Feminist research in endangered minority languages

Peter Austin pa2 at SOAS.AC.UK
Sat Aug 30 03:01:41 UTC 2014

Julia's  "researcher paradox" has been well explored by anthropologists, of
course, with one of the earliest, but now a bit dated, accounts being:

Peggy Golde 1986. *Women in the Field*. University of California Press.

Lots more references can be found on the web.

The American Anthropological Association also has a section called
"Association for Feminist Anthropology" (http://www.aaanet.org/sections/afa/)
but I am not sure if they deal with the kinds of issues about language and
revitalisation that Dave raised in his original post to this thread.


On 30 August 2014 00:33, Julia Sallabank <js72 at soas.ac.uk> wrote:

> Thanks Carl for this.
> I'm not sure it's as simple as cultural imperialism vs. acquiescence in
> potentially repressive practices (or perhaps worse: domestic violence?
> FGM?). Even if we on't intend to impose our views, the very act of doing
> fieldwork involves cultural contact, and the presence of a linguist or
> anthropologist can affect both language and social attitudes - what I call
> the 'researcher's paradox', to echo the 'observer's paradox'. Simply being
> an independent female doing fieldwork raises the possibility of not
> following traditional gender roles. Reactions can range from being seen
> as 'in some middle ground between women and men' (to quote one of our PhD
> students), to being propositioned.
> Perhaps not really in response, another quote, from Matras 2005:2007: 'It
> is noteworthy that part of the imagery surrounding endangered language
> communities is their exotic depiction as groups that are not only
> disenfranchised and disempowered, but also archaic and remote from urban
> civilisation, both physically and in the stage of their technological and
> institutional development.'
> Matras describes a community where the traditional role of Mukhtar or
> community leader is in part hereditary, in part elected (his right to
> succeed his father was confirmed by an assembly of the community elders),
> and in part appointed ( officially recognised by the authorities. The
> Mukhtar’s political challenger in the community is a young woman who is not
> a speaker of the endangered language but is fluent in English, and has
> founded an association, established links with non-governmental
> organisations and has established a web page which has become one of the
> principal sources of information on the community for the outside world.
> Matras asks 'Who, then, represents the community toward the linguist? Is
> it the Mukhtar, the
> ‘officially acknowledged’ leader who, however, does not seem to have any
> active role in
> the community, and certainly does not engage in any community-wide
> activity? Is it the
> young activist, who is not a speaker, but who seeks to control all
> contacts between
> members of the community and outsiders, and whose considerations in
> respect of academic
> co-operation are essentially political, based on a need to secure a
> financial basis for her
> own activities?'
> I should acknowledge that the point I'm making is not quite the same as
> the one Matras stresses, but I find the illustration helpful.
> Best wishes
> Julia
> Ref:
> Matras, Yaron (2005). Language contact, language endangerment, and the
> role of the ‘salvation linguist’. In Peter K. Austin (ed.) Language
> Documentation and Description, vol 3. London: SOAS. pp. 225-251. Available
> online at http://www.elpublishing.org/PID/043 (accessed 28 August 2014)
> On 27 August 2014 14:43, Carl Edlund Anderson <
> carl.anderson at unisabana.edu.co> wrote:
>>  On 27 Aug 2014, at 08:16 , Julia Sallabank <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 .... :)
>>  Cheers,
>> Carl
>>            --
>>  Carl Edlund Anderson
>>  http://unisabana.academia.edu/CarlAnderson
>>  http://laclil.unisabana.edu.co/
>> http://www.clilsymposium.co/
>>  Department of Languages & Cultures
>>     Universidad de La Sabana
>> Chía, Colombia
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> --
> Dr. Julia Sallabank
> Senior Lecturer in Language Support and Revitalisation, Endangered
> Languages Academic Programme;
> Convenor, MA Linguistics and MA Language Documentation and Description,
> Department of Linguistics,
> SOAS, University of London,
> Thornhaugh Street
> London WC1H 0XG
> UK
> Tel. +44 (0)20 7898 4326
> E-mail  js72 at soas.ac.uk
> *Click here to listen to my interview on 'New Books in Language*':
> http://newbooksinlanguage.com/2014/08/10/julia-sallabank-attitudes-to-endangered-languages-identities-and-policies-cambridge-up-2013/

Prof Peter K. Austin
Marit Rausing Chair in Field Linguistics
Director, Endangered Languages Academic Programme
Research Tutor and PhD Convenor
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square
London WC1H 0XG
United Kingdom

web: http://www.hrelp.org/aboutus/staff/index.php?cd=pa
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