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Issues in the Ethnography of Communication

Problems with the ethnography of communication

This page relates to the task ‘Issues in the ethnography of communication’, which appears at the end of the lecture notes on Spoken English Week 5: The Speech Event. You should not read what follows unless you have already completed that task.

In what follows discuss what I take to be some of the problems with EC as a field of study. As far as possible, I build my case around a response to Saville-Troike 1996.

The problems with EC lie not so much in the importance of the enterprise as in what it seeks to accomplish and by what means. Saville-Troike’s claim from the opening paragraph of her paper (1996:351) provides some indication of how ambitious this project is. Before you read the next paragraph, think about the terms which are used here and their referents:

This new field focuses on the patterning of communicative behaviour as it constitutes one of the systems of culture, as it functions within the holistic context of culture, and as it relates to patterns in other cultural systems.

The first problem lies in tying down communicative behaviour, and in this respect it’s worth noting that Hymes explicitly allows for the relevance of non-verbal communication and Saville-Troike’s list of the components of communication reinforces this understanding. The problem here is the sheer range of what might be included under this head. Harrison (1973) has included under non-verbal communication, ‘everything from facial expressions and gesture to fashion and status symbol, from dance and drama to music and mime, from flow of affect to flow of traffic, from the territoriality of animals to the protocol of diplomats, from extrasensory perception to analog computers, from the rhetoric of violence to the rhetoric of topless dancers’, and his is by no means the most expansive of the definitions on offer (Poyatos 1983, for example, provides a picture of an even more extensive field).

We are further expected, according to Saville-Troike, to relate this communicative behaviour to the ‘holistic context of culture’ and, further yet, to compare this with patterns in other cultural systems. It is hard to imagine any concept less well-defined than that of culture, and yet here we are being asked to believe that holistic descriptions of culture are in principle possible, to serve as the basis for the interpretation of communicative behaviour. A recognition that ‘there is a correlation between the form and content of a language and the beliefs, values, and needs present in the culture of its speakers’ (Saville-Troike 1989:32) is not the same thing as establishing the precise means of pinning down the nature of such a ‘correlation’. (For a critical discussion of the place of culture in EC, see Williams 1992:174-183.)

There seems to me to be a certain amount of vagueness in the relationship which is assumed between EC and other fields such as interactional sociolinguistics, pragmatics and discourse analysis generally (see e.g. Saville-Troike 1996: 354, 366). The desirability of such links is, however, widely recognised:

What is needed, then, is a general theory and body of knowledge within which diversity of speech, repertoires, ways of speaking, and choosing among them find a natural place. Such a theory and body of knowledge are only now being built in a sustained way. ... In order to develop models, or theories, of the interaction of language and social life, there must be adequate descriptions of that interaction, and such descriptions call for an approach that partly links, but partly cuts across, partly builds between the ordinary practices of the disciplines.

Hymes 1986:40-41

I stress these points because I think they account for a degree of reticence in how progress in this field is represented. I think we might describe the state of play at the moment as at the ‘pre-theoretical’ stage (a term I have borrowed from Coulthard, who used it to describe aspects of his own work on discourse analysis). In the literature, we notice the frequent occurrence of phrases like ‘seeks to account for’, ‘potential relevance’, ‘general findings’ and ‘idealistic’, to draw examples from a single page of a standard introduction (Saville-Troike 1996:352), and there seems to be a general recognition that the work of theory building needs to be done. The problem for someone who wants to form a picture of this particular field is that what we find in the literature, in place of a systematic account of communicative practices, is a collection of entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying anecdotes. And when attempts are made to discuss these in ways which rise above the particular, we find ourselves wrestling with concepts which are poorly defined.

One such is the concept of the speech community. The centrality of this to EC is widely accepted, and focusing on this as a unit of analysis achieves two objectives: the concept of community captures the socio-cultural focus while offering a unit which is potentially susceptible to precise definition, and the linking of speech to this emphasises the intimate link between patterns of language and culture which lies at the heart of EC. However, the concept itself is far from unproblematic. Proponents of EC recognise the problems associated with it (Saville-Troike 1989:16-20), but nevertheless use the term as if it were essentially unproblematic. They even go so far as to suggest (Saville-Troike 1989:41-42) that a typology of speech communities might ‘contribute to a general theory of communication.’ (For a succinct summary of the difficulties in pinning down the concept of a speech community, see Hudson 1980: 25-30.)

In Saville-Troike’s (1996:356-59) discussion we find her beginning with a reference to a the speech community as a ‘unit’ but recognising that this unit is capable of subdividision. Studies of such smaller units, she claims, would then need to be related to ‘the social and cultural whole’ (357), whatever this might be. Having discussed membership difficulties, particularly in the case of non-native speakers, she concludes by admitting that this ‘adds complexity to the construct of speech community’. Ultimately, perhaps, we have to do without the spurious convenience of this unit and recognise, with Foley, that the roots of linguistic practice are infinitely complex:

Ultimately, these different linguistic practices reflect different trajectories of lived experience for the speakers and consequently are emblematic and creative of wider cultural practices and beliefs.

Foley 1997: 259


Foley, W.A. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harrison, R.P. 1973. Nonverbal Communication. In I. de sola Pool and W. Schramm (eds), Handbook of Communication. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Hudson, R.A. 1980. Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hymes, D. 1986. Models of the interaction of language and social life. In J.J. Gumperz and D. Hymes (eds), Directions in Sociolinguistics, pp.35-71. Oxford: Blackwell.

Poyatos, F. 1983. New Perspectives in Nonverbal Communication: Studies in Cultural Anthropology, Social Psychology, Linguistics, Literature and Semiotics. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Saville-Troike, M. 1989 The Ethnography of Communication (Second Edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Saville-Troike, M. 1996. The ethnography of communication. In S.L. McKay (ed), Sociolinguistics and Language Teaching, pp.351-80. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, G. 1992. Sociolinguistics: A Sociological Critique. London: Routledge.