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Agar, Michael. 1994. Language shock: understanding the culture of conversation. New York: Morrow and Co.

‘If you’re a professional student of languaculture, you’ll have a head full of similarities to use that you’ve learned already. If you’re not, you’ll still have a head full of similarities that you’re using, but you might not be aware of them. So, the first problem, for the pro or the amateur, is, What similarities are you using to see the differences with? . . . The second problem, for pro or amateur, is to remember that any languaculture is much richer than any similarity can handle. If the similarity you start with gets you only so far, but not far enough, then add on more similarities, enrich the structure so that it can handle more. . . . The usual academic bias is to use content to check out the similarity, or, to put it another ways, data to test a theory. My bias is that content comes first. If the similarities solve some problems but leave others confused, the fatten up the similarities. If they still can’t handle it, then drag in the content anyway. Theoretically confused understanding is better than missing the point in a theoretically elegant way’ (86).

Agar views the creation of “languaculture”–his neologism for an integrated view of language-and-culture as a single entity– as “filling in the spaces between the learner’s understanding of how people operate in a society generally and how this specific societal group functions. In his view language and culture are transparent and invisible to people in society; it is as if they don’t exist unless you step outside of them to consider them. What people tend to see as culture is rather the difference between what they are used to and what they are experiencing as a result of contact with a new group. Agar believes that we all begin by looking at similarities and differences and build understanding based upon these perceptions.

‘Never mind that his is difficult, to passionately commit to the flow of experience and keep your distance at the same time. The concept expresses the right contradiction. Besides, participant observation hides Malinowski’s secret about culture. Like Boas and Whorf, he wrote about culture as what “those people” have. But participant observation carries with it a commitment to connect, to put your body and mind on the line, to engage what “those people” are doing and figure out why, at first, you didn’t understand. Participant observation signals that culture has to get personal’ (92).

Agar articulates his understanding that an awareness of culture cannot really be that of an outsider with the culture as an object of study. Rather, one must participate in a people’s activities in order to understand the nature of the meanings and world that they live in.

‘The confusion of the outsider signals a rich point, but so does immediate native-speaker recognition followed by wild disagreement’ (101).

Agar believes that when a learner “runs up against a difference between the way s/he would talk or act and the way the group talks or acts, this provides an opportunity to learn, which he calls a rich point. Generally Agar believes that the greater the confusion, the greater the “richness” of the rich point. Native speakers disclose rich points in their discussions when they argue over meanings found in language or culture.

‘The answer to my cosmic null hypothesis was clear. Everyone in the transportation field had variables and lists. But I, like any other anthropologist with a comparative, holistic, field-oriented perspective, had built patterns out of my encounter, and patterns were news’ (119).

Agar’s “null hypothesis” was that there was no information that the industry was lacking. He worked at connecting the bits of information in relation to each other to show pattern. The people at the conference he was speaking at were aware of all the bits he was talking about (data) but were previously unaware that they fell into a pattern.

‘The problem with culture is where it came from. In the good old days, anthropology invented an idea of what it studied. It studied small groups of people who lived in some bounded space. These people didn’t read or have TVs. They produced what they needed to live. Maybe they were tied to a couple of other groups to find spouses, and maybe there was a small market town nearby where they went to get the few things they didn’t produce themselves. But by and large, the circle around the group pretty much included all the things they did. . . . The idea was a fiction then, because small groups weren’t that isolated and traditions changed from generation to generation. And it was especially a fiction because it left out the way the personal experience of culture led to the results. But it was a fiction that was close enough to reality so that the cracks between real and ideal didn’t rupture the concept’ (121).

There was never the sort of isolation between culture groups that was modelled in the early theory. Much of ethnographic practice has grown up around this faulty idea of how a culture is constituted.

Culture grew up as a concept to cover the description of isolated traditional communities. Now I want to use it to describe why two people who are different in some way have trouble communicating and what they can do about it. Culture needs to be hooked on to langua. If the concept is to have a chance, it has to be changed. . . . If what culture used to label is gone, then culture has to label something else. And whatever it labels, it won’t be a closed, traditional society in which an individual always and only participates’ (122-3).

