‘Researching Multilingually’ in Sociology and Anthropology

By Dr Robert Gibb

What sorts of issues are raised when more than one language is used in a sociological or anthropological research project?

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Language has long been an important subject of sociological and anthropological enquiry. However, researchers working within these disciplines have written surprisingly little about the impact of language-related issues on the development of their own projects, from the initial research design stage right through to the dissemination of the results. More specifically, relatively few sociologists and anthropologists have attempted to discuss in detail how their own knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of different languages and their decisions to use (or not to use) interpreters and/or translators during fieldwork have affected the research they have conducted. Nevertheless, there appears now to be a growing awareness of the need to take such issues seriously and to make more informed choices when carrying out multilingual – and monolingual – research.

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Of course, language learning and the use of interpreters in research projects have been discussed periodically since the emergence of sociology and anthropology as academic disciplines. To give just one example, the use of ‘native languages’ in fieldwork was the subject of an interesting exchange between Margaret Mead and Robert H. Lowie in the pages of the journal American Anthropologist in 1939-1940.

Debates of this sort remained rare, however, to the extent that it could be claimed quite recently that there was an effective ‘silence’ within both sociology and anthropology about matters relating to translation, interpretation and language skills in the research process. Thus, just over fifteen years ago, Bogusia Temple encouraged sociologists working with interpreters/translators to acknowledge the active role the latter play in social research and to debate conceptual issues with them, arguing that ‘the figure of the interpreter/translator must come out from behind the shadows’ (1997: 607).

Not long afterwards, Axel Borchgrevink (2003) drew attention in a similar way to the lack of discussion within anthropology of the use of interpreters in fieldwork and to a noticeable failure to confront directly the question of the anthropologist’s own proficiency in the language(s) spoken in the sites where they conduct their research. Among the factors contributing to such a situation, he suggested, were concerns about the authority of the anthropologist and the persistence of a kind of ‘fieldwork mystique’ (2003: 96) within the discipline that resulted in key assumptions and practices escaping critical examination. In contrast, Borchgrevink emphasised the need for anthropologists (and the same arguably applies to sociologists) to discuss more fully and openly ways of working with interpreters – given that many of them will do so at some point in their research – as well as the issue of their own language learning and proficiency during fieldwork.

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Among the important questions that Borchgrevink’s article raises are the following: How do researchers learn new languages (or use ‘old’ ones) when undertaking ethnographic research? Why should researchers reflect continuously and critically on the process of language acquisition (or use) in fieldwork?

Annabel Tremlett (2009) has discussed these questions in a fascinating account of her own experience of learning Hungarian before, during and after conducting ethnographic research in a primary school in Hungary as part of her PhD thesis. During her fieldwork, she reflected continuously – in her fieldnotes and in monthly reports she sent to her supervisors – on the process of learning and using Hungarian as the primary language of the research. Being aware than she was ‘less-than-fluent’ in Hungarian led her ‘to become more critical and reflexive, to elucidate further and justify the choices made methodologically as well as analytically’ (2009: 80) in the research. In particular, Tremlett shows how exploring her own developing ‘language competence’ influenced not only her choice of research methods (she decided to undertake a photography project with some of the primary school children, in addition to carrying out participant observation and interviews), but also the way she subsequently presented the research data and the kind of ‘knowledge claims’ she made on the basis of her fieldwork.

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Following Tremlett’s example, how can researchers develop a more acute awareness of the importance of language-related issues in their research, particularly where the latter involves the use of more than one language? Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), a recent network project entitled ‘Researching Multilingually’has identified ‘a three-step process in developing researcher awareness’ that should culminate in researchers being able to act ‘purposefully’ and make informed choices about research design and the dissemination of results in multilingual research projects (see Holmes et al 2013: 297 for more details).

Among the many other issues raised by the ‘Researching Multilingually’ network project are the provision of training to doctoral research students – and to their supervisors – on the methodological, ethical and political dimensions of research involving more than one language, and the potential impact of language differences on the effective supervision of multilingual research projects.

Researchers in sociology and anthropology have much to gain from as well as contribute to emerging debates on all these language-related issues.


Borchgrevink, A. (2003). “Silencing language: Of anthropologists and interpreters.” Ethnography 4(1): 95-121.

Holmes, P., et al. (2013). “Researching multilingually: New theoretical and methodological directions.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics 23(3): 285-299.

Temple, B. (1997). “Watch your tongue: Issues in translation and cross-cultural research.” Sociology 31(3): 607-618.

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.

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Dr Robert Gibb is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow and a Co-Investigator on the three-year project ‘Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law and the State’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). (The photographs accompanying this post were taken in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria in 2013 and Pisa, Italy in 2011.)