Monica Heller’s Reflections upon Retirement

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How did you discover linguistic anthropology? Why did it attract you?

I kind of sidled into it. The initial interest came from growing up in Montréal in the 60s, when everything in everyday life was about language choice, as part of navigating struggles over social difference and social inequality. Somehow it seemed obvious that all this pain and anger and fear couldn’t actually be about language itself; also, I wanted to understand how it made sense to people to take the very different positions they took, without having to assume anyone was inherently evil or insane. I discovered there was a thing called linguistics because my father, who liked hanging around bookstores, came home one day with a magazine for me that featured a cover story about Chomsky. It took me a while to figure out that generative grammar was not going to give me the tools I needed, but it was really helpful to have to figure out why. By this time, I was in college, and saw that an anthropology professor had put a course on Sociolinguistics on the books.

Back in Montréal, “sociolinguistique” was becoming a thing: it was used by academic researchers to investigate the question of the variability of French (a highly charged question in the context of linguistic minority political mobilization) and government ones to develop and implement language policy as part of the construction of Québec as a francophone quasi- or proto-nation-state (as is common in Canada, the relationship between the two spaces of production of la sociolinguistique was close). Also, my mother had gone back to university to study sociology around then, and sent me off to meet two key people she had met there: Gillian Sankoff, at the Université de Montréal, and Pierre Laporte, at the Office de la langue française.

It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I learned there was a thing called linguistic anthropology; to this day, I’ll use whatever label works. I really only use linguistic anthropology for moving around the United States. But the main lesson I retained from all of this is that there often are tools in unexpected places for addressing questions that are bugging you, so it’s a good idea to keep your eyes open. Also, people are really helpful, so you shouldn’t be afraid to knock on someone’s door, even if you’re some 18 year old whose mother took a lecture course with this person ten years earlier.

Why did you decide to study in the United States? What was that like?

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Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine on their new book

Signs of Difference: Language and Ideology in Social Life by [Gal, Susan, Irvine, Judith T.]

Interview by Hannah McElgunn

Hannah McElgunn: Signs of Difference begins with analyses that draw from long term ethnographic engagement in two very different places: Bóly, a town in Southwest Hungary, and a rural, Wolof-speaking town in Senegal. How has working together, across such seemingly different fieldsites, influenced the approach to language and social life that you present in this book?

Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine: Our collaboration started with those unexpected parallels between our separate ethnographic projects. Reading each other’s papers and listening to each other at AAA meetings, we saw amazingly similar processes in two fieldsites that were utterly worlds apart. The happy result has been a semiotic approach to difference, an approach that is much wider than our own ethnographies but is well illustrated by them. Our book is mainly devoted to developing and explaining that approach, but it begins by showing how it applies to the two ethnographic cases.

In the German-Hungarian town in Hungary as in the Wolof-speaking town in Senegal, people were making distinctions among themselves not only through the way they spoke but also through different forms of emotional expression, clothing, houses and numerous other signs and activities. Language, social organization, geography, history, were all quite different. But in both towns, as it happened, one social category of people spoke and acted in relatively reserved, restrained ways; the other category, by contrast, seemed to be more elaborate in everything, more vivid, dramatic. These were stereotypes of difference. People oriented to these social types, often enacting them in their everyday lives. But how to understand the weird parallels between the two towns? “Restrained” vs. “elaborate” were the ways the people in our two towns characterized their own differences. But when we read fieldwork by others, we saw that although there were always overarching cultural distinctions that organized relations between contrasting sets of people and signs, those distinctions could be quite different from ours. For instance, there was: tough vs. soft in one place but in another pragmatic vs. political. To understand our own examples and others, our explanations would have to be quite abstract. And semiotic.

The book explicates step-by-step a semiotic process of differentiation, with several aspects, that encompasses all the cases. Contrast – as axis of differentiation – is the fundamental idea. Contrasts in expressive signs pointed to contrasting categories of identity; and the qualities attributed to the signs were also attributed to the people-types indexed by the signs. For those familiar with a particular cultural context, the signs of each identity seemed to cohere and to display the same qualities as the people types they point to. We turned our hand to American and historical examples: How did Yankees come to be thought different types of people than Southerners in 19th century US?  How do faculty differentiate among themselves at an American university? How did the National Rifle Association divide in the course of a crucial political battle? And how do the axes of differentiation themselves change? It was very exciting to work out how the semiotic process we propose illuminates relations between whatever culturally-specific qualities are involved.

Hannah McElgunn: As you note, C.S. Peirce hoped that “a converging, objective portrait of the world” would result from different actors continually refining the conjectures of their peers (88). This is opposed to the project you take on in this book, part of which is to detail the “construction of perspectives that are partial, conventional, and positioned” (88).  Yet, despite the fact that Peirce’s larger project differs so strikingly from yours, his semiotic theory plays a foundational role in your “Ingredients” section. How have you come to understand Peirce as useful for the analysis of social life, despite your divergence?  Continue reading

Jennifer Hsieh takes the page 99 test

Jennifer Hsieh Page 99 Test

Media scholars, philosophers, and anthropologists have all written about noise—that mysterious sonic object that can be grating to the ear at the same time that it becomes a celebrated call to human action. “Let’s make some noise!” is a phrase that unleashes a liberatory self, daring the addressee to break away from the “same ol’, same ol’,” of everyday life. In other instances, noise is unwelcomed. News reports over the past few years have covered the case of US diplomats’ exposure to a high-pitched, screeching sound that may have caused neurological damage. This linkage has not yet been proven, but that has not stopped researchers from weighing in on the case.

