An interview with Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine

Cover for Signs of Difference bookSusan Gal (University of Chicago) and Judith T. Irvine (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) discuss their new book Signs of Difference: Language and Ideology in Social Life.

Firstly, tell us what motivated you to write Signs of Difference?

Our interest in collaboration began some years ago when we discovered a curious parallel in our findings from the two very different places where we had done research: small towns in Senegal and Hungary. Our collaboration started with those unexpected parallels between our separate ethnographic projects. Reading each other’s papers and listening to each other at AAA meetings, we saw amazingly similar processes in two fieldsites that were utterly worlds apart.

The happy result has been a semiotic approach to difference, an approach that is much wider than our own ethnographies but is well illustrated by them. Our book is mainly devoted to developing and explaining that approach, but it begins by showing how it applies to the two ethnographic cases.

In the German-Hungarian town in Hungary as in the Wolof-speaking town in Senegal, people were making distinctions among themselves not only through the way they spoke but also through different forms of emotional expression, clothing, houses and numerous other signs and activities. Language, social organization, geography, history, were all quite different. But in both towns, as it happened, one social category of people spoke and acted in relatively reserved, restrained ways; the other category, by contrast, seemed to be more elaborate in everything, more vivid, dramatic. These were stereotypes of difference. People oriented to these social types, often enacting them in their everyday lives. But how to understand the weird parallels between the two towns? “Restrained” vs. “elaborate” were the ways the people in our two towns characterized their own differences. But when we read fieldwork by others, we saw that although there were always overarching cultural distinctions that organized relations between contrasting sets of people and signs, those distinctions could be quite different from ours. For instance, there was: tough vs. soft in one place but in another pragmatic vs. political. To understand our own examples and others, our explanations would have to be quite abstract. And semiotic.

The book explicates step-by-step a semiotic process of differentiation, with several aspects, that encompasses all the cases. Contrast – as axis of differentiation – is the fundamental idea. Contrasts in expressive signs pointed to contrasting categories of identity; and the qualities attributed to the signs were also attributed to the people-types indexed by the signs. For those familiar with a particular cultural context, the signs of each identity seemed to cohere and to display the same qualities as the people types they point to. We also turned our hand to American and historical examples: How did Yankees come to be thought different types of people than Southerners in 19th century US?  How do faculty differentiate among themselves at an American university? How did the National Rifle Association divide in the course of a crucial political battle? And how do the axes of differentiation themselves change? It was very exciting to work out how the semiotic process we propose illuminates relations between whatever culturally-specific qualities are involved.

You are both regarded as recognized authorities on language and culture. How has your past experience of work on language and culture helped to shape this book?

Although we studied at different doctoral institutions, we were both part of a movement in anthropology and linguistics toward sociolinguistics and the ethnography of speaking, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. As it happens, too, our mentors had collaborated on some of the leading works in the field at that time. So our training was parallel, as was our experience of trends in language study and the social sciences in the decades that followed. One of those trends was the semiotic turn that has made the work of C.S. Peirce prominent in cultural and linguistic anthropology. Another trend was anthropology’s increasing interest in political economy, power, and social inequality – a trend which, when linked to the Peircean approach, resulted in a focus on ideology of language. A third trend has involved history and scales of analysis. We have participated in the development of these themes, and in various conferences and working groups that have pressed them forward and in some of which we have worked together. These groups have produced some influential publications, including edited collections to which we have contributed, either separately or together.

The book argues that ideological work of all kinds is fundamentally communicative – can you tell us more about this?

A key point here is that ideological work is both interpretive and productive. It selects an object of attention, something that is picked out and distinguished from a background, and it places that something in a semiotic field of relevant comparisons, differentiations, and inclusions. This is not something that can be done just by an individual brain acting totally in splendid isolation. Instead, it is informed by social experience, by available narratives, metaphors, and theories, and by awareness of one’s interlocutors, past, present, and potential. So there is always, as Bakhtin taught us, some implicit dialogue in semiotic processes, even in those cases where there is not literally a conversation. “Communication” includes all these dialogic relations, even internal dialogue and the ways we unconsciously build upon our social experience.

Actual interactions matter to ideological work, however: interpretation requires uptake, if it’s to amount to anything much. That is, placing an idea, or some focal object, in a web of semiotic relations would ultimately be a social act, involving joint attention. Private contemplation can go a long way, but at some point a concept of ideology – because bound up with moral and political values – means that the interpretive act must be relevant to other people too.

Your book has been described as an “influential approach to understanding ideologies of linguistic and social difference.” What contribution do you feel the book makes?

Well, we feel it makes many contributions! To begin with, in our work ideologies of linguistic and social difference are the same thing, not two different avenues of investigation. But perhaps the first thing to emphasize is, as we’ve indicated in our response to the previous question, that we focus the study of ideology on ideological work: that is, on the activity of interpretation and the social processes that follow from interpretations and enlist them in projects. There are several other important contributions we feel our book makes, as well. We explore ideological work in everyday life, even in the most mundane activities and trivial moments, rather than focusing on the grand doctrines and “isms” (fascism, socialism, and so on) that are the starting point for many scholars in studying ideology; we prefer to consider how the ongoing practices and actions in social life involve ideological constructions. To investigate how those constructions are built up, we take a semiotic approach to the analysis of ideology; and we highlight comparison and difference, as key concerns and fundamental aspects of semiotic processing. Taken together, what these several points allow us to do is to link ideology to perspective and point of view, recognizing that there’s always more than one perspective on the social world. They allow us to focus on contrast and comparison as fundamental in cognitive processing as well as in how people organize their views of society and language. They provide us with methods for analyzing discourse, social interaction (in both its linguistic enactments and its material dimensions), social groupings and ways of speaking. We see ideologies as regimes of value, socially based and semiotically constructed; pertaining to practices and actions in everyday life as well as to grand projects; and incorporating a point of view.

The approach to comparison in our book is important to us, and it’s an approach that connects the ethnographer’s interpretive activity with that of the people an ethnographer studies. Your education and research training and, perhaps, your outsider status (if you come from somewhere else) affect your position and your view of the ethnographic scene, but the people you study are analyzing it too, and that’s something you want to find out about. Besides, those people form views of you, and those views affect the research as well. Everyone is interpreting what’s going on, from their own points of view, all the time, and that includes the activity of doing field research, whatever that research consists of. We have been concerned here with ways of being comparative without assuming we have the ultimate grid on which to place everybody in the world. Drawing on a semiotic analysis lets us see how to do that kind of comparison, and it lets us show that the same kind of analysis works among so many different examples and cases around the globe, including our own social worlds.

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