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Review of  The Ethnography of Communication

Reviewer: Terese Thonus
Book Title: The Ethnography of Communication
Book Author: Muriel Saville-Troike
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.2375

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Date: Tue, 24 Aug 2004 01:27:26 -0700
From: Terese Thonus
Subject: The Ethnography of Communication

AUTHOR: Saville-Troike, Muriel
TITLE: The Ethnography of Communication
SUBTITLE: An Introduction (3rd edition)
SERIES: Language in Society 3
YEAR: 2003
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing

Terese Thonus, California State University, Fresno

As the third volume in the Blackwell series Language in Society,
edited by Peter Trudgill, the third edition of The Ethnography of
Communication (henceforth TEC) joins an expanding collection of well-
regarded books in the field, including Romaine's Bilingualism and
Labov's Principles of Linguistic Change. Like the first and second
editions, it elaborates on the theory and concepts introduced by
anthropologist Dell Hymes, whom Saville-Troike names ''truly the father
of the field'' (p. viii). The third edition, according to the back-
cover blurb, ''has been thoroughly revised to reflect the substantial
contributions made in recent years to the development and application
of the subject.'' Saville-Troike claims to have redefined communicative
competence and speech community ''to emphasize their dynamic nature and
to give more consideration to multilingual individuals and groups'' (p.
viii). Added are two new chapters, ''Contrasts in Patterns of
Communication'' and ''Politeness, Power, and Politics.'' References have
been updated by the addition of 250 titles, and a greater number of
languages (40 more) referenced for illustrative purposes.

The introduction (chapter 1) describes the scope and focus of the
text, including Saville-Troike's definition of the ethnography of
communication as an ''approach'' and ''a mode of inquiry'' (p. 2). It also
explains the history of ethnographic study of language as rooted in
''the convergent interest in sociology and linguistics'' in opposition to
the Chomskyan themes of the ideal speaker-hearer and the homogenous
speech community.

Chapter 2, ''Basic Terms, Concepts, and Issues,'' is notable for its
additional material on the definition and development of the notion
speech community. Saville-Troike's careful distinctions among speech
community, discourse community, and community of practice are essential
reading. In addition, the construct communicative competence is
expanded to include arguments regarding multilingual speakers and
second-language learners. The author also includes a recent quote from
Hymes defining competence not as ''ideal knowledge'' but as ''actual
ability'' (p. 40).

''Varieties of Language,'' chapter 3, cites Gumperz, Fishman,
Ferguson, Trudgill, and Labov (among others) in discussions of
diglossia, code-switching, and the intersection of varieties with
typical social features such as region, class, and ethnicity, as well
as features such as personality state and non-native speaker status.

As the longest chapter and the centerpiece of the volume, ''The
Analysis of Communicative Events'' (chapter 4) takes the reader through
the relationship of the ethnographer and speech community, types of
data, data collection and analytic procedures, and the best discussion
and exemplification of Hymes' SPEAKING rubric available in print.

Chapter 5, ''Contrasts in Patterns of Communication,'' begins with a
section on comparative (not contrastive!) rhetoric, and then
illustrates situated even analysis with recent studies of Chinese,
Korean, Kazakh, and Lao. In the section ''Constructing an Unseen Face,''
Saville-Troike reports on her own cross-cultural analysis of
prospective graduate-student statements of purpose. Concludes the
author, ''While participants in an intercultural event must (as in all
ethnographic research) be viewed from the internal perspective of their
respective communities, the dynamic interaction across communities
requires additional dimensions of analysis'' (p. 182).

Covering a broad range of topics beginning with stereotyping and
moving through appropriateness and language maintenance, shift, and
spread, ''Attitudes Toward Communicative Performance'' (chapter 6),
Saville-Troike argues for an integration between qualitative and
quantitative research approaches.

In chapter 7, ''Acquisition of Communicative Competence,'' the
author is in her element as a language acquisition specialist,
describing the application of the ethnography of communication to both
first and second language learning. Languages used to illustrate
principles include Javanese, Farsi, and Navaho.

Chapter 8, a new addition in this edition, covers ''Politeness,
Power, and Politics.'' Topics covered include social control,
institutional discrimination, and language planning.

The brief conclusion ends with ''a note of warning,'' Saville-
Troike's call for the social responsibility of the researcher: ''Even as
ethnographers of language seek for a deeper understanding of the human
condition, they bear a heavy responsibility to guard against the misuse
of their research, and the exploitation of the communities in which
they work'' (p. 284).

