A beginner’s Guide : Doing Ethnography

ethnography of communication

Ethnography of Communication or Ethnography of  Speaking
Of the variety of ways of interpreting discourse, the ethnography of speaking is especially useful in probing the significance of market discourse. The basic tenets of the ethnography of speaking – also called the ethnography of communication – have been elaborated in a number of articles and books.

Principal among these is work by Hymes (1962, 1964, 1974), Hymes and Gumperz (1972), and Bauman and Sherzer (1974, 1975). Subsequent work by Duranti (1985) has further enriched the approach. Ethnographers of speaking seek to determine the speech codes and repertories of members of a speech community, including the values, strategies and norms which govern speech production and  nterpretation (Bauman and Sherzer 1974). These ethnographers focus on a number of basic sociolingustic concepts: speech communities and events, elements of linguistic structure, repertoires, and codes. Ethnography is the preferred methodological vehicle for such study. Because much language choice is subconscious, and because context critically determines the signalling of social information, fieldwork techniques that elicit and challenge the verbal skills of speakers are essential (Gumperz 1974). Field immersion and data collection in situ, rather than artificial laboratory manipulations, are thus required.

Dell Hymes’s SPEAKING Model

In the development of his descriptive theory of speech behavior, Hymes (1962, 1972, 1974) has proposed the acronym “SPEAKING” as a mnemonic to organize the components that contribute to the complexity of verbal interaction. The eight foci of Hymes’ analysis can be briefly reviewed. 


Setting and Scene
“Setting refers to the time and place of a speech act and, in general, to the physical circumstances” (Hymes 55).The living room in the grandparents’ home might be a setting for a family story.
Scene is the “psychological setting” or “cultural definition” of a scene, including characteristics such as range of formality and sense of play or seriousness (Hymes 55-56). The family story may be told at a reunion celebrating the grandparents’ anniversary. At times, the family would be festive and playful; at other times, serious and commemorative.

Speaker and audience. Linguists will make distinctions within these categories; for example, the audience can be distinguished as addressees and other hearers (Hymes 54 & 56). At the family reunion, an aunt might tell a story to the young female relatives, but males, although not addressed, might also hear the narrative.

Purposes, goals, and outcomes (Hymes 56-57). The aunt may tell a story about the grandmother to entertain the audience, teach the young women, and honor the grandmother.

Act Sequence
Form and order of the event. The aunt’s story might begin as a response to a toast to the grandmother. The story’s plot and development would have a sequence structured by the aunt. Possibly there would be a collaborative interruption during the telling. Finally, the group might applaud the tale and move onto another subject or activity.

Cues that establish the “tone, manner, or spirit” of the speech act (Hymes 57). The aunt might imitate the grandmother’s voice and gestures in a playful way, or she might address the group in a serious voice emphasing the sincerity and respect of the praise the story expresses.

Forms and styles of speech  (Hymes 58-60). The aunt might speak in a casual register with many dialect features or might use a more formal register and careful grammatical “standard” forms.

Social rules governing the event and the participants’ actions and reaction. In a playful story by the aunt, the norms might allow many audience interruptions and collaboration, or possibly those interruptions might be limited to participation by older females. A serious, formal story by the aunt might call for attention to her and no interruptions as norms.

The kind of speech act or event; for our course, the kind of story. The aunt might tell a character anecdote about the grandmother for entertainment, but an exemplar  as moral instruction. Different disciplines develop terms for kinds of speech acts, and speech communities sometimes have their own terms for types.

These terms can be applied to many kinds of discourse. Sometimes in a written discussion you might emphasize only two or three of the letters of the mnemonic. It provides a structure for you to perceive components.

As stated earlier, Hymes’  framework can be used for ever greater elaboration of performance; its principal value resides in its comprehensiveness. In the balance of this article,the framework will be employed to interpret two speech events embedded in a local system of consumption.


For purposes of discrete, linear exposition, the following sections of this article examine speech events in the sequence proposed in Hymes’ model.  What follows is an ethnographic overview of a speech event.

