LINGUIST List 6.1699

Sun Dec 3 1995

Review: Figueroa: Sociolinguistic Metatheory

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  1. Daniel Seely, Review: Figueroa: Sociolinguistic Metatheory

Message 1: Review: Figueroa: Sociolinguistic Metatheory

Date: Sun, 03 Dec 1995 10:29:35 Review: Figueroa: Sociolinguistic Metatheory
From: Daniel Seely <>
Subject: Review: Figueroa: Sociolinguistic Metatheory

Book Review:
Figueroa, Esther (1994) SOCIOLINGUISTIC METATHEORY, Pergamon Press: Oxford.
204pp. ISBN 0 08 042399 X

Reviewed by Alan Firth, Aalborg University, Denmark

This book addresses issues of perennial importance for linguists and,
indeed, all scholars concerned with the analysis of language. In brief,
these issues cluster around the relationship of language to social context,
and the theoretical and methodological implications of that relationship.
By asking questions such as 'what defines sociolinguistics', and 'what
assumptions on the nature of language underpin linguistics', Figueroa's
book goes to the heart of linguistics, the sociology of language,
pragmatics, and more. Does the book -- in the space of its 200 pages --
accomplish its goals by providing convincing answers to such questions? In
large part, yes.
 Chapter 1 opens with an exemplary, though brief, overview of
previous attempts to define sociolinguistics. Figueroa notes that
sociolinguistics is a conglomerate of related theoretical interests,
methodologies and views on language, its concerns embracing "variation and
diversity [of language]; the socio-cultural nature of language; [...]
_parole_/language use, interaction and meaning" (p.2). Such diversity has,
however, in some quarters engendered discontent. In 1974, Dell Hymes, for
example, lamented the fact that, to him, sociolinguistics was vaguely
defined, profuse and shallow: "a mile wide and an inch deep". By way of a
corrective, Durmuller (1980), and others, called for a 'unifying theory' of
sociolinguistics. As Figueroa (hereafter, F) rightly observes, such
complaints and urgings are predicated on fundamental, yet normally
unexplicated, assumptions of what a discipline should be like, what
language is, what linguistics is, and what it should focus on. The author
claims that the point of her study is not so much to define
sociolinguistics; rather it is to question the nature of such assumptions,
and to "examine how leading sociolinguists have defined sociolinguistics
and what this might add to an understanding of theories of language" (p.4).
 This is achieved mainly through an appraisal of the work of Dell
Hymes, William Labov, and John Gumperz, and by comparing "their approach
with other sociolinguistic approaches, [then placing their theory] in
relation to received linguistic theory" (p.4). One of the book's
limitations is thus revealed: its severely limited focus on three scholars'
work, its heavy orientation towards North American sociolinguistics, and
the large-scale omission of related work undertaken outside the U.S.
However, F's restricted focus is mitigated in part by the enduring and
international standing, as well as the diversity, of the three scholars'
 The book is structured in terms of Kuhn's three levels of paradigm
- the metaphysical level, the disciplinary matrix level (wherein the three
scholars' work is discussed), and finally the construct level.
 In chapter 2, building on Ivana Markova's 'Paradigms, Thought and
Language' (1982, Wiley and Sons: London), F argues the importance of
considering 'paradigm assumptions' that underlie linguistics, particularly
those approaches entitled 'formalist' and 'functionalist'. F asks: "On what
basis do linguists make decisions over such issues as what does or does not
count as linguistics? What is or is not 'good' linguistics?" (p.17). The
way to address such questions, F maintains, is to focus on their underlying
assumptions. F calls this the _metatheoretical_ perspective. Adopting such
a perspective entails directing attention to the underlying beliefs,
presuppositions, assumptions and values which generate a particular
approach to language. The 'Formal paradigm' (characterised by assumptions
such as: 'language is a set of sentences', 'the study of competence has
logical and methodological priority over the study of performance'), F
contends, demonstrates a "striking correspondence" (p.23) with the
Cartesian framework, while the 'Functional paradigm' (e.g. 'language is an
instrument of social action', 'the study of the language system must take
place within the framework of the system of language use'), can be equated
with the Hegelian framework. From this, and hardly surprisingly, F notes
that "it is safe to place sociolinguistics within both the Hegelian
framework and the functionalist linguistic paradigm" (p.25).
 Chapter 3 focuses on the work of Dell Hymes, and not least his
sustained critique of Chomsky's hugely influential view of linguistics,
developed more than three decades ago. Hymes' call for a 'socially
constituted linguistics', and the subsequent development of his
'ethnography of speaking' and 'communicative competence', emerged as part
of a radical alternative view of linguistics from that proffered by
Chomsky. F insightfully discusses Hymes' 'communicative competence' notion,
as well as his 'ethnography of speaking' and views on 'context'. While
acknowledging Hymes' "revolutionary" (p.65) contribution to linguistics, F
also notes that Hymes' work "is peculiarly unfinished, strong in metatheory
but weak in detail" (p.66).
 The work of William Labov is the subject of chapter 4. F points out
that, in contrast to Hymes, Labov developed an operationalised 'method' for
analysis. Like Hymes, though, Labov insists that the study of language must
take place within the context of the speech community (In fact, Labov, like
several others, resists the term 'sociolinguistics', and hence the
'linguistics-sociolinguistics' bifurcation). F notes that, while Labov
