Research Article: Citizen sociolinguistics: A new method to understand fat talk

Date Published: May 29, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Gina Agostini, Cindi SturtzSreetharan, Amber Wutich, Deborah Williams, Alexandra Brewis, Zhiqiang Cai.


Fat talk is a spontaneous verbal interaction in which interlocutors make self-disparaging comments about the body, usually as a request for assessment. Fat talk often reflects concerns about the self that stem from broader sociocultural factors. It is therefore an important target for sociocultural linguistics. However, real-time studies of fat talk are uncommon due to the resource and time burdens required to capture these fleeting utterances. This limits the scope of data produced using standard sociolinguistic methods. Citizen science may alleviate these burdens by producing a scale of social observation not afforded via traditional methods. Here we present a proof-of-concept for a novel methodology, citizen sociolinguistics. This research approach involves collaborations with citizen researchers to capture forms of conversational data that are typically inaccessible, including fat talk.

This study had two primary aims. Aim 1 focused on scientific output, testing a novel research strategy wherein citizen sociolinguists captured fat talk data in a diverse metropolitan region (Southwestern United States). Results confirm that citizen sociolinguistic research teams captured forms of fat talk that mirrored the scripted responses previously reported. However, they also capture unique forms of fat talk, likely due to greater diversity in sample and sampling environments. Aim 2 focused on the method itself via reflective exercises shared by the citizen sociolinguists throughout the project. In addition to confirming that the citizen sociolinguistic method produces reliable, scientifically valid data, we contend that citizen sociolinguist inclusion has broader scientific benefits which include applied scientific training, fostering sustained relationships between professional researchers and the public, and producing novel, meaningful scientific output that advances professional discourse.

Partial Text

Research projects that entail collaborations with lay people (citizen scientists) are common in the natural and biological sciences where citizen science has made an enormous and positive contribution to the scaling of data collection efforts [1]. This is especially true when it comes to studies focused on complex or abstract data whose documentation involves advanced reasoning or inferential skills that cannot be reliably outsourced to technology [2]. Abstract data arguably comprise the bulk of that seen in social science research, and yet the adoption of citizen science as a research strategy remains conspicuously absent here [3]. Within the social sciences, some types of linguistic data are spontaneously situational and therefore difficult to capture in systematic fashion (e.g., complaints, apologies, terms of address/reference, greetings, and so on). Collaborations of linguists and other citizen scientists in this domain could help capture greater diversity in factors including scale, location, network, social interaction, and sociocultural variables than is typically seen in the current literature. As stated by Dickinson et al. [4:291] in the context of ecological research, “[d]ispersed data collection and the ability to collect observations and connect with people, in places, and at scales that would otherwise not be possible render citizen science increasingly important.” This is particularly true given the widespread use of smart devices to facilitate standardized, large-scale data collection efforts by researchers in situ and in real time [3, 5]. The relative paucity of citizen social scientists (and associated loss of scientific knowledge) has been noted by several scholars, including linguists Rymes and Leone [6], who have championed for the creation of citizen sociolinguistics, specifically.

Citizen sociolinguistics is an emerging field of scientific investigation that offers the potential of scaling up empirical examinations of everyday language use. It additionally offers the opportunity for inclusivity across multiple domains (languages, ages, genders, race/ethnicity, and residences) which are at the heart of everyday language interaction. The benefit of collaborating with citizen sociolinguists is that data collection moves organically with the researcher as s/he moves through day-to-day social environments. To date, there has been a pervasive bias in fat talk research in that it focuses on samples of convenience, usually drawing from undergraduate researcher populations or very specific/targeted groups (e.g., high school students) (e.g., [19, 26, 64]. While such work is deeply informative, it has limited interpretive power in broader contexts. In our study, citizen sociolinguistic research teams captured natural variation in fat talk that revealed greater sample diversity (e.g., influence of gender and age) and environmental contexts (e.g., how location affects fat talk) than has been documented in the past. We found data collected by citizen sociolinguists to be reliable and valid, mirroring that collected by the trained researchers [see 47]. More than reliable and valid data collection, however, the finding that citizen sociolinguists engaged in informal science education in their local communities suggests that this methodology can have effects far beyond the original research question. This finding demands that we ask the following question: Could citizen sociolinguists (and citizen scientists) become informal community science educators that bridge gaps in the realm of public (psychosocial) health outreach programs? It is an intriguing idea.




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