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Linguistic Anthropology in Collaboration Across the Global North and South

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway, Janak Rai, and Nishaant Choksi

Among the four primary subfields of American anthropology, linguistic anthropology is arguably the least widely recognized and practiced globally (even as it overlaps in significant ways with fields such as applied sociolinguistics and linguistic ethnography that are more commonly practiced outside the United States). That said, scholars around the world are interested in the theoretical insights and methodological approaches the subfield offers. I, Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway, am a US based linguistic anthropologist whose research has taken place primarily in Nepal. Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in not only the linguistic anthropology of Nepal but also an emerging Nepali linguistic anthropology, when Professor Janak Rai of Tribhuvan University (TU) invited me to contribute to a series of curriculum development workshops aimed at supporting local scholars who are teaching and practicing the subfield. During that trip I also had a chance to visit Professor Nishaant Choksi, a linguistic anthropologist based at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar (IITG). Recently, the three of us met over zoom to discuss the challenges and benefits of cultivating the study of linguistic anthropology at their institutions along with the potential promises and pitfalls of subfield-focused collaboration within and across the Global North and South.

EHD: To get started, can you talk a bit about the role of linguistic anthropology at your respective institutions? 

JR: In Nepal we have a very centralized university system. TU is the oldest government university with about 60 constituent and 1200 affiliated campuses all over Nepal. The anthropology courses that are taught at these campuses are prepared by the Central Department of Anthropology, where I am affiliated. When the Tribhuvan University established Anthropology a separate department from then existing Department of Sociology/Anthropology in 2015, we had the opportunity to adopt a four-field model, so we decided that we needed to have linguistic anthropology as a compulsory part of the training. Right now, there are seven campuses where linguistic anthropology is being taught, with about 100 students studying linguistic anthropology as part of their training. 

NC: Linguistic anthropology isn’t usually a part of the curriculum in India. Sociology is popular and it’s usually very ethnographically oriented. There’s anthropology, which is dominated by biological and cultural anthropology. Linguistics is also an established field and has a lot of social emphasis. Linguistic anthropology doesn’t typically have a home in the department structure. But the IIT structure where I teach is very flexible, which made it easy for me to introduce linguistic anthropology courses here, as compared to within a university system. 

EHD: Why do you think linguistic anthropological perspectives are valuable to students and scholars at your institutions and what kinds of insights do they bring to the subfield?

JR: In the case of TU, by the time students take a linguistic anthropology class in their MA third semester, they are very well versed in thinking about the politics of language in the making of Nepal as a nation and the multilingual nature of Nepali society. A linguistic anthropology course connects to this knowledge while also helping them to rethink some of the ways they’ve come to understand the role of language. 

NC:  People come to IITGN from all over the country and language is one of the ways they organize themselves; they are always talking about it. So, there’s an intuitive sense of multilingualism, linguistic reality, and language politics that students might not bring to their studies to this degree in all settings. Also, I agree that linguistic anthropology courses can bring some attention to how you can study conceptually or analytically things that people may already know. And they are then able to bring those perspectives into other fields that they may be interested in, like sociology or cognitive psychology. That kind of interdisciplinary reach of linguistic anthropology may happen more easily here than in North American institutions where the subfield can be more siloed.

EHD: What have been some of the challenges involved in cultivating linguistic anthropology in each setting?

JR: In general, the number of students who begin to study anthropology at the undergraduate level is decreasing over the years. One part of the problem is that they believe anthropology will be difficult because the books they read to get introduced to the field are all in English. This is partly a problem of the language ideology adopted by my university which treats English as a necessary language of instruction in making the university a center for excellence. But it’s also the case that there is a need for us in Nepal to produce good readings in the Nepali language so that undergraduates can realize that anthropology is actually a very interesting and relevant discipline.

NC: Yes, in India there is also a big inequality in the higher education system because a lot of people are studying in the different regional languages and then for certain subjects or at certain intuitions they must transition to English. There’s a huge gap in access to knowledge because there’s not a culture of academic translation. That might be an initiative that Society of Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) or the American Anthropological Association (AAA) might look into; to help promote regional language translations of linguistic anthropological texts. Something like that would really extend the reach of linguistic anthropology to a diverse section of the society in a big way. And it would be in line with the ethos of the field.

