Anthropological Linguistics vs Sociolinguistics vs Linguistic Anthropology (ARGH!)

Academic introductions are awkward, especially if you’re a PhD student who’s still sussing out the nooks and crannies of their field – I only have the vaguest of ideas how to describe what kind of linguist I am*. I was at a morning tea a few weeks ago and we had to go around and introduce ourselves to new people in the department. I had to quickly compose a ready-made response and managed to fumble something out about working in Papua New Guinea and looking at social-y cultural-y things and how people speak differently even though they speak the same language. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to introduce myself, but the activity doesn’t get any easier.
Yours truly being anthropology-ish. That’s Towal giving me a tour of her father-in-law’s garden.
I kind of see myself as a sociolinguist, but then since I work in “exotic” locations does that make my linguistics more anthropology-ish? There also happens to be (of course), a distinction between “anthropological linguistics”, and “linguistic anthropology”. This is confusing, because you wonder what exactly the difference is between the three.
So let’s walk through this and highlight the confusing parts, and I’ll come up with a simple answer that works (for me) for the time being (I think).

Anthropological Linguistics

 A sub-field of linguistics.
“Anthropological linguistics is that sub-field of linguistics which is concerned with the place of language in its wide social and cultural context, its role in forging and sustaining cultural practice and social structures….[it] views language through the prism of the core anthropological concept, culture, and, as such, seeks to uncover the meaning behind the use, misuse or non-use of languages, its different forms, register and styles…”  (Foley 1997: 3)
So according to Foley, anthropological linguistics is interested in the cultural and social meaning of language (as opposed to linguistic meaning in the sense Semanticists mean. I might talk about this some other time). A really simple example: what do we actually mean when we say the phrase “Yeah, right”? It could have a genuine or sarcastic meaning depending on the tone of voice you use, or the context. And what kind of a person do you imagine would use this phrase? Or when would you use it, if you are the kind of person to use this phrase? These are the kinds of things that are meant by “cultural and social meaning”.

But then you have…

Linguistic Anthropology

Funnily enough, a sub-field of anthropology. As we mentioned at the very beginning, anthropologists are interested in holistic approaches. Anthropologists have various theories on what culture is, or what human nature is, and these things frame the way language is understood and studied.

“Linguistic anthropologists view language in its cultural framework and are concerned with with the rules of its social use.” (Salzmann 1998:16)

Which is, unfortunately for us, really close to what Foley said above.
20140916 - independence day arufi (13).JPG
Languages, like armies, have rules (I’m going to have to work on my pictures-matching-with-text thing…)
Ok, so if linguistic anthropology is a subfield of anthropology, what makes anthropology different from linguistics? My really simple overview looks something like the following:

  • Privileges a holistic approach, i.e. “concern with a systems as a whole rather than with only some of its parts.” (Salzmann 1998:2) – In other words, it’s an interest in how specific things fit into the grand scheme of things. For example, and anthropologist might be interested in marriage ceremonies, but they are interested in this ceremony and how it relates to ideas of family ties, or how gender norms are reinforced, or something like that. The interest is in the ceremony, but how it relates to other parts of a people’s culture.
  • A strong fieldwork component in contrast to other disciplines interested in the human condition (Salzmann 1998) – An interest in what it is that makes us human, and the many things that we humans do which may or may not be unique to us as a species.
  • The scientific study of language structure. (Salzmann 1998: 4) – In regular speech, it’s the kind of stuff people call “grammar”: verb conjugations, word order, case etc, for those of you who may have studied foreign languages before.
So maybe you can say something really simplistic like “an anthropological linguist is like a linguistic anthropologist in that they are interested in the social meaning of language, but the former being a linguist would place a fair bit of emphasis on linguistic structure (e.g. grammar).” Basically, a grammar nerd is still a grammar nerd even if they are interested in the human condition and social meaning.
Melsy being a champ and being recorded in the name of data collection. She’s also a ripper of a story teller.
Another difference that should really be pointed out is that of research method (i.e. how the research collects data). 20th century cultural anthropology is famous for its method of “participant observation“. For a good summary, I direct you to Kawulich’s paper over at Qualitative Social Research. The best summary can be found in Kawulich’s conclusion:
“Participant observation involves the researcher’s involvement in a variety of activities over an extended period of time that enable him/her to observe the cultural members in their daily lives and to participate in their activities to facilitate a better understanding of those behaviors and activities. The process of conducting this type of field work involves gaining entry into the community, selecting gatekeepers and key informants, participating in as many different activities as are allowable by the community members, clarifying one’s findings through member checks, formal interviews, and informal conversations, and keeping organized, structured field notes to facilitate the development of a narrative that explains various cultural aspects to the reader.” (Kawulich 2005)

