“Meeting of Styles” and the online infrastructures of graffiti.

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Jan Blommaert

Two simple points

This short research note intends to make two simple points, one general and one specific. The points are simple to the point of being trivial; yet, thinking them through has far-reaching but hitherto largely unexplored consequences. The general point is this: we cannot comprehend contemporary social and cultural phenomena, even if they look eminently local and “offline”, without catching their dialectical interactions with the worlds of “online” knowledge in which they are encased and through which they circulate and acquire their defining features. These features are “defining” in the sense that they have the capacity to transform the actor, the community and the practices involved. This point is broadly sociological, if you wish, and relates to the accuracy of our social and cultural imagination.

The second point is more specific and relates to ethnographic linguistic landscape analysis (ELLA; Blommaert & Maly 2015) as a sensitive method for investigating this complex contemporary social and cultural environment. It can be stated as follows: the semiotic landscapes we often tend to stereotype as purely locally and materially emplaced have acquired a major enabling online dimension, compelling us to realize that the sheer presence of offline semiotic landscapes must be related to their online infrastructures of production, circulation and uptake. Understanding such landscapes, thus, requires more than just inspection and decoding of the offline artefacts. This point is sociolinguistic (or socio-semiotic) and affects our analytical vocabulary for interpreting human signs and social (public) space.

Both points can, I suggest, be made in one move, by looking at one specific case. The case I shall employ for making these two points is graffiti. Or to be more precise, a worldwide series of graffiti events called Meeting of Styles (MOS), which for over a decade now has brought graffiti artists together at various places around the globe, for intensive event-like artistic and social communion (links to websites are given below). In August 2015, MOS settled down in Berchem, a district in Antwerp (Belgium), where over 2000 square meters of walls were decorated, turning the (previously run-down) urban area into a tourist attraction of considerable importance. While this is not the place to engage in detailed discussions of graffiti and its different scenes, some general but focused remarks may be useful.

From vandalism to art

A prominent Belgian graffiti artist also active in Berchem, Steve Locatelli, states on his website (link below) that “it is his goal to transform graffiti to a form of expression and thus to rid it of its stigma of vandalism attached to it.” Locatelli is one of these graffiti artists who managed to become a legitimate cultural entrepreneur. He runs a graffiti fashion and equipment shop in Antwerp, has an aesthetically sophisticated website, teaches workshops (also to senior citizens), paints murals as well as canvas, invites and accepts commissioned work and brings his art on show to galleries and museums. His works are not signed with the usual tags – cryptic graphic “signatures” hard to read for people outside the graffiti milieu – but written in clearly readable (and large) block letters. There is nothing anonymous or “sub”-cultural about his work, even if some of his murals would still be made in places considered “transgressive” or “intrusive”.

Locatelli testifies to the transformation of graffiti – or at least, part of the universe of graffiti – from a subversive, under-the-radar and illegitimate activity performed by artists preferring to remain in the shadow and move in a closed circle of fellow artists, to a legitimate and popularly recognized form of art making its way to the events-and-markets mainstream of the art industry. From rebellion to avant-garde, could be one way of summing up this transformation, from often severely repressed vandalism to an admired form of art, or from the margins to the center of the artistic “system”. And members of that mainstream can be used to neutralize the more rebellious members in the margins. Thus, Locatelli was invited by the Belgian railway company Infrabel in 2014 to “legitimately” paint part of the railway infrastructure in Berchem, otherwise infested with “illegal” graffiti – a commission that made newspaper headlines.

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Figure 1: newspaper report on Locatelli’s mural, Berchem railway station.

Source: http://www.locatellisteve.com/projects.html (11/01/2016)

It is important to understand that this transformation only touches part of the graffiti scene and coexists with other parts. We shall presently turn to the site of MOS 2015 in Berchem, and this site, we shall see, is in many ways exceptional and densely surrounded by more “transgressive” and “ordinary” graffiti such as that in figure 2, a picture taken just a few meters away from the MOS site.

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Figure 2: “ordinary” graffiti, Berchem. © Frederik Blommaert 2016.

We notice the crisscrossing of tags and images, artists overpainting the work of others, and an emplacement in a nondescript, randomly chosen vacant public place – “vandalism” in the eyes of many. Tags can be found in the same area on garage doors, fences, electricity poles and public street furniture.

MOS in Berchem, August 2015

The transformation from vandalism to art involves several aspects;

  • artists abandon anonymity and operate under clearly identifiable (even if pseudonymic) names, individually as well as collectively;
  • they operate globally in a highly mobile scene of connected artists;
  • they often (but not always) work in nonrandom, planned spaces and
  • do so in a highly organized, event-like and “ordered” manner and
  • in a quest for a broad art-loving public.

