Past events

RAI Research Seminar: David Parkin
Wednesday 04 December 2013, 05:30pm - 07:30pm
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Revisiting: Cultural concepts through cycles of keywords and phrases.
OR: What happened to linguistic anthropology in the UK? Opportunity or obsolescence in an age of superdiversity.

Chair: Professor David Parkin, University of Oxford

Wednesday 4 December at 5.30 pm


We are rightly reluctant to use a form of ‘methodological  nationalism’ as the starting point of an argument, especially given the boundary-less nature of global superdiversity.  But there is one which may bear more general fruit when we unashamedly ask whatever happened to linguistic anthropology in the UK. It is a question which is often raised. In fact it rarely if ever existed compared with the fulsome developments in that field in North America. There were of course British theoretical linguists and those many other linguists who would go by the name of sociolinguists, later to morph into the current linguistic ethnography of multiple crossover talk. But card-carrying, self-named linguistic anthropologists were very few. Was this just a question of naming, in that their anthropology comprised a kind of linguistic anthropology without being called such? Again, this does not seem to have been the case. Anthropology in the UK has for decades been social anthropology and has, until very recently, steered clear of engaging with anything resembling the so-called ‘four fields’ approach, including a linguistic perspective. Its subject matter was social structure and social organization, to be understood by means of long-term fieldwork, paradoxically through a fluent understanding of the language of the people being studied. With few exceptions language was a tool of understanding but not the object of understanding itself. The number of university courses entitled linguistic anthropology have been very few and remain so. Yet, in the earlier generations of Malinowski, and Ogden and Richards, meaning through speech and language did receive some special consideration, though more as an appendix to society, with J.R. Firth an exception but with limited long-term influence. The Malinowksian legacy lacked the detailed linguistic focus of Sapir and only obliquely shared his concern for the role of language in the creation of world views. It was the study of language acknowledged as such but swiftly embedded in social organization or ‘social context’. If Sapir, like earlier northern European scholars, took the route to world views by way of language, Malinowski et al took it by way of society.  This priority of the social over the linguistic, insofar as they are distinguished, persists in large measure today in mainstream British and much European sociocultural anthropology. Given the current alternative linguistic priority, namely the micro-analysis of language in the UK, Europe and North America in the context of superdiversity, what can anthropology, as the holistic study of social organization, bring to the field? Or is the field that of semiology, of which the linguistic is a part, but in which social anthropology is largely irrelevant?

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