Mary Bucholtz Why Be Normal Language And Identity Practices

“Why be normal?” Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls by MARY BUCHOLTZ

Table of Contents


In her paper, ““Why be normal?” Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls,” Mary Bucholtz attempts to add to the discussion of uses of the community of practice model as opposed to the speech community model for the purposes of sociolinguistic analyses. She does this by first giving several definitions, as provided by published linguists, of the speech community framework and identifying the limitations in each. She then gives several definitions of the community of practice model and points out its triumphs over the former model. Finally, she describes her own case study, of a community of nerd girls in a California high school, to showcase the use of the tools available to linguists using the community of practice model that are unavailable to those using the speech community model. Her overarching argument is that the speech community, with its emphasis on language, leads to a rather ignorant analysis of any communal phenomenon that might involve gender, class, or culture.

Bucholtz initializes the discussion of the speech community model by mentioning work done by the sociolinguist Labov who reasoned that all residents of New York City are part of the same speech community, even though they often speak different languages, since they all share knowledge of rules for conduct and interpretation of speech. In other words, language is socially structured, and it is not by sheer coincidence that New Yorkers have a similar manner of speech. This is what the speech community model is good for, according to Bucholtz, showing that heterogeneity in speech is the culmination of the formation of a speech community. Bucholtz then argues that while that’s rather cool, the concept of speech community is really good only for anything having specifically to do with language, and that there is no real connection to a larger social theory. She contends that this speech community model is okay for traditional sociolinguists who want to use theory to explain social phenomena, but that it is not good for, say, gender and language sociolinguists who want to look at the phenomena and see how it reflects theory. She ultimately says that this definition of the speech community is too “macro”, and doesn’t really explain all of the nuances that come with other aspects of communication, like the participants’ class, culture, gender, etc.

The next two discussions that Bucholtz cites are the culmination of work done by two French linguists, Bourdieu and Certeau. Bourdieu breaks down social practices into two categories: “hexis” and “habitus”. Habitus is the set of actions and individuals might do, like speak, eat, read, etc. Hexis is the set of socially meaningful gestures, stances, and other physical self-representations that participants might use. The main point that he makes, though, is that non-linguistic practices are also important because they often carry linguistic meaning. Bucholtz likes this idea because it is pointing out one of the limitations of speech community, the negligence of anything non-linguistic. However, he still doesn’t give a good enough new definition because he conforms to the original speech community idea which makes it seem like any social practice in a community is unconscious, and it is always just a product of the individuals’ community. Certeau’s discussion builds a connection between linguistic and non-linguistic practices and their social effects and argues that, perhaps, these practices are not unconscious acts, but rather acts of agency, done in order to conform to the social structure, or to build and participate in the social structure. (Referring to whichever social structure the practices are linked). While this is, again, a good observation, Bucholtz asks, “How are culturally shared resources made to serve specific social needs of individuals?” Every individual participant of a community has his or her own needs, and those needs aren’t always to conform, sometimes they are too stand out, how does, say, language, become a shared tool that is used to serve those needs?

Thus, using the three discussions, Bucholtz prepares a list of six limitations of the speech community model. They are as follows: the tendency to take language as central, emphasis on consensus as the organizing principle of community, preference for studying central members and ignoring those at the margins, focus on the group on a macro scale and not on individuals, the view of identity as a set of social categories, and the valorization of researchers’ interpretations over participants own understandings. In simpler terms, the speech community model only analyzes language, and not other, non-linguistic forms of communication. The model assumes that the community is made up of people trying to conform to some standard that everybody has unanimously agreed upon. The model only focuses on central members, as if they embody the whole essence of the community, and doesn’t take into account the novices and the beginners. The model also just discusses the group as a whole, as if everybody thinks alike and has the same goals, and not as though each person is an individual with a particular role and a particular identity. The model also views the idea of identity as, once again, a category, to which people just conform, a social stigma. And, the model assumes that the theory is right and more important than whatever the actual participants might have to say about it.

