Models of community engagement: LIP discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Our final LIP for 2013 came at the end of 3 days of the PARADISEC conference, and we were fortunate to be joined by a diverse group of linguists from across the world who were able to contribute new perspectives from their fieldwork experiences. The topic of discussion was the documentation of cultural events, and what this task might mean for our research practice, and for the communities we work with. As usual, if you have another perspective on the topics covered feel free to add them in the comments below.

We started by discussing what actually constitutes a cultural event. Some of the salient features we discussed is that it involves a degree of ‘coming together’ outside of usual daily practice. This might be a large-scale whole community event, or a small gathering of select initiates. This then involves some amount of specific preparation, the use (and creation of) specific items, or preparation of particular foods. Cultural events can either be linked to calendars, occurring at set regular intervals, or may be linked to important milestones in the lives of individuals or groups in the larger community. These events are usually highly salient within a community, having their own name and set of expected practices.

Another difference between events were those that the linguist happens to be there for, and would have otherwise occurred anyway, and those that occur because of the presence of the linguist. The events that would occur regardless can often be unknown to the linguist until right before they begin, for which there is a benefit to spending longer periods of time in the field. Those events that are put on for the sake of the linguist, for example a naming ceremony, are still an important part of the cultural transmission.

Linked to this salience is that cultural events are important loci for the transmission of cultural knowledge. It is usually at cultural events that traditional songs and dances are performed, and it is for cultural events that instruments, special items of clothing and food are made. While not all of the features of a cultural ceremony are linguistic, as language is a cultural act – and endangered languages are often spoken in endangered cultures – it is a part of the richer cultural documentation process to capture these events. Many at the table agreed that we are behooved as ethically responsible invitees into these communities to work with them to document these events in their lives.

Even those events with very little linguistic content can still be a rich source of language data. Ceremonies and concerts often have specific vocabulary relating to features of the events. Several participants talked about using a participant observation method of recording the festival and then afterwards asking community members to describe what was happening in a video reply. People are generally willing to do this because the events are highly salient and interesting for them as well as the researcher, compared to daily tasks that may be interesting for the researcher, but very dull for participants. This can make a culturally salient stimulus for elicitation, and provide the community with a narrated video for their own keeping.

Some events do involve specific linguistic features that are often unique. Song language may present different linguistic structures in comparison to every day language, or vocabulary may give evidence of contact with other cultural groups. Participants who had worked in PNG talked about the use of a base-six counting system that is only used during yam counting ceremonies. There are all kinds of unique linguistic features or discourse genres that people report during particular cultural events.

In discussion of experience recording cultural events, several participants discussed the usefulness of recording the preparation for the event, as well as the event itself. This allows you to understand the production of any unique items or processes of preparation. One researcher observed that people may often be in a good mood while preparing for an exciting event like a festival and may be willing to share stories and chat more readily than in other situations. During the event sometimes the best thing to do is just to record and wait until later to ask questions about what is happening. These descriptive expositions after the event become another layer of the documentation process.

Although we only briefly touched on technical challenges, we did talk at some length about the ethical challenges of documenting cultural events. One in particular is those events that have some kind of social restriction on who can attend or witness the event. Sometimes linguists have ‘outsider’ status that allows them to observe the events that would normally be restricted by gender or clan, and other-times it is their initiate status that allows them to attend. In other cases, the linguist may be excluded from the cultural event. Even if they find another person to record the event, they may not be allowed to view the footage. This can also extend to archiving – and even in an archive where much of the data is open, it may be important to restrict the content of some events to only those who have the cultural acceptance to view these recordings. Even though many archives are pushing for open access, it’s important that we respect the wishes of the communities we work with, and it may be that in the future later generations will be glad to be able to access this material.

This was our final LIP for 2013, but we’ll be back in 2014!

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