Roberto J. González on his book, Connected


Interview by Patricia G. Lange

Patricia G. Lange: According to your book, the people of the remote community of Talea in Oaxaca, Mexico have a saying that “a bad compromise is better than a good fight.” How does this maxim emblematically illuminate what it took to secure their right to be connected to mobile networks and the internet?

Roberto J. González: For almost a decade, villagers dreamed of being the first in northern Oaxaca to have cellular service. They repeatedly petitioned the big telecom firms Telcel and Movistar, and when these companies turned them down, they petitioned state and federal regulators, who weren’t any help either. Eventually, in 2012, villagers decided to work with Rhizomatica, an NGO dedicated to helping indigenous communities get connected, and together they were able to create their own non-commercial DIY cellular network. Like most fledgling technologies, it had glitches and limitations—but it worked.

Now, I suppose when Big Telecom denied them service and government regulators ignored them, Taleans could have occupied the state capital, or kidnapped government officials, or had a protest march or hunger strike. But instead of a fight, they decided to find a compromise, a nonconfrontational kind of direct action—building the community cellular network—which worked well for several years.

By 2014, some people began accusing those operating the network of mismanagement. In this case, in order to avoid a “good fight” that might have politically divided the pueblo, village authorities came up with a bad compromise: to give Movistar another chance to provide cellular service. The company accepted.

Patricia G. Lange: A key cultural characteristic that you focus on is Talean openness to outside ideas. The Taleans’ willingness to experiment with innovation seems to have ironically both spurred support for their community-based, autonomous network—and hastened its “downfall.” Given that Taleans ultimately abandoned their community cell network in favor of a major telecom company, what does it mean to say that they are “ecumenical when it comes to technology”? How was your perspective and analysis influenced by teaching in Silicon Valley?

Continue reading

Guilherme Fians takes the Page 99 test

On page 99 of my dissertation, the reader finds themself in the middle of an ethnographic description of a heated political debate held during the 101st Universal Congress of Esperanto, in Nitra (Slovakia) in 2016. In this debate, members of the World Non-National Esperanto Association were reflecting on the aims of their activism: should this association use Esperanto to create inclusive, internationalist conversation spaces where people from different national and linguistic backgrounds could gather and meet halfway by speaking a non-national, non-ethnic language? Or should they adopt a more combative stance and use Esperanto as an anti-nationalist tool to fight the exclusionary and xenophobic aspects of nationalism?

Entrance of the congress venue, the Slovak University of Agriculture, where the 101st Universal Congress of Esperanto took place. The Esperanto flag between the Slovakian and EU flags helps to convey the internationalist atmosphere at stake in the Esperanto gathering [Photo: Guilherme Fians].

While page 99 brings us to a brief diversion to Slovakia, my doctoral fieldwork – which placed my dissertation as the first extensive ethnographic study of Esperanto speakers and activists – was carried out mostly in France.

Constructed in the late nineteenth century as an attempt to promote mutual understanding between peoples through language comprehension, Esperanto has been historically associated with internationalism, gathering a community of speakers and activists that strategically connect this language with diverse global political platforms. If, in France, Esperanto used to be particularly prominent among anarchists, communists and pacifists, what is this language’s current political relevance? What impacts have new communication technologies such as social media had on the organization of this community and language movement? Through participant observation – in French and Esperanto – and archival research concentrated in Paris, I mapped out how Esperanto activists use this language in online and face-to-face debates to question the post-political consensus about the use of national languages (such as English and French) for international communication.

Approaching a moment of significant changes in the way people communicate and mobilize politically, I found that Esperanto frequently works as a gateway for people to engage with other political causes, such as movements for open-source software and against neoliberal globalization (like the Gilets jaunes in France). Within these frameworks, Esperanto activists depart from the fight against linguistic discrimination and a preference for participatory over mass communication to re-politicize acts of communication and contribute to radical politics.

Reaching back to Nitra, where both this blog post and my fieldwork began, the outcome of that debate was that any form of internationalist or anti-nationalist stance can prove productive, as long as it fosters more egalitarian and inclusive communicative exchanges through the international circulation and co-production of information, ideas and knowledge.


