schieffelin & Ochs 1986); to the use of specific “registers” governing concrete sociocultural domains of speech and subject to processes of “enregisterment” (e.g. Agha 2005; 2007b); to patterns of everyday narratives (De Fina et al 2006); to lay and institutionalized concepts of language, including sociolinguistic hierarchies and attributed speaker identities (e.g. Silverstein 1996, 1998; Agha 2003) and the politics of language at nation-state level and in more specific institutional contexts (e.g. Jaffe 1999; Blommaert 1999; Philips 2000; Haviland 2003); on complex intertextual processes of meaning-making (e.g. Silverstein & Urban 1996); on complex contemporary forms of meaning-and-identity making involving “codeswitching” (e.g. Rampton 1995; 2006). En route, a large number of crucial concepts in the study of language were redefined: language itself, speech community, genre, style. And so forth: the range of themes, concepts and domains that were profoundly reshaped by the conceptual development of language ideologies is extensive.

The truly fundamental theoretical and methodological impact of language ideologies, in view of the exercise I undertake here, is that it has given us an extraordinarily precise view of “norms” (and their cognates “values” and “collective representations”). Norms, we now see, are language-ideological phenomena, and more precisely ordered indexicalities: sets of indexicals organized in relation to each other, with some of them being “emblematic” of the meaning effects they generate – a sort of register “shibboleth” effect, as when someone starts a sentence with “oh dear” versus “fuck” (cf. Silverstein 2003; Agha 2005, 2007; Blommaert 2005), or shifts into a mock accent so as to project an evaluated identity on someone else (e.g. Hill 2001; Rampton 2006). The fundamentally normative and interpreted character of social relations, thus, becomes clear: whenever we interact with others, we produce not just the kinds of denotational meanings one finds in a dictionary, but we produce evaluative meanings, in which the words, actions and identities of all the participants are fixed and given (sociocultural) value. And in so doing we produce, moment by moment, “culture” and “society”, as well as “identity” and “meaning”. None of these concepts are detached from interaction – “language and culture”, for instance, have merged into the interactional production of indexical order (Silverstein 2004).

Echoes of Bakhtin and Goffman are evident here: language ideologies can in many ways be seen as an extreme methodological refinement of the general ideas articulated by Bakhtin (1981, 1986) and Goffman (1971, 1974). Bakhtin’s sociohistorical theory of literary form has now been extended into the entire field of language in society, and given far more analytical purchase and precision; while the micro-orders of social conduct described by Goffman can now also be reformulated in a more systematic and generalizable way. I shall come back to the continued relevance of both authors further on; in the case of Goffman, we shall see that, in a wider sense, the program of symbolic interactionism is coming back with a vengeance (cf. Blumer 1969; Cicourel 1973). In addition, and combining Bakhtin with Goffman, ordered indexicalities presuppose, and necessitate, a dialogical conception of meaning-making. Whenever we communicate, we keep an eye on the other and adjust our language use to an anticipated uptake from our interlocutors. In contrast to what Rational Choice suggest, we are quite altruistic and cooperative in communication, and we are happy and eager to accommodate the other in our own language use – as shown whenever we revert to a kind of pidgin English when an obviously confused tourist from far away ask us for directions. Our communicative behavior is regulated by the fact that it is organized together with others.[12]

Three final remarks are in order.

