What Is the Ethnography of Communication?

S. Ashraf

The ethnography of communication is an academic field of study that was first conceptualized as a branch of sociolinguistics by researchers during the 1950s and early 1960s. As an academic discipline, it studies and analyzes how language is used in cultural settings. Originally, this branch of study was actually called the ethnography of speaking, but the term was changed so the field could also include studies in both the non-verbal facets of communication. Most of the studies done in this area, however, tend to be mainly concerned with speaking, because that is regarded as the leading means of communication.

Most of the studies in communication ethnography tend to focus on speaking.
Most of the studies in communication ethnography tend to focus on speaking.

As a discipline at least partially based in linguistics, the ethnography of communication takes a somewhat different view of communication and language than do other linguistic theories, such as structuralism or transformational grammar. In contrast with these theories, it has as a basic premise, or theory, the view that the meaning of a particular expression or vocalization can be understood only in relation to the speech event or culture in which it is embedded. The view of this field is that communication is an uninterrupted flow of information and not an exchange or transmission of disconnected, separate messages. Communications, rather than specific languages, provide the frame of reference for analyzing the place of language in any particular society or culture.

The ethnography of communication takes a somewhat different view of communication and language than do other linguistic theories.
The ethnography of communication takes a somewhat different view of communication and language than do other linguistic theories.

The focus of studies in the field is on individual speech communities, which are clusters of people using common signs to communicate. Particularly, communication ethnography is interested in the way that communication within a speech community is organized into various systems of communication events and how they interact with every other system in the culture. It looks to answer the basic question of what a speaker needs to know to communicate correctly and appropriately within a given speech community and how a speaker learns to do this.

A researcher might analyze different speech situations, such as ceremonies, or speech events, such as sermons, greetings or compliments, to determine how their structure and content are culturally determined. Regardless of the topic of the study, researchers in the ethnography of communication focus on a speech community. They study speech communities as diverse as African tribal groups or people in highly industrialized societies. Such a community might even be users of a website or message board, if they share rules for speaking to each other online.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I think as mush as we talk about language and context, what is coming out is that language is shaped by situations we find ourselves in. The human brain conceptualizes our circumstances very fast and this alters our choice of words and expression.

Yet I also agree that the way language has been framed ultimately will influence our world view and this continues as the communication process progresses.

Take for example, a sermon by a Muslim sheik who has fundamental beliefs preaching to youthful fellow Muslims and may be delivering a speech to a young Christian association. His speech will vary with the circumstances. Because of the verbal and co-verbal exchanges from the speaker and depending on his intentions, the Muslim hearers' world view is bound to change drastically. I think this is the whole theory about radicalization taking place in the world today. --Jarongo


@lluviaporos- there are some other examples, though I think Klingon is supposed to be the first complete language for an invented race.

Star Trek did adapt a lot of other species' languages, though not to the same extent, and of course there is Esperanto, which was not made for film or tv but actual use. It even has some "native" speakers, people whose parents both speak it and raised them to.

Another interesting example of language and television to me, though, is the series Firefly. It was a different sort of futuristic space show, and one of the premises was that instead of some sort of universal translator, everyone under this alliance of planets in our galaxy spoke either English, Chinese, or both. I liked that it was a nod to the way people think our world really is going. They also took this into account at times into how things were run, and it even gave characters the chance to say expletives on TV in Chinese (one of the less serious perks of this idea). I'm sure they had some professional linguists on board with that one.


@jonrss- I don't know if that study ever came out or not, but I have heard about lots of people doing research like this on different regions or countries. I think it is a good idea because it also helps explain to us why classroom based study of foreign language does not usually work; we're dealing with an entirely different way of expressing messages, not just different words for the same message.


I used to date a girl whose mom was a speech pathologist. Her profession was helping people to overcome speech impediments, but in her spare time she like to study broader trends in speech and communication. I know what you're thinking, why didn't she get a real hobby, but this is what she liked and she had put a lot of work into it.

Her big project was studying the speech patterns of the people that lived in her town, Ann Arbor MI. She was not from there and she was convinced that people had a way of speaking that was different than anywhere else in the country. She would devise these tests and surveys and then give them to people in waiting rooms or grocery store lines. She hoped to turn her research into a book one day.

I guess that this is not strictly ethnographic but rather geographic. Still, how many people are actually studying this stuff? I don;t go out with that girl anymore, I have no idea if that book was ever published. For the people of Ann Arbor though I hope it comes out.


When I was in college I took a class about the relationship between music and literature. During one section we read a lot of poetry that was inspired by or directly related to jazz. As part of out discussion we studied "signifying" a speech pattern that is common in African American communities.

I can't remember all the details but repetition and rhythm were a big part of it. I had never heard of this up until then but the articles were very explanatory and when I started to listen to certain songs and people talk I picked up on the sounds of signifying. Of course this is not universal. It is impossible to make generalizations based on race. But there are distinct speech patterns that are unique to cultural groups and it is impossible to deny that one has developed around African Americans. Its an interesting idea and one that pops into my head all the time.


People who study the ethnography of communication sometimes get hired for strange things.

For example, it is becoming more and more fashionable for directors to hire someone who understands the workings of language to invent a language for characters in a film.

Klingon is probably the most famous example, although I don't know if that one was worked out entirely in advance.

But the Na'vi in Avatar supposedly had a language that was created by a communication ethnographer. That must be a really fun job to have.


I read an article about a study in this area a few weeks ago. They got people who had different first languages to assign voices to inanimate objects like forks or bridges. All the languages they used were ones with gender clauses.

Like, for example in French where you would say "la" fork (making it female), or Spanish where you would say "el" fork (making it male).

People who spoke a language where the fork was female almost always gave the fork a female voice and vice versa.

It sounds kind of obvious, but in fact it's really interesting that language can effect how you see the world around you like that.

Post your comments
Forgot password?