Review of Applying Sociolinguistics
Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2002 09:51:05 +0200
From: Pentti Haddington
Subject: Boxer (2002) Applying Sociolinguistics
Boxer, Diana (2002) Applying Sociolinguistics: Domains and
Face-to-Face Interaction. John Benjamins Publishing Company, x+239pp,
paperback ISBN 1-58811-198-9, $35.95, Impact: Studies in Language and
Pentti Haddington, University of Oulu, Finland
"Applying Sociolinguistics: Domains and Face-to-Face Interaction" takes a
look at real world of verbal interaction. The book aims to demonstrate what
can be learned from the study of face-to-face interaction and inform
readers of the possibilities of applying knowledge from this kind of
research in order to optimize interaction in everyday interaction (1).
Boxer (henceforth B) introduces several linguistic and sociological fields
and approaches that study face-to-face interaction in one way or the
other (e.g. Conversation analysis, Discourse analysis, Ethnography of
communication). The author also builds upon a vast array of other studies
in language and talk (Gricean pragmatics, speech acts, anthropological
linguistics, etc). However, her main influences clearly stem from critical
approaches in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics. The book is
organized into chapters that each investigate a particular domain (e.g.
family, social, work, etc), following Joshua Fishman's (1972)
categorization of day-to-day language use into "domains." Each chapter
provides an up-to-date overview of current studies in the domain in
question and then a more detailed account of B's original research in the
This volume should interest a wide audience of linguists and sociologists,
but perhaps mainly finds its readers from the fields of applied linguistics
and sociolinguistcs and those interested in the relationships between
gender, ethnicity, race and speech; language and power; or ... power in
1. Introduction (1-20)
In the introduction B introduces several fields that study and are related
to face-to-face interaction and lays out the aims of the book (mentioned
above in the overview). The author states that she orients to a practical
application in the study of face-to-face interaction and lays out a view to
usage-based, empirically grounded doing of sociolinguistic analysis that
relies widely on other studies of language and talk (also mentioned in the
overview). B also considers the distinction between studying macro and
micro phenomena and says the distinction is a fuzzy one.
The author has organized the volume so that it follows Fishman's (1972)
categorization of day-to-day language into "domains" and studies these
domains mainly in North American settings. The domains are: family, social,
education, religious, and workplace domain. In addition to the different
domains, B provides an additional chapter that considers face-to-face
encounters in cross-cultural situations. She sets out to study the domains
and cross-cultural situations by connecting face-to-face interaction with
sociocultural values and thereby looking at how different speaking patterns
reflect or perpetuate these values.
B finds applying Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) (Norman Fairclough, Teun
Van Dijk, Ruth Wodak) and thus finding to expose and study societal
problems stemming from manipulative and discriminatory language use by
powerful groups as an important way of doing sociolinguistics (7). However,
B states that while "the thrust of CDA is essentially the issue of language
and power, the thrust of this book is somewhat different." (8) She
characterizes the thrust of her book as "power in language" and means that
she intents to provide examples of results of ordinary interactions that
will help speakers achieve power in language. In other words, "the sort of
power here is not that of dominance; it is the power to present ourselves
as we wish and thereby negotiate more successfully through the important
domains of our lives" (8).
2. Face-to-face in the family domain (21-46)
B claims that talk in the family is first of all very important for our
daily lives since it involves the people that are close to us and with whom
we generally interact the most. Secondly, B says that talk with family
members differs in striking ways from the ways we talk with people who are
more distant to us. She also says that as speakers we recognize the
importance of interacting with our family members in constructive and
fruitful ways. (21) In light of the above she discusses "dinner table
talk," "couples talk", and "nagging."
On the basis of prior studies on dinner table talk, B discusses how the
transformations in modern family dinner practices may have an effect on
language socialization for children. She also discusses the importance of
reported speech as showing gender differences in dinner table talk, and
also other gender roles in dinner time conversations (22-30). In the
section on couples talk, B provides for an overview on some studies that
have shown how women try to keep up conversations in couples talk, whereas
men are more "patronizing," "teachy" and interrupt others more, for
example. B also discusses the use of humor to negotiate conflicts (30-32).
