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Language and Social Structure in Urban France


January 2010-December 2011


Steering Group

  • Dr. Mari Jones (Cambridge) (French sociolinguistics)

  • Professor Thierry Bulot (Rennes 2) (urban sociolinguistics in France)

  • Professor Vincent Veschambre (Ecole d’Architecture de Lyon) (social geography in France)

  • Dr. David Hornsby (Kent) (French sociolinguistics)

  • Professor Tim Pooley (French sociolinguistics)

  • Dr Robert Gibb (Glasgow) (social anthropology)

  • Dr Paul Lambert (Stirling) (sociology)


Rationale and research context

  • This series of interdisciplinary meetings will address two related concerns : firstly, that the disciplines of sociology and linguistics have drifted apart to their mutual detriment, and secondly, that research models developed originally for anglophone societies may be inappropriate in the context of francophone Europe. It will bring together sociologists, anthropologists, social geographers and sociolinguists to explore the interactive dynamic between individuals and their peers, which is central to all these disciplines, via three principal foci :

    • (i) social status and hierarchy (i.e. what is often termed ‘class’)

    • (ii) situational context (urban/rural)

    • (iii) notions of identity (self/other)

  • In today’s positive climate for interdisciplinary scholarship, researchers within the humanities are encouraged to inform their work from methodologies championed outside their own field. In so doing, theories and approaches from each discipline are carried over into the other(s) in a way that implies an accepted conceptual consensus – the basis for which, however, may be sometimes little more than shared terminology. Linguistics and sociology are generally considered to have come together in the late sixties via the work of Labov, whose ground-breaking methodology became the foremost means of analysing co-variation between language and social parameters. However, as the field has come of age, researchers have questioned whether concepts and definitions have been transposed across disciplines in a way which meaningfully preserves their original sense and which, crucially, takes account of recent thinking within the other domains (Romaine 1980 ; Milroy and Milroy 1992 ; Williams 1992) : indeed, Fishman (1991) warned of a potential ‘third or yet a fourth sociologically innocent and ignorant generation of sociolinguists’. With some 40% of research in French linguistics now having a sociolinguistic perspective (see RAE 2008 French panel report) it is timely to examine the theoretical and methodological bases underpinning current work. Similarly, the importance of an engagement with contemporary research and debates in sociolinguistics for the discipline of sociology as a whole has been recognised for at least 17 years (Williams 1992 : 258), while the specific contribution of the study of linguistic variation to general social theory (understandings of agency, social reproduction and social change) has been recently emphasised within anthropology (Ahearn 2001).

  • A current concern to the above disciplines is the notion of ‘class’, which has seen an important return to the French sociological agenda in the past five years (Bouffartigue 2004). Recent research has highlighted the continued ‘objective’ existence of social classes in contemporary French society (based on structured inequalities that have, if anything, become more significant since the late 1970s) at the same time as its ‘subjective’ dimension (the sense of belonging to a specific class) has weakened, particularly in the case of the most dominated social groups (Dubar 2003 ; Beaud 2007). The workshops will likewise take place at a pivotal time for social anthropologists working on contemporary France. A renewed concern with inequalities, social networks and forms of identification in urban settings, particularly in the context of recent unrest, has strengthened the view that social anthropologists can offer an important contribution to public and political debate (Bazin et al 2006).

  • By promoting an engagement with relevant research in variationist linguistics the network will contribute to the ongoing renewal of sociological and anthropological research on social classes in urban France. The work of linguists in establishing socio-economic class indices, the relationship between linguistic and non-linguistic aspects of identity, the importance of language to both the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ dimensions of class, and the characteristics of urban networks all appear particularly important in this regard, providing sociologists and anthropologists working on contemporary France with new insights and perspectives that will inform and shape their own research agendas. Moreover, researchers drawn to French variationist sociolinguistics will gain practical and theoretical insights from an engagement with sociology and anthropology which frees them from the strait-jacket of theoretical models designed with non-francophone societies in mind.

Aims and objectives

  • The network will contribute to the on-going exchange of ideas between variationist linguistics and sociology by extending the debate to post-war France. Linguists working within France have been sceptical of sociolinguistic methodologies which establish simple correlations between linguistic and social variation with the result that Labovian methodologies have been embraced with considerably less enthusiasm than in the anglophone world (Gadet 1996:84), while alternative frameworks, such as Houdebine’s (1996) imaginaire linguistique have emerged. Labovian variationist methods have been successfully applied in francophone Canada (cf. Mougeon 1996), but most co-variationist studies of metropolitan French have been undertaken by linguists living outside France (e.g. Hansen, 1998 ; Pooley 1996, 2004 ; Coveney 2002 ; Armstrong 2001 ; Hornsby 2006), whose analytical models rest on assumptions about urban life in English-speaking societies which are largely untested in the francophone context.

  • The workshops and conference will aim to establish whether the non-penetration of the Labovian paradigm in France can be attributed simply to scepticism towards Anglo-American approaches, or to genuine problems of application in the European francophone context, in the hope that interdisciplinary exchange between specialists will inform and refine assumptions in a way that facilitates the application of variationist methods to the French urban context.

  • The precise research questions addressed in the workshops and conference will be decided at steering group meeting (see Timetable), but it is envisaged that discussion will centre on aspects of the three themes identified above :

(i) Class

  • To what extent can Anglo-American notions of a stratified class hierarchy, along the lines envisaged in Labov (1966) and Trudgill (1974), be usefully applied to France ?

  • What criteria can be used in France to establish a sociolinguistically useful socio-economic class index, and do these correspond to those employed in the UK and North America ?

  • To what extent is accent popularly perceived as a component of social class ? · Does the relationship between language, income, occupation and status in France correspond to that observed in the UK ?

(ii) Urbanization and Urban Structure

  • How have francophone cities evolved, and how do patterns of settlement differ from those seen in the UK ? (Can out-of-town banlieues, for example, be meaningfully compared to ‘inner-city areas’ in the anglophone context ?)

  • Do linguists and sociologists share a common understanding of ‘social network’ ? Can the concept as used by one discipline inform/enhance the interpretation made by another discipline ?

  • Are we justified in assuming that linguistically pertinent social networks are necessarily identical with those whose significance relates to other (i.e. non-linguistic) social interaction ?

  • Are Anglo-American notions of social network applicable in francophone Europe ?

(iii) The Self and ‘Other’ within a globalizing community

  • Is there a relationship between the way people construct their identity in linguistic and non-linguistic (e.g. social, political) terms ? How do social/national groupings interface with emblems of linguistic identity ?
  • How does such identity construction differ in France and in the UK ?

  • What are the implications of the Republican model of integration and its concomitant linguistic ideology in France ? How, specifically, has it affected subjective notions of identity ?

Important Dates

  • July 2010 - Workshop 1 : Class, Urbanization.

  • January 2011 - Workshop 2 : The Self and Other

  • September 2011 - Conference.



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