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Malinowski and Social Psychology of Language

In my current research I am looking at the ideas of Bronislaw Malinowski in relation to applied linguistics. I am particularly interested in Malinowski’s critique of a view of language, in his day, drawn from historical linguistics, which takes intellectual and abstract uses of language as the paradigm. He believes that taking this as a paradigm of language use is the source of some fundamental confusions both in science and philosophy, and retards understanding of the nature of meaning.

I want to argue that the problems and confusions that Malinowski is pointing towards remain with us to this day and have not as yet been adequately addressed, and therefore that his critique of what we might broadly call intellectualism in linguistics, psychology and philosophy remains valid, and is useful in looking at some of the issues in linguistics today. Furthermore, I want to suggest that in his proposals for an alternative to ‘intellectualism’ Malinowski offers us an approach to developing a framework for a social psychological approach to language.

A social psychological approach is to be distinguished from other approaches, in particular cognitivist approaches, which are psychological or individualist in orientation, but also sociolinguistic approaches which are sociological or collectivist in orientation (see eg., Giles 1984).[1] I also want to argue that such an approach is necessary because of the shortcomings of both, cognitivist and sociolinguistic approaches in dealing with some central questions and problems.

Malinowski’s Model for Social Psychology of Language

So the questions are:

  • what is Malinowski’s approach
  • how can it be relevant to contemporary issues? and
  • how can it be helpful in developing a social psychological approach?

I want to argue that Malinowski’s critique of certain approaches to language remain valid to this day in relation to cognitivism and sociolinguistics.

Malinowski’s critique goes something like this. The study of language in Malinowski’s time was mainly in the domain of philology (the study and interpretation of literary texts and written records), and comparative and historical linguistics (Wikipedia). At the same time, within that academic tradition, psychology was conceived in essentially individualistic and behaviouristic terms (Farr). Psychology on the one hand, and the social sciences on the other, have developed divergent methodologies, theories and conceptual frameworks.

Psychology has tended to prefer the model of the ‘hard’ sciences such as biology, that is, experimental and empirical methods. Social sciences have, on the other hand, tended in the direction of humanities and qualitative methods and interpretation on the model of the interpretation of texts. Because of the bifurcation between the hard and the soft sciences, social psychology of language has been difficult to place: is it an experimental ‘hard’ science of behaviour, or an interpretive ‘soft’ science of cultural expression?

Philology looks at language in the form of historical texts, that is, in the form of dead languages. Sociological approaches have similarly tended towards the study of cultural products and the preferred methods have been interpretation or hermeneutic. That has mean that, in so far as there is a psychology that includes subjectivity and cognition, it has tended to be conceived in individualistic and behaviouristic terms, that is, in terms of behaviour manifesting cognitive processes. This does not allow for an integration of psychological and social processes, that is, in Ogden and Richard’s words, the “influence of language upon thought”(Ogden and Richards, 1923).

My argument is that Malinowski’s naturalistic pragmatism offers the prototype of a framework for a social psychology of language. The basic proposal of this framework is to view language in naturalistic-evolutionary terms, that is, in terms of basic functions. Texts of dead languages do not tell us what these ‘basic functions’ are.

In a way this can be viewed as the question of Dilthey’s vs. Wundt’s conception of language (Redding, Farr). Dilthey thought that we can overcome the horizons of our lived experience and comprehend texts of dead languages through a science of hermeneutics. Wundt develops a naturalistic framework for a folk psychology of a language of gestures. Naturalistic pragmatism that I develop here provides a coherent framework language emergence framework, in which what we understand as modern forms of language emerge from more basic or ‘primitive’ forms of symbolic interaction. It provides the basis for an evolutionary or genetic methodology: biological and cultural evolution as a methodological framework

Relevance to current issues in linguistics

On the one hand, cognitive approaches to language view it in terms of the individual cognitive subject, with his cognitive capacities. This perspective does not allow us to view language in its essentially social function. It views language as a static object, outside of a social and cultural context. It is not sensitive to the fact that language, culture and social interaction are intrinsically intermeshed and cannot be separated as parallel realities: when you speak you are (a) in social interaction, and (b) your language behaviour is conditioned by your cultural attitudes. In other words, attitudes to the group, group membership, etc. are involved.

On the other hand, sociological approaches view languages either in terms of (a) written texts that are representative products of a cultural group in written and hence dead form; or (b) in purely sociological or group terms, ie., in terms of group dynamics and group affiliation. Both types of approaches to language, historical linguistics (‘dead’ language) on the one hand, and sociolinguistics (‘group mind’) on the other, have no psychological story about how ‘lived’ language is used and shaped by individuals in specific contexts to achieve practical ends, as a tool, and how this utilisation of language in turn shapes the language and thus provides for it’s further evolution.

Malinowski is not denying these uses of language and realities, ie., the intellectual-communicative, the group-think, or language as an instrument of abstract thought and communication of ideas. The question is whether these uses are primary to the understanding of how language works, eg., how language influences thought, how words come to have the meanings that they do, in other words, the mechanics of language. The argument is that many of the problems encountered in the sciences of language and cognition arise from confusions about the mechanics of language, primarily due to false models language drawn from a conception of language-as-text, which in sociology (sociolinguistics) lead to collectivist models, and in psychology (cognitivism) lead to cognitivist models.

A major aspect of language function is what we might call social cohesion. In the primitive group, a major issue is the maintenance of the group, of group cohesion, and cooperative activity. In this respect, you cannot separate the affective (cohesitve, motivational, etc.) aspects of language from the cognitive (intellectual, communicative, etc.). That is, in the context of the situation, language is never really purely an instrument of abstract thought and communication of ideas. In Dewey’s terms, language in its natural setting is both immediate and instrumental.

Finally, the implication of pragmatism is that the proper approach to the psychology of language is social psychological. That is, it must view social interaction as it’s central point of departure. And it must include the social psychological constructs of affect, attitude, and social cohesion, in it’s understanding of language and interaction. That is, the social psychological view of interaction is not the communication of ideas. There are non-cognitive, socioaffective factors that enter into the communicative interaction. Communicative interaction is never a purely cognitive process of communicating ideas. In other words, there is always a social context, ie., the context of motivations, attitudes and feelings.


1. I want to also include G. H. Mead as another important source for social psychological framework which I will discuss elsewhere.


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