In the section on nagging, B claims that nagging is ubiquitous in the
family domain and that she would like to ask the question why nagging is so
ubiquitous in the domestic context. She focuses on analyzing nagging in
relation to gender, social distance, social status and power and states
that the reason for why some parents nag while others need not do so "must
lie in the family members' perceptions of power of the person issuing the
request (39). She also says that women may expect compliance with
reasonable requests, but that due to the hierarchical style of boys and
men, it doesn't work. Consequently, requests become repeated reminders that
turn into nagging. She summarizes that nagging prevails in the family area
and is a source of a good deal of conflict within the domestic domain.
She concludes the chapter by saying that children are socialized into
adults in the familial domain then become members of their speech
communities. Models for arguments and nagging, for example, may cause
problems and perpetuate through to the next generation. She also says that
children learn gendered roles (father, mother) at home.
3. Face-to-face in the social domain (47-88)
In the chapter on social life B discusses, for example, the phrase "how are
you" and the different social functions the phrase may have. The author
also discusses previous studies on US/Japanese differences in refusal
strategies (52), telephone partings (52), offers (53), invitations (54),
complimenting (54-55), advice-giving (59-61), and troubles-telling (59-61).
In her overview to complimenting she discusses Pomerantz's (1978) work on
compliment responses and at the same time briefly discusses the
methodologies and advantages and disadvantages of Conversation Analysis
(cf. Sacks et al. 1974) and ethnographic approaches to face-to-face
In her own study on troubles talk and complaints B found out that the
preferred response to such talk is commiseration and that this sort of
troubles-telling is frequently undertaken by interlocutors to open and
sustain conversations and relationships (58). B also discusses the idea of
dominance in feminist linguistics and that differences in linguistic
practices often stem from differences in access to social power (67).
Another example of B's own work in the social domain concerns a co-study
with Florencia Cortés-Conde on conversational joking, teasing and identity
display. B discusses for example different types of conversational joking,
joking about absent others, self-denigrating humor, self-teasing, joking
that bonds and so on. She discusses the above phenomena with reference to
sociolinguistic variables, such as gender in order to shed light on
phenomena such as exclusion, discrimination and sexual harassment.
4. Face-to-face in the education domain (89-124)
In her discussion on the education domain, B concentrates on higher
education. First she gives a view based on literature in higher education
which includes studies of how face-to-face discourse analysis elucidates
the social construction of self as part to the academic world. She looks at
statuses of individuals in the academe, in different situations (e.g.
advising situations and colloquia), based on the level of experience
different individuals have. She states that those lower in the "power
scale" display their intellectual identities less in colloquia, for example.
The chapter also includes an analysis of the use of sarcasm in higher
education classrooms (done in co-operation with Jodi Nelms). She discusses
the functions of sarcasm in college classrooms and finds that there are
both positive, negative and neutral uses of sarcasm (104-115). She states
that sarcasm is used to convey messages that could be done more directly in
ordinary interactional situations. Sarcasm also has multiple functions: to
build rapport, to make a point, to ridicule, among others. The use of
sarcasm can be perceived as positive, negative or neutral by students,
depending on what the target of the sarcastic comment is.
She concludes that professors and teachers need to make conscious efforts
to ascertain how their speech behaviors are perceived by others (123).
Negative uses of sarcasm should be avoided, whereas positive uses of
sarcasm in fact can be useful. In sum, sarcasm is not necessarily just a
negative kind of speech behavior.
5. Face-to-face in the religious domain (125-146)
B gives an overview of prior studies on religious discourse, for example,
on prayer meetings. She also looks at interactional situations and details
from different religious traditions. B lists some consistent findings in
this domain. First of all, interaction in the religious domain is generally
face-to-faces. She says that the aspect of face-to-face interaction in the
domain of religion borders on social interaction. According to B, it is
sometimes difficult to disambiguate the social aspect of religious groups.
