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People Walking

What is linguistic ethnography?

Excerpt from Tusting, Karin (ed.). 2019. The Routledge Handbook of Linguistic Ethnography. London: Routledge.

‘Linguistic ethnography is a term that has come into increasing prominence within applied and sociolinguistics in the past 20 years. It refers to an approach which combines theoretical and methodological approaches from linguistics and from ethnography, to research social questions which in some way involve language. Linguistics affords sensitive attention to language, and a large and historically well-developed toolbox of specific analytic approaches which can provide precise accounts of meaning-making processes as they happen. Ethnography adds reflexivity about the role of the researcher; attention to people’s emic perspectives; sensitivity to in-depth understandings of particular settings; and openness to complexity, contradiction and re-interpretation over time (Rampton et al., 2004).

The term does not represent a fixed and bounded disciplinary area. Rather, it indexes a growing body of work from researchers who share this commitment to combining ethnographic approaches to research with close attention to language use. Therefore, there is some debate as to what linguistic ethnography should be called – a field, a sub-discipline, an ‘umbrella’ or a methodological approach. It can be thought of primarily as a community of scholars who share particular theoretical and methodological orientations towards researching language in social life’. (p1)


Excerpts from Snell, Julia, Sara Shaw & Fiona Copland (eds.) (2015). Linguistic Ethnography: Interdisciplinary Explorations. London: Palgrave.

‘Linguistic ethnographers use the combination of ethnography and linguistics in ways that help them to understand the complexities of modern life […].  For linguists, the combination with ethnography represents a reorientation: a conscious effort to resist the perceived empirical rigour, neatness and certainty of linguistic analysis and embrace the openness and uncertainty of ethnography […]. For ethnographers, the combination with linguistics presents an opportunity to hone in on specific instances of everyday life and to evidence analysis in small instances of social practice. This means that researchers employing linguistic ethnography are often not satisfied with one kind of data or one kind of analysis. They use ethnography to ‘open up’ linguistic analysis and linguistics to ‘tie down’ ethnographic insights (Rampton et al. 2004). To achieve this, they draw upon a wide variety of linguistic and discourse analytic traditions (for example, conversation analysis, textual analysis, quantitative variation analysis, corpus analysis, social semiotics) in combination with ethnogra­phy. This process of ‘opening up’ and ‘tying down’ may well distinguish linguistic ethnography.’ (pp 8-9) 

‘If ethnography provides researchers with the means of opening up our understanding of everyday life, then it is the combination with linguistic analysis that provides a way of reaching “deeper into the ethnographic description of social or institutional processes” (Chapter Two). The slow and intensive analysis of language and communication sheds light on small (but consequential) aspects of social practice, taking the ethnography into smaller and more focused spaces and drawing analytic attention to fine detail (for example, the gestures of surgeons – see Chapter Eleven). As Copland and Creese explain, it is the combination of linguistics and ethnography that “links the micro to the macro, the small to the large, the varied to the routine, the individual to the social, the creative to the constraining, and the his­torical to the present and to the future. (p26).

Excerpt from Creese, A. (2008). Linguistic Ethnography. In: K. A. King and N. H. Hornberger (eds), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, 2nd Edition, Volume 10: Research Methods in Language and Education, 229–241. New York: Springer. 

As a term designating a particular configuration of interests within the broader field of socio- and applied linguistics, ‘linguistic ethnography’ (LE) is a theoretical and methodological development orientating towards particular, established traditions but defining itself in the new intellectual climate of late modernity and post-structuralism.