emphasises the centrality of social context and cognitive processes, his
concerns are "ultimately with the linguistic system from a strictly
linguistic perspective" (p.70). Unfortunately, however, to this reviewer at
least, F has not established what a 'strictly linguistic perspective' is,
though intimates that its parameters are the topics of language structure,
phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. This means that, unlike Hymes,
Labov omits considerations of "culturally patterned language use and
socially or situationally constrained language use" (p.70). But unlike
'received linguistics', and similar to Hymes, F claims that Labov's
sociolinguistics "places the locus of language in some sort of social order
(the speech community) rather than the individual" (p.70). In essence,
Labov's work is not a theory of 'parole', nor is it the study of language
use for descriptive purposes; rather it is a study of language use for what
it reveals about linguistic structure ('langue'). The chapter provides an
illuminating discussion of Labov's version of linguistics compared with
Saussurian linguistics, as well as a critical summary of Labov's 'variable
rules' theory.
 Chapter 5 discusses the work of John Gumperz, most particularly his
'interactional sociolinguistics' and 'contextualization cues'. Gumperz'
work is underpinned by a wide range of theoretical and methodological
influences outside linguistics, more so than Labov and even Hymes, the
primary influences being Goffman, Schutz, Garfinkel, Grice, Harvey Sacks
and J.R. Firth. Throughout, Gumperz is concerned with intersubjectivity and
language in interaction; F is especially successful in discussing the
former of these two components. Gumperz critiques Labov's version of
sociolinguistics, maintaining its explanatory inadequacy in accounting for
actual behaviour and _use_ of language in face to face interaction. For
Gumperz, the notion of 'knowledge' - knowledge of language, shared
knowledge, tacit knowledge, knowledge of schemata and inferences - is
fundamental, and an abiding concern for him has been to document the
situated application of knowledge in actual episodes of interaction.
Indeed, Gumperz' insistence on the centrality of interaction leads him to
reject Hymes' perceivedly non-interactive 'ethnography of speaking'. F
claims that Gumperz' work leads to a kind of 'linguistics of
particularity', in that Gumperz eschews attempts to categorize or interpret
linguistic phenomena outside of specific, concrete situations. Gumperz'
work has, however, important affinities with Hymes', notably a stress on
_cultural_ knowledge and cultural background.
 Chapter 6, entitled 'Sociolinguistics and utterance', is, says F,
"about what is _linguistic_ about sociolinguistics" (p.143). In concrete
terms, sociolinguistics is the study of socially situated language, what F
calls 'utterance'. There is some redundancy in this chapter, as F revisits
the 'definitions of sociolinguistics', though the point of the chapter is
well made: in order for sociolinguists to study utterance, the researcher
must look outside conventional linguistics, since a range of factors are
inevitably involved in utterance production and interpretation: biological,
physical, political, social, cultural, etc. The question then remains as to
how much and what part of context should be invoked by the analyst, as well
as the theoretical rationale behind such methodological decisions. F
proceeds with a truncated though excellent discussion of context, and not
least a discussion of the _relevance_ of context when actual (professional)
analysis of language is underway. Her conclusions are rather tame and
predictable, however, emphasizing the need for sociolinguistics "not to get
ghettoized within the narrow confines of any one disciplinary matrix"
 The final chapter (7) contrasts the three protagonists' work in
relation to received linguistics. While Hymes distanced himself
ideologically from linguistics, Labov positioned himself well within it;
Gumperz was similarly placed to Hymes, though according to F, with "less
ideological advocacy" (p.178). F concludes that there is no unified theory
of sociolinguistics, nor is there a shared 'metatheory'. There is, however,
a shared sociolinguistic subject matter: 'utterance'. F further observes
that, in present-day sociolinguistics, there is a "blurring of methodology"
(p.180), and that sociolinguistics is _both_ a discipline and a
perspective. F argues that the need to identify sociolinguistics with a
particular perspective and theory of language (essentially Hegelian) is
relevant if the field is not to be marginalised and relegated to secondary
citizenship within linguistics.
 This is an important book for (socio)linguistics and the several
related fields of study. Its true value lies in its compact though
penetrating discussions of leading figures in the field, and its insistent
pursuance of answers to its key questions: what is the relationship of
sociolinguistics to received linguistics? What are the theoretical
underpinnings of sociolinguistics? The conclusions of the book, while
hardly groundbreaking, nevertheless demarcate important positions from
which to advance.

Reviewer: Alan Firth, Associate Professor, Dept. of Language and
Intercultural Studies, Aalborg University, Havrevangen 1, DK-9000 Aalborg,
Denmark. Email:

Alan Firth's edited collection - The Discourse of Negotiation: Studies of
Language in the Workplace, was published by Pergamon Press, Oxford, in
January 1995. His monograph - Talking the Business: Discourse, Technology
and International Trade - will be published next year by Oxford
University Press.

- -----------------------
Alan Firth, Dept. of Language & Intercultural Studies, Aalborg University,
Havrevangen 1, DK-9000 Aalborg, Denmark. Tel: +45 98158522, 6211; Fax: +45
98138086; E-mail:
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