October 11, 2017

Sociolinguistic concepts through popular culture, Part 2: Mean Girls and Social Networks

As mentioned in my last post, in my lecturing this semester I've been trying to exemplify key concepts in sociolinguistics via popular culture. I have a stock of these snippets and hope to find time to share a few more. As I said previously, it's an effort to engage students and adhere to the philosophy that "when all is said and done, we study sociolinguistics because it is fun" (Meyerhoff 2011: 4)

In part two, we jump to this week's lecture where we looked at various of definitions of 'speech community' and then how concepts of social networks and community of practice have built upon notions of speech community.

Key concept: Social networks, unlike macro-social categories such as class, group people according to interactions (and can then tell us more about linguistic variation)

Concept in more detail: Some sociolinguistic studies have shown how important social networks are in explaining language variation and change (or lack of change). According to Meyerhoff (2011), Milroy & Milroy were leaders in this via their study of English in Belfast, Northern Ireland. They argued that social networks are least as important as macro-social categories in understanding language change.

When looking at language variation and considering the effect that social networks might have on variation, we can look at features such as density of the network (loose v dense), degrees of membership (core, peripheral etc.) or quality of ties between members (uniplex ties, multiplex ties). The Milroys argued that dense networks are more resistant to change and innovation than looser networks.

There are also differing ways of analysing social networks. Some approaches are more etic, made via the researcher's observations. Some are more emic, where members themselves define their networks.

Exemplifying the concept: Cult American teen movie Mean Girls (2004) exemplifies social networks very well. (In fact, I argue that one reason the movie is so popular and has longevity is because it is based upon a whole of lot of solid sociology). In the scene below, Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) provides school newcomer Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) with a map and lightning fast summary of the school's social networks:

A further question to be asked is what method of social network analysis has Janis deployed? The answer is obviously an etic one - Janis has defined the groups herself and we do not know whether the members of each labelled group would agree with Janis' characterisation.

This fictional example presents social networks as extremely tidy groupings, with each one centered physically around a cafeteria table. Sociolinguists would have an easier job if real-life networks were that neatly packaged.

An epilogue: when a dense social network breaks down

One of the Milroys' ideas about dense social networks is that they slow down or inhibit change and that this could be because the denseness of the network leads to more policing of members' behaviour by other members. In Mean Girls, we see this among the "Plastics" (the specific social network the movie focuses on). Most notably, we see the leader of the "Plastics", Regina George, famously police Gretchen Weiners attempt at linguistic innovation by refusing to accept 'fetch' as an innovative and trendy adjective. ("Stop trying to make fetch happen!").

By the end of the film, the dense network of the Plastics has disintegrated. With networks loosened, we see linguistic change happen in a big way (as predicted by the Milroys). One of the final scenes shows the previously heavily-policed Gretchen Weiners in a new social network and using a whole new language:

And that is how Mean Girls can teach us about social networks and its effects on language change and innovation. I know, right?


Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2011. Introducing Sociolinguistics. 2nd edition. Routledge: London

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