Course overview

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Sociolinguistic Field Methods will provide you with hands-on experience with methods for collecting samples of language in its social context. Methods of, and approaches to, data include:

  • ethnography (participant observation, both unstructured and structured)

  • interactional sociolinguistics ((un)structured observations, audio/video recording)

  • structured questionnaires (discourse completion tests, subjective reaction tests)

  • variationist studies of language in the city (finding a field site, interviewing, rapid anonymous surveys; identifying variables; coding and preliminary quantitative analysis; finding and transcribing at least one narrative; community involvement)

We will analyze short problems concerning a range of topics such as speech acts, speech events, turn-taking, phonological (and other) variation, public/private discourse that can be addressed through the data. General topics related to all of the methods, data and problems include recording issues (including recording human subjects); objectivity/ subjectivity; transcribing and organizing data; suitability to purpose and analysis; personal and community involvement, personal comfort with different methods.

We begin with various sites of data collection; we will also work with an already existing video to analyze talk-in-interaction. Much of your fieldwork, however, will take place in local DC area communities and neighborhoods. To this end, we will work as a class and as individuals to identity 2- 3 local communities of interest for sociolinguistic study. We will then divide into 2- 3 groups, and each group will work on one of the communities for the remainder of the semester. Working individually, in pairs, and/or teams, each of you will conduct several field-based projects in the community context.

  • develop competence in the range of methods used to collect data useful for studying language in social context

  • develop skills in observing, recording, transcribing, coding and analyzing language

  • become familiar with different ways of analyzing language in social context

  • learn to use quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis

  • evaluate appropriateness (and interdependence) of quantitative and qualitative methods

  • review some major sociolinguistic field projects and replicate small segments

  • design and conduct a small scale community-based project in the local DC area that will feed into a larger long term study on language and the city

  • gain the ability to evaluate others’ research from a methodological standpoint

  • understand the interdependence between theory and method

  • examine the relationship between researchers and those who provide data

  • gain confidence in designing, conducting and evaluating research projects


working knowledge and ability in linguistics

familiarity with some areas of sociolinguistics

use of a portable tape recorder throughout the semester

Although reading is part of this course, the main focus is “hands-on” experience with collecting, interpreting and analyzing data. You will be involved in the following:
Six mini-field projects (some individual, some collective); 5- 15 points each for a total of 75 points. Each project will illustrate a methodology. Use of the data will be based on (a) development of topics suitable for examination through the data and (b) identification of short problems suitable for preliminary analysis. Each project requires these tasks:

  • design and conduct the project

  • write about each project (3-4 pages): what you did, why and how; what you learned about the method; your evaluation of strengths, weaknesses; personal comfort level; what you would do next time. When data analysis is included, also include the purpose of analysis, its preliminary results, assessment of the suitability of the data, and adequacy of methods and data for the research problem/analysis.

  • post your written version of the project on Blackboard.

  • present mini-field projects (informally) to class for discussion; respond to, and discuss, others’ presentations of projects. Like the written projects, presentations will focus on fieldwork, the process of data collection and tentative findings of analyses; assessment of strengths, weaknesses, and personal comfort. Discussion will also include brainstorming on how to use data for analysis of other research questions.

A journal with project write-ups (after returned with my comments); optional revisions of your assignments in response to my comments; comparison among the projects and summary (on specific topics to be provided). Due end of semester (15 points).
Class participation (10 points)
GENERAL SCHEDULE (to be refined and updated)
January to late February: decide on neighborhoods; participant observation in ‘ordinary setting;’ work with existing video data; DCT or SR interview and sociolinguistic interview and/or begin neighborhood/community work

Late February to May: more intense neighborhood/community work to include structured observations, RAS; 2 interview(s); possible SR test within interview(s), analysis of phonological variable and one narrative from interview(s).


Spring 2006 Schiffrin

List of projects and approximate dates Relevant readings
Project 1 (7.5 points) Jan 18- Jan 30 Basso, Goffman, Johnstone

Participant/observation of everyday situations Merritt, Hymes

Project 2 (5 points) Jan 30- Feb 6

Multi-modal data analysis of workplace interactions Schiffrin, Fabian

Project 3 (7.5 points) Feb 8- Feb 22

Structured observation, questionnaire on speech acts Searle

Visit your possible neighborhoods Duncan, Reiss, Ross
Project 4 (15 points) Feb 27- March 13

Participant/observation and rapid anonymous Eckert, Labov 1972, Labov 1986

surveys in neighborhoods
Project 5 (20 points) 3/20- 4/5

Sociolinguistic interview with friend-of-friend; Briggs, Mishler, Wolfson

Slx interviews with two different people in the

neighborhoods, including subjective reaction test

Project 6 (20 points) 4/5- 4/26 Halliday, Schilling-Estes (both),

Phonological variation and narrative analysis Wolfram (all)

from neighborhood data

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