Fians, Guilherme. 2019. Of revolutionaries and geeks: Mediation, space and time among Esperanto speakers. University of Manchester, PhD dissertation.

Gretchen Bakke on The Likeness

The Likeness by Gretchen Bakke

Interview by Krisztina Fehérváry

Krisztina Fehérváry: Something I love about great ethnography is the classic move of introducing the reader to what seems a completely strange way of being in the world and making sense of it. You do this with the Slovene notion of the copy, the likeness, the double— not as a faded, devalued copy or reproduction, but as something unique and subversive in its own right, taking up its own space. You write that it took a long time before you began to figure this out. Can you say more about the thesis of your book, and how you came to “see” it?

Gretchen Bakke: There was something perfectly obvious about repetition as comforting and expressive from the very start, because of the way that surfaces and samenesses carried such unabashed symbolic ooomf. But then, when I would take that out of context, and try to talk about how doing something perfectly the same as something already recognizable was both a sort of accomplishment (to be proud of) and also irritant, because things aren’t supposed to be that perfect all I got was a bunch of people looking at me like I was nuts. I was going to school in America, raised in America (though a weird corner of it) (there are so many weird corners) and there was no place at that time in that place for a lack of differentiation to have symbolic and social power.

You ask below about how much the book is actually about America, and it didn’t start that way, but as I wrote I let myself relax a little bit and tried to critique the social-symbolic system that couldn’t recognize the power and effort of non-differentiation. Since The Likeness really is about imperatives that come with socio-cultural transition, I felt it was important to also write about failures of recognition, about how at important moments of communication nuanced practices of subjectivity just didn’t make it through a mesh tuned differently. I thought a lot about ‘On Alternating Sounds’ where Boas (1889) argues for misperception on the part of researchers – grounded in the ‘naturalized’ sounds of their own childhood – as constitutive of an entire theory of mind attributed to those being researched. This seems so straightforward or obvious today, yet precisely this misperception caused a lot of suffering as Slovenia was integrating into Europe because this one simple thing – that sameness can be powerful, protective, comforting; that likeness can wielded as a weapon or used as a cushion; that subjectivity can be spread elegantly across surfaces rather than found in plumbed depths – this  way of being just slipped ever into misrecognition and misattribution.

Most of the book, is concerned with how this played out in Europe, but I also have a bone to pick with the intense attachment to the depth model of subjectivity in the US, and this material seemed a way to show readers, especially students, how much any set of practices that produce something like a sense of self, is not natural or true, but just as learned-via-repetition as anything else.

Krisztina Fehérváry: This is fascinating.  It will also help me in a project I’ve been working on intermittently about smiling and teeth in Hungary, where the U.S. serves as a basis for comparison but is also an important model for Hungarian dental practice and norms for appearance.  The “American” smile is so clearly performative,  but people here hate it when I point that out.  Hungarians are also getting their teeth done, perfect and white, but not for smiling, especially not that kind of smile.  (As elsewhere, such commodified teeth have become a potent marker of middle-class distinction, respectability, and proper hygiene.)

Gretchen Bakke: A sweep toward sameness, as teeth transition into recognizable as having been done. Here too, there needn’t be an emphasis on difference or distinction or even meaning and intention in order for subjectivity or identity to emerge. You see this right away. Other Anthropologists too have made this point, though less so recently. When, thanks to one of the book’s reviewers, I discovered Catherine Lutz’s work (1998) and Michelle Rosaldo’s (1980, 1982) I felt such gratitude for their easy proclamations related to a broad cultural disregard for the inner or for anything like the Delphic imperative. I breathe easier today because more than anyone their work makes the point that there is nothing special about distinction as a delicate mode of individuation. There is no true I. There are lots of ways to be a someone even now today, but all the ways that don’t look like a careful cultivation of minor tweaks of a presumed to be knowable inner self (see esp. Dunn 2003, 2004, 2005), come up as jarring. Non-differentiation, a lack of originality, can be just as expressive as can the endless deployment and cultivation of tiny unique differences.

