Some reflections on language-related issues in a PhD research project

by Dr. Robert Gibb, Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow

(This is the text of a talk given as part of a session on ‘Sociological Geographies’ at the BSA Postgraduate Forum Pre-Conference Day held on Tuesday 5 April 2016 at Aston University, Birmingham.)

Near the start of his recent book Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, Michael Billig makes the following point about ‘audit culture’ in contemporary universities and other public institutions:

Inevitably, the culture of auditing is not just a culture of inspection and managerial control; it is also a culture of boasting. There are good economic reasons not to be modest or to trust that virtue will gain its own reward. In the audit culture, individuals and institutions must proclaim their achievements vigorously’ (Billig 2013: 24).

Billig is highly critical of the negative effects of this ‘culture’ on contemporary academic life, notably on writing in the social sciences but also on other scholarly activities, including conferences. He would like to be optimistic that things will change, and I would too. Therefore, rather than ‘proclaim my achievements vigorously’ here I would like instead to talk about what I’ve learned recently from one of my ‘non-achievements’ as a PhD student. In so doing, my aim is to raise some questions for discussion about ‘researching multilingually’ (Holmes et al 2013), that is, using more than one language when carrying out and writing up research. In my view, this is an important aspect of the ‘sociological geographies’ we are being invited to explore in this session.

Some years ago, I spent eighteen months in Paris conducting fieldwork for my PhD thesis. I carried out participant observation in the local committee of an antiracist organisation, relying at the start – somewhat optimistically, or naively – on the six years of French I had had at secondary school in Scotland. When I eventually submitted my thesis, how much did it contain about this and other language-related issues in my fieldwork? The answer, as I discovered recently when I went back to the thesis and looked, is: almost zéro. In fact, there are only four places in the whole thesis where I allude to the ‘researching multilingually’ aspects of my PhD work, that is, the fact that it involved the use of more than one language. Looking back today, I view these four isolated comments as potential ‘leads’ to important questions about how I gathered, interpreted and presented the material on which my thesis was based. I didn’t follow these up at the time – that is my ‘non-achievement’ – but I would like to do so briefly now, as a way of pointing to some general issues that we might discuss later this afternoon.

The first of the four places in my thesis where I mention a language-related issue is a note at the end of the acknowledgements section. This includes the following sentence: ‘Unless otherwise stated, all translations from the French are my own’. I don’t go on in the note or anywhere else in the thesis to provide a rationale for the choice I had made to use my own translations (in some but not all cases) or to discuss how exactly I went about translating passages from French into English, any problems I encountered, whether I had asked anyone to check my translations, and so on. Translating is highly skilled work, and given that I was approaching the task with six years of ‘school French’ was I sufficiently equipped to undertake it? If not, how could I compensate for this? I can’t remember asking myself such questions at the time, although I think now that I should have. Perhaps I did so, however, without necessarily being fully aware of it, since in the thesis I did put the original French of longer citations in footnotes.

The second and third passages in my thesis where I briefly discuss ‘researching multilingually’ issues both deal with how my language skills, or lack of them, shaped my reception by members of the local antiracist committee I joined and the different roles they found for me to play within it. For example, I write in one of the passages that:

Initially, my lack of fluency in spoken French meant that I contributed little in meetings although I was able to comprehend most of the discussions (…). However, when a new Bureau was elected [six months into my fieldwork], a range of more informal ‘posts’ was created and I was invited to assume responsibility for co-ordinating the distribution of leaflets.

What I’m doing here in the thesis is alluding to the fact that I gained more confidence in speaking French as time passed, and that in important ways this affected my involvement in the ‘life’ of the committee, my relationships with its members, and consequently the nature and amount of material I was able to gather. However, I don’t go on to reflect on the implications of this ‘developing socio-linguistic competence’ for the process of data collection – and analysis.

The final comment about language in the thesis is the following one in the ‘methods’ chapter: ‘Participant observation is thus required in order to contextualise people’s use of language and to investigate how it both sustains and is produced by collective action’. Once again, I don’t explore the implications of this observation in a systematic way in the rest of the thesis nor do I seek to contextualise my own use of language as a researcher. In particular, there is nothing at all in my thesis about the ESRC-funded ‘language training’ I took in the form of private lessons from a teacher during the first few months of my fieldwork. (The ESRC is the UK Economic and Social Research Council, which funded my PhD.)

An account of my language learning is also absent from my fieldnotes, which I re-read recently too. The latter contain only two passing references to the formal language training I undertook in the field. The first is an entry I wrote a few weeks after my arrival: ‘This afternoon I think I’ll pop out to l’Alliance Française and find out about French classes’. However, no subsequent entry records what happened, and the second – and final – reference to formal language learning in my fieldnotes is not until nearly two months later, when I mention that I was late for a meeting of the antiracist organisation due to having a French lesson immediately beforehand. The fieldnotes I wrote over the first six months regularly contain comments, often added in brackets, about my lack of confidence in speaking French and my inability sometimes to understand what people are saying to me – and, even more frequently, what they are saying to each other. However, I do not record there my language learning ‘strategies’, nor do I reflect in a systematic and detailed way on my developing ‘socio-linguistic competence’ and how this affected the research.

Using more than one language in a research project – researching multilingually – raises many important issues, then. Some researchers have addressed these in detail, rather than simply referring to them in passing as I did in my PhD thesis. Nevertheless, I think that we need to discuss these language-related matters more in sociology (and related disciplines). The examples I’ve taken from my PhD thesis point to the following questions: If our fieldwork requires us to learn and/or use a second or additional language, how can we document and analyse this in a detailed and systematic way? How do we approach translation in our work? What are the implications of being ‘less-than-fluent’ (Tremlett 2009: 65), or of developing sociolinguistic competence ‘in the field’, for the processes of data collection and analysis? Among the other questions we might discuss in the second part of this session are: What do we mean by ‘fluency’ or ‘sociolinguistic competence’ in the first place? What kinds of expectations do researchers – and supervisors – have about this? To what extent, if at all, is support available to a researcher for language training and is the amount of time allocated realistic? If a PhD student is gathering material in a language or languages her/his supervisor does not understand, what issues does this raise for the student, the supervisor and the nature of the supervisory relationship?

These are some of the questions I thought it could be interesting for us to discuss. […] Thank you very much for listening.


Billig, M., (2013), Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holmes, P., Fay, R., Andrews, J. and Attia, M., (2013),  ‘Researching multilingually: New theoretical and methodological directions’, International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 23 (3): 285-299.

Tremlett, A., (2009), ‘Claims of “knowing” in ethnography: realising anti-essentialism through a critical reflection on language acquisition in fieldwork’, Graduate Journal of Social Science, 6 (3): 63-85.