ANALYSIS OF LANGUAGE USAGE IS seen as fundamental to contemporary ethnography because cultural worlds, social conditions, and global processes are encountered through language-based communication and categories. Broadly conceived, the ethnography of language, and a sense of its importance to social and cultural inquiry, can be traced to the founding fathers of ethnography: Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski. Boas encouraged fieldwork-based study of indigenous languages of the world to challenge the universality of Western-language categories and grammatical structures, and because he thought indigenous languages were “important to understand in their own right like in other great civilizations” (Stocking 1992, 91). His interest in the way language in general might limit and stabilize thought in particular ways (Boas 1911, 22) grounded the development of the famous Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that the cultural content of one’s language can influence one’s habitual thought and practice. Malinowski (1965, 52) refined ethnographic understanding of the cultural constructedness of social reality by demonstrating how the meaning of everyday language use depends not upon its actual reference to things in the physical world, but its practical value in perfoming social actions in general and situational cultural contexts. Boas’ insight into the cultural content of language, and Malinowski’s disclosure of language usage as a cultural activity and social practice, continue to anchor contemporary paradigms of ethnographic research that analyze “language as culture” (Duranti 2003).
The ethnography of language has been updated by the incorporation of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse. To analyze (p.80) language use in the context of discourse is to understand everyday concepts and statements as articulating historically contingent “codes of normalization” (Foucault 2003, 38–39) at war with alternative discourses for authority and power. Discourses normalize “versions” of reality in social institutions (courtrooms, governments, hospitals, prisons, schools, etc.) that empower some social groups and disqualify or marginalize others. Following Foucault, ethnographers are interested in the way discourses “discipline” people to see and speak from a limited number of subject positions in social spaces—for example, as racialized inferiors, instead of as fellow human beings. Ethnographers also study how discourses can empower alternative voices and promote important global change—for example, how feminist discourses are enabling women in societies throughout the world to see and position themselves as equal to men, and how environmentalist discourse legitimates the value of conservation projects worldwide.
This section features stories that illustrate classic issues in the ethnography of language and new developments associated with digital media and discourse analysis. Naomi C. F. Yamada’s “Systemic Culture Shock: Meeting Fu Lai Ming on the Tibetan Plateau” is a story about cultural categories of birds and science in China that addresses issues of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. She emphasizes that to learn Chinese categories she had to “unlearn” similar, yet different, concepts of Western culture. In the Boasian spirit of recording, studying, and appreciating the languages of indigenous peoples of the world, Emerson Lopez Odango’s “Shóón Pakin, sóóu tittilap: Researching Narrative Discourse in Micronesia” documents and reflects on some of the cultural signficance of discourse markers in Mortlockese storytelling (tittilap) at Pakin Atoll of the Federated States of Micronesia. Forrest Wade Young illustrates in “Talking with the Moai on Easter Island: Placing Rapa Nui Language” how the meaning of the indigenous Rapa Nui language on Easter Island is established in ritual practices that living Rapa Nui people conduct to communicate with the ancestral spirit world. He argues that Rapa Nui language speakers, ultimately, are entangled in a political struggle for indigenous place against settler colonial discourse normalizing Easter Island as a Chilean space. Steven Edmund Winduo, in reflecting on his own experiences in “Blogging in Papua New Guinea,” introduces the role of new digital media in the globalization of cultural worlds of Papua New Guinea. He argues that access to digital media is empowering Papua New Guinean communities by giving them “free, useful, and vital information” fundamental to social development.