Laura M. Ahearn is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow serving as a Senior Learning Advisor in the U.S. Agency for International Development's Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance. She is the author of Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal (2001) and is the Series Editor Oxford Studies in the Anthropology of Language .
Language, especially as it is used in real-life social contexts, can be absolutely fascinating but rather challenging to study. Linguistic anthropology as a discipline offers a set of concepts and tools for undertaking this challenge. My goal in this book is to provide an accessible introduction to the main principles and approaches of linguistic anthropology without overly simplifying the complex contributions of scholars in the field. To the degree that this book succeeds in accomplishing this goal, it will be useful not just to graduate and undergraduate students studying linguistic anthropology for the first time (to whom I very much hope to communicate my enthusiasm for the field) but also to all sorts of other readers who might for various reasons be interested in "living language." These readers might include, for example, cultural anthropologists, practicing anthropologists, sociologists, or political scientists who have never looked closely at language in their work but could benefit from doing so. I also hope the book will be of value to linguists whose work thus far has been more technical and abstract in nature but who would like to turn their attention to the study of actual instances of linguistic practice. And finally, I hope the book will appeal to anyone who has a natural curiosity about the central role language plays in shaping and reflecting cultural norms and social interactions.
Within the United States, linguistic anthropology is one of the four traditional fields of anthropology: archaeology, biological (also called physical) anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. When Franz Boas helped to establish the discipline of anthropology in the United States more than one hundred years ago, most anthropologists were trained in all four of these fields and often conducted research in more than one of them. As scholarship became more specialized over the past century, however, such breadth became much rarer. One of my main purposes in writing this book is to convince anthropologists in other subfields, especially cultural anthropology, of the advantages of becoming well-trained in linguistic anthropology as well as their "home" subdiscipline. After all, much of the data collected by cultural anthropologists (and by many researchers in other fields) is linguistic in nature. Linguistic anthropologists (e.g., Briggs 1986:22) have argued that such data should not be treated as a transparent window through which the researcher can reach to obtain facts or information. Rather, interviews and other sources of data for social scientists should be considered as communicative events in which meanings are co-constructed and interwoven with various forms of context. This book will, I hope, provide useful tools and examples of analyses that help researchers produce nuanced analyses of many different kinds of social and linguistic practices.
I should say a few words about nomenclature and the sometimes arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries. Anthropology as a discipline is not found in every university in the United States and certainly not in every country around the world. Sometimes it is subsumed under sociology; other times individual anthropologists work in academic departments ranging from political science to educational psychology. And increasingly anthropologists work outside of academia, in the private sector, in government, or in NGOs. In these institutions they may or may not be labeled as anthropologists but instead as generic social scientists or specialists in other areas of expertise, such as cross-cultural communication or monitoring and evaluation.
Linguistic anthropology as a subdiscipline is quite specific to the United States and is rarely identified as such in other countries. And yet, the core themes and approaches of linguistic anthropology as set forth in this book are ever more commonly at the forefront of