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Thinking about language with Bourdieu: Pointers for social theory in the language sciences



This paper presents Pierre Bourdieu's sociological gaze, agenda and toolkit to scholars of language, so as to offer a social theoretical framework within which sociolinguistic questions can be fruitfully investigated. It outlines Bourdieu's dual conception of social life and presents the key thinking tools-field and habitus-with which this dualism can be explored empirically. In addition, it locates work produced at the nexus of sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology where Bourdieusian insights have been productively employed. It also discusses Bourdieu's reputation as a macro theorist, and argues that this image must be supplemented with an understanding of his idea that social reality also has a mode of existence in people's bodies, habitus, and practices. The paper argues that Bourdieu's gaze and thinking tools import with them a solid social theoretical base of the comprehension of human practice, including linguistic practice, which therefore offers some purchase to account for the relationship between the market side of language and its embodied manifestations.
Sociolinguistic ISSN: 1750-8649 (print)
Studies ISSN: 1750-8657 (online)
KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University, Sweden
SOLS VOL 12.3-4 2018 523–543
Thinking about language with Bourdieu:
Pointers for social theory in the language sciences
Linus Salö
This paper presents Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological gaze, agenda and toolkit to scholars of
language, so as to offer a social theoretical framework within which sociolinguistic
questions can be fruitfully investigated. It outlines Bourdieu’s dual conception of social life
and presents the key thinking tools – field and habitus – with which this dualism can be
explored empirically. In addition, it locates work produced at the nexus of sociolinguistics
and linguistic anthropology where Bourdieusian insights have been productively employed.
It also discusses Bourdieu’s reputation as a macro theorist, and ar gue s that this i mag e mus t
be supplemented with an understanding of his idea that social reality also has a mode of
existence in people’s bodies, habitus, and practices. The paper argues that Bourdieu’s gaze
and thinking tools import with them a solid social theoretical base of the comprehension of
human practice, including linguistic practice, which therefore offers some purchase to
account for the relationship between the market side of language and its embodied
1 Introduction
This paper outlines the impetus that the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu can give to
sociolinguists and scholars of language alike. It does so with the modest
aspiration that the gaze and thinking tools developed throughout Bourdieu’s
research œuvre might spawn novel and productive ways of engaging with social
theory. Since Bourdieu’s work has been known to language scholars for quite
some time, the aim here is not so much to introduce Bourdieu but to deepen the
sociolinguistic appraisal of his intellectual agenda. Thus, rather than focusing on
widely employed pivotal concepts such as habitus, capital, field, and market per
se, I shall draw attention to the epistemological foundations of such c oncept s, and
the ‘metaprinciples for research’ (Swartz, 2013) they bring into the research prac-
tice. In this spirit, continuing on the path set out by Hanks (2005), Grenfell (2011),
Blommaert (2015), and others, I hold that a focus on Bourdieu’s thinking offers
interesting inroads for theoretically solid investigations of language in social life.
The backdrop of this endeavor is the circumstance – real or perceived – that
several scholarly approaches to the study of language in society are in dire social
theoretical straits. In the last few decades, a number of well-positioned scholars
have argued that, counterintuitively, the socially interested language sciences are
often weakly anchored in social theory. In the early 1990s, Cameron (1990:81,
emphasis in original) critiqued (variationist) sociolinguistics for depending on
‘naive and simplistic social theory’ and for not being able to ‘relate the social to
the linguistic’. In a similar vein, Williams (1992) produced a sociological critique
of sociolinguistics (and the sociology of language), arguing in harsh tones that its
social theoretical underpinnings had long been either absent or completely
outdated. These are quite persistent issues. Reviewing the last few decades’
sociolinguistic work published in the flagship forum Journal of Sociolinguistics,
longstanding editor Allan Bell stated that ‘Most sociolinguists are linguists by
background rather than sociologists, thus we have not been strong on meshing our
work with social theory’ (2016:395–396; see also Blommaert, 2018 for a kindred
Even though there are certainly notable exceptions to this description (e.g.,
Heller, 2011; Park and Wee, 2012), there are reasons to be concerned about this
general state of affairs. Firstly, it is a commonplace that struggles unfolding over
language are rarely about language alone (e.g., Woolard, 1998) or, as Bourdieu
has put it, ‘Linguistic struggles may not have obvious linguistic bases’ (Bourdieu,
1993:80). If this is true – as many sociolinguists nowadays appear to believe it is
– linguistic theory must be extended with credible ways of understanding human
action and interpreting social phenomena to better grasp the interrelationship
between language and society. Secondly, social theory is, arguably, particularly
vital in qualitative research trajectories, because theory constitutes a feature which
renders scientific practice distinct from other knowledge-producing practices.
Hence, as Gary Alan Fine has said, ‘Ethnographers differ from journalists mostly
because of a six-letter word: theory’ (cited in Puddephatt, Shaffir, and
Klenknecht, 2009:1).
