A linguist in a roomful of sociologists

I wrote this post thinking about my PhD journey so far. Like many novice researchers, I struggle with finding out who I am in this new world called academia, where everyone ‘speaks funny’ and seems to be able to identify with some expertise in a certain field of knowledge.

“As a doctoral student, however, I never felt that I properly belonged to the world I was entering. My big problem was that I could not master the academic language, which I was expected to use” (Billig, 2013: 02).

I could identify with Billig’s insecurities as I struggle to make sense of the copious amount of abstract words strung together in academic journals. I sometimes feel that these writers are using very abstract words to describe commonsensical things and I feel the distance between the world I’m reading about and which I aspire to enter, i.e. academia, widening.

As an aspiring linguist, I appreciate studying the nuances of the  use of the English language but abhor those who use a person’s command of the language to demean or patronize. I remember a discomforting moment when a university lecturer made a joke at the expense of one of the participants for not being able to spot a pun on words at a workshop. While I do spend a lot of my time examining, studying and teaching the English language, I don’t think it should be used as a yardstick for intelligence or accomplishment. Having a stronger command of English or any language, for that matter, does not mean one is better educated than another. Fallacious arguments remain unconvincing even when written with big words.

As with my struggle with academic language, I struggled with figuring out where I stand in this roomful of sociologists, when I first joined the DISCONEX team. I come from an applied linguistics background, which is miles apart from the more sociologically-attuned minds in the team. My ignorance is apparent in the face of Foucault, Bourdieu and other paradigms rooted in sociology. Words like ‘agency’ and ‘subject positions’ were alien to me.

The linguist in me questions, at times, the jargon and ‘new findings’ from sociologists that seemed like ‘commonsense’. I was only able to describe my ‘hunches’ later on when I read Brewer’s description below:

“Sociology begins with a subject matter that is intrinsically interesting to many people; ordinary people in the street want to know about the things sociology knows about. The disadvantage is that sociology sometimes competes with ordinary common-sense views of the same things. People develop lay knowledge by which they understand the world, make judgements and decisions, and guide their conduct and behaviour. This lay knowledge is called ‘common sense’, and the very term describes its two enduring qualities: lay people believe it to be shared and intersubjective (it is ‘common’) and true (it makes ‘sense’)”. (Brewer 2000: 14)

So I came to realise that I think differently from my teammates at times. I was that layperson who was all too quick to share my ‘commonsense’ views on things, which probably came across as rather unreflective and uncritical to the sociologically-trained minds.

And then one day, I found myself using words like ‘agency’ and I started wondering about humans as having agency over certain behaviours and events. Oh no! What is happening to me?

Still, I continue to struggle. Coming to this point when I can say I aspire to be a linguist has not been easy. Because it is through a long period of struggling, reading, learning about new ideas that helped put words to what I’m feeling and enabled me to articulate them. It is almost in retaliation that I set myself apart by claiming to be a linguist. I needed to do that to find that corner to stand in this roomful of sociologists, and a voice to speak. Now, I’m beginning to realise that we would all need to claim to be something or someone if we want to be made sense of in the academic world.


Billig, M. (2013). Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences, Cambridge University Press.

Brewer, J. (2000). Ethnography, Open University Press.

By Sixian Hah, Applied Linguistics, Warwick University. Sixian tweets @jo_hsx.

This post was published originally on DISCONEX’s research journal at https://disconex.hypotheses.org

2 thoughts on “A linguist in a roomful of sociologists

  1. Very thought provoking.I am a student who is studying Linguistics and do not belong to academia to write hair splitting comments. This is interesting.

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