About Sociolinguistic Fieldwork

Find out:

  1. What is sociolinguistics?
  2. What is sociolinguistic fieldwork? Why do people do it?
  3. What is a sociolinguistic interview like?
  4. Why do sociolinguists need to tape record the interview?
  5. Why not just record people without their knowing?
  6. What do sociolinguists do with the interview data after it's over?
  7. Where can I find more information about the fieldwork process?

What is sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics is the study of language in its social context. The term can encompass a wide range of research questions and pursuits within linguistics. From descriptive studies of dialects, to investigations of language variation and change, to analyses of the roles that language, or even particular linguistic features, play in the construction of individual or group identities, these sorts of studies are all sociolinguistic, although they may involve different theoretical assumptions and methodological practices. Nonetheless, regardless of specific approach, they're all similar in that they all base their research and findings on empirical data, which is obtained through sociolinguistic fieldwork.

For more information about sociolinguistics, see Walt Wolfram's About Sociolinguistics page.

What is sociolinguistic fieldwork? Why do people do it?

The empirical data sociolinguists need to understand language in its social context is obtained through sociolinguistic fieldwork, the recording of langage data within a natural context, such as a dinner conversation among a family, for example, or through a sociolinguistic interview, a particular interview style designed to maximize naturalness in a interview situation (see below).

Sociolinguistics do fieldwork because it is only through a fine-grained study of actual speech in naturally occurring situations that linguists can understand the full richness of a particular community's linguistic practices. For example, in 1950 Allan Hubble (in The Pronunciation of English in New York City) wrote about the pronunciation of /r/ (in words like "hard" and "car"), "The pronunciation of a very large number of New Yorkers exhibits a pattern in these words that might most accurately be described as the complete absence of any pattern" (p. 48). However, William Labov (in his 1966 The Social Stratification of English in New York City) demonstrated that a close analysis of actual speech shows that there is in fact a quite discernable pattern to the pronunciation of /r/ in New York City.

Graph of class stratification vs. style
From: Labov, William (2006). The Social Stratification of English
in New York City, Second ed., p. 152.

What is a sociolinguistic interview like?

Typically, interviews are rather formal sorts of situations. For example, for many people being interviewed may remind them of applying for a job. Furthermore, tape-recording an interview can make that situation even more formal (see below). However, sociolinguists are interested in studying people's most natural speech - typically, the sort of speech people have with their friends, not with an unknown researcher from a nearby university. The sociolinguistic interview is an interview style designed to ameliorate this inherent conflict - often called "the observer's paradox" - that in order to study someone's speech when she or he is not be observed you have to observe them!

Sociolinguistic interviewers try to ask questions that will produce casual, relaxed conversation. This usually involves questions about topics ranging from childhood games to current activities. Since a lot of sociolinguistic work focuses not only on language but also on culture and society (the "Life" part of The North Carolina Language and Life Project), the interviewers often ask a number of questions about the local communities - not only does this elicit information about categories and topics most relevant locally (i.e., to the inhabitants of a place) but these sorts of topics have proven to be successful for obtaining casual, natural conversation.

Sociolinguists often don't only want data on people's most casual speech. They may also be interested in people's language in more formal situations. For this reason, the sociolinguistic interview often contains elicitation tasks that are designed to gain specific sorts of information and specific speech styles. This is achieved though more constrained question-answer formats (as opposed to the more conversational, open-ended questions) and activities like describing a picture or reading a short passage aloud.

Sample questions

  • What was it like growing up around here?
  • What games did you and your friends play when you were kids?
  • Do you have any friends that aren't from around here? What are they like?

Examples of elicitation tasks

  • What do you call people who aren't from town? That is, do you have a word (or words) for visitors?
  • Please read the following list of words out loud: "hawk", "hock", "pin", "pen", ...

Why do sociolinguists need to tape record the interview?

The interviews need to be tape recorded, because the interviewers are interested in many aspects of the community's language, not just in hearing one or two unusual pronunciations, such as hoi toide, or a new word like mommuck. Researchers can't listen for all the different features they're interested in all at once - and pay attention to what's being said - without making a tape that they can go back to and listen to as many times as needed. Sociolinguists seek to paint as accurate a picture of the language as possible; tape recordings help ensure that the descriptions developed are based on real-life language use and not on vague impressions.

Sociolinguists don't record people without their knowledge in part because it's not ethical, but also in part because it's bad practice. People are sensitive - and rightly so - to what they have said "on record". It's unethical not to give people the choice between what is recorded and what is not recorded. It's also bad practice because sociolinguistic research depends on a good, open relationship with a community of speakers who are willing to share their time and their speech with the researchers. If you're dishonest with your informants and get found out, they will most likely not be interested in helping you anymore - and with good reason!

What do sociolinguists do with the interview data after it's over?

Sociolinguists go through each interview in order to describe exactly how different structures pattern. The specific features examined and the ways those features are analyzed will depend on the particular research questions underlying a study. For example, they may compare different language items across different groups of speakers within a community. So, continuing the example, they may look at how a particular type of sentence structure or even a single vowel is produced by older people, middle-aged people, and younger people to see how the language is changing over time.

Lots of sociolinguistic analyses, especially of morphosyntactic (i.e., grammatical) features, are conducted through extensive close-listening. For example, to study was-leveling, a feature found in many dialects (e.g., "They was taking me home and we got lost" for "They were taking me home and we got lost"), analysts will listen to all the relevant recordings (multiple times each) from the community being studied and "tabulate" how many times was occurs in comparison to all the possible times were could occur. Comparing these "realizations" by an individual speaker with aggregate social group and community data, sociolinguists are able to understand and describe how the feature patterns through the community. Phonological (i.e., pronunciation) features are also often studied this same way. However, some phonological features (like vowel productions) are studied instrumentally by using software tools (such as Praat) to measure the acoustics of the sounds.

These are just a couple of examples of the sorts of analyses that sociolinguists do with their interview data. For some real-life examples of the sorts of analyses that are undertaken by linguists, check out some of the NCLLP's field sites. For each fieldsite, we list briefly discuss the research questions that led our team to that community and we list some of the linguistic features we've analyzed in order to shed light on those research questions.

Where can I find more information about the fieldwork process?

There are some good textbooks on sociolinguistics and sociolinguistic fieldwork that you might want to look at. We list just a couple here. We also list a few other good internet resources.

  • Lesley Milroy and Matthew Gordon. 2003. Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation. Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

  • Ethnographic Methods in Sociocultural Linguistics: a workshop on ethnographic research methods held in association with the 2007 LSA Institute. Link to Mary Bucholtz' site (UCSB).

  • Schilling, Natalie, 2013. Sociolinguistic Fieldwork. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.