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Review of  Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Marcial Terrádez Gurrea
Book Title: Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Lesley Milroy Matthew K Gordon
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 14.3190

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Milroy, Lesley and Matthew Gordon (2003) Sociolinguistics: Method and
Interpretation, Blackwell Publishing, Language in Society 34.

Announced at

Marcial Terrádez Gurrea, University of Valencia, Spain


In the first chapter, Sociolinguistics: Models and Methods, the
authors outline the purpose of their book, which is to focus on
methods and theories underlying the quantitative paradigm of
sociolinguistic research. Next, they relate variationist theory to
other adjacent fields, such as linguistic anthropology and
conversational analysis, and point out the features that variationism
shares with other kinds of sociolinguistics. They talk about earlier
approaches to empirical linguistic description, focusing on American
descriptivists and traditional dialectology, and finally present some
of the adaptations of the traditional model, reviewing the work of
early urban studies.

In the second chapter, Locating and Selecting Subjects, Milroy and
Gordon discuss different issues related to speaker selection. In order
to outline the issues involved in selecting sampling procedures, they
follow Sankoff (1980), who discusses three decisions: defining the
sampling universe, stratification and sample size. The authors outline
the difference between random sampling and quota sampling, arguing
that the latter procedure selects subjects in accordance with their
research objectives. Finally, Milroy and Gordon relate the sampling
methods to the social class scholars wish to study, and conclude that
theory and method are closely interconnected.

In the following chapter, Data Collection, the authors outline the
different approaches researchers use for data collection, presenting
the pros and cons of each of them. Firstly, they talk about written
questionnaires; the main advantage of this technique is that it can
provide good amounts of data in a short time, but the disadvantage is
that these kinds of questionnaires do not allow for in- depth
examination of language nor a good insight into intraspeaker
variation. Secondly, the use of sociolinguistic interviews is
reviewed, and some of the conclusions are that certain speech
phenomena are impossible to study with interviews and that, sometimes,
the interview's formality can limit the variables that can be
researched. Thirdly, the authors focus on the participant observation
method, and they think it is a fruitful method, but inefficient as a
data collection procedure, due to the amount of time needed. One of
their conclusions is that scholars can combine different
approaches. At the end of the chapter, the authors discuss some
principles related to research ethics, such as informed consent,
preservation of anonymity, surreptitious recording or the researcher's
responsibilities to the community.

In the fourth chapter, Language Variation and the Social World: Issues
in Analysis and Interpretation, the authors study the relationship
between language variation and the social world, pointing out that it
is problematic to consider categories such as class, gender and
ethnicity as predetermined and, according to them ''an alternative
conceptualization of social categories as constructed by members'
everyday practices challenges researchers to show their specifically
local relevance, and to consider how an individual's category
affiliations are related to everyday linguistic practices'' (94). They
discuss three typical social categories:

a)Social class: the authors use the concept of the linguistic market,
and they follow Sankoff and Laberge (1978) in saying that according to
this concept, linguistic differences between speakers are analyzed in
terms of ''the importance of the legitimized language in the
socioeconomic life of the speaker'' (97).

b)Sex and gender: Milroy and Gordon argue that the relationship
between gender and social class need to be examined more closely,
because gender variation is often explained as dependent on social
class, and sometimes it seems to be that we find the opposite

c)Ethnicity and Race: The authors note that these are related to
social class, and that the relationship has to be understood with
reference to local conditions and local social practices.

In chapter 5, Social Relationship and Social Practices, the authors
talk about concepts such as ''social network'' and ''community of
practice'', in order to check how local practices give rise to global
sociolinguistic patterns. The concept of social network is defined as
''the aggregate of relationships contracted with others, a boundless
web of ties which reaches out through social and geographical space
linking many individuals, sometimes remotely'' (p.117), and they make
a distinction, within social networks, between first order ties
(direct contact) and second-order ties (where the link is
indirect). They follow Eckert (2000) in defining a community of
practice as ''an aggregate of people coming together around a
particular enterprise''. They end the chapter pointing out that these
two concepts are related, and showing several examples of their
behaviour in real social contexts.

In the following chapter, Investigating Phonological Variation, the
authors explain how the theories and methods explained in the former
chapters are applied to the study of linguistic variation. They say
that normally, the steps that investigators follow when researching
about linguistic variables are: a) identify relevant linguistic
variables, b) search patterns and c) place the linguistic results in
the context of their social distribution. Afterwards, the authors
explain some of the measurement techniques used to study variation,
and do an evaluation of these techniques.

