How might Bakhtin's interest in dialogicality be of relevance to the writing of ethnography?
Bakhtin’s dialogicality becomes relevant in ethnography through its focus on how the social positioning of ‘voice’ impacts relationships between language and power. This argument feeds into two of Bakhtin’s notable influences on anthropology. The first regards the dialogical nature of ethnography and the second, the dialogical nature of culture. Ethnographic dialogicality emphasises the complex dialogue between the anthropologist and the interlocutor. Cultural dialogicality in turn regards dialogues of culture, demonstrating how culture is fundamentally built upon dialogue.
Before delving into Bakhtin’s relevance to ethnography, a word about dialogicality itself must be said. Bakhtin lived during a time of ‘Sovietisation’ of intellectual life as well as excitement surrounding Saussurean theory in the early 20th century (Holquist 1990). Sovietisation impacted Bakhtin’s work because Soviet influence formed "a new and sophisticated argument for the importance of the collective as opposed to individual determinants in human society" (Holquist 1990, 42). Bakhtin therefore stressed the importance of striving for dialogism over monologism, to allow more voices and perspectives to take form as a response to the dominance of monologic, Soviet voices.
Dialogicality expresses that nothing can be completely dialogical or completely monological, arguing that social life perpetually exists along a continuum between these two phenomenons. Dialogism also emphasises that things only exist in relation to other things and that nothing exists in isolation. This appears similar to Saussure’s emphasis on meaning as based on a system of relations, however Saussure applied this to what he termed, ‘langue’ viewing language as a system in isolation of actual speech (1983). Bakhtin instead argues that speech is socially constrained and cannot therefore be viewed in isolation of context. This is what Bakhtin calls, ‘speech genres’; the socio-cultural limits of the freedom regarding individual speech (Holquist 1990). Dialogue “is present in exchanges at all levels - between words in language, people in society, organisms in ecosystems, and even between processes in the natural world" (Holquist 1990, 40) and therefore all utterances are woven into history and social life. For Bakhtin, all utterances are a response to the words and thoughts of others, past and present highlighting humanity’s dialogical existence.
Bakhtin’s interest in dialogicality becomes relevant in anthropology firstly because of the dialogical nature of ethnography. This regards the complex dialogue between anthropologist and interlocutor through ethnography’s seemingly dialogical appearance that actually takes on a more monologic form. This will connect to Bakhtin’s interest in the social positioning of ‘voice’ and to highlight its impact on cultural translation.
Malinowski uses his ethnography on Trobriand Islanders to raise some issues faced in ethnography. Malinowski suggests "the linguistic problem before the ethnographer is to give a full presentation of language as of any other aspect of culture" (1935, 5), arguing that even a ‘subjective’ presentation of social phenomena is still open to interpretation. Malinowski argues that language cannot be viewed in isolation of human behaviour because it is not a mere window into social life, but part of it. Malinowski raises these issues to show that there are consequences in ethnography including what is ‘lost in translation’, which influences reader’s perception of culture. Malinowski stresses the difficult job the anthropologist has in revealing actual cultural reality. This alludes to dialogicality because it emphasises the challenges in navigating the dialogue between anthropologist and interlocutor. This challenge is exposed through the anthropological voice’s presentation of the interlocutors’, which is not a subjective, dialogical translation.
Malinowski seems to address this problem by arguing for the importance of placing words in context alongside accompanying gestures, behaviours and social situations. Malinowski uses an example of a Trobriand system of identifying fields (‘kwabila’) and how they place boundaries using landmarks through processes disagreement, which finally concludes in a group decision. Malinowski describes that this process comes together through a "combination of speech and bodily activity… [speech] does not function as an expression of thought or communication of ideas but as a part of a concerted activity" (Malinowski 1935, 33). However, dialogicality still exposes ethnography’s monologic form with the ethnographer’s voice as the one that is heard. Malinowski selecting this specific example continues to affirm monologic voice in ethnographic presentation. Malinowski tries to address the issues of language in cultural presentation, however ethnography nevertheless resides at the monologic end of the continuum. The social positioning of the anthropologist’s voice unavoidably affirms their own, allowing the interlocutors’ to become subsumed by the monologue of ethnography.
