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Review of  Research Methods in Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Cecily Brainerd Corbett
Book Title: Research Methods in Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Janet Holmes Kirk Hazen
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 25.4971

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This book is part of a seven-volume series edited by Li Wei entitled “Guides to Research Methods in Language and Linguistics.” Each book in the series focuses on the methods of data collection and analysis as well as the theoretical foundations for specific subdisciplines within the field of linguistics. The goal of the series is to highlight both the opportunities and challenges that researchers face due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field, and to systematically present a how-to guide for the student researcher. This volume is designed specifically as a tool for advanced students and novice researchers to use for sociolinguistic studies. The editors have pieced together chapters addressing different methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and data collection and analysis techniques. The volume is split into two parts. The first concerns types of data and data collection, and the second concerns data analysis. A brief summary of each chapter follows.

Chapter 1: “A Historical Assessment of Research Questions in Sociolinguistics” by Kirk Hazen

This chapter focuses on the history of the field of sociolinguistics, highlighting studies from the1960s and beyond to show changes in the way that sociolinguists have formed their research questions and hypotheses. Hazen emphasizes that scholars working in the field of sociolinguistics, especially early on, hailed from different academic backgrounds, such as anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, and therefore approached research in sociolinguistics from different angles. While some researchers approached a problem by forming research questions based on language, others approached it by forming research questions based on society. This chapter also provides students entering the field with important troubleshooting tips, like avoiding generalizations and forming simpler, specific research questions that can help to examine a larger issue.

Part I – Types of Data and Methods of Data Collection

Chapter 2: “Sociolinguistic Interviews” by Michol Hoffman

The chapter offers a comprehensive discussion of the ‘how to’s’ for collecting data in the field using sociolinguistic interviews; it discusses issues such as developing research questions, making contact with the target speech community, and troubleshooting problems with recording equipment. This chapter offers the reader clear, concise guidance and valuable advice. One of the more important pieces of advice this chapter provides for novice researchers embarking on fieldwork is to “represent yourself as you” (39). Researchers may find themselves strangers in a particular community, or an in-group member in a strange role. Hoffman reminds the reader to resist forcing assimilation into a community, as informants will respond better to authenticity.

Chapter 3: “Written Surveys and Questionnaires in Sociolinguistics” by Erik Schleef

Following Chapter 2’s discussion of the sociolinguistic interview, Chapter 3 turns the focus towards written surveys and questionnaires as a form of sociolinguistic data collection. Questionnaires allow researchers to collect a large quantity of data within a relatively short amount of time while also being cost-effective. The researcher can only take advantage of the many assets of written data collection if the data collection tool is well designed. This chapter briefly outlines developing, structuring, testing, and administering a successful sociolinguistic questionnaire.

Chapter 4: “Experimental Methods in Sociolinguistics” by Katie Drager

This chapter describes the experimental paradigm methods of data collection, the matched-guise test and the identification task and discusses their increased use in the field. The matched-guise test is designed by the researcher to answer the question ‘what social information does a listener assign to a speaker based solely on hearing their voice?’ while the identification task answers the question ‘can an informant’s expectations about a speaker affect how they will hear speech?’ This chapter also addresses the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

Chapter 5: “Computer-mediated Communication and Linguistics Landscapes” by Jannis Androutsopoulos

Chapter 5 discusses research methods in two emergent areas in sociolinguistics, computer-mediated communication and linguistic landscapes (CMC and LL, respectively). CMC research looks at text-based interpersonal interactions through digital media, such as texting, social media, and emails. LL considers language use in the public domain, such as commercial or official signage. This chapter urges the researcher to extend their scope of what sociolinguistic data can include.

Part II -- Methods of Analysis

Focusing on Features of Language from a Sociolinguistic Perspective

Chapter 6: “Sociohistorical Analysis” by Terttu Nevalainen

This chapter pays special attention to the study of historical linguistics, briefly giving the reader some background on the field as well as helpful tips and tools for approaching a sociolinguistic study within historical linguistics. Nevalainen underscores the importance of corpus selection and suggests numerous specific corpora.

