William Leap on his book, Language Before Stonewall

Interview by Brian Adam-Thies


The Stonewall “Riots” occurred from June 28th-July 3rd, 1969 in New York City, Greenwich Village.   These events began as a result of police oppression and harassment of LGBTQ+ in the Stonewall Inn, a popular bar and meeting place.   The events reportedly evidenced spontaneous cooperation between people of all colors; gender conforming and non-conforming; cis-gender lesbian and gay men; different generations; and people from various socio-economic classes.  The Stonewall moment is said to mark the rise of the modern LGBTQ liberation movements.   Pride Month occurs in June each year to commemorate the events at Stonewall and their significance. Leap’s  book questions whether “it all began at Stonewall” accurately describes U.S. LGBTQ language history. Leap offers multiple examples showing that language before Stonewall was not buried in the closeted but in broad circulation, inflected variously across gender, race, class and other forms of difference, and associated with multiple moments of disidentification, rebellion and refusal before late June,1969.

Brian Adams-Thies: Pride month is based on what you term the ‘anchor ideology of Stonewall’.  This   powerful ideology  has both linguistic and material repercussions.  What inspired you to interrogate the ideology?  How did you come to write this book?

William Leap:. The stories about the events at Stonewall in late June 1969 that  are  presented at Pride events,   in the public media, and in many gay history books explain the event by telling the Stonewall story according to an appropriate, anchoring formula: experiences of “the closet” preceded Stonewall, and pathways to gay liberation swiftly followed, culminating in marriage equality, access to military service and federal promises of security within the workplace. We hear this story and we agree (with Althusser): “that’s good, that’s right, that’s true”.

But as is often the case for ideologies, this version of the Stonewall story  privileges a certain storyline while  excluding nonconforming subjects and narratives. Recent discussions of Stonewall have done much to decenter whiteness and gay/lesbian dominance.  For myself, I have long been  suspicious about the  Stonewall-related stories suggesting that language  before Stonewall was a secret “code,” shared but deeply concealed within the in-group,   unfamiliar if not entirely unrecognizable to outsiders. Through such mean, same-sex desiring, gender-transgressive and similar subjects could safely signal concealed identities to each other in public places —  dropping words and phrases like “[hair]pins”. The events at Stonewall and their aftermath brought this secret code  out of the closet and into the streets, making this linguistic usage public, visible, explicit, and open for anyone to hear.

This linear historical trajectory meshes with Stonewall’s anchor ideology:  the concealed becomes visible, the disguised become revealed. But  , this linear trajectory is not supported by the abundance of evidence documenting the widespread circulations of language before Stonewall within mainstream as well as “marginal” locations. Contrary to the anchor ideology, language before Stonewall was already “ … in the streets.” What Stonewall did was strengthen a more privileged discourse of sexual sameness tied to racial and economic hierarchy and privilege which was already in place before and would soon become    a language of homonormativity.

Having worked with language and sexuality studies for some time, I wanted to tell this story, and bring forward parts of the argument that I left unaddressed in Word’s Out  (Leap 1996).  Language before Stonewall is the result.

Brian Adams-Thies:  What do you mean by queer historical linguistics?  And why is Halberstam’s “scavenger methodology” (1998: 13) a helpful orientation for work in this mode of queer inquiry?  

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Michelle LaFrance on her book, Institutional Ethnography

Institutional Ethnography

Interview by Sarah Fischer


Sarah Fischer: You are an English professor, and your book deals with various subfields of the discipline of English, like literature coursework, writing centers, and first-year writing programs. Your methodology, rooted in institutional ethnography, however, seems to cut across several different disciplines. For instance, with respect to your methodology, you write that it “collapses distinctions” (12). How do you see your methodology speaking to fields beyond English? To what extent were your research methods informed by anthropology, for example?

Michelle LaFrance: Good question. I imported institutional ethnography (IE) to Writing Studies from the field of Sociology, where Dorothy Smith, a Sociologist, had developed it as her career work. Writing Studies has a long history of borrowing and adapting methodologies, such as ethnography, attuning those methods to the particular concerns of our studies. We deal primarily with writing, writers, and institutional contexts like classrooms and professional settings that so often also focus on the actualities of writing instruction. IE is especially concerned with the role of texts in the coordination of work and other social practices, so it seemed a natural fit in some ways.