Speech Event I: The Miracle Worker
The vendor’s booth is sandwiched between stalls containing a variety of new and used goods, on a crowded midway of the swap meet. It is a bright summer afternoon, and consumers stroll unhurriedly down the many aisle:; of the open air market. The vendor’s platform is elevated several feet off the ground, permitting him to speak down (literally as well as figuratively) to his audience. His table is filled with
vegetables and props. The psychosocial occasion of this performance — its cultural definition — is the “demo.” The demonstration is also likened to a “show.” If the patter is alleged to be a hard sell, it is tempered at least by strains of amusement and diversion. This exists as one of hundreds of scenes through which consumers move during their site visit.

The vendor himself is a middle-aged Anglo sporting sunglasses and a cowboy hat, in affectation of perceived local canons of dress. The consumer cluster toward which he directs his pitch is composed of Whites, Asians, Hi.spanics and Blacks.

While his principal objective i;; to sell a $10.00 vegetable cutter to prospective customers, a number of ancillary objectives are apparent. He uses his pitch to recruit an audience.  literally distracting consumers from the cacophony of the midway, enticing them to focus upon his message. The information and entertainment he provides to his client base are significant components of his ends.
The act sequence of the vendor is arresting. In terms of form, he relies on a rising-then-falling intonation pattern. Among the rhetorical tropes employed most extensively are hyperbole and apostrophe.

The content of the message is focussed principally on product attributes, convenience, and economy. The speech modalities invoked impart a special distinction to the message. The pitch is
humorous, and the humor is largely of a disparaging or deprecating nature. Consumers are frequently the butt of his humor. The vendor adopts a conspiratorial tone, implicitly and explicitly promising to assist consumers in impression management; in fact, successful deception of significant others is one of (he benefit bundles consistently touted. Finally, the vendor delivers his pitch in a perfunctory, detached, methodical manner. The precision and ease promised by the product are echoed in the vendor’s pitch, where the cadences are often clinically delivered.

The instrumentalities in evidence are varied. Multiple channels are employed. The pitch itself is delivered on an oral/aural level. The demonstration occurs in a visual channel: vegetables, tools, rinse bowls and assorted props are manipulated to communieative ends. A
signboard behind the vendor’s table serves to display his product’s name, and functions as a dart board of sorts that permits the vendor to toss vegetables sliced “as thin as poker chips” up on permanent display. The pitch is delivered in standard midwestem American English, with no code- or register-switching during the performance.

The behaviors and proprieties attached to speaking, and issues su:rrounding decoding are fairly transparent in the vendor’s pitch. Although following a practiced script, sufficient allowance is made for extemporizing. For example, the vendor engages consumers (individually, or as a rhetorical collective) in banter and in ridicule throughout his pitch. He also commits several intentional “mistakes” in his presentation, using self-effacing remarks to bond his prospects more tightly to him. While implicit expectations of all actors call for an uninterrupted performance, punctuated interruption is in fact the norm.

Some heckling and cross-talk emerges from the audience, with sotto voce argumentation and post-hoc criticism being common occurrences. Notions of turn-taking in conversational interaction prevail overall. Because the vendor is not a regional native, and because he travels a transcontinental market circuit, he employs a generic or functional language devoid of local resonance. Popular
cultural references (for example, to soap operas) are as specialized a use of language as the vendor permits himself.

Of the speech genres employed by the vendor, the pitch is the predominant or overarching category. However a number of other subgenres combine to give his pitch its distinguisliing characteristics. Principal among these subgenres is the joke, and principal among
joke themes is the disparaging of the consumer as buyer. If joking is construed as ritual behavior (Sherry 1980), then the topics of the vendor’s jokes can be used as indices of social stress upon which his product is positioned to have primary impact. Role expectations,
time pressures, kith and kin relations and consumption skill are a few of the topics of his joking interactions.

Extensive reliance upon comparative advertising makes it clear that formal comparison is an important subgenre of pitch composition. Finally, proverbs and proverbial expressions are important units of pitch composition. Comparison and admonition modulated through humor is a fair characterization of the vendor’s genre development

Speech Event 11: Chop Chop Chop

While this vendor’s booth is also sandwiched between the stalls of other vendors on a similarly crowded midway, it differs in several respects from the one previously described. This booth is set up entirely at ground level, with the vendor’s table being the only
barrier between him and his prospective customers. In this sense, he is on equal footing with his prospects.
The vendor has erected an awning over his table. This canopy provides shade for him and a number of consumers who have surrounded his stall. His performance unfolds literally in the round, unlike the proscenium based performance of his competitor. The cultural definition of the speech event is identical to the one just described: “demo” couched as “show.”

