Every ethnographer is a Borat but is every Borat an ethnographer? (part 3)

3.0 Where is ethnography heading to?

A fundamental starting point of ethnographic research, and hopefully this shows already from my argument here, is that its research objects are human subjects (‘the ethnographees’). In ethnographically oriented fieldwork, therefore, theory does not emerge behind a desk, but when engaged within the field. Ethnographic theorising is dialectically constructed in interaction with the material world and in encounters with human subjects. Ethnographers approach the world as an incredibly complex place of social action and communicative practice, and theorise on the basis of a description of that complexity, rather than on the basis of existing theories (See Juffermans 2008 for a position paper that touches on the difference between ethnographers and tourists). Ethnographers in other words arrive at theory from below, that is from messy everyday life of a given sociocultural space and try to reconstruct its cultural ecology. Ethnography thus works its way up from small, micro-events and lived experiences to explain, or at least try to explain, the societal forces that are at stake within the cultural ecology of a given space at a given time.  As ethnographers we arrive at new forms of knowledge in collaboration and negotiation with agentive ethnographees, or not at all (cf. Cameron et al. 1992; Collins 1998). These ethnographees, our research subjects, are not passive researchees, but agentive human beings with attitudes towards the research object and, as I have hopefully already pointed out to you, with a voice of their own (Fabian 1995).

Ethnographic studies of language in society have recently known a ‘human turn’. That is, they have known a move away from languages as linguistic systems that are merely used by people, towards language as a sociolinguistic system that is constructed and inhabited by people. Prominent scholars of language in society (e.g., Rampton 1995; Stroud 2003; Blommaert 2005;  Makoni & Pennycook 2007; Jørgensen 2008; Juffermans 2010) no longer define the field of sociolinguistics as the study of ‘who speaks (or writes) what language (or what language variety) to whom, and when and to what end’ (see Fishman 1972; Extra & Gorter 2008), but as the study of ‘who uses what linguistic features under particular circumstances in a particular place and time’. The central question that ethnography, or better linguistic ethnography,  has to cater for thus shifts from ‘what languages?’ (with language in plural) to ‘who languages which bit of a language and how does he or she do that with what purpose’ (using languages as a verb). In such a sociolinguistics of languaging (as opposed to a sociolinguistics of languages), the analysis revolves around human beings (languagers) engaged in particular communicative activities and situated in particular social, historical and geographical environments. The task for such a linguistic ethnography is not only describing and understanding language, but ultimately in describing and understanding society. Will ethnography survive this challenge and the challenge brought by the languaging that takes place among people through social media? It is early days still, but it seems that linguistic ethnography is getting there.                  



 Bezemer, J. (2003). Dealing with Multilingualism in Education. A Case Study of a Dutch Multicultural Primary School Classroom. Amsterdam: Aksant.

 Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Cameron, D., E. Frazer, P. Harvey, B. Rampton & K. Richardson (1992). Researching Language:Issues of Power and Method. London: Routledge.

 Collins, J. (1998). Understanding Tolowa Histories: Western Hegemonies and Native American Responses.  London: Routledge.

 Dong, J. (2009). The Making of Migrant Identities in Beijing. PhD Thesis. Tilburg University

 Erickson. F.  (1984). What Makes School Ethnography ’Ethnographic’?  Anthropology of Education Quarterly, Vol. 15, 51-66.

 Extra, G. & D. Gorter (2008). Multilingual Europe: facts and policies. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

 Fabian, J. (1995). Ethnographic misunderstanding and the perils of context. American Anthropologist 97(1), 41-50.

 Fishman, J. (1972). The Sociology of Language. Rowley: Newsbury House Publisher.

 Gal, S. (2005). Language ideologies compared:Metaphors of public/private. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15, 23–37.

 Jørgensen, N. (2008). Polylingual Languaging around and among Children and Adolescents.  International Journal of Multilingualism 5(3), 161-176.

 Juffermans, K. (2008). The discourse of lending aid on small-scale development project websites: Dutch depreciatory diminutives. Language Matters, 39(1), 125-144.

 Juffermans, K. (2010). Local Languaging: Literacy Products and Practices in Gambian Society. Amsterdam: Aksant.

 Makoni, S. & A. Pennycook (2007). Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

 Malinowsky, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Long Grove: Waveland Press.

 Rampton, B. (1995) Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents. (1st ed.). London: Longman.

 Spotti, M. (2007). Developing Identities: Identity Construction in Multicultural Primary Classrooms in the Netherlands and Flanders. Amsterdam: Aksant.

 Spotti, M. (2008). Exploring the construction of immigrant minority pupils? identities in a Flemish primary classroom. Journal of Linguistics & Education 19(1), 20-36.

 Spotti, M. & S. Kroon (2009). Ideologies of Disadvantage: Language Attributions in a Dutch Multicultural Primary School Classroom. Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education 2(1), 179-195.

 Stroud, C. (2003), Postmodernist perspectives on local languages: African mother tongue education in times of globalisation. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 6(1), 17-36.

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