One important thing to note, since there is a discussion of gender going on here, is that another criticism of the speech community model is over the speech community idea that there are shared sociolinguistic “norms” in each community. Bucholtz argues that to assume that everybody upholds “norms” are the same thing, regardless of their culture and gender, discredits the people who are not of the dominant culture and gender. The “norms” are actually imposed ideologies that reflect whatever the dominant culture and gender prefer. Bucholtz goes so far as to mentions that this postulate is used by linguists to discuss why women’s work has traditionally been called “deficient” in comparison to men’s work.

Bucholtz then uses several definitions to explain that each of the speech community limitations is addressed by the community of practice theory, which uses the idea that the social world is best viewed as a set of practices and that we each belong to the community of people who share in our social practices, whatever those may be.

Bucholtz spends the rest of the article applying the community of practice theory to investigate social identity in a group of girl nerds. Bucholtz first gives her premise, that the nerd group defines itself in opposition to “cool” students, and that they reject all forms of “cool” social practices. This act of avoiding particular social practices is an index that she defines as “negative identity practices”. Negative identity practices are those that individuals use to distance themselves away from the identity that they reject. The other index is the “positive identity practice”, which includes the practices that individuals use to construct their chosen identity.

For example, nerd will want to avoid slang terms and some ways of dressing that typically reflect what the kids striving to be “cool” might do. That is a negative identity practice. Nerds will also want to do well in school, or appear to be intellectual in everyday interaction; this is a positive identity practice. Bucholtz actually analyzes several conversations that a particular club of girl nerds engages in during lunch. She point out that the conversation begins with an initialization for intellectual display. One of the girls asks some sort of question to which the answer would require some sort of knowledge that not everybody has. The other girls respond by trying to assert their intellectuality by guessing answers. Bucholtz also points out that later on in the conversation, one of the girls uses a slang term, which leads to her eventual exit from the conversation, because the other girls, who appear to be the core members of the group, obviously reject her usage of the slang term by taunting her. The girl using the can be described as a marginal member, a novice, which Bucholtz also explains, is actually the case in this situation.
Bucholtz uses this group of girls because she is trying to show that the speech community would not have been able to garner the analysis that she just made. She clearly pointed out that each individual was using positive or negative identity practices, to try to create her own identity in the community, not just fit into a particular category. The girls obviously do not have a consensus, and this is shown by the conflicts that Bucholtz points out in the dialogue. There are differences in opinion, and in taste, yet these girls are still a part of the community. Bucholtz is ultimately showing that identities are rooted in actions rather than categories and that by focusing on individuals as well as on the group, the community of practice model integrates structure, a speech community aspect, with agency, and freewill.


Nonetheless, because the concept of speech community is indigenous to sociolinguistics, it is not connected to any larger social theory. This theoretical isolation, along with the fact that the speech community defines the social world in strictly (socio)linguistic terms, has meant that sociolinguistic theory has largely stood apart from theoretical advances in related disciplines. (203)

More than any previous approach in sociolinguistics, the community of practice allows researchers to examine, in a theoretically adequate way, both the actions of individuals and the structures that are thereby produced and reproduced, resisted and subverted. (207)

For sociolinguists, the community of practice represents an improvement over the speech community in that it addresses itself to both the social and the linguistic aspects of the discipline. As a well-grounded framework with currency in a number of fields, practice theory in general, in particular the community of practice, revitalizes social theory within sociolinguistics. (220)

The community of practice, having revolutionized the field of language and gender almost as soon as it was first proposed, enables researchers of socially situated language use to view language within the context of social practice. Perhaps the most valuable feature is that the community of practice admits a range of social and linguistic phenomena that are not analyzed in other theoretical models. (221)

Such an analysis would overlook the details of greatest interest to language and gender researchers: the performances of identity, and the struggles over it, which are achieved through language. (220)

