Archive for November 9th, 2010

Language, Semantics and Pragmatics   1 comment

Posted at 8:19 pm in Discipline,Linguistics,Sociology


Aitchison, J (1972): Lingusitics, An Introduction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Thomas, L & Wareing, S (1999): Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Trudgill, P (1983): Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin.

In my last blog post I outlined some of the basic principles of linguistics. This week I will be going into more detail regarding this discipline and attempting to highlight areas of relevance to my topic, Organisation. As I mentioned in both last weeks blog and my initial statement of my intent to study linguistics, I am interested in finding out how language shapes social organisation and forms bonds, both within and between different communities and cultures. This blog post will look at the how language exists and is structured, and then how it can be used on basic levels to encourage and enforce social interaction.

Understanding Language.

Noam Chomsky argued that anyone who has learnt a language must have, at some point in their development, internalised a set of rules regarding the proper use of that language. In some ways, language can be thought of as a game, with rules and players, as well as being turn based. Linguists see language as having a functional role in human life; some examples of these functions are;

  • Obtaining information. Eg: “What colour is the sky?” “The sky is blue.”
  • Creating action. Eg: “Come with me!”
  • Enforcing social bonds. Eg: “Well done!”

Of course language is extremely flexible, and these functions often interact when we are communicating. For example, the conversation:

“Can you go outside and tell me what colour the sky is?”

“Yes…the sky is blue”

“Thank you”

shows language being used to first create action, then to supply information and finally to supply social kudos to the actor. Similarly, the sentence;

“Come with me if you want to live!”

is an example of information being supplied to influence an action. Such common multiplicity in language shows how useful it is in quickly dealing with many different situations which we find ourselves in daily. While many animals have ways of communicating information and action through sound (in fact, the sentence “come with me if you want to live” is one of the most commonly communicated messages in the animal kingdom, next to “we should have sex”), only humans have the capacity to construct complex meaning and abstraction in language. To elaborate, animals communicate what is immediately relevant, such as immediate observations and feelings;

“I am hungry, where is the food?”

“The food is in this tree”

whereas humans can communicate past and future experiences with a descriptive element;

“The banana I ate this morning was delicious!”

“I want a banana too!”

“Well you’ll have to go to the banana tree, climb it, and get one for yourself”

Imagining a solution to a problem is only useful to a society if it can be quickly and effectively communicated to members, and in this respect humans are extremely advantaged thanks to language.

Language construction and semantics.

Language, in its most basic format, is made up of phonemes, which are the smallest sounds which distinguish two words. For example p and b in the English language are phonemes, as they distinguish words such as pit and bit. Phonemes expand to create groups of consonants and vowels, which make up words. Words are then characterised with semantics. Semantics is extremely important in understanding language, as words are far from universally recognisable. Identical words can have far from identical meanings, and humans have evolved to carry out internal logical inference to assess the semantics of a word or sentence. For example, someone who heard the word “duck” while standing on a golf course may logically infer that they need to carry out an immediate action, and someone who heard the same word spoken by a child standing next to a lake might logically infer that the child is referring to the species of bird. Semantics, then, allows us to understand the language we hear and make decisions regarding its usefulness.

Of course, sometimes these decisions are wrong, no matter how logical the thought processes are, and language semantics can become very complicated very quickly. Many words in languages share common semantic components, for example “bull” and “man” both refer to adult male mammals, but we cannot use the terms interchangeably, except as similes. Humans get around this problem of this component overlap in language by working from established prototypes. When one thinks of a bird, one does not tend to think of a penguin, but of a robin, which is closer to the prototypical bird. However, because language is constantly evolving, prototypes can be endemic to certain social groups and certain social settings. If you overhear the word “bird” used by a group of men of a certain age in the local pub, you would be forgiven for assuming that these men are referring to a particular woman, and are not members of your local RSPB branch. This kind of word fuzziness makes logical inference so important when communicating, but shows that it can, on occasion, be incorrect. When humans are unfamiliar with words they hear in a language that they recognise, they can usually solve this problem by asking for clarification; “Excuse me, when you say bird, what do you mean?” and then storing this information as a new internal subset rule of language, something like:

IF SPEAKER= Simon, ENVIRONMENT= Pub, WORD=’Bird’ THEN INFER word= ‘woman’.