All of this relies on an online knowledge and communication infrastructure which we shall discuss in a moment.

Meeting of Styles – we can read, not by coincidence, on their website – emerged out of a one-off meeting of international graffiti artists at Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1997, and started in 2002. MOS self-defines as follows; observe the fit with the criteria given above:

“The “International Meeting of Styles” (MOS) is an international network of graffiti artists and aficionados that began in Wiesbaden, Germany in 2002. Brought together and inspired by their passion for graffiti, MOS aims to create a forum for the international art community to communicate, assemble and exchange ideas, works and skills, but also to support intercultural exchange. In the spirit of cooperation and promotion, since 2002 MOS has launched hundreds events in many countries across Europe, Russia, Asia and the Americas. These events have sponsored thousands of Graffiti-Artists from all over the world and throughout the years have attracted hundreds of thousands spectators, providing a focal point for urban street culture and graffiti art in order to reach a larger community. The “Meeting Of Styles” as its name says, is a meeting of styles, created to support the netting of the international art-community. It is not meant to be a forum only for classical and traditional Graffiti-Artists and -Writers, but a podium to present all different types of urban art! This is why we are open for all types and styles.” (http://www.meetingofstyles.com/faqs/)

The elaborate website of MOS contains announcements of planned meetings, an archive of past events (in the form of blogs), historical information on graffiti and other matters of interest, both intended for artists and for the public. The site is supported by corporate and nonprofit sponsors, as figure 3 makes clear.

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Figure 3: MOS “recent partners”. Source: http://www.meetingofstyles.com/

Individual events are sponsored as well. Figure 4 represents the official poster of the MOS-Antwerp 2015 event in Berchem; note the sponsors at the top and bottom of the poster and the specific, nonrandom location of the event. The format of this event is generic, it follows templates used equally in pop festivals and other large cultural performances.


Figure 4: MOS-Antwerp 2015 poster.

Source http://www.meetingofstyles.com/blog/antwerp-belgium-2/

The MOS-event is central to the performance; several individual artists and collectives also explicitly inscribe the event into their work, either in an epigraphic form, as in Figure 5, or in a more delicately integrated form as in Figure 6. Observe that these references to MOS point outward, away from the local space of emplacement and towards the global network within which it is situated.

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Figure 5: MOS-epigram in graffiti, Berchem. © Frederik Blommaert 2016

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Figure 6: MOS-motive in graffiti, Berchem. © Frederik Blommaert 2016

In Figure 5, we already saw that the artists’ names are written legibly in a standard typography. Artists do not hide behind a screen of “incrowd” literacy codes, they publish their names. Figure 7 shows more of this.

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Figure 7: Artists’ names, Berchem. © Frederik Blommaert 2016.

And artists as well as “aficionados” leave their small name stickers together on a door in the site (Figure 8). They act as a community of named, identifiable and, as we shall see, “Googlable” artists.

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Figure 8: Name stickers, MOS Antwerp 2015. © Frederik Blommaert 2016

In sharp contrast to the “transgressive” graffiti we saw in Figure 2, the works painted in the MOS-site are not overpainted, disfigured or tagged. Tags can be seen in adjacent places, sometimes facing the MOS-works, as if local artists pay their respects to the MOS-artists. The entire site remains in almost untouched artistic integrity – this is the collective work of an international artistic elite not hiding its names and proudly offering its work to thousands of spectators.

The online infrastructures of graffiti

This artistic elite is networked by means of the most advanced information and communication technology. The fact that they exist as an international consortium is due to the existence and intensive use of such instruments – see the MOS website – and the fact that MOS has become a global “brand” for artistically advanced graffiti is also largely due to the circulation of images, videos and blog texts on electronic online platforms. In fact, the entrance to the site is marked by a painting of the brand-and-event logo (Figure 9), accompanied by, in the left lower corner, three website addresses (Figure 10).

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Figure 9: Brand-and-event logo MOS Antwerp 2015. © Frederik Blommaert 2016

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Figure 10: Web addresses, MOS Antwerp 2015. © Frederik Blommaert 2016

Individual works, too, carry references to web addresses and social media profiles.

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Figure 11: Web address “Disorderline.com”. © Frederik Blommaert 2016

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Figure 12: Facebook profile address. © Frederik Blommaert 2016

These addresses, of course, lead us to elaborate websites and blogs where artists and collectives publicize their work, network with “friends” and followers, announce their future performances, comment on the work of others and communicate with their audiences. Their usage of this infrastructure is no different from that of most other users: they use these online instruments as a means for community formation (and therefore identity formation), as a learning environment for themselves and the members of their networks, and as a marketing and branding tool for their own work and that of the communities within which they situate it.