In this paper, I propose that the work of Bourdieu contains an invitation to
language scholars to engage in social theory in productive ways – ways which
inform our research and prod us into ‘thinking theoretically while we work
ethnographically’ (Blommaert, 2005:228; see also Brubaker, 1993; Puddephatt,
Shaffir, and Klenknecht, 2009). This is not a matter of adopting a theory. In
general, I follow Broady (1991) in holding that Bourdieu does not offer a grand
theory of society, but rather an envelope of epistemological outlooks and proce-
dures for empirical scrutiny in the social sciences, including the social language
sciences. Using these thinking tools effectively, I hold, requires an understanding
of Bourdieu’s notion of dualism as a key epistemological preliminary from which
his key concepts eld and habitus derive. Like many other concepts in Bourdieu’s
toolkit interest, strategy, doxa, symbolic power, to name a few – these are ‘open
concepts’ that are ill-suited to formalistic definitions (e.g., Broady, 1991;
Wacquant, 1989b:5). I begin by presenting Bourdieu’s project and its relevance to
studies of language in society. In exemplifying the applicability of Bourdieu’s
thinking, I will make ample references to sociolinguistic work conducted at the
Centre for Research on Bilingualism, Stockholm University, where the adoption
of Bourdieusian thought increasingly stands out as a leitmotif. Next, I highlight
some of the ways in which Bourdieu’s work may productively intersect with
instances of the toolkit yielded out of the North American tradition of linguistic
anthropology and recent advances in sociolinguistics. This is wher e I see my wo rk
as being theoretically positioned and, therefore, I exemplify throughout with
references to my own work how such insights may be put to work in relation to a
number of classic objects of sociolinguistic inquiry, such as competence and
language choice.
2 Bourdieu: Epistemological preliminaries and thinking-tools for
Broadly, Bourdieu’s œuvre deals with practice and the workings of social worlds,
including the study of culture, knowledge, social space, and symbolic power
(Swartz, 1997 provides an overview). Broady (1983:21) foregrounds a two -sided
strand with longstanding anchorage in Bourdieu’s work: on the one hand, the
study of social space and the systems of positions it comprises; on the other, the
study of people’s dispositions – habitus – that is, the capital that agents come to
embody throughout their life trajectories, and which therefore orients their present
and forthcoming actions. One can add to this Bourdieu’s profound interest in
academic knowledge itself – epistemic reflexivity (see Salö, 2018) as one of the
most distinctive features of his scientific project (Broady, 1991). By and large,
then, Bourdieu’s framework offers an inroad into understanding why agents are
what they are and do what they do.
As Blommaert (2005) points out, many of Bourdieu’s ideas have developed
through ethnographic work. Habitus, for example, emerged out of early ethno-
logy: fieldwork in Algeria and France in the ’60s and onwards. This fact
notwithstanding, Bourdieu is often – and, in part, rightly so seen as a macro
theorist. For many, his work is associated with a data-oriented quantitative
approach, presented in the form of statistical visualizations of the topographies of
social space, broad theorizing on symbolic power, markets, and so on. However,
as I shall signpost here, this is only one side of Bourdieu and his contribution to
research, and in line with the stance put forth by Lizardo (2008), analysts can
appropriate the tools and perspectives that seem useful and omit the rest. Boldly,
it may be argued that this position resonates well with Bourdieu’s own eclectic
relationship to the authorship of his intellectual predecessors.
As far as I’m concerned, I have very pragmatic relationships with authors: I
turn to them as I would to fellows and craft-masters, in the sense those words
had in the mediaeval guild – people you can ask to give you a hand in difficult
situations. (Bourdieu, 1990:28)
In other words, it is certainly possible to utilize Bourdieu in a strict, programmatic
sense, for example, concerning the order in which the analytical moments should
be enacted (e.g., Wacquant, 1989a). However, that is not the advantage that will
be the focus of this paper, which is more attuned to making the case for the value
brought forth by Bourdieu-the-epistemologist. In what follows, I begin by
introducing the idea of relational thinking.
3 Relational thinking
At the heart of Bourdieu’s intellectual endeavor lies a relational conception of
social life. This understanding serves as the entry point of Bourdieu’s hallmark
metaprinciple of relational thinking – the idea that relationships, not substances,
constitute the prime object of study (see, e.g., Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992:96–
97; Mohr, 2013; Swartz, 1997:61). Relational reasoning has deep intellectual roots
in the social sciences (Hepp, 2006 and Vandenberghe, 1999, provide accounts of
the intellectual heritage of this core idea), and currently, conceptualizing and
applying relational sociology is emerging as a research program in its own right
(e.g., Powell and Dépelteau, 2013).