 Again, anthropological linguists do this too. I know for a fact that Foley of the Anthropological Linguistics section above has done years of fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. But I would hazard a guess that anthropological linguists, being grammar nerds and interested in linguistic structure, are more inclined to focus on specifics of grammar while using participant observation as a method as well. What do I mean by specifics of grammar? For example, a linguist might ask a question like  “what is the social meaning of using the progressive suffix /-ɪn/  in contrast to /-ɪŋ/?”. This is just a fancy way of saying “why do some groups of people say walkin’ as opposed to walking?” While I won’t speak for them, I hazard a guess that linguistic anthropologists might be more interested in something like “when and why do some groups of people speak the way they do, and what does that tell us about how this group of people view themselves and others?”.


A subfield of linguistics. Confusing, because as the name of this subfield implies, people who work in this field are also interested in social-y things, culture, and language:
“Is sociolinguistics about how individual speakers use language? Is it about how peoples language differently in different towns or regions? Is it about how a nation decides what languages will be recognised in courts or education? The answer is: yes, yes, and yes. Sociolinguists conduct research on any of these topics.” (Meyerhoff 2011: 1)
So what’s the difference between anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics? Both are linguistics, so the practitioners are interested in grammar, right?
“Sociolinguistics…views language as a social institution, one of those institutions within which individuals and groups carry out social interaction. It seeks to discover how linguistic behaviour patters with respect to social groupings and correlates differences in linguistic behaviour with the variables defining social groups, such as age, sex, class, race, etc.” (Foley 1997: 3)
Women doing women-y things? Alice on the left and Kristina on the right preparing leaf parcels to bake dampa in.

In other words, sociolinguists have a particular view and approach to language use, and what “social meaning” means. I think in the broadest sense Foely is accurate enough, but I have a problem with his choice of word “social institution”. This is because of how the field of sociolinguistics arose in the first place, but sociolinguistics has gone through a few different phases since Foley’s quote… but I’ll write about this some other time.

Notice that Foley emphasises the patterns and correlates where he doesn’t really attribute these kinds of things to anthropological linguistics. Sociolinguists emphasise collecting data in a certain way and running statistical analyses, seeking correlations and doing other number-y things.
So is it research method that makes sociolinguistics distinct from the other subfields? For now, let’s say yes.

Temporary Conclusion

  • Anthropological Linguistics is a subfield of linguistics, while Linguistic Anthropology is a subfield of anthropology.
  • Anthropological linguists, being linguists, tend to focus on specific linguistic structures (e.g. parts of “grammar”) despite sharing a lot in terms of interest, framework, and method with anthropologists.
  • Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics are interested in the cultural and social aspects of language, but differ mainly in their signature research methods.
    • Anther Ling – more like anthropology, and emphasises fieldwork (ideally, long term) and participant observation.
    • Socio Ling – more like sociology, and collecting survey responses, running stats, and seeking correlations systematically.
For sure, there are plenty of people out there who borrow bits across the various subfields. For now I’m happy to settle on the understanding that the approaches and methods of the subfields are slightly different from each other, but the things that they are interested in studying are very similar. A difference in approach and method probably entails some difference in assumptions of the phenomena of language, culture, etc… but that’s a topic for another day.

So, does it matter?

