Feminist research in endangered minority languages

Carl Edlund Anderson carl.anderson at UNISABANA.EDU.CO
Wed Aug 27 13:43:58 UTC 2014

On 27 Aug 2014, at 08:16 , Julia Sallabank <js72 at SOAS.AC.UK<mailto:js72 at SOAS.AC.UK>> wrote:
It seems to me that documentary linguistics obscures gender roles, and other voices too (such as the young, also vital for language revitalisation), by 'totalising' the concept of 'community'. There is a tendency to talk about‘the community’ as a single unit with agreed ideas, as in ‘the language attitude of the community itself’ (UNESCO 2003: 13). In my own research it has become clear that there are profound disagreements within such communities about language, its status, domains, functions, policy – and about who has the authority or legitimacy to decide any of these.

This is, I think, an important and overlooked issue. And there are often not only a variety of conflicting voices within "communities", but often considerable dissent over what any given "community" may be, and who is in it.

As Cavanaugh notes, in language revitalisation movements (or rhetoric) there is often a hyper-valorisation of 'authentic' language and culture, and by implication traditional societies, which also works to silence dissenting voices. In most traditional communities it is quite likely that women will not have authority to decide on language policy at either family or societal level. In this issue of Gender and Language Leonard (2012) claims that ‘reclamation’ programmes evoke an essentialist notion of culture whereby participants feel pressure to act, think or speak in certain ways, particularly those that are deemed to be ‘traditional’.
There has been some discussion of the non-democratic nature of traditional societies in the field of development studies, especially since the publication of Cooke and Kothari's Participation: The New Tyranny? in 2001. Uma Kothari notes that ‘the more “participatory” the enquiry, the more its outcome will mask the power structure of the community’ (Kothari, 2001: 146). Glyn Williams (2004) notes that 'homogenising differences within communities, and uncritically privileging ‘the local’ as the site for action, ...  draw[s] a veil over repressive structures (of gender, class, caste and ethnicity) that operate at the micro-scale but are reproduced beyond it'.

This highlights another complicated issue: that many aspects of (for example) contemporary Western feminist thought are ... well, contemporary and Western! This issue is extendable to other silenced/dissenting voices within given "non-Western" communities, and there is a conflict between contemporary Western views on (for example) the empowerment of women as a positive thing and the right to self-determination within a community. If, for example, Western researchers/activists are faced with a society in which women are treated repressively, they are confronted with the problem that the women cannot be "empowered" (in Western senses) without practicing "cultural imperialism" (against the society's men, at least, though arguably also against the very women that are being "empowered").

As a "Westerner", I think of empowering women (for example) as a Good Thing, and I would have a very hard time indeed seeing the "cultural imperialism" that led to their empowerment as a Bad Thing.  But the fact remains that I am still saying, "You're doing and thinking about it wrong, and should do it and think about it like me instead."  This situation seems inevitable in a world where people have such widely varying views about what's Good or Bad, but in any event I am not sure that contemporary Western academia has come up with a very graceful way of approaching (let alone resolving, if such a thing is even possible) the issue.

Well, those are some thoughts. I'm not sure they are necessarily very helpful :) but, anyway .... :)


Carl Edlund Anderson
Department of Languages & Cultures
Universidad de La Sabana
Chía, Colombia


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