This is Agar’s explanation for the necessity of the neologism; neither language or culture are adequate to explain the phenomenon and both come with too many poor associations and wrong meanings to be salvaged. There must be the creation of a new term to describe this new way of looking at people groups.

‘Differences. Think differences. Culture is supposed to explain differences, to take rich points and make them understandable. And it’s supposed to explain those difference by hooking them to a common human denominator, to similarities, to the human bridge between you and them. It’s supposed to be a guide to the personal experience of culture, a guide that shows how to stretch consciousness to include an understanding of rich points that puzzled you at first’ (124).

Without the context of different ways of speaking, different meanings, different actions and expectations, there would be no need to study culture. Beyond this, though, Agar claims that culture itself only exists in these differences. However, perception of differences is not enough.

‘Mexico is an example of how I took my first step beyond the simple link of difference with identity. I took the step by noticing ties between two differences, one in the pace of business negotiations and one in a metaphor from the bullfight. I started to put together something coherent, something that started to show how one difference tied in with another, something that launched me into a series of questions, as yet unanswered. The two rich points—slow pace and bullfight metaphor—moved me beyond identity plus difference. They started me on a journey to change my consciousness, to see alternatives to my “natural” way to do things, to understand that I needed to build something new to understand business negotiations in a fundamentally different way’ (127).

The elements and entities are not enough to produce understanding. Agar posits that connection between items must be pursued. The goal of such exploration is coherence and relation between items identified.

‘The trick is to find out how the difference is related to other difference, to assemble a coherent picture of how they all fit together to make up a grand difference between you and them, a difference that leads to a different way of seeing and doing things’ (127-8).

Agar does not see this coherence as rigid or formal, more as a matter of constraints a loose framework within which expectation and understanding grow.

‘Whatever it is that you build to start making sense of rich points, whatever story you tell to show how those differences cohere into a different way of seeing and acting from the one you brought with you, you could call culture. . . . You call that culture? It’s weird compared to the old way the term was used. Culture isn’t something a group of people “have”; it’s something you make up to fill in the spaces between them and you. Culture isn’t an exhaustive description of everything inside a closed space; it’s something that handles rich points and uses similarities to organize them. Culture isn’t tied just to the kinds of identities that anthropologists used to deal with, like Australian aborigines; it might be tied to any identity, including occupation, ethnicity, leisure time activity, or gender. . . . And culture, once you make it up, doesn’t leave you where you were when you started. When you’re done with the job, you’re aware of something about your own identity that used to lurk on the edges of consciousness as the natural order of things. And you understand an alternative to who you are, and now imagine that probably there are many more. . . . If you hit a rich point, think you’ve solved it, and haven’t changed, then you haven’t got it right’ (128).

As Agar would put it, the term cultural difference would be redundant, since the culture is the difference. Agar also points to another effect of proper participant observation that validates study: change on the part of the student is a requisite part of valid exploration and experience.

‘Once you trip over a rich point, you stand at the door of the culture half of languaculture. Say you figure out what that difference means. That’s not enough; you only wind up with a long list of differences. Long lists of disconnected things keep you on the surface, keep you from the deeper threads that tie the differences together. There’s no pattern, and without pattern, there’s no coherence, and without coherence, there’s no culture. . . . Coherence is what happens as you move from lists through connections to system’ (129).

While there will always be certain things that are unconnected to the general system that one’s understanding builds in encountering new situations, the goal is to move toward integration and connection between the items noticed. Agar introduces the idea of frames from artificial intelligence studies to explain this integration and system.

‘Frames stretch language beyond the circle, and frames act like culture. Frames take language and culture and make them inseparable. The “and” disappears, and we’re left with languaculture.’ (132).

Agar is not the first linguist or anthropologist to use the notion of frames (Cf. Winograd) to understand social behaviour. Frames provide expectation within the world of the text. Within the restaurant frame (in our society), people expect to find such things as tables, chairs, plates, cutlery, waiters/waitresses, and so forth. Each situation we encounter provides a frame whereby we learn to anticipate certain concepts, activities, and so on. New situations may be opportunities for us to experience unexpected entities and relations; this is how we build culture, according to Agar. However, Agar points out that this does not apply to life in a rigorous way.