And in this way language semantics can constantly evolve and adapt as an individual moves through various social groups and environments.


Continuing this discussion of the unpredictable nature of language, we can discuss pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of unpredictable language use, and its creation is commonly attributed to philosopher Paul Grice (1913-1988), who identified efficient communication between humans in four maxims of conversation;

  • Quantity: giving the right amount of information when talking.
  • Quality: Being truthful when talking if the truth is known.
  • Relevance: Relevant answers to questions or relevant statements to contexts.
  • Manner: Clear and ordered structuring of communication.

Grice observed that these principles for cooperative communication exist in all languages and are so a core part of communicating,  for example when talking to a baby or animal which cannot respond, people will still communicate as if they were expecting a response, and follow one or more of the maxims. However, Grice also observed that the above maxims are often broken, and more commonly by certain social groups within a society. A politician, if we are being pessimistic, may be more inclined to mislead or respond irrelevantly to a question than a scientist. Pragmatic linguists note that when faced with random, useless or simply untrue information in language, humans will often try and draw reasonable conclusions and seek to understand the meaning of what was said, rather than simply rejecting the statement as a failed response. Our minds reason that only matters of extreme importance could cause someone to break the maxims of conversation, for example;

“Did you enjoy your day at school dear? Your maths teacher says that you have been LOOK OUT FOR THAT TIGER!”

And so often people, even when they are aware that laws of conversation have been broken, will allow the speaker to continue, accepting that there must have been a reason for the interruption in normal proceedings, even if the reason is not immediately known.

Pragmatic language therefore has much to say about the power of language, and this explanation of acceptance to broken norms can show us in part why skilled orators, such as lawyers, politicians and journalists, can coerce or influence certain social groups who may or may not be aware of the misuse of language directed at them. We have all seen interviews with politicians who evade certain questions, providing irrelevant answers or random information, and while this may enrage some members of a society, other listeners will assume that there must be a socially beneficial reason for the evasion. These listeners are often of a lower social status than the speaker and have less experience with language on a lexical level (they may not understand the words or the meanings that the speaker is using). I will discuss social classes and language further in two weeks.

What I hope this blog post has shown is that language has laws at a basic level. Language is a construction of sounds, created by humans to achieve certain results. As we evolve, so does the language we use and we are constantly updating our internal rulebook through logical inference to deal with new semantics, situations and social groupings that we find ourselves in. When it comes to use, as long as the basic construction rules are obeyed, language is found to be very flexible, and can be used by those skilled in communication to achieve a variety of ends. However, the basic principles of language and communication are still within us, and it is somewhat comforting to know that, even in a modern world where it new words are constantly created and old ones reinvented, that we still have core uses and needs for language that have remained more or less unchanged since our first words. Although I have not mentioned explicitly my topic of organisation, it is implied through much of the above analysis that language and communication is at the heart of our need to be close to one another, to express emotion, share ideas and survive as a community.

Next week, I will be returning to sociology to discuss sociological theorists and the idea of organisation.

Written by Phil Waddell on November 9th, 2010

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PRIVACY (Politics & Psychology) – Blog post 3   no comments

Posted at 7:12 pm in Politics,Psychology

PRIVACY (Politics & Psychology) – Blog post 3

So continuing on with my reading into two unfamiliar disciplines, it occurred to me this week that perhaps I may have been ‘jumping the gun’ somewhat by pre-empting the key areas within politics and psychology in relation to the issue of privacy, without obtaining a basic knowledge of what these two subjects are concerned with. Thus I have taken a step back from looking at the areas of ‘self’ within psychology and ‘security’ within politics and decided to read more about the basic underlying principles of each discipline instead.

