Concepts in Linguistic Anthropology: Community of Practice, Gender, Swearwords

Q) What is a community of practice? How can the framework of a community of practice be applied to the studies of gender and the studies of swearwords?

The concept of ‘community of practice’ was first introduced to language and gender research by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnel-Ginet (Pichler 2015, 196) who define it as “an aggregate of people who come together around mutual engagement in an endeavor. Ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values, power relations – in short, practices – emerge in the course of this mutual endeavor.” (1992, 464). On the other hand, J. Richard Udry defines gender roles as a range of acceptable behavior that differs by sex in particular behavioral domains and is supported by gendered norms (1994). And by looking at these two definitions, it is comprehensive that the framework of a community of practice is linkable and applicable to gender. In her article, Pichler gives examples of ethnographic works that display common practices of the tough feminine character of a group of German-Turkish girls who resist the femininity associated with their parents’ generation (2015, 198). The girls’ community of practice regarding their tough femininity was evident in their different styles of make-up, experimenting with drugs, dating of boys, etc. Hence, deriving from this example we can say that the notion of a community of practice helps investigate and understand various groups of people that wish to identify with or resist certain gender identities. 

The framework of a community of practice could be extended to the use of swearwords as well. As an example, Kingsley Bolton and Christopher Hutton’s work on foul language usage of schoolboys in Hong Kong (1997) reveal how some boys that had memberships to triad societies identified themselves as ‘bad people’ and thus frequently used a wide range of Cantonese swearwords in school. So, as this example suggests, swearwords too can become a form of linguistic behavior belonging to a community of practice which becomes an ingredient in forming specific identities. Sometimes such identities are clearer, such as professions. Bolton and Hutton touch upon how the use of swearwords was associated with taxi drivers in Hong Kong, while it was expected for office workers or lawyers to not use swearwords at all.  

In short, the framework of a community of practice greatly enhances our understanding of how gender practices and the use of swearwords can become ingredients that form certain communities. 

References

Eckert, Penelope, and Sally Mcconnell-Ginet. “Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21, no. 1 (1992): 461–88. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.an.21.100192.002333

Pichler, Pia. “Language, Gender, and Identity.” In The Routledge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology, edited by Nancy Bonvillian, 191-205. Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. 

Udry, J. Richard. “The Nature of Gender.” Demography 31, no. 4 (1994): 561. https://doi.org/10.2307/2061790

Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton. “Bad Boys and Bad Language: Chou Hau and the Sociolinguistics of Swearwords in Hong Kong Cantonese.” In Hong Kong: The Anthropology of Chinese Metropolis, edited by G. Evans and M. Tam (1997): 299-331. 

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