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Language and the social: investigations towards a new sociology of language

Hawkins, Gwyneth Mae (2013) Language and the social: investigations towards a new sociology of language. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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This thesis investigates sociological understandings of language in texts deeply resonant for sociology today. It offers a comparative and analytical investigation of social-language projects written before the discipline was established. Sociologists have struggled to establish a field investigating arguably the most social arena of social life, namely, language as witnessed by insubstantial attempts to sociologically study language and unfulfilled promises in social theories of language or sociologies of communication, culture, media, etc. Chapter 1 critically reviews social scientific research approaches to language. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 examine carefully selected sites in European thought where language and social life interpenetrate too much to be disentangled, wherein there are ‘folk sociologies of language’. Chapter 2 looks at attempts to rectify a deep confusion pulling society apart and corroding language. Three social-language projects compose language: a gesture language (Bulwer), a philosophical language (Wilkins) and combination of both (Dalgarno). Chapter 3 looks at two critical dictionaries intended to fix language to help the realisation of the ideal society (Johnson’s Dictionary and Diderot’s Encyclopedié). Chapter 4 explores projects that capture historically changing nationhood: the OED and the work of the Grimm Brothers. These social-language projects are attempts to change something in the social, on a continuum of less to more radical interventions. These social-language projects are significant, but have been ignored by sociologists. As ‘language’ projects, they are assumed irrelevant in relation to power, knowledge, or nascent nationalism. As ‘social’ projects, they have been considered tangential to an increasingly narrow and technical linguistics. By mining this rich seam of sources, this work draws attention to elements central to sociology (about the nature and roles of collectives and individuals, about agency, structure, the subject, institutions) in light of key questions about language (its aspects, form, roles in relation to knowledge, law, politics). This is a first step towards analysing language events from a sociological perspective. The intended contribution of this research to current sociology is three-fold. Firstly, it outlines a distinctive approach by using sources from outside the discipline in order to get at problems at its core. Secondly, it shows how language is empirically current in ways that are central to the discipline (e.g. the ‘endangered languages movement’). Finally, it shows that without the distance gained by stepping outside we cannot see that the way we think about language and the social are mutually constitutive, indeed each shapes and conditions the other. In sum, language is much too sociologically important to be left to linguists.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2013 Gwyneth Hawkins
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Sets: Departments > Sociology
Supervisor: Dodd, Nigel

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