Fieldwork at home urban sociolinguistic fieldwork
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Fieldwork “at home”: Urban sociolinguistic fieldwork. Devyani Sharma Queen Mary, University of London. Overview. Introduction why sociolinguistics? why sociolinguistic fieldwork? why sociolinguistic fieldwork in urban environments? Theoretical question  choice of methodology

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Fieldwork at home urban sociolinguistic fieldwork

Fieldwork “at home”:Urban sociolinguistic fieldwork

Devyani Sharma

Queen Mary, University of London


  • Introduction

    • why sociolinguistics?

    • why sociolinguistic fieldwork?

    • why sociolinguistic fieldwork in urban environments?

  • Theoretical question  choice of methodology

  • Challenges of local, urban fieldwork

    • sampling and entering the community

    • interviewing and recording

    • classifying individuals

    • ethics and community feedback

  • Examples from current project interspersed

Why sociolinguistics
Why sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics tries to answer questions such as:

  • What does language variation tell us about social structure?

    • class/ethnic relations, gender roles, friendship hierarchies

  • How does a person develop and signal a particular identity?

    • network position, variable usage

  • How do we create meaning in interaction?

    • styles of interaction, inter-cultural miscommunication

  • What ideologies do we hold about language and why?

    • standardisation, overt/covert prestige, linguistic profiling

  • How should we design language policies?

    • bilingualism/dialects in schools, linguistic minority groups

Why fieldwork
Why fieldwork?

Different data are needed to answer each question:

  • Macro social structure

    • recordings of how different groups speak (quantitative)

  • Individual behaviour

    • understanding of social networks (qualitative)

    • recordings of conversational interactions (quan/qual)

  • Ideologies

    • individual commentaries (qualitative)

    • cultural representations, e.g. in media (qualitative)

  • Minority communities

    • stages of acquisition or loss (quan/qual)

Why in urban environments
Why in urban environments?

(Traditional dialect studies vs. urban dialect studies)

  • Urban contact situations help us understand:

    • who leads linguistic change (e.g. women, teenagers)

    • ‘critical age’ for plasticity in language learning

    • whether social motivations can ‘trump’ cognitive constraints

  • London:

    • diverse languages and cultures experiencing similar contact situations

    • different language and literacy trajectories

    • new ethnicities and identities

    • extensive misrepresentation of minority groups in public discourse

    • need for informed planning and policy

Questions methods
Questions  methods

Current project: ‘Dialect development and style in a diasporic community’ ESRC 2008-2010

(co-investigators: Ben Rampton & Roxy Harris, KCL; RAs: Lavanya Sankaran, Pam Knight)

  • Hyp 1: Adult dialects are fixed. (Chambers 1995)

    • Method: Quantitative data from India-born Gen1.

  • Hyp 2: Children acquire the local, not parents’, dialect. (Chambers 1995)

    • Method: Quantitative data from British-born Gen2-3.

  • RQ 3: Why do exceptions arise – choice or unconscious exposure?

    • Method: Compare individuals according to networks, class, situation etc.

  • RQ 4: Do members of the community (incl. L2 speakers) develop multiple proficiencies simultaenously?

    • Method: Recordings from individuals in different speaking situations

  • RQ 5: What attitudes accompany dialect variation?

    • Method: Interview commentaries, media/public discourse

Challenges of local urban fieldwork
Challenges of local, urban fieldwork

  • Sampling: How to select participants

  • Entering the community: Locating participants

  • Interviewing and recording

  • Measuring and classifying social factors

Challenges selecting participants
Challenges: selecting participants

  • Sampling: How to select participants

    • who? (random, stratified, judgement, network, CoP, individual)

    • how many? (Labov 1966: 88, Trudgill 1974: 60)

    • driven by research questions

  • Our project

    • initial focus on families  demographic samples (feasibility)

    • initial focus on Sikh  shift to Punjabi (emic/etic)

    • friend-of-a-friend method, with focus on family clusters

Challenges locating participants
Challenges: locating participants

  • Entering the community

    • self-presentation (too casual? too formal?)

    • suspicion of researchers (clarify not government/journalist; emphasise benefits of sociolingusitic research for the community)

    • explore the community (radio station, restaurants, shopping; avoid officials as first contact)

  • Working with participants

    • how much should the participant know about your goals?

    • how much time can a researcher expect with a participant?

    • be prepared with interview modules and charged recorders!

    • be prepared for rejections, cancellations, indefinite postponements… (a particular danger of local research where you are perceived as always available)

Challenges recording people
Challenges: recording people

  • The Observer’s Paradox

    “the aim of linguistic research in the community must be to find out how people talk when they are not being systematically observed; yet we can only obtain these data by systematic observation.” (Labov 1972: 209)

    • no surreptitious recording

    • special case: L2 and minority language speakers

  • Types of recorded data

    • uses and limitations of survey questionnaires

    • semi-structured sociolinguistic interviews

    • bilingualism, biographical, and network information interviews

    • individual vs. pair recordings

    • interactional data (researcher present vs. absent)

    • field notes

Example pair recording
Example: pair recording

Lavanya: (what language did you speak in nursery?)

Rita: in nursery

did i used to talk in nursery

i used to chew on my brush in nursery

Friend: boys used to talk to you

Rita: oy shut your face=

Friend: =(xxx)

Rita: = tu shut up ho ja right tu shut up ho ja hhhehhehe

you shut up become

Friend: (xxx)

Rita: is that why you’re my best friend innit

Friend: yeah

Rita: sali


Lavanya : hheh so she was there in nursery with you

Rita: no psh: thank the lord

i’d have been pretty psychologically disturbed

Challenges classifying individuals
Challenges: Classifying individuals

  • Networks

  • Class in situations of migration

    • failure of standard govt measures (Goldthorpe 2000)

    • ambiguity of simultaneous, distinct class statuses – UK and India

    • intra-Gen1 drop in class status

    • Gen1-Gen2 rise in class status

  • Bilingualism

    • frequency (individual’s estimation + checked in self-recordings)

    • contexts (have to be adapted to particular community)

Ethics and community feedback
Ethics and community feedback

  • Ethics

    • sensitivity to community norms

    • revelations in interviews

  • Community feedback

    • offering help, e.g. tutoring, advice on written material

    • radio and TV

    • focus on useful linguistic issues, e.g. raising children bilingual

    • non-linguistic issues, e.g. women’s problems discussed in interviews

Advantages of fieldwork at home
Advantages of fieldwork “at home”

  • Long-term researcher experience of broader community

    • familiarity with public discourses, policies, local practices

    • need for very local historical knowledge, e.g. schools, migration

    • danger of inattention to sub-community (emic) practices/beliefs/norms

  • Comparative analysis of different sub-communities

  • Longer term data collection

  • Follow-up with participants is straightforward

    • checking details or re-recording

    • subsequent data gathering that derives from initial research

    • potential for longitudinal panel (same participants) data


  • Cited

    • Chambers, Jack. 1995. Sociolinguistic Theory. Blackwell.

    • Goldthorpe, J. H. 2000. On Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    • Trudgill, Peter. 1974. The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • General texts on sociolinguistic fieldwork

    • Bayley, Robert and Ceil Lucas, eds. 2007. Sociolinguistic Variation: Theories, Methods and Applications. Cambridge University Press.

    • Johnstone, Barbara. 2000. Qualitative Methods in Sociolinguistics. Sage Publications.

    • Milroy, Lesley, and Matt Gordon. 2003. Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation. Blackwell.