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Review of  Sociolinguistic Fieldwork

Reviewer: Jim Michnowicz
Book Title: Sociolinguistic Fieldwork
Book Author: Natalie Schilling-Estes
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.38

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“Sociolinguistic Fieldwork,” by Natalie Schilling, is the latest volume in the Cambridge “Key Topics in Sociolinguistics” series. This series, which includes more than ten titles by leading researchers in the field, covers a range of theoretical and methodological questions pertaining to sociolinguistics, and the books are designed as textbooks appropriate for courses on the topic. According to the author, the main goal of the present volume “is to at last reveal the “secrets” of sociolinguistic fieldwork” (p. 1), which in the past have largely been passed down informally from mentor to student, or learned through trial and error. In order to achieve this goal, Schilling addresses seven main components of fieldwork across as many chapters. The chapters take the reader through both the “art” of sociolinguistic research (e.g. the initial stages of fieldwork design, entering the community, finding subjects, recognizing the Observer’s Paradox, etc.), as well as the “technical” side of the field (e.g. how to pick a good recorder/microphone, storing and organizing data, etc.).

Chapter 1, ‘Introduction,’ provides historical background on field methods, which have roots in traditional dialectology, as well as anthropological and ethnographic (qualitative) methods. It closes with an overview of the rest of the book, including major questions/topics that will be addressed.

Chapter 2, ‘Designing the Study,’ has the stated goal of reducing or eliminating many of the “if onlys” (p. 17) that beginning researchers later regret by focusing on how to properly design a study from the very beginning. This chapter is divided into four main sections. “Selecting the population” addresses different ways to define a “speech community,” including non-geographic criteria, such as social networks (Milroy & Milroy 1985) and communities of practice (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992). “Sampling the population” includes overviews of random sampling, and quota or judgment sampling (the most commonly used technique in variationist work). Also included are examples from research projects that demonstrate the importance of remaining flexible, given that important social groupings may not be evident until after the study has begun, and may not always correspond with traditional sociolinguistic groupings applied a priori. “Stratifying the sample” makes the important point that a person’s speech is not simply the sum of the demographic groups to which they belong (p. 46), and addresses the difficulty of dividing speakers into groups, which is often not as straightforward as it seems (i.e. gender vs. biological sex, or age groups based on life stages or major social events as opposed to random groupings based on biological age). “Investigating language change in real time” compares the study of change in real and apparent time. Special attention is given to the difficulty inherent in designing a real time replication of a previous study and obtaining comparable data (following Trudgill’s (1988) restudy of Norwich). The chapter also includes less commonly explained methods, such as a truncated panel study (Trudgill 1988), in which younger speakers are added to a previous study, but not all groups are re-interviewed. In my experience, this option is often overlooked in sociolinguistic manuals.

Chapter 3, ‘Data collection methods,’ presents an overview of different ways to collect sociolinguistic data, including surveys, sociolinguistic interviews, and participant-observation. Two major themes are found throughout the discussion. First is the question of authenticity in data collection, specifically with respect to sociolinguistic interviews. Schilling argues against the (false) dichotomy of ‘authentic~inauthentic’ speech, specifically in reference to stylistic variation, noting that “speakers always shape their speech in some way to fit the situation or suit their purpose” (p. 104). Second is the importance of using multiple methods to study variation, following Labov (1972). This chapter is split up into three primary sections. “Sociolinguistic surveys” includes a discussion of face-to-face vs. long distance surveys, direct vs. indirect elicitation, rapid and anonymous surveys, and perception surveys, and reviews the advantages and disadvantages of each method. “The sociolinguistic interview” outlines the pros and cons of the traditional sociolinguistic interview, including situating it as a speech act, which “for many researchers...strikes an ideal balance between elicitation and observational techniques...” (p. 93). Other areas covered include: how to structure an interview, different styles of speech elicited by different questions and topics, and, importantly, a section on criticisms of the sociolinguistic interview, which is often lacking in books on variationist methods. Also included are modifications to the traditional interview, including group interviews and recording spontaneous conversations, with or without the researcher present. Finally, “Ethnography/Participant observation” focuses on how to enter the community as a participant-observer, as well as the different levels of community participation that researchers might undertake.