  • Orders of indexicality are obviously collective, social phenomena. I qualified them as “nonrandom” on a couple of occasions already, and this is vital because any form of understanding requires recognizability in terms of a specific set of ordered indexicals. An interaction opened by “Excuse me, sir” versus one opened with “hey, you!” is likely to be a different interaction (probably a difference captured by “polite” versus “impolite”), and recognition of this difference can only occur when the participants share the language-ideological valuations of these indexicals. And they do. A recent study by Silverstein (2015) on public (online) discussions of “New York accent” showed remarkable similarities in several categories of valuations articulated by participants, something that corroborates Penny Eckert’s (2008; 2012) notion of “indexical fields”. Linguistic variation, it now appears, is subject to powerful collective language-ideological forces (“we have come to see variation as a more robust and dynamic indexical system”, Eckert 2015: 43; also Rampton 2006, 2016). Section 3.2 will return to this.
  • People display an outspoken tendency to create norms whenever they are absent or unclearly scripted, and new communication technologies provide us with plenty of examples of that. The extremely rapid development of new social media platforms and apps, one can say, presents their users with a situation of “anomie” each time they engage with such novelties. And whereas common wisdom would often qualify mobile phone texting codes and Facebook interactions as “anything goes” because the carefully indoctrinated school standards of language and script appear to be violated continuously, a more concentrated analysis shows that even such apparently open, highly diverse, free and unscripted communicative spaces are very rapidly filled with ad-hoc (and rapidly solidified) norms, defining modes of interaction, genres and styles, and subject to sometimes rigorous policing; these new norms can and do function as tools for evading or subverting imposed, top-down rules when existing rules are experienced as oppressive (e.g. Varis & Wang 2011; Wang, Juffermans & Du 2012; Blommaert 2012; Leppänen & Elo 2016; Du 2016; Staehr 2017). As said before, anomie may be defined as a space without norms; at the same time, it is also a space where new norms are invited and created – a creative space in which “the social”, as grounded in the sharedness of sets of norms, is instantly created. To rephrase this with reference to Rational Choice: we see in this phenomenon of instant, grassroots norm-creation how people continuously surrender their individual choice and freedom to joint patterns of regulation and policing. Because they do not want to get stuck talking to just themselves, one can imagine.
  • While ordered indexicals organize and generate “meaning”, such meanings are not just “rational”, i.e. denotational, but also, and simultaneously, aesthetic and dramatic. In fact, when people communicate, they perform a bundle of functions: epistemic, affective, poetic, performative (Hymes 1980; Haviland 1989; Bauman & Briggs 1990). And it is this bundle – not just its epistemic aspect – that turns communication into something that satisfies higher-order social and cultural demands (Hymes 1966, 1996; Silverstein 1985, 1997, 2004; Blommaert 2006b, 2015c). We convince others not just by the pureness and truth-conditional excellence of our argument, but even more by the stylistic-narrative performance in which it is cast and by the evaluative key in which we frame it; and we pay meticulous attention to all of this while we build our argument. In the view of Charles Goodwin (2007), there is something inherently moral in epistemic practices, since the latter demand a tightly organized set of practices within a chosen participant framework, rupture of which is seen as a moral as well as an epistemic issue (cf. also Goodwin 1994). This simple observation blows out of the water any theory in which human communication is reduced to the rational exchange of pure (and perfectly retrievable) meanings. To put it somewhat crudely and in folksy terms: human rationality is very much tied up with, in practice even indistinguishable from, human irrationality – with emotion, morality and aesthetics. We are very subjective when we believe we are objective and can get quite emotional when we discuss “the facts”.[13]

I have spent a lot of space discussing this first element – language as a normative collective system, now understood through the conceptual instruments of language ideologies – for it underlies several of the points that follow. I can treat these points somewhat more concisely now.

3.2 Language variation: dialects, accents and languaging

I already mentioned above (pace Eckert) that language variation is now seen as an indexical system of “distinction”. Language is the great diversifier: even the smallest feature can serve as an emblem of fundamental identity difference (Blommaert 2015b). But let us start where we have to start: with the features that index such distinction, language variation itself.