When people participate in the religious domain they do it to satisfy both
spiritual, intellectual and social needs.
B's own work of the religious domain considers face-to-face language of a
Bat/Bar Mitzvah (the Jewish rite of passage of youth into adulthood at the
age of thirteen). In this section she demonstrates how the spiritual,
intellectual and social spheres interact, and how the social interaction in
the rite of passage is significant for the participants.
She concludes that religious interaction is an important part of people's
lives in North American speech communities and that communicative
competence in religious interaction encompasses knowing the structure of
religious services (when to pray, recite, etc).
6. Face-to-face in the workplace domain (147-175)
B says that the aim of the chapter on workplace interaction is to offer
insights into how communicative competence in workplace and institutional
encounters can help people to interact in this domain. She discusses
several prior studies on talk in service encounters (how to build tab in
restaurant interactions, how to get what you want in hairdresser
encounters, how to present witness testimony in order to get across a
desired point, etc), institutional encounters (911 calls, police officers
handling domestic violence) and talk at work.
B also looks at previous studies on female and male ability in the
workplace and comes to the conclusion that women's affiliative style has
positive implications for the workplace. She also says that more studies
should be done, for example, on the problems where women don't have enough
power in the workplaces, and on humor in workplaces.
B's own work looks at face-to-face interaction in a predominantly male
brokerage house (co-authored with Andrea DeCapua). She considers such
(male) speech behavior as bragging, boasting and bravado at work, and looks
at boastful humor and analyzes gender sequences of such humor. She
concludes that appropriately assertive speech as opposed to weak speech or
aggressive speech can demonstrate that women's style may indeed be a more
humanitarian and effective (175).
7. Face-to-face in cross-cultural interactions (177-210)
In this chapter B considers examples of cross-cultural face-to-face
interaction. First the author provides for a view on some prior studies on
the subject area. She focuses on cross-cultural pragmatics approach
(instead of interlanguage pragmatics) to solve real world communication
problems in the shrinking planet (181) and considers the approach by
looking at social life, educational life and workplace life.
She also provides for an overview on her own work on complaining in
conversations between speakers of US English and speakers of Japanese and
showed, for example, that Japanese speakers used much more backchannel cues
that English speakers. This caused some confusion and frustration in the
speakers. B also discusses value of silence in some contexts and social
parameters of saying "no" and the different underlying values of this in
In the section on cross-cultural interactions in work life B looks, by
taking a functional grammatical perspective, research of the differing
uses of language between Chinese and Westerners and what practical
implications the differences have for interaction.
In the section on cross-cultural interactions in educational life B looks
at higher education in the US based on her co-study with Andrea Tyler about
interactional environment including international teaching assistances
(ITAs) and the problems that occurred with the ITAs. The researchers
concluded that the identity of the ITA (race, ethnicity, gender) appeared
to play a major role and that for the ITAs, their power is diminished
compared to native teachers. This is due to, for example, the fact that
they are not native speakers of English.
In section 2, B offers an in-depth analysis (co-study with Christina
Overstreet) of cross-cultural speech behavior, which investigates the key
role that staff members of a large university play in helping students gain
entry into campus life. The researchers focus on gatekeeping encounters
between staff members and students from varying cultural backgrounds by
looking at the dynamics of "Gesellschaft" (contractual, rational,
instrumental discourse system) and "Gemeinschaft" (discourse system that we
are born into; relational system) (195). The study takes an ethnography of
speaking approach (cf. Hymes 1962) to the collection and analysis of data.
