Social psychology is conventionally defined as the scientific study of how the actual or imagined presence of others influences an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The social psychology of language (SPL) concentrates on the role of language in the dynamics between individuals and their social world; language use is argued to affect and be affected by both psychological and social variables. Scholarship in SPL has incorporated aspects of the broader discipline, including a theoryor variable-driven approach, along with its preferred quantitative methods, particularly survey techniques and laboratory experiments. Unlike mainstream social psychology, SPL has also welcomed contributions from other disciplines, including communication studies, sociolinguistics, anthropology, and other disciplines. Correspondingly, constructivist perspectives and qualitative methods, which are better recognized in these other disciplines, have found a receptive community in SPL. Furthermore, SPL scholars herald from around the world, and different “schools” of scholarly activity have developed in many regions, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe, Australasia, and the United States. Because of the range of perspectives that inform SPL, it cannot be said that any single paradigm characterizes this field of inquiry; indeed, a hallmark of research in this area is its variety of theoretical and methodological approaches.
Although language was an integral part of Wundt’s Völkerpsychologie, rather little systematic investigation of the role of language in social interaction was carried out by social psychologists in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Notable exceptions include the work of Mead, Erving Goffman, and others whose work was more prominent in sociological social psychology. During the 1960s and 1970s, with the decline in behaviorism and the rise of cognitivism in psychology, the subdiscipline began to grow, although it generally remained on the margins of mainstream social psychology. Institutional support in the form of journals (e.g., Journal of Language and Social Psychology, established 1982), textbooks and handbooks (e.g., Handbook of Language and Social Psychology, 1990, 2001), regular specialist conferences (International Conference on Language and Social Psychology), and professional associations (e.g., the International Association of Language and Social Psychology, established in 1997) served to organize a community of scholars and to substantiate SPL’s legitimacy as an important area of scholarly concern.
Tenets Of SPL
In the following, some general tenets of SPL are outlined, along with some examples of prominent research topics. Two themes are evident. First, consistent with the cognitive orientation of social psychology, a prominent theme in SPL is how the production and reception of language behaviors are associated with cognitive processes, including attitudes, attributions, self-concepts/identities, and so on. A second theme concerns the importance of social motivation for interpersonal interaction. People enter social interactions with the purpose of influencing another person to achieve a goal. Sometimes this purpose can be determined from the literal content of an utterance, but often it is conveyed indirectly through nonverbal behaviors, the form of the utterance (e.g., question, command), and so on. For instance, a speaker’s vocabulary choices can subtly lead a listener to particular inferences about the causes of an event. According to Semin (2004), more concrete terms indicate situational causes and tend to be used to describe less expected events (e.g., “Jamie touched the man”). More abstract forms tend to indicate that the person is the cause of the action and tend to be used for expected events (“Jamie is friendly”; “Jamie is intrusive”). Concrete terms are often used to describe negative events regarding oneself or a positively valued person or group to imply their irregularity, and abstract terms are used for positive events to imply their ordinariness. The opposite is true for negatively valued persons or groups. Although both speakers and listeners may be unaware of this practice, such word choices shape how listeners understand an event and their reactions to it.
Speakers recognize that listeners come to the interaction with different understandings and feelings about the topic at hand, different perceptions of the context in which the interchange takes place, different experiences with the speaker, and so on. To achieve desired goals, the speaker must assume the perspective of the listener in order to formulate a message that the listener can readily comprehend. An intriguing effect of attuning a message to another’s perspective is that it can have implications for the speaker’s own understanding of that topic. For instance, by framing a positive message for an audience that is known to evaluate that person positively, the speaker may come to also evaluate that person more positively (i.e., the “saying-is-believing” effect; see Higgins 1992).
The listener is also an active participant in the communication process, who strives to determine the speaker’s goals and intentions. To this end, listeners attend to utterances that are contrary to their expectations. According to Grice (1975), participants in a conversation expect that the interaction will be structured to promote the efficient exchange of information; a speaker will clearly and concisely convey all of the necessary, relevant information. Violations of this principle suggest to the listener that additional interpretation is necessary to determine the intended meaning of the utterance in that context, and he or she uses the contextual cues in the situation (e.g., the speaker’s social status) and in the conversation (e.g., the sequence of conversational topics) to do so. These types of violations are often committed in the interest of politeness, to save the face of one or both of the interactants, and as such signal the nature of the relationship between interactants (see Holtgraves 2002, for review).
