Posts Tagged ‘adolescent males’

Linguistic variation among urban adolescent males in Glasgow: Some results

I’ve been blogging for about two months now, and although I’ve touched a little bit on my research here, I’ve not really said much about what dominated my life between 2004 – 2009. During this time, I was fortunate enough to be awarded an ESRC post-graduate scholarship which put me through my M.A. and my PhD at the University of Glasgow (under the careful supervision of Dr Jane Stuart-Smith). Throughout my undergraduate, I was quite good at two subjects: history of Scots, and sociolinguistics. The first one I loved because it was great learning more about where Scots came from and how it got to where it is today, particularly all the social, historical and economic factors that led to this. The second one I loved was because it was the first time I had really seen just how key language was to us as humans, and how variable and rich it was. When I was thinking about potential topic areas for my post-graduate work (partially motivated by other factors which I’ll talk about another day), I decided to stick with these two areas, but to focus more on contemporary Scots rather than historical Scots.

One day, I was in my supervisor’s office talking about different topics that I could pursue as a dissertation, and we started talking about teenagers in Glasgow, and specifically about how ‘neds‘ in Glasgow were assumed to have a particular way of talking (as demonstrated herehere and here). What was also interesting to me was that when people performed this kind of ‘ned speak’, they weren’t just using a specific constellation of linguistic features (like high pitch and nasality), they were also drawing on ideologies of anti-social behaviour, criminality and physical aggression. While all of these ideas were bound up in specific performances of this group, we had no idea if young people in Glasgow who might identify (or be identified) as a ‘ned’ actually spoke in the way people assumed they did. Moreover, we had no idea if other adolescent males in Glasgow who might not identify as a ‘ned’ might have other kinds of ways of constructing their social identity. And lastly, we had no idea exactly what kinds of social practices urban adolescent males (‘ned’ or ‘non-ned’) might orientate towards. What we needed (inspired in large part by the work of Penny Eckert and Norma Mendoza-Denton in the US and Emma Moore in the UK), was some sort of locally-grounded, ‘bottom-up’ research which gave us a better understanding of the lived experiences of urban adolescent males from their own perspective, rather than from a ‘top-down’ researcher-inspired perspective. As so, a research project was born.

In early 2005 (I think!), I started fieldwork in a high school in the south side of Glasgow using a qualitative research method known as ethnography. Although widely established in anthropological linguistics and US sociolinguistics, it hadn’t really taken off in the UK at this point, primarily because the UK had been dominated by work which saw linguistic variation as reflective of social differences rather than as a constituent part of social difference (so, I speak like a middle-class lecturer because I am a middle-class lecturer, rather than, I speak in the way I do so as to perform ‘middle-class lecturer’). The kind of work pioneered by Eckert and her colleagues set a new paradigm for variationist studies and broke tradition with more established quantitative sociolinguistic approaches, but this approach hadn’t really settled down in the UK, and definitely not in Scotland. I’m pretty sure I was the first person to bring both together in Scottish sociolinguistic research (of course, my supervisor had nothing to do with this decision…).

Over the next three years in Banister Academy (the name I gave to the high school), I was able to learn more about how the participants in my study constructed their social identities and this provided me with a more nuanced perspective of urban adolescent identities more generally. One significant advantage of my approach was that I was able to see the speakers as heterogenous rather than as one big group of ‘working-class male speakers’, and this afforded a level of analytical insight that would have otherwise been missed had I adopted more traditional sociolinguistic approaches. For example, instead of there just being one category of ‘male speakers’, what I actually had were four distinct groups (the Alternatives, the Sports, the Schoolies and the ‘Neds’) which differentiated themselves from one another along all sorts of axes, including dress, behaviour, speech, attitudes, beliefs and so on (these are generally known as ‘social practices’). What was massively interesting was that when their linguistic variation was analysed (I was particularly interested in the vowel sound of words like cat, man, and grab), the speakers showed quite different patterns.

The first graph shows the results of the analysis in Year 2 (so, the second year of fieldwork) for three groups (Alternative, Sports and ‘Neds’). For those unfamiliar with reading these kinds of graphs, x-axis is the horizontal axis of inside of the vowel space and the y-axis is the vertical axis of inside the vowel space. Essentially, the graph is meant to (roughly) represent where the vowel sounds would be produced (the scores are averages).

As you can see, the three ‘ned’ members (Danny, Max and Noah) are more fronted and lowered than the other six speakers in the Alternative and Sports groups (and this was statistically significant), which shows that this vowel is somehow involved in marking speakers out as ‘different’ from other speakers. And this kind of pattern more or less repeats itself when we look at the data from Year 3 (which also includes the Schoolie group).

The ‘ned’ speakers are still quite lowered and fronted, but this time, the Schoolies are raised quite a bit from the ‘ned’ speakers (again, a statistically significant difference). So not only are speakers differentiating themselves through what they do (their non-linguistic social practices), but they’re also differentiating themselves through how they speak.