At the core of Bourdieu’s account is his view of the intrinsically dual nature of
social life: ‘at once objective and subjective, external and internal, material and
symbolic, patterned yet improvised, constrained yet (conditionally) free’
(Brubaker, 1993:227). Bourdieu (1990:190–191) approaches this dualism in terms
of what he calls ‘the two modes of existence of the social’ – the reified and the
embodied. Bourdieu is at pains to avoid the Durkheimian position of norms as
external forces that regulate social action; yet, at the same time, he rejects the idea
of social agents as guided solely by rational choice of internal reason (Wacquant,
1989b:10). Social agents, as conveyed through the lens of Bourdieu’s framework,
are neither particles of matter determined by external causes, nor little monads
guided solely by internal reasons, executing a sort of perfectly rational internal
program of action. Social agents are the product of history, of t he his tory o f th e
social field and of the accumulated experience of a path within the specific
subfield. (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992:136)
At its core, this position offers a way of circumventing the problem of either over-
focusing on the individual (agent, subject, etc.), or, of overfocusing on the social
world (context, society, etc.). To do so is misleading, argues Bourdieu, because
the proper object of study resides in the relation between ‘two realizations of
historical action, in bodies (or biological individuals) and in things’ (Wacquant,
1989a:44, emphasis removed). In turn, this outlook entails a break with two types
of dominant scholastic visions: firstly, that of mechanism, and the idea of
constraint by external forces; secondly, that of individualism and the idea of the
rational subject (Bourdieu, 2000:138). These are both misconceptions, argues
Bourdieu, because
society exists in two fashions. It exists in the objective world, in the form of
social structures, social mechanisms […], the mechanisms of the market, and
so on. And it exists also in human brains, in individuals; society exists in the
individual state, in the incorporated state; in other words, the socialized
biological individual is part of the individualized social. (Bourdieu and
Chartier, 2015:55)
As illustrated by this quote, Bourdieu sees the opposition between the individual
and society as false, or at least intellectually unfounded. In fact, many of his
thinking tools are designed to bridge this opposition. As a substitute for society,
the notion of eld allows for a grasp of ‘history made into a thing’; likewise, the
notion of habitus, rather than individual, produces a view of ‘history made into a
body’ (Bourdieu, 1990:190–191).
4 Field, habitus, practice
Relational thinking lies at the very heart of Bourdieu’s theory of practice, the
components of which may be outlined by reference to the formula habitus/capital
+ eld = practice (e.g., Bourdieu, 1984:101). Practice, says Bourdieu, is an
encounter between the aforementioned two states of the social, between history
internalized in bodies and history in objectified things (Bourdieu, 2000:150).
A eld exists in a society as a separate social universe imbued with its own
logic and forces of functioning (e.g., Bourdieu, 1993:72–77). Fields are populated
by human agents as well as institutions that struggle over something that is
recognized as being of mutual value and interest to all (e.g., Broady, 1991; see
also Hilgers and Mangez, 2015). As sites of struggles, fields appear in Bourdieu’s
analyses as ‘structured spaces of positions’ (Bourdieu, 1993:72). Core examples
of such social spaces include literature (Bourdieu, 1996) or science (Bourdieu,
1988, 2004), but the notion of field has merits also in denoting the social worlds
constituted by language planning and policy, LPP (Salö, 2014), and by academic
disciplines, each characterized by their distinct symbolic capital (Salö, 2017). The
notion of capital is inherently relational, in that a capital does not exist and
function except in relation to a field’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992:101).
Analytically, the idea of fields has merit in that it offers a way of undoing the
separation of history and sociology (Wacquant, 1989a:37) and in that it suggests a
number of analytical foci as part of the research agenda. Hanks (2005) describes
the perspective rendered possible by employing the concept of field in the
following way:
To describe a social phenomenon as a ‘field’ is therefore to focus on certain of
its features: the space of positions, the historical processes of their occupancy,
the values at stake, the career trajectories of agents, and the habitus shaped by
engagements. (Hanks, 2005:73)
The gaze provided by the notion of field is useful not least in relation to attempts
at understanding language policy as an authoritative vision legitimized through
the state. For instance, Karlander (2017) explores state-backed minority language
policy by focusing on the discursive labor of agents positioned ‘at the intersection
of fields where policies are constructed’ (Bourdieu, 2014:112). The state, in this
account, is seen as ‘an ensemble of fields that are the site of struggles [over] the
power to constitute and to impose as universal and universally applicable’
(Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992:112) that is, in and by itself, the state is a social
arena where different holders of power struggle to impose their visions in
policies, so as to exercise legitimate control over fields and markets (Karlander,
2017, following Bourdieu, 2014). Exemplifying the usefulness of this account of
state-mandated policy, Salö, Ganuza, Hedman, and Karrebæk (2018) explore
cross-field effects to account for the ways in which the academic field and the
political field in Sweden and Denmark have managed to impose their visions on
mother-tongue instruction in each society. Exploring a different institutional
setting – schools in South Africa – Kerfoot and Bello-Nonjengele (2014) draw on
the notion of field to investigate the complex ways in which such processes unfold
on the ground. These authors view schools as microcosms of the broader
educational field, and so analyze schoolyard interaction vis-à-vis the historical
embedding of the ever-so-present racial regime.
As can be seen in the quote by Hanks above, the notion of fields is closely
linked to habitus. By Bourdieu’s logic, the structures of different fields can also
be located within biological individuals and their habitus, ‘which are to some
extent the product of the incorporation of social structures’ (Bourdieu, 1990:14).
This is to say that field, as reviewed above, can be said to capture one mode of
existence of the social, the other being habitus the incorporated product of
social conditionings (Bourdieu, 1990:31). From this perspective, human agents
are seen as ‘historical animals who carry within their bodies acquired sensibilities
and categories that are the sedimented products of their past social experiences’
(Wacquant, 2009:138). By this logic, for instance, analysts can draw on the
foundations of habitus to make the claim that researchers are ‘fields made flesh’
(Bourdieu, 2004:41), and that, methodologically, they can therefore be studied as
a complementary inroad into understanding the capital valorization of different
disciplinary fields, as embodied in professors and scholars alike (Salö, 2017).