But, I’d also say that most methodologies (and their related methods) are in fact, transdisciplinary, because they are in effect epistemological-orientations that reveal our representational strategies as we construct knowledge. This means that most methodologies can move across what we perceive as disciplinary boundaries (which are more situational and arbitrary than we often presume within local settings).  Ethnographers have worked at length in several fields to think through what it means to adapt methodologies to the unique(ish) contexts of particular fields, sites, and practices. My work with institutional ethnography as a writing studies practice is just one example of how we might take on those processes of adaptation.

I’d additionally say that my work has been most informed by Feminist Critical Theory and Community Literacy Studies, which are also transdisciplinary areas of study and I’m guessing overlap substantially with concerns/conversations active in anthropology. I’m always asking how my projects might help us to make a more inclusive classroom, workplace, or professional experience—most of us have an awful lot to learn in that regard. But I’m largely unfamiliar with the specific conversations unfolding in anthropology, so it is difficult for me to say more than that.

Sarah Fischer: One of my favorite parts of your work is its practical takeaways. For instance, you write that one of your book’s purposes is to “model how to carry out a project with IE” (51). I think after reading this book, scholars, teachers, administrators, or really anyone involved with writing or media in institutional settings, can realize strategies they might implement to uncover, or at least interrogate, the multiple realities of people’s lived lives. What information or advice do you hope people can practically take away from your book? Or perhaps specifically from your discussions of processes of negotiation?

Michelle LaFrance: I’m always glad to hear my work is useful to others. Very gratifying. My primary goal with this book was to offer a practical demonstration of how institutional ethnography as methodology could be put into practice and to offer a couple of models (that uncovered a different type of story). That is because I find the literature of IE to be fascinating, but it does often lean toward the theoretical and can lack practical details about how a study might unfold. And many of us need that road map, especially people carrying out their first study. I find it very helpful to have a researcher lay out for me how they have made key decisions as they assembled a research narrative; that allows me to think explicitly about how I read their work and how I situate their work in relation to the findings of other researchers. A secondary goal here was to demonstrate how important our material actualities are within everyday contexts, especially as these different types of stories can help us to think more holistically and carefully about those we work alongside (our colleagues and our students).

Sarah Fischer: In reading your second chapter in particular, I was very intrigued by your interviews with graduate students; it seems to me that retrieving this type of data required asking students in a less privileged position to openly discuss their frustrations with the systems that employed them. For instance, you mention that one student “did not feel comfortable talking about the linked courses [because] ‘it was too much like biting the hand that feeds [them]’” (62). You use this sentiment to acknowledge the influence these students’ precariousness had on their work in general and to open up a conversation about ruling relations. Can you talk a bit more about your interview process with these graduate students in particular? How did you navigate these obstacles in order to obtain enough data? How did you ensure the students’ comfort and safety?

Michelle LaFrance: I’m hesitant to hold myself or my work up as any sort of model of virtue, here because I have so much to learn about working within power structures and encountering and/or understanding my own privileged enfranchisement within institutional settings. I am a tenured professor who works for an R1, after all—we are an increasingly rare breed and I’ve been nothing if not incredibly lucky in that regard.

But I think one of the important things I wanted to recognize in this project was the way in which our shared contexts seemed to suggest that some people involved with the gateway course and the department had a clear platform (and/or right) to speak about the course, while others truly did not feel that they had that same ability, security, or right. This dynamic—a set of perceptions that TAs with me, but others I interviewed did not, definitely ordered my perceptions and work within the course and analysis of the assignments. . . The hard part about that is that no one—no administrator, no tenured faculty running the course, no one involved on a departmental level—would have said they wanted TAs to feel disenfranchised or as if they did not have the right to speak. Yet, clearly, a good sample of the TAs did not feel they could or should speak up.  It’s hard not to think that this is just the way of employment in today’s educational contexts. Some people are empowered—because of their positions, their certifications, the culture, or their social standing—to speak, to feel some degree of freedom, while others are simply not. I can’t quite say TAs weren’t empowered, that doesn’t seem the right way to think about it. But there was definitely something about power coordinating that site—and I wanted to acknowledge that reality.

I think that this sort of. . . strangely unfocused soft power dynamic. . . is often a missing piece of the way we speak about teaching, our choices as teachers, and so about pedagogy in general in higher ed contexts today—work within a course, with an assignment, and with students can feel quite different based on the ways the institution structures a teaching appointment. Contingency creates these spaces that feel very tenuous for teachers as workers.

