The Transformative Materiality of Meaning-Making

Author: David Parkin

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Multilingual Matters
Number of pages:
210mm x 148mm

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This book explores verbal and non-verbal communication from a social anthropological viewpoint, drawing on ethnographic data from fieldwork in East Africa. It gives an overview of developments since the 1960s in the anthropology of language use and how these have influenced the author's thinking. The volume makes the argument that language and other forms of communication involve semiotic transactions between interlocuters; that such communicative exchanges do more than convey information; and that they give identity to the recipients of such transactions who reciprocate by defining speakers. The density and situational totality of such semiotic exchange can moreover be regarded as a kind of materiality, both in terms of their impact on social interaction and in how interlocuters interact bodily as well as verbally among themselves.

This important book brings acute observation to central sociolinguistic themes like multilingualism, linguistic change, standardisation, power and creativity, and situates them with great subtlety and depth in the political, cultural and historical processes in which they play a part. More than that, it provides vivid insight into key developments in social scientific thought over the last five decades, and richly illustrates the power and scope for a social anthropology of language.

Ben Rampton, King's College London, UK

This is a superb collection of chapters that captures David Parkin's impressive scholarship over 60 years. Theoretically dense, the book offers a wide range of ethnographic data from Eastern Africa. Parkin's work highlights how much scholars have to learn from meaning-making practices in Africa. I highly recommend it.

Cécile B. Vigouroux, Simon Fraser University, Canada

This impressive and insightful collection invites readers to replace scholarly fixation on static modes of classifying languages and people with the approach captured by the poignant phrase that gives the book its title and innovative analytic: 'the transformative materiality of meaning-making'.

Charles L. Briggs, University of California, Berkeley, USA

David Parkin is an Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford, UK, where he was a Professor of Social Anthropology. His research focuses on the coordination of multimodal communication.



Part 1: Communication as Transaction and Becoming

1. From Multilingual Classification to Translingual Ontology: A Turning Point

2. Emergent and Stabilised Multilingualism: Polyethnic Peer Groups in Urban Kenya

3. Language Choice in Two Kampala Housing Estates

4. Language Switching in Nairobi

5. The Creativity of Abuse

6. Exchanging Words

Part 2: Political and Formulaic Communication

7. Political Language

8. Language, Government and the Play on Purity and Impurity: Arabic, Swahili and the Vernaculars in Kenya

9. Being and Selfhood among Intermediary Swahili

10. Controlling the U-turn of Knowledge

11. The Politics of Naming Among the Giriama

Part 3: The Materiality of Language and Communication

12. Unpacking Anthropology

13. Revisiting: Keywords, Transforming Phrases, and Cultural Concepts

14. Loud Ethics and Quiet Morality among Muslim Healers in Eastern Africa

15. Reason, Emotion, and the Embodiment of Power

16. The Power of Incompleteness: Innuendo in Swahili Women's Dress

17. Simultaneity and Sequencing in the Oracular Speech of Kenyan Diviners


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