Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools


The social life of language: Three cases

The social life of language: Three cases

Default due date: May 25, 2024 at 11:59 p.m.

Word count: 2500

For the last essay, you will be asked to identify a theme that you see running through the different topics we have discussed in this class, and to make an argument that this general idea can be seen in multiple, different ethnographic cases.

This essay is not a “literature review” or a “research paper,” two genres of university writing with which you may be familiar. It has elements of both, but particularly for this assignment, your paper is your own. It can take the form that is best for presenting your independent investigation into the conceptual frameworks and perspectives we see in linguistic anthropology and the anthropology of communication. Like any paper, this paper should have a strong argument for a single claim based on reasoned inference from empirical evidence. This, rather than conformity to a specific genre, is what I as your reader will be evaluating.

Guidelines for this essay

Anthropologists of language and communication are also ethnographers. They go to the places they want to know more about and talk to the people whose lives they want to understand. At the same time, they want to contribute to general ideas about how people communicate and what communication does for communities. So on the basis of a specific, concrete, empirical case in a single place and time, the scholars we read in class will also support a generalization about language and communication in society.

Every case we saw in this class is different in lots of different ways. Anthropologists always assume that people are different. So the contrasts among these cases are plenty and easy to see. For this essay, answer this question: What is one commonality that unites three different cases of language-in-use (or communication-as-event) by three different scholars, and what larger generalization can one make on the basis of this common thread?

The cases you choose can be taken from the assigned and recommended readings for class, or from sources you find on your own (for instance, by using citation indexes to search for work related to what we have read in class). You should focus on three different scholars who have conducted research in three different settings. The more different the cases, the more powerful your claim for a common element at an abstract level will be.

This assignment builds on the work you’ve done for the expository essay and your collective writing for the class wiki. In both of these assignments, you have been developing your own understanding of general ideas and your own explanation of how these can be applied to concrete cases. In those assignments, the task was to explain to yourself (and to each other) the general ideas and perspectives on communication-in-action. This paper is asking you to make an argument for larger generalizations about different cases. Similarities you see among cases are strong evidence for your own argument for a way of seeing communication-in-action in any situation or setting, no matter what the factual details are.

As we have in other assignments, you can cite and quote yourself and your collective writing in the wiki as sources. Do not copy and paste; don’t (self-)plagiarize as a shortcut. Instead use this paper as a chance to draw your own conclusions about the whole semester.

Formatting and use of generative AI

My only expectation is that you submit a well-written and neatly formatted document that cites your sources of information and quotations, and lists all of the references for sources you cite.

I don’t have specific requirements for a format or style of references, but you can tell if you have done a good job. When you are done with your final version, imagine that you printed it out and accidentally left it somewhere.1) If someone picked up your paper, would they be able to send it to me, and would I be able to read it and give you a grade for the assignment?

  • Does it have your name student ID number on it?
  • Does it say what it is, an essay for our class?
  • Does it tell someone what class it is for, and who teaches it?
  • Does it say when you wrote it, that is, does it have a date on it?

A good guide can be found here: https://anthro.rschram.org/the_quest/documents_with_style.

If you use ChatGPT or another large language model in your writing process, you are required to document your prompts, the text that was generated, and a description of how you have incorporated this into your final draft, and attach all of this documentation as an appendix to your paper. Keep in mind Gershon’s (2023) argument about AI writing: at best it simulates the production of text in a specific genre. LLMs actually do really well creating something with the appearance of a five-paragraph essay. I guess they have seen a few thousand of them! But you read it and realize that it’s a parody of thinking, like the web cartoon with blue aliens pretending to be human.

Using sources and citing sources

You are required to analyze three cases presented by three different authors, so it follows that you are required to cite a minimum of three sources.

For this and all of your written work, you should cite a source for every fact and every idea that you learn from someone else. Hence, three cases = three sources. For more advice on citing sources, see this page—https://anthro.rschram.org/the_quest/citing_sources—or ask me.

There is no maximum number of sources you must cite or use in this paper. You are neither required to use only sources from the class reading list nor from your own research.

A note of advice on this: More citations does not = better paper.

Citations to sources are not in themselves evidence, and having a large number of cited sources does not mean you have more evidence or a stronger argument. In this paper, close reading and detailed exposition of your own reasoning from the facts of a case will make a stronger support for a point you are making and your overall claim.

The quality of information will also matter much more than how many sources you cite or which cases you choose. There is a lot of scholarly work that you will find on in the areas of communication and language which is not relevant at all to this assignment and is based on research that is very far from anthropology and social research into communication-as-action. (Media studies, discourse analysis, education, organizational studies, and other fields have in fact been influenced by what we read this class, but what researchers are doing in these fields often sits within a distinct paradigm. Keyword searching can take you strange places…) For that reason I do encourage you to start from the reading list, because every item on this reading list is (1) an example of good research, and (2) embedded in a debate among social scientists of communication. Look for work that is similar to these works and more importantly connected to them through chains of citations. These authors cited sources in their own work so that you, their readers, would know what they have read and so you can read it also to learn more of the debate. We can discuss search strategies in class.

I also strongly suggest that students learn how to use a bibliography manager and make it a daily habit to track what you’ve read with that software tool. Bibliography managers were made for exactly this kind of assignment.


Gershon, Ilana. 2023. “Bullshit Genres: What to Watch for When Studying the New Actant ChatGPT and Its Siblings.” Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 47 (3): 115–31. https://doi.org/10.30676/jfas.137824.

Yes, portions of these instructions were written in the early 00s.
3621/2024/the_social_life_of_language.txt · Last modified: 2024/01/15 23:41 by Ryan Schram (admin)