By recognizing practice – the social projects of participants – as the motivating context for linguistic interaction, the theory of the community of practice makes activity much more central to sociolinguistic analysis. (208)


Bucholtz is very unclear about her study in the beginning. It was very hard for both of us to comprehend what exactly she was attempting to prove and how she went about it. However, her later explanations of speech and practice communities clarified our confusions and allowed us to get back on track. Bucholtz was effective in presenting her thesis because she mentioned Labov’s statement that New York City residents are all part of the same speech community and then moved on to use the statement to bolster her point that speech community focuses too solely on language.

I personally had no preference between speech and practice community, however Bucholtz’s argument seems rather convincing that speech community limits the boundaries to only language. Like she mentioned, other sociolinguists who are studying aspects of a society other than language will not be able to use the speech community as a paradigm and would entail problems for these researchers. I found this as a crucial part of her argument and sought to find further explanations.

I agree with Min that Bucholtz’s criticism of the speech community was effective. And like Min said, further explanations would help better understand Bucholtz’s point and I found her reference to Bourdieu and Certeau to be the exact thing we were looking for. These scientists talk about the hexis and habitus which are our individual actions utilized in socialization. Their support for non-linguistic methods of communication upholds Bucholtz’s argument that speech community is limited as non-linguistic methods don’t always involve language. Yet, these methods tend to serve the individuals’ needs in a communication as effectively as language.

Bucholtz’s six limitations of the speech community were much needed for us in further clarifying her complex theories. These limitations basically sort out the faults of the speech community in relation to conformity and standardization. She makes a very good point because speech communities are initially presumed to have unified standards built by the central members of the communities. Therefore, not everyone in the community is able to profess his or her thoughts and is instead generalized by a social stigma.

From reading this part, we were aghast at how limited a speech community really could be. It was unfathomable initially, but these six limitations aided Buscholtz in maintaining her thesis and ameliorating it as she progresses in her paper. It is indeed true that the speech communities uphold the norms based on the dominant groups in each, and thereby disregarding the minorities. Almost like reliving the Civil Rights era where the minorities had no say. These speech communities were functioning as a centralized group with no allowance of modifying the norm. We found her method extremely effective and convincing enough for myself to reconsider the validity of the speech community.

The most interesting part of Bucholtz’s study was, of course, the observation of nerd girls in a lunch conversation. She brings up how nerds are disposed to neglect “cool” things such as using slangs or humor in place of intellectual terms and references. The positive and negative identity practice were effective in describing the reasons behind the nerds’ choices to either declare their intelligence in the conversation or disregard unintelligent remarks at all. Although she focuses these identity practices on her specifically chosen nerd group, it is apparent that the identity practices are viable in many other instances. For example, Fidan came up with a situation where a group of lawyers are conversing in a serious talk. Positive identity practice will be present in lawyers who are constantly rebutting against each other to necessarily identify themselves as proficient lawyers. However, negative identity practice is present simultaneously because they are trying their best to not seem like incompetent lawyers compared to the other colleagues. Then I realized that in this case, Buchotlz’s identity practices seemed reasonable but at the same time confusing. Are both positive and negative identity practices possible by the same person, at the same time? Would it propose a contradictory identity practice or such is possible because there simply are no limitations outside the speech community?

Buscholtz successfully proves her point that normal speech communities wouldn’t be able to dish out these identity practices and distinguish each participant’s act with their stubborn limitations. Identities simply can’t be explicated through language only. It would be foolish to account for only language when the individual clearly holds factors and criteria that surpass the language level. Actions and individualism must combine in order to successfully distinguish one’s identity. We both found her argument really bolstered by the end of the study and found her research methods to be useful. It was clear to us that speech community is bounded by language, and if they were to instead restructure into community of practice by increasing the focus on individuals rather than clumps of central figures, the community can actually integrate structure, language, agency and freewill.

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