The SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics was committed to furthering attention to language, and linguistic difference, as an “unexploited kind of sociological data” in ethnographic and survey research. The committee convened a conference in 1968 to better understand the intersection of social and linguistic factors, summarized here by Allen D. Grimshaw. The group focused on four topics: the ethnography of asking questions; the meaning of words; the ways in which interviews themselves are “a part of the data” and “don’t know” responses are revealing answers to questions; and improving scholars’ training in framing questions and eliciting answers related to language and communication.
From Our Archives
In the early 1950s, the nascent political science subfield of comparative politics wrestled with questions of method and whether to approach comparing nation-states via abstract concepts or a problem-oriented focus. To begin addressing these concerns, the SSRC convened an interuniversity research seminar in which political scientists began to create a framework for the field that ultimately led to the formation of the Committee on Comparative Politics. Roy Macridis, in this report, summarizes the seminar’s discussion, which included the relative merits of area studies approaches to more abstract theorizing. The conversation clearly tilted toward starting with conceptual schemes independent of context, and so exemplifies the impact of behavioralism that Michael Desch illustrates in his Items essay.
As SSRC launches MediaWell—our online platform to track and distill research on disinformation, online politics, election interference, and emerging collisions between media and democracy—Items is revisiting this 1980 report on the SSRC’s Committee on Mass Communication and Political Behavior. Focusing on the impact of news media on the 1976 presidential election, Thomas Patterson highlighted the shift in news coverage from candidates’ policy platforms to candidates’ gaffes and campaign issues and how this has affected voters’ grasp of electoral issues. Patterson concludes that stronger parties are needed to provide voters with policy information.
Sociolinguistic debates around the definitions and significance of “pidgin” and “creole” languages were increasing in the 1960s and the SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics played a role in cultivating these discussions. This 1968 report by Dell Hymes summarizes issues raised at a conference convened by the Council at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, to better understand the historical development, the grammatical and lexical evolutions, and the social uses of pidgin and creole languages. Though he highlights how social science can better inform research on pidginization and creolization, Hymes identifies knowledge gaps, among them the nature of the relationship between these languages and national identity, and more broadly the lack of historical and social scientific knowledge of this topic.
In 1989 the Social Science Research Council sponsored two panels at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association comparing the political systems and political cultures of African and Caribbean nations, most of them former British colonies. In this brief 1990 report, Tom Lodge summarizes the key points raised during these panels, including the role the politics of patronage play in democracies and how the homogeneity of some Caribbean nations and their history of colonial representative government bolster democracy compared to African nations. However, Lodge also highlights other key issues raised by other scholars, including the importance of slavery in shaping a culture of resistance as well as being aware of the contradictions and limits of pan-African discourse by governments.
As sociolinguistics continued to develop in the 1970s, members of the Council’s Committee on Sociolinguistics (1963–1979) reflected on the direction and intellectual impact of this emergent discipline. In this 1972 article, Dell Hymes, cochairman of the committee, describes several orientations toward the field among its practitioners, and argues for what he regarded as the most ambitious: a “socially constituted linguistics.” By this, Hymes meant a sociolinguistics that challenges linguistics’ core theoretical starting points of linguistic structure and grammar with a focus on the social meaning and functions of language in context. In relation to our “Sociolinguistic Frontiers” series, Hymes presciently argues that ultimately the field must address how inequality and language intersect, going “beyond means of speech and types of speech community to a concern with persons and social structure.”
To complement our “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, we revisit this 2000 report by Diane di Mauro, then program director of the SSRC’s Sexuality Research Fellowship Program. Di Mauro summarizes the history of sexuality research in the United States and then explores how sexuality and gender research can address emerging (and still relevant) themes beyond their framing as “health” issues and in ways that engage the public and policymakers.
A 1964 summer seminar hosted by the SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics highlighted tensions between sociology and linguistics when scholars gathered to address how their disciplines can deepen research on language’s impact on society. For example, sociologists questioned linguistics’ lack of definition for language or dialect while linguists raised concerns about sociology’s reliance on large quantified data. However, by the end of the seminar, the scholars agreed the encounter had raised important questions and opened new paths of investigation through both sociological and linguistic approaches, including the study of language and social stratification, multilingualism, and language standardization.
Despite years of economic strength following the end of World War II, US economists remained puzzled by the causes of continuous economic fluctuations, leaving them unable to determine how to predict and plan for future instability. Sponsored by the SSRC, 20 economists met in 1959 to assess the state of the field and imagine future research on economic instability. From this meeting the SSRC’s Committee on Economic Stability was born, focusing on coordinating ongoing research (with an initial focus on econometric modeling), integrating different research methodologies, facilitating the collection and dissemination of federal government and private agency data, and serving as an overall medium of communication on relevant research.
As part of the SSRC’s Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China, a delegation of US linguistics scholars traveled to various Chinese cities in late 1974 to learn about China’s language policy and linguistic research. This report by Charles Ferguson, a member of the delegation and a major figure in the Council’s earlier work on sociolinguistics, summarizes the group’s observations, which center on China’s approach to linguistics and language research. The delegation expressed particular interest in China’s ongoing strategy to standardize its language, linguistic research on language teaching and minority languages, and the growth of English language education.