Thus, Bourdieu privileges a view of social practice as engendered by incor-
porated dispositions to action, which is where habitus is introduced into the
framework. In this pursuit, Bourdieu’s project seeks to find a middle way between
internalist and externalist accounts of social action, thereby overcoming opposi-
tions such as that between freedom and determinism. As social life incorporated,
habitus in particular is intended to provide ‘a way of escaping from the choice
between a structuralism without subject and the philosophy of the subject’
(Bourdieu, 1990:10). However, Bourdieu’s position, and in particular the notion
of habitus, has been accused by many of being too deterministic, on the basis that
it reproduces the conditions of its own conditioning and therefore places too
strong an emphasis on structural power (e.g., Bohman, 1999; Farnell, 2000). By
and large, this is an issue of what critics see as limitations in reflexive agency in
Bourdieu’s framework, as an effect of his reluctance to privilege a view in which
human beings are utterly free to choose. For example, in the account of Bohman
(1999), it is argued that this position leads to the overemphasizing of objective
constraints at the expense of reflexive agency. Scholars such as Ortner (e.g., 2006)
and Archer (e.g., 2007) have each offered perspectives on practice that, in their
view, do a better job of accounting for agency (see Block, 2012 for an overview).
By contrast, however, it should be noted that many scholars have argued against
or completely dismissed the idea that the notion of habitus is deterministic (e.g.,
Crossley, 2001; Hilgers, 2009). Hilgers (2009), for example, stresses that habitus
does not exercise a total constraint on people, but rather disposes agents to act
freely within the limits yielded by the lasting experiences of occupying a parti-
cular position in social space. Habitus, in other words, is durable, which is not to
say that it is fixed; in Bourdieu’s strongly historical conceptualization it is a
conditioning – not causal phenomenon. At any rate, Bourdieu’s emphasis on the
inert does not mean, as Thompson (1984:53) notes, ‘that actors are to be regarded
as mere dupes of the social structures which determine their every action’. Agents
can, albeit with great difficulty, modify their dispositions. Indeed, the very
endeavor of acquiring a scientific habitus can be seen as an attempt to alter one’s
original dispositions to objects of knowledge (e.g., Brubaker, 1993 – see Salö,
2018). Habitus, Bourdieu clarifies,
is not a d estin y; it i s not a fatum, as people have me saying; it is a system of open
mechanisms that can be constantly subjected to experience, and by the same
token transformed by these experiences. (Bourdieu and Chartier, 2015:57)
Habitus, then, is transformed by experiences. As a core assumption, the relational
mode of thinking brings to bear a view that emphasizes the outcome or relational
effect that arises in the intersection between the agent and the social world. To
Bourdieu, objects under investigation derive their value and meaningfulness from
the contexts within which they are embedded (Mohr, 2013:101–102). What Bour-
dieu’s perspective adds is the understanding that analyses must se ek to fo cus
on objectified and embodied forms of historical action (Wacquant, 1989a:
Consequently, people’s choices, actions, practices, and discursive products need
to be understood relationally, that is, in conjunction with the fields and the markets
in which they act, and the dispositions to action incorporated in people’s habitus.
By this logic, Salö (2017) attempts to account for language choice in academic
publishing by accounting both for the structure and possibilities of different fields
and for the ensuing investment strategies of agents acting there; that is, their dis-
positions toward communicative practices. Since representations are born out of
that relation, too (e.g., Wacquant, 1989a:44), language ideological discourses can
be taken as the relational outcome of socialized agents acting in the value-imbued
social space of fields (e.g., Salö, 2014). By this reasoning, consequently, the key
representations circulating in societal debates on language can be understood as ‘a
product of the relation between habitus and field’ (Salö, 2014:102).
5 Bourdieu, language, and the language sciences
Bourdieu’s position brings to the fore a view of language use as social practice,
which, in his account, places particular stress on the fact that what is being done
with language is not only designed to communicate, but also to engage in
struggles for position-taking, authority, and power (Bourdieu, 1991:37). ‘Even the
simplest linguistic exchange’, states Bourdieu, ‘brings into play a complex and
ramifying web of historical power relations between the speaker, endowed with a
specific social authority, an audience, which recognizes this authority to varying
degrees, as well as between the groups to which they respectively belong’
(Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992:142–143). His take on language use and choice
can be grasped by means of the formula ‘linguistic habitus + linguistic market =
linguistic expression, speech’ (Bourdieu, 1993:78). This principle is central to
studies attuned toward unravelling the logic of linguistic practice, where habitus
is employed to envision people’s incorporated language ideologies (see below),
which play out in discourse. In Salö (2015), for instance, this line of relational
reasoning is enacted to account for language choice in the everyday practices of
Swedish academia. Here, Bourdieusian thinking is employed to argue that a
comprehensive understanding of language choice in the research practice must
account for the dispositions of socialized agents as well as the social spaces in
which their linguistic exchanges take place. In the realm of discursive products,
this social space, context, or field is referred to as a market. The notion of the
market, then, seeks to highlight the arena into which discursive products are
placed and, upon placement, acquire a value. This position, thus, stipulates that
discursive products receive their value only in relation to markets, envisioned as
unambiguously structured spaces, inherited with censorship to which speakers,
through self-censorship, are inclined to adapt (Thompson, 1984:57). The notion of
the market in this vein ‘provides a way of linking the characteristics of linguistic
products with the social and historical conditions of their production and
reception, as well as with those properties of the producers and receivers which
constitute their linguistic habitus’ (Thompson, 1984:64).