The debate about ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ distinctive to an understanding of linguistic ethnography is current and the term linguistic ethnography itself is in its infancy. On the one hand it positions itself very much alongside anthropological traditions to the study of language, such as the ethnography of communication (Hymes, 1968, 1972) and interactional sociolinguistics (IS) (Gumperz, 1972, 1982), while on the other hand, it claims a distinctiveness by keeping the door open to wider interpretive approaches from within anthropology, applied linguistics and sociology. Linguistic ethnography typically takes a poststructuralist orientation by critiquing essentialist accounts of social life. In conjoining the two terms ‘linguistic’ and ‘ethnography’ it aligns itself with a particular epistemological view of language in social context. In a recently published discussion paper on linguistic ethnography, its general orientation is described as follows:


Linguistic ethnography generally holds that language and social life are mutually shaping, and that close analysis of situated language use can provide both fundamental and distinctive insights into the mechanisms and dynamics of social and cultural production in everyday activity. (Rampton et al., 2004, p. 2)


The discussion sets out an epistemological position which has much in common with contemporary sociolinguistics more generally—an interest in the interplay between language and the social, the patterned and dynamic nature of this interplay and the processual nature of meaning-creation in the making of context.

It is the consideration of what is to be gained by conjoining the two terms ‘linguistics’ and ‘ethnography’ which begins to define linguistic ethnography. Linguistic ethnography is an orientation towards particular epistemological and methodological traditions in the study of social life.

Linguistic ethnography argues that ethnography can benefit from the analytical frameworks provided by linguistics, while linguistics can benefit from the processes of reflexive sensitivity required in ethnography. In a recent discussion paper, Rampton et al. (2004) argue for ‘tying ethnography down and opening linguistics up’ (p. 4) and for an enhanced sense of the strategic value of discourse analysis in ethnography. Ethnography provides linguistics with a close reading of context not necessarily represented in some kinds of interactional analysis, while linguistics provides an authoritative analysis of language use not typically available through participant observation and the taking of fieldnotes (p. 6).

In LE, linguistics is said to offer an ethnographic analysis of a wide range of established procedures for isolating and identifying linguistic and discursive structures (p. 3). In contrast, ethnographic analysis is said to offer linguistic analysis a non-deterministic perspective on the data. Because ethnography looks for uniqueness as well as patterns in interaction, it ‘warns against making hasty comparisons which can blind one to the contingent moments and the complex cultural and semiotic ecologies that give any phenomenon its meaning’ (p. 2).

An LE analysis then attempts to combine close detail of local action and interaction as embedded in a wider social world. It draws on the ‘relatively technical vocabularies’ of linguistics to do this. Rampton et al. (2004) suggest that although ‘there is certainly much more involved in human communication’ than the issues that these technical vocabularies can reveal they ‘can make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the highly intricate processes involved when people talk, sign, read, write or otherwise communicate’ (p. 3).

In addition to the study of interaction, the study of situated literacy practices is also well represented in LE where the focus is on community-based literacy research (Barton and Hamilton, 1998; Barton et al., 2000; Gregory, 1996; Gregory and Williams, 2000), multilingual literacy (Bhatt et al., 1996; Martin-Jones and Jones, 2000), and cross-cultural perspectives on literacy (Street, 1984). As with interactional studies in LE, such research starts from an understanding of literacy as social practice. In such studies, researchers made a distinct break from viewing literacy as a measurable cognitive achievement concerned predominantly with educational success and instead began to look at how people actually use literacy in their lifeworlds and everyday routines.

Linguistic traditions which construct language and literacy as social and communicative action in the organization of culture(s) have therefore been heavily represented in LE and some of these have been described in the previous section as characteristically linguistic anthropology. However, LE attempts to distinguish itself from the antecedents of linguistic anthropology, namely the ethnography of communication, IS and micro-ethnography in several ways. First, it brings a UK research perspective to historical developments in LA and makes explicit the importance of this work. Of particular mention here is literacy research which steps outside the classroom and looks at literacy within the broader setting of the communities in which people live out their lives (see Tusting and Barton, 2005 for a summary of Community-Based Local Literacies Research). Second, it draws on different approaches to the analysis of discourse such as conversation analysis (CA) and thus moves beyond those typically associated with early work in linguistic anthropology. Moreover, it draws heavily on literatures associated with the general movement of post-structuralism in the social sciences and therefore combines fields of study not typical in earlier linguistic anthropology, such as media studies, feminist post-structuralism and sociology. Third, much LE has emerged from traditions within UK applied linguistics (see later) rather than anthropology and for this reason typically takes language rather than culture as its principal point of analytic entry into the problems it seeks to address. Rampton et al. (2004) argues that the influence of applied linguistics in the UK, has resulted in a particular kind of response from researchers in this vein or work.