Online infrastructures enable the kinds of flexible, ad-how grouping of different networks into single moments or events, into “focused but diverse” communities that are typical for online life (Blommaert & Varis 2015). The internet enables otherwise loosely connected actors to convene in places such as the MOS-happenings. Figure 13 is a sticker of “Global Graffiti Burners”, a Facebook group operating as a graffiti network and offering a smartphone app to members, to keep in touch with community life. This network entered into the MOS-community during the happening.

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Figure 13: Global Graffiti Burners. © Frederik Blommaert 2016.

And Figure 14 shows yet another vector shooting through this community-of-communities: commerce. Businesses also enter into the global event network and advertise their services, riding on the wave of admiration from an expanding audience for the artwork.

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Figure 14: Homebase.nl advertisement sticker. © Frederik Blommaert 2016

Thus we see how the online infrastructures enable transformations such as those instantiated by MOS in the culture and economy of graffiti, reshaping the modes, formats and scales of activities, events and publics, the identities and communities of artists and audiences, the codes of interaction, exchange and networking, the hierarchies of celebrity and excellence in this field, and the intensity of community membership and group identity. The MOS website reports, for the second half of 2015 alone, events in El Salvador, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, the US, Germany, Belgium, Poland and Denmark. All of these events, scattered around the globe, gather a “core” of globally mobile artists alongside locally or regionally active ones, all connected by the spirit of MOS and each time jointly and collaboratively organized in a recognizable format – as a focused community that derives its cohesiveness from online exchange, interaction and knowledge sharing around a specific focus of activity.

Back to the two simple points

We owe to the likes of Howard Becker (1963) and Aaron Cicourel (1972) the fundamental insight that identity revolves around forms of communicated and exchanged knowledge that order and organize, as templates, social behavior and infuse it with moral, epistemic and political codes that need to be learned and competently displayed in order to gain access to (degrees of) membership of specific social groups – of “outsiders” in Howard Becker’s studies, and of “professionals” in Cicourel’s. These forms of knowledge construction, communication and exchange have since the beginning of the millennium been revolutionized by online infrastructures in ways anticipated by Manuel Castells (1996).

Castells, as we know, anticipated  a massive change in the social system in which the traditional “thick” (Durkheimian) communities based on locality, nationality, race, ethnicity, class and religion would be gradually complemented (and perhaps sometimes replaced) by lighter, translocal and more volatile “networks” – communities that lacked the “thick” features of the older formations but would act as focused and cohesive formations nonetheless. And he saw the globalized electronic connectivity – nascent when he wrote these theses – as the tool by means of which such networks would emerge, gain currency and agency as hubs in which increasingly large segments of social life would be deployed, profoundly transforming social life in the process.

I believe the example developed here provides a case in point. There is a strong and widespread imagination of graffiti as an element of local urban subculture, often transgressive as we saw, and strongly rooted (like HipHop) in the local conditions of marginalization among young urban people. Graffiti itself – and I shall of course return to that below – looks eminently local, as its inscriptions occur in clearly defined material spaces in the here-and-now. To be sure (and I emphasize that earlier on), these features are there and remain intact. But MOS demonstrates how local graffiti artists can at the same time be involved in global activities, networked not just with friends from their Antwerp neighborhood but from Caracas, Houston or Copenhagen, and involved within this translocal network in highly focused forms of development and practice. So, while graffiti of course defines the visual atmosphere of specific local spaces, the ways in which these spaces are being defined is infused with influences from far away. A quick and superficial check of the artists who participated in the MOS-Berchem tells us that, apart from Belgian artists, works by German, British, American, Dutch, Israeli and German artists now decorate the local walls.

Sociologically, thus, maintaining conceptual distinctions between the “local” and the “global” becomes increasingly challenging, because, empirically, these different scales are intensely connected, and so effectively fused, by online infrastructures. These online infrastructures, we saw, enabled the artists to gradually relocate themselves from “vandalism” to “art” by deploying fora that won them entrance to new (online) public spaces in which new audiences could be addressed, in which new “artistic” identities could be constructed for themselves, and in which they could expand their activities to scale levels not accessible without such infrastructures. This, recall, was the first simple point I intended to establish.

The second simple point has, in the meantime, been established as well. There is in linguistic landscape studies a tendency to stereotype the objects of inquiry – signs in public space – to what we have seen above: local, offline, materially inscribed artefacts, which apparently also demand an analytical framework that refuses to transcend (or even interrogate) this superficial description. Evidently, such a method will fail to say anything substantially enlightening about the sociological point just established.