As much as I am able, I do try to work from a critical awareness of the politics and social-justice implications of knowledge construction in the sites where I’m working, drawing from the work of feminist theorists, rhetoricians, and researchers (many of whom are also working toward important critical awareness of the lived experiences of people of color and multilingual, LGBTQ and non-binary, and differently abled peoples). I’m hoping that my work makes clear how our projects benefit from attention to the materially coordinated nature of our experiences. That is, how we are all tapped into often unrecognized structures of power (such as tenure and white, heterosexist, or able-ist privilege) . . .  as this move allows researchers to uncover the stories of individuals who may otherwise be erased or displaced.

Sarah Fischer: One major theme of your book, which became especially apparent to me in your discussion about the assessment of labor within writing centers, is the desire for justice. Your work seems especially dedicated to rectifying—or at least making strides to one day rectify—academic labor that has been rendered invisible. You pose a profoundly simple yet powerful solution in your conclusion: “I am moved to acknowledge the simple need for better listening and more understanding within our own institutional communities” (135). I am wondering if this desire for justice motivated your research, or if the inherent problematics were revealed only after analyzing your data. To what extent did you conceptualize your research as advocacy work before conducting it?   

Michelle LaFrance: I absolutely see my work as informed by and so informing a next stage of intersectional feminist action and advocacy. When we uncover how institutional spaces erase the disjunctions and actualities experienced by real people, we are shedding light on how we might also then pursue more inclusive and equitable material conditions. As an ethnographer, I firmly believe that action/advocacy grounded in evidence-based storytelling is powerful stuff. I encourage all ethnographers to be brave, bold and visionary about the stories waiting for voice.

Sarah Fischer: And lastly, do you have plans to carry out institutional ethnography on any other sites? Were there any possible archives you were initially considering that had to be set aside due to the material limitations of writing a book?   ​

Michelle LaFrance: I’m currently working in two different community sites in DC and have begun to think through what it means to carry out an IE study of writing and writers in sites that are less formally organized. Historic Congressional Cemetery is the first site. It’s pretty cool—the cemetery has been a fixture of the DC landscape for nearly 200 years, and while it’s still an active burial ground and on the historical registers for national landmarks, it’s also a common tourist destination. (Edgar J. Hoover, John Philip Sousa, Marion Barry, and Adelaide Johnson are interred upon the grounds). In recent years, the cemetery has also become a neighborhood center, hosting a number of community-focused functions each year, such as Dogs Days (an annual fair celebrating rescue and adoption), goat yoga, family movie nights, and seasonal theatrical events. Neighborhood environmental activists have also installed a chain of bee hives on the grounds and encouraged groups of volunteers to plant native species to feed the bees and educate guests about the importance of sustainable practices. But, most famously, Congressional Cemetery is home to the K9 Corp, a membership only dog walkers club, who use the enclosed grounds as an off-leash dog park. It is the overlap of these very active and quite different communities—the Board of Directors, facilities technicians, docents, historical preservationists, dog walkers, beekeepers, gardeners, parishioners, family of the interred, and the people who live in the surrounding neighborhood—that make this site a unique urban environment in which to study writing, writers, and the traffic of texts within and around the concept of community. These groups may share the same site, but rarely share the same values, visions for fair use, or sense of fair play. I’m asking: How then do they use writing to negotiate their ideals of co-belonging and processes of socialization and membership?

I’m also doing some volunteer work in a new neighborhood center that is taking face through a series of community-engaged projects.

I have institutional ethnography baked into my DNA at this point, so while these projects are still pretty amorphous (and the global pandemic has slowed me quite a bit in my ability to join others in their work), the ways institutional ethnography has encouraged me to think as an ethnographer is definitely shaping how I conceptualize my work in these locations.

All of my institutional ethnography projects, to date, were included in the book. I look forward to expanding my sense of how IE may help us to uncover and bring to visibility the ways embodiment (race, gender, class, [dis]ability) coordinate the sites I work in.

Elizabeth Fox takes the page 99 test

I have been fascinated by Mongolia’s capital city since my first visit in 2012. Despite my familiarity with the anthropological literature, on arrival in Ulaanbaatar I was utterly taken aback by the unique metropolis that greeted me, an architectural palimpsest of Mongolia’s history: steel and glass skyscrapers next to Soviet-era apartment blocks next to white felt-wrapped gers (yurts) enclosed in wooden fences. My first obsession was the footwear: every woman looked dressed to the nines, deftly navigating the pot-holed roads in heels of all heights, men striding confidently in polished leather cap toes. From that moment on, I felt driven to explore these untold aspects of Mongolia, to unearth their complexities and contradictions and to try to engage with the city as experienced by her residents.