Recall the elements that Durkheim identified as defining the social fact: social facts were (a) phenomena that escaped the control of the individual and (b) had a compelling, normative effect on individuals. Now consider a straightforward case: all over the world, people learn a language we call English; they do so, in formal education, on the basis of a corpus of teaching materials that are amazingly similar (in fact, they can be seen as standardized industrial mass products). Yet all over the world, and in spite of the near-uniform input, people speak English with an accent. These accents are clearly identifiable: few would not be able to tell the difference between, say, an “American” accent and a “French” one, and many would be able to distinguish an “Indian” accent from a “Nigerian” one. In fact, such distinctions have led to the development of a branch of Applied Linguistics called “World Englishes” (e.g. Bhatt 2001; also Mufwene 2010), where different regional realizations of English are no longer seen as deviations from “standard” English but as bona fide language varieties in their own right, often with names such as “Hinglish” (Hindi-English: Kothari & Snell 2011) or more generically “country name + English”, as in “Brunei English”. The range of “typical” features, for instance in Brunei English, is extensive and ranges from phonetics and morphosyntax to discursive and lexical differences. The explanations for such differences are usually sought in influences from language contact with “native” language substrates, the specific history of English in the region, the local or region language policies and the education system (Deterding & Sharbawi 2013). In the case of Hinglish, apart from these factors, the influence and prestige of a powerful Hindi-language popular culture is also noted (Kothari 2011). (Observe that we are addressing a globalization phenomenon here, and I shall return to this in section 4).

The fact, however, remains the same. People growing up and living in specific regions of the world acquire features of speech that are distinctly, and identifiably, regional – “from there”. These features – accents – are extraordinarily powerful identity shibboleths; in fact the word “shibboleth” itself refers to a biblical story in which accent in speech was used to distinguished allies from enemies (and to kill the latter, appropriately identified). And getting rid of an acquired accent is quite a slow, difficult and sometimes painful job, for which, in the meantime, a branch of specialized therapists and providers has emerged (cf. Blommaert 2008; Silverstein 2015). Variation in speech, we can see, is not something one typically chooses – it is acquired through socialization processes, i.e. through a shared history in a community in which the fine distinctions of speech are learned and incorporated. Those are phenomena that transcend the individual.

As for their compelling, normative effects, we must keep earlier remarks in mind and now turn to a venerable branch of sociolinguistics: social dialectology in the tradition of Peter Trudgill. Drawing on Britain & Cheshire (eds. 2003), several points are worth noting.

  • Collective identity appears to be the main driver guiding the dynamics of dialect. More specifically, dialect is a shibboleth for regional identity, i.e. a recognizable identity shared by people inhabiting a particular region, currently or in the past; dialect indexes the local and regional (also Johnstone 2010).
  • -This also pertains to innovation and change: they depend strongly on degrees of social integration. The better people are integrated in the community, the more they will contribute to innovation in dialect, due to the tendency to index specific subgroups within that community. Social isolation – as with e.g. spatially isolated “outliers” in poorly populated areas – slows down the patterns of change in dialects (Britain 2003).
  • -“Dialect leveling” – a well-known feature in dialectology, in which dialects appear to develop in a more convergent way, depends on social factors as well: speech accommodation between speakers of different dialect backgrounds (Kerswill 2003).
  • -The tendency to index specific subgroups through dialect innovation highlights (a) the heterogeneity of dialect “speech communities”; and (b) the importance of “loose social networks” (Watts 2003) in language change.
  • -Throughout all of this, “social categories are (…) seen as ideologically-driven processes” (Britain & Cheshire 2003: 4): the dynamics of dialect change is governed by language-ideological attributions – the normative and identity-projecting phenomena discussed in the previous section (also Rampton 2009).