Whorf’s work on Hopi similarly brings Bakhtin’s dialogical influence to life. Whorf highlights a comparison between ‘standard European languages’ (SAE) and Hopi, a Native American language, to emphasise the ontological ‘baggage’ that comes with analysing culture. Whorf argues that though language does not determine thought or culture (counter to Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which theorists, notably Hill and Mannheim  have rendered a ‘myth’), it does have an influencing effect on human behaviour, thought, culture and thinking about the world (1956). Whorf expresses that "even the grammar of Hopi bore a relation to Hopi culture, and the grammar of European tongues to our own 'Western' or 'European' culture" (1956, 178). As a result of language being involved in the partial shaping of human reality, SAE assumptions have often complicated ethnographic presentations. SAE and Hopi ontological ideas of ‘time’ and ‘space’ differ massively, as Hopi view time as a continuum, whereas SAE view time cyclicly experiencing one day at a time. Whorf uses these ideological differences to demonstrate the impact of language on ontological ideas that come about through language’s shaping effect. Time and space appear as objective categories, but Whorf argues that they are actually reflections of grammar that influence human understanding.
Dialogism can demonstrate how certain ontological assumptions in the language of an ethnographer impact dialogue and consequentially ethnographic presentations of cultural ‘reality’. If experiences “depend upon the nature of the language or languages through the use of which they have been developed" (Whorf 1956, 202) and if "there is a relation between a language and the rest of the culture of the society which uses it" (Whorf 1956, 204) then preconceived notions are bound to take form in ethnographic translation. This again affirms how social positioning of ‘voice’ becomes intertwined in relations of power and language through ethnographic monologicality. This is relevant because Bakhtin’s theory urges ethnography to be critical and reflexive on the way it presents culture. Dialogicality helps anthropology realise it is not absolute and should not try to be. Ethnography is an inevitable blend of preconceptions, and in light of Bakhtin, further reveals how anthropology should avoid claiming absolute truths about societies and instead value reflection and understand that society will never be completely define-able.
Bakhtin’s second influence regards the dialogical nature of culture. Dialogicality highlights how much culture is shaped around dialogue and how different forms of dialogue in society reflect wider socio-political and cultural dynamics. This similarly addresses Bakhtin’s ideas on power and language relations that come to the fore through the social positioning of ‘voice’.
Hill’s work on ‘Mock Spanish’ as a ‘covert racist discourse’ in New York City builds on this (1998). Hill emphasises how both grammar and the cultural phenomena of ‘accents’ can highlight racial foundations in society and that political implications change depending on who is speaking. Hill argues that white public space in New York is constructed through “intense monitoring of the speech of racialised populations such as Chicanos and Latinos and African Americans for signs of linguistic disorder" (1998, 680). This construction is paradoxical because of the "invisibility of almost identical signs in the speech of Whites, where language mixing, required for the expression of a highly valued type of colloquial persona, takes several forms" (Hill 1998, 680). Spanish speakers speaking Spanish in public become objectified and racialised due to White concern over public Spanish speaking being impolite or even dangerous. The paradox is that it is “perfectly acceptable” (Hill 1998) for White speakers to use ‘Mock Spanish’ in everyday language for humour and colloquial reasons. Hill argues that the major function of ‘Mock Spanish’ is the 'elevation of whiteness’ and is a discourse that racialises members of historically Spanish speaking populations (1998). Though she describes it as a ‘covert racist discourse’ in its accomplishment of indirect racialisation of subordinate-groups, racism is still so dissolved into grammar becoming naturalised and part of everyday speech. Dialogicality becomes relevant in ethnography because it highlights how the dialogues of culture reflect power dynamics within language. The social positioning of ‘White voices’ subsumes those of Spanish speaking populations, which reveals deeper social realities and political dichotomies through social dialogue.
I have argued that Bakhtin’s dialogicality and his interest in the social positioning of ‘voice’ is extremely relevant in the writing of ethnography. This was discussed through the dialogical nature of ethnography and the monologic voice that ethnography takes on in presenting the culture of interlocutors. Bakhtin is relevant because his work reveals consequences of dialogue on anthropology demonstrating how reflexive anthropology needs to be. The dialogical nature of culture in turn showed how dialogicality exposes grammatical realities that affirm power and language dynamics in society.
Hill, Jane & Mannheim, Bruce. 1992. Language and World View. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol.21: 381-406.
Hill, Jane. 1998. Language, Race, and White Public Space. American Anthropologist, 100(3): 680-689.
Holquist, Michael. 1990. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. Routledge: London.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1935. Coral gardens and their magic. 1st arg. London: Kegan Paul.
Saussure, Ferdinand. 1983. Course in General Linguistics. R. Harris, trans. LaSalle, Il: Open Court.
Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language.” In Language, Thought, and Reality. Cambridge: MIT Press.