Later in the chapter, Milroy and Gordon focus on the analysis of
phonological variables, explaining that, to achieve a good survey, the
scholar must first define the range of variation of the variable,
then, study the phonetic context as a conditioning factor of the
phonological variable. The chapter closes with a review of some
methods of phonological variation quantification, and the conclusion
is that they are a powerful aid, but they do not answer all questions,
so must be used critically by the researcher.

In the seventh chapter, Beyond Phonology: Analyzing and Interpreting
Higher Level Variation, the authors talk about linguistic variation at
a level other than the phonological. They argue that the most
important difference between phonological and morpho-syntactic
variation is that speakers make use of a limited inventory of
phonological contrasts, but they can make considerable choices within
the morpho-syntactic level. In the chapter, the authors do a review
of work on grammatical and syntactic analysis, and try to outline some
of the problems involved in studying morpho-syntactic variation such

-It is not clear how the concept of sociolinguistic variable might be

-It is not easy to specify what elements might be said to constitute
variants of an underlying variable.

-It is also unclear to what extent syntax and discourse variants might
be said to be semantically equivalent.

In chapter 8, Style-Shifting and Code-Switching, the authors focus on
style-shifting and code-switching phenomena, but they treat them
separately because ''these phenomena have been studied in different
frameworks''. Milroy and Gordon, while talking about style, point out
that recent scholars consider style not only as a response to
situation, but also as strategic, proactive use of linguistic
resources to construct social meaning. So, within this framework,
linguistic choices are interpreted as strategies whereby speakers not
only associate themselves with particular social groups, but also
construct social categories such as ''whiteness'' or
''masculinity''. The authors discuss these two approaches to style:
regarding style as a response to situation, they argue that
researchers have not attempted to follow Labov in distinguishing
careful and casual speech, and talk about the difficulties in using
instruments such as reading passages and word lists. On the other
hand, style can be considered, according to the authors, as a
initiative and strategical phenomena if we are aware that particular
linguistic practices are associated with other social practices
(choices of dress, adornment and demeanor) and, by means of these
practices, social actors construct and define mutually distinctive
social categories.

The second part of the chapter is devoted to the code-switching
concept, defined as follows: ''the term code-switching can describe a
range of language (or dialect) alternation and mixing phenomena
whether within the same conversation, the same turn, or the same
sentence-utterance''(209). To better understand this phenomenon, they
use the Myers-Scotton's (1993)distinction between allocational
paradigm vs. interactional paradigm. The allocational paradigm treats
social structure as broadly determining language behaviors. The
interactional paradigm treats individuals as making rational,
intersubjectively understood language choices to achieve specifiable
interactional goals.

Finally, chapter 9 serves as a brief epilogue or conclusion of the
main issues treated in the book. The authors explain some important
ways in which the field has changed and expanded and also identify
issues that are currently attracting the attention of researchers.


This book is, first, a very good resource for students and scholars
who wish to acquaint themselves with theoretical and methodological
issues related to variationism and sociolinguistics in
general. Consequently, the book can be highly recommended for anyone
interested in acquiring or reviewing the sociolinguistic
framework. Second, this book is very well-structured, providing
different real-world examples of every concept and method
discussed. Third, the authors explain concepts not always discussed in
sociolinguistic works, despite their importance, such as ethical
concerns, style-shifting and community of practice.

However, I would like to mention several points:

-Since the main interest of the book is theoretical, it is not the
best resource for anyone interested in undertaking practical research.

-The distinction between ''social network'' and ''community of
practice'' is not clear, even after reading the chapter devoted to
these issues, and this suggests to me that scholars probably don't
make this distinction in their sociolinguistic research.

-There is an imbalance between the chapter devoted to phonological
variation and the part of the book that covers non phonological
variation, suggesting to the reader the idea that only the former one
can be considered as a real variation.

-There is also an imbalance between the references to works in English
and the rest of sociolinguistic research.


Eckert, P. (2000) Linguistic Variation as Social Practice, Oxford:

Myers-Scotton, C. (1993) Social Motivation for Code- Switching,
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sankoff, G. (1980) ''A quantitative paradigm for the study of
communicative competence''. In G. Sankoff (ed.), The Social Life of
Language, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 47-49.

Sankoff, D. and Laberge, S. (1978) ''The linguistic market and the
statistical explanation of variability''. In D. Sankoff (ed.),
Linguistic Variation: Models and Methods, New York: Academic Press,
pp. 239-50.

Marcial Terrádez Gurrea is a lecturer of Spanish Language
at the University of Valencia (Spain), and currently
teaches courses on Sociolinguistics and Spoken
Language. His research interests include
sociolinguistics, spoken language and computational

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