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Youth, language and identity, by Joan Pujolar


c) Unanswered questions

In spite of the undoubted interest of these conceptual advances, there is still one question the remains unanswered: the political and economic dimension -or the political economy- of social practices and identities. That is to say: in what way are identities associated with the production, circulation and distribution of resources and power in the economic and symbolic fields? The question is a new way of expressing what traditional sociology referred to as the “problem of structuration,” or the need to develop “dialectic” models to relate the “micro” (subjective experience) and “macro” levels (far-reaching factors and processes that determine social life). This is, to my understanding, the key question that Catalan sociolinguistics should be concerned about, and I will try to argue why.

Giddens' structuration theory (1986) is one study along these lines, and one which inspires the work by Chouliaraki on youths and nationalism when she says that:

“[...] the process of identification [is] situated in structural arrangements- that is, as an effect of discursive practices which are available in certain contexts rather than others, depending on the socio-cultural specifics of the social subjects involved. Such specifics may have to do with economic, educational, sexual or generational differences between social groups and subjects, thus configuring a particular site of positions [...]” (Chouliaraki 2003: 204) (The emphasis is mine).

This “availability” (or not) of discourses (or resources) is one of the questions eschewed by the large majority of studies mentioned to date . In fact, it is the problem that many Catalan sociolinguists and linguistic activists complain about when reading the considerable number of studies that regard bilingual linguistic practices as simply “creative” experiences without any political conditioning, implications or consequences. This means that the important question to be answered (and which is often not even asked) is: why do people choose to use one discourse/resource and not another? What leads them to choose to construct or combine certain identity models and not others?

This is really the key question, the one that affects the social value of the Catalan language and the identities that can be constructed through it. It is a question that is not only difficult to answer, but to a certain extent even difficult to ask, or even to put into operation as part of usual research procedures. Few research workers dare, probably for various reasons. For example, researchers into linguistic training do not feel comfortable approaching sociological questions that go beyond their own field of expertise. The radically empiricist orientation of the science in English-speaking countries also probably explains why many researchers hesitate to pose and analyse processes that are not directly observable, such as the conditions that influence people in a very implicit and subtle way.

With this in mind, it is not by chance that one of the best articulated proposals for approaching the social, political and economic imperatives that determine practices come from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1991). This is not the time or place to summarise and evaluate the proposals made by Bourdieu; but it is important to stress that his theoretical model presents two basic questions that open the door to a better understanding of the problems that Catalan sociolinguistics are traditionally concerned about. The first is the question of the availability of different economic and symbolic resources within the different “markets” which constitute identities and society at the same time (linguistic, educational, economic, cultural, symbolic markets etc.). The second is the question of the processes of legitimation of the various forms of capital that are active in these various markets. Because the basic problem for Catalan language and culture is brought about by a) the processes for the production and distribution of its linguistic and cultural resources, b) the way in which these processes are associated with the production, distribution and access to economic resources and symbolic power and c) the struggles to make the value of the resources associated with Catalan language and culture legitimate, illegitimate or compatible with other spaces or “markets” such as Spanish, French or English in different contexts.

There are very few studies of language and youths that explicitly dare venture in this direction (Heller 1999, Pujolar 2001), even though in a certain way it is possible to argue that elements of it are often implicit in the majority of studies in the Catalan field as, when all is said and done, the main concern is effectively the range and legitimacy of the use of this language. What happens is that without a clearly articulated theoretical basis, the result ends up being simply a verification of the gap between reality and ideality, an ideal articulated through a modernising nationalism that is in evident crisis in a globalised world (Appadurai 1996, Pujolar 2007:71-95), through a paradigm that does not allow us to explore and understand the complexity of the interrelationship between language and identity, one that does not enable us to understand what we need to understand to defend the legitimacy of the Catalan language and culture among young people.

3. About the contributions to this issue

The articles included in this monographic issue show some of the aspects of contemporary sociolinguistic research that connect with these theoretical displacements in the field of language and youths.

