Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Work of the Symbolic (4)

Here's the sentence I want to look at now:

Experience is embodied in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Grammatically, that's a good solid sentence. But there is something peculiar about it.

I'm not sure this is because, as Thomas P. suggests (comment to this post), there are only sociolinguistic inquiries, not sociolinguistic practices. There are plenty of references to such practices in academic writing, and even more to "linguistic practices" (by which is not meant the practices of linguists).

There is, however, something strange about modifying "sociolinguistic" with "shared". How could a meaning be both social and linguistic but not shared? I suspect someone snuck the word "sociolinguistic" into this sentence* to prop it up with a bit of scientific sounding jargon. This would be a much better sentence:

Experience is embodied in shared meanings and practices.

In fact, it is so much better that one suspects that that's what was originally written. A reviewer may have asked "What kind of meanings?" and this was the solution the author offered. (Reviewers, unfortunately, sometimes forget to insist that the solution must also be an improvement.)

But the reviewer may have been prompted to ask this question by another consideration. Constructivists normally argue that, though we might think meanings are disembodied "propositions", they are in fact embodied in the practices that make use of our sentences. That is, meanings are not ethereal entitites that surround words, events and actions; they are supported by much more tangible things like routines, habits, and rituals. They are tied to practical aims and practical problems, or to broader processes that keep the community working together.

So the original sentence may actually have read:

Experience is embodied in sociolinguistic practices.


Experience is structured by shared meanings.

These two different but related ideas seem to have been simply fused together in order to make a vague "constructivist" gesture.

One more post on this on Friday. Then I'll take up another sentence. I feel like I've almost found what I'm looking for.

*The example has actually become fictional since I first quoted it. I have abstracted this shorter sentence from a longer one that was published in a leading management journal, but I have purposely not provided the source in order to be able take these kinds of liberties.

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