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  • Collaborating on Language:Contrasting the Theory and Practice of Collaboration in Linguistics and Anthropology
  • Sarah Shulist (bio)

As the very existence of this journal attests, the discipline of anthropology has been particularly affected by the concern that has been ongoing in social science since the late 1970s to engage with the political issues that are tied up in research pursuits. The turn toward collaborative ethnography and a re-visioning of anthropological work as a joint project serving multiple purposes both within and outside of the academy constitutes one of the most recent responses to ethical and scientific concerns that arise out of these questions (Lassiter 2005; Field 2008; Rappaport 2008). This rethinking is taking place after several decades of reflexive, self-critical theoretical work by anthropologists who have gone so far as to question the utility of the discipline itself and its role in power and oppression (Scheper-Hughes 2000; Fluehr-Lobban 2008). Linguists, on the other hand, have experienced these challenges differently. In the Americas in particular, efforts to document and describe indigenous languages have been a significant component of the discipline since its inception; since the early 1990s, however, a profound shift in the sense of purpose of these efforts has taken place. Documentation has not only come to occupy a more central place in general linguistic knowledge; it has also become deeply political and activist, following the publication of a series of articles in Language (K. Hale 1992) that served as a “call to arms” inciting linguists to save the world’s languages from their present state of impending extinction. This shift in attention and motivation has led to major changes in the relationship between the linguist and speakers of the language as [End Page 1] well as in the nature of materials that linguists produce through their fieldwork.

Linguistics as a discipline, however, has come to this policitized point along a radically different path from that of anthropology. Despite the historical connection between the two fields, little overlap exists between the insights each field has drawn about these changing research relationships, methodologies, and frames of analysis, except in the subdisciplines that pay attention to both—sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology. Reflexivity, cultural critique, and analysis of the relations of power and dominance that affect both fieldwork and academic claims have been essentially absent from linguistics, and training for linguistic fieldwork continues to provide tools for obtaining accurate and extensive linguistic data, without much concern for social relationships or the impact of the researcher (Ahlers and Wertheim 2009). In this article I attempt to address these divergent paths and offer observations about some of the connections drawn in linguistic anthropology. I also reflect on the challenges I experienced in attempting to form collaborative relationships during ethnographic fieldwork examining the social impact of language shift and language revitalization projects in the northwest Brazilian Amazon, where the local history provides rich examples of the impact of these different disciplinary traditions of collaboration. In particular, I discuss the unexpected challenges that I met in my attempts to implement a collaborative research project as a result the preexisting models for linguistic research that have been applied in the region. These experiences demonstrate the need to engage in a cross-disciplinary conversation about theories of collaboration, and to consider the ways in which unexamined differences have created challenges, both for researchers and for endangered-language communities.

Theorizing Language Documentation and Revitalization

The framework of documentary linguistics represents a relatively new addition to the set of linguistic subdisciplines. Its status as a theoretical and theorizable project in its own right (as opposed to a methodology to be used to collect data for the study of phonology, syntax, semantics, etc.) has emerged largely as a result of the increased attention that K. Hale (1992) brought to the question of language loss and is often directly [End Page 2] connected to community-based goals of language revitalization or promotion, in addition to academic interests (Hinton and Hale 2001; Gippert et al. 2006; Austin 2007). While several prominent scholars working within this theoretical framework have advocated a restructuring of the ethics of field linguistics in relation to these latter goals (Rice 2006; Czaykowska-Higgins 2009; Dorian 2010...


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