Bourdieu’s project offers value to work attempting to uncover sociohistorical
processes enmeshed in power, ideology, and interest where language plays a part
(e.g., Heller, 2011), as well as to work that seeks to connect to questions of
people’s active engagements in practice (e.g., Hanks, 1996, 2005). However, even
though Bourdieu’s approach provides a broad and solid social basis for the study
of linguistic process and practice, it often does not on its own suffice in providing
specific analytical instruments for the study of certain fine-tuned discursive
phenomena. For this reason, Bourdieusian thought can be fruitfully combined
with work from the language sciences. Indeed, this agenda can hardly be described
as new, given that the perspectives offered in Bourdieu’s work have been
employed in the socially interested language sciences for quite some time (e.g.,
Hanks, 1996; Irvine, 1989; Woolard, 1985), proving particularly influential in
work dealing with language and education (Grenfell, Bloome, Hardy, Pahl,
Rowsell, and Street, 2012; Heller, 1996; Albright and Luke, 2008). On my
reading, however, it appears as though the relevance and applicability of
Bourdieusian thought more generally have recently gained currency in socially
interested orientations to language research (e.g., Blommaert, 2015; Kelly-
Holmes, 2016). For example, the contributions in Grenfell (2011) each exemplify
scholarly accounts in which the potential of Bourdieu’s work is outlined in
respect to different traditions of language studies, such as literacy studies,
language policy, and linguistic ethnography. It is noteworthy, however, that this
relationship is not one-directional; many insights yielded from the language
sciences have been able to produce tools and perspectives that Bourdieu’s project
does not encompass on its own (Park and Wee, 2012). In what follows, I shall
illustrate this fact by dwelling upon linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics.
Common to much linguistic-anthropological work, particularly within the line
of work that Duranti (2003:332) identifies as ‘the third paradigm’, is the solid
anchorage and integration of intellectual thought from social theorists such as
Giddens, Foucault, and Bourdieu (see the collection of papers in Schieffelin,
Woolard, and Kroskrity, 1998; Kroskrity, 2000). Linguistic anthropology, hence,
takes social theory seriously (e.g., Woolard and Schieffelin, 1994:72). By virtue
of this fact, it becomes evident that certain strands of linguistic-anthropological
work align nicely with the sociology of Bourdieu, particularly his cultural theory
of action, as well as his work on socialization and symbolic power, which
naturalizes dominant ideologies (Kroskrity, 2006). Correspondingly, much work
in linguistic anthropology has been based on Bourdieusian insights (e.g., Hanks,
1996; Irvine, 1989; Woolard, 1985, 1998).
Another side of this intellectual bond is that, as a result of longstanding theore-
tical efforts of its own, contemporary linguistic anthropology offers a rich array of
conceptual tools that can serve as focused instruments to the scientific projects of
Bourdieu and others, where they serve to zoom in on details in the empirical
realities that are studied. Examples of such linguistic-anthropological glossary
include regimentation (e.g., Kroskrity, 2000), entextualization (e.g., Bauman and
Briggs, 1990), genre (e.g., Briggs and Bauman, 1992), register, and enregister-
ment (e.g., Agha, 2007). Many of these concepts also carry the mark of being
lynchpins, in that they offer a particular gaze to the study of language in society.
This gaze is less preoccupied with products – such as texts – but rather with the
practices and processes out of which discursive products are yielded, and where
formations such as genres and registers can be casted as flexible and open-ended
products of human practice (e.g., Silverstein and Urban, 1996). Moreover,
although they were never employed explicitly in Bourdieu’s work on language,
they are highly compatible with his scientific project, attuned as it is to studying
the modus operandi of which work is the product (Bourdieu, 2000:53; see Hanks,
In sociolinguistics, more generally, Blommaert (2005, 2015), Blommaert,
Collins and Slembrouck (2005), Park and Wee (2012), Blackledge (2005), Black-
ledge and Pavlenko (2002), Stroud (2002), and Heller (1996, 2011) all exemplify
the usefulness of Bourdieusian perspectives in various sorts of globalizing
settings. Like linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics doubtlessly o ffers a set of
suitable thinking tools and perspectives for the study of language in society. This
is particularly so in relation to far-reaching global influxes, which, more lately,
have yielded a vast body of literature on language, mobility, power, and change.
In this context, work has moreover focused on the ways in which these globali-
zing processes unfold in and across the midst of multilingual settings (Canaga-
rajah, 2013). What is more, sociolinguistics has recently begun to draw close to –
or rather develop in tandem with – linguistic anthropology (Gumperz and Cook-
Gumperz, 2008). Accordingly, due to an ever-increasing trans-Atlantic intersub-
jectivity in the language sciences, many of the aforementioned concepts stemming
from US linguistic anthropology are nowadays broadly employed. I do not seek to
engage in a discussion about who is using whose concepts here; rather, the point
is that what we are beginning to see is an emerging line of socially interested
language studies where traits from sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology
converge with Bourdieusian social theory. Park and Wee (2012) is a particularly
illustrative example of a fusion in which a sociolinguistics of globalization draws
on the linguistic-anthropological toolkit – language ideology, indexicality,
interdiscursivity, etc. – ‘as an extension to Bourdieu’s theory’ (2012:27).