‘The meanings that frames organize are expectations, not certainties. In the jargon of the computernauts, such expectations are called default values. Most computer users know the term by now. When you fire up a word processor, it sets the page for 8 ½ by 11 and 66 lines unless you tell it otherwise. Those are the default values for a page in the United States’ (134).

Because the expectations are default values, they are subject to modification. What this means is that life within the group is never necessarily boring; there are always new situations to explore within relationship to other people in the group.

‘Culture, the experience of it, starts when you go bottom-up. You’re struck by differences you don’t know how to make sense out of. Your default values aren’t met, but instead of holding the world responsible, you figure maybe there are other frames out there with other default values that are being met, and you try to figure out what those frames might be. Once you’ve built a new frame, you go into top-down mode and carry it around and apply it to new situations. You compare the situation you built it in with new situations where it should work. If it doesn’t work, you go bottom-up again and fix it, the go top-down and try again. . . . When the frames coherently organize several rich points that work with people of a particular social identity, be it nationality, ethnicity, gender, occupation, or social style, then you’ve built a languaculture of the identity, from your point of view. I have to add “your point of view,” because culture isn’t something that “they” have; it’s something that fills the spaces between you and tem, and the nature of that space depends on you as well as them. . . . What happens if you change the “you,” change the nature of the space between by changing the one doing the frame building? Then the frames might change as well. This is as subversive as anything Whorf ever said. It’s enough to make an old-time scientist break out in a rash. There is no unique set of frames that organize the differences between people. There are some that work and some that don’t, and the trick is to figure out how to tell the difference’ (135).

Agar explains the personal nature of linguistic and cultural behaviour, by observing that languaculture is what is built between people in order to understand their relationship to each other, how they should act, and what to understand about each other based upon those actions. The method seems to be trial and error, and validity seems to be defined as what appears to work in the business of “getting along” with others. This is a very phenomenological understanding of culture and language, especially near the end of the quote.

‘As far as communication goes, the culture part of languaculture can be more important that the language part’ (144)

Because language and culture are so transparent to speakers within their comfortable surroundings, Agar has found that the structures of language rarely cause the sort of profound misunderstandings that result from the “outside the circle” part of language, the part that is often considered to be “culture”.

‘This is a different breed of language cat. The rich point isn’t some particular word or grammatical rule; instead, it’s something people are doing with them. The rich point isn’t sitting out there in public; usually you can’t point to a single word and find the problem; the problem isn’t a word; the problem is you don’t know what’s happening or how to do it’ (144).

Agar introduces the notion of the speech act, or what we do with words, to show how language moves “beyond the circle” (of what generative theory would describe as language) into culture and society. He also claims that these sorts of rich points are much more profound than the sort involving mere linguistic structures.

‘The philosophers obsessed over single sentences that were examples of single speech acts. I’m obsessing over discourse that exemplifies several frames. Speech acts are a step in the right direction, but there’s a ways to go’ (150).

Agar noticed that much of the use of language in society rarely reduces itself to the consideration of mere sentences as wholes within a group setting. There is much more going on; there are multiple factors influencing things, but there are also multiple intents and speech acts going on in a given monologue.

‘Language is more than words and sentences. Understanding language involves more than what the words alone carry. You have to understand the acts that language is a part of. You have to understand what the language counts as. And once you know that language counts as paying the bill, having a conversation, or telling a lie, you have to figure out if paying the bill, having a conversation, or telling a lie is the same kind of act that you have always assumed it was, because chances are, it’s not’ (151).

Thus, the analysis of role, not merely as a linguistic structure but as a feature of person and life, is important to communication. The same sentence may not have the same purpose in a different social setting, and probably will not. Agar’s point here is also that these sorts of purposes will serve to define very high level units in the social functioning of people, and thus will change the perception of roles at much lower levels.

‘The kinds of rich points you notice in discourse depend on the kinds of expectations you have and the kinds of frames you build to solve the problem will depend on which expectations need changing’ (161).

For Agar, our high-level perceptions of what is happening can completely obliterate lower-level rich points. We can be so out-of-tune with what people around us are doing, that we completely miss the point of discussions that we are part of. Statements that we take as promises will turn out not to have been such, and we will often turn out to have promised things totally without the intent to do so.

