In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sociolinguistic Fieldwork

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Overview Chapters
  • Anthologies
  • Foundational Works
  • Sociolinguistic Interviews
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Real-Time Studies
  • Language Attitudes and Sociolinguistic Perceptions
  • Ethnographic Sociolinguistics
  • Signed Languages
  • Written Sources and Corpus Data
  • Remote Data Collection via Electronic Methods
  • Field Methods for Sociophonetics
  • Sociolinguistic Fieldwork in Indigenous Communities
  • Sociolinguistic Fieldwork in Multilingual Settings
  • Community Involvement and Ethics

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

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Linguistics Sociolinguistic Fieldwork
Natalie Schilling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0297


Because the field of sociolinguistics is centered on the study of language in its social context, research in sociolinguistics rests on obtaining empirical data on language in use in natural or naturalistic settings. The history of field methods in sociolinguistics can be traced from early dialect geographic, linguistic atlas, and ethnomethodological studies to urban variationist sociolinguistics to ethnographically informed quantitative and qualitative sociolinguistic research efforts. At the same time that there has been a wealth of methodological developments over the decades, there is also a relative dearth of descriptions and explorations of these methods. Data collection methods are typically backgrounded in favor of presentation of results, explanations, and theoretical contributions, and the often ‘messy’ methodological underpinnings subsumed under neat depictions of orderly results. However, in recent decades, sociolinguistics has followed fields such as anthropology, at least to a limited extent, in taking a reflexive turn as researchers engage with the effects of methods, including the presence and perspectives of the researchers themselves, on results in sociolinguistic study. In addition, there has been increasing consideration of ethical issues, including issues of informed consent; objectivity and involvement; and power relations between researchers, participants, and researched communities. Researchers are working toward more collaborative research efforts with community members in terms not only of involving community members in finding participants, designing data collection events, and participating in such interactions but also in deciding upon research questions and taking a central role in shaping research products. Consideration of sociolinguistic methods has also broadened from focusing on spoken language collected in ‘field’ settings to eliciting sociolinguistic perceptions and language attitudes, working with sign language communities, and obtaining and interpreting data from written sources, including, increasingly, computerized corpora and data from online and social media sources. In addition, collection of audio (and video) data via remote means has become a renewed topic of interest in light of technological advances (and the COVID-19 pandemic), as has the collection of naturalistic data of sufficient audio quality for the burgeoning field of sociophonetics. Further expansions of sociolinguistics involve extending variationist inquiry into lesser studied indigenous, endangered language, and multilingual communities, the three of which often overlap and always present unique fieldwork challenges, including both practical and ethical considerations.

Textbooks and Overview Chapters

There are several helpful single-authored overviews of sociolinguistic fieldwork. Schilling-Estes 2007 is a chapter-length overview for students and instructors in a range of fields who are looking for a concise, easily accessible overview of an array of sociolinguistic and related field methods, as well as practical and ethical considerations in designing and conducting field research. Hernández-Campoy 2014 is a chapter making explicit connection between theory and method and would be suited to advanced undergraduate and graduate students in variationist sociolinguistics and closely related fields. Milroy and Gordon 2003 and Tagliamonte 2006 situate their discussions of field methods within broader textbooks on sociolinguistic study and variationist methods, respectively, with the former serving as a more reflective treatment and the latter as a practical guide. Similarly, the chapter Meyerhoff, et al. 2011 is situated in a larger work on linguistic fieldwork, particularly documentary fieldwork, and serves as a guide to those interested in connections between sociolinguistics and ethnographic and anthropological approaches. To date, the only single-authored textbook on sociolinguistic field methods is Schilling 2013. The book is part of Cambridge University Press’s Key Topics in Sociolinguistics series and as such provides an “accessible yet challenging” account of issues in sociolinguistic fieldwork. Included are numerous illustrations from Schilling’s own fieldwork experiences and those of her students working in an array of contexts across the world.

  • Hernández-Campoy, Juan Manuel. 2014. Research methods in sociolinguistics. AILA Review 27.1: 5–29.

    DOI: 10.1075/aila.27.01her

    This article presents on a range of field methods within the context of various theoretical movements in sociolinguistics and related fields. Approaches are classified according to the types of questions they seek to answer—sociological (ethnomethodology), sociological and linguistic (e.g., sociology of language, anthropological linguistics, discourse analysis), and linguistic (e.g., variationist sociolinguistics, dialectology, historical sociolinguistics). A helpful table aligning objectives with methods, techniques, and domains is included. A central issue is the affordances and limitations of quantitative versus qualitative approaches.

  • Meyerhoff, Miriam, Chie Adachi, Golnaz Nanbakhsh, and Anna Strycharz. 2011. Sociolinguistic fieldwork. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic fieldwork. Edited by Nicholas Thieberger, 121–146. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This overview examines connections between sociolinguistic fieldwork and ethnographic work in anthropology and sociology. As with Hernández-Campoy 2014, there is consideration of both quantitative and qualitative approaches, and the case is made that the two are not necessarily neatly separable.

  • Milroy, Lesley, and Matthew Gordon. 2003. Sociolinguistics: Method and interpretation. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470758359

    The first three chapters of this overview textbook on sociolinguistics provide information on the historical development of sociolinguistics and its accompanying field methods, the selection of participants for study, and key data collection methods—questionnaires, interviews, and participant-observation. The book is noteworthy for its candid and caring discussion of ethics in field research and involvement in research communities, including both the privileges and responsibilities attendant on the friend-of-a-friend method for finding participants.

  • Schilling, Natalie. 2013. Sociolinguistic fieldwork. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511980541

    This work can be used as a textbook, reference work, or field guide. It is useful for researchers and students in a range of research areas where there may be a need to gather data on language in its social context, for example linguistics, languages, sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies. The book is both a “how-to” and a critical exploration of methods and the researcher-participant relationship. Included are vignettes on how “students in the field” confronted an array of research issues.

  • Schilling-Estes, Natalie. 2007. Sociolinguistic fieldwork. In Sociolinguistic variation: Theories, methods, and applications. Edited by Robert Bayley and Ceil Lucas, 165–189. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is a chapter-length overview of theoretical, practical, and ethical issues in sociolinguistic fieldwork that would serve as a useful reading in a broader introductory course in linguistics, sociolinguistics, or the like. The chapter engages with questions such as how to enter a new community of study, how to design an effective sociolinguistic interview, and whether it is possible to maintain researcher ‘objectivity’ or obtain language data that is truly ‘natural’ and ‘vernacular’.

  • Tagliamonte, Sali. 2006. Analysing sociolinguistic variation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511801624

    Chapters 2, 3, and 4 of this practical manual for designing and conducting variationist sociolinguistic studies provide basic guidelines for defining, locating, and sampling study populations; designing and conducting sociolinguistic interviews; and organizing, transcribing, and conducting initial quantitative processing of data. The concise guide to choices in transcription and reasons behind them (e.g., why use orthographic as opposed to detailed phonetic spelling) is particularly useful.

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