Krisztina Fehérváry: This also reminds me in some respects of what Daniel Miller (2010) called “Depth Ontology,” referring to the ideological origins of the protestant obsession with plainness, of seeing adornment as artifice.  He was talking about make-up and clothes, and how in many places like Trinidad a bare, unmade-up face is just a blank, a mask, that reveals nothing about a person, while dress and make up is how a person reveals who they are. This seems related to what you are saying about kinds of performative subjectivities, although in those examples uniqueness and distinction are still important. Continue reading

Stuart Dunmore on his book, Language Revitalisation in Gaelic Scotland

Interview by Christian Puma-Ninacuri

Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Gaelic-medium education (GME) has been developed as an initiative to maintain the Gaelic language through education. The role of formal education as a tool for revitalizing a language has been widely studied and theorized; however, empirical research on the long-term outcomes of minority-medium education has been relatively scarce. What was your motivation to evaluate the revitalization of Gaelic from an empirical point of view? How does your study contribute to our knowledge of language revitalization processes?

 Stuart Dunmore: I think my main motivation was, as you rightly say, the paucity of research evidence that has been brought to bear on long-term outcomes of minority-medium immersion education historically. In Scotland, GME receives a great deal of attention as the main means we currently have of increasing the numbers of speakers that exist in the world, since vernacular community use of the language continues to decline apace. Generally, Gaelic has not been passed onto a majority of the youngest generations in heartland areas, so school has tended to be used to plug that gap elsewhere in Scotland. The trouble was, we just had no real idea as to whether or not former students who have received an immersion education in Gaelic continue to speak it after completing their studies. So, my research set out to answer that question among a sample of adults who went through GME after it started in the 1980s.

I hope what the book contributes to the wider literature on language revitalization is its stress on the importance of critical, empirical approaches to evaluating language policy outcomes; when it comes to linguistic and cultural endangerment it’s not enough for policymakers to simply invest in new initiatives and hope for the best. Interventions have to be evaluated critically to ensure they are effective and to identify where and how they can be improved, as the stakes are so high for minoritized communities throughout the world.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: The revitalization of Gaelic has faced different challenges over the years. On the one hand, policymakers made the language official, especially in the educational system, but on the other hand, it was initiative from parents who wanted to continue using the language that led to GME’s development. Taking this into consideration, how do you understand the participation of both policymakers and members of the community in revitalization processes? How does community engagement contribute to minority language education?

Stuart Dunmore: That’s an absolutely crucial point, that bottom-up, grassroots initiatives from within the minority linguistic community are vital for the long-term success of revitalization policy objectives. GME was developed in the 1980s as a consequence of Gaelic-speaking parents’ relentless campaigning for the establishment of immersion education in Gaelic at the pre-school and elementary level. They wanted their kids to be fluent and confident Gaelic speakers but worried that within an English-only system, their Gaelic acquisition and abilities would be significantly undermined. Subsequently, GME classes were augmented by children of parents who couldn’t speak Gaelic themselves, but who wished for their kids to become bilingual. But it was only due to the hard work of grassroots Gaelic organizations that policymakers were persuaded to establish the system in the first place. Similarly, I suspect that internationally, it is only bottom-up support from parents and community that will encourage and enable minority-medium immersion pupils to maintain their linguistic abilities in minoritized varieties after schooling is completed.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Mixed methodological approaches are increasingly being used in the field. Your book uses semi-structured interviews (qualitative data) and online surveys (quantitative data). What were the challenges that you experienced while analyzing the data? How can your methods guide other research on language revitalization?

Stuart Dunmore: I think the principle of data triangulation – that is, testing the reliability of conclusions made using one method against one or more other methods – lends a great deal to the validity and generalizability of social research generally, and this is certainly true of linguistic ethnography in my view. That can mean testing a researcher’s own ethnographic, participant-observations against more detailed interview accounts, focus group or survey data, or in my own case, employing statistical techniques alongside qualitative sociolinguistic methods such as ethnography of communication. As you say, it often is genuinely challenging for researchers to feel confident employing multiple methodological techniques simultaneously, but I would recommend this approach as one that we can adopt and learn to improve the reliability of our findings in the field of language revitalization.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: In your book, you mention Fishman’s claim that language revitalization efforts in schools will fail unless the minority language can be more broadly used outside school. Similarly, scholarship has demonstrated the importance of intergenerational transmission to language maintenance. How do your findings contribute to this debate? 

