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This Book: Intersectional Sociolinguistics

Our ultimate objective in this book is to illustrate the utility of examining how structure, agency, and power together shape sexuality-linked linguistic practice. Bourdieu’s multilevel model provides an invaluable tool for achieving this. Yet, as we note previously, we also argue that a full examination of the topic requires us to recognize that sexuality—whether in terms of individual subjectivity or social structure—never exists in isolation. It is instead always cross-cut, contested, and transfigured by other vectors of social organization, including gender, race, nation, and socioeconomic status. For this reason, we have collected contributions for the volume that place the intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989; Yuval-Davis 2011b) of sexuality at the center of their analyses.

The term intersectionality has become something of a “buzzword” in the humanities and social sciences over the past twenty years (Davis 2008). Originating within black feminist theorizing as a way to conceptualize race, class, and gender as a “trilogy of oppression and discrimination” (Knapp 2005: 255), intersectionality has since been put to use in a wide variety of disciplinary and methodological traditions. In the process, the concept has come to mean a number of different things to different scholars (see, e.g., McCall 2005; Choo & Ferree 2010). In this book, we understand intersectionality to refer to the ways in which dynamic systems of social organization mutually constitute one another. In other words, we do not subscribe to the view of intersections as simple crossings or “street corners” (Crenshaw 1991) where static categories like “gay” and “working class” meet on a Cartesian plane. Instead, we adopt a process-centered approach (Weldon 2008) that views the production of sexuality at both the individual and the structural levels as inextricably linked to the production of other relevant social systems. A useful heuristic for engaging in this type of intersectional investigation is what Matsuda (1991) describes as “asking the other question”—that is, constantly and continually exploring how a practice related to sexuality may also be related to gender, race/ethnicity, social class, and so on, and critically interrogating why it is that these categories are linked in this way. We argue that it is only by exploring the dynamic relations between systems that we can adequately model the lived experience of sexuality, and hence the ways in which language participates in its materialization (Cameron & Kulick 2003). For us, the inclusion of an intersectional perspective does not supplant the importance of Bourdieu’s multilevel approach. Rather, we see the two frameworks as complementary and mutually reinforcing (Yuval-Davis 2011a). Methodologically, intersectionality prompts us to “ask the other question” at each level of Bourdieu’s model. In other words, whether we are looking at the position of the field in relation to the field of power (level 1), the structural topography of the field and the distribution of capital within it (level 2), or the relationship between habitus and individual practice (level 3), an intersectional perspective encourages us to expand our analytical gaze beyond the specific confines of sexuality and to explore the relationships between categories at all levels of social organization.

The following ten chapters thus all focus on sexuality as one component of a broader sociolinguistic space. In an effort to highlight the links between sexuality and the other dimensions of lived experience, we have chosen to focus primarily on studies of language and sexuality outside English-speaking contexts (with the sole exception of Podesva & von Hofwegen, Chapter 9, this volume). We do so not because we feel that intersectionality as a concept is not relevant to research in the English-speaking world. This is obviously not the case. Yet, we believe that concentrating on issues of language and sexuality in languages other than English and in cultures other than the United Kingdom and North America serves to foreground the socially and historically contingent nature of sexuality, and hence underscores the importance of an intersectional perspective. We nevertheless recognize that by juxtaposing a call for an intersectional perspective with studies mostly from outside North America and Northern Europe, we risk re-inscribing a North Atlantic norm (Boellstorff & Leap 2004) and implicitly positioning other cultures as somehow intersectionally “deviant.” This is emphatically not our intention, and we strongly encourage research on sexuality as an intersectional phenomenon in a wide variety of cultural and linguistic contexts, including those that have received the most attention in the literature to date, like the United States.

While each of the chapters in the volume offers a self-contained analysis of sexuality as an intersectional phenomenon in a given cultural and linguistic context, the organization of the book overall is designed to emulate Bourdieu’s multilevel analytical method. The contributions to the volume are thus organized according to level. The first three chapters (2, 3, and 4) are situated at the first level, and all examine how sexuality is positioned in relation to the local fields of power in Hong Kong (Wong), Zulu-speaking South Africa (Rudwick & Msibi), and Japan (Maree), respectively. The next four chapters (5, 6, 7, and 8) all involve the second level of analysis. As such, they each consider the topography of the social fields in question by examining the perception of sexuality-linked features in Denmark (Maegaard & Pharao), Brazil (Mendes), Puerto Rico (Mack), and Hungary (Racz & Papp). Finally, the remaining three chapters (9, 10, and 11) are situated at the third level of analysis, and all explore how individuals in rural California (Podesva & von Hofwegen), Thailand (Saisuwan), and Israel (Levon) use language to negotiate conflicting pressures and identifications as they relate to gender, sexuality, and same-sex desire. In structuring the volume in this way, we aim to illustrate how these three different levels of analysis inform one another, as well as how an intersectional perspective can be productively applied at each level. Ultimately, it is our hope that the structure and organization of this book as a whole serve as a demonstration of the theoretical proposals we make in this introductory chapter—proposals that we believe will allow the field to develop a more complete understanding of the relationship between sexuality and language.

 
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