Chapter 7: “Corpus Linguistics in Sociolinguistics” by Paul Baker

Chapter 7 discusses sociolinguistic analysis of a corpus of data. Corpus linguistics is of interest because it allows researchers to look at a wider range of linguistic data, and analyze a large quantity of data taken from naturally occurring speech. Baker discusses the principles governing the composition of corpora, the sort of research questions most appropriate for this research method, and concerns for researchers taking on a project in corpus linguistics.

Chapter 8: “Phonetic Analysis in Sociolinguistics” by Erik R. Thomas

This chapter highlights the importance of today’s sociolinguist being able to conduct acoustic analyses when any phonetic or phonological variable in under consideration. Thomas describes some of the most frequently used techniques and suggests other methods that could be useful. Finally, Thomas discusses common pitfalls in measurement errors and steps that the researcher can take to avoid them.

Chapter 9: “Phonological Considerations in Sociolinguistics” by Paul Kerswill and Kevin Watson

Chapter 9 discusses the importance not only of external, social factors that can influence language change and variation, but also of internal factors of the language itself, specifically phonological constraints. This chapter addresses phonological concerns that affect sociolinguistic variation such as segmental environment effects, syllable structure effects, and phonological restructuring effects. The authors also comment on the role that differing methodologies play in building a corpus.

Chapter 10: “Morphosyntactic Analysis in Sociolinguistics” by Julia Davydova

The aim of Chapter 10 is to detail a step-by-step introduction to the methods for conducting empirical sociolinguistic morphosyntactic analyses. Particularly helpful here are the examples of morphosyntactic variation taken from different languages. This chapter also shares best practices applicable to morphosyntactic research undertakings as well as how to avoid potential project complications.

Chapter 11: “Vocabulary Analysis in Sociolinguistic Research” by Michael Adams

This chapter describes the method for analyzing vocabulary via sociolinguistic lexicography. As the author notes, vocabulary analysis is not a frequent research endeavor for sociolinguists, but it is an integral part in the cataloging of human speech. Adams describes how to assemble, characterize, and explain the idiosyncratic and qualitative aspects of vocabulary analysis, paying close attention to compiling data for a glossary as well as structuring glossary entries.

Chapter 12: “Doing Discourse Analysis in Sociolinguistics” by Janet Holmes

Chapter 12 describes how a sociolinguist can use discourse analysis quantitatively or qualitatively to answer a number of research questions. The four theoretical approaches to discourse analysis discussed are Critical Discourse Analysis, Variationist Sociolinguistics, Conversation Analysis, and Interactional Sociolinguistics. As in the other chapters, Chapter 12 closes with helpful tips on navigating some of the more challenging aspects of discourse analysis.

Chapter 13: “Words and Numbers: Statistical Analysis in Sociolinguistics” by Gregory R. Guy

Chapter 13 is devoted to the importance of statistical analyses in many types of sociolinguistic research projects, and briefly describes basic concepts associated with performing a statistical analysis. This chapter provides the reader with numerous examples and accessible explanations of key concepts associated with a statistical analyses of data. Statistical analysis is shown to be an integral part of quantitative sociolinguistic studies, particularly variationist studies, and this chapter offers an excellent foundation on the principles of preparing a statistical analysis and interpreting results in a way that identifies and describes sociolinguistic patterns found in the data.

Focusing on Aspects of Sociocultural Context in Analyzing Language

Chapter 14: “Anthropological Analysis in Sociolinguistics” by Alexandra Jaffe

Chapter 14 introduces and briefly illustrates with examples the application of an anthropological analysis of linguistic ethnographic data. An anthropological analysis of linguistic data answers the question, ‘What is going on here?” by first considering basic features of the interaction, such as who is speaking what language or variety in what context, or what sociolinguistic values are associated with a particular code in wider society? This chapter highlights the importance of context and indexicality as elements that give a glimpse into the cultural, ideological, and social processes and frameworks at play during interpersonal interactions.

Chapter 15: “Conversation Analysis in Sociolinguistics” by Paul Drew

This chapter details the steps in the research subfield of Conversation Analysis (CA), which has emerged as a useful perspective for investigating how people implement relationships and interactions. Drew provides examples of data and describes how a researcher would approach such data using CA research strategies.