‘The idea is as old as Freud and as recent as the sociology of Jürgen Habermas. When people depart from the frames that everyone agrees should be guiding the speech acts, then some other speech act might be pushing against the surface trying to get out. The differences between what people are officially doing and what they actually do may teach you something about the cracks in the social facts, cracks that let you glimpse contradictions in current ideas about what the world is and how it works’ (204).

This is a very interesting and exciting part of ethnolinguistic work, getting at the heart of people who are often at a certain amount of variance with the “social facts” of their existence. The description provides a metaphor both for understanding the patterns of social interactions and for variation from the patterns established.

‘Learning a new languaculture isn’t just a trip from outside to inside. No sooner do you feel that you’ve started inside than the process starts all over. An infinite job stretches out in front of you, a job in which there will always be new rich points, new frames, new links between one frame and another’ (204-5).

Agar’s point here is that such work is the project of a lifetime, with continual expansion of understanding from “within” after the initial process of “getting in” is accomplished. There will always be more about people to learn and to grow in relationship with them.

‘The emphasis isn’t on developing and filling out frameworks of similarities; instead, it’s on finding the connections among different rich points at different levels, in different places at different times with different people. The emphasis is on finding a story, the story that pulls the rich points together into an understanding of how they all cohere, a story that sketches the broader historical and political moment of which you, the former outsider, are now a part. The loose version of “frame” I’ve used here lets you do that; narrow theories of similarities, useful as they might be in solving specific problems, don’t’ (210).

There is an important point here between Agar and Ricoeur, what might be called the pre-eminence of narrative in human perception. This might provide a basis for both Virtanen’s theory of narrative as a basic sort of text and an understanding of all referential structure as essentially narration-building whether “story” is the immediate purpose or not. (*****Check with Evie?)

Coherence in Austria taught me something about coherence in my home languaculture: the similarity that let me travel between the two illuminated characteristics of both. That’s what the experience of culture is supposed to do, move you in a new direction that changes who you are, in both the old territory and the new. You turn from passive student into active participant in the new territory, but you also participate differently in the old. Culture has to do with who you are, with what you become when you take a rainbow of rich points and follow them to a coherent pot of gold, however tarnished that gold might turn out to be’ (210).

Agar has no illusions of solving the world’s problems by getting everyone to become his sort of ethnographer. However, he does see properly pursued participant observation as a means for individual growth, and he believes the growth allows a people to see greater overall coherence in the world of people around them.

‘As soon as language is stretched out into languaculture, Spanish in Spain and Spanish in Mexico, Serbian and Croatian, Hindi and Urdu, American English and British English aren’t the same at all. The inside-the-circle linguists try to handle the differences with “dialect” or “variant,” but if languaculture is what you’re after, the differences go well beyond what those concepts suggest’ (213).

One question arising from this has to do with expectations coming from the fact that these languages may, in fact, be deemed “the same” for some purposes (Cf. Peter Ladefoged’s comments of 1997 (LSA Linguistic Institute)), while acknowledging the differences as profound.

‘Rising above that languacultural ceiling calls for the sort of frame building I’ve talked about in this book. It calls for a sacrifice of the security of the one-dimensional languacultural life in favor of new frames, a new view of things that is different from the one you started with, a new self that is neither what you were nor the way those other people are, but something that can handle both’ (215).

The languacultural ceiling Agar is talking about here is the tendency for people in one culture to view another culture in terms of what they lack.

‘Nation and state identities are candidates to tag the scope of what you’ve learned, but use them with care. They are neither automatic nor comprehensive in their coverage. Part of what I learned from my business partners in Mexico I’ll bet I can wind up calling “Mexican,” because I’ll find it works all over the country, though I worry about repeated sayings that the North is a different country, “more like the United States,” and that the South is, too—“very Indian” is what they say in Mexico City’ (220).

Even the circle around languaculture, if one were to draw one, would be too limiting. All such entities are affected by their contexts.

‘Some variation is due to the peculiar twist a particular individual offers the world. But some of it is due to other social identities, more fine-grained than nation or state, and, sometimes, in conflict with them’ (221).

Many of the factors are those explored in R. Walker’s chart of “sociolinguistic repertoire” used in CanIL’s Language and Society course.