EHD: Those are important challenges in terms of attracting students to the field. What about support for graduate students and faculty members at your institutions whose research interests may be linguistic anthropological?

JR: In terms of funding, there are very limited opportunities and infrastructure to support students’ research works in Nepal. Perhaps if you’re a linguist looking to write the grammar of an indigenous or language of a minority groups, you might get some funding from an organization like UNESCO. But if you are a Nepali scholar interested in studying the role of language ideologies in a certain context, for example, there is no or a very limited chances of getting funding from Nepali institutions. And our students usually don’t have the cultural capital to compete for international scholarships or grants to carry on local studies of linguistic anthropology. It’s a question of global inequities in access to such support.

NC: In India funding is also an issue. Similarly, language endangerment is a hot topic and so funding for such linguistics-based research may be available from government institutions. Whereas linguistic anthropological research will go into a more general social science category in India where funding is less available. Many students go to their hometowns to do research, where they can get support from their family networks.

EHD: Janak-ji, that approach to making research possible reminds me of your 2022 publication in Studies in Nepali Society and History in which you discuss how, as scholar at a public university that doesn’t afford sufficient financial or structural support for your research, you engage in “fursad” (or free-time) ethnography by drawing on your own personal time and resources to continue your projects. This is one strategy through which scholars in Nepal and India respond to the inequitable division of resources to support scholarship globally. How might institutions like the AAA or the SLA respond to these inequities and support the flourishing of linguistic anthropology globally? 

JR: Regarding the kinds of debates we’re having within global anthropology regarding decolonization and what it means to collaborate and have more inclusivity in anthropology, I would say the Global North has more responsibility, since anthropology as taught in the Global North has derived much of its knowledge from working in other parts of the globe; and also, because they have more access to resources. So, there is a need for them to think about how they can contribute to globalizing linguistic anthropology.  

There has been a lot of promising research done by linguistic anthropologists about Nepal, in many cases by Nepali scholars. But they are typically doing this research while based in and supported by institutions in the Global North, rather than institutions like TU. Scholars like yourself who do research about Nepal often have good relationships and friendships with anthropologists at Nepali universities and they collaborate with us on research projects. But it would be helpful if they could contribute to curricular development to help leverage their expertise to contribute to a linguistic anthropology of Nepal based in Nepal. That’s why I invited you to collaborate with us in that way last year.

NC: There is likewise a large linguistic anthropological literature about India but most of it is created by scholars based in the Global North. The goal is to create a base through which linguistic anthropology can be practiced in India. There’s some danger in getting organizations like AAA or SLA involved because they may dominate the setting of an agenda due to their size and influence. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a role to play in, for example, promoting collaboration across global lines. I was recently on a SSRC grant where we had to have two primary investigators from two different Indian Ocean countries, and the project was the first linguistic anthropological research in that program’s history. That model, which promotes collaboration across the Global South, is one way that organizations like SLA can play a positive role. When scholars from the Global North come for research, they can also interact with students and engage scholars here who may not have the cultural capital to publish in global journals. Like, when you look at the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, how many of the authors are based in South Asia? That kind of inequality can be addressed through people-to-people interactions, workshops, and so forth. For example, I recently brought Christina Davis and Chaise Ladousa, linguistic anthropologists who study South Asia, to IITG for a week-long course with students and faculty. 

JR: Speaking of such collaborations, even within the larger anthropological landscape between India and Nepal, there is very little collaboration and exchange of ideas between scholars in these two countries. There is almost no dialogue. This is also the case between scholars in Nepal and China as well. So, it’s not just about Global North and Global South but about how scholars within the Global South can collaborate. Sometimes political conflicts get in the way, which bleed into academia. 

NC: To this point, one also has to look at inequalities within the Global South. In India, compared to other South Asian countries, there are so many universities, and the funding situation and academic infrastructure is relatively better. But the fact that political issues and other factors prevent us from full collaboration and exchange of ideas across different countries of the region shows that there are structural problems that go beyond just Global North and Global South.

EHD: Thank you both for bringing your valuable insights to this discussion!