 Stuart Dunmore: Fishman’s point that communities and parents passing on endangered languages to children in the domains of home, neighborhood and community – intergenerational transmission – is the key to securing language revitalization (in the sense of re-vernacularisation, or normalizing the use of the minority language in the community once again); however, it is very difficult to take issue with on an empirical basis. My book demonstrates that for the majority of students who acquire a minority language in an immersion classroom, the language will remain a thing used for school purposes only if parents, community and grassroots organizations are unavailable or unable to encourage minority language use in the home. Gaelic language socialization – which I measured as having been raised with at least one Gaelic-speaking parent at home, correlated consistently with higher rates of Gaelic retention and use among former-immersion students in my quantitative statistical analyses, and in interviewees’ own accounts. Without this normalizing influence for minority language use outside the classroom, it’s hard to avoid Fishman’s conclusion that school-based interventions will not be successful in the long term.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Your book shows that the majority of participants’ social use of Gaelic is reported to be limited among peers such as friends, siblings and partners. However, there are other language practices of Gaelic that seem to be relevant to speakers (‘secret code’ and ‘informal’ use of Gaelic characterized by a code-mixing with English). What does this tell us about the relationship between Gaelic and practices related to language identity and ideologies? 

Stuart Dunmore: Quite simply, I think my data show that the relationship between linguistic practices, ideologies and identities is absolutely key to understanding language decline and revitalization processes. Limited use of Gaelic by my informants across the domains you mention above appeared to be underpinned by their language ideologies concerning the appropriate use of Gaelic and relative lack of social identity in Gaelic. Those individuals who tended to use the highest levels of Gaelic in the present day had frequently grown up with Gaelic at home, and subsequently have a stronger cultural identification with the language.

The school system alone didn’t appear to encourage pupils without this background to develop a clear sense of social identity in the language, and as a result, they didn’t use it a great deal or wish to pass it on to their own children in future. My sense is that these processes are universal in contexts of language shift and revival, and that language ideologies and social identities are crucial considerations for policymakers to bear in mind. Revitalization initiatives, whether focused within the education system or not, should clearly address issues of ideology and identity, which often have a strong and negative influence on linguistic practice.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Finally, taking into consideration the results of your investigation, how does your book establish a conversation with policymakers, educators and community members to improve processes of language revitalization of Gaelic, especially to improve the GME system?

Stuart Dunmore: I hope the dialogue my research provokes will lead policymakers and community members to consider critically the effectiveness of top-down interventions, and how this can be improved through being joined and supported by bottom-up efforts from within the language community. A book on its own can’t do this job for educators and policymakers, but hopefully some of the knowledge exchange activities I have undertaken since completing the research can help to inspire discussion between communities and policymakers. As the book demonstrates, it’s absolutely crucial that bottom-up efforts from within communities complement policymakers’ interventions to support them if minority languages are to be successfully maintained into future decades.

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh on their book, Language, Space, and Cultural Play


Language, Space and Cultural Play

Interview by Ida Hoequist

Ida Hoequist:  In this book, you combine affect theory with an attention to the human built environment and a philosophy of meaning-making borrowed from linguistics, and the end result is the impressively seamless framework that you call “affect regimes”: ways that particular places structure the dispositions of people in them. Given that your framework is so eclectically sourced, which disciplines do you see this book speaking to and what do you hope it brings to those conversations?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: This book hopes to speak to disciplines such as linguistics, sociology, and anthropology. For linguistics, the study of affect remains relatively new in spite of growing recognition of its importance, not least because language still tends to be conceptualized as a medium for cognition. Affect and cognition are often treated as separate phenomena, with the former working against the supposed proper functioning of the latter. At the same time, while disciplines such as sociology and anthropology have long given much emphasis to affect, the attention to how affect is materialized in the built environment remains a relatively new focus. In its study of semiotic landscapes, we try in the book to both accord greater recognition to the role of affect and to also show how that role can be theorized.

Ida Hoequist:   Affect theory is by no means a cohesive body of scholarship, so there is a wide and varied field of potential ways to understand what affect might be. Can you share with us how you came to the particular understanding of affect that you use for your book?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: It is hard and sometimes misleading to try to go back and trace one’s scholarly influences, especially since one’s exposure to ideas and discussions with colleagues hardly ever follows a neat linear trajectory. However, works by Patricia Clough and Arlie Hochschild were important in initially shaping our ideas. These were further refined through further readings and discussions, and perhaps most importantly, our own experiences doing fieldwork as we collected data from actual landscapes.