For psychology I have been reading a number of books in order to gain an insight into the founding psychologists and the theories they presented.  In particular I have found the following helpful:

Psychology – Carlson, Martin & Buskist (2004)

Psychology: an integrated approach – Eysenck (1998)

Approaches to Psychology 2nd ed. – Glassman (1995)

Beginning at the philosophical roots of psychology, I have been acquiring information about different theories and who conceived them, such as: Rene Descarts (1596-1650) – Dualism (the belief that it is possible that all reality can be divided into two separate identities: mind & matter), John Locke (1632-1704) – Empiricism (the pursuit of truth through observation and experience), David Hume (1711-1776) – Positivism (the concept that all meaningful ideas can be defined by observable material) and Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) – Idealism (the belief that knowledge of events in the world are not purely obtained from direct experience rather that knowledge is the outcome of inferences based on the accumulation of past experiences derived via the senses. Perhaps the most productive way to utilise all these concepts would be to correlate them and use them in a manner whereby they complement each other as it seems obvious to me that they all have basic similarities in that they are all concerned with the workings of the mind and the way in which individuals acquire knowledge.

Regarding politics, I have conducted similar research into the development of political ideologies and key theorists and resumed my reading of Political Thinkers: from Socrates to the present – David Boucher & Paul Kelly (2003). From here I have identified a number of important and influential schools of thought. Starting with the The Sophists, whose key ideas included moral and political issues and accepted a group way of thought such as justice being essential to society but also being beneficial to the individual, democracy being limited and justice being perceived as a convention as opposed to nature, which brings pleasure; law is unable to uphold justice thus it is better to be unjust wherever possible (Protagoras, Thrasymachus & Antiphon). Following on from the Sophists were the great thinkers Socrates (Elenchus – questions and answers leading to ignorance being admitted; Virtue – the basis of knowledge in conjunction with other virtues such as wisdom, courage, justice; Daimonion – the ‘inner voice’ which opposes active participation in politics; Techne – arts and crafts used as analogies for the basis of civil obedience) Plato (Forms – non- dynamic objects which are accessible to the mind but not the senses, providing reputable standards for good judgement and knowledge) and Aristotle (Human Nature – humans are social and political animas and in order to live a full life, require harmonious fellowship with others in a community) who collectively redefined a stronger case for justice. Already I am discovering that some theories have an underlying theme of human perception and also behaviour seems inherent as a recurrent theme.

The more I read into these two disciplines the more I am assuming that there may be some overlapping theories and concepts which can be applied to the issue of privacy and as such privacy on the Web. However I do not want to be too presumptuous or have too many pre-conceived notions without any evidence!

Written by Lisa Sugiura on November 9th, 2010

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Cyberwarfare – Political Science…? and Individuality   no comments

Posted at 12:38 pm in Uncategorized

Having decided to study Politics and Economics around the issue of cyber-warfare, I started by finding some books in the subject which I have had the least experience in – Politics (having an A-Level in Economics). After a quick library search I found a number of books which should be suitable: “Politics An Introduction” by Axford, Browning, et al; “Key Concepts in Politics” by Andrew Heywood and “Comparative Politics in a Globalizing World” by Jeffrey Haynes. This all seemed like quite a lot to be getting on with, so I (naturally) started with “Politics An Introduction”.

One of the things that I find most intriguing about Politics is the concept of Political Science, how something which to me seems fundamentally about how people interact with each other and make decisions can be studied in a scientific manner. The book starts by seemingly agreeing with me and makes a number of points on how Politics cannot be studied scientifically:

1) One cannot disprove theories such as “is democracy a better form of government that dictatorship”. It is rare that a political questions can be boiled down to a true or false answer. This is further complicated when many disagree on the definitions of certain concepts.