An ethnographically inspired linguistic landscape analysis (Blommaert & Maly 2015), by contrast, would insist on seeing such artefacts as traces of multimodal communicative practices within a sociopolitically structured field which is historically configured, begging questions about their origins and histories of production – including, of course, the bodies of knowledge employed in their production. And this is where a trivial fact becomes inescapable: offline local public signs often have their origins – and thus also an important part of their actual functions and meanings – elsewhere, in a translocal online world which has prepared them, tested them, debated them and circulated them long before they became locally (offline) emplaced on a wall or garage door in a specific neighborhood. And long after their local offline emplacement, these signs may lead a fertile life in this translocal online public space, in the form of an archive of linguistic landscapes that might, of course, in turn influence posterior signs.

A strictly localist interpretation of public signs such as graffiti may therefore fail to catch the point of such signs, both empirically and analytically. For its producers and users, such signs may not have a local function and meaning (or not exclusively), but may, precisely, project them out of that specific space into another translocal world of cultural reference and social resonance, operating in and through entirely different public spaces than the one in which the sign is materially (offline) emplaced. We have seen in Figures 5 and 6 how references to MOS in works pointed away from the locality of emplacement towards a global network, from which the locality of emplacement derives at least part of its meaning and value, and by which its formal features – the planned, coordinated and nonrandom collective work that shaped the MOS event – are controlled. Likewise, the web and social media coordinates provided in works also situate the locally emplaced works in an entirely different translocal public space, connecting it to archives of work done elsewhere and to audiences in other timespace frames.

I propose not to take such details lightly. Because for analysts, it may be good to keep in mind, as we have seen, that the locality of a sign may be just one moment in an existence which is dispersed across space and time, and perhaps not always the most important moment. There, too, Castells’ fundamental imagery of a networked, polycentric and translocal world – online and offline – may be worth returning to. Linguistic landscapes do not only have the potential to inform us accurately and in great detail about the local social, cultural and political space; they also have the potential to inform us of vastly more.

As I said at the outset: the points made here are trivial and should, by now, be commonsense. Yet, there appears to be considerable reluctance to incorporate them into our fundamental sociological imagination and our methodological toolkit for investigating society. I hope that the exuberant clarity of the example I discussed here may help us overcome that reluctance.

Links and references







Becker, Howard (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Glencoe: Free Press.

Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2015) Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis and Social Change: A Case Study. Tilburg papers in Culture Studies paper 100. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/6b650494-3bf9-4dd9-904a-5331a0bcf35b_TPCS_100_Blommaert-Maly.pdf

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2015) Enoughness, Accent and Light Communities: Essays onContemporary Iddentities.  Tilburg papers in Culture Studies paper 139. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/5c7b6e63-e661-4147-a1e9-ca881ca41664_TPCS_139_Blommaert-Varis.pdf

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London: Blackwell.

Cicourel Aaron (1972) Cognitive Sociology. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.


The conservative turn in Linguistic Landscape Studies


5.8 The Gujarati grocery

Jan Blommaert 

The very first issue of a new academic journal called Linguistic Landscape (vol 1/1-2, 2015, John Benjamins), unsurprisingly devoted to Linguistic Landscape Studies (LLS), contains much to be concerned about. I happen to be a member of the editorial board of that journal (but was not consulted during the preparation of that first issue), and what follows should best be seen as a friendly and collegial encouragement to seek improvement in work done in an emerging and potentially highly dynamic and productive field. At the same time, as we shall see, my comments are not entirely disinterested; part of what I have to say is about my own work and how it relates to what is presented there.

My main cause for concern is that the first issue of Linguistic Landscape presents the field of LLS as precisely the opposite of what I just wrote: it suggests an established, mature and fully developed field of scholarship – a tradition if you wish – for which a methodological “canon” can be proposed, to be emulated in future work. Future work, then, can and might be judged as either “in” the tradition, as “canonical” work, or conversely as a departure from it, a rupture, a deviation. Several papers in the first issue explicitly position the kind of Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis (ELLA) developed by myself and my colleagues in the latter sense, as a deviation (e.g. Blommaert 2013; Blommaert & Maly 2015).

The development of ELLA – to sketch my own point of view – was an attempt to do more with LLS than what was done in the “first wave” of studies (see the references in Blommaert & Maly (2015); and pp.2-3 in the same source where I sketch, conditionally, the genuine potential of LLS). This first wave, I insist, was marked by a synchronic, static and quantitative approach to hypostatized “languages” in a given physical arena. Old-skool multilingualism-in-space, so to speak, in which “languages” – their presence as visual markers – were a priori seen as indicators not just of present populations (of “speakers”) but also of regimes of multilingualism, readable from the relative (quantitative) preponderance of language A over languages B, C, … n in a given space. The critique of this general (and widespread) theoretical stream has been abundant and is ancient by now; I need not reiterate it.