The latter can be observed in yet another dimension of language change: languaging, the extraordinarily creative mixing and blending of linguistic and expressive resources typical of Sociolinguistically highly complex environments (Creese & Blackledge 2010; Jörgensen et al 2011; Juffermans 2015; Blommaert & Rampton 2016). While languaging, at first sight, appears like unregulated bricolage or mashup business, a kind of communicative anomie (and is often so perceived by those in charge of guarding the gates of language correctness), a closer look reveals a tremendous level of structuring, all of it governed language-ideologically by delicate shifts in (identity) “footing”, alignment between speakers and changes in the participant framework. The bricolage can, in effect, reveal differences between locally constructed and discernible “varieties” (Kailoglou 2015; Madsen 2017; also Rampton 2011), and can be a powerful instrument for “styling” specific identities – ironically, ritually, playfully, or quite seriously (Rampton 1995; Coupland 2007, 2015; Cutler 2009; Pennycook 2009). The more serious forms of styling may revolve around highly ritualized minimal displays of a “heritage language”, with tremendous identity-establishing effects (e.g. Moore 2017). And  “quite seriously” can also mean “making money”, of course: the commodification of language variation in new economic sectors – think of tourism, marketing and call centers as examples – has turned sociolinguistics into the profitable business of more than just symbolic capital (Heller 2010; Jaworski & Thurlow 2010; Blommaert 2010; Kelly-Holmes 2010; Woydack 2017).

3.3 Inequality, voice, repertoire

In discussing languaging, I already pointed to the linguistic and expressive resources that people use in such complex forms of discursive work. Such resources are, of course, not evenly distributed in any society, and the reasons for this are social.[14] Hymes (1996: xxx) stated this problem clearly: while language obviously offers a pool of opportunities to people, it simultaneously acts as a constraint; it is a human social treasure trove as well as a human social problem, since no single person knows all of a language and meeting the limits of what we can communicate is an acutely frustrating social experience for all of us. Throughout life, we continuously acquire new sets of resources while we shed older, obsolete ones; and in its most general sense, we are always constrained by what is communicable and what is not – we often have no words for what needs to be expressed.[15] But let me focus on two specific resources by way of illustration: (1) access to specific register and genre resources and (2) access to specific contexts for communication.

  • In general, no real human being has access to all the resources that circulate socially, for several reasons. There can be institutional barriers reserving “elite” resources for a small group of people – and access to standard English in large parts of the world is a case in point (Park & Wee 2012; Blommaert 2010, 2014). People have easy access to spoken vernacular varieties of English widespread in global popular culture and open to informal learning – which is why words such as “fuck” and “shit” occur almost everywhere – while literacy-based standard varieties are far more difficult (and expensive) to obtain, and specialized registers such as legal-bureaucratic, literary or academic varieties even more so, since they demand access to effectively policed formal learning channels and “members only” communities of users. Thus, illiterate people are likely never to produce written discourse, and not because of choice but because of social-institutional structural reasons. And there are many “misunderstandings” that are grounded in an asymmetrical degree of communicative competence between speakers (Gumperz 1982 is a classic; also Roberts 2016). Processes of access restriction are not necessarily “institutional” though: similar forms of gatekeeping occur almost everywhere. Howard Becker’s (1963) Outsiders described how “marginal” social groups such as marihuana smoking jazz musicians also deploy tactics of selection and exclusion through specific modes of talk distinguishing “those in the know” from newcomers or ignorant “outsiders”. A lot of the literature on styling and languaging reviewed earlier addresses exactly such small peer-group identity dynamics in which group-specific, exclusive, enregistered phonological, morphosyntactic, lexical and genre features are made emblematic of membership and eligibility (cf. Silverstein 2006; Blackledge & Creese 2016).
  • As to restrictions of access to specific contexts, again, nobody has access to all available contexts that make up the communicative economies of societies. This is again clearest in institutional contexts, where, for instance, accused and witnesses in courts have no access to the context of verdict-making, which is exclusively reserved for the judges. More generally, expert contexts are often decisive in social life, while they are tightly controlled by experts themselves (e.g. Cicourel 1967; Briggs 1997, 2005; Mehan 1996). We often have no impact on what others do with our words in patterns of re-entextualization we call “text trajectories”, in which a subject’s statement is recorded by someone, summarized in a report by someone else for yet someone else, who takes a decision which is then moved down the trajectory and fed back to the subject – as in bureaucratic procedures or newspaper interviews (e.g. Blommaert 2001). Obviously, access to such restricted contexts is already conditioned by (1) above: one needs specific forms of language and literacy proficiency in order to enter such social spaces. And in a world in which large chunks of communication demand access to hi-tech ICT equipment and infrastructures, such inequalities display no tendencies to disappear (Wang et al 2014).