2) It is nearly impossible to replicate methods and results through experimentation or statistical methods. Most political experiments are severely hindered by ethical and logistical implications. There are often only a few number of cases that can be studied when conducting comparative analysis and the use of statistical data often falls foul of representative issue and disputes over the integrity of data sources.

3) Political science relies on visible and measurable phenomena. This is illustrated with the example of ‘false consciousness’ (in which individuals demonstrate a social understanding that is mainly false). One political thesis states that in capitalist societies, the working classes are always in a state of false consciousness, however it is not possible to prove that people are suffering from false consciousness and that as a result they do not act in their own interests.

4) When studying Politics it is essential to consider both facts and values and values may vary considerably between different societies and nations. It is very difficult to incorporate “fuzzy” concepts such as values in to scientific methodology.

5) Finally in social sciences there are no laws (or as the book points out, there are no laws yet). Political phenomena can be classified and probabilistic associations can be made between variables, but it is not possible to state causal relationships.

Therefore having established the constraints of what can and cannot be done when studying Politics (which may seem obvious to some readers, but having never studied a social science (except the rather mathematical Economics) is all quite new to myself) I then started to look into some of the issues that Politics concerns itself with, the first of which the role of people in Politics.

Upon seeing that the first chapter was about the role of the individual in Politics, I thought this had little to do with cyber-warfare and therefore maybe I should skip the chapter and head to some of the juicier stuff on international relations (at least I envisage it to be juicier). However the concept of the individual and identity (and I hope I’m not making too much of a faux pas by treating them synonymously) has cropped up a number of times in Web Science so far and so I thought I should read on and see how these ideas may apply to the Web.

First comes the question as to whether we should study individuals or structures? We can either treat these mutually exclusively, where the study of one does not infer things about the other and also introduces the concepts of individualistic fallacy (treating institutions as a single – large – individual) and ecological or systematic fallacy (treating individuals as if they take on the characteristics of their organisations). Both of these concepts I feel can be important to consider when studying Web Science and the groups and networks that form in the online world.

An alternative way of looking at individuals or structures is that of the reductionist, in which one set of variables can be explained wholly or in part by reference to another set. In this view collective structures are viewed simply as the aggregate behaviour and attitudes of the individuals. This strikes me as being similar to the construction of an object-oriented computer program in which the problem is broken down into smaller solvable problems which combined form the overall solution.

Thirdly there is the structurationist point of view in which structures are the product of day-to-day interactions of individuals. For example shoppers reproduce capitalism when they buy goods in shops even though they are not consciously doing so. This point of view can also seemingly be applied to the Web, for example social networking sites are products of the interactions between users (although I suppose the difference here is that the site is provided to allow people to interact rather than a production of the interactions). Nevertheless the social network site would fail without these constant day-to-day interactions.

To bring this back closer to the topic of cyber-warfare, Enlightenment, the process by which the concept of the individual came into being along with modernity, has also lead to some of histories worse atrocities. The concept of the individual can lead to some groups being excluded or persecuted for their collective attributes, with the book using the examples of the near genocide of the Native American peoples and the Holocaust. Could similar events take place online (without the horror or devastation caused by the aforementioned examples)? The online world can certainly be used to rally groups against other groups in society. The concept of the individual can also be used to illustrate how cyber-warfare could be used by a government against its own people, to restrict the level of individuality any one person may have (similarly to Georeg Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four) – the Web provides a medium with which Big Brother could easily monitor our actions. However it must also be taken into account that the Web helps to further a person’s individuality, giving them access to a wealth of new opportunities (aiding pluralism – a concept which many believe to be a contributor to a healthy political system).

This blog post has got quite lengthy now, however there are still many more points which could be discussed including the use of terror to control society, how the Web has effected citizenship and our rights and what impact cyber-warfare may have upon these issues and how the Web may change an individual’s political competence. The book so far has certainly made for some very interesting reading and its been fascinating to look at a subject which has a very different approach to study. Next I shall try and delve into Economics, before I get too carried away with Politics.