It was noted earlier that Bourdieusian thinking ties nicely into the work of
contemporary language studies. This remark requires further commentary, since
Bourdieu’s perspectives are also critiqued by many scholars in the theoretical
debates of contemporary language studies (e.g., Bucholtz and Hall, 2016). As
noted, Bourdieu’s relational view of language as practice speaks against the
conception that contexts, markets, norms, domains, etc. per se regulate linguistic
behavior. Speakers, according to Bourdieu, are not passively ‘pulled and pushed
about by external forces, but skillful creatures who actively construct social
reality through “categories of perception, appreciation and action”’ (Wacquant,
2009:142). Yet, scholars in linguistic anthropology often read Bourdieu’s work on
language as being ‘too macro’, in that he ostensibly over-emphasizes market
principles and partly, therefore, fails to address local forms of legitimacy arising
‘from below’ (e.g., Swigart, 2001; see also Agha, 2007:167; Kroskrity, 2006:503–
504). In sociolinguistics, by the same token, Stroud (2002) sees limitations in
Bourdieu’s perspective to properly account for multilingualism, particularly in
postcolonial settings where authority can be ascribed to a given language in spite
of weak institutional support; hence, legitimate language does not necessarily
entail a unified market. Similarly, Blommaert, Collins and Slembrouck (2005:210)
see an ‘over-generalization of the case of the unified symbolic market’. This is a
trait that Woolard (1985) and Martin-Jones (2007) see as particularly poignant in
educational settings, where processes of language legitimization, as Martin-Jones
argues, are more contingent and context-specific than Bourdieu’s emphasis on
unified markets seems to acknowledge.
What this critique shows is that, while the instruments provided within
Bourdieu’s framework certainly have a wide applicability, they should be scruti-
nized, criticized, and, in relation to many research objects, interests, and questions,
not employed (but see Crossley, 2001; Lizardo, 2008 for metacritiques). For
example, notions such as habitus and field are not designed to explain every
aspect of human life. Bourdieu simply does not do theory in this sense; his modes
and tools of thinking derive from the contexts he studied. In studying these
contexts, on my reading, it should be acknowledged that Bourdieu tends to
privilege zoomed out historicized perspectives in which the inert nature of social
order is brought to the fore. Many commentators, at least, acknowledge this to be
particularly so in his research on education in the late 1960s (e.g., Bourdieu and
Passeron, 1977 [1970]), which were also among the first studies to be translated
into English; this seems important for understanding the reception of his work in
the North American intellectual field (Broady, 1991; Lizardo, 2008; Wacquant,
6 Language ideology – in things and in bodies
As I have argued thus far, many of the tools and perspectives yielded out of the
work of contemporary social orientations to language studies tie nicely into the
foundations of Bourdieu’s project. A case in point is the notion of language
ideology (e.g., Kroskrity, 2006; Schieffelin, Woolard, and Kroskrity, 1998;
Silverstein, 1979), which in many respects overlaps with Bourdieusian thought,
although never appearing as a term in his writings (Blackledge and Pavlenko,
2002:123; Hanks, 2005:69). In socially interested language studies, it is common-
place to say that language ideological issues are rarely about language only, but
rather tend to stand proxy to other forms of interest (e.g., Blommaert and
Rampton, 2011:8; Heller, 2011:49; Stroud, 2004:201; Woolard, 1998). Moreover
– and partly therefore – understanding present language ideologies entails under-
standing the ideologies of the past (Blackledge and Pavlenko, 2002:127). These
propositions echo both Bourdieu’s view of language practices as enmeshed with
other forms of cultural practices and the need for historicist approaches to grasp
their significance.
The notion of language ideology seeks to pinpoint ‘the cultural (or subcultural)
system of ideas about social and linguistic relationships, together with their
loading of moral and political interest’ (Irvine, 1989:255). In emphasizing
interest, this particular conceptualization of ideology is highly compatible with
Bourdieu’s project. In Salö (2014), congruently, this perspective interlocks with
the notion of field, which serves to provide the arena for the production and
reproduction of common beliefs and interests in a more demarcated social space,
namely in the historically contingent practices of Swedish LPP. Within the
confines of the field, the notion of entextualization is used broadly as a frame for
understanding power among statements about English as they were reproduced
interdiscursively. Used in this way, the notion of field offers a potentially power-
ful thinking tool for sociolinguistic studies in that it provides a way of capturing
context historically. For example, in relation to language ideological debates
(Blommaert, 1999), this conceptualization can be used for making sense of the
‘logics of practice’ that constitute agents’ strivings to defend particular values at
stake, such as perceived national values, in times of rapid social change. Fields
may here be seen as sites for the production of discourse, where discourse is seen
as a strategic resource ‘onto which people project their interests, around which
they can construct alliances, on and through which they exercise power’ (Blom-
maert, 1999:7). In this sense, fields also function as sites for the production of
indexicalities – that is, as hotbeds in which particular values can be more or less
purposely projected onto a given language that is seen as posing threats to values
indexically linked to some other language (e.g., Salö, 2014). This perspective is
attuned toward disclosing the strivings of real agents: be they scholars,
bureaucrats, lobbyists, or institutions, these agents have names and occupy
positions in social elds, a fact that in turn provides the basis for an investigation
of how discursive statements relate to such field positions (cf. Blommaert 1999).