I understand that labelling yourself isn’t necessary, and sometimes it’s a bad thing to pigeon-hole yourself by labels. Having said that, I kind of like that I can contextually myself in the field of linguistics and the social sciences I guess. Maybe in the future I’ll be more sure of what it is that I do and what questions I’m pursuing, but for the time being, labels help me!

P.S. I was submitting an abstract for a conference paper recently and had to choose which category my talk would fall into. Lo and behold, there were the dreaded categories of “Linguistic Anthropology” and “Sociolinguistics” among others. In short, these labels do actually appear as something you have to deal with in a practical sense argh.
P.P.S A post by Piers Kelly explains Linguistic Anthropology as a practitioner, and why it’s important.

Foley, W. (1997). Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Massachusettes, USA: Blackwell Publishing.

Kawulich, Barbara B. (2005). Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method [81 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research6(2), Art. 43,

Meyerhoff, M. (2011). Introducing Sociolinguistics (2 ed.). USA and Canada: Routledge

Salzmann, Z. (1998). Language, Culture and Society: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology (2nd ed.). Colorado, USA: Westview Press.

4 thoughts on “Anthropological Linguistics vs Sociolinguistics vs Linguistic Anthropology (ARGH!)

  1. Piers Kelly

    Hey Eri, nice post, and thanks for the link-back. I had no idea you had written about this! Regarding your last comment it would certainly be tempting for somebody to respond, “It’s all just knowledge, let’s not get too caught up in labels”. But it’s the label-ness of the world that interests us in the first place, and we can’t escape from the fact that the institutions that support us are also all caught up in labels. This means that hyphenated scholars have a slightly harder a time finding postdocs or teaching courses because funding bodies and faculties prefer to deal with nice clean disciplines. So I think it’s a good exercise to have discussions about how to define different schools and methods and to make the messiness visible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. e r i

      Heya Piers! Good to hear from you 😀 Yeah, I totally agree certainly that once we say “it’s all just a label” it becomes unhelpful. We have labels precisely as a way to try and help us understand what we’re dealing with in the messy real world. I also agree it would be a good exercise in general to think about what these labels in our field mean (labels pertaining to “what kind of linguist I am”), especially for people just coming into it all (like me when I wrote this post. Wow that was like three years ago or something now. Horror.).


  2. Hi,
    Thank you for seeking to clarify a messy topic. I’ve been trying to find out these very differences because I’m trying to apply for funds that will enable me to get my Masters… but in which field? When I look to the US BLS occupational outlook book, it’s split differently. There’s the archaeology and anthropology grouping, then there’s the interpreter and translator grouping. And if I search for philologist, it pops both groups up as legitimately related fields. The rub however is how the BLS sorts out the expected growth. The first group will grow slower than average but the second group grows faster. And, there’s no distinction between your original subject as to anthropological linguistics versus linguistic anthropology. I’m trying to collect the needed data to help my sponsor see that I’m trying to get into a faster growing field. I suppose it comes down to what I want to do with the degree that will determine which grouping I end up with and what degree I’ll have at the end of my journey.

    What do I want to do? I want to examine such languages as the lithographic texts of the Mayan to explore it more in depth and find what I consider an epi-linguistic level of the language. I don’t know that I’m trying to find what might be referred to as jargon much as legalese is considered, but maybe that is what I’m trying to do. Moreover, I’m also interested in the flexibility of their language to see if it supports more modern concepts such as the atom, the molecule, or even topics such as quantum mechanics. I love research, and I k ow I’ve a long road ahead of me to answer these questions, but again, I first need to answer this: what field am I trying to get into?

    Thank you,



    1. e r i

      Hey there, sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you. It IS really tricky to figure out which field you want to pursue. I’ve nothing to say about funding in the US, but I think another good way to think about it is which field “makes sense” to you in terms of how they approach data. Sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists have different kinds of approaches to what I think are ultimately quite similar kinds of phenomena. One is more macro-quantitative, while the other tends to be a bit more localised and feeling/meaning based, if you know what I mean? Good luck!


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