Via the Linguistic Anthropology blog, I came across this excellent post by Lauren Squires, entitled “The social life of prescriptivism.” In it, Squires explains to the more positivisticly minded just what social science can contribute to understanding why bad linguistics happens. She brings together several related strains of linguistic anthropology/sociolinguistics research: language attitudes, language ideologies, linguistic awareness, linguistic capital (although she doesn’t call it that), etc.
For those of us trained in linguistic anthropology none of this is new, but I think we tend to forget just how little other people are aware of this research. The linguistics section of most bookstores is one of the smallest, and the anthropological sub-section is usually confined to one or two readers on language and gender. But what struck me about this post is that the same kind of thing could easily be written for any subject where scientists gripe about people not understanding their work, whether it is evolutionary theory or climate change, etc.
Take Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion for instance. The rational argument against the existence of god has been around a long time, and it hasn’t made much headway for a reason. Those reasons are complex, to be sure, but there is a large literature in anthropology that can help us at least begin to understand the continuing appeal of a divine creator.
The trick is to assume that people say and believe the things they do not simply out of error or ignorance, but because within the world in which they live these beliefs make sense and are actually helpful to them. The very fact that church attendance is so much more a part of people’s lives in the US than in Europe should clue us in to the fact that there are important sociological factors going on here. While American’s may not fair as well in math and science as Europeans, I don’t think that math and science education alone can explain these differences.
UPDATE: I forgot to plug the prescriptivism page on my wiki!