The fact that the ‘neds’ and the Schoolies are at the extremes of social behaviour in the school (e.g. they both have radically different orientations towards the school) seems to also show up in their linguistic variation, and this was something I hadn’t expected to find. This kind of work gives us a lot more information on how speakers are able to make such fine-grained sociolinguistic alterations which align with particular social identities, and how variation maps on to social group membership.

There’s a lot more I could say about all of this, and I’ve not even began to cover my interest in the relationship between language and violence (which made up a significant part of my research), but hopefully this gives you an idea of how I’ve spent the last six years of my (research) life!

– The Social Linguist

Profile of an England Rioter: Young, Male, Unemployed (in other news: Bears in wood: What do they do there?)

August 20, 2011 1 comment

Some interesting material has started to emerge in the fallout of the England riots. We’ve had David Starkey’s mad rant, incredible sentences for incitement to riot, and general gnashing of teetch and hair-brained ideas as to why the riots happened. But one story which struck me was this one, especially since it goes against the Governmental rhetoric that the riots weren’t about poverty but were rather about criminality, violence and anti-social behaviour.

Now, I can’t say that the report that the individuals involved in the riots were male, young and unemployed (I even said this last week) was especially surprising, and a map posted on Wednesday 10th August shows quite clearly just how far the riots were happening in areas of of deprivation. But with the research carried out by the Guardian, we now have some empirical data which gives us a better view of exactly who was involved in the events of last week.

So, the first thing is age. The largest percentage of those accused of involvement were in the 18 – 24 age bracket.

Next up, gender, and males are overwhelmingly represented here.

The Guardian hadn’t (at time of writing) provided the analysis of (un)employment figures, so perhaps the article is slightly misleading by suggesting that the accused were unemployed, but I’m sure that this data will be forthcoming in the near future.

There is a caveat here, that since these figures are only based on a sample of 400 people, it’s hard to know how far the analysis is representative of all defendants who end up in court, and this picture will only emerge once all those arrested have gone through the system. Nonetheless, in its current guise, we surely have definitive evidence that these riots, while perhaps not motivated by poverty, still have poverty at the centre.

More worryingly (and something the Government is less likely to be able to affect any significant social change) is that the rioters are young and male. Poverty can be ‘solved’ by capital investment and so on, but it’s more difficult to change the culture of ‘tough’ masculinity towards which young urban males seem to be orientated. This requires positive role models (and those role models don’t necessarily need to be male), a strong sense of community and involvement in that community, and particularly moving towards an alternative value system which doesn’t put ‘street respect’ at its core. My own feeling is that ‘respect’ on the streets is something which is won through intimidation, physical strength and a clear demonstration of “don’t fuck with me”, but when faced with those not familiar with this ‘code of the streets’, young urban males have little in the way of recourse to alternative value systems by which other parts of society abide, and that’s one of the reasons young urban males are so marginalised. They don’t generally follow the same norms of interaction that other parts of urban society do.

Now, that’s not to say that it’s only young urban males who need to change. Those who might not fit this categorisation, like middle-aged, middle-class and white, also need to change (and I think many people are uncomfortable admitting this). There needs to be a stop to this culture of demonisation of the urban poor which pervades middle-class culture, and you only have to read some the comments on the Daily Mail blogs to see that some people believe that the best way of dealing with rioters is to lock ’em up and throw away the key. As I said last week, that is only a short-term and simplistic ‘solution’ to a complex and long-term issue, so we have to tackle this issue as an entire society rather than thinking it’s “them” who have to change (who “they” are depends on your perspective). The rioters, as condemnable as their actions are, have families, hopes, dreams, wants, and fears. They are people, and like everyone else, they have their flaws. These flaws might be massively at odds with what we expect as a ‘civilised’ society, but I think it’s short-sighted to believe that their actions are the result of some sort of chemical imbalance, or inherent criminality, or mindless thuggery. These are symptoms of deeper issues and we need an honest look not only why the event of last week happened, but also how we might be able to prevent it in the future. And taking away benefits, housing, and putting those involved in riots even further to the sidelines is not it.

– The Social Linguist

Competitive co-operation

The intrepid explorer....

So week 1 of annual leave is done and dusted (Wales is an amazing country and well worth a visit by the way). This week, I tackle the second half of my annual leave wherein I’ll be stuck in Birmingham for the whole week. Alas, I’ve now come to terms with my current urban abode and I’m actually quite looking forward to mooching around the city and ‘chilling out’ (I think I’m now too old to be using this phrase…).

It’ll also give me a little bit of time to focus on getting some writing done, and I thought that since there’s been little in the way of ‘sociolinguistic’ chat thus far on the blog, I should try and remedy that somewhat (otherwise I should rename the blog to something like ‘’.