At the crossing point of the individual, language ideology can be understood as
history inscribed in bodies, and in this sense it links into Bourdieu’s notion of
habitus (e.g., Hanks, 2005:69). The idea is approached by Stroud (2004) in
relation to the language notions of ‘Rinkeby Swedish’ and ‘semilingualism’,
prevailing not only in language ideological debates but, potentially, in the
dispositions to language of those that the debates concern, viz. people who
allegedly do not speak ‘proper’ Swedish. By the same token, Salö (2015) draws
on Bourdieu’s dualism to envision language ideologies as an incorporated facet of
Swedish researchers’ linguistic habitus, with important implications for language
choice. Here, habitus has merits in accounting for regularities in linguistic practice
in the processes of entextualization that precede the finalized monolingual text-
products in English texts (cf. Bauman and Briggs, 1990). As the study shows,
these practices are translingual (Canagarajah, 2013) in the sense that discourse
unfolds between and across Swedish–English language boundaries. However,
while it seems true that ‘communication does not neatly break down into
languages’ (Makoni, 2014:80), it is also true that there are regimenting regularities
in discourse. Correspondingly, Swedish speakers express strong sentiments linked
to the necessity of speaking Swedish in conversations involving only Swedish
speakers. ‘Named languages’ thus carry significance in practice, and, as I
understand it, this is not only owing to external market conditions but to
embodied language ideologies as well.
The aforementioned facet of ‘language choice’ is understood as involving
competence, apprehended both as the ability to use grammatically correct
sentences and of knowing the situations in which the use of a given language is
acceptable. From the outlook of Bourdieu’s social interest in discourse production,
the traditional notion of competence has evident flaws
so long as it is not related to the capacity to employ expressions in specific
situations, that is, to produce sentences à propos. Speakers do not acquire
linguistic competence alone, but acquire also the practical competence to
employ the possibilities offered by their mastery of grammar. (Thompson,
1984:46, emphasis in original)
Lately, many scholars in sociolinguistics seem to have begun orienting toward
this Bourdieusian line of thinking. Blommaert and Rampton (2011:5), Coupland
(2007:222), and Rampton (2011:292) all seem to (carefully) adhere to a notion of
competence based on Bourdieu’s habitus. In my view, to be sure, habitus provides
sociolinguistics with a useful perspective for theorizing the ways in which
individuals, through their encounters with different markets, have an embodied
practical sense of the value of their own linguistic resources in relation to those of
the markets. This facet of the linguistic habitus is referred to as a linguistic sense
of placement (Salö, 2015, following Bourdieu, 1991). Habitus, we can say,
‘mediates the accumulated resources biographically layered in the agent’s
repertoire’ (Salö, 2015:530) in that it comprises the practical knowledge linked to
producing language tacitly aligned to the power of acceptability imbued in
specific situations (Thompson, 1984:7).
7 Concluding remarks
As Blommaert and Rampton (2011:8) hold, public debates about language ‘are
almost invariably connected to (and sometimes stand as a proxies for) non-
linguistic interest’. In this light, this paper has outlined the gist and relevance of
Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology, so as to propose a social theoretical framework
within which manifold sociolinguistic questions can be investigated, and non-
linguistic interest grasped. In this agenda, the notion of
is a powerful research
tool for envisaging language as a terrain for struggles over resources. Yet, as I
have argued, while Bourdieu is often recognized as a macro theorist whose work
privileges externalist conceptions of social reality, his work also comprises an
‘inward’ epistemological stance, where macro matters (markets, and so on) are
thought of as engraved in people’s bodies – their habitus – as well as the practices
they produce. Hence ‘[s]ocial reality exists, so to speak, twice, in things and in
minds, in fields and in habitus, inside and outside of agents’ (Bourdieu and
Wacquant, 1992:127). It follows from this position that the embodied mode of
social reality can be fruitfully explored ethnographically. In this sense,
Bourdieu’s work contains what could be called an ‘ethnographic invitation’, a
call to empirically explore in micro-ethnography the structures suggested in his
work, an appeal to continue thinking theoretically while we work ethnographi-
cally. (Blommaert, 2005:228)
In conclusion, Bourdieu’s work carries with it a solid social theoretical base for
understanding reflexive human practice, including linguistic practice, which
therefore offers some purchase in accounting for the relationship between local
linguistic practices and macrosocial issues (Park and Wee, 2012:17). Ultimately,
as I see it, this gaze invites the analyst to think of language as part of the social
rather than a mere reflection of it (Cameron, 1990:81–82), informed by and
informing – social theory (Heller, 2011).
Thanks go to the following colleagues for contributing to this work: Kenneth
Hyltenstam, Christopher Stroud, Caroline Kerfoot, David Karlander, Donald
Broady, Olle Josephson, Linnea Hanell, Monica Heller, Natalia Ganuza, and Stef
Slembrouck. I also thank the reviewers for useful comments. Any shortcomings
are my own.
