WP207 Society through the lens of language: A new look at social groups and integration



There are forms of scientific activity that are rarely practiced by sociolinguists, and one of them is the self-conscious construction of theory. Sociolinguists appear to share a self-perception of staunchly empirical analysts devoted to the rigorous empirical exploration of sociolinguistic details and the patterns in which they can be understood. In such exercises, new theoretical constructs, concepts and categories can be, and frequently are being, developed; but generally such constructs, concepts and categories are presented as valid within sociolinguistics only ? their extrapolation towards more widely relevant social theory usually being left to others.
The lead assumption in this essay is that sociolinguists are a specialized type of sociologist, who observe society through the lens of language and interaction. The latter is a sui generis sociological object with an unmatched immediacy and accuracy as to empirically gauging the dynamics of social life: any social event and environment is characterized by patterns of interaction that are specific to it, and changes in such environments are observable in interactional behavior long before they show up in statistics. In that sense, I see contemporary advanced sociolinguistics as an empirical fact-checker for other social sciences and humanities, and as a rich source of innovative, empirically grounded hypotheses (in other words, theories) of general relevance.
I shall offer two illustrations of the potential of contemporary sociolinguistics as a source for new theoretical directions in social science at large. First, I shall show how ongoing sociolinguistic research can shed new light on an old and persistent conceptual problem in sociology: that of delineating and defining social groups. The second proposal is related: in mainstream sociology (especially in the Durkheim-Parsons tradition), social integration is seen as crucial for understanding the development of societies and of social groups within them. Both the conceptualization of social groups and that of social integration can be significantly enhanced by drawing on recent insights from the sociolinguistic study of the online-offline interface.