“Dell Hymes, Kenneth Burke’s ‘Identification,’ and the Birth of Sociolinguistics,” by Jay Jordan

Jordan, Jay. “Dell Hymes, Kenneth Burke’s ‘Identification,’ and the Birth of Sociolinguistics.” Rhetoric Review 24 (2005): 264-79.

Reviewed by Rebecca M. Townsend, University of Hartford and Holyoke Community College

The title of Jay Jordan’s excellent article in Rhetoric Review is pregnant with meaning. As Jordan contends, sociolinguistics emerged from a productive academic social interaction between Dell Hymes and Kenneth Burke; those who study rhetorical interaction, whether they are rhetorical critics, literacy scholars, sociolinguists, or ethnographers of communication, will find much to ponder, and enjoy, in Jordan’s exploration of this origin of sociolinguistics.

Drawing from both published literature and the extensive correspondence between Dell Hymes and Kenneth Burke housed at Penn State University, Jordan traces the development of “identification” in both writers. (Jordan also interviewed Hymes, and Hymes further served as a reader of drafts of the essay). Reviewing major texts of each author and noting their particular application in literacy studies, the essay offers another opportunity to reflect upon “identification,” especially as the “key to understanding the rhetorical basis of the sociolinguistics Hymes was advocating” (265). Jordan notes the various permutations identification experienced in Burke’s work: as “crafty persuasion”; as an “active, social process” in Attitudes Toward History; as an “inevitable—thus beneficial and detrimental—characteristic of language in human relations” in Philosophy of Literary Form (Jordan 266); and as central to human life in Rhetoric and Grammar. Identification’s progression toward “a necessary property of social relations” finds it becoming “as much a process and a structure as a discrete perlocutionary act” (269). The choice of term, then—communication, identification, or persuasion—thus owes to “particular historical and social conditions” that make “one more analytically useful than others” (see Hochmuth in Jordan, n12).

Although this history of identification’s development in Burke is important, the major value of Jordan’s essay is in its second part, on Hymes. As Jordan discusses, Indiana University was a formative place for Hymes. His study there included a class and many conversations with Burke, first inspiring Hymes’s interest in “motives” (269). Considering the rhetorical bases for group association, as Burke advised him to do, allowed Hymes to attend to “social norms (with their corresponding modes of action)” (letter to Hymes, 25 August 1955). Hymes claimed that ethnography would produce the study of “locally based symbol usage and symbolic identification” (quoting Hymes 271). Jordan explains that in Hymes’ article, “Models on the Interaction of Language and Social Life,” “attitudes (and as Burke would say, situations)” form the foundation for this study (271). The ethnographic study of speaking and later of communication (although Jordan is concerned with the earlier work) involves “projects that collect new language data in specific contexts in order to determine local patterns proper to speech activity that abstractions . . . may miss” (272). This endeavor thus “sees language ‘situated in the flux and pattern of communicative events’” (quoting Hymes 272).

Although sociolinguistic theoretical underpinnings and methods can help account for rhetorical processes of association, Hymes is correct in one important clarification: accounts are not the same as understandings. “The formal analysis of speaking is a means to the understanding of human purposes and needs, and their satisfaction; it is an indispensable means, but only a means, and not that understanding itself,” he qualifies (Hymes 70). Attending to rules arising in and defining interaction thus allows Hymes to counter the notion that groups are necessarily united harmoniously in language use, or, more public policy-relevant, that “diverse [language] use means deficient use” (Jordan 273). Jordan’s rhetorical history could benefit from clarifying what “ethnographically grounded” (264) means, for the methodological approaches signal another point of alliance between Burke and Hymes. Whether in interviews, in situated participant observation of a speech community, or in fieldwork, a researcher needs to learn how to hear as the participants hear, but the researcher cannot obtain full identification with those participants.

Jordan further addresses the ways Hymes has been used in literacy studies and educational politics, and the way speaking a language does not translate into membership in a speech community. As tribute to the heuristic value of Jordan’s work, several different lines of inquiry open up after reading it. These include invitations to examine the incorporation of Burke’s work into Hymes’s later scholarship (and tracing it through communication scholars Philipsen, Katriel, Carbaugh, and Fitch); to compile a collection of correspondence; and even to challenge individual-based conceptions of identification themselves. Jordan examines how, in their correspondence, “Burke speculates on the distinction between ‘individuality’ as a sophisticated cultural product and ‘individuation’ as the biological, nonsymbolic human ground” (275). Burke asks Hymes: “[H]ow would you place it [individuation] with regard to ‘sociolinguistics’? I wonder whether the dread gulf that looms may be of this sort: Could it be an ironic methodological fact that anthropology as a science can’t give us a definition of man? No ‘science’ can? ‘Tis a philosophical issue?” (275).

I wish I could read Hymes’ response here. A sociolinguist might ask: Are not all definitions of man culturally situated? Aiming toward a universally applicable definition of man, or men, might be beyond the scope of sociolinguistics, premised as it is upon the diversity of ways of speaking. Applying a “definition of man” to a culture where the basic social unit is the group, not the individual, would be a misapplication—a conflict of premises about social action. The definition of man sees motivation as within an “individual” and not something arising from interaction. Perhaps it is a chicken-egg question, but when we conceive first of individual rhetors as “yearning to identify” we overlook our culturally situated assumption privileging “the individual.” Scholars of language and social interaction cannot know individual psychological motivations; they study the “in-between.” In this same spirit, Jordan’s provocative discussion of the discourse that constitutes the in-between of Hymes and Burke is worth studying.

Works Cited

Carbaugh, Donal. Talking American: Cultural Discourses on DONAHUE. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1989.

Fitch, Kristine. Speaking Relationally: Culture, Communication, and Interpersonal Connection. New York: Guilford, 1998.

Hymes, Dell. “Models of Interaction of Language and Social Life.” Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication. Eds. John Gumperz and Dell Hymes. New York: Holt, 1972. 35-71.

Katriel, Tamar. Communal Webs: Communication and Culture in Contemporary Israel. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1991.

Philipsen, Gerry. “An Ethnographic Approach to Communication Studies.”  Rethinking Communication: Vol. 2, Paradigm Exemplars. Eds. Brenda Dervin, Lawrence Grossberg, Barbara J. O’Keefe, and Ellen Wartella. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989. 258-68.

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