By Susanne Unger
This essay discusses challenges faced by junior linguistic anthropologists in the current current professional market, outlining developments shaped these challenges and providing ideas about how to navigate this market. Linguistic anthropology is moving toward more collaboration and integration with cultural anthropology. I suggest that this, in conjunction with the current labor crisis in higher education, has forced junior scholars into difficult decisions about how to represent our work. I discuss the history of the subfield—how we got to where we are—and the stakes of collaboration in this historical context for those who seek employment amid a scarcity of tenure-track academic jobs.
A Brief History
Linguistic anthropology is commonly known as one of four (sub)fields of anthropology. This reflects the creation of a discipline in which scholars were once expected to holistically engage with human language, culture, history and biology. Until the mid-20th century in the US, linguistics and anthropology were not clearly separated. Scholars including Boas, Sapir, Bloomfield, Kroeber and C Voeglin, were presidents of the Linguistics Society of America who contributed to both formalist research on language and anthropological theory. In the 1960s, an institutional fissure occurred in the US, catalyzed by Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar that focused on (mental) linguistic competence to the exclusion of performance (actual language use). This paradigm appealed to some because of its empiricist framing. Such appeal contributed to the establishment and expansion of linguistics departments.
Others created a theoretical and methodological framework known as the ethnography of communication. This framework examined language and its use in socioeconomic and cultural contexts. Despite this counter-development, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, as linguistics departments grew, some anthropology departments reasoned that they no longer needed a linguist on faculty. The study of sociolinguistics, folklore, communication, conversation analysis, discourse analysis and pragmatics flourished, but often outside of anthropology departments. Scholars of language and culture developed theoretical standpoints for studying linguistic structure alongside embodied language use, metapragmatics and ideologies. These perspectives offer a lens through which much of culture can be viewed—after all, language is a primary medium for social life. Most contemporary anthropologists who study language and culture are not specifically linguists. Rather, we are people who study culture with a toolkit that includes a nuanced theory of how language works.
Collaboration in an Age of Professional Crisis
Recently, another institutional shift has begun. Since 2000, three of eight AAA presidents have been linguistic anthropologists. More anthropology departments are looking to (or willing to) hire people who study language and culture. And in several articles, linguistic anthropologists emphasize dialogue with cultural anthropology. At the same time, these scholars implore others to recognize the complexity of language and communication. This suggests that dialogue may be one-sided. Overall, these trends reflect increasing re-inclusion of the subfield into the discipline and, for some, a desire to return to a more integrated perspective.
Still, the confluence of historical developments (outlined above) with the current labor crisis in higher education has made it difficult for junior scholars to navigate the relationship between cultural and linguistic anthropology. …read more
Source: Science Daily News