The Ethnography of Communication (first edition) was required
reading for my master's exams in 1984. I had also read Foundations in
Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach (1974). I later heard Hymes
lecture on Native American ethnopoetics (''In Vain I Tried to Tell
You''). As an applied linguist, I was captivated by its methodology and
objects of study. Yet one question has always troubled me. Is the
ethnography of communication a field of study or a research
methodology, or both? In the introduction, Saville-Troike argues that
the ethnography of communication is significant not only to
anthropology, but to psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, applied
linguistics, and theoretical linguistics. To this argument, she adds:
''Its contribution to the description and understanding of culturally
constituted patterns of communication will be limited if its methods
and findings are not integrated with other descriptive and analytical
approaches. It is the nature of ethnography to be holistic in nature,
and this should also characterize the disciplinary orientation of its
practitioners'' (p. 8). How, then, can a linguist define him/herself as
an ethnographer of communication?

On the book jacket is a positive review of the newest edition of
TEC by Ron Scollon: ''Its coverage of what has been a major area of
study for scholars in sociolinguistics, communication, and linguistic
anthropology for the past three decades is comprehensive, insightful,
and, in this third edition, completely brought up to currency with
developments in the field.'' I agree with Scollon that TEC is the one
book to read on the ethnography of communication. However, as the
representative volume of a field of study, I fear that TEC has outgrown
its parameters and become so syncretistic that it is no longer part of
a series on sociolinguistics but a précis of it. I use the term
''syncretism'' deliberately, realizing that in its most frequent
connotation it refers to the absorption, over time, of the rites and
practices of other, often indigenous, belief systems into organized
religions. If the first edition represented the organized, bounded,
''orthodox'' version of the ethnography of communication, it has since
absorbed not only sociolinguistic and anthropological content, but also
philosophical and psychological.

Although language varieties, speech acts, bilingual identity, and
language planning are all of interest in the study of communicative
competence, are they rightly the purview of the ethnography of
communication? If the field embraces them all, how will it be defined
and differentiated from related fields of study? Was this, I wonder,
the intent of Hymes? In a 1972 monograph, Hymes argued that all
linguistic study, not just sociolinguistics, should incorporate a
social perspective. During its development, however, the ethnography
of communication has not been embraced as the ''default'' approach to
linguistics or, for that matter, to sociolinguistics. Rather than
advocating syncretism, Hymes appears now to support clearer
disciplinary boundaries. In a 2000 dialogue with William Samarin in the
Journal of Sociolinguistics, Hymes argued that sociolinguistics and
(linguistic) anthropology should not and will not converge, that their
very divergence facilitates a multi-pronged approach to the exploration
of language and society. In this respect, Saville-Troike's boundary-
erasing work appears to have diverged from Hymes' current, if not
original, intent.

Although TEC references a wide variety of world languages,
specific language examples to support the concepts and analyses are
always provided. For instance, on pp. 58-59, in the section on code-
switching, Saville-Troike quotes Woolard (1999) on Castilian-Catalan
bivalency, defined as ''the use by a bilingual of words or segments that
could 'belong' equally to both codes.'' One would have a much clearer
understanding of this concept if a relevant example were provided.
Later in the same paragraph, the author refers to alternating English
and German lines in T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Claire Kramsch's
analysis of this literary code-switching is referenced, but not the
lines of the poem. It is as if Saville-Troike either assumes that
readers are so well-versed in Castilian, Catalan, and German that
examples would prove redundant, or are so inexpert in language(s) that
exemplification would be pointless. My suspicion is that it is the
latter, but this only makes the text less accessible to the novice
reader. For an introductory text, I would prefer fewer analyses with
detailed examples than more analyses lacking them.

Where does the ethnography of communication, and Saville-Troike's
interpretation of it in TEC, fit into the linguistics curriculum?
Having read the third edition, I contemplated it as a possible text for
an undergraduate general education course in language and culture
(combining anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics). However,
as TEC presupposes some familiarity with linguistics, I decided it
would be inappropriate. For sociolinguistics students, again at the
undergraduate level, certain chapters (e.g., ''Varieties of Language'')
would have been exceptional, but I viewed the text as a whole as
unsuitable given the current variationist bias of that field. I
eventually found a use for it as a reference text in a graduate
discourse analysis course, encouraging students to read with particular
care chapter 5, ''Contrasts in Patterns of Communication.'' Because of
the scope and breadth of TEC, I can only envision it as the core text
in a course of the same name -- and in most universities, such a class
would most probably be offered not through the linguistics department,
but through anthropology, possibly education, or at the University of
Arizona, the Department of English.

Hymes, Dell (1972) The scope of sociolinguistics. Georgetown University
Monograph Series on Languages and Linguistics, 25, 313-333.

Hymes, Dell (2000) The emergence of sociolinguistics: A response to
Samarin. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 4, 312-315.

Samarin, William J. (2000) Sociolinguistics as I see it. Journal of
Sociolinguistics, 4, 303-311.
Terese Thonus is Associate Professor of Linguistics at California State
University, Fresno. Her research interests include oral discourse
analysis (particularly writing tutorial conversations), second-language
writing, and teacher education.

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