The article by Ben Rampton contains a small sample of his studies of adolescent youths in the United Kingdom in settings characterised by large linguistic and cultural diversity. For more details, refer to his study entitled “Crossing: Language and Ethnicity Among Adolescents” (Rampton 1995), which has had enormous impact among sociolinguists and students of interracial relationships (in the sense given to the term “race” in Anglo-Saxon sociology). The idea of “crossing” is an attempt to draw attention to the existence of a multitude of linguistic practices which, in one way or another, defy the concept of identities as monolithic, monolingual and monocultural phenomena. His detailed and millimetrical analysis of small meetings between youths, or between youths and adults, shows the multiplicity of ways of incorporating resources of various varieties of English, of Afro-Caribbean modes or the languages of India and Pakistan (especially, Hindi, Punjabi) by youths who are not native speakers of these languages. These special uses of various languages are not limited to their potential for metaphor, style or discursive organisation; but they also represent the various positions that can be adopted by youths in relation to cultural stereotypes, relations of inequality and questions of political and historic order; even though these meanings are often ambivalent and contradictory when applied to the communicative and relational strategies that each person can develop in any specific context or moment in time.

There are two interesting aspects of the article by Mary Bucholtz. In the first place, the incorporation of questions of gender identities, key to understanding the juvenile world. In the second place, for the effort made to connect, on the one hand, the linguistic and cultural practices of youths and, on the other, the policies and strategies of large companies operating on a global level constructing and distributing consumer products and identity models specifically aimed at youths. It is clearly one of the ways of revealing the political economy of identities, in line with the hypothesis suggested by Bourdieu. Bucholtz also documents the well-known phenomenon of white youths using linguistic traits belonging to African American Vernacular English (AAVE) a phenomenon which in some aspects could be related to the “crossing” of Ben Rampton and the work of Dirim and Auer (Dirim and Auer 2004) on German youths who learn and use Turkish.

The article by Joe Grixti presents an obvious element of interest by providing information on the Maltese context, which has interesting points of connection with (and at the same time divergence from) the Catalan situation. All in all, what makes his work especially interesting is that it analyses the encounter of tiny, territorialised cultural spaces with what Appadurai (1996) refers to as the global “flow” that generates “disruptions” within the imagination of the nation state. Among these flows, there are (among others) the so-called “mediascapes”, trans-national media landscapes, articulated through cyberspace and companies that dominate the cultural and media markets on a planetary level. Grixti shows how Maltese youths of diverse social origin manage their relationships between the global and local pull in such a way that they create new discourses on local territorial identities accompanied by locally specific forms of appropriation of cultural traits and global discourses. He goes on to illustrate how these processes can materialise themselves, with their inherent contradictions and ambivalences, in the framework of groups of youths from a relatively reduced Maltese linguistic and cultural community.

Moving onto the Catalan context, the article by Anna Torrijos shows, in a general way, the situation of the use of Catalan among youths on the basis of two recent studies sponsored by the Autonomous Government of Catalonia: that of Discussion groups for the evaluation of the campaign "Dóna corda al Català" (Give Catalan a Boost) and the 2002 Survey among young people in Catalonia. Torrijos presents a systematic analysis of the way and degree how various variables (language initially spoken in the family, social or geographic origin of the parents, place of residence) determine the regular use of language among Catalan youths, as well as the various discourses on languages and the rules for linguistic use that came up in the discussion groups.