Against this approach, we pitted an ethnographic approach, in which signs are seen as traces of multimodal communicative practices within a sociopolitically structured field which is historically configured. Note, for clarity’s sake, three major points here:

  • Ethnography is intrinsically historicizing, because any form of effectively performed (and ethnographically monitored) communicative practice can only be made meaningful because of its (Bakhtinian) histories of production and uptake by nonrandomly positioned actors. Contrary to what is widely assumed, ethnographic research is the exact opposite of synchronic, snapshot-based inquiry. I have belabored this point extensively in a long stream of publications; one can check chapter 6 of Blommaert (2005), chapter 5 of Blommaert (2010) and the entire Grassroots Literacy book (2008) for clarification.
  • The theoretical backbone for the first point can be found in the neo-Whorfian, Hymesian and Silversteinian tradition of linguistic anthropology – not elsewhere, for its roots (like those of any intellectual enterprise) are not accidental nor freely exchangeable. What was said above about the meaningfulness of the sign is an exact empirical reformulation of that central concept in this tradition: indexicality. Failing to grasp that point, and its theoretical implications, renders dialogue about it rather pointless.
  • In addition, the effort is driven by an ethnographic understanding of social “structure” as dynamic, fragmented and essentially stochastic, i.e. “chaotic”: while the general vector of change can be determined, the actual outcomes of processes of change are relatively unpredictable, even if they appear “logical” post factum. Random aggregates of processes generate nonrandom outcomes, and change is the “system” we observe. Note that this is a departure from established Durkheimian-Parsonian understandings of “structure” as that which dominates the “large” (“macro”) processes in social life and does so in an enduring way. Practically speaking: “structure” can reside in the exceptional, the near-invisible, rather than in the dominant. The politics of a place is not readable in a self-evident way from the volumes of particular signs displayed in that place.

Those fundamental theoretical choices explain why, in ELLA, the work of political-historically astute scholars such as Gunther Kress or Adam Jaworski, and ethnographically sophisticated ones such as the Scollons, takes pride of place. It does not warrant too much explanation that these choices are ontological, methodological as well as epistemological. As for the latter: we assume that LLS, thus performed, might bring something unique and valuable to higher levels of generalization about societies, their histories, dynamics and structures.


Let me now sketch the way in which LLS is imagined as a tradition in the first issue of Linguistic Landscape. This is done in the opening position paper by Monica Barni and Carla Bagna, “The critical turn in LL: New methodologies and new items in LL”. The point is quickly summarized. Barni and Bagna observe that since its inception by Landry and Bourhiss in the 1990s, LLS has seen an expansion, both in foci of interest – different spaces, different types of signs, different forms of multilingualism – and in methodological orientations. As for the latter, they welcome the “interdisciplinary” expansion of LLS which now comprises – to name just a few – linguistic, sociolinguistic, sociological, political-analytical and semiotic approaches. And this, they emphasize in a somewhat puzzling turn of argument, is in itself an “innate critical turn” – even if the question as to what this turn would precisely be critical of remains, intriguingly, unanswered. It is interesting that no mention is made of ELLA in the review provided by Barni & Bagna of this critical-turn-through-expansion, in spite of the explicitly critical intentions behind ELLA I described earlier.

This expansion of the field of LLS is also seen, in itself, as a firm refutation of the criticism leveled in Blommaert & Maly (2015) against the general trend of the “first wave”, summarized above. For in the conclusions to the paper, suddenly our comments emerge, albeit in a curiously truncated form. And they are rejected as follows:

“The studies mentioned in the above paragraphs (and many others that could not be mentioned for reasons of space), contrary to the assertion by Blommaert & Maly, demonstrate that once LL was identified as a field of analysis, a number of perspectives opened up immediately. These made it clear above all that studying the LL does not mean limiting oneself to counting the languages present in it, but involves contextualizing the analysis, broadening it to encompass the actors who shape or use the landscape and the factors which have contributed to its formation over time (…). In addition, different investigative methodologies need to be used depending on the research objectives.”