Written by William Fyson on November 9th, 2010

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A bit more sociology… Starting to think about gender and sexuality   no comments

Posted at 11:54 am in Sociology

A little moment to say how I feel:

Haralambos and Holborn’s Sociology. Themes and Perspectives has been recalled back to the library. Sniff. So I am returning it today.  We’ve had some good times, but today I have to say goodbye.

So I’m starting to think, why am I doing this?  I’m reading these huge (heavy) textbooks and trying to find out what the sociologist’s think about gender and sexuality.  But what I have really been trying to concentrate on is why they think these things.  What methods have they used to come to these conclusions?  That is the most important part of this research, to try to understand how the discipline of sociology applies its methods to individuals and groups to try to understand about gender and sexuality.  It seems from this week’s readings that interviews and observation are the favourites for gender and sexuality.  There is a certain amount of scientific approach later on (80s onwards) when looking at sexuality, particularly the work of Fausto-Sterling, and this is refreshing, but it always goes back to the interview.  How far can a conversation with someone who says that they are a ‘female’, ‘transexual’, ‘male’ really help to explain what gender is I wonder? I’m going to outline, as I do every week, what I have been reading, but I really do wonder if I am going to find anything more about methodological approaches and methods of investigation for sociologists than I have already discovered in these first year undergraduate textbooks.  I think that I may need to up the level of reading a little if I am going to get anything more than a broad overview to methods, so far, it has not expanded form last week’s list of:

  • participant observation
  • quantitative research in the form of surveys, questionnaires and interviews
  • qualitative research in the form of interviews and observations
  • secondary data
  • content analysis
  • discourse analysis
  • case studies
  • life histories

I’m not saying that this isn’t a good list, in fact I think that it covers the social side of human quite well, but there are gaps, when looking at gender, in looking at the physical attributes of individuals and the effects of this on our understanding of gender.  What about the genes, and the body, and the brain?  Or is this just socio-psychology and I am never going to find the answer I want sitting amongst the sociologists?  Craig has given me a book on Social Psychology, which I have been so tempted to read all week; but I am trying to stick with pure sociology for the first few weeks… we’ll see how that goes this week.

Sexuality (and a tiny bit of gender)

There’s just enough time to give a quick review of the chapter on Sex and Gender (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008: 90-142).  The section begins with a critique of ‘malestream sociology’ based on the work of P.Abbott, C.Wallace and M. Tyler (2005).  There is a mention of the biological differences between man and woman; sexual diomorphism (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008: 92-93), where sexual diomorphism is biological fact (cf. Warton, 2005: 18) and the distinction that sex and gender are different (cf. Stoller, 1968).  The chapter discusses the rhesus monkeys from Goy and Pheonix’s experiments (1971) and the work of Archer and Lloyd (2002) on testosterone and criminal records, and goes on to outline Oakley’s criticism of the rhesus monkey experiemnts as not including the social context affecting the hormone levels (1981) and also Halpern et al. work on aggression and testosterone in teenage boys (1994) that shows there is no correlation between testosterone levels and aggression.  Archer and Lloyd say that although hormones contribute to aggressive behaviour, peer groups also affect behaviour, they say that there is an ‘interaction between biological and social processes (Archer and Lloyd, 2002).  I think that this is interesting when considering the representation of gender online as the communication between groups needs to be considered when thinking about the way that an individual is choosing to present themselves (or feels that they have to present themselves) online.