Listeners also use paralinguistic features to deduce the speaker’s identity and his or her relationship to the listener. In his seminal research, Lambert and his colleagues (Lambert et al. 1960) developed the matched guise technique to investigate how listeners evaluated speakers of different languages. Participants in these studies listened to tape recordings of bilingual speakers using one or another language and were asked to evaluate each of the speaker’s guises on several dimensions. By using the same speakers and the same message in all recordings, personality and message differences were controlled and only language was evaluated. The results showed that speakers using French were evaluated less positively than the same speaker using English, and this was true regardless of whether the listener was a native English or French speaker. Numerous variations of this technique have been carried out to look at a range of speech characteristics, including languages, dialects, and accents; speech rate; lexical diversity, etc. With some consistency, certain speech styles are regularly associated with impressions of status, solidarity, dynamism, and other dimensions. Importantly, the impressions that listeners form of speakers have implications for how they behave toward those speakers. For example, compared to their counterparts who use standard dialects, speakers of nonstandard dialects may be regarded by their teachers as having poorer educational prospects, by their employers as less suitable for higher-status occupations, and by jurors as more culpable of particular crimes.
Although communication has been portrayed thus far as an exchange between speaker and listener, communication is much better described in terms of interactants who continually adapt to one another. Theories of adaptation in interpersonal interaction portray communication as a process of mutual influence in response to perceptions of the other and assessments of the goal of that interaction. As an example of theories of this type, Communication Accommodation Theory suggests that individuals strategically use verbal and nonverbal characteristics to signal their identities and to create more or less social distance from their interlocutor, depending upon whether they evaluate that person positively or negatively (cf. Gallois et al. 2005). When language behavior becomes more similar, termed convergence, it generally reflects a more positive evaluation of that person, and when it becomes dissimilar, termed divergence, it tends to signify a negative evaluation of that person. These speech patterns indicate to the partner the identity claims of the speaker, eliciting in turn a psychological and behavioral response from the partner. Over time, these adaptation patterns establish and maintain a particular level of social distance between interactants.
Perspective-taking and mutual adaptation are crucial for the coordination of action between interactants, and coordination is essential for the achievement of communicative goals. In order to effectively coordinate their actions, participants must stand on “common ground” – that is, have a shared understanding of their mutual knowledge, beliefs, and suppositions. Clark’s (1996) collaborative model maintains that interactants ensure, through questions, back channeling, and other strategies, that they have comparable understandings of each utterance before they move on to the next utterance. Such a perspective of language use as joint, or social, action emphasizes that meaning lies not within the minds of individuals, but is created through the interaction between them.
Links Among The Individual, Society, And Language
SPL is a developing field that has been shaped by diverse influences. As a result, there are divergent opinions on how the interrelations between the individual, society, and language should be framed and examined. These discussions point to directions for future inquiry. Because of its emphasis on social cognition, SPL has been suggested to be overly focused on mental processes, with too little attention given to examining language behavior per se. Others suggest that SPL research has inappropriately adopted the individual as a unit of analysis, and that a more appropriate unit would be dyadic or group interactions. It has been argued that SPL research has been overly reliant on quantitative methods, such as self-report surveys and laboratory experiments, in which language use is abstracted from naturally occurring situations. Qualitative methodologies could better investigate language use as it unfolds in uncontrived settings, complementing the more commonly used techniques. At times these discussions regarding the proper conceptual and methodological approach are heated and adversarial. Perhaps a more constructive approach to understanding language and its place in the social world would evolve from dialogue between disparate viewpoints. Although harmonious complementarity may be elusive, multiple perspectives are crucial for a field that is still defining itself. Moreover, through their dialectic, each perspective ensures that the others stay humble regarding their truth claims.
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