No mention is made of our main point of criticism: the absence of an ethnographic-historical approach which uses sociolinguistic objects as an infinitely sensitive tool to detect sociopolitical change at levels and in sites usually not judged relevant. Or to put it differently: the surrender of all ambitions to say something substantial about society in ways not ususally done by sociologists, anthropologists, historiographers or political scientists, in favor of a preference to stick within a safe, “canonized” synchrony grounded in a kind of instant sociology of the most conventional kind – to reiterate Glyn Williams’ (1992) now classic critique of mainstream (Fishmanian) sociolinguistics. Obviously, the ontological, methodological and epistemological dimensions of our critique remain unadressed, and I see no reason to consider them refuted to any degree. Barni and Bagna seem to believe that saying that certain options are not being taken (or even worse, wishing that they were not being taken) equals effectively not taking them. It is to be hoped that Linguistic Landscape does not take this intellectual effortlessness as its guideline.


The issue, to be fair, does make an attempt towards scoping the expanding field of LLS as described by Barni and Bagna. There are admirable papers by, for instance, Adam Jaworski, David Malinowski and Amiena Peck & Christopher Stroud. All three of these papers are genuinely explorative, even idiosyncratic (which I welcome), and show the creative use of LLS techniques deployed in atypical fields. Jaworski’s analysis of art in public spaces, for instance, offers a welcome broadening of the objects of LLS from strictly linguistic to more broadly semiotic ones, and directs us towards a sociosemiotics of public space not constrained by questions of multilingualism. Peck and Stroud, by focusing on “skinscapes”, expose the simple but often overlooked fact that linguistic landscapes also, usually, include people moving through them, and that the bodies of these people are equally “readable” within such landscapes. And Malinowski’s study emphasizes the value of linguistic landscapes as important learning environments, adding a superb potential for application to the fundamental-scientific interest of LLS.

But the paper by Barni and Bagna is immediately followed by a paper by Eliezer Ben-Rafael and Miriam Ben-Rafael, “Linguistic landscapes in an era of multiple globalizations”. And this paper does exactly what we took issue with in our critique of “first wave” LLS. Ben-Rafael & Ben-Rafael compare three cities: Brussels, Berlin and Tel-Aviv. They count languages as occurring in public space there and focus on the quantitatively dominant ones as the ones informing us of “structural” aspects of the place (in the Lévi-Straussian sense, according to the authors, so fortunately not in any realistic sense). This quantitative, sociologically baffling approach is couched in the most superficial snapshot-analytical “background” on these three cities (and the actual sites of research therein).(1) And this mixture is next presented as something that should yield fundamental and insightful facts about the social effects of globalization.

Here, once more, we see how LLS practitioners believe that change can be analyzed by looking at everything that does not index it, in ways that preclude any advanced understanding of its dynamics. If the presence of this paper in the launching issue of Linguistic Landscape is to be understood in a programmatic sense, as an announcement of more to follow, it means, sadly, that the “first wave” of LLS will never really end.

It gets worse. In a truly perplexing text, Aneta Pavlenko and Alex Mullen discuss “Why diachronicity matters in the study of linguistic landscapes”. I would of course nod approvingly, given my own take on the intrinsic historicity of any form of actually performed language and the amount of argument I brought to this precise issue. But Pavlenko and Mullen take exactly my work as an example of anti-historical argumentation in the field of LLS and beyond. Pavlenko also takes issue, elsewhere, with the way in which Ben Rampton and myself discuss superdiversity – e.g. Blommaert & Rampton (2011) – but manages to overlook, in the exercise, the rather fundamental fact that we see the role of the internet as crucially defining superdiversity as a historical moment. (I shall return to this issue shortly.) This obvious and elementary misrepresentation is repeated in the paper discussed here.(2)

I shall be forgiven for being a wee bit impatient in the face of a facile critique based on an avoidance of almost everything I have said on the topic. One can disagree about something, but that something needs to be precisely and fully represented; if not, one finds oneself facing a straw-man argument of dubious intentions and no weight. I shall therefore focus, instead, on how this argument operates in the general concept of the launching issue of Linguistic Landscape. And I can be brief.

Pavlenko and Mullen discuss linguistic landscapes from classical antiquity, with forms of language now often called “languaging”, as “proof” of the fact that superdiversity must have occurred in ancient history and that, consequently, contemporary claims about the newness of the phenomena of sociolinguistic superdiversity by people such as yours truly are grossly overstated. They commit three substantial errors while building their case.