Seven years and three degrees later I defended my PhD, a study of life in Ulaanbaatar’s “ger districts”. As I discuss on page 99 of my thesis, in 2007 the ger districts were classified by the UN as “informal settlements”. As ger districts have grown over the last thirty years to surround the city centre and spread out over the mountainsides that encircle the capital, the undeserved tag of informality – incorrectly designating the ger districts as being unplanned settlements where non-compliant housing is constructed on lands to which occupants have no legal claims (UN 2011) – has been accompanied by a scholarly approach that tends to focus on ‘lack’. Ger districts are thus usually described in terms of absent infrastructural amenities: running water, paved roads, central heating, a sewage system, effective refuse collection. Similarly, Ger district residents are often depicted as destitute, unemployed, and uneducated rural-urban migrants who have become detached from the countryside and, unable to integrate into the city, fall into a cultural and economic void.

My thesis challenges both narratives and represents the first book-length study of an Ulaanbaatar ger district based on long-term residential fieldwork. As the subheading on page 99 states, my ethnography drives the study of these areas “Beyond ‘Lack’” by engaging with the social, material, linguistic and bureaucratic infrastructures that do exist in the ger district. I explore ger district kinship networks and the enaction of relations through vocative kin term usage, I trace the flow of goods and people between country and city, the exchanges and consumption of countryside meat that connect ger district dwellers to their homelands, and I examine the daily work of local bureaucrats that render ger district lives legible to the state and define residents as deserving or not of welfare assistance. I argue that “ger districts are neither just the outcome of migration in ‘the age of the market’ [as Mongolians call the post-socialist era] nor the simple manifestation of a nomadic culture caught in the middle of a transition to urbanism” (Fox 2019: 99). Instead, I trace their peripheralization during socialism, and interweave the life histories of ger district residents with the histories of social change in Mongolia. Finally, “challenging standard conceptions of centres and peripheries by ‘thinking with’ the ger districts” (Ibid.), I disentangle approaches to urbanity that carry inherent sedentary biases from the discussion of the profound challenges ger district residents do face in their daily lives.

Fox, Elizabeth. (2019). “Between Iron and Coal: Enacting Kinship, Infrastructure and Bureaucracy in the Ger Districts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia”. PhD Thesis. University College London.

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo discusses Revivals, Nationalism, and Linguistic Discrimination

Revivals, Nationalism, and Linguistic Discrimination : Threatening Languages book cover

Interview by Claudia Matachana


Claudia Matachana: Through the book, you made a distinction between revivalist and revitalization language movements and point that, in most of the literature, the difference between these two terms is not always made. What were the reasons to make this clear division? Or, to put it another way, what was the main motivation to write this book?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: We find it necessary to make a division between the two in order to make it clear that while the process of supporting truly endangered languages is basically positive (revitalization), the process of advancing a major language to the discredit of others is fundamentally negative (revival). We are aware that where these have been used interchangeably, our distinction may cause problems. In North America for example, revival is often used for revitalization. Overall the main motivation for writing the book was to clarify that while we understand and are sympathetic to revitalization movements which attempt to prevent languages from disappearing, we do want to critically examine why and how the concept of revival can be used to support movements or policies whose goals ultimately create rather than challenge inequality.

Claudia Matachana: Your book shows how the discourse of language revivals and nationalism is many times disguised as the discourse of linguistic rights for minorities. You point at the difference between the language revitalization that attempts to help a language to not disappear, and the social movements that seek to use a language for gaining power. What do you think are the implications of your study for language revitalization? Is there a message that you want to convey from your book for the people working on language revitalization?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: Yes indeed – that while supporting endangered languages, researchers should be careful not to create the underlying conditions for language discrimination. As we say in the book, we are not arguing against language revitalization per se. Rather we want to caution that involvement in and discourses about revitalization/revival should be careful about the exclusionary, purist ideologies that often accompany such movements, and that claims that a particular policy, practice, or ideology supports revival should not be taken as a carte blanche to implement policies with exclusionary or hierarchical effects.

Claudia Matachana: In the chapter dedicated to the language situation in Kazakhstan, one of the interviewed participants (K9) said that he bears a responsibility to his history and language and he cannot just become part of other nation or ethnic group because that would be a betrayal. That idea of linguistic loyalty and betrayal may appear to be related with nationalism. Where do you think that this relationship between language, ethnicity and nation –which, as you show, is not only present in this case– began?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: Well, as other scholars have pointed out, the classic formulation of nationalism as “one people, one territory, one language” has its roots in European romanticism, but in each of the contexts we consider, ideas about nation, language, and ethnicity have their own local resonances and histories. In the specific context of Kazakhstan, for instance, conceptualizations of ethnicity/nation have roots in the Soviet “nationalities” system according to which every citizen had to belong to (only one) designated, officially recognized “nationality,” which has somewhat conflated the concepts of nationality/ethnicity in many post-Soviet contexts.