Chapter 4, ‘Designing research on style,’ addresses different approaches to style in the variationist tradition in three sections, from Labov’s (1972) original conception of style as attention to speech, to Bell’s (1984) Audience Design model, to Eckert’s (2005) “Third Wave” focus, which maintains that the “interactional meanings of variant hold primacy over group-associational meanings...” (p. 157). For each of these approaches, Schilling provides both theoretical background and methodological considerations, as exemplified in case studies throughout the chapter. Also included is discussion of the more recent interest in sociolinguistics on individual speaker variation, with particular attention paid to the agency displayed by individuals in projecting their social identities through linguistic means.

Chapter 5, ‘In the field: Finding contacts, finding a place,’ begins with the caveat that “...the most difficult step in any sociolinguistic study is almost certainly entering the community for the first time” (p. 177). As in other chapters, Schilling emphasizes here that detailed planning and organization on the part of the researcher can go a long way towards avoiding many potential pitfalls. There are again three main sections in the chapter. “Initial contacts” includes advice on how to balance the role of researcher/expert, on the one hand, and student/learner of community language and culture, on the other. Also presented are the pros and cons of entering the community through official channels vs. a bottom-up approach, as well as the benefits and obligations that come from being “a friend of a friend.” “Finding participants” provides a number of methods for meeting speakers in the community, with a warning not to get stuck in one particular social network (the “silo effect” Eckert 2000: 77), a danger that can come along with the “friend of a friend” approach. “The role of the fieldworker” expands on many of the themes already presented, addressing the researcher’s role both in the community (i.e. how to emphasize your role as a learner in the community) and in the interview (i.e. types of questions to ask, how to make the interview a natural exchange without dominating the conversation, etc.).

Chapter 6, ‘Recording and record-keeping,’ contains some of the most concrete advice of the book by providing answers to technical questions related to data collection and management. First, the chapter includes a section on “Recording equipment and techniques,” which provides clear advice on what to look for (and avoid) in digital recorders, microphones and data storage media. Additional information is given on potential problems and solutions when conducting long distance recordings (via phone or computer chat). “Record-keeping and data management” stresses the importance of maintaining meticulous records during fieldwork, and reviews criteria needed in a comprehensive data base once fieldwork is completed. “Preserving confidentiality” briefly details what information should never been included in searchable databases (either by the public or by outside researchers), and stresses the importance of encryption and other types of security in maintaining participant anonymity.

Chapter 7, ‘Giving back to the community,’ expands on the idea presented throughout the text that researchers have an ethical obligation to use the knowledge gained through sociolinguistic research to have a positive effect on the communities studied. The idea of giving back to the community, codified in Labov’s (1982) Principle of Error Correction and Principle of Debt Incurred, as well as Wolfram’s (1993) Principle of Linguistic Gratuity, is exemplified with particular cases where sociolinguists have made a difference. Providing examples of different levels of community involvement on the part of researchers, the chapter closes with specific examples of how students are able to make an important contribution to their communities of study, emphasizing that even small-scale involvement can impact people and communities in meaningful ways.


Returning to the stated goal at the beginning of the book of revealing the “secrets” of sociolinguistic fieldwork, this book is certainly a success, and can be added to the long list of recent volumes that I wish I had when I was getting started. Most of us who have been in the field for more than a few years learned how to “do sociolinguistics” from some combination of our dissertation director’s advice and trial-and-error, and personally, I have had more “if only” moments than I care to remember. The concrete advice on all stages of sociolinguistic fieldwork in this book will go a long way towards getting beginning sociolinguists up to speed in their own field research. Specific features of the book that I have found most useful include: 1) an annotated bibliography with further reading suggestions at the end of every chapter. Including these readings along with the main text would provide an instructor with an almost ready-made syllabus for a course on field methods.; 2) the ‘real-world’ examples from the author’s own experience and that of her students, which contextualize the major points of each chapter. Students in particular will relate to many of the problems and solutions that previous generations of learners have experienced. It is also comforting to see that even expert sociolinguists often make technical mistakes or cultural faux pas, as outlined in several of the examples.; 3) finally, some of the most helpful information for researchers already involved in the field is undoubtedly Chapter 6 on equipment and data management. Ask ten sociolinguists what recorder or microphone they recommend, and you are likely to get ten different answers. The general guidelines provided in this book will enable anyone to choose equipment that will produce high quality recordings, and given that data management is something that I still struggle with, I very much appreciated the suggestions given.

