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? 

Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine: Charles Sanders Peirce has inspired a lot of linguistic anthropology in recent decades. His semiotic logic has become a touchstone. But, to be honest, only a very small part of his enormous philosophical output is generally read, and we ourselves were quite selective in what we drew from Peirce: his famous theory of signs – icon, index, symbol – and their permutations, as well as his brilliant depiction of how interpretation works. Understanding anything, he taught us, requires a series of guesses, what we call “conjectures,” one guess building on another. You start by wondering what is going on in a scene. As more signs, more information about the features of the scene become available, the earlier conjectures might be rejected, changed or strengthened; one guess becomes the basis for making another guess in a series of conjectures that are confirmed, or changed. Knowledge grows through sequential engagement with signs in scenes. We argue in the book that this is crucial for grasping communicative process and fundamentally different from other sign-theories that do not allow for change and growth of knowledge and understanding. Saussure, for instance, imagined a quite different structure, one in which any change or growth could only come from some external source; it could not be inherent in the structure itself. We also appreciated Peirce because, unlike other sign-theorists, he included all kinds of signs: material, linguistic as well as cognitive ones. Linguistic signs do not stand apart from other kinds.

But it is true, as you say, that we have taken Peirce’s theory of signs in a different direction than he did. He wrote at a time when many of the big questions were about reaching scientific truths. We are in a different historical moment now, and in a different discipline. For us, some of the biggest questions are about perspectival framings of knowledge. What we demonstrate is how different starting points, different cultural presuppositions (ontologies) about the meanings of signs and social scenes can lead to different understandings, even if people use the same impeccable semiotic logic. It is a tribute to the power of Peirce’s theory of signs that one can rely on his insights without accepting his ultimate goals. But it is also a result of our readings of other theorists, ones who pay more attention than Peirce to the social surround in which signs are taken up. These thinkers were often more interested in understanding differing perspectives on the world. We discuss in the book what we learned from Roman Jakobson, Edward Sapir, Nelson Goodman, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, Gregory Bateson, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Max Gluckman; from our own age-peers, such as Michael Silverstein; and from longer ago, even Durkheim and Marx.

Hannah McElgunn: Why did you decide to organize the book around the rubric of differentiation? Were there other overarching themes that you considered?

Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine: Well, “ideology” is also central! But let’s start with differentiation. Both of us were trained as much in linguistics as in anthropology, even psychology, so we were specially attuned to the way contrast is fundamental in human language and perception: Even figure/ground relations and category-formation rely on contrast. To have a category A implies necessarily that there is also not-A.  It was with this in mind that we approached “differentiation.” The book shows that difference is not a matter of conflict or splitting. On the contrary, it is the prerequisite for creating relationality. Even noticing similarity between two things depends on a prior perception of their difference. Does “difference” in the title mislead readers to think that we envisioned endless divisions and contestations?  We hope not, because our real interest is in differentiation as a way of making relations and comparisons. Of course, unification is also important in the book. There are detailed discussions of cases where differences are ignored in favor of some encompassing contrast or comparison.

Oddly, although comparison is a specialty of anthropology, we found it needed to be rethought: what exactly do we do – in semiotic terms – when we compare? That is another major focus of the book. And “ideology” is just as important. Or rather, what we call “ideological work.” Rather than some uniform and seamless “culture” there are multiple ways of imagining the world in even the smallest social group. Ideological work implies that people can create and see alternatives. We reject the idea that ideologies are “false consciousness;” we analyze ideological work as the interpretations and actions that stem from different perspectives on the world. These interpretations and actions are always socially consequential, and they motivate engagement with politics of all kinds. The book considers interpersonal politics, between an early American traveler and her hosts; urban politics, in how images of US cities are created; regional politics in 19th century America; national politics of 19th century French centralization; corporate and global politics in the IMF.  Aren’t these matters of vastly different scale?  Yes. And we argue that scaling is itself really an active project of comparison, made possible by differentiation. Ultimately, we think “difference” is a very useful rubric and a fitting title for the book, reminding us also of our early questions about our fieldsites, and what the people in those sites were thinking about.