  • One: they base their argument on a surface-formal inspection of linguistic forms and disregard the sociolinguistic conditions under which such forms operate. While I, and others, have repeatedly and elaborately explained that not the forms of language – complex patterns of mixing and new forms of creolization, for instance (see e.g. Rampton & Sharma 2011) – are “new” or “unique”, but the sociolinguistic conditions under which they emerge, are distributed, and acquire sociopolitical value in social life (see e.g. Blommaert 2015). Pavlenko and Mullen’s assumption, thus, is that linguistic similarity equals sociolinguistic similarity, which is a simple denial of most of what sociolinguistics has been trying to establish over the past six decades.
  • Two: Extrapolating from the first error, they assume unbroken historical continuity indexed through similarities of forms of language across time. Similarities in traces of communicative patterns over time would, absurdly, suggest similarities in social systems over centuries. I am eagerly awaiting evidence for that assumption.
  • Three, they define history as diachrony – a very widespread error in our fields of study, and the topic of several of the critical writings of mine I mentioned earlier. Time itself is not the stuff of history: it is time filled with human social agency; this simple statement defines modern history as a science. It is the reduction of history to diachronic comparison that leads so often to that classic antihistorical error called post hoc propter ergo hoc: when we see things “reoccur”, they must be related to their “previous” occurrence. There is nothing interesting in diachronic analysis other than the fact that it raises historical questions, not answers them.

To the extent that this paper should represent the “historical branch” of LLS in the expanding scenery scoped by Barni and Bagna in this launching issue, the message is disconcerting, for it suggests that superficial formal diachronic comparison equals historical LLS research. So doing, it re-emphasizes precisely what used to make much of so-called historical-comparative linguistics so useless and misleading for scholars of the history of societies. On this issue too, there is a rich critical literature which appears to be entirely overlooked (e.g. Irvine 2001).

As to the way in which ELLA is used to make this point: the paper by Pavlenko and Mullen should add to the “refutation” by Barni and Bagna of what ELLA claims to contribute to LLS. And both fail in their attempt. It is regrettable that ELLA, as a genuinely constructive (and critical, to be sure) attempt to “expand” LLS, is discussed in such a deeply cavalier and intellectually compromising way in this issue.


The straw man built by Pavlenko and Mullen, as we have seen, revolves around a reduction of what people such as I have to say on superdiversity to just migration patterns in physical space. While our argument (and the point at which we fundamentally deviate from, for instance, Steve Vertovec’s view) has always been that it is the confluence between such new migration patterns and the presence of new technologies for communication and knowledge distribution, that has shaped a fundamentally new sociolinguistic environment. And this brings me to a final observation.

The internet is the largest and most complex social space on earth now. It is a profoundly multimodal space which engages hundreds of millions of individuals in communicative practices that did not exist before the 1990s and have entirely reordered what we understand by “repertoires”, “knowledge of language” and “language usage”. It also reshuffles the empirical character of what is public and what is space (or better: timespace) in ways that not just invite but demand profound theoretical re-imaginations – paradigm shifts, if you wish. There is nothing “virtual” to the internet – this very text on my blog is as real, as effective, and as published, as any traditional hard-copy journal article or book. In spite of all that, the “virtual” is either avoided in mainstream research or segregated into some specialized “e-studies” niche of scientific practice.

This is unfortunate, for the challenges offered by the historical transformation of the infrastructure for social interaction and community formation are general and inevitable. It is this awareness that underlies my sociolinguistic work, for the present episode of globalization cannot in any way be understood without a profound and integrated engagement with the electronic knowledge-and-communication engines that are intrinsic to it and exert a systemic influence. And it is precisely because of the fact that this historically unprecedented change in infrastructure happens to be a communicative thing, that our fields of study may have a bit of an edge over others: no one can accurately comprehend the contemporary world without comprehending the new complex communicative modes and economies it generates.

Not a single paper in the launching issue of Linguistic Landscape presents research on the “scapes” we see on the internet. Signs in public space – the object of LLS – are conservatively, even stereotypically, defined as hard-copy signs in physical “offline” space, within clearly demarcated timespace configurations. I do not see an unlimited potential for theoretical and methodological expansion in that conventional domain, but I do see such potential when we also consider signs in the “virtual” public arenas in which all of us are presently profoundly socialized, and in which we spend large chunks of our lives these days. It is the way in which the new modes of communication merge and interact with old ones, and so reshape existing communicative economies at all levels of social life and from metropoles to margins in the world, that should concern us.(3)

The innate critical potential of LLS, I would suggest, needs to be searched there. For I repeat what I just said: we cannot understand contemporary society by dismissing its historically unique infrastructure as an elementary area of inquiry.