‘Once you’re inside a languaculture, rich points don’t stop. They demonstrate variation among different social identities—between investors and academics, between men and women, between workers and entrepreneurs, and between socialists and conservatives. And these identities, born of economics, gender, and politics, only top a long, long list’ (223).

Wherever social factors correlate with communication differences, rich points exist, whether across, or within, languages. (See a BBC summary of John Gumperz’ work entitled Crosstalk).

‘A journal called World English features the different ways people in different countries use English as a world language. Some article show that just because people are using the same grammar and dictionary, it doesn’t mean they’re using the same language. That truth is no surprise here. . . . John Gumperz’s work moved sociolinguistics in this direction. All I’m trying to do is move it a little further’ (226).

Anything relevant to an understanding of people in verbal or written communication with each other is the domain of linguistic investigation, not merely that which falls within the circle of grammar and lexicographic study.

‘Life, I think, is more loaded with rich points than it ever has been before, more interesting or more terrifying, depending on how comfortable with culture you are. But languaculture is still a social fact. It has to be or society can’t operate. It sets limits on what you can do if you want to participate in the social flow. Languacultures have to have edges, not as clear and crisp as Saussure suggested, but border areas all the same’ (231).

It is at this point that Pike’s notions of identity, variation, and distribution can open up descriptive means for us. The entity has a distribution through its context, with variation found in relation to that context. The context helps in understanding the variation.

‘The social identity, and the languaculture that goes with it, spills into family and social life in a way that, say, typing letters all day on a word processor doesn’t. Independent trucking is high density; word processing, low density’ (233).

Some jobs have a different effect on one’s total existence, are harder to leave “at work”, than others.

‘A friend of mine worked among the Bemba in Africa as a missionary. Once he met an older man who spoke English, but the man kept throwing in weird guttural and hissing sounds as he spoke. It turned out that the man had learned much of his English by listening to BBC radio broadcasts on an old radio suspended in a tree in the middle of a village. The cracks and pops and static of the distant broadcast, he assumed, were part of the sound system of English’ (234).

Anytime someone observes a thing only in one context, it can be hard to sort out “thing” from “context”.

‘The social identity people had put on me and the frames they’d organized around it fell like an old building when the dynamite goes off. They looked at me and wondered, and that gave me a chance to be somebody besides who they’d already decided I was. So important is that to me, so sacred, that I started referring to chicken fried steak as a sacrament’ (237).

Since Agar had been a university professor from New York, he was assumed to be a Yankee intellectual and probably Jewish; this stereotype was forcibly dismantled in the face of someone calling for the common chicken-fried steak.

‘My purpose here was to shift the reader’s view from language to languaculture, from grammar and dictionary to discourse plus frames, from linguistic competence to communicative competence. My purpose here was to erase the circle around language, to leave readers with a strange new word, languaculture, that would remind them of their inseparable bond’ (240).

This is the main point of Agar’s entire book, referred to in many places. He wants to have the reader see language as part of, and intimately related to, something that is entirely outside of the control of language.

‘Imagine a three-step process on the way to culture. Step one is a mistake. Something goes wrong. Step two is awareness of frames and possible alternatives. Step three is repair, tinkering with old frames, now brought to consciousness, and building new ones, untile the gaps between you and them are filled in’ (242).

Agar sets forth a research strategy (MAR) for making progress and learning to function in another culture.

‘Repair stretches consciousness in two directions: sideways, to accommodate new frames for the new languaculture, and upward, to grow a biographical self that includes what you used to be and organizes what you’ve become. Biography thickens with new identities and stretches to accommodate them’ (244).

At the same time people come to understand communication more, they also make themselves grow.

‘The point is to break away from the idea that LC1 and LC2 are separate entities afloat in some objective dish. The point is to start thinking about what happens inside the person who sails the MAR, who has the experience of culture, who turns into an immigrant, who learns a new languaculture and acquires the ability to function in both the old and the new one’ (249).

The goal is growth, not mere movement, from one culture into another. However, this is more difficult than mere language learning, because much of cultural behaviour has such moral overtones. Sometimes culturally adaptable people incur the wrath of both cultures they have learned, when it is evident that they move too freely among them.