Hannah McElgunn: Perspective and positionality are themes that you emphasize in this book. You show how “the same” situation can be differently construed by various actors, or even by the same actor in different moments. Similarly, you are also careful to point out the influence of your own presence upon the situations you re-present for your reader. What kind of insight does the approach to perspective you offer bring to the issue of authorial reflexivity, something with which (it seems to me) all ethnographers must reckon? 

Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine: We are glad you asked about perspective in doing ethnography!  As in any approach that hopes to be useful to others, there are implications for method in our book, for how to go about investigating ideological work and differentiation. Where should one start and how to proceed? Our book proposes a new definition for “site” of ideological work: it is minimally a joint focus of attention. It may be an object, or a contrast, or a scene – or some other focus. We recommend finding such sites in fieldwork and using them as a centerpiece, a point of departure for mapping how different participants are attending to it, with what presuppositions and results; who further takes up the object of attention, with what interests and agendas; and what happens to those uptakes. We show in the book how enlightening it is to track a whole sequence of uptakes by different participants. That method unfurls a great deal of meaning-making, revealing the often surprising connections among sites in what we insist is a world unbounded in principle – unless people construct boundaries. This method has further implications. Serious attention to the participants’ attention requires the ethnographer to give up any pretension to a “view from nowhere.” Her view, like that of the participants, is also positioned – if differently.  And all social actors engage in analysis. Therefore, authorial humility and generosity are necessary; the ethnographer’s object of study is not the self but those other folks and their focus of attention, their interests and projects. Of course, one’s training and background as a researcher affect one’s position and view of the ethnographic scene and the choice of research questions. But the people you study are analyzing the scene too, and that’s something you want to find out about.  Plus, those people, of course, have views of you, which affect the research as well. As we argue in the book, there is no great gulf between your analyses and the ongoing analyses made by the people you are studying, though interests and frameworks will, of course, diverge. Everyone is interpreting what is going on, from their own points of view, all the time. That process of interpretation is what our book unfolds.

Hannah McElgunn: How on earth did you come across the connection between Hulfalvy, Crowther, and Cust, nineteenth century scholars with connections to your respective fieldsites?

Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine: We have both been interested for a long time in the history of linguistics and of our fieldsites. In the final chapter, we wanted to think reflexively about our own positions. We decided to take our own advice, and widened our view to make our fieldsites into centerpieces and look for connections between them, across time. It turned out that our own analytical project had some interesting precedents. We found, to our surprise, that Senegal and Hungary were connected even in the 19th century, at least in the imaginations of language scholars, because both regions were peripheral to the European centers that at the time seemed to represent the pinnacles of human achievement. So, the concepts developed in the early chapters of the book enabled us to see how linguists of the past did ideological work and shaped their descriptions of others’ linguistic practices. Interestingly, the German-Hungarian scholar Hunfalvy, working on Finno-Ugric, the African and Africanist linguist Crowther, and Cust the English colonial officer fascinated by African and south Asian languages, were linked in a loose network. Reading through the proceedings of the Orientalist Congresses and through memoirs, we found evidence that Hunfalvy and Cust must have met at the Berlin Congress of 1881 and probably at an earlier one too. These congresses were great continent-wide assemblies of language scholars, yet a much smaller world than linguistics today.

These three men, and several others we focus on – Wenker, Koelle, Castrén, even Schuchardt – were relatively marginal figures in the emerging professionalization of a Europe-wide scientific linguistics. The history of that emergence is often told as a series of famous figures. Our story is different. We approach this past at an oblique angle, focusing not on the center but on the periphery. Unlike the center, all our figures worked on unwritten languages, with varied ideological agendas: to advance colonial administration, or to provide a usable past for nationalist projects, or to promote religious conversion via translations of scripture, or to map rural life for state centralization. They were faced with the deep methodological problem of transforming the analytical practices of philology, based on ancient texts, into an ethnographic linguistics based on face-to-face talk. As we argue, they extended the evidence-base of European language-study by insisting on the relevance of denigrated populations to theoretical linguistics. They were simultaneously struggling for the inclusion, in professional circles, of scholars like themselves, who studied their languages. Ironically, although they are today not much recognized, these are the scholars who enabled the upscaling of linguistics itself into a discipline that can claim universal relevance.

Yet, we note, the problems they faced are still not entirely solved. That is, the ethnographic study of talk and discourse is not yet well integrated with today’s theoretical linguistics. An important aim of our project in this book is to move in that direction.

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