The data was also validated through in-depth ethnographic interviews. The
researchers looked at data by isolating elements of 1) official,
utilitarian language or bureaucratic jargon and 2) relational talk (e.g.
use of endearment terms). They found out for example that some staff
members used terms of endearment with students, students did not use these
reciprocally with staff. This indicated, according to B, the inherent
superiority of the staff members in that particular interactional context,
which did not serve to build rapport between the interactants, but rather
to emphasize power relationships (198-199). Later (200-201), B also says
that endearment terms can also increase Relational Identity and they have
dual functions. Finally, B says that interaction is a two-way street and
that the non-native speakers' lack of knowledge of English can cause
B concludes that even though staff members that have the potential to
counter the official, informational use of language with words and that
express interest in and concern for the personal well-being of the
newcomer, there is a real danger of falling back to cultural stereotypes
with possible unfavourable consequences.
8. Conclusion (211-223)
In the conclusion B says how sociolinguistics can be applied to develop a
sense of community. She adds that knowing how talk functions within each
domain helps speakers to negotiate appropriate and felicitous participation
(211). Face-to-face discourse in the different domains discussed in the
book have far-reaching implications for how speakers can become more
connected in their speech communities. This can potentially have great
implications and consequences for child socialization, "with benefits to
accrue for generations to come" (222).
She also claims that issues of dominance and power are important. B says
that the view she has outlined is perhaps wider deals not only with
language and power but also with "power in language" (222).
This book is well-written and accessible, but deals with its topics in much
detail. It follows a consistent structuring throughout so that each chapter
outlines some background and objectives, and reviews prior work of
face-to-face encounters in the different social domains. Each chapter is
then concluded with the author's own more detailed work on a particular
aspect within the domain. This structure is extremely clear and is surely
helpful for a reader who does not have detailed knowledge of research done
of face-to-face interaction within the fields of applied linguistics and
sociolinguistics. The author has also succeeded in providing a coherent
view to an extensively large area of six separate domains. Still, B is able
to focus on particular interesting details in her overviews on prior
research and in her own work. The general overview in each chapter of the
seminal work in the different interactional domains acts as a good starting
point for ideas and references for further research in applied
sociolinguistics. Occasionally, however, the author could have benefited
from studies that were not considered in the book. For example, in chapter
6, Zimmerman's (1992) and Whalen and Zimmerman's (1998) work on 911
emergency calls would have been useful to discuss.
The book reflects the author's knowledge within the wide field of applied
sociolinguistics. The author is clearly influenced by Faircloughian
Critical Discourse Analysis, although with a slightly different take on the
concept. This influence can be seen throughout the book. On par with this,
the author states as her and the entire sociolinguistics' objective the
using of the results of this kind of research to optimize everyday
encounters and finally the enhancement of "world peace" (223). She thus
connects the research on face-to-face interaction with a look to
sociocultural values and aims to looks at how different speaking patterns
reflect or perpetuate these valuesan approach that is very interesting, but
also very challenging and difficult.
B's decision to view face-to-face interaction through different social
domains proposes to be both interesting and useful, because these domains
surely cover widely us humans' everyday life and the interactional
situations we encounter every day. The author frequently refers to
different sociological variables such as gender, age and ethnicity and how
these affect face-to-face encounters. Additionally, as mentioned above, she
also views her data through such concepts as "power" and "power in
language". Generally speaking, the author then connects these variables and
concepts to the question of "why" certain things happen in interaction. B
maintains her approach well. She raises questions and states her points in
a coherent fashion and often avoids, what could be potential
pitfallsperhaps sometimes by not actually providing clear answers to the
question "why". In light of this, the discussions on "dinner table talk",
children's socialization into adults in their speech community through
language use (family domain), US/Japanese differences in refusal
strategies, troubles talk (social domain), the different uses of sarcasm at
school by teachers (educational domain), the study on the use of
backchannel cues between US and Japanese speakers (cross-cultural
interactions), among others, are very insightful and interesting.