Ida Hoequist:  Your title refers to cultural play; can you share with us how that ties into the landscapes in the book and the semiotic processes you describe?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: This is an elaboration of some of the concepts commonly deployed in cultural studies, urban/cultural sociology and cultural geography.  One of the key ideas running through these fields is that space is never a blank slate, but rather the site of contestations, negotiations and influences.  These can take a myriad of forms, including spatial size, spatial design, signage, historical overtones, media representations, and so on.  Often, too, different groups will have different investments in the same site: for very young children a playground is for swinging or see-sawing, for teenagers it may be for practicing parkour moves, for pet owners it is for their pets to play, for foreign domestic workers it is a refuge from the regimentation of the households in which they work.  The play of these different structural/semiotic elements in combination with the interventions of different groups, is what creates affective regimes, and also what makes them so complex.

The bottom line is that affective regimes are not static and monologic, but rather the product of dialogical tensions and texts.

Ida Hoequist:  The concepts in this book are so eerily applicable to the currently ongoing coronavirus pandemic that they almost seem prescient. Many parts of the world right now could serve as stellar case studies for your framework — for example, the use of signs, floor markings, and barriers in grocery stores could be part of an attempt to construct an affective regime of caution. You also write about the effects of people increasingly leading their social lives in digital spaces, which people are doing now more than ever in places where social distancing is mandated. If you were to add a pandemic-focused section, what might be in it and would it prompt any changes in or expansions of your framework?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: Yes, the restructuring of spaces (‘social distancing’), the introduction of fines and other penalties for non-compliance, the use of tracing apps (with concomitant privacy concerns), the gradual re-opening up of different sectors of the economy (since some spaces are more easily restructured to minimize the transmission of Covid-19 than others) – these are situations that call out for analyses along the lines we have discussed in our book. We would in any such discussion want to add a section of how to conceptualize a semiotic landscape that has been temporarily shut down or closed off. For example, a shop sign that says ‘Entrance’ is no longer operational if the entire site that the shop is part of has been shut down due to a citywide lockdown. But the sign cannot be said to have been discarded or abandoned (which would be the case if the site is slated for demolition). The communicative function of the ‘Entrance’ sign is in abeyance for the duration of the lockdown. Exactly how to theorize this is an interesting matter, and it is one that Lionel is pursuing in his latest book.

The digital mediations accelerated by Covid-19 certainly bear on many of the practices we discuss in the book, including travel, friendliness and public space, romance, and others.  One aspect that we would probably have expanded on in a pandemic-focused additional chapter, would probably be fear – how this is circulated and channeled in the absence of physical movement and a greater reliance on media.

Ida Hoequist:  It’s clear throughout the book that both of your ways of thinking, as scholars from different disciplines, are threaded through the material. Were there points that you see as being particularly enriched by your cross-disciplinary co-authorship, or points that were more complicated or challenging to work through together?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: We work well together because of a mutual respect for our different disciplinary backgrounds (Lionel is a linguist and Robbie a scholar of literary/cultural studies). There was only one complication to really speak of, and that was in our different approaches to writing up the book. As a linguist, Lionel is more in the habit to constantly referring back to specific linguistic examples when discussing ideas. In contrast, Robbie is quite comfortable expounding without always making such references. This was never a major issue because drafts were being circulated back and forth between the two of us. This was a deliberate writing strategy to minimize having two otherwise distinct voices in a single book.  By the same token, it was enriching to benefit from a combination of the solid grounding in linguistic debates, with the wide range of examples and perspectives from popular culture, tourism studies and literary history (among others).

Jane Setter on her book, Your Voice Speaks Volumes

Cover for 

Your Voice Speaks Volumes

Interview by Paola Medina González

Paola Medina González: In your book, you address a variety of topics including speech, English history, gender differences, professions which rely on the voice, forensic speaker analysis, and transgender language. What are the sociocultural and ideological links you found between these topics? Specifically, speaking about minority communities of practice, what can we learn from your research?