The article by Isaac González explores an interesting and innovative question, the relationship between political participation and linguistic use among youths. The study is based on the analysis of a survey, in which the author participated, of “participation, politics and youths” commissioned by the General Directorate of Youth. In this article the author discusses and examines the implications of the results of this study with regard to the processes of construction of Catalan identity and the use of languages. The subject is of special interest because, traditionally, positions or attitudes more favourable to the use of the Catalan language among youths are often seen as “political” positions. From this point of view, it is first necessary to clarify what is understood by political participation or activism. González shows how, in a general sense, the practices of youths in relation to politics have abandoned the traditional patterns of militancy in organisations to be expressed through symbolic acts or attitudes, which may be more sporadic or less organic in character than before; but this does not mean they are experienced as less important by the youths themselves. From this, it is possible to conclude that the levels of political participation are usually associated with indicators of social status, that is, they normally increase as the educational level of the youths' parents increases. As speaking Catalan and identifying oneself as a Catalan in the traditional sense of these terms also involves similar associations, González argues that this has the effect that the spaces of political participation are perceived as more Catalan-speaking and also that the sectors that most use Catalan are generally those that show more interest in politics and more identification with the structures of Catalan public institutions. The argument presented by González is varied and complex; but it is important to give it some attention and think about its implications. On the one hand, he presents the question of whether specific actions are required to promote the necessary political participation among certain social groups. On the other hand, he also shows one of the spaces in which the Catalan language may act as a positive factor (or added value) for integration in a generic sense, that is, of participation in society and identification with institutions.

Finally, the article by Roger Martínez advances a specific aspect of his research among Catalan youths, a project that we hope will not take too long to come to light in a more complete version. Martínez explores the use, divulgation and circulation of various identity categories among youths of differing profiles; categories that obviously have a linguistic component but which relate in complex, contradictory and changing ways with other loyalty criteria adopted by youths, such as musicals trends and their associated components of fashion, patterns of consumption, attitudes to institutions, etc. This study is also a good example of new analytical models that examine identities in terms of the co-construction mentioned above, in terms of their articulation with other identity dimensions, as is done by Bucholz (in this issue). He also shows one of the specific forms of re-articulation of local identities in relation to the global flow of discourses and cultural products, thus linking his work with that of Grixti (in this issue). The most interesting contribution is that linguistic uses are inserted in what would be the more global processes of identity construction in youth culture, in other words, the role of language in the construction of “juvenile geographies”, that is: “the series of social distances and proximities youths find themselves immersed in.” Martínez shows how it is not possible to prevent languages from becoming a factor of polarisation, not only in relation to sentiments of national belonging or political ideologies, but also in relation to the discourses that constitute juvenile culture especially in relation to authenticity, what is “cool”, transgression, alternative commercial channels, etc.

All these studies are no more than a small sample of the multitude of different research works being carried out in Catalan-speaking regions on youth related matters. The majority of these studies, promoted by the departments of sociology and anthropology, do not explore linguistic questions or, in the best of cases, only touch on them briefly and in passing. In fact, this does not only occur here, but everywhere else as well. I suppose that this is due to the fact that sociologists and anthropologists consider that linguistic subjects do not fall within their legitimate research objects, as “language” has in theory its own field of specialists. But the truth is that sociolinguists with more linguistic training must often exert themselves to include sociological knowledge in their research. And the results, as I believe to have shown in this article, are open to improvement. This is why, one of the most interesting aspects of this special issue of Noves-SL is precisely that the Catalan contributions come from people trained in the field of sociology. I believe that the main idea they transmit is precisely that sociolinguistic questions are important for understanding more far-reaching social questions. We hope, then, that these studies mark a new tendency towards deeper interdisciplinary studies and much closer collaboration between sociolinguists and sociologists. Perhaps this would help us to better understand our society and the role languages play in it.

Outside family use and use with friends, in the discussion groups other areas in which linguistic uses are present arose spontaneously: situations in which one acts as a consumer or user. In this case, the language of use depends on the area about which we are talking and is defined according to the social knowledge about the language that is usually spoken in each area. The restaurant area was mentioned as one of the areas in which people usually speak in Spanish and banks as one of the areas in which they usually speak in Catalan.

4. Bibliography

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Appadurai, A. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Boix, E. 1990. Language choice and language switching among young people in Barcelona: concepts, methods and data. Papers for the workshop on Impact and Consequences: Broader Considerations. Network on Code-Switching in Language Contact., Basel.




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