The vendor in the present event is a middle-aged Korean male. He is dressed in a casual west coast style, but as will become clear, his apparel is more semiotically significant than that of his competitor. The consumer cluster he has recruited is quite similar to that
of his competitor, with the exception of a greater proportion of blacks. In terms of ends, the goals and outcomes of the Korean vendor are similar to his Anglo counterpart, with one significant exception: the Korean vendor closes more sales. Whether this is attributable to
price, performance or some permutation remains to be considered.

The act sequence of the Korean vendor is every bit as arresting as that of his Anglo counterpart. The form of speech preferred by this vendor is a staccato shout, modulated intermittently by a chant. The pitch is a hybrid of soliloquoy and stichomythia, with the rhetorical question forming the basis of what is essentially a lecture. Message content centers on product attributes, but in contrast to the competition, focuses as well on issues of health and utility. These are important positioning differences that arise from the vendor’s
cultural values system and his reading of American lifeways, as much as from business strategy.

The “key” component of this speech event differs markedly from the first. The Korean vendor is very serious in demeanor, and his performance is quite painstaking. He has a vigorous, animated style, conducting his demo with a flourish. His language becomes part of the slicing, dicing, cutting procedure he demonstrates, the words and cadences of his patter as much a cutting instrument as the implement itself. His style is quite personalized, despite the fixity of the script. Perhaps the best way to characterize the modality of his pitch is to call it ingratiating. The vendor bonds his audience with the gift of his performance. He is as eager to perform well as he is to close the sale.

Instrumentalities evident in the second pitch are quite distinct as well. Again, the pitch itself is delivered on oral and aural levels. Visually, however, this speech event is far more evocative than its counterpart. While the same demonstration props are evident (albeit
manipulated more dexterously), additional props are employed to create a hotter semiotic environment. The vendor wears a roll-up cap to which is attached a button which proclaims “I love Chop Chop Chop.” This same logo is emblazoned in larger letters across his T-shirL
Framed newspaper clippings attesting to the vendor’s local celebrity are attached to the awning struts of his stall. Consumers familiar with his performance through local mass media or from having seen it in other open air markets refer to the vendor himself as “Chop  hop.”

Speech forms themselves are also distinct from those present in the pitch described earlier. The Korean vendor’s heavily accented American English is both a tactical and unintentional source of much of the humor of the pitch. The incongruity (some of it staged, as befits proper showmanship) of the persona and the accent gives the performance much of its power. The colloquial use of American English (the pitch is replete with idiomatic expressions such as “loolcing good!” and “I gotta go”) contributes to this effect. Furthermore, the Korean vendor is adept at code switching, delivering parts of his pitch in English, Spanish and Chinese; relevant targets are acknowledged and complimented, while the audience as a whole is delighted.

Interaction and interpretation norms are also sufficiently different from the first pitch as to warrant comment. The Korean vendor’s script is rigid and permits no extemporizing or adhoc interplay with the audience. An uninterrupted performance is expected and delivered. No heckling occurs during the pitch, and the cross-talk among the audience is entirely supportive. Calls of “Yeah Chop Chop!” or “Go Chop C!hop!” are common. In fact, the presence of a larger coterie of black consumers produces an interesting synergy with the
vendor’s presentation style. One black consumer begins an antiphonal, overlapping call and response-type commentary in support of the pitch, much like the speech form that would be expected during a liturgical service. Because the vendor is a “local” (despite or
because of his ethnicity) he is able to use language strategically to target his prospective customers in a way that the non-native vendor does not. Such effective linguistic targeting may contribute to the vendor’s successful closing rate.

Finally, the genre of this second speech event is still the pitch, but the subgenres undergirding it differ noticeably from the first. The Korean vendor’s pitch is primarily a lecture, peppered with colloquial expressions. While joking occurs, it is less formal than that of the
counterpart pitch, and consumers, when criticized, are disparaged for their dietary patterns rather than their shopping acumen. The length of the pitch is half that of Anglo vendor’s; the Korean vendor’s performance is more stylized and yet less rhetorically elaborate than that of his competitor

work cited :  Hymes, Dell. Foundations of Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1974.


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