Both forms of inequality would operate across the specter of the sociolinguistic system, but of course, some would be subject to more than others. Hymes himself focused on the predicament of Native American groups, and speakers of small, minority or immigrant languages are, evidently, in structurally weaker positions than speakers of majority and prestigious varieties – recent sociolinguistics has provided an avalanche of work on these themes (for an elaborate case study, see the essays in Blommaert et al 2012). Thus, sociolinguistic inequalities characterize every social system, and the causes for such inequalities are social. Hymes (1996) coined the term “voice” for the actual capacity for people to make themselves understood and noted that problems of voice represent the critical dimension of sociolinguistic work: rather than merely describing sociolinguistic diversity as a kind of juxtaposition of equally valuable varieties, we should engage with the question as to why particular varieties are, in actual fact, not equal to others – questions of voice as a sociopolitical given, voice as the reflection of social structures in the actual communicative abilities of people (cf. Blommaert 2005, 2008b; Van der Aa 2012).

The latter move involves and presupposes attention to repertoires: the actual resources people have acquired and can effectively deploy in communication. The notion of repertoire has only recently been made into a topic of profound reflection, often from an awareness that widespread qualifications such as “speaker of language X”, or even “(non)native speaker of language X” are entirely inadequate as descriptors of the tremendous diversity in degrees of proficiency and communicative ability people display (e.g. Blommaert & Backus 2013; Rymes 2014; Busch 2015). Repertoires are by definition uniquely individual and can be described as “indexical biographies” reflecting the social experiences of people with specific orders of indexicality – exposure, immersion, learning, informal acquisition – and they ways in which such experiences reflect the social order. What is in people’s repertoires is usually there for a good reason: because they needed it at some point in social life; in that sense, repertoires are traces of social norms, or if you wish, traces of the evaluative responses of others in our lives. Taking that to the theoretical level: repertoires once more show how becoming and being a unique individual is a fundamentally social process: socialized, dialogical, normative, dynamic.

3.4 Language, the social fact

If Durkheim would have looked more closely at language and how it operates in and through society, he would have had considerably less trouble establishing his fait social. Half a century of sociolinguistics has proven, at great length and in infinite detail, that language can only be explained as a social fact – other explanations are absurd. Particularly absurd, we can conclude quite confidently, is Rational Choice. Almost everything that has been brought up by sociolinguists flatly contradicts the central assumptions of Rational Choice and offers mountains of hard and conclusive empirical evidence for this contradiction. The worldview of Rational Choice, from a sociolinguistic viewpoint, is that of a world populated by people who only talk to themselves.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of sociolinguistics, and its most important contribution to sociological theory, is the highly detailed and precise view of normativity I discussed in 3.1. The “norms”, “values” and “collective representations” that characterize the Durkheimian (and Parsonian) assumptions about social coherence are given a feet-on-the-ground realism as continuously evolving, dialogically constructed social actions in which “meaning”, in the traditional linguistic sense, is entirely blended with sociocultural evaluations of a moral nature, precipitating what we call “identity”. Identity is not a product, nor an a priori, but the material of interaction itself and, so, the material of social order. Since this material is extremely diverse, the social order is too, and the robust confidence with which, for instance, Parsons (2007) spoke about the “American core values” appears entirely unjustified from the viewpoint of sociolinguistic evidence – the price of analytical precision is ontological diversification (Parkin 2016).

Remember that one of the central arguments in favor of methodological individualism was that in human action, only individual subjectivity was observable. On the basis of what we have seen so far, this argument, too, has been dealt a death blow. Sociolinguistics’ contribution to a theory of social action is intersubjectivity: the fact that people, when communicating, require a dialogically established normative template shared with others in order to arrive at “meaning”; the latter is an interpretive effect, constantly negotiated and accommodated intersubjectively (and not necessarily by means of “purely” rational means). To the extent that social action is communicative action, it is joint action (cf. Blumer 1969; Cicourel 1973).