About the author
Linus Salö holds a PhD in Bilingualism from Stockholm University and works
currently at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. He is active
in a number of fields, including sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology,
sociology of knowledge, and history of ideas. His work has featured in outlets
such as the Journal of Sociolinguistics, Language and Communication, and
Higher Education, as well in edited volumes published by Routledge and John
Benjamins. He is also the author of the recently published monograph The
Sociolinguistics of Academic Publishing: Language and the Practices of Homo
Academicus, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
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(Received 10th February 2017; revision received 13th May 2017;
accepted 19th May 2017; final revision received 9th January 2018)
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This article investigates mother tongue instruction (MTI) in Sweden and Denmark in a historical, comparative perspective, with a view to accounting for key differences in language policy enacted in educational fields. Whereas in Sweden, MTI is offered to linguistic minority children irrespective of their linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, in Denmark the right to state-sponsored MTI has been abolished for children of non-European descent. Moreover, while the policies of both states devalue skills in mother tongues other than the legitimate language of each society, this position is more pronounced in the Danish context. The article explores the two state’s position on MTI, as expressed in policy as well as in discourse produced in the political and academic field of each state. It subscribes to Pierre Bourdieu’s framework, within which state policy is conceived as the product of historical struggle and cross-field effects. The analysis shows that the national differences in MTI exist because of the differing ways in which agents from the academic vis-à-vis the political field have succeeded in imposing their visions in the bureaucratic field from which policies are produced. Ultimately, this circumstance explains why the Swedish discussion on MTI may be characterized as having been academically founded, while the Danish discussion has remained a matter of political consideration. In the latter case, we argue, it is particularly tangible that MTI is a politicized object of struggle, where agents seek to control the exchange rate of linguistic resources and, in effect, the social worth of different speakers.
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This article investigates mother tongue instruction (MTI) in Sweden and Denmark in a historical, comparative perspective, with a view to accounting for key differences in language policy enacted in educational fields. Whereas in Sweden, MTI is offered to linguistic minority children irrespective of their linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, in Denmark the right to state-sponsored MTI has been abolished for children of non-European descent. Moreover, while the policies of both states devalue skills in mother tongues other than the legitimate language of each society, this position is more pronounced in the Danish context. The article explores the two state’s position on MTI, as expressed in policy as well as in discourse produced in the political and academic field of each state. It subscribes to Pierre Bourdieu’s framework, within which state policy is conceived as the product of historical struggle and cross-field effects. The analysis shows that the national differences in MTI exist because of the differing ways in which agents from the academic vis-à-vis the political field have succeeded in imposing their visions in the bureaucratic field from which policies are produced. Ultimately, this circumstance explains why the Swedish discussion on MTI may be characterized as having been academically founded, while the Danish discussion has remained a matter of political consideration. In the latter case, we argue, it is particularly tangible that MTI is a politicized object of struggle, where agents seek to control the exchange rate of linguistic resources and, in effect, the social worth of different speakers.
Sociolinguistic evidence is an undervalued resource for social theory. In this book, Jan Blommaert uses contemporary sociolinguistic insights to develop a new sociological imagination, exploring how we construct and operate in online spaces, and what the implications of this are for offline social practice. Taking Émile Durkheim’s concept of the ‘social fact’ (social behaviours that we all undertake under the influence of the society we live in) as the point of departure, he first demonstrates how the facts of language and social interaction can be used as conclusive refutations of individualistic theories of society such as 'Rational Choice'. Next, he engages with theorizing the post-Durkheimian social world in which we currently live. This new social world operates 'offline' as well as 'online' and is characterized by 'vernacular globalization', Arjun Appadurai’s term to summarise the ways that larger processes of modernity are locally performed through new electronic media. Blommaert extrapolates from this rich concept to consider how our communication practices might offer a template for thinking about how we operate socially. Above all, he explores the relationship between sociolinguistics and social practice In Durkheim and the Internet, Blommaert proposes new theories of social norms, social action, identity, social groups, integration, social structure and power, all of them animated by a deep understanding of language and social interaction. In drawing on Durkheim and other classical sociologists including Simmel and Goffman, this book is relevant to students and researchers working in sociolinguistics as well as offering a wealth of new insights to scholars in the fields of digital and online communications, social media, sociology, and digital anthropology
Written in an informal style with engaging examples, this introduction to the study of language in context presents a provocative new approach to communicative practice. Emphasizing the dual status of language as linguistic system and as social fact, William Hanks offers fresh insights into the dynamics of context, the indeterminacy of cultural forms, and the relation between human experience and the making of meaning.Drawing on a broad range of theory and empirical research, Hanks explores the varieties of reflexivity in language, relating them to linguistic structure, textuality, and genres of practice. He shows how the human body both anchors the communicative process and provides a reference point for displaced and mediated speech. Tracing the movement of meaning through social fields and communities, Hanks casts new light on the ways that utterances are fragmented and objectified in social life. Speech emerges as a contingent process in which the production and reception of meaning are tied into multiple dimensions of time and context and history rests on the objectification of practice.Hanks's penetrating readings of classic works in linguistics, philosophy, and social theory are complemented by suggestions for further reading. Within the framework of communicative practice, he integrates elements of formal grammar and semiotics, phenomenology, cultural anthropology, and contemporary sociology. Neither a history nor a summary of the field, Language and Communicative Practices is a critical synthesis of the dialectics of meaning that inform all language and speech.