Jane Setter: The main thrust of the book is to help readers understand that accent and/or voice prejudice is real, and to task them to re-examine their conscious or unconscious bias about this aspect of a person’s identity. Listeners make all kinds of assumptions about people based on the way they speak; these assumptions can be just as biased as those made based on how people look, what they wear, how they wear their hair, whether they have a job and what it is, what music they listen to, and so on.

Paola Medina González: One of the things I was most surprised about in your book was the incorporation of QR codes. Why did you make this innovative decision and how was this connected to your ideas about who might read the book?

Jane Setter: I wanted people to be able to access media other than print so they could really hear (and see) examples of some of the things I have written about.  As an educator, I find visual cues to be invaluable to the learning process.  Phonetics is often thought to be a dry subject and just about sound; I wanted it to come alive so readers could really get a sense of how this technical subject relates to the real world and to them. I always use video examples in my teaching and students have commented on how this helps them understand the content, so I wanted to give my readers that experience, too.

I suppose the book is targeted at anyone who is interested in speech as a social and communicative phenomenon, so that is who I imagine will be reading the book.

Paola Medina González: In your book, you talk about teachers and famous people who change their accents consciously in order to integrate into society. Are there situations in which we change our accent unconsciously? Are these changes imposed by something else, perhaps social factors?

Jane Setter: While several studies and the interviewees in the book show that some people are very much aware of the way they speak and have chosen to modify it, I think most people change the way they speak unconsciously when they move between different social settings.  In general, humans are social beings, and showing you identify with a particular speech community at any one time is a way of being accepted by that community, and getting your social needs met. This could be conscious or unconscious.  An example which is often given is how teenagers speak differently with their friends, their parents and their friends’ parents. I would certainly switch in and out of (slightly) different accents at school or home because of the expectations in those settings, and it becomes second nature if they are settings you are used to.  If you find yourself moving into a new social setting where the speech features are different, you will either chose to try to change, or you may decide not to, depending on how you want to express your identity.  Changing the way you speak to be more accepted by a certain speech community, and to show you accept that community, is called accommodation.

The fact that it is often unconscious is reflected in the accounts I have had from many people over the years who have moved around the UK – or the world – to study and, when they have gone back home, people have told them that they don’t sound like themselves any more.  This kind of comment can make the speaker feel like they have lost part of their identity (rather than gaining a new one), but it is also a reflection of how their social group might feel rejected by the speaker.

Paola Medina González: According to your book, some professions pay more attention to voice and speech inflection. Relating this idea to my own experience, when I studied how to teach my native language, one of my professors used to evaluate us in terms of performance, besides teaching techniques and designing didactic materials. She used to tell the male students that they had a really good teacher’s voice. Female students were not so lucky. What could be the reason for this? Is it true that there are better voices for teaching? Are there better voices according to professions?

Jane Setter: It sounds like your professor was biased against female speech, which is very common indeed, and something I look at in the book. But she may also have been biased against other women in general or felt threatened by them; the negative comments about your voices sound like something called competitor derogation, which people use to make themselves feel more superior.  This is a very complex issue and I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t feel qualified to make further comments.

Concerning whether there are better voices according to professions, I can’t think of any research that looks specifically at this, but I would suggest that stereotyping would play a role in people’s opinions of which voice and/or accent fits which profession best.

Paola Medina González: In many chapters of your book, you say that when people speak, the way they sound plays a role in social relationships. In this sense, there could be cases in which an accent can be linked with social stereotypes and people try to avoid it. What do you consider is the best practice to avoid creating and reproducing negative social stereotypes related to accents? What dialogue do you want your book to establish with people working in education? What can teachers and professors do in order to eliminate the stereotypes associated with some accents or particular phonetic phenomena? 

Jane Setter: Education, education, education!

Again, education is key here. We need to be discussing these issues and helping people understand what their (un)conscious biases are and how they acquire them, so that they can question these biases when they realize they are in the process of making them.  I would recommend this starts as early as possible in educational settings. And it will require those teachers and professors to undergo unconscious bias training where speech is concerned.

We, as people, need to be able to take a step back, appreciate that cultures are different, and try to move towards mutual understanding, rather than making assumptions which can lead to a breakdown in communication.

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?  

Continue reading

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.