Jennifer Jackson’s Wonderful Description of Linguistic Anthropology

Jennifer Jackson passed away in May of this year at the young age of 39. Here is an excerpt from the obituary that ran on Anthropology News:

We mourn the loss of her brilliant mind, quick smile and mischievous humor. She was known for incisive scholarship on politics and social justice. She wove a keen artistic sense for poetics into her ethnographic observations, as evident in her 2013 book Political Oratory and Cartooning: An Ethnography of Democratic Processes in Madagascar. Her eye-opening insights into the language of American politics were featured in national media. Jennifer served the American Anthropological Association, first on the Executive Board’s student seat then the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Executive Board.

There will be a memorial in her honor at the AAA in Denver. I didn’t know her personally, but here in Taiwan we are honoring her by reading her ethnography. It is a great book and well worth reading for many reasons, but I especially loved her description of the discipline of linguistic anthropology in the introduction (pp. xxiii-xxv). (It’s a long quote, but I couldn’t see anything in it that I would want to cut.)

what we do as linguistic anthropologists, in particular as ethnographers of speaking/communication/communicative interaction/ social interaction or all of its variants. We generally leave behind the classroom, the textbooks, the grande no-fat no-whip soy lattes, the complacent gaze at familiarity that comes from being completely “at home” in a place, and we head for places that look, feel, sound, smell different. Even if this is within our same home country, the subtle suddenly appears more obvious. We engage deeply and over a long period of time with people in their everyday lives in order to observe language in its context of action. We yearn to know how people use words, gestures, grunts, and even silence and to what effect; what they think and say about those acts and the people who do them; and how this all changes over time, space, or other context. These everyday micro-practices – little acts of talking, writing speeches, drawing cartoons, talking about doing these things, interacting with one another at the dinner table, buying rice at the marketplace – may appear as stand-alone practices by separate individuals; however, each of these tells us something about patterns of social life over time and across populations. The patterns are what is key. Each choice in word, tone, prosody, order, the way someone might recall or reenact a story, hearkens to those patterns. These are ways of doing things that are shared among communities of speakers, point to something beyond the speech act itself, and they generally sit just below the threshold of awareness. But they are there, very much there, and they “mean” something out there in the world they reflect and shape. In fact, this is generally where meaning in language is located, some-where other than the linguistic act itself. Syntax no longer means just word order in a sentence but an index of social discrimination. Phonemes are no longer minimal units of sound but sound patterns that point to a river or mountain that creates just enough physical distance between speakers to account for an accent or dialect difference. And out of this difference grows evaluations about who says what and how. Each of these individual moments in the everyday reflects these patterns while also tugging on them just a bit, sometimes a lot, to the extent that either they reinforce situations and the social roles in them, or they change. And we have to be there, long enough and with a steady handle on the social, historical, and political forces that prevail, to reckon with the ways in which these patterned micro-practices come together as shared, tacit understandings of ways of doing and being that combine to shape macro -orders, such as institutions, laws, belief systems, and language itself. It is a constant trip between the everyday and the over-the-long-term, from the individual speech to the institutionalization of, say, class hierarchies, the reproduction of some standard of speaking across multiple contexts over time – in other words what happens right here and now with some larger issue or institution out there we might otherwise think of as a black box, a “they,” the work of some invisible hand. We bring the practice of words into abstract social categories and constructs such as colonialism, gender, the state, and civil society, to activate them, unpack-ing and reframing them not as things but as existing insomuch as they manifest through practice. We make these connections between micro-practices and macro-institutional orders so that nothing gets away without an explanation of its creation, its shape, its reproduction, its growth, its death through social change. For all of these reasons linguistic anthropology, particularly through its ethnography, to my mind, is both methodologically and theoretically grounded to go after both realms of human activity – from chunks of the obvious to the grains of the subtle – and to show their connection and the ways in which they articulate with various social, cultural, and political dynamics. It heads straight for the voices of the everyday to see the ways in which their talk and talk about talk coalesce otherwise disparate signs to produce new signs that look like, point to, and symbolize grander, momentous frameworks for organizing experience. And we locate the character and movement of power embodied, the power to create, to constrain, to convince, to erase as predicated on this continual discursive production and reproduction of signs culminating in the semiosocial matrix in which we all live. In a sense, we show our readers how the rabbit got put in the hat in the first place, exposing the location of the seeming illusiveness of power as embedded in the semiotic practice of social actors. Doing things this way, that is, reading social phenomena as founded in practice and ideologies about those practices and the people who do them, allows us not only to describe what is going on across a broader scale of social life, but to show to what end and what is at stake that things are the way they are.

5 thoughts on “Jennifer Jackson’s Wonderful Description of Linguistic Anthropology

  1. She was one of the most brilliant people I ever had the pleasure of knowing, and I am privileged to have called her my friend.

  2. Sorry about that. I moved the link to the next paragraph to make it clearer that the quote is from her ethnography. I also added page numbers.

  3. My beautiful granddaughter was taken from us at such an early age.. Jennifer had so much to give. Her knowledge was beyond the average, due to her dedication and love of words.
    The many months she was in Madagascar learning languages and dialects were some of her happiest days. Teaching and learning new things every day was her dream!
    This is for you my darling. You will always be in my heart.

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