Claudia Matachana: One of the things I found more interesting about your book is that it presents a wide variety of examples that covers different political and geographical situations – Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Catalonia – with a diversity of research methods –interviews, discourse analysis or documented political history. What was the reason for you to choose these diverse geographical locations for your study? How do the different research methods relate to each other and how did you link these specific methods to draw a general conclusion?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: We thought it would be most helpful to cover a range of case studies that illustrated our arguments in different ways, and with different dynamics. Some of the languages we examine are the languages of independent states; others, of regions or semi-autonomous regions within other states. Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan are both nations which had to form new policies and interethnic relations post-independence; in one case leading to civil war (Sri Lanka) and in Kazakhstan, to a complex set of hierarchies and interacting social structures. Mongolian is not exactly “reviving,” yet we can still see certain similarities in the kinds of discourses and nationalist ideologies that have been used to underpin the Mongolian context and the other cases. Hong Kong and Catalonia are both semi-autonomous regions where many people want to maintain or increase that autonomy, possibly by achieving statehood.

We also were keen to include both contexts that had been well-studied as well as less commonly discussed cases. For those contexts which have received little sociolinguistic attention – particularly Kazakhstan and Mongolia – we felt it was especially important to gather new data in the form of interviews, because there is very little published research relating to language ideology, use, and policy in those places. For Catalonia, for instance, there is such a significant body of work that we felt that a limited selection of interviews would have less to contribute to the existing literature. We don’t consider this book the final word on any of these contexts, necessarily – it is a limited account of one aspect of local dynamics in each place. Yet when taken together we believe these cases provide a robust illustration of how revival may play out and what kinds of tools / discourses may be used to advance revivalist (and covertly nationalist) projects, despite the different histories and realities in each place.

Claudia Matachana: Finally, your book shows how language is related to and used for political purposes, specifically its use in nationalist movements and as a tool of discrimination. What do you think is the political importance of these findings? How do you see your book speaking to the current political situation that is lived worldwide?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: We hope to be able to unmask what a powerful tool language is and how easy it is to manipulate. We believe that because of its ubiquity, necessity, and close ties to identity construction and expression, language is particularly vulnerable to being misused as a tool for political and social manipulation. In many contexts, language is heavily politicized as a key symbol of national and personal identity, yet many aspects of the sociolinguistic status quo are simultaneously naturalized – it is often considered simply self-evident and unquestionable that these languages must be revived / protected by any means necessary. What we hope to accomplish is disrupt this taking for granted by introducing questions about who benefits and who is disadvantaged by such processes, and how they might potentially be deconstructed and re-imagined to create more inclusive and equitable societies.

JoAnne Yates on her book, Engineering Rules

Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting since 1880 (Hagley ...


Interview by Michael Prentice

Michael Prentice: Engineering Rules is your third book following Control through Communication and Structuring the Information Age. The first two focused on genres and technologies as part of the overlooked mechanisms in the history of organizations and industries. What drew you to writing now about standards?

 JoAnne Yates: You are right to point out that a common thread in my work has been overlooked mechanisms and infrastructures. I tend to look at a level that other people don’t focus on – that seems too mundane. In Control through Communication, I was looking at communication and genres as an infrastructure for the modern firm. In Structuring the Information Age, I was looking at mechanisms for change in insurance processes related to adopting a new technology infrastructure—in particular, moving from tabulators to computers. Initially, insurance companies wanted computers to act like faster tabulators. Changes in processes to take advantage of the new technology came only slowly and incrementally. In Engineering Rules, the whole private standards system is an infrastructure that our society depends on tremendously. Everything that we do is governed by standards in some way or another. So the whole standardization community and the extensive network of standards organizations loom large in our ability to get things done, but we don’t know anything about them, typically. These people, their organizations, and the standards they set are a hidden infrastructure that most people don’t think about at all. Similarly, most people don’t think about communication systems (including memos and filing systems) and most people assume that when computers were introduced, they started a total revolution, rather than a gradual migration.

Michael Prentice: In the book, you emphasize the importance of voluntary standards. Why was it so important to tell that aspect of the story? Continue reading