Skip to content
Home » Blog (hidden) » “Transposition Across Subfields”

“Transposition Across Subfields”

By Steven Black

Working at the intersection of anthropological subfields often involves thinking laterally, connecting parallel threads of scholarship in distinct subdisciplines. For me, these connections seem to become apparent only at the very end of my preparation of a publication. Perhaps this is in part because it can take a great deal of time to gain expertise in multiple theoretical paradigms, wrap my head around the implications of each paradigm’s theoretical standpoints, and find the links between them. This is what happened when I was finishing my book, Speech and Song at the Margins of Global Health: Zulu Tradition, HIV Stigma, and AIDS Activism in South Africa. It was only as I responded to a final set of reviewer comments that I stumbled onto the concept of “transposition” as a way to synthesize research on codemixing/ translanguaging (linguistic anthropology) and medical pluralism/ explanatory models of illness (medical/ psychological anthropology). This synthesis, I hope, will contribute to a growing body of scholarship at the intersection of linguistic, psychological, and medical anthropology, which Charles Briggs and Paja Faudree described in 2016, and will encourage other scholars to take the leap into trans(sub)disciplinary research.

First, a little bit of background. The research participants with whom I conducted fieldwork in 2008 (with follow up work in 2013) were part of a Zulu gospel choir that was an HIV support group, AIDS activist organization, and performance troupe. The choir’s members were black South Africans living with HIV who spoke isiZulu and English. Research participants were experts in biomedical perspectives on HIV/AIDS. They were insistent on the validity of biomedical models in the face of pervasive HIV stigma—stigma that involved avoidance of talk about HIV. They also contrasted their biomedical understanding of the virus with explanations (widespread in their home communities) that were rooted in traditional Zulu healing. In a linguistic parallel to these explanatory practices, choir members almost always used English biomedical terminology for describing the realm of HIV illness and treatment across a wide range of genres, social activities, and audiences, whether conversing primarily in isiZulu or in English.

As I worked through the analysis that I present in the book, I identified a number of concepts that were relevant for theorizing these cultural and linguistic patterns. On one side, scholarship on explanatory models of illness and medical pluralism (from psychological/ medical anthropology) could describe the interplay between stigmatizing understandings of HIV, traditional Zulu healing models, and biomedical models, examining how choir members engaged with each of these models. However, this scholarship tends not to attend to the (meta)pragmatics of language use (though see work by Mara Buchbinder). On the other side, scholarship on codemixing and translanguaging (from linguistic anthropology) could describe choir members’ linguistic insistence on English biomedical terminology, but tends not to attend to the psychological-experiential underpinnings of these linguistic actions.

To synthesize these concepts, I independently invented a concept that was, unbeknownst to me, already in the literature. Here, I drew on my background in music and my experience with musical transposition. In music, to transpose a song means to shift it from one tonal center to another. The relationship between the notes, the harmonies, and the rhythms stay the same, but after transposition the notes and harmonies start on different tone. The “feel” of the tune may become different if it is transposed to low bass tones or high treble tones, and transposing it may make it possible or impossible for a singer with a low or high voice to be able to sing the song. This resonated (pun intended) with choir members’ communicative practices. It provided an analogy for their HIV codemixing while also emphasizing their creative efforts. Choir members took an explanatory model of HIV (a biomedical model) and transposed it wholesale into different cultural/ communicative “keys” (e.g. from English to isiZulu, from hospital settings to community settings). In the process, the feel of the explanatory-model-in-communicative-context subtly shifted but this nonetheless allowed for communication about HIV across cultural and linguistic borders.

After supposedly inventing this idea, I searched existing literature for the term transposition. I found something similar in a chapter by Roman Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” in which he explains that poetry can never truly be translated; rather “only creative transposition is possible.” Jakobson’s perspective is especially profound in light of the model he published soon after in which he identifies poetics as one of the six functions of all language. Taken together, these two of Jakobson’s book chapters provide the groundwork for an idea later explored in the concept of transduction, in which translation is an active, creative process of shifting meaning across “cultural systems of value” as Michael Silverstein put it (see also work by Webb Keane).

I also recently re-discovered another chapter on transposition, this one by John Haviland, only after finalizing my book manuscript. Haviland’s perspective is compatible with Jakobson’s and with the one I advance in the book. While all researchers sometimes miss important scholarship, I think in this case the problem was exacerbated by my attempt to work across multiple subdisciplines. I will have to wait for future publications to flesh out how these iterations of transposition relate to one another.

In my book, I define HIV transposition as a special case of transduction and translanguaging involving a distinct configuration of explanatory pluralism. In this configuration, an explanatory/ cultural model is kept separate and coherent through patterned codemixing. In the case of HIV transposition, this occurred through the use of English biomedical terminology for HIV across languages, social contexts, and communities. This definition connects linguistic anthropological scholarship with the concepts of explanatory models/ explanatory frameworks of illness, highlighting cognitive and experiential aspects of transposition that were less explicit in previous discussions.

While it took years for me to weave my way through literature in linguistic, psychological, and medical anthropology to arrive at this definition, I feel that the resulting synthesis was worth the effort. It sometimes felt lonely working across subdisciplines, but I now know that there are a small but growing number of scholars working at this intersection and there is room for more, so please join us! I plan to continue these efforts in my new research, the Global Health Discourses Project. Together we can work to put the pieces of our highly fractured discipline back together.

Steven P. Black is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Georgia State University

From JLA:

The Co-Editors of JLA would like to bring to your attention recent articles bridging themes in medical and linguistic anthropology. Pritzker and Liang consider how interactional practices of Chinese medical psychology challenge patients’ notions of family, personhood, and healing; Guzmán describes the distribution of knowledge and critiques the epistemological frameworks of Chilean primary care and Mapuche medicine; and Wolfgram reflects on articulations of and disputes regarding scientific truth claims in the context of Ayurveda medicine in South Asia.

-Pritzker, Sonya E. and Kiki Q. Y. Liang. 2018. Semiotic Collisions and the Metapragmatics of Culture Change in Dr. Song Yujin’s “Chinese Medical Psychology.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology28(1): 43-66. Click here for article link
-Guzmán, Jennifer. 2015. The Epistemics of Symptom Experience and Symptom Accounts in Mapuche Healing and Pediatric Primary Care in Southern Chile. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 24(3): 249-276. Click here for article link
-Wolfgram, Matthew. 2010. Truth Claims and Disputes in Ayurveda Medical Science. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20(1): 149-165. Click here for article link