Given the mercurial ways in which noise captures the social and political imagination, I took a radical commitment towards the empirical in my dissertation, Noise Governance and the Hearing Subject in Urban Taiwan (2017). An ethnography of environmental noise control in Taiwan, I investigated the technological and material efforts of citizens, bureaucrats, and acousticians toward incorporating hearing and listening into the social and political domain. I examined the interplay between a technocratic definition of noise and the individual experience of noise by shadowing noise inspectors to a variety of sites, including construction zones, restaurants, and apartment buildings.

At first listen, the everyday sounds of Taipei exist multiple worlds apart from the effervescent noise at protests, or the weaponized noise of political affairs. Nevertheless, these different registers exemplify ways in which noise participates in and produces social worlds. As I found in my research, the symbolic and metaphorical treatments of noise were not wholly separate from a mechanical approach to noise and, in fact, informed one another.

On page 99, I delineate the interests of different stakeholders in Taiwan’s noise control system: “While government agents utilized health and environmental discourse on noise to exercise political and social control over Taiwanese subjects, individual citizens called for increased noise control as a form of civic activism to hold the government accountable for managing the people.” Continuing on, I trace the double-bind of noise control that attends to the social and political needs of both citizens and the state: “On the one hand, noise control supported environmental rights from a liberal progressive view by advocating for a healthy and safe living environment. On the other hand, these social movements were used as substitutes for continued social and political control by a regime with roots in authoritarian forms of governance. In other words, both liberal progressive and authoritarian agendas utilized environmental and public health in the service of conflicting discourses: one for civic activism in advocating for citizens’ rights; the other for the continued justification of government oversight over everyday life.” Given the divergent, contradictory accountings of noise in Taiwan, it is difficult to determine whether noise is celebrated or unwanted; instead, noise is that which keeps the conversation going, producing political subjects by way of the sounded environment. By considering the multiple agendas held by various parties around noise control in Taiwan, I examine how the object of noise remained an enduring social and political phenomenon precisely because of the way it exceeded both official and civic efforts to systematize it.


Hsieh, Jennifer. 2017. Noise Governance and the Hearing Subject in Urban Taiwan. Ph.D. Dissertation. Stanford University.

Jennifer Hsieh is an LSA Collegiate Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her current book project is a study of the scientific, bureaucratic, and audiovisual practices underlying the production of environmental noise from early twentieth-century Taiwan to the present. She has previously held research fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Vossius Center at University of Amsterdam, and Fairbank Center at Harvard.


Jasmine Folz on her dissertation

Page 99 of my dissertation about free and open source software in India begins with a description of children dancing at a community centre in a Bengaluru slum. This community centre is run by the Free Software Movement of Karnataka, who invited me to spend the weekend with them in October 2016. Following the discussion of dancing I transition to a conversation I had with one of the activists, a middle class man in his 20s I call Rohit. He told me that these are the children of maids before sharing that he always felt he should be nice to maids but he had not considered their lives outside of his home. Working with these children has shifted his awareness of their lived experience and he now visits some of their homes in the slum. I then discuss the fact that although the free software activists have come together to promote free software, that this centre:

…represent[s] their significant commitment to using their mission as a technologically defined group toward social ends. The fact that the software they are using on the old PCs in the centre is free is imperative to the activists. However, the activists accept that to the students who visit the centre, the nuances of free software are almost irrelevant within the context of their need for practical help with school, exposure to the possibilities outside of their habitus, and a safe space to relax and just be kids.

I suggest this ability to downplay the groups’ stated mission can be understood as an extension of Indian middle class activism which has historically used a variety of tools to ameliorate social inequalities. The page then transitions to the next section of the chapter outlining the history of the middle classes in India during British colonial rule.

This test holds for my example. Indeed, this page epitomises much of my dissertation. Namely that free software in India is a technology which is mobilised towards social ends by a relatively elite group of practitioners attempting to improve their nation on multiple fronts. Rather than creating software, the Indian free software community spends most of its energies in the social work of evangelising to students, government, and industry. My dissertation ultimately argues for contextualising technology within political, economic, and sociological contexts as a corrective for much of STS which, despite its many valuable insights into how technology is created and understood, overly focusses on analysing circuits and flows of power all the while gliding over and around the structures that create, maintain, and reproduce power. Rather than describing how different actors are connected within networks which constantly, simultaneously reshape themselves, by showing how technology has developed and been wielded in different times and places to different political and economic ends we are better equipped to work towards mobilising technology for a different and more equitable future.

Jasmine Folz. 2019. Free and Open Source Software in India: Mobilising Technology for the National Good. University of Manchester, Phd.

Jasmine Folz is currently a senior social researcher for a small consultancy in London called Alma Economics.