One of my areas of research is urban adolescent male language use, specifically Glasgow (although I do have plans to move my research to Birmingham adolescent male speech). The bulk of my PhD thesis centered on providing an acoustic analysis of speech data and relating differential patterns of variation to particular group membership. I collected all my conversational data during a three-year ethnography of a high school in the south side of Glasgow and it was on this data I did the acoustic analysis. Since the data was conversational, though, the adolescents I recorded talked about a variety of things, including their home life, what they wanted to do when they finished school, what they thought about the local area and so on. One day we were talking about fights that had happened between them and whether it had affected their friendships or not. As we were talking, there was a fascinating exchange between two of the participants. I’ve included part of the excerpt below (‘translated’ into Standard English):

  1. Phil:               So I- I really really wasn’t crying.
  2. Nathan:        Aye, I wasn’t saying you were crying,
  3.                         but it did look like you were crying.
  4. Phil:               No, it’s think it’s just cause my eyes,
  5.                          it looks like I’m crying.
  6.                         Do I look as if I’m crying now?
  7. Nathan:        No, but I did see something.

At the time of writing my thesis (in 2009), this section of data formed about three pages of my ethnographic discussion, but it always stuck in my head because of its inherent contradictibility. In line 2, Nathan says ‘I wasn’t saying you were crying’ and then IN HIS NEXT TURN says the complete opposite thing (‘It did look like you were crying)! While we can argue as to whether there is an internal inconsistency here or not (in formal logic terms), I would argue that Nathan’s second turn here does something interesting in the context of the conversation which requires further investigation. This excerpt had always puzzled me and even though I wrote about it in my thesis, I didn’t have time to give it the attention it deserved. After I submitted, I put together a conference paper for a conference in Helsinki last year and over the past six months or so, I’ve been working this conference paper up into an article.

Basically, my argument (so far) goes like this:

In general folk-linguistic ideology, men’s speech is considered competitive and women’s speech co-operative (see Jennifer Coates’ work in this area for substantiation of this claim). Over the last 15 years or so, however, this dichotomy has come under increasing scrutiny for its lack of sophistication in accounting for the complexity of situated language use. Importantly, work from Penelope EckertJacqueline Guendouzi and Deborah Tannen has argued that speakers don’t simply draw on resources from one pole or another, but that utterances can be orientated simultaneously towards both (cf. co-operative competition in Eckert’s article). Much of the work in this area has been on female speakers, but very little attention has been paid to how male speakers might exploit strategies which cannot be easily correlated with competitive or cooperative.

If we take the data excerpt from above, it is very difficult to pin-point whether Nathan is being competitive or co-operative. On the one hand, he is offering a face-threatening act which calls into question Phil’s emotional fragility (cf. ‘crying’), but on the other, he immediately mitigates (and in some senses withdraws) his accusation. Before we get into why this particular pattern might exist, we have to take a slight detour through some background info.

One over-riding tendency in language and gender research is that the gender of the speaker tends to influence the kinds of interpretations offered on the data by the researcher. It’s often something (generally) unconscious, but researchers are only human and are influenced by their own assumptions and preconceptions of the world in which they live. Being aware of this goes some way towards reducing the impact of this, and an article by Deborah Tannen on gossip among male university undergraduates is an excellent example of the kind of analysis which can be done when ‘another set of eyes’ looks at the data (in this article, Tannen reanalyses some data originally collected and analysed by one of her students). With this in mind, we might be tempted to see Nathan’s contributions here as wholly competitive and face-threatening since this fits in with general ideologies surround male language use. He’s trying to get one up on Phil by calling into question his sense of ‘tough’ masculinity and his turns seem to suggest a rather competitive stance. The other alternative is that the turn is fully co-operative, but then why would Nathan say that it did look like Phil was crying? Surely if it was co-operative, Nathan would have framed this exchange differently? This is all fine and dandy, except that I don’t think that this is the full story.

The other other alternative is that (like the work of Eckert and Guendouzi), it is reductive to think of language use in terms of ‘competitive’ or ‘co-operative’ (why should it only be one or the other?). Instead, we should think of Nathan’s turns here as ‘polysemous’ (that is, meaning one thing and another simultaneously) in that it is ‘competitively-co-operative’. By doing so, Nathan achieves two aims at the same time: 1) challenge Phil’s claim to ‘tough’ masculinity and 2) mitigate his contribution in order to maintain the friendship. In some senses, the participants here are ‘playing a game’ and both are aware of it. We have to take into account the fact that the participants are friends and are unlikely to go the full way of competitive dialogue (it’s risky, it could escalate etc etc), and the exchange here is testament to this fact.

Competition works (on some level) by the individuals involved in the competition co-operating in the endeavour. If I’m playing a game of football or rugby with people (competitive) and I decide I don’t want to play or be involved any more (co-operative), then the game ceases to be (or at least, I stop being a part of that particular interaction). I reckon that something similar is happening in this excerpt.

My thinking still needs a bit of refinement before I hit the ‘submit to journal’ button, but I think I’m on the right track here. Now I just need to drag myself out of my post-Wales bliss and get cracking on trying to finish it this week!