The ‘critical’ in critical sociolinguistics
Last updated: Oct 8, 2021
What does the ‘critical’ in critical sociolinguistics or critical discourse studies actually mean? Generally, ‘critical’ has three interrelated meanings.
- Critical in the sense of ‘being critical’ of traditional approaches: In this sense, critical research is wary of mainstream ideas based in tradition. Critical sociolinguistics, for instance, is critical of traditional approaches to language policy research.
- Critical in the sense of ‘influenced by critical theory’: Critical theory has its origins in sociology and literary criticism and is associated with names such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkhheimer, Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. In a (very small) nutshell, critical theory argues that what is responsible for social inequalities are less individual people and more social/cultural structures.
- Critical in the sense of ‘critique’: Scholars in these disciplines aim to not just describe a phenomena but to relate it to broader social conditions. Such research hence often looks at social inequalities, offers a form of (social) critique and ultimately aims to effect social change.
For language scholars, ‘critical’ hence means acknowledging that who can say what when and with what consequences is neither neutral nor accidental. Instead, what people can do with and through language is shaped (if not determined) by social structures and the normative systems of beliefs shaped by these.