Walt Wolfram, Drew Grimes, and Ryan Rowe

North Carolina State University

Audio | Handout


Sociolinguistic Involvement in Community Perspective: Obligation and Opportunity

The nature of the relationship between sociolinguistic researchers and the communities that they study has become an increasing matter of concern—for researchers, for professional organizations, and for host communities. In what ways are researchers obligated to the communities that they study? Is it possible to establish genuine researcher-researched partnerships that are mutually responsible and beneficial? How can researchers observe the linguistic gratuity principle as they collect data driven, for the most part, by fundamental research questions? These are questions that face all responsible researchers involved with human subjects, but they are particularly acute in small, Southern communities where the role of outside researchers is inevitably obtrusive. This presentation considers both the obligations and opportunities for sociolinguists in field-initiated community studies by critically examining some of the primary issues that need to be raised in researcher-community relationships. Illustrative examples come from a variety of relationships and situations experienced by the staff of North Carolina Language and Life Project during the past decade.

One of the initial issues to be confronted in such partnerships involves the relationship of power and authority. Although researchers may assume a variety of situated roles and relationships with community members, they still fill the primary role of “language expert.” This expertise, in turn, raises issues of ownership. To what extent is there an opportunity for community members to have rights and privileges with respect to language data from their community? How can researchers enable community members to assume ownership and become engaged in language heritage activities given this asymmetry in expertise?

Another critical dimension in the researcher-community relationship is the issue of presentation. What aspects of language should be presented publicly and how should they be framed? Issues of presentation are particularly delicate given the fact that most community-based sociolinguistic studies focus on socially stigmatized varieties contextualized by the principle of linguistic subordination—both by outsiders and by local community members themselves. How do researchers present their studies of socially stigmatized linguistic structures at the same time that they celebrate the linguistic heritage represented by these items?

Finally, there are issues of social and economic capital associated with researcher-community partnerships. How might the community profit from research while researchers enhance their professional careers through their scholarly presentations about the language of these communities? Can an authentic symbiotic relationship between the researcher and the researched really exist? Notwithstanding the apparent success reported for some community-based partnerships with sociolinguists, there are a number of persistent ethical and practical questions that need to be addressed. We propose, in conclusion, a set of guidelines for community-based research that ranges from issues of public dissemination to issues of maintaining enduring community-researcher partnerships.