Blog Post: 12/2/19

The readings for this week deal with social activism within sociolinguistics. Two major questions are debated: 1) How much of an activist role should sociolinguists take, and 2) What form should sociolinguistic activism take?

Bucholz 2018 supports using sociolinguistics as a tool for social change (Bucholz herself even assigns sociolinguistic activism projects to her undergraduate students), but also argues that “while raising the public profile of a social injustice is a necessary step toward changing it, this act alone cannot bring about change (350).” Consequently, Bucholz 2018 advocates for activism that goes beyond raising public awareness. Bucholz argues that redressing linguistic inequality on its own, even if it were truly possible, cannot end racism (and, by extension, all other relevant societal prejudices) and is therefore insufficient as a goal. We must pursue the development of material support for the vulnerable, rather than simply trying to achieve societal parity of language varieties.

Labov 2018 also believes that sociolinguistics should be used for activism. Labov essentially agrees with Bucholz and others that raising awareness alone is not sufficient to effect change. The main point of Labov 2018 is that, contrary to apparent belief, Labov himself does not advocate raising awareness without taking additional steps. Labov particularly highlights his use of contrastive analysis to improve the material educational circumstances of AAE speakers in US schools.

DeGraff 2018 again supports the use of sociolinguistics as a tool for social activism. His paper is primarily focused on pointing out that sociolinguists have pursued material objectives for quite some time and that, while some students and perhaps some scholars may believe abstractly in raising awareness without explicit material goals, the pursuit of material objectives in sociolinguistics is far from a new idea. DeGraff’s fundamental theoretical disagreement with the papers thus far discussed is his belief that awareness raising and more material approaches complement each other, rather than the latter being a stage that follows the former. DeGraff thus believes in the simultaneous application of awareness raising and materialist methods, but he still believes in material approaches and is therefore only slightly differently positioned from Bucholz and Labov on the basic question of how sociolinguistics should approach activism.

Charity Hudley 2013 argues that “the study of sociolinguistics is critical for increased social justice and social change (1),” with the implication that this criticality obligates sociolinguists to take activist stances. The belief that sociolinguistics should be tightly bound with social activism, it should by now be apparent, is widespread in the field. Charity Hudley believes that sociolinguistics needs to be connected to a direct social justice framework to properly move forward in the world of activism. Charity Hudley traces the development of social activism in sociolinguists through four waves. According to Charity Hudley, “even among the first wave of sociolinguists, there were definitely the underpinnings of direct action at the core (5)” and the role of applied, materialist approaches in sociolinguistics has become more prominent with each successive scholarly wave. Charity Hudley thus agrees with DeGraff and Labov that materialist approaches are not new to Sociolinguistics. Charity Hudley also supports placing a focus on “disseminating relevant information that has already been gathered about language variation (10)” and therein supports DeGraff’s view that awareness raising should complement materialist action. The fundamental wrinkle in the present discussion introduced by Charity Hudley is the notion that the sociolinguist does not have the ability to determine what is socially just without the input of the involved community. Charity Hudley firmly supports social justice action in sociolinguistics but believes that the goals of individual sociolinguistic actions should be determined by affected communities and not linguists.

Ladefoged 1992 takes the notion that the linguist is in no position to determine what is best for the community to a position that is unique among the articles surveyed herein: linguists exist to “lay out the facts concerning a given linguistic situation (Ladefoged 1992: 811)” and not to take direct social action. Ladefoged essentially argues that the linguist is not in a position to decide what is right or wrong for a particular community and therefore, instead of pursuing activism, should serve as a skilled contractor who carries out the wishes of the community, rather than interferes in their affairs.

Dorian 1993 is a direct response to Ladefoged 1992. Dorian 1993 argues that, in following the model of Ladefoged 1992, despite having the objective of avoiding making a social judgment that the linguist should have no power to make, the linguist inevitably makes a social judgement by deciding who to work for. To support anyone’s goals is inherently political, so linguists cannot work with any community without engaging in a social action. Dorian 1993 therefore argues that linguists should engage in activism because it is the only option other than doing nothing. The job of sociolinguist (and of linguistic field worker) is an inherently activist occupation, according to Dorian, and the idea of avoiding activism is therefore idealistic beyond practicability.

A synthesis of the readings discussed above amounts to this: to be a sociolinguist is to be a social activist and social activism requires effecting material change. Directly material methods, then, are valuable. The main open question is, how effective is raising awareness as an approach to social change and how best can it be employed?