I also appreciated the emphasis on ‘balance’ found throughout the book. Schilling makes it very clear that there is no perfect method of data elicitation, and that every technique involves giving up something in one area in exchange for gaining something else (e.g. the discussion on audio quality vs. interactional quality (pp. 244-245)). Although this balance may seem obvious, in my experience, many beginning researchers often get wrapped up in the quest for ever cleaner, ‘laboratory-like’ data, and may actually miss out on the very relaxed, naturalistic speech that they are seeking in the first place.

Along those lines, most books that deal with sociolinguistic methods contain a section called “Minimizing the Observer’s Paradox,” or some such title, which is a section that is conspicuously missing from this volume. As the author makes clear, this omission is made on purpose. Schilling certainly addresses ways to not draw undue attention to the interview context, but at the same time, considers “whether it is possible or even desirable to seek to remove researcher effects” (p. 66). In fact, the summary of Chapter 3 is titled “Combining methods and embracing the Observer’s Paradox” (p. 126), and here, Schilling makes the case that it may be better to “adopt an anthropological/ethnographic perspective and attempt to identify and account for contextual effects, including observer effects, rather than seeking to abstract them away” (p. 128). This viewpoint, rooted in “Third Wave” methods and theories of Audience Design (Bell 1984), can have important consequences for the way we collect and analyze naturalistic data, and in my opinion, is good advice for students and seasoned researchers alike.

Overall, the book is written in an accessible manner, and provides a nice balance of theory and practice. Other than a few typos, there are no problems with the text, and the book layout is easy to follow and navigate. If one were forced to offer a criticism of the book, it could be noted that the emphasis is overwhelmingly on variationist, Labovian, and quantitative sociolinguistics. Field methods that would dominate in other types of sociolinguistics (focused more on ethnography, interactions in discourse, etc.) do not receive the same depth of treatment as the traditional Labovian interview. At the same time, Schilling never pretends to cover all permutations of sociolinguistic fieldwork, stating from the very beginning that the focus of the book will be on variationist methods (p. 1). The book would perhaps be more aptly titled “Variationist Sociolinguistic Fieldwork,” but this is a minor issue, and a vast majority of interested readers will find exactly what they are looking for in this volume: concrete, useful, detailed advice on how to undertake successful sociolinguistic research. I can recommend this book to both faculty and students without reservation.


Bell, Alan. 1984. Language style as Audience Design. Language in Society 13: 145-204.

Eckert, Penelope. 2000. Linguistic variation as social practice. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Eckert, Penelope. 2005. Three waves of variation study: The emergence of meaning in the study of variation. Manuscript.

Eckert, Penelope and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1992. Think practically and look locally: Language and gender as community-based practice. Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 461-490.

Labov, William. 1972. Some principles of linguistic methodology. Language in Society 1: 97-120.

Labov, William. 1982. Objectivity and commitment in linguistic science: The case of the Black English trial in Ann Arbor. Language in Society 11: 165-202.

Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy. 1985. Linguistic change, social network and speaker innovation. Journal of Linguistics 21: 339-384.

Trudgill, Peter. 1988. Norwich revisited: Recent linguistic change in an English urban dialect. English World-Wide 9(3): 33-49.

Wolfram, Walt. 1993. Ethical considerations in language awareness programs. American Association of Applied Linguistics Ethics Symposium. Atlanta, GA.
Jim Michnowicz is Associate Professor of Spanish at North Carolina State University. His research focuses on Spanish in contact and linguistic expressions of identity, and includes studies on Yucatan Spanish, Central and South America, as well as an ongoing research project on Spanish in North Carolina, based on the Corpus del español de Raleigh-Durham which he directs.

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