So in fact, even if they had wanted to produce ‘comprehensive ethnography. . . documenting a wide range of a way of life’ (Hymes, 1996, p. 4), they didn’t really have the accredited expertise to do so. Instead, UK researchers tended to develop their commitment to ethnography in the process of working from language, literacy and discourse outwards, and so even though they have varied in just how far ‘outwards’ they reached, for the most part the ethnography has taken the narrower focus that Hymes calls topic-oriented’ (Hymes, 1996, p. 5). (Rampton et al., 2004, p. 6).

LE has therefore been shaped by major North American research as well as constituted through research past and present emerging from British universities. With regard to the latter, Rampton et al. (2004) describe linguistic ethnography as shaped by five ongoing and recent fields of socio and applied linguistic research. These are

  • A focus on local literacies described in the work of New Literacy Studies (NLS) (Barton, 1994; Barton, Hamilton and Ivanic, 2000; Gregory and Williams, 2000; Martin-Jones and Jones, 2000; Street, 1984, 1993; see Tusting, Ecologies of New Literacies and their Implications for Education, Volume 9) in which texts are viewed as processual and constructed in social discourse and action. Street and the NLS played a major part in introducing the post-structuralist ‘turn’ to applied linguistics in the UK, and they influenced a wider shift of interest beyond texts-as-products to texts-in-culture-as-a-process (Street, 1993; see Literacy, Volume 2).

  • A focus on ethnicity, language and inequality in education and in the workplace (Barwell, in press; Lytra, 2003; Martin-Jones, 1995; Rampton, 1995; Roberts, Davies and Jupp, 1992). Rampton’s work on linguistic crossing and urban heteroglossia is important in this group in having shaped LE. Rampton’s work deals with the agentive and creative nature of adolescent talk in creating new identities around ethnicity and shows how ‘adolescents attempt to escape, resist or affirm the racial orderings that threaten to dominate their everyday experience’ (1995, p. 20) (see also Language Policy and Political Issues in Education, Volume 1).

  • A focus on ideology and the cultural dynamics of globalization represented in those working in critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1990, 1993, 1996; Kress, 1993). This area of work in the UK opened linguistics up to a wider range of sociologists and social theorists.

  • A focus on the classroom as a site of interaction. There are two strands represented in this area. The first is the neo-Vygotskian research on language and cognitive development. Scholars working in this field have typically used Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1962), as well as the neo- Vygotskian notion of scaffolding (Bruner, 1985), to investigate teaching and learning interactions between adults and children (Mercer, 1995). The second strand of classroom work is more focused on the classroom as a cultural context with its own sites of struggle and its own local institutional imperatives and affordances for particular kinds of learning and interaction (Creese, 2005; Maybin, 2003, 2006). This work shows how interaction is multilayered and contested within the classroom with certain discourses neglected and others privileged.

  • A focus on applied linguistics for language teaching. Work in this area is associated with scholars such as Widdowson (1984), Brumfit (1984) and Strevens (1977). In theUK this work has been important in shaping applied linguistics agendas through its attention to communicative competence in EFL teaching and teacher education.

LE, therefore, has been particularly influenced by research on literacy, ethnicity and identity, ideology, classroom discourse and language teaching. It aims to use discourse analytic tools in creative ways to extend our understanding of the role language plays in social life. It combines a number of research literatures from conversational analysis (CA), post-structuralism, urban sociology and US linguistic anthropology It also has much in common with the North American perspective of LAE. It is worth summarizing the particularly influential elements of more recent US LAE work on LE.

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