  1. One example. The authors announce that they included, in their Brussels study, the linguistic landscapes of the “Flemish quarter” of Linkebeek. First, Linkebeek is not part of Brussels, but that is a detail. More interestingly, Linkebeek is administratively Flemish but cannot in any way be seen as a “Flemish-speaking” area, as its population is overwhelmingly, and even politically militant, Francophone. In fact, one of the typically nagging Belgian political issues of the past few years is the appointment of a Mayor in Linkebeek. By law, the Mayor should use Dutch as the working language, but the Linkebeek population elected by a landslide (and later, emphatically re-elected) an uncompromising Francophone politician as its Mayor, leading to the refusal of his confirmation by the Flemish government, and so on and so forth. It’s not a new thing: as a teenager growing up in Brussels in the 1970s, I attended numerous rallies protesting the “Frenchification” of Linkebeek. C’est la Belgique: an administrative identification problematically imposed upon a different demographic identification. So rather than “Flemish”, it would be safer to call Linkebeek “superdiverse”.
  2. See for an example of this misrepresentation:  https://www.academia.edu/21163221/Superdiversity_and_why_it_isnt_Reflections_on_terminological_innovation_and_academic_branding. Note that the paper by Pavlenko and Mullen is a revised version of a paper delivered at a workshop on “Linguistic Landscapes Ancient and Modern” held at All Souls College, Oxford University in the Summer of 2014, where I was present. I discussed these issues with the authors on that occasion. For an elaborate response to similar misrepresentations, see https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2016/02/10/sociolinguistic-superdiversity-under-construction-a-response-to-stephen-may/
  3. For an example of analysis in which the offline LL world of graffiti is connected to its online infrastructures, see https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2016/01/11/760/

Postscript, June 2016

I’m very happy to add that the subsequent issues of the journal are significantly better.

Links and references

The first issue of Linguistic Landscape:  https://benjamins.com/#catalog/journals/ll.1.1-2/toc

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

Blommaert, Jan (2008) Grassroots Literacy: Writing, Identity and Voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Blommaert, Jan (2015) Commentary: Superdiversity old and new. Language & Communication 44: 82-88

Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2015) Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis and social change: A case study. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies 100. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/6b650494-3bf9-4dd9-904a-5331a0bcf35b_TPCS_100_Blommaert-Maly.pdf

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 1-22.

Irvine, Judith (2001) The family romance of colonial linguistics: Gender and family in nineteenth-century representations of African languages. In S. Gal and K.Woolard (eds.) Languages and Publics: The Making of Authority: 30-45. Manchester: StJerome.

Rampton, Ben & Devyani Sharma (2011) Lectal focusing in interaction: A new methodology for the study of superdiverse speech. Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies 79. https://www.academia.edu/6356342/WP79_Sharma_and_Rampton_2011._Lectal_focusing_in_interaction_A_new_methodology_for_the_study_of_superdiverse_speech

Williams, Glyn (1992) Sociolinguistics: A Sociological Critique. London: Routledge.


101 Big And Small Ways To Make A Difference In Academia

Conditionally Accepted


Let’s set aside the debate over whether one can, or even should, be an activist in academia.  If you recognize that inequality and other problems exist within academia, then I do not need to convince you that someone should be working to make change.  But, some scholars are skeptical of “rocking the boat,” either because of fear of professional harm or the assumption that one does not have the time.  Making academia a more equitable and humane place is not an easy, quick, risk-free task; if that were the case, we would probably see a lot more progress by now!  But, I believe we can all make small (and big) changes, whether an activist, advocate, or simply a concerned scholar.

Here are 101 ideas of ways to make a difference in academia that I have come up with, either from experience, observation, or wishful thinking.  Please add your…

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A Historic Night for the American Anthropological Association

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

[click here for a Storify of tweets and photographs from the meeting]

On Friday evening in Denver, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) endorsed the Palestinian civil society call to boycott Israeli academic institutions by over 88% in the most well-attended business meeting in the association’s history. The measure will now be forwarded to the entire membership for a final vote by electronic ballot in the spring.

As heirs to a long tradition of scholarship on colonialism, anthropologists affirm, through this resolution, that the core problem is Israel’s maintenance of a settler colonial regime based on Jewish supremacy and Palestinian dispossession backed by the U.S. government. By supporting the boycott, anthropologists are taking a stand for justice through action in solidarity with Palestinians. The AAA is the largest scholarly association yet to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions at an annual meeting.

What follows is a detailed account of that historic night…

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Seeing double? How the EU miscounts migrants arriving at its borders

Postcards from ...

Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

Frontex, the border agency charged with European external border management, has released data claiming 710,000 migrants entered the EU between January and September this year.

According to the agency, this represents an “unprecedented inflow of people”, offering as a comparison data from last year, when 282,000 entries were recorded in total.

I found out about the data release via Twitter. Alarms bells immediately rang.


The numbers thrown out by Frontex are not only a noticeable increase on 2014 figures. They are also significantly higher than data published recently by the UN and the International Organization for Migration on the number of people entering the EU irregularly by the sea. These showed 590,000 estimated arrivals.

These figures are immensely important. They have a profound impact on the public debate about the refugee and migration crisis. They are quickly picked up by the…

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