Chapter 16: “Geographical Dialectology” by David Britain

Chapter 16 concerns geographical dialectology, one of the more established areas of dialect studies which has contributed to the field of sociolinguistics. Along with presenting methods used in conducting geographical dialectology research in the pre-sociolinguistic era, Britain also details contemporary methodological approaches, demonstrating the resilience and recycling of earlier research methods still used in the field. This chapter also discusses how the reader can approach deciding how to examine a region’s dialect, how to select sample informants and how to capture relevant linguistic data from them.

Chapter 17: “Speech Communities, Social Networks, and Communities of Practice” by Robin Dodsworth

This chapter highlights the importance in variationist sociolinguistic studies of collecting data on a social network or a speech community rather than solely on an individual speaker. By looking at a social network instead of a single informant, the researcher can get more information about the relationship between language and social interaction. The three frameworks discussed are speech communities, social networks, and communities of practice. Each framework offers the researcher different information on language variation. While language variation is constrained by social factors in a speech community, language variation is constrained by interaction in social networks and by the social meaning of a linguistic variable in communities of practice. Dodsworth describes the frameworks as complementary and notes factors that will help determine which framework to employ when undertaking a study of sociolinguistic language variation.

Chapter 18: “Analyzing Sociolinguistic Variation in Multilingual Communities” by Rajend Mesthrie

Chapter 18 addresses the different challenges and questions that a researcher faces when analyzing sociolinguistic variation in a multilingual speech community versus a monolingual one. Considerations for the researcher attempting to analyze data from a multilingual setting are the extent of diglossia, domain, code-switching, phonetic and syntactic variation, and convergence. The author offers suggestions for approaching research in multilingual environments while reminding the student researcher that there is no ‘one size fits all’ methodology.

Chapter 19: “Social Context, Style, and Identity in Sociolinguistics” by Nikolas Coupland

This chapter centers on the construction of social identity through speech acts considering style and social context. ‘Style’ in this chapter is discussed both as a noun referring to one’s speech and also as a verb referring to how a speaker can draw upon his or her beliefs to create social meaning with a speech act. A speaker’s speech style can reveal a great deal of social information, and speakers are often quite capable of engineering their projected identity though styling.

Chapter 20: “Researching Children’s Acquisition of Sociolinguistic Competence” by Carmel O’Shannessy

Chapter 20 discusses the development of sociolinguistic knowledge in children, and what this knowledge can tell us about how the complexity of language competence is established. The chapter details both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis methods, and addresses specific research concerns such as working with children, obtaining informed consent, and preserving informant anonymity. While sociolinguistic studies concerning adult-adult interactions reveal a wealth of information regarding how humans use language skills, conducting sociolinguistic studies with child informants can give us greater insight on how these language skills are developed.


This book is an invaluable aid for student researchers eager to produce high-quality, impactful sociolinguistic research. The editors of this volume have met their goal of providing the student with the theoretical framework, historical background, and methodological tools required to execute an array of different research endeavors within the field. I can see this book being used in a research methods seminar for graduate or advanced undergraduate students embarking on their first original research endeavors. As a doctoral student myself, I found this volume very accessible without being too basic; and I appreciated each chapter’s being filled with project ideas, examples of authentic data, and troubleshooting tips.

Each chapter is concise, opening with a brief summary and closing with lists of suggested further readings and seasoned advice on how to avoid potential quagmires while carrying out research in the field. Interspersed throughout each chapter are brief asides in text boxes that provide extra detail or a relevant caveat. These asides make the text feel more interactive. The chapters are focused and specialized; each deals with a specific aspect of data collection or analysis within the different ‘schools’ of sociolinguistics. While each chapter covers a distinct topic, the volume coheres nicely and provides a multifaceted overview of conducting research in contemporary sociolinguistics.
Cecily B. Corbett is a lecturer of Spanish and a PhD student at the University at Albany, State University of New York in the Hispanic and Italian Studies Program. Her main areas of research interest include language contact, intraspeaker variation, interactions between native and nonnative speakers, and language and identity.

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