However, at some points, asking "why" something occurs or doesn't occur in
interaction proves to be a very difficult question. For me as person
coming from a slightly different research tradition asking "why" things
happen can be as problematic as it might be revealing. Consequently, there
are potential dangerous elements of taking this approach to study
Occasionally, perhaps as a "because" to the "why", B claims that different
sociological variables or access to power contribute to certain
interactional phenomena (for example, access to power having an impact on
who "nags"; uses of endearment terms in gatekeeping encounters between
staff members and international students at a campus emphasizing already
existing power relationships; gender (i.e. being male) contributing to who
"boasts" and "brags" at work), but at the same time excluding other
variables. What about those males who do not brag and boast at work? What
about the fact that in campus gatekeeping encounters the international
students were not native speakers of English? Could that have an effect on
whether they use endearment terms with the staff or not?
For me, this begs the question: how can we be sure that claims such as the
above do not just perpetuate existing and often just widely and commonly
accepted stereotypes? In fact, in the chapter on face-to-face interaction
in the workplace that discussed male bravado at work, there might have been
an example of a male who did not brag. He was excluded from the analysis,
because he had a profile that didn't fit the other subjects: i.e. he was
from Nigeria (the others being American), not a member of the "in-group"
(e.g. ex-college football players), didn't socialize with others, was a
born-again Christian and active in his congregation, didn't dance, drink or
engage in mating rituals (163). Was he excluded from the analysis, because
he didn't fit a stereotypical view of a bragging male?
Many readers (at least I) would also be interested in such questions as
"what happens" in the interaction and "how" that what happens does happen.
A closer interactional analysis of sequences of nagging in the family and
bravado at work prior to the consideration of power and sociological
variables could tell the analyst more about the nature of these activities.
After this, one couldif one wants toconsider other sociological variables
and factors contributing to these activities. This is what some variants
Conversation Analysis do. For example, Kitzinger (2002) succeeds in showing
how a social identity becomes sequentially relevant in gay coming-out
sequences, but by not a priori assuming that it will.
In sum, B's book is interesting and worth reading. It should interest
linguists widely, but especially those who are interested in the
intersection of language, sociology and culture, and especially those
interested in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics. Since the book
offers in each chapter an overview on previous studies in face-to-face
interaction, but also a view to recent work by the author, it works both as
an introduction for scholars and students to the field of face-to-face
interaction in applied linguistics / sociolinguistics and as way to
acquiant oneself with the more recent work in the field.
REFERENCES (A bibliography of the works cited)
Fishman, J. (1972). Domains and the relationship between micro and
macrosociolinguistics. In Gumperz, J. and D. Hymes (ed.) Directions in
Sociolinguistics, 435-453. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hymes, D. (1962). The ethnography of speaking. In Gladwin, T. and W.C.
Sturdevant (eds.) Anthropology and Human Behavior, 15-53. The Hague: Mouton.
Kitzinger, Celia. 2002 "Doing feminist conversation analysis". In Talking
Gender and Sexuality, P. McIlvenny (ed), 49-77. Amsterdam, Philadelphia:
Pomerantz, A. (1978) Compliment Responses: Notes on the Co-operation of
Multiple Constraints. In Schenkein, J. (ed.) Studies in the organization of
conversational interaction, 79-112. New York: Academic Press.
Sacks, H., E.A. Schegloff, and G. Jefferson. (1974) A Simplest Systematics
for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation. In Language 50: 696-735.
Zimmerman, Don H. 1992 "The Interactional Organization of Call for
Emergency Assistance". In Talk at Work, P. Drew and J. Heritage (eds),
418-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whalen, Jack and Zimmerman, Don H. 1998 "Observations on the Display and
Management of Emotion in Naturally Occurring Activities: The Case of
'Hysteria' in Calls to 9-1-1". Social Psychology Quarterly 61: 141-59.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Pentti Haddington is a graduate student at the University of Oulu, Finland and in the Langnet Graduate School for Language Students. He works on Functional Linguistics, Conversation Analysis and is preparing his dissertation on how categorization and identity-ascriptions are used in stance taking activities in news interviews.