In the next section, I shall add to what has been established so far. There were things that Durkheim and his successors  in the Grand Tradition of sociology couldn’t possibly have known. They nuance some of the assumptions underlying classical sociology and they open exciting alternative trajectories of sociological re-imagination. Needless to say that they will also add to the mountains of empirical evidence proving the absurdity of Rational Choice.

4. What Durkheim could not have known

Several of the phenomena discussed in the previous section bore the imprint of globalization. An acute awareness of globalization as an ongoing reality-shaping  and reshaping process is what sets our sociological imagination apart from that of Durkheim and his followers, who operated within the confines of the nineteenth-century nation-state. Durkheim was, along with many of his disciples a methodological nationalist whose sociology did accept change (indeed, as we have seen, coming to terms with social change was what prompted Durkheim to his intellectual efforts), but change within a sedentary system which was coincident with the nation-state. This is remarkable, for globalization was very much a reality in Durkheim’s days. Colonization and an increasingly integrated world economy – Hobsbawm’s “Age of Empire” (1987) – had brought the world to places such as Paris and London. But this world was seen through the specter of one’s country, the structures, needs and imagination of which depended, precisely, on its global reach.

The current phase of globalization is, on the one hand, qualitatively different from that of the Age of Empire, and this is to a very significant extent an effect of the internet – a technology that changed the world in the last decade of the twentieth century, allowing a tremendous increase in speed, volume and density of global flows and networks (see Castells 1996; Eriksen 2001). Due to this change, Hobsbawm (2008: 155) observes how “the Empire expands wider still and wider”. But, as said earlier: perhaps even more importantly, the present stage of globalization is accompanied by an awareness of it, an awareness that social processes nowadays operate at a variety of scales, of which the nation-state is just one. And this awareness is revisionist in nature, as it forces us to revisit and redirect a sociological imagination colored by methodological nationalism. Both points – a qualitative difference and a different awareness of globalization – are things that did not belong to the worldview within which Durkheim and successors such as Parsons operated. Let us explore the revisionist effects of this.

4.1 Globalization: mobility, the internet and superdiversity

 

4.2 New social practices: social media, memes, virality

 

4.3 New social formations: light groups, integration and social cohesion

 

5. The sociological re-imagination

 

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Notes

[1] In this paper, I shall use the term “sociolinguistics” as a broadly descriptive umbrella term including any approach in which the connections between language and society are systematically explored. Work to be discussed in what follows might, consequently, more conventionally labeled as linguistic anthropology, pragmatics, applied linguistics, discourse analysis and so forth – and disciplinary sociolinguistics.

[2]  I do not suggest here that we are only Durkheimians: we’re also, equally unwittingly, Weberians, Marxians and Freudians for instance. I choose Durkheim as a point of reference because some of the fundamental concepts he designed are highly useful in the particular exercise I shall undertake here.

[3] Observe that Durkheim, although generally seen as a conservative thinker, was not a reactionary. The society he wished to help construct was a new one, not a (mythical) older society which needed to be preserved or recovered. Durkheim saw the present as unstable and unreliable, an old world that had vanished while a new one had not yet taken solid form and was moving in negative and destructive directions. His rejection – a moral rejection – of the present is quite radical, and contrasts remarkably with that of his contemporary Simmel (1950), who viewed similar tendencies with a neutral, nonjudgmental gaze, as a challenge rather than as a problem.

[4] While Durkheim spends considerable efforts distinguishing sociology from psychology, much of his work articulates an outspoken interest in processes of individual internalization of social facts.

[5] This insistence on temperance and moderation, often presented as evidence of his politically conservative and bourgeois views, can also be seen as another feature of his analogy between secular and (Christian and Jewish) religious moral systems.