Haralambos and Holborn go on to discuss sociobiology (2008: 94-96).  This is a topic that I am going to read more into as I think that it will have a lot to say about the links between genetics and behaviour and therefore could be useful when thinking about the presentation of sexual identity online.  Barash applies Wilson’s worn on sociobiology to gender and sex (Barash, 1979; Wilson, 1975) saying that reproductive strategies produce different behaviours between males and females, resulting in different social roles.  Looking at the literature for this subject available in the University of Southampton library, sociobiologists seem to use animal behaviour to explain their theories, and it seems to me that this may not therefore wash when you move the theories across to humans.  Blier writes against sociobiology, saying that they are ethnocentric (1984), this is a really interesting point.  If studying different societies results in different behaviours of men and women being observed, does this necessarily mean that sociobiology is wrong? Or does it mean that there are other factors at play that have resulted in an exceptional situation occurring? I don’t agree with this, but I am saying it as the internet is an exceptional situation perhaps? And so the work of sociobiologists, whether true or false in its statements, becomes irrelevant when all of the social norms are being broken and the communities are abnormal?  Looking at whether communities online are abnormal or not isn’t within the scope of this little project; I wish it was as I believe that they are not abnormal and that the world online is an exact copy of the world offline.

Haralambos and Holborn go on to discuss the sexual division of labour (cf. G.P.Murdock, 1949) and also the cultural division of labour (cf. A.Oakley, 1974).  Oakley looks to disprove Murdock’s idea that biology determines the division of labour between the sexes, she does this by looking at the labour divisions of a range of societies (1974), but again, she is using the sociologist’s approach of studying the behaviours of societies and then concluding that they are representative of all of the individuals, past and present, on earth.  Oakley identifies where socialisation into gender roles occurs: manipulation of child’s self-concept; canalization of boys and girls using objects; verbal appellations for children; exposure to different activities (1974).  But, as Haralambos and Holborn point out, Oakley misses the other reasons for this behaviour; Connell points out that it is not always passive, consider the active seeking out of pleasure he says (i.e. wanting to wear high heels because they make you feel sexy)(Connell, 2002:138-141) – not sure about this one: why do you feel sexy in high heels? Because of the societal behaviours, this is not an active seeking out, this is a passive enforced behaviour, I think.

The chapter then moves onto gender attribution, in particular the work of Kessler and McKenna, ethnomethodologists who look at how people characterise the world around them, where gender is socially produced, and that there is therefore no way to tell between a woman and a man easily (Kessler & McKenna, 1978:885-7).  It seems to me that they come to some of their conclusions using interviews to think about how transsexuals remove their perceived sexuality by others from their actual physical attributes that may make an individual make an assumption about their sexuality.  This is done by: content and manner of speech; public physical appearance; information about their past life; private body and how to hide details of their body that would point to a particular sexuality (Kessler & McKenna, 1978).  This is very interesting in the online world. Where do these four processes happen when you are online?  The private body is easier to conceal, but I would argue that the manner and content of speech, the public physical appearance (assuming that it has to be chosen by the individual from a selection of possibilities, as in SecondLife) and the past life are all just as difficult to construct online as they are offline.   I think that we are just as constrained by these processes online as we are offline.

Haralambos and Holborn introduce Fausto-Sterling and the idea of transgendered people, where dualistic views of being either male of female are not appropriate (Fausto-Sterling, 2000), her work is also based in the social processes that create gender, she says that gender is ‘embodied’.  Key to this is that the development of neural processes in the brain is connected to the experiences we have, so our social factors and our body’s factors reinforcing one another so that gender is materialised within the body (Fausto-Sterling, 2000).  The section ends with Connell’s idea that biology and culture are fused together (Connell, 2002).

Next Week

Feminism is discussed in depth in the introductory textbooks that I am using for this early stage of my reading.  I am going to read through Abbott et al., 2005. An Introduction to Sociology. Feminist Perspectives, for this part of my research.   I know that I said that I would do it last week, but I have been quite surprised at how useful the undergraduate textbooks have been.  I am going to try to move onto biology also this coming week, I have the texts that I identified last week sitting on my desk staring at me.  I am loathe to start them as I think that I know already what they will contain…

Written by Nicole on November 9th, 2010

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