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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Language, sexuality, and power : studies in intersectional sociolinguistics


Erez Levon and Ronald Beline Mendes

Research on language and sexuality has come a long way since the inception of the field some thirty-five years ago. Even our choice of the title for this introductory chapter can be taken as evidence of how work in this area has developed from one focused primarily on the linguistic behavior of specific groups of speakers (lesbians, gay men, etc.) to one that focuses instead on how sexuality (in all of its guises) emerges through linguistic practice. As Queen (2014) notes, this change in how the field conceptualizes its object of study is due in large part to the increased integration within sociolinguistics of theoretical models of self and society drawn from related disciplines, including cultural studies and anthropology. At the same time, research on language and sexuality has also grown increasingly prominent in areas outside sociolinguistics, notably in laboratory phonology (see Munson & Babel 2007; Eckert & Podesva 2011), where critical social theory has less of a foothold. This expansion of disciplinary approaches to the topic is a welcome development and has helped to solidify the empirical foundation of research in this area. Yet we would argue that it has also had the effect of making it at times more difficult to see how all the research conducted under the rubric of language and sexuality studies contributes to a common scholarly endeavor. One of the goals of this book is to demonstrate that it does, and to illustrate how studies emanating from various methodological perspectives all contribute to a broader understanding of the relationship between sexuality and language. For this reason, we aim in this chapter to take stock of where we currently stand, both theoretically and empirically, in relation to the study of language and sexuality. We do so not to establish prescriptive boundaries around this particular field of inquiry but rather to situate the different strands of existing research in a comprehensive and inclusive analytical framework. Put somewhat more simply, our goal is to 1

demonstrate how all the different pieces fit together, and, as a result, to highlight fruitful avenues for taking language and sexuality research forward.

The framework we propose, which we describe in detail in this chapter, is grounded within an approach to the study of language that focuses on examining how the distribution of discrete linguistic features—be they phonological, morphosyntactic, lexical, or discursive—participates in the construction and perception of social meaning. Aware of the extent to which the naming of a methodology is itself a meaning-making practice (Wong, Roberts, & Campbell-Kibler 2002), we choose to avoid using a label like “variationist” to describe this approach in order to highlight that the framework we have in mind involves bringing together quantitative, qualitative, and experimental methods. We simultaneously wish to emphasize, however, our belief that it is only by investigating the systematic distribution of socially meaningful linguistic forms that we can come to understand the relationship between social structure and individual subjectivity and the ways in which language mediates between the two. In other words, we maintain that a distributional focus on linguistic form provides us with the most robust and empirically reliable means for uncovering the linguistic processes through which sexuality is socially materialized. This is not to say that (critical) discourse analytic approaches are unimportant. Past research has shown that they are immensely useful in teasing apart the sociocultural intricacies of interaction and in identifying the ideologies that constrain and inform how sexualities are experienced. Yet, we nevertheless wish to reaffirm the importance of “sociolinguistic empiricism” (Woolard 1985) to this endeavor—not just in providing a complementary perspective but also in tying down our interpretations (Rampton 2007) and making them accountable to systematic patterns of language-in-use.

In the remainder of this chapter, we describe the basic contours of our theoretical and methodological approach. We begin with a brief review of the major developments in the field of language and sexuality over the past thirty-five years (for more extensive reviews, see Cameron & Kulick 2003; Queen 2007, 2014). Through this review, we identify two inter-related areas that we believe require further critical attention. The first involves the relationship between structure and agency in constraining sociolinguistic practice, or, put another way, the central role of power in shaping linguistic behavior. This is by no means a new concern in language and sexuality research (Bucholtz & Hall 2004; Cameron 2011), and we offer suggestions for how to re-center this issue in our work via the adoption of a multilevel framework for conceptualizing social practice (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992). The second area that we identify involves the imbrication of sexuality with other dimensions of lived experience, including those shaped by gender, nation, race, and social class. While, once again, this is not an entirely new critique (e.g., Cameron & Kulick 2003), we claim that language and sexuality research needs to adopt a more sophisticated approach to the ways in which these different dimensions interact. We argue here that intersectionality theory (Crenshaw 1989; McCall 2005; Yuval-Davis 2011b) provides us with an analytical framework for doing so. We describe how, because of its insistence on the mutual constitution of socially relevant categories, intersectionality prevents us from considering sexuality in isolation. Instead, it pushes us to critically examine how both the positioning of sexualities in particular social and historical contexts (i.e., structure) and the ways in which individuals negotiate these positionings (i.e., agency) are the product of multiple and intersecting systems of social classification (Choo & Ferree 2010). Our use of intersectionality theory thus complements our arguments with respect to the structure/agency divide, and enables us to illustrate a method for examining the “total linguistic fact” (Silverstein 1985) of sexuality. Finally, we close the chapter with a brief outline of how the various contributions to the volume serve to illustrate the theoretical arguments we make here.

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