[6] Parsons (1937) is the most influential reformulation of Durkheim’s sociology. But Parsons was not alone in seeking completion of the Durkheimian project. While Foucault rarely mentions Durkheim, it is hard not to see Foucault’s sustained effort to describe and delineate the emergence of the modern “normal” individual through forms of discipline as an idiosyncratic engagement with some of Durkheim’s unfinished business. See e.g. Foucault (2015: 240).

[7] Much of the pioneering literature on “late” or “Post”-Modernity implicitly takes this Durkheimian-Parsonian integrated society as its benchmark. Thus, for example, Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity” evidently takes a “solid modernity” as its point of departure (Bauman 2007). Whether such a solid modernity was ever a reality rather than a projection of a specific sociological imagination remains an untestable research question, although works such as E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1968) strongly suggest that the degree of integration of our societies in an earlier stage of their development may have been grossly overrated.

[8] Needless to say, Parsons’ view of US society as integrated was fundamentally challenged, and some will say shattered, by Gunnar Myrdal’s monumental American Dilemma (1944).

[9]   The few attempts to use Rational Choice in sociolinguistic work were rather epic failures in social analysis. Carol-Myers-Scotton’s Social Motivations for Codeswitching (1993) used an awkward conception of Rights-and-Obligations sets attached to “codes”, from which speakers would rationally choose the most advantageous one; the actual social settings in which code-switching occurs was dismissed as accidental, not fundamental (see Meeuwis & Blommaert 1994 for an elaborate critique); in David Laitin’s Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa (1992), an equally awkward variety of Game Theory is used to arrive at an ideal, rational “3+1 language outcome” for language policy in Africa. The argument is entirely detached from anything that ties languages to real social environments.

[10]   Hence Hymes’ critical views of the communication-focused work of Bourdieu and Habermas – two exceptions to the rule just sketched here (Hymes 1996: Ch.9). My own verdict on Bourdieu is significantly more merciful (Blommaert 2015a). As for Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action, (Habermas 1984), I share Hymes’ critique. Hymes points to the abstract and normative-idealized treatment of communication patterns in the work of both, detecting a lack of sensitivity to the actual ways in which language functions in real social environments. Habermas can be said, at most, to specify a set of ideal normative preconditions for communication.

[11] Saussure, who attended lectures by Durkheim, already pointed to “a grammatical system that exists virtually in every brain, or more precisely in the brains of a community of individuals; because language is never complete in any individual, it exists in its perfect state only in the masses” (1960:30; French original, my translation). Observe here how Saussure adopts Durkheim’s concept of “social fact” and, as we shall see, deviates strongly from the methodological individualism that characterized many subsequent developments in linguistics.

[12] I cannot enter into detail here, but the well-known Gricean Maxims (Grice 1975) assume cooperativity in communication as a given – in general, we want to understand and be understood whenever we communicate – and there is an entire tradition of “Accommodation Theory” in which speech convergence between interlocutors is studied (Giles, Coupland & Coupland 1991). Cooperation is also the central assumption to most of Conversation Analysis (e.g. Schegloff, Jefferson & Sacks 1977).

[13] Knowledge practices in science are no exception, and there is a large methodological literature criticizing the claims to objectivity made in various branches of science. Aaron Cicourel’s Method and Measurement in Sociology (1964) famously confronted mainstream statistical research with the problems of inevitable subjectivity in interaction. His critique had a profound effect on Bourdieu’s methodology as well, and for Bourdieu, the only possible road to objectivity was the recognition of subjectivity in knowledge construction (Blommaert 2015a; for a cognate argument see Fabian 1983).

[14] Without too much comment I can note that this view obviously clashes with the notion of the “ideal speaker/hearer” that became the hallmark of Chomskyan linguistics, see above. What follows can be read as a simple empirical refutation of this notion.

[15] Foucault (1969) coined the term “archive” to identify the limits of what can be conventionally thought and understandably communicated: if we communicate within the archive, we are “normal” and others will understand us; if we communicate outside the boundaries of the archive, chances are that others will qualify us as